For the past few years I have been planning and working on a collection of books called 16 Lives which will be published by The O’Brien Press in the build up to the Centenary of the Easter Rising. 16 Lives will consist of sixteen biographies of the men who were executed after the momentous events of Easter Week, 1916.
I first came up with the concept in 2008 when I was already writing and researching a biography of James Connolly. Around this time I began to consider the relationships between the various leaders, how they were connected and who introduced them to each other. It suddenly dawned on me that there was a gaping hole in the biographical information available on all these individuals. There was plenty on Pearse and Connolly but little or nothing on some of the others. The idea of 16 Lives was to address this issue rather than to wait and hope that someone else would do it. I was reluctant at first about the project and I was under the impression that most publishers would shy away from undertaking such a mammoth task. Thankfully O’Brien Press seems to like a challenge and after a meeting with the publisher and editors we laid our plans. It was a great stroke of luck that Ruan O’Donnell was available to come on board as series co-editor. Ruan has written extensively on Irish history and is a mine of information. He also agreed to write the biography of Patrick Pearse. This means that the first book in the series will be Connolly and it will be closed off with Pearse. There’s something quite balanced and neat about that.
The past few years have been quite busy for me especially as I had to wear a few hats. As I’ve been running the 1916 Walking Tour in Dublin since 1996 I’ve been busy doing tours, researching and writing on Connolly, working on 16 Lives and juggling family life. I can’t thank my wife enough for her support through the difficult writing process. At one stage she booked me into a hotel for a week to concentrate on finishing Connolly, it was exactly what I needed!
One of the difficulties Ruan, myself and O’Brien Press faced was comissioning and confirming the authors for the rest of the series. We needed to maintain a level of secrecy and yet explain to potential authors the concept of 16 Lives. There was a little luck involved too, certainly on my part. I was conducting a 1916 Walking Tour and I got talking to one of the participants, Brian Hughes, who came across as very knowledgable especially on the Irish Citizen Army. It transpired that Brian had written his thesis on Michael Mallin. So, no better man for writing a biography of Mallin. Another night someone introduced me to Honor O’Brolchain. I knew Honor’s grandmother was Joseph Plunkett’s sister and we discussed her book All In The Blood. Honor told me she was researching and writing a book on Joe so she kindly agreed to conisder publishing it with the 16 Lives series. Ruan, who is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Limerick had a phd student, Laura Walsh, who was researching and is now writing the life of Tom Clarke. He also had colleagues that he was able to encourage to join up, Angus Mitchel (Roger Casement) and John O’Callaghan (Con Colbert). Another couple of people who are related to their subjects were secured by the publisher, Helen Litton (Edward Daly) and Mary Gallagher (Éamonn Ceannt) are two worthy participants in the project. The prolific author T Ryle Dwyer will tackle Thomas MacDonagh and Cork’s own Meda Ryan is the best person to write the biography of the only executed Cork volunteer in 1916, Thomas Kent. Roisín Ní Gharbhí has already unearthed a very interesting side of Willie Pearse and hopes to bring him out of the shadow of his larger than life brother. My walking tour colleague and Trinity academic John Gibney is busily writing and researching on Seán Heuston. Conor Kostick who previously co-wrote a book with me on the Easter Rising will be collaborating with me again as we are co-authoring Michael O’Hanrahan’s biography. Brian Feeney, raconteur, politician and author of Sinn Féin: A Hundred