16Lives: Celebrating the Heroes of The Rising

Ivan and Michael O'Brien. Copyright photograph: Richard Mills birdpics@newsguy.com

O’Brien Press Publisher, Michael O’Brien, talks about developing and publishing the 16Lives series over the past eight years.

It’s easy to say yes to a brilliant concept! When Lorcan Collins marched into The O’Brien Press with the great idea of 16 Lives, a series of biographies of the sixteen executed leaders of the 1916 Rising, all to be published in time for the centenary in 2016, our response was, ‘A simple but brilliant idea,’ and ‘Go for it!’. That was in November 2007. Lorcan suggested adding Ruán O’Donnell, senior lecturer in history at the University of Limerick, as series co-editor, bringing his huge historical knowledge and academic credibility to the table.

But it wasn’t simple to anticipate all the challenges involved in a series of this scale. One fear was that some of the less well-known figures, like Thomas Kent and Michael Mallin, were too obscure, without enough known about them to make a book or find an audience. But with 2016 on the horizon, archives were opening and new facts emerging, and our ambition to create a more truthful and less propagandist history was made possible. In the case of Kent in particular, author Meda Ryan was surprised by the depth and range of information available about him and his networks.

We recognised early on the value of adding photographs to each book in the collection – of the people, their lives, their actions. Lorcan helped create a collection of hundreds of photos, which were distributed for reproduction across the 16 Lives series. The book spines are an added treat: when the sixteen books are put together, a picture of O’Connell Bridge c.1916 emerges (buy a set and see for yourself).

The 2016 centenary could have been a cynical damp squib marred by a simple-minded, propagandist approach. Apparently, at one stage the British government proposed the ‘Decade of Remembrance’ model, where we would honour the First World War, the War of Empires, equally with our struggle for independence against the very same imperialists. The Queen of England was offered as part of the 1916 package (of course she had a very successful visit in 2011). Stirring speeches at several 16 Lives launches opposed this formula. In fact, the centenary has inspired and moved young and old, native and visitor, and our friends in the EU and Britain to respect Ireland’s cultural revolution. It has encouraged a renewed look at the values of the Proclamation ‘To the People of Ireland’, all seven signatories of which were executed by the British (as well as the nine other leaders of the Rising).

We conclude the 16 Lives series with a launch by Chief Justice Susan Denham in the GPO, the dramatic HQ and symbol of the Rising (what a strange, inadequate word). We have had eight launches over four years as the books were born, and the audiences have included many descendants of the leaders who organised what in retrospect was Ireland’s cultural revolution: Cumann na mBan, Gaelic League, GAA, Abbey Theatre, Fenians, Sinn Féin, IRB, and other movements in the USA. Many of the sixteen leaders were poets and playwrights, including Pearse, MacDonagh, Plunkett, Casement, Kent, O’Hanrahan and even Connolly.

The 16 Lives project began in 2007 and, over eight years later, is now complete. History will judge its value. Thank you to everyone who made it happen: to Lorcan, Ruan and the individual authors who brought each of the sixteen to life so vividly; to the army of editors, researchers, indexers and designers who ensured the books are attractive, readable, reliable, and above all, fascinating; and to the marketing and sales staff who are working so hard to get the books into the hands of readers.

Michael O’Brien

Publisher

O’Brien Press

 

16 Lives – So Far So Good.

16Lives Co-Editor Lorcan Collins talks about reaching the halfway point in this groundbreaking series.

Throughout my life, I have tried to maintain an optimistic view of everything. I’ve always been a fan of the guy who falls out the window of the top floor of a skyscraper and, as he hurtles towards the ground, he keeps saying to himself “so far, so good.” The past few years have been a little like a free-fall and the ground is 2016, the Centenary of the Easter Rising.

As co-editor of the 16 Lives series with my esteemed colleague Ruan O’Donnell, it has been our responsibility to ensure that each volume in the collection is accurate and that there is consistency between all the books. It is incumbent upon us to carefully read each book a couple of times and make any suggestions where necessary. There are “in-house” editors but I guess we act as supplementary eyes looking to catch something. In addition, one of my tasks is to gather images for each book, make sure they are not repeated in the series and to ensure that they are properly captioned.  On average, so far, there have been four books published each year – so it seems that once one book is ready, just as you exhale, in comes another one! But it’s wonderful, exciting and really great to be immersed in something that I’m interested in.

