July 21, 2014

M.J. Neary's Never Be At Peace - Guest Post

A pugnacious orphan from a bleak Dublin suburb, Helena Molony dreams of liberating Ireland. Her fantasies take shape when the indomitable Maud Gonne informally adopts her and sets her on a path to theatrical stardom - and political martyrdom. Swept up in the Gaelic Revival, Helena succumbs to the romantic advances of Bulmer Hobson, an egotistical Fenian leader with a talent for turning friends into enemies. After their affair ends in a bitter ideological rift, she turns to Sean Connolly, a married fellow-actor from the Abbey Theatre, a man idolised in the nationalist circles. As Ireland prepares to strike against the British rule on Easter Monday, Helena and her comrades find themselves caught in a whirlwind of deceit, violence, broken alliances and questionable sacrifices. In the words of Patrick Pearse, "Ireland unfree shall never be at peace". For the survivors of the Rising, the battle will continue for decades after the last shot had been fired.

"You cannot march into a battle with one hand tied behind your back!" With those words the legendary Maud Gonne (1866 – 1953), W.B. Yeats' muse, advocated for women's participation in the nationalistic movement in Ireland. Given that Maud had spent her childhood at a boarding school in France, it is not surprising that her traditional Anglo-Irish father had little influence over her. Contrary to popular assumptions, you do not learn obedience and conformity in boarding schools. You learn independence and elusiveness. It is no wonder that Maud defied the expectations of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy class into which she was born by embracing social activism, feminism and nationalism, the three concepts she believed went hand in hand. In 1900 women were excluded from political organizations and even cultural societies. When she approached the National Land League, she was told that ladies were not admitted. Interestingly enough, even though women were taught that ultimate fulfillment could only be achieved through marriage and motherhood, fifty percent of women in Ireland remained unmarried, fending for themselves in a rather inhospitable job market that favored men. Unhindered by the restrictions of the day, Maud went on to create her own organization called Daughters of Erin. It was the first step towards the integration of women into Ireland's nationalistic movement.

It was Maud Gonne's habit of having intimate relationships only with those men who shared her political ideals. In her 20s she had carried on with Lucien Millevoye, a married French politician. To him Maud had born two children, a boy who had died in infancy and a girl Iseult who had gone to become a noted beauty. Splitting her time between France and Ireland, Maud engaged in a turbulent emotional romance with W.B. Yeats and starred in his play Cathleen NĂ­ Houlihan. She had rejected Yeats' marriage proposals at least three times, because he was not sufficiently patriotic. She went on to marry Major John MacBride, an Irish nationalist a few years her junior. Their marriage ended up falling apart due to allegations of domestic violence. MacBride was later executed for his part in the 1916 Easter Rising. Yeats, who hated MacBride for obvious reasons, briefly mentioned him in his poem "Easter, 1916" as "a drunken, vain-glorious lout."

I did not make Maud Gonne the focal figure in my latest novel Never Be at Peace (Fireship Press, 2014). She is already an iconic figure and does not need any more exposure. Rather, I chose to focus on the underrated heroine Maud had informally adopted and groomed to be her . This earnest and ferocious Irishwoman was Helena Molony (1884-1967). A quintessential lower-middle class Dublin girl with frizzy auburn hair, freckles and a button nose, Helena was earnest and idealistic. Orphaned at a young age, she had no blood relatives except for her older brother Frank, who already was involved in nationalistic politics. On Frank's urging, she attended a Daughters of Erin meeting hosted at Maud's house. When Helena arrived, the house was being raided by the police. When questioned by the constable whether or not she was a member, the girl boldly stated that indeed she was. Moved by the young girl's audacity, Maud took her under her wing and made her the secretary of the new organization. That day Helena's fate was sealed. There was no turning back. Peaceful, boring life was not an option. Helena continued to cultivate her acting talent and went to become an actress at the Abbey Theatre co-founded by Yeats and Lady Gregory.

