The events of Easter 1916 was a revolution of ideas as-much-as a revolution of arms. The men and women of the GPO and Bolands Mills were singers and artists, poets and actors – and a century later their stories have ensnared Clare musician, Mike Hanrahan. Andrew Hamilton talks to the former Stockton’s Wing man about ‘Dublin’s Burning’ – his new show based on the stories of the rising, written with Brendan Begley.
Mike Hanrahan has been bitten by a bug. When he started digging into the details of the Easter Rising, he quickly found that each layer of information revealed a deeper, more interesting layer. Over the past 12 months the Ennis musician has lived on stories of the 1916 Rising. He, along with Brendan Begley, have devoured whole libraries of histories, biographies, art and music.
And through that process they have discovered something vibrant – a hidden history of the rising that is far more inspiring and creative than the history taught us in school.
Dublin’s Burning – and everyone is invited to see the flames and feel the heat.
“Myself and Brendan spoke about this when we toured last year. We both agreed that it would be interesting to do something about 1916 and I had my own interest from years ago. One of the guys who was executed was a guy called Michael O’Hanrahan – so I was always interested because of the name connection. I remember going to Kilmainham and discovering all about him. It was through that connection that I first really got interested,” says Mike.
“It struck me that we know very little about it [the events of 1916]. The history that we are thought in school was very limited. I think maybe because of the Civil War and the aftermath of that, what was thought in schools became very surface.
“So we [himself and Brendan] had this notion of doing something and we promised each other that if we did get involved, we would only do it if we read and really understood what we were getting involved with. We weren’t just going to be two guys singing songs about 1916 and not understanding what we were singing about.
“We decided that if we never did a gig, at least we would learn more about our history. The more we got into the history the more we discovered that it was basically artists and poets and writers. There were other people as well, or course, but the predominant people of the Rising were very creative and artistic people. We have read a couple of small libraries between us at this stage, we are well versed in matters and the more we got into it the more we wanted to get out of it. There was so much material available to us that it is a case of just how we put it all together.
“I am currently reading the biographies of all 16 people who were executed. We have gotten to know all of these people, they are people we know and people who are close to us.
“I was always of the view that 1916 was the GPO and nothing else, but it wasn’t. It was mostly in Dublin, there was bits in Kerry with Roger Casement landing the guns, there were bits in Galway, bits in Meath and some trouble in Wexford. The majority of the Rising was in Dublin but not just the GPO – it was spread around the entire city.”
As Mike and Brendan made their way through the hidden history of the Rising, a soundtrack began to emerge in their heads. Some of the songs are new, their own creations inspired by their new knowledge and understanding, while others are old favourites, now somehow reborn through a new context and a deeper level of understanding.
“We were reading through all of this information and we are hearing all of these song. You hear about Ned Daly, the guy from Limerick who was executed, he was a tenor, a wonderful baritone. [Joseph] Plunkett was a great poet, the first guy killed in City Hall in the very early stages was a lead actor from the Abbey [theatre],” says Mike.
“Then you learn from the 1890s of this whole cultural revolution which is happening. The Irish people were remembering 1798 [the United Irishmen Rebellion in Wexford] which brought all of that back into focus, in a similar way to what is happening now.
“Then you had the cultural revolution, all these organisations being set up to look at our language, our music our dance. Our mythology was being revived by people like Synge and Yeats, there was an incredible movement in the county at the time and that really took us by storm when we were putting this together.
“There is a narrative structure to Dublin’s Burning – it is structured like a theatre show. At the moment there are two of us doing it with our guitars and our accordions and our voices. We have sections of stories from the early part of the Rising in Kerry and then we move it to Dublin and on to the executions. We try to ask questions from now, from 100 years on, about how we view it. So there is a mixture of new tunes which depict scenes as we see them.
“There is a narrative song which runs through it. It is called Dublin’s Burning and that is a new song which brings all the scenes together.
“But then we found all of these old songs, songs that we knew from our childhood, that now have a completely different meaning. Song like ‘Óró sé do Bheatha Abhaile’, ‘The Foggy Dew’, even the national anthem. We discovered that the anthem was written and first sung in the GPO. It was originally written as an English language song called ‘Soldier are We’. And then 15 or 20 years later it was turned into Irish and it was our national anthem. My God, the beautiful songs that we uncovered are just breathtaking.”
This voyage of artists and patriotic self discovery had already had a massive impact on Mike’s outlook on the Easter Rising and its commemoration.
“We are two very humble souls who have come upon this story and we just want to get it out there to people. If we can cause any small bit of a ripple for people to understand this extraordinary time in our history then we will be happy.
“We will see next year when every political party and God knows what will be trying to take ownership of this but really it’s the people who should take ownership of it. It needs to go back to the people and let everyone understand what this really was,” says Mike.
“We want people to come out of this knowing something new and wanting to know more.
“If we can do that, if we can get people to come away from the night who want to read a bit more about it, and get the same buzz as we [Mike and Brendan] are getting from it then our work as artists is done.
“We have the songs and we introduce some poetry and some speeches from the time. It would take a week to show people the amount of stuff that was going on in those 10 or 15 years [before the Rising].
“In fact we are hoping to make this into a trilogy. We want to move on and do something similar about the War of Independence and then we will see how we will look upon the Civil War. These are all things that we will have to deal with over the next eight or 10 years.
“It was a very different era. Ireland was still under British rule, not long after the famine and Ireland had gone through a number of failed rebellions in that previous century. Then we are just getting to the stage where we [the Irish people] are delving into its own cultural history. I don’t think we could every replicate something like that. This show is a way for us to salute this amazing time and solute these incredible people. ”
Dublin’s Burning will be debuted at the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin on January 30 as part of the Templebar Tradfest. Plans are already in place to tour the show across Ireland next year. For more information visit www.mikehanrahan.com