Contributed by Edward Madigan.
We gave copies of Gerry Hunt’s graphic novel on 1916 ‘Blood Upon the Rose’ to a historian and a graphic artist to review. Edward Madigan, Centre for War Studies, Trinity College Dublin, takes the first half of this two-part review:
In the Ireland I grew up in boys’ comics were big business and those that specialised in historical war and violence were particularly popular. Yet virtually all the ones I remember were produced in Britain and featured English heroes and German villains. The stories that filled the pages of Victor, Hotspur, The Eagle, Battle Action, and Commando gave British and Irish boys a distinctly Anglo-centric version of British military history, and the Second World War in particular. Scottish and Welsh heroes, much less Irish ones, rarely got a look-in and any Irish schoolboys in search of a popular and dramatic account of Irish historical events had to make do with a dusty copy of Speeches from the Dock. Gerry Hunt’s Blood Upon the Rose, which focuses on the events of the Easter Rising, offers a valuable counter to this British dominance in ‘war in history’ comics available in Ireland.
From both a dramatic and historical point of view, Hunt’s narrative is quite simplistic. The rebel leaders and the rank-and-file volunteers are, to a man, brave, defiant and conscientious, while the British officers and men that oppose them are cold, cruel and ignorant. Ironically, given this black and white portrayal, both the rebels and the British soldiers appear to be wearing the same green uniforms, although in reality the British wore khaki and the relatively small number of rebels who donned uniforms on Easter Monday wore dark green. This is a relatively minor gripe, however, and despite the general simplicity of the narrative there is little for the historian to complain about in Blood Upon the Rose. The book highlights, for example, the key role played by women on Easter Week. It also depicts a range of responses on the part of inner city Dubliners to the events of the Rising; some actively aided the rebels, some abused and jeered them, others seized the opportunity for looting and other crimes, while others still, probably the majority, kept a low profile and waited for the shooting, and shelling, to end. Importantly, the book clearly depicts volunteers as well as British soldiers involved in the senseless killing of civilians and both the main body of the text and the postscript make clear that ordinary Dubliners were the primary casualties of the Rising.
Does Blood Upon the Rose display a strong pro-Republican bias? Most definitely. Should teachers, parents, or historians consider this a problem? I don’t think so. All nation states have their foundation myths, and while the recent conflict in Northern Ireland, among other things, has made some people understandably ambivalent about the violent origins of the Irish state, the rebels who fought in 1916 took up arms in pursuit of an ideal that many today still consider admirable. Hunt does not pretend to give a comprehensive or wholly accurate account of the events of the Rising. Rather, he offers a colourful and lively portrayal of what were undoubtedly dramatic events.
The O’Brien Press website draws some fairly extravagant parallels between Blood Upon the Rose, Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. Gerry Hunt’s book has little of the nuance and insight of these much-acclaimed graphic novels, but it is nonetheless an impressive piece of work that may well bring a seminal moment in Irish history to life for a whole generation of children and young adults.