It seemed beyond belief that our neighbor Seamus Doyle, who tended roses, and his wife, Gretta, who went to Mass every day, had once led a revolution, that he had been sentenced to death by the British, and that she had, with two other women, raised the Tricolour, the Irish flag, over one of the main buildings of the southern town of Enniscorthy in the 1916 Rebellion. It seemed even more astonishing that Marion Stokes had been one of the other flag-raisers; she came to our house every evening during Easter Week 1966 to watch a drama on television about the events of fifty years earlier.
She was the least likely ex-terrorist you could imagine, polite and sedate and distantly smiling. My uncle, who fought in the subsequent War of Independence and went on a hunger strike in prison during the Irish Civil War, also gave not a hint in his manners and his attitudes that he had, when he was young, taken on the might of the British Empire in pursuit of a dream which those around him viewed as foolish and fanatical.
The third woman who put up the flag in the town in 1916, Una Bolger, was married to Robert Brennan, one of the leaders of the Rebellion; he later became Irish ambassador to Washington and a close associate of Eamon de Valera. (Their daughter was the novelist and short-story writer Maeve Brennan, who wrote for The New Yorker for many years.) Una’s brother Jim Bolger, also involved in the struggle against the British, was Roddy Doyle’s grandfather, the father of Ita, who tells her story and that of her family in Rory & Ita, which Doyle edited for his parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary.
The story of the revolutionary generation in Ireland remains complex and powerful and difficult to tell. My uncle, who died eight years ago, confined himself to chance remarks and jokes on these matters; I have no memory of our neighbors, who took part in the Rebellion, discussing their years as revolutionaries in private conversations. They were quiet and conservative people; their years of living dangerously made them grumpy, it seemed to me, rather than garrulous. But since the IRA cease-fires of the late 1990s, the commemoration of what happened has become easier now that the events are not reenacted in Northern Ireland on a daily basis. Last year, when The Enniscorthy Echo, the local newspaper, celebrated its centenary, it produced a supplement with articles proudly stating that it was “once a hive of nationalists,” printing a photograph of Robert Brennan in paramilitary uniform, his wife standing behind him, and articles about Jim Bolger’s arrest for sedition in 1915 and my uncle’s hunger strike. All three worked for the newspaper, which, its centenary edition stated proudly, “assumed a notorious reputation with the authorities” in the decade before the creation of the Irish Free State.
In the 1940s, the Irish government asked those involved in the Rebellion and the War of Independence …