Last week I finished reading Marita Conlon-McKenna’s book Rebel Sisters. The book was published this year for the 1916 centenary commemorations and for me, more than anything else planned to mark the Rising, it brought the events of Easter Week to life.
The book focuses on the lives of the Gifford family, taking a particular look at the lives of Grace, Nellie and Muriel. They grew up in Dublin in a family of 12, and the struggle for Irish freedom increasingly became an unlikely part of their everyday lives. The historical detail in this book is fantastic, not only because of the amount of information which is included, but because of the way that it has been seamlessly interwoven into the telling of the story. The stories of the Suffragete movement, the 1913 Lockout and the events leading up to and during Easter week 1916 are told in such a way that the focus is entirely on the people involved and the challenges they faced.
The Gifford sisters never made a conscious decision to become involved in those historical events. Their involvement came from the friendships they made, the work that they were passionate about and the people that they fell in love with.
Most people will be familiar with the heartbreaking song written about Grace Gifford’s wedding to Joe Plunkett on the eve of his execution and this book brings out many of the same emotions that the song evokes. With so many events, exhibitions, lectures and other commemorations happening this year to mark the events of 100 years ago, it’s possible to forget that each of those involved had lives that were changed completely, and that there were many left behind after 1916 who lived with the legacy of what happened and the memory of those who were gone. Another poignant reminder of this is the interview that Nora Connolly, daughter of James Connolly gave about the last time that she saw her father.
The way that this story was told was, for me, a beautiful reminder that these people were ordinary people who were extraordinarily brave. All of the leaders and their friends hand families had lives outside of the struggle. They looked forward to parties, thought about what they wore, flirted and fell in love. I think that reading about historical figures without looking at these fundamental parts of who they were does a disservice to them. The more that I thought about how ordinary these people were the more incredible their achievements seemed. History books cannot account for how Thomas MacDonagh worried about how his wife and children would cope without him, the heartbreak of Joe Plunkett and Grace Gifford when they were separated immediately after their wedding or Nellie’s devastation at hearing Michael Mallin’s orders that they were to leave the Royal College of Surgeons. Commemorating events is important, especially when those events have had the influence on our lives that the Easter Rising had, but there’s only so much that a timeline of events can tell us. Remembering the people who carried out these events and the emotions that they went through can help us to learn so much more.