n585541Sure, the Irish continue to save civilization. Fight, make love, write poetry. Talk about these things over pints. Tell redeeming stories.

If you haven’t met Henry Smart, a street kid who rises out of Dublin’s sewers (literally) to enliven the hapless Irish Citizens Army in the 1916 Easter Rising, I urge you to track him down and introduce yourself. You’ll find him in Roddy Doyle’s A Star Called Henry, a novel of great rollicking excess and unforgettable characters.

It’s a wild ride of killing, betrayal and passion. The good news is that Henry suffers no unrequited love. His “Maud Gonne” – no coy mistress – throws him on his back in the basement of Dublin’s General Post Office and consummates a delightful couple of pages, even as the bombardment continues. When she goes missing, Henry mounts every risk to find her (to our great relief, readers, because we want more of the gun-toting Miss O’Shea).

Good stuff. And between the lines, you can listen for the spirit of the long-suffering William Butler Yeats. Henry’s danger-packed life leads to a conclusion Yeats at his bluest declared in September 1913:

Romantic Ireland is dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.

The novel is full of madness that underscores the heartbreaking futility of so many Irish struggles – the blind arrogance of Lord England, the utter stupidity of Catholic-Protestant hatreds, and so forth. Yet it sings along with Doyle’s eye for love in the ruins and his ear for the cockeyed lyrical eloquence of even the low down.

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For me, Henry’s travails – raised without parents, desperate to protect a small brother on the streets of Dublin, drafted by circumstances into a revolution while a teenager – echo the melancholy longings of Yeats, whose passion survived the real Maud Gonne’s spurning and focused on attempts to recreate Irish culture, to preserve what was best in his world. Or as the editor Richard Gill put it, to create a communal “old Ireland” that Yeats wished had existed. Think of  “an image of artists replenishing the imagination of their country.”

Two of  Yeats’ classic poems echo through Doyle’s story of Henry Smart, who first sees action when history’s real heroes – the poets, writers and labor organizers Pearse, Connolly, Clarke, Collins, MacDonagh, Plunkett, et al – lead the ragged band of Irish volunteers into the G.P.O. Those leaders, of course, were captured and executed, providing the blood sacrifice so many believed necessary to achieve the Republic. Yeats immortalized them in Easter 1916.

Easter 1916 (last stanza)

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven’s part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in verse –
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

And, three years before that fateful Easter rising:

September 1913

What need you, being come to sense,
But fumble in a greasy till
And add the halfpence to the pence
And prayer to shivering prayer, until
You have dried the marrow from the bone?
For men were born to pray and save:
Romantic Ireland is dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.

Yet they were of a different kind,
The names that stilled your childish play,
They have gone about the world like wind,
But little time had they to pray
For whom the hangman’s rope was spun,
And what, God help us, could they save?
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.

Was it for this the wild geese spread
The grey wing upon every tide;
For this that all that blood was shed,
For this Edward Fitzgerald died,
And Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone,
All that delirium of the brave?
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.

Yet could we turn the years again,
And call those exiles as they were
In all their loneliness and pain,
You’d cry, ‘Some woman’s yellow hair
Has maddened every mother’s son’:
They weighed so lightly what they gave.
But let them be, they’re dead and gone,
They’re with O’Leary in the grave.


Links

Roddy Doyle interview
http://www.powells.com/authors/doyle.html

The 1916 Rising: Personalities & Perspectives
http://www.nli.ie/1916/pdfs.html

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Dallas Lee

Dallas Lee, former writer and editor for The Associated Press and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, retired as a speechwriter from Bank of America. He is author of The Cotton Patch Evidence: The Story of Clarence Jordan and the Koinonia Farm Experiment (Harper & Row 1971).