In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.
-The Proclamation of 1916
I never thought Liam Neeson would lie to me. Not that I know him personally, but I always felt like Liam Neeson was an honest person. He has a face that is instantly trustworthy, and besides that, Liam Neeson is the voice of Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia. Of course he wouldn’t lie. When Liam Neeson played Michael Collins in the 1996 filmMichael Collins and he walked down the iconic wrought iron steps at Kilmainham Gaol, I believed him. I believed that his portrayal of Michael Collins was absolute truth. Standing in Kilmainham myself, staring at those same stairs, I began scanning the room. Extending three stories up and around the entire perimeter of the oval shaped room were cells, each with a dark green door and most with a nameplate above the door, proclaiming the name of the cell’s most famous former inhabitant.
Where was Michael Collins’s cell? I had scanned the room several times. My fellow Michael Collins admirer Amy had also been looking for his cell. Amy and I had spent several weeks before the trip preparing a presentation on the 1916 Easter Rising and the subsequent War for Independence with Britain. Michael Collins had come up quite a bit in the latter half of our presentation. We convened in the center of the room, both hoping that the other had spotted it. No such luck. Excitedly the two of us flagged down our tour guide, hoping he could point us in the right direction. Instead, he crushed our excitement. Michael Collins was never held in Kilmainham Gaol. Liam Neeson, as Michael Collins, walking down those iron steps had taken a theatrical liberty.
I suppose I got what I deserved for believing that a film was truth. Really, I should have known that the movie version of Collins’s life wasn’t accurate. I never believed Julia Roberts portrayal of an Irish woman, so why should I have believed Liam Neeson’s portrayal of Michael Collins? Learning that Michael Collins wasn’t at Kilmainham didn’t affect my knowledge of the Irish War for Independence. Learning that Michael Collins wasn’t at Kilmainham made me wonder what else the movie had duped me on.
The October before my trip to Ireland, I’d spent two weeks watching various parts of Michael Collins, trying to prepare for a presentation on the Easter Rising and all of the events leading up to Collins’s death in 1922. This topic wasn’t my first choice, or Amy’s, but when sign-up time came and our first choice had gone, Amy suggested the Easter Rising and Irish War for Independence as an alternative. “I don’t know anything about either of those events,” I had told her.
“Have you seen Michael Collins? Because that’s basically our topic.”
I’d seen the movie a couple of times, but hadn’t retained much more than Liam Neeson, who was the only reason I watched the movie to begin with. Watching it again for the presentation I found myself fixated on the first few minutes, the ones that take place at the General Post Office in Dublin during the Easter Rising. I scribbled out names to look up as the British military officers walked down the line of rebels pulled from the Post Office and called them by name: Thomas Clarke, Patrick Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh. Once I looked up information on these three men and their four Proclamation of 1916 signing counterparts, I found myself morbidly watching the part of the film over and over when these men were pulled from the ranks, blindfolded and executed in Kilmainham’s prison yard.
The movie got that part right. The actors chosen to play the Proclamation signatories were ringers for the men they were portraying, especially Jer O’Leary who played Thomas Clarke, the oldest and first signatory. Being able to so accurately match faces to movie characters aided in my illusion that Michael Collins was an accurate film. At Kilmainham the courtyard area where the seven signatories, plus at least seven others connected to the Rising were executed looked as promised by the film. Gravel covered the ground and high stone walls surrounded the area on all sides; there was a stone fortress for execution. No fair trial, no excuses, these men were just blindfolded and executed. Little wooden crosses stood at both ends of the yard, marking the exact spots where Clarke, Pearse, and MacDonagh, along with Eamonn Ceannt, Joseph Plunkett, James Connolly, Seán Mac Diarmada and others were branded traitors.
Their story didn’t end with executions though. The dead revolution leaders had to go somewhere. Through my research, I learned everything I possibly could about the seven men who signed the Proclamation – their full English and Irish names, their jobs, their roles in the Easter Rising, where they were stationed in Dublin during the Rising, their desire for an Irish language revival. I even learned the order in which they had been executed. I never thought to look up where they were buried though. Michael Collins hadn’t dealt with their burial and since I was using that film as the framework for my research, Arbor Hill Cemetery never came up.
Even if Arbor Hill had come up, I wouldn’t have been able to find a satisfying amount of information on it. I still haven’t been able to find any definitive information about the history of Arbor Hill. The cemetery itself is out of the way in Dublin. If our driver Dave hadn’t known where to go or Arbor Hill hadn’t been on the itinerary, I probably still wouldn’t know about it. Arbor Hill isn’t even on the Dublin map of attractions. In 1916, the last thing the British would have wanted was fanfare for the men they had just executed. Traitors shouldn’t be martyrs so it made sense to bury the seven proclamation signers and the seven other rebels in an out-of-the-way location, one that masses of people wouldn’t flock to. But why, after almost 100 years, isn’t Arbor Hill more celebrated? Seven of the men buried here wrote down their dream and signed it, setting into motion the course of events that eventually secured that dream. We know their dream–enough to know they dreamed and are dead.
As a former prison yard, nothing about Arbor Hill really said “cemetery.” There were a few actual headstones to be found, but the main attraction was a pit of limestone with a strip of grass down the center. The bright green up against the gray stone made the grass look more vibrant, more full of life. At the same time, all the stone around the grass looked forlorn, somber. In this mass grave lie those Easter rebels, seven signatories and seven others captured that day in Dublin, surrounded by the Irish language. Their names are engraved in both English and Irish around the pit, and the Proclamation of 1916, the document that proclaimed a free Ireland, is engraved on the wall behind them. The Irish and English versions of the proclamation are separated on the wall by a large gold cross–a symbol of religion and of the problems that have plagued Ireland for decades, acting as a bridge between the Irish and the English.
The wind and rain that had been threatening all morning had come, as we stood around the grave, silent for a moment, embracing the spirit of the revolutionaries. The Proclamation belonged in Irish. This was the way the seven men who permanently affixed their names to the document intended it to be seen. At Arbor Hill, their vision was finally realized: the Irish and English languages together in a free Ireland.
Standing around the grave, Amy read the proclamation aloud and then I read WB Yeats’ poem “Easter 1916,” a poem I had read thirteen times before. The poem had remained a favorite, mostly because of my love for Yeats. I understood the weight of the poem, Yeats admitting that perhaps he judged the rebels’ actions too harshly at first. Never glorifying their actions and reminded the reader at the end of each stanza that the actions of Easter 1916 had consequences. All changed, changed utterly. A terrible beauty is born. Yeats was right of course. The terrible beauty born was the fighting in the Republic, the selling out of the six northern counties to ensure freedom for the rest and the fighting that continues in Northern Ireland to this day. Standing by the grave in the cold rain, hearing Yeats’ poignant words in my own voice, I realized that this too was part of the terrible beauty–the aftermath of revolution.