The Failed Rebellion that Jump-Started the War

They say there’s one day a year when everyone’s Irish and that’s St. Patrick’s Day.  Well, that’s what I’ve heard in America, where everyone insists they’re part Irish and celebrates March 17th like it was their personal 4th of July.  On such matters, I defer to the late Frank McCourt who said “A well-placed bomb at the New York St. Patrick’s Day parade would wipe out the cream of Irish mediocrity”.  (Thank heavens he said it before 2001; today, a remark like that would land a quipster on the no-fly list).  Me, I wish my family was Irish but my mother’s people mainly came from England and Italy and my dad’s Celtic ancestors sailed to America after they were “unfriended” in Scotland and Ireland.  In other words, they were Ulster Scots.  But, like lots of people I know, I’m a big fan of the Auld Sod and I can give you a reason why.  No one I know can break your heart the way Irish writers and Irish stories do.  And given the time of year this is with the the tide of Easter rising, the Irish tale I go back to is Rebels: The Irish Rising of 1916.  Seldom does a group of armed rebels bring me so close to tears.

Now when I was little, the only Irish history I knew centered around “The Famine” (long ago) or “The Troubles” (still going on).  Ireland was one country when it starved but at some point, it became two.  Something happened in-between those events but I wasn’t really sure what so I had no idea about the first class tragedy described in this wonderful book.  Without sounding the dreaded “Spoiler Alert” I can give you a thumbnail list of events.

In the early days of the first world war, a few extremely devout, not-that-organized Irish Nationalists wanted English Rule out of Ireland.  From what they heard in the streets, most Irish people agreed, not as zealously as the Nationalists but enough to keep them encouraged.  These lovers of Ireland agreed that the time was ripe for revolution although they couldn’t agree on much else since all of them had their own political ideas and every man thought he was in charge (with the exception of Constance Markievicz, all the rebels seem to be men).  At any rate, two or three small groups of men conspired to start a rebellion in different parts of Ireland – a rising, if you will – on Easter morning and they thought the people would join them and throw out the British government.   Well, they failed. Of all the “risings” that were supposed to occur, only the one in Dublin gained ground, where 1,250 Irish insurgents battled 16,000 British soldiers and another thousand Dublin police for five days before they fell.  None of the local citizenry joined the cause and the only government office the insurgents took over (the post office) was surrendered five days after they grabbed it.  The Easter rising sank like the Titanic.

But here’s where the tables turn.  A British General named Maxwell was ordered to clean up Dublin and he entered Ireland as military governor on the 28th, the day before the Post Office was surrendered.  Now, his assignment was a sizable task but public sentiment was, for once, with the British, so Maxwell had a chance to build a peace.  Instead,  he snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, first by arresting about 1,500 innocent civilians along with the 1,800 surviving rebels. Within the week, the accused were being tried by court-martial (though none of them were soldiers) without access to counsel, a jury or judicial review, although those were required by law.  Maxwell confirmed the death sentences and started executing rebels before he’d been there a week.  The first three went to the firing squad the day after their “trials”.   The Irish civilians that were not in the jail thought this was moving too fast.  Arrest the rebels, of course, and make sure that justice is done but if someone’s charged for treason as an English citizen, aren’t they entitled to an Englishman’s rights?    People didn’t like the rush to judgement and now the stories of some British abuses were coming to light.  (Of all the individuals in the book, my favorite is Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, a pacifist and campaigner for equal rights who irritated everyone sooner or later.  He was odd individual as well as brave, caring man and what happened to him during the Rising is a never-ending shame.) Even England became concerned about the haste but they got the news too late.  Fourteen rebels are executed by firing squad before the 12th of May.  The last of these, already dying from his wounds, was carried on a stretcher to the front of a firing squad and tied to a chair because he could not stand.  This was more than Irish citizens could bear.  The failed Easter rebellion became the prelude to the Ireland’s War for Independence.

 So, enjoy St. Patrick’s Day and smile at all the people wearing green but remember a bit about Irish history.  It’s the history of people everywhere.  There are good times and bad times  and some heartbreaking times but there are dreams and people that never quit trying. Whoever they are, wherever they come from and no matter how long it takes, there will always be someone who cares for justice and someone willing to die to be free.  When they fall, someone will remember the dead and someone else will pick up their flag.  And in the end, if the cause is just, the dream will never die.  And that thought could heal a broken heart.

In Praise of a Stubborn Soul

Ordinarily, we don’t honor disobedient people. Our history does, as many rebels are the  heralds of overdue change, but in this world where most folks “go along to get along” the contrary soul is a resented member of a community.  Every town has these intractable dissenters who, even when they are right, still alienate their peers with their hard-headed ways. Born outsiders, these nonconformists follow their own lonely stars though life, with few friends for love or guidance, not because they want to be difficult but because time and circumstance force them into this uneasy role.  That is the theme of T. K. Thorne in her second historical novel, Angels at the Gate, and it stars one of the Bible’s most baffling women: Lot’s wife, the woman who disobeyed a command from God’s angels and looked back, at cost of her life.

