I’ve been reading an interesting story in the Grand Magazine for 1917 (The Grand was the Strand‘s more populist sister, with fewer big-name writers, but more fiction for your money every month).
It is called ‘Old Biddy and the Rebels’, and is one of the few stories of the War years to deal with the Dublin Easter Rising. By and large, writers of magazine fiction followed the principles later set down by Michael Joseph in his writers’ handbooks, and avoided any political issues that might be divisive. During wartime, the number of stories about the War that appeared (generally at least one in each issue of the Grand, for example) can be taken as an indication of the War’s popularity, and of the degree to which the general public was united behind the War effort.
‘Old Biddy and the Rebels’ is set in the grand house belonging to Lady Devereux, clearly one of the Anglo-Irish Protestant ascendency. Lady Devereux is a remote, somewhat effete figure, who realises little of what is going on in her own establishment, which is run by the formidable cook-housekeeper Biddy O’Halloran, who strikes terror into the lesser servants and keeps everything shipshape and spotless.
The son of the house is Harry Devereux, a sprightly young Second Lieutenant in the Wessex Regiment, who has not yet seen action in France.
One day a hapless parlourmaid rushes to Biddy and weeps that she has been forced to let some armed Sinn Feiners into the house. They have come to commandeer the house for military purposes.
They were foolish rebels, those three. They were young and, though Irish, this was the first time they had taken part in an insurrection. They had marched forth to garrison Lady Devereux’ house expecting much, hand-to-hand fighting in the hall, the tears and hysterics of terrified women, revolver shots from outraged loyalists. Anything of that sort, anything heroic they were prepared for. Old Biddy O’Halloran, with her humorous eyes and ready tongue, took them aback.
Biddy outwits them by leading them to a small room, where she locks them up until they have the sense to go back home to their mothers. And if they make a disturbance that might disturb Lady Devereux, ‘I’ll give you neither bite nor sup, not if I have to keep you here for a week, so be good now and mind what I’m telling you.’
A little later some British soldiers come to the door, demanding to search the house in search of rebels. Biddy protests, but the men are insistent. Then their officer arrives. It is young Lieutenant Harry Devereux. Harry, ‘intensely conscious of his responsibility as commander of men in a real fight’ tells the sergeant to carry out the order to search. The formidable Biddy stands firm in her refusal.
Second Lieutenant Harry Devereux pulled himself together and made an effort to save what was left of his dignity. He had led his men across the square under a shower of rebel bullets from the roofs of the houses. He had taken cool advantage of all possible cover [….] No one could say of him that he was other than a gallant officer. But his heart failed him when he was face to face with his aunt’s cook.
‘I think we needn’t search this house, sergeant, I know it.’
In return, Biddy promises him a good meal if he returns in an hour or two, ‘and I wouldn’t say but there might be something for the sergeant and his men [….] But mind this now, sergeant, if you do look in this evening, there must be no carrying on with the girls. The Lord knows they’re giddy enough without your upsetting them worse.’
That night, the Sinn Feiners are allowed quietly away, wearing some of Harry’s civilian clothes, which are later returned by post. The story ends:
In the bottom of Mrs O’Halloran’s trunk there are three rebel uniforms. And on the top of the cupboard in her room are three rifles, made in Germany.
This final phrase reminds readers of the conventional assessment of the Easter Rising – that it had been supported and supplied by Germany – but the story as a whole only partly encourages that reading. There is a strong parallelism between the representations of the Sinn Feiners and the British soldiers. Both are uniformed and importunate; both assume the right to intrude on a private domain; both are inexperienced, and outmanoeuvred by the formidable Biddie.
The story seems therefore to be saying that neither side is in the right; armed insurrection is wrong, but so is a response that disturbs the situation even further. The good sense of the Irish people will sort things out better than an excessive response from the British Army.
This seems to me to be a pretty intelligent assessment. The Easter Rising failed, and its spirit might have faded had not the British made martyrs of the ringleaders by executing them. Biddy would have organised things better.
As for the representation of Second Lieutenant Harry Devereux, it is very different from typical versions of officers found in wartime fiction. If one of them starts out callow, you can usually bet that he has found maturity and responsibility by the end of the story. But not here. Birmingham’s story is an exception in all sorts of ways.
I don’t think I know of any other wartime fictions about the Easter Rising (except for some chapters of Douglas Goldring’s pacifist novel The Fortune). I should be glad to hear of any other stories or novels that touch on the subject.