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History 'wrapped in the decorative paper of fiction'

1916: A Novel of the Irish Rebellion
by Morgan Llywelyn

Tom Doherty Associates, $24.95

Review by Tristan James Mabry

Web posted on: Wednesday, July 01, 1998 4:11:09 PM EDT

(CNN) -- The bloody birth of modern Ireland is not a simple story. In 1916, against the backdrop of Europe's self-immolation in the First World War, a small force of disparate nationalists launched an armed insurrection against the British government. While the brief occupation of Dublin was a military rout, it was successful in demonstrating the resolve of the Irish nationalists in their fight for self-determination. Bravery, foolishness, and the sacrifice of innocence are all part of the tale.

Morgan Llywelyn, the author of a dozen historical novels, mines this rich vein of material in "1916: A Novel of the Irish Rebellion". For Llywelyn, this is a dangerous business. While she is well-regarded as a careful researcher of Celtic cultures, her previous efforts have focused on the retelling of myths or the dramatization of long-dead heroes. The essentially modern phenomenon of nationalist politics presents a rather different set of demands. We know, for example, far more about Ireland's first president Eamon de Valera than we do about legendary warrior Brian Boru. Yet breathing life into a medieval king permits a dose of invention that is tolerated less with 20th century figures.

Our guide to the events of the Easter Rising is handsome Ned Halloran, a fictional youth with a cleft chin who inexplicably survives the sinking of the "Titanic." En route to his sister's wedding in America, Ned loses his parents in the iceberg disaster and, after a distracting account of immigrant Manhattan, leaves his sister behind in a loveless marriage to an abusive man. Her story resurfaces from time to time in a celluloid subplot: seeking solace in her Catholic faith, sweet Kathleen Halloran falls in love with an Irish-American priest and is tortured by her forbidden love. Mercifully, her story is all but abandoned by the time of the Easter Rising.

Returning to Ireland, Ned enrolls in St. Endas School outside of Dublin. The school's headmaster, Patrick Pearse, is a seminal figure in the Irish rebellion. A scholar and poet of no small achievement, Pearse wrote "The Proclamation of The Provisional Government of the Irish Republic" and was one of the military leaders of the insurrection. Yet Llywelyn's portrayal of this remarkable figure is discolored by adolescent adoration. The passion for independence that drove Pearse ultimately before a British firing squad is used clumsily to stoke her protagonist's patriotic fervor. A history lesson at Saint Endas turns to teen-age angst:

As he listened to these words Ned felt an ancient anger come to life within him. The enforced subservience of centuries scalded his soul. He was gritting his teeth so hard his jaw ached.

After his schooling in all things Irish, Ned is employed as a copy boy at a Dublin newspaper. He takes the reader on his journeys across the city and in short order we meet three women in Ned's life: the nave virgin Mary Cosgrave, the golden-hearted prostitute Sile Duffy, and the orphan Precious. Ned rescues the waif after her mother is shot down in the street by a British soldier. Little more than pretty garnish on an already bland character, the three relationships linger over large portions of text before we are satisfied by the meat of the novel: the Irish rebellion itself.

Llywelyn's research pays off as Ned scurries around a city under siege. The course of events is charted in breathless detail as London responds to the newly-formed Irish Republican Army with a ferocious counter-attack. After a week of pitched battles that leave Dublin in smoking ruin, the nationalists surrendering. All the signatories of the Republican declaration are executed. With only a fraction of the novel, Llywelyn delivers convincing profiles of rebel leaders under fire. She succeeds with brevity.

With footnotes as ornament, Llywelyn wraps history in the decorative paper of fiction. "1916" would not be out of place on a syllabus for young adults, but it seems that Llywelyn was hoping for an epic: a sweeping tableau of a people in crisis in the tradition of "Gone With the Wind" or "Dr. Zhivago". In almost any form the Easter Rising is a captivating story. Perhaps the novel will entice the reader to explore further, but history will forget Ned Halloran.

Tristan James Mabry is a writer and producer in the CNN New York bureau.

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