Anyone who has ever studied the cast of characters that went into the historic 1916 Easter Monday Rising in Dublin will tell you there was certainly no shortage of colorful individuals involved. Volumes have been dedicated to scrutinize the lives and motivations of the men and women who orchestrated the effort, those who swept into the General Post Office, Jacob’s Biscuit Factory, the College of Surgeons, et. al., and in the telling such larger-than-life characters as rebel leaders Padraig Pearse, James Connelly or Constance Gore-Booth Markievicz often take center stage.
So when approached to review a book of historical fiction based on the true life events surrounding a man named Bulmer Hobson, one of the least-heralded rebels of the Irish rebellion, I was more than intrigued. After all, in most of the many accounts I had read about that fateful weekend, the name Bulmer Hobson was often mention in passing as a traitor to the rising without context or background. So to read an account, albeit a fictionalized account, of this man’s role before, during and – perhaps even more importantly – after the rebellion held promise of a story well worth reading.
The author behind the 432-page tome “Martyrs and Traitors, a Tale of 1916” that would eventually land on my desk is Marina Julia Neary, who apparently takes a certain amount of pride in focusing her attention on such a relative unknown.
“My choice of focal character has been questioned on several occasions,” she writes in her afterward. “I have been asked ‘Why did you choose Bulmer Hobson for your protagonist? That’s not a name you hear frequently.” And my answer is because Michael Collins has been done to death, and I have nothing more to say about him.’”
In selecting Hobson - a non-drinking Quaker and devout Irish-speaking republican - as the central character in her story, Neary was able to shed some light on an element that played a pivotal role in the development of nationalism in Ireland – the Protestant North.
Perhaps equally important, at least in this reviewer’s opinion, is the role of the bohemian underground that both sheltered and encouraged some of the more radical elements in the Irish republican movement. As she builds her narrative, bringing the reader along as we learn of Hobson’s Antrim roots and early involvement in the Irish republican cause – as well as his sympatico attraction to the hero Wolfe Tone – we are also exposed to the eccentric people and lifestyles of the intellectual and creative elite of turn of the century Dublin.
As the story details Hobson’s emotional entanglements , the reader is exposed not only to a growing sense of Irish identity through Hobson’s involvement with the Dungannon Clubs in the North and the creation of the Irish Fianna – an Irish version of Sir Baden Powell’s British Boy Scouts – but also to the notions of free love and open sexuality that was flourishing at the same time among the city’s upper classes.
Also of interest in Hobson’s role in several key events that have long been woven into national lore without trace of his involvement – from the gunrunning incident at Howth to the inclusion of Redmond’s Volunteers into the republican organization and the subsequent rift resulting in two separate “Volunteer” organizations – as well as the sudden rise of a schoolteacher named Patrick Pearse onto the IRB (Irish Republican Brotherhood) scene, where Pearse would eventually attain a sort of sainthood while Hobson would be quickly relegated to obscurity.
Overall, the writing of this narrative is clean and constantly moving forward, and the author does a superb job of keeping the characters and situations easily absorbed by the reader without cluttering up the narrative with extraneous details. Additionally, the narrative does provide some new perspective on such historical luminaries as James Connelly and Roger Casement, among others, that shows both the author’s depth of knowledge about these characters but no little bit of insight as well.
As someone who has read extensively on the Easter Rising of 1916, I can honestly say that Neary has brought some elements of this story to light that I had either never seen covered before and filled in some gaps in the narrative of that historic period that have often been studiously avoided by others. This is clearly a narrative that falls into that rare “must have” category of books on Irish history.
“Currently, Bulmer Hobson is not a star in the popular epos of Irish nationalism, but he certainly was a star in his day – a star that was abruptly extinguished,” Neary writes. “The story of a man so precocious and egotistical in his politics, yet so naïve in matters of the heart, fascinated and moved me. This novel is my hymn for all prematurely extinguished stars.”