IT’S 20 YEARS since historian Lorcan Collins first started leading tourists along the route of the 1916 Rising, bringing the streets, buildings and characters of that Easter weekend to life. It was a lonely route then, he suggests, two decades in advance of Easter 2016, when, in his early 20s, he was one of the first tour guides to lead people backstage at one of the country’s most famous rebellions. He’s a born story-teller and his enthusiasm for the life of the capital is infectious, effortlessly drawing you in to the centre of whatever tale he is spinning around you.
We meet in the 18th century Marsh’s Library, behind Christchurch in Dublin’s Liberties, where Collins wants to examine one of the books that still hold bullets from the Rising and are being prepared for a new exhibition there (1916: Tales from the Other Side - opening March 24th). Glancing from the window to the book shelf he starts to imagine and recount the moment when shots fired by the British army towards Jacobs factory in 1916 went off target, spearing a collection of books still on their shelves.
He comes to life in this incredible building, once a sanctuary for Bram Stoker and James Joyce, and revels in the chance to talk to the staff about their work and the building’s great story. The shadows and wood and historic titles are no foil for his constant banter, bringing sudden life to the long, dark corridors and it’s easy to imagine the ghosts of centuries of Dublin’s book lovers and storytellers being summoned forth to listen.
As he reflects on his repeating journey following the footsteps of his heroes and their enemies - across the River Liffey’s bridges, through O’Connell Street, down forgotten side streets and into and around the GPO and Liberty Hall, Trinity College, the Four Courts, St Stephens Green - the Rising comes vividly to life. It’s a journey that he calculates has involved him walking more than 20,000kms since he started. That’s quite a distance. He laughs at the idea and does the maths again. Maybe it’s a lot more, he says.
A legion of competing tour guides, historians and others have joined him on the 1916 route in recent years, seeing obvious opportunity in the impending anniversary. More people are genuinely interested in it now, he says, and not afraid to admit they don’t know the whole story. They’ve realised how recent it is, how many connections there are within families and they’re eager to find their own place in the story, he says. Something that will allow them to feel part of it.
In his latest book, 1916 The Rising Handbook (O’Brien Press), he unlocks the detail of that story in a remarkable way. Taking the people and places behind the headlines as its starting point, it gathers lists of all the people whose lives touched the Rising – the 16 men executed of course but also the women who fought, the men sent to prisons in Wandsworth, Stafford and Knutsford in the UK, the children who died, the adults whose deaths resulted from injuries or imprisonment afterwards, the casualties and the chaos. It reveals in its cold hard facts the full experience of the Rising.
Beyond the people, the apparatus of the Rising comes into view in detail. The dates, times and places that surround the legacy of HMS Helga, the ship that bombarded the capital. The Aud that sailed from Germany with its cargo of 20,000 rifles and three million rounds of ammunition tells its own fateful story and its meeting with HMT Setter in Tralee Bay. The German naval demonstration against east Anglia in the UK, a hoped-for diversion requested by the IRB, that resulted in a number of British and German ships but ultimately failed.
The casualties, the destruction, the rolls of honour and the plans – all laid out in detailed lists that bring the period to life and expose the stories that have yet to be told.
The book takes us far out of the capital too – to Laois, Wexford, Galway, Tipperary, Belfast and beyond – revealing the national plans that tried to forge Ireland’s revolutionary future.
A chapter towards the end has the full text of the last letters of the signatories to their loved ones. Padraig Pearse’s letters to his mother from Arbour Hill Barracks, Thomas MacDonagh’s last letter from Kilmainham Gaol, Joseph Plunkett’s letter from Richmond Barracks to his new wife that ends “You know how I love you. That is all I have time to say. I know you love me and so I am very happy”.
Chapter after chapter reveals the human touch and personal cost rendered by the events of Easter week 1916 and, without drama, its reliance on lists and facts questions the ability of many Irish people to turn their head from such a devastating series of events for so long. The romance, the drama and the human cost that spring from every page are surprising but now, as the centenary nears, our attention is back and the Rising is centre stage again.
It’s one of those great human stories that mean something to people everywhere, he believes and somehow it has consumed his working life. He didn’t set out to make it his career, he says, it just took over. But now with thousands of people, three books, an acclaimed series that he co-edited on the history of the executed leaders called 16 Lives behind him, as well as frequent invitations to the US to talk the history of revolution, his role in driving the story of the Rising is set. He’s already gearing up for the next stage – beyond Easter 2016. His book reveals how many stories still haven’t been told and hopes that the public’s appetite will continue.
He talks with passion of the interest young people have for the tours and the story they tell, he’s delighted to meet young adults who’ll come and speak to him outside the GPO about a tour he gave a decade ago or tourists who come back to the tour year after year, hungry to strengthen their links with the city. He has immense pride in Dublin and its people and the book in his hand is part of that. It’s another layer on the story of Dublin and the foundation for another century of tales.
1916 The Rising Handbook by Lorcan Collins is published by O’Brien Press (obrien.ie)
For more on the 1916 Rising Walking Tour see 1916rising.com
The Marsh’s library exhibition 1916: Tales from the Other Side opens on Thursday March 24th