One of Helena's responsibilities was editing the organization's literary journal, to which many literary voices of the era contributed. Through her activism she met many fellow-nationalists who came from various walks of life. Contrary to popular assumptions, not all Irish nationalists were Irish, Catholic and economically disadvantaged. One of Helena's comrades, her future lover-turn-adversary, was Bulmer Hobson, a charismatic Ulsterman of from a liberal Quaker family of predominantly English blood. The members of Bulmer's immediate circle did not understand his interest in Irish nationalism, given that he did not have strong genetic links to that culture. Nevertheless, he was one of Ulster's most prominent nationalists who greatly contributed to the revival of the Irish Republican Brotherhood in the north. One of the sources of friction between Helena and Bulmer was that she championed the labor cause, he did not fully understand her concern for the poor. Unlike Helena, Bulmer had the support of a solid, prosperous family. His father was a successful businessman. His mother was a feminist writer and freelance archeologist. And his older sister was Ireland's first female architect. Although not grossly privileged, Bulmer did not have firsthand experience with addiction, destitution and abuse. In his social strata, unemployment did not necessarily mean starvation. Bulmer spent long periods of time "searching for himself". Holding down a job was not a priority for him. A few times he got fired for putting his nationalistic activities first. Apparently, his parents did not pressure him too aggressively into gainful employment. Authenticity and staying true to one's self rank pretty highly on the list of priorities for Quakers. Bulmer could go for years without a steady income, and his parents would always give him money for food and clothes. Even though he and Helena shared a vision for a liberated Ireland, Bulmer could not help rolling his eyes whenever Helena mentioned the interests of the working class. In my novel I took this opportunity to elaborate on the socioeconomic disparity between the two lovers.

James Connolly's Death
by  Alissa Mendenhall

The final ideological rift between Helena and Bulmer happened over the idea of an armed rising. Helena fully supported a rebellion, especially in light of England's involvement in World War I, especially since Germany promised to help the Irish. It did not matter to her that the chances of a military success were non-existent. Like Patrick Pearse, she believed in the symbolic power of bloodshed and martyrdom. Bulmer, on another hand, felt that a premature rising would be a waste of human life. A romantic in every other respect, he showed strange pragmatism. He went as far as trying to stop the ill-fated rising. This act of defiance had nearly cost him his life. He was kidnapped and held at gunpoint until the rising was well underway, while his former love Helena was on the roof of the City Hall with her comrades-at-arms.

When it came time to choose which military organization to join, Helena Molony chose the Irish Citizen Army (ICA) over Cumann na mBan (translated as Women's League), because in the ICA women were allowed to join on the same level as men, where as Cuman naBhan was a medical adjacent unit to the Irish Volunteers. She objected to the idea that women were only good for bandaging the wounds of their male comrades'. Irish girls were also damn good at making gunshot holes in their enemies. Helena's combat experience was short-lived. On Easter Tuesday, she was captured along with the surviving contingent of the Irish Citizen Army. The girls were separated from their male comrades and locked up in a filthy store where they waited out the rest of the uprising.

Even though Maud Gonne did not participate in the hostilities of 1916, she monitored the events closely and even hired an attorney to defend her former protegee - an act of compassion that Helena proudly declined. For her it was an honor to be imprisoned for what she believed in. Interestingly, Maud admitted to hating violence and regarded an armed rebellion a necessary evil. "I have always hated war and am by nature and philosophy a pacifist, but it is the English who are forcing war on us, and the first principle of war is to kill the enemy." It's questionable whether or not Helena shared the same distaste for violence. It could be that she actually derived some pleasure out of physical hostilities. In 1911 during the royal visit protests, Helena was arrested for throwing rocks at the king's portrait. While serving her time in jail, she actually worried that Maud might find her behavior childish and embarrassing. Imagine Helena's delight when she received a telegram from Maud stating "Well done!" For Helena, being congratulated on an act of juvenile hooliganism was the highest form of validation. In spite of all the hardship she had witnessed, she still retained that pugnacious tomboy side. In my novel, I wanted to explore the psychological complexity of a rebel's psyche. The fine line between heroism and hooliganism is very fine. A martyr is just one step away from becoming a traitor. That's what makes it interesting for a writer to explore the events of that era. It's not just black and white - or in Ireland's case, green and orange.

About the author
Marina Julia Neary is an award-winning historical essayist, multilingual arts & entertainment journalist, novelist, dramatist and poet.Her areas of expertise include British steampunk, French Romanticism and Irish nationalism.

Her latest novel, Never Be At Peace, is garnering rave reviews from prominent authors, historians and critics. Her novel Wynfield’s Kingdom(Fireship Press, 2009) was featured in the March 2010 edition of First Edition Magazine in the UK, followed by the sequel Wynfield’s War in 2010. She is also the author of two historical plays, Hugo in London (licensing available through Heuer Press), and the sequel Lady with a Lamp: The Untold Story of Florence Nightingale (illustrated edition available through Fireship Press).

Her poems have been organized in a collection Bipolar Express (Flutter Press, 2010).Her sci-fi novelette, My Salieiri Complex is available as an e-book through Gypsy Shadow Press. Neary currently serves as an editorial reviewer and steady contributor for Bewildering Stories magazine.

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