Winding the Clock – O’Rahilly and the 1916 Rising. Aodogán O’Rahilly. The Lilliput Press, Dublin, 1991. Pages 245.
This review was written on February 2nd 2005
I borrowed this book from Ulick O’Connor and I read it rather quickly but intermittently during the first few weeks of February 2005. The book is badly written and poorly edited, with some repetition and ambiguity. One has to re-read sentences to understand their contents. It is somewhat lacking in references of primary sources and one might like to have confirmation of the veracity of some of the author’s statements, particularly in view of the major role which his father appeared to play in the national movement, in the formation of the Volunteers, in the encouragement of the Irish language and in the part he played in the 1916 Rebellion.
|The GPO clock when it stopped during the rising|
O’Rahilly was born into a North Kerry Catholic family which was apolitical and which like all the Catholics at the time supported the Irish Parliamentary Party. His father ran a general store in the small town of Ballylongford on the Shannon estuary. They were relatively well off. As he matured O’Rahilly became more and more interested in the national cause, in separatism and in the Irish language. He was born Michael Rahilly but, as his gradual interest in the national cause developed, he added the O’ to his name. Later, as he moved to Dublin and became more acquainted with the leaders of the national movement, he signed his surname only, O’Rahilly, and eventually the O’Rahilly – an unusual eccentricity in a lad from the country, even if he had graduated to living in Herbert Park in the upmarket suburb of Donnybrook. Perhaps eccentricity was the norm in those times but it must reveal both courage and vanity on O’Rahilly’s part which may account for his remarkable confrontation with death. His letters published in the book may suggest that he had a death wish to satisfy his patriotic commitment. Perhaps love of country can be as irrational as the more conventional form of love. Or perhaps love of self and an obsession about others perception of self may be the clue to self immolation.
O’Rahilly had no career in terms of profession or active business but he had been left relatively well off after the sale of the family business following his father’s death, his mother’s retirement to County Limerick and his own unwillingness to take over. One of his two sisters married one of the Humphrey family, a family which was to become rabidly anti-treaty and to take part in the Civil War.
I thought the author tended to be a little disparaging about Eoin MacNeill and even about Pearse but his carping appeared to be based on his anxiety to elevate his father’s role rather than diminish that of the two leaders. He talked about Pearse’s closest confidantes as his ‘cabal’. The author is also dismissive about the role of the IRB in the formation of the Volunteers and, oddly enough, in view of McAtansey’s biography, McDermott gets little mention.
The reader’s impression, having read his account of the formation of the Volunteers, the build up to the Rising and the Rising itself, was that O’Rahilly was one of the most inspiring proponents of radical nationalism and one of the leading influences in the separatist movement. It is difficult to know how much is fact and how much is speculation for there is little evidence of primary sources of research apart from the personal letters which have survived. He refers to McGoey as the person who kept the British informed about the communications between Clan na nGaedhel and Germany but gives no information about his sources nor does he describe the source of his assertion that the British knew of the forthcoming Rising and, for Machiavellian reasons, allowed it to proceed without arresting the leaders beforehand. O’Rahilly was certainly full of passion in his later years and his full conversion to the cause of separatism is reflected in many others who started as supporters of limited home rule and finished in taking part in the Rising or, later, by opposing the Treaty.
However, allowing for these criticisms, the book is not without interest. It gives a very detailed if somewhat jumbled account of the communication between Germany and Clan na nGaedheal in America before 1916, and the part played by Casement and others who were active in seeking German assistance for the Volunteers. It gives a detailed and interesting if somewhat undocumented account of the Casement landing in Kerry and the various shenanigans which went on in the attempt to land the arms from the German ship in Tralee Bay.
|O'Rahilly with wife Nancy and three of his sons incl. Aodogán|
|Etched in stone, O"Rahilly's dying note to his wife Nancy|
To those of us who live in more prosaic times it is a reminder that a commitment to a cause which leads to martyrdom may be, like any powerful emotional state, such as love, a form of madness. O’Rahilly deserves a biography based on objectivity and on adequate research, not a hagiography. He emerges from his son’s account as a passionate, vain, sad, courageous, quixotic and heroic figure.