It is imperative in the 16 Lives series that each book should be accessible to everyone. That’s not to say that each one should be the exact same style but the general hope is that each book will be, above all, entertaining and readable. There are far too many books being written on Irish history and in fact on World history which seem to want to make history boring, unreachable and incomprehensible. History is not just for crusty old farts sitting in dusty rooms smelling of rotting hardbacks. History is for everyone, it is alive, it’s about people like us, what they did, what they saw, how they lived and how they died. We all make history everyday, some in a small way and others in extraordinary ways. Often the most benign event can be the most interesting. How wonderful to discover that James Connolly enjoyed sledge riding with his family for a time in New York or that Joseph Plunkett often went roller skating in the Rotunda Rink. These kind of stories serve to humanise the revolutionaries of 1916 and help to prove that they were just regular people who were brave enough to step over the line to create change. They had wives and children, they had jobs, homes and security yet they were willing to risk it all and indeed, paid the ultimate price.

The importance of the intricacies and machinations behind the planning of the Rising is also of great importance in the series. When all the books are done there will be a complete picture of the role everyone played in the build up to Easter Week. Whether it’s the role that Seán Heuston played in developing Na Fianna, Seán MacDiarmada’s organizational skills in the IRB or Connolly’s working class hero’s the Irish Citizen Army – each and everyone had a significant role.

Myself and Ruan O’Donnell spoke at a 16 Lives evening in New York’s American Irish Historical Association in October last year. A question came from the floor as to why all the books were about men. As gently as possible I explained that the idea was to record the lives of the 16 people who were executed in 1916 and that they just happened to all be men. This was an insufficient answer apparently and seemed to annoy the questioner who insisted that a few women should have been included in the series. I explained that if we were writing a series of books on the Presidents of the USA that they would (unfortunately) be all men! However, I did explain that women would feature in all the books and that the women’s role in 1916 and afterwards was well documented. We have, after all, two commandant’s in 1916 who were women. Second in command in Stephen’s Green was Countess Markievicz and when Seán Connolly and Seán O’Reilly were killed in action in City Hall it was the respected figure of Dr. Kathleen Lynn who took over command of that garrison. Another feature that seems to stand out in the series is the strength of the women who stood beside the revolutionaries. Helen Litton who penned the wonderful biography of Edward Daly also wrote the book on Tom Clarke. She shows throughout the book the huge role that his wife Kathleen plays in the build up to the Rising and in the aftermath. Honor O’Brolchain traces the role Grace Gifford played in the life of Joseph Plunkett and a reading of the James Connolly book will enlighten the reader on the strong character of his wife Lillie and the support he received from his radical daughter Nora.

When we announced the series so many years ago, many people approached me and said there would not be enough information on some of the lesser know characters such as Con Colbert or Michael O’Hanrahan. Well, John Gibney’s excellent work on Seán Heuston and the inspiring work and research carried out by Brian Hughes on Michael Mallin have both proven that there is a wealth of biographical material to be plundered. The important thing is that it has to be done now. We are in the third generation…that is to say it was our grandparents who were around in 1916…if we did not undertake this series now the task would be even greater if it were left to the next generation. And yet if it had been done in the previous generation I don’t think it would have been ideal. I think people were too close to it all then and were often over romantic and disinclined to be critical where necessary.

With the release of Angus Mitchell’s authoritative account of Roger Casement in November 2013 we reached six books in total. Now in March 2014 with the release of Thomas Clarke by Helen Litton and Seán MacDiarmada by Brian Feeney the half-way point has been reached. There is a certain serendipity about these great friends, Clarke and MacDiaramada being released at the same time. I’d like to say it was planned but truthfully it just happened that way. That’s a total of eight books between March 2012 (when the first three volumes were released) and March 2014. With the continued hard work of the internal editors Mary Webb, Susan Holden, Ide ní Laoghaire and Helen Carr (who have become experts on 1916 themselves) alongside the research and writing that the final eight authors are undertaking and with the continued support of Michael and Ivan O’Brien who metaphorically risked leaping out the window of a skyscraper for this series it looks like a case of “so far, so good” as the “concrete pavement” of 2016 comes hurtling towards us!

LORCAN COLLINS co-author, with Conor Kostick, of The Easter Rising: A Guide to Dublin in 1916; founder of the 1916 Walking Tour of Dublin; lectures on Easter 1916 in the United States, and a regular contributor to radio, television and historical journals. 16 Lives is Lorcan’s concept and he is the author of the first book in the series, a biography of James Connolly.

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