What is it like when your own family memories and stories are melded with history, with the memories and stories of the nation itself?
For no one is this more true in the year of the 100th anniversary of the 1916 rising than for the relatives of those who took part in the rising, and particularly for those who are related to the seven leaders, the signatories of the Proclamation itself. As public events,, features in newspapers, theatre shows and TV documentaries celebrate and examine the details of our common history, they are also picking through the precious private past of families.
Honor O’Brolcháin is one such person. She is the great niece of Joseph Mary Plunkett (Joe, as she and all in the family call him). Plunkett of course was executed for his part in leading the Rising, so Honor did not know him personally. However, his sister Geraldine Plunkett lived in the house Honor and her brother and sisters grew up in in Marlborough Road, Donnybrook. Geraldine and Joe were very close, and through her grandmother’s stories and reminiscences, Honor became very familiar with Joe as a child.
“I think of Joe as being in our lives,” explains Honor, “because Mamo (Honor’s grandmother, Geraldine) did refer to him quite casually so often. And the other thing was that she used to refer to him as ‘a joker’ – not a practical joker, but somebody who a sense of humour. That comes through in his papers as well”.
As an author, Honor has worked in depth with the papers of both Joe Plunkett and his sister. She write the biography of Joe in the O’Brien Press 1916 Lives series, and previously edited a collection of Geraldine’s papers into a memoir, All In The Blood.
Of Joe’s writings Honor says “He writes all kinds of nonsense and rubbish and he experiments with daft ideas and so on. He had a definite sense of humour and it applied to his life.” This made him a pleasure to be around according to Honor’s grandmother, “She was was his nurse, housekeeper, companion, aide de camp, all those things. so it meant working with him very enjoyable and we always had a sense of that. “
Honor’s knowledge about Joe is greatly enhanced by the fact that, unlike many who had lived through that time, Geraldine Plunkett, who died aged 94 in 1986) believed that it was important to remember that the country had never stopped improving since 1916.
“Mamo believed it was absolutely absurd to talk about the good old days,” Honor remembers. “The things that people went through at the time were just appalling and, she thought, inexcusable. She had a very forward looking idea about the whole thing. She used to say it was all about economics, and one of the great proofs is the way in which the seven leaders if you like came out of the 1913 Lockout. That changed everybody, and it changed Pearse, who had thought that Home Rule might be a solution. “
Honor has been actively involved with a group of relatives of the signatories of the Proclamation for nearly ten years. The group coalesced in response to the threat of demolition of the site in Moore Street where the leaders surrendered in 1916. “It’s a double problem,” she explains, “because on the one hand it’s a really important historic monument, one of the last battlefield sites in europe and possibly in the world they say and also it’s an opportunity for tourists and people who are interested in history. And to lose such a place seems absurd.”
Honor is ambivalent at best at the way in which the government has handled the organisation of the commemoration of 1916. Whilst she stops short of describing their approach as “mealy-mouthed”, she feels there was a lack of commitment on the part of the Fine Gael – Labour coalition to “go the whole road and say this was a great event”. She’s fulsome however in her praise for any events around 1916 organised by the army. The commemoration at Arbour Hill which takes place every year on April 14th, the day the Rising started, is particularly important to the relatives of the signatories, and she commends the army’s organisation of that event, saying they always invite whoever is appropriate with no “side” to who is chosen.
Honor is enthusiastic too about the efforts of the many community groups and historical societies she has met, and about the efforts of the national broadcaster:
RTE are going to come out as heroes as far as I’m concerned because they’re doing the Easter Monday: “Reflecting The Rising”, which involves thousands and thousands of people. Every historian in the country is going to be speaking. Huge and very brave. It should have been done by the government like that. It was the right idea.”