 I never understood the behavior of Lot’s wife when I read her story in Sunday School.   To me, when the town is literally falling to pieces around your ears and two white-garbed, winged men suddenly appear, shouting “Run for the hills and don’t you dare look back!” it’s time to follow orders and get the heck out of Dodge.  Yet, she looks back at the disaster, turning away just as her survival is assured.  Why would someone behave so foolishly?  T. K. Thorne creates a reasonable answer for this woman whose name goes unmentioned in the Bible.  Here, she is Adira, a girl with a mind of her own travels disguised as a boy so she can stay with her widowered father.   Adira finds it difficult to obey anyone when her good sense suggests otherwise, even the father she loves and respects.  Then, as a “girl posing in boy’s clothing” Adira can’t help but notice men and women are treated differently in her world.  Eventually she has to choose between the the life she wants as a female and the freedom she’s enjoyed as a male.

 T. K. Thorne combined religious, archeological and historical study to create this story of a woman who followed her own path in the world.  Here at last is an explanation for God’s angels, those messengers who warn Lot and his family of their peril and the rest of Lot’s behavior in Genesis.  Lot is the nephew of Abraham and described in the Bible as a righteous but Thorne recounts his actions and leaves it up to the readers to draw their own conclusions.

And, in the end, this is is not the story of a male who follows orders to escape but the woman who watched him leave before making a choice of her own.  Lot’s wife may have been been a willful and stubborn woman but she had a life and reason for her actions and she deserves a better epitaph than “The Lady who turned into Salt.”  Thanks to T. K. Thorne, Lot’s wife is transformed back into woman, wayward and strong but alive.

March 5. 2015 is the publication date of Angels at the Gate.   Her book is available at Amazon and other booksellers if you live in the area of Birmingham, Alabama, you can  meet the author and obtain a signed personalized copy if you attend her publication party at The Harbert Center 2019 4th Ave N, Birmingham, Alabama 35203 between 4:30 and 7:00 p.m.  Details can be found at https://www.facebook.com/events/1560009640943936/

It’s Time for a Southern Book

I think things are headed towards Spring.  That sounds crazy after last week’s snow storm, but Saturday the sun was pouring down like paint over the Sherwin Williams globe and there was a warmth in the light I hadn’t felt since September.  The sunlight is life here in the Deep South and it’s a birthright we’ve come to expect like warm food and good stories.  There’s a lot about this land that’s cringe-inducing but not our warmth and not our stories.  Like the land, they are strong and good and so linked to this place that many could not have appeared anywhere else on earth.  It takes a Southerner to sculpt some of these tales.

The light and heat are characters inside Carson McCuller’s Ballad of the Sad Cafe. The setting is a Georgia summer and if you read it, you’ll fall under the story’s spell and start pulling at the side of your collar to let in a little cool air.  There was none in Georgia, not during those summers before air-conditioning when people woke up sweating and laid themselves down to sleep on damp, wrinkled sheets at night, half way to dehydration.  The heat is an omnipresent character, an enhancer of the scenes and it helps drive the conflict in this wonderful tale of uneven love.

The characters are as odd a triangle as literature has fashioned.  There is Miss Amelia, an ungainly and raw-boned woman more at home with overalls, moonshine and animals than people and as mean-spirited and invulnerable an individual as anyone in the little town could describe until she meets Cousin Lymon.  A deformed and strange little man, Lymon sparks no feelings of friendship and is almost certainly a liar but he’s is taken in by Amelia and his presence transforms her character.  Although no more at ease around people, Amelia softens her sharp business practices and even turns part of her store into the cafe in the evening, all because it entertains Cousin Lymon. She becomes a nicer person and the town is a better place for it.  This good feeling is shattered by the return of Marvin Macy, a cruel, vicious man whose one attempt at good behavior was caused by (you guessed it!) his love that Amelia spurned.  For some reason, Lymon gives the same unquestioning adoration to Marvin Macy that Amelia gives to him.  With allegiance of Cousin Lymon, Macy finally has the weapon to strike back at the woman he once loved.

It’s not surprising this strange tale comes from Carson McCullers.  She was a woman who always felt “set apart” from the rest and she had begun to endure a series of life-altering health problems and romantic disasters by her early thirties, when she wrote this tale.  Although sometimes uncomfortable in her own skin, Carson had an incredible empathy for her characters that shows in her writing and you find yourself caring for Amelia and seeing at least some of the charm Cousin Lymon holds for her.  Carson was able to endow her characters with love and humanity that we start to care for these deformed and scarred people who are, whatever their shortcomings, all helpless in the face of the person they love because, in the end, that’s a feeling we’ve all known. 

I’m not sure how much joy Ms. McCullers got from her life:  she was far too young when she died, she spent too much of her last years impaired by a series of strokes and her writing shows a mind deeply familiar with the pain of loneliness.  But along with all that, she had a rare capacity for love and understanding that brought her deep happiness and the gratitude of many people.  And, as she pointed out,  most people prefer giving love to receiving it if they are given the choice.  That kind of love still grows deep around here.  You can feel its warmth, like the heat in the light.