One hundred years ago, almost every family in Britain knew the heartache of waving men off to battle. Fathers and brothers, cousins and sons were packing their kit and heading for France to experience the mud and the blood for themselves. Hundreds of thousands had already volunteered but, by Easter 1916, conscription was further swelling the ranks.
With official papers landing on doormats you might think that no one really had a choice. After all, the First World War was at its height and the British Empire expected its citizens to heed its call. Within Irish communities on the British mainland, however, there was a decision to be made. From Donegal in the North down to Cork in the South, the entire island of Ireland was under British rule and there were many who wanted this subservience to end. They were in no rush to defend the British Empire and when the moderate Irish nationalist John Redmond called for his countrymen to support the British war effort – he hoped that the long-promised Home Rule would be their reward – men and women of Irish descent had to choose.
Would they fight for the Empire as Redmond suggested, or did their loyalties demand that they resist?
For the King family in Liverpool, 1916 was a time of decision. But when three of the King brothers – John, Patrick and George – crossed the sea early that year, they weren’t heading for the trenches of Europe. Their destination was Dublin, and their mission – not that they really knew it at the time – was nothing less than the overthrow of the British state in Ireland.
Along with around 70 other members of the Liverpool Volunteers – a branch of the Irish Volunteers organisation – and comrades from Manchester, Glasgow and London, they would play a key role in the armed rebellion known as the Easter Rising. Following a week of bloodshed in the Irish capital the rebellion was crushed and its leaders executed. Although the uprising was thought by many to be a failure, it eventually came to be seen as a pivotal moment in the history of Ireland – the catharsis from which today’s modern Irish Republic was born.
Peter King is a secondary school teacher who grew up on the outskirts of Liverpool. As the great nephew of the three Dublin-bound King brothers, he has long taken an interest in this episode of his family’s history, but the current Easter Rising centenary commemorations have given him the opportunity to explore the story in much greater depth.
Together with actor and drama teacher Steve Nolan, King has written a new play, Liverpool Lambs, about the Liverpool Volunteers and their involvement in the Rising. It’s an aspect of the rebellion that has been relatively unexplored until now, and when I meet King and Nolan on Hope Street in Liverpool, round the corner from the Unity Theatre where the play will be performed on March 31, they are eager to tell me more about it.
“I first looked into this about 15 years ago,” explains King. “I did a course in Irish history and I chose to write about my family. I found newspaper cuttings, documents, information, and discovered that not only were the three brothers involved in the Easter Rising – something I’d always been told when I was growing up – they were actually right in the middle of it, right in the General Post Office which was the volunteers’ headquarters and where Patrick Pearse read the Proclamation of the Republic.
“Then about 18 months ago we formed a committee at St Michael’s Irish Centre in Liverpool to plan a series of events marking the centenary and telling the story of these men and women from the city. There were volunteers from other parts of Britain too, but the biggest group was from Liverpool.
“Someone mentioned the possibility of a drama production, but I’ve got no background in theatre or creative writing. However, Steve Nolan offered to lead the production and because of my family links, I was asked if I’d like to get involved and provide some information. So Steve and I met and he said ‘Why don’t you start writing a few words?’”
For King, it was the beginning of a journey that has not only seen him travel deep into his family’s past, but also put him on the road to creating a brand new piece of drama.
He says: “I didn’t even know how to write a script, how to write the speech and actually set it out. So I bought a copy of one of Sean O’Casey’s plays and thought if it’s good enough for Sean O’Casey then it’s good enough for me.”
As the more experienced practitioner, Nolan was keen that King should be open to more than one way of making theatre.
“In my mind it wasn’t going to be like a Sean O’Casey play,” explains Nolan. “I gave Peter a copy of Oh, What a Lovely War! so he could see how non-naturalistic things work as well. It’s been a big challenge to find a style for this piece because we’ve had to deal with so many elements. I don’t think it’s a drama documentary, and it’s not a musical although there’s music and song in it. And it isn’t a naturalistic play. But I think we’ve established a bringing together of styles that works.”
The complexity that Nolan hints at springs from the story itself – of Ireland’s turbulent politics, of a revolutionary spirit fuelled by imperialist war, and of hidden histories that needed to be unravelled – and from the nature of the piece as a community production.
“The committee gave us a brief that said we had to tell the story of these Liverpool Volunteers,” says Nolan. “Well there’s a lot of them, that’s the first thing. Then they said we want you to use music and dance, because the Irish Centre where this project is based is a cultural centre. And we want you to create believable characters. It was a tough brief but I think we’ve done it.”
Creating theatre is always a challenge, but doing it with large community groups of varying levels of experience can demand a huge amount of work.
Nolan explains: “My idea at the beginning was that because Peter wasn’t an experienced writer, and I’m more used to devising shows, we would devise this production. But because it was the community we were gathering, not professional actors, they didn’t know what I meant by that. So I told them we’re going to create these scenes and eventually it’ll become a script. But you’re not going to be given a script straight away, we’re going to improvise and work on these things.
“So a lot of research went into it. Peter had all that family research, and I went over to Dublin twice. I went to the museum in the Collins Barracks and looked at everything they had there, looked at documents, and in fact some of the words in the documents are now in the play.
“That was September last year, and this thing has taken over my life. Whatever I envisaged it might be or what Peter envisaged it might be, I don’t think it’s what we’ve ended up with. It’s much bigger.”
Any drama that deals with history must take care to play fair with the facts, and King and Nolan have ensured that in telling their story, accuracy has remained uppermost in their minds. They have been helped in this endeavour by the fact that the chair of the Liverpool Easter 1916 Commemoration Committee is Dr Kevin McNamara, one-time shadow secretary of state for Northern Ireland and also a historian.
“Kevin is writing a book about one of the volunteers, Thomas Craven, and he’s meticulous in his research,” says King.
Nolan adds: “A lot of the stuff that became incidents in the play came from Kevin, because he’d done a lot of research already. I sat with him and we went through it all, and we’ve used as much of that as we can.”
King has also discovered much more about his great uncles and their experience than he knew before embarking on this theatrical adventure.
“A couple of years ago, the Irish government released an online archive of pension applications because everyone who took part in the Rising, including the Liverpool group, was entitled to a pension from the new Irish state.
“So in about 1923, they asked people who took part in the Easter Rising and the War of Independence to apply for a pension. They had to provide witness statements of what they did, where they were, who they were with, and that had to be supported by at least three people of a certain rank. So there’s loads and loads of information that’s been released online. There’s about 50 pages just on one of my great uncles alone. There’s not so much on the other brother because he was injured in the General Post Office, and the third brother was killed in the Civil War in 1923.”
Mention of the War of Independence and subsequent Irish Civil War hints at many more tangled tales, but unlike the ceaseless flow of history, the Liverpool Lambs story has to end somewhere.
“We only take the play up till the end of Easter week,” says Nolan. “That’s where the play finishes, although you do hear somebody saying, in the actual words of Patrick Pearse, that the leaders are going to have to surrender, but you’ve got to carry on the fight.”
In the immediate aftermath of the Rising, the rebels were widely reviled by the population of Dublin and beyond.
“The insurgents in the city were abused by a lot of the population and we have that in the play. A lot of looting went on in the first couple of days, and they were verbally and physically abused.”
It was only when the British executed the Rising’s leaders, including the fervent nationalist Patrick Pearse and the revolutionary socialist James Connolly, that the mood in Ireland began to change, disastrously so for the British. Within a couple of years, the Irish would be fighting Britain to a standstill, and events were set in motion that would eventually lead to partition and independence for the South.
Given that its ructions reverberated so loud and so long, it’s no surprise that the Easter Rising is seen by today’s Irish Republic as a momentous act. However, the contribution of Liverpudlians, Mancunians, Glaswegians and Londoners has never been widely commemorated, and Liverpool Lambs is just one event among many designed to redress that balance.
In a busy programme of lectures, exhibitions and publications, the Liverpool group hopes to reveal new insights into a fascinating period of history. For King and Nolan, however, attention remains focused on Liverpool Lambs and the importance of telling a story that has hitherto remained largely unknown.
“For people who know about the Rising, the things they’re aware of are the events in Easter week,” says Nolan. “What they don’t really know about it is the Liverpool involvement. So our challenge was how to make that part of the story without inventing it or making it phony and expanding more than was actually true. Well that wasn’t difficult, because the research shows they played such a significant part, so we didn’t have to invent, exaggerate, or magnify the involvement of people who did play such a significant role. It was just a matter of bringing that to life.”
And for King, there was the added pleasure of getting to know his ancestors a little better.
“From my point of view I think the more I’ve learnt about the uprising, the more I’ve come to the conclusion that the three brothers were very brave. I didn’t realise how brutal it was, or the extent of the influence that the Rising had. And the fact that they were right in the middle of it – it’s not pride really, but I certainly feel some admiration for what they did.”
Not only was the world at war in 1916, but right across Europe people were experiencing revolutionary times, and the Rising can only begin to be understood in that context.
“There was so much going on,” says King, “not just in Britain but in Europe and Russia. You’d got the trade union movement, the Suffragettes – people were standing up and fighting back.”
Nolan agrees. “You can’t forget the context of these things. And that’s why, probably, it was put down as brutally as it was.”
More than 400 people died during the Easter Rising, a huge figure for just six days of urban fighting. Against the odds, however, every one of the Liverpool Volunteers survived – and thanks to King, Nolan and their group of Liverpool performers, we finally have the chance to hear their stories for ourselves.
Liverpool Lambs is at the Unity Theatre, Liverpool on March 31, 2016. More information: http://www.unitytheatreliverpool.co.uk/whats-on/liverpool-lambs.html
The full programme of Liverpool Easter Rising 1916 events can be found at http://liverpooleaster1916.org/