Sinéad McCoole is an Irish historian, author, broadcaster, scriptwriter, historical and picture researcher and exhibition curator. As a Curator, she has originated and collaborated on a number of important exhibitions both in Ireland and the US. Her areas of expertise include The Rising, the War of Independence, and Civil War most especially with an emphasis on the role of women.
The circular spoke to her about her most recent work.
Why focus on the 1916 Rising?
When people come to another country, they do not have the same baggage as people have from another country with different stories on independence and I was born in America and my parents moved back to Ireland and I was always asking questions, wondering about something. So I was really interested in the History of Ireland.
Why tell the story from a woman’s perspective?
I am really interested in women and where women fit into the whole notion of the historiography of the Irish history, so one of the things that’s come out through the writing of women is, women have been inserted back into the story but not at the exclusion of the men. So the story that follows in Easter Widows is the story of the 1916 Rising from what we know from the diaries, the letters, the interaction because at the end of the day, it’s a group of people who lost their husbands very young and had to cope in a war situation and bring up their children and see what was going to happen in their lives.
So the whole thinking is that history is just a series of biography and when you interconnect with people, you don’t know what the outcome is going to be for example in the case of Muriel Macdonagh, she drowns the following year, the whole questions remains about whether or not she’d take her own life or was it just an accident by drowning but regardless, the two children were left without their parents and grew up without them. Or the likes of Kathleen Clarke who later becomes the Lord Mayor of Dublin yet she’s not really as well known, as she should be, because of the way the Irish history has been told.
In your acknowledgement you mentioned that it took you twenty years of research can you talk about that?
I had been writing Easter widows on and off for years I wasn’t doing it full time, I had my children, I was working at different jobs, so to be able to go back and put it together was tough. A friend of mine actually knew how much I had in my head, how many stories and we would say how many stories had been entrusted to me because of older people who have passed away.
They told me the stories so that I would have them and I would retain them, they knew that I would write them, they did not mind them going into the public domain, they wanted their stories told. I went back to my files and I went back to the letters that I had gotten and looked at it, I realised that I had been taking this massive material and I had a lot of source material too. What was really important was in the very end, I was able to do it from home (America).
As a result of the internet, I was able to find people in the last number of years or when students would come forward and they had been working on an aspect, and then they would highlight to me such and such is now available and they look for things for me so its like the network of the story to be told. I had the idea for the story but I did not know if I could write it because for history, you need to have the sources and then bit-by-bit, the sources came to light.
Was your idea totally based on a fictional version of the 1916 Rising?
No. The way I structured Easter Widows in Parts (Romance, Parting and Mourning) was to mimic what people do in fiction because what I really wanted to do was, when people cry over fiction, it really frustrates me because I think that’s not true, that’s just somebody’s imagination your crying for.
I wanted people to cry about what really happened to these people but also the next time that they looked at the proclamation or the next time they looked at the photograph of one of these men they would know a little bit more about the families or the destruction of items and I think that today we are sitting here and I think that people are living through really difficult times and its really important that we find our role models not necessarily from people in celebrities who haven’t done something but people who suffered and I think it really helps yourself to accept that life isn’t easy.
So I really feel passionately about education and imparting knowledge. And in the true term of historians and curating, its about the physical culture and the material culture, so as a woman keeps a scrap book or a woman keeps a bundle of letters, the women also preserve so much of the history.
When writing the book, which character do you think is the best out of the seven widows?
I change all the time. There’s the one who I think probably would be most like me and then there is the one that I think I hugely admire and the one whose sort of the larger than life character, Maud Gonne because she’s set up organizations for women and she’s the muse of Yeats, the poet. I suppose I was closest in terms of my heart to the Mallin family because I spent so much time on that family, Father Joe (whose still alive) and I knew his sister very well.
Agnes is closest to my heart but I suppose the person that I’ve sort of grown to feel is the most like me in terms of the way she reacted to things and the one whose probably the most elusive is Aine Ceannt because there’s a recording of her in the military archives and you can listen to her actual voice and she wrote a witness statement that is like 82 pages so she helps you to understand her thinking at the time so when she first met her husband after he was sentenced to death after the rising, her first reaction was to walk into the room and say ‘that was a fiasco’ which is a very human reaction. And so I think that she’s very honest and I like that about her.
Who was your toughest character when writing the book?
The women weren’t the toughest; it was whom they were married to. So James Connolly has over a hundred books written on him and to condense their life into a narrative, it didn’t underplay what he had done but at the same time kept his wife Lilly at center stage and that was the toughest and it literally took me, two years to write that section because it was so difficult to read the material and condense it down. He was the toughest because in 51 years, two weeks didn’t go by without him doing something, so it was about getting the rhythm between his life and his wife’s life and how they fitted together.
Are we expecting more books from Sinéad McCoole pertaining to Irish history?
You have to be struck by something to write and you could write about that because what happens is you become a story teller and you start looking for your source material but I suppose its around why do you want to write a story.
The Easter Widows was a different story because I felt that that story was very important but I don’t think I’d write for writing sake so I have no idea if I would do something again. You have to have that urge because it takes so much time out of you and there’s very few people on the planet who get the luxury of writing full time so it’s always something you have to do in your spare time and as we get older you think you have spare time but you have loads of people that need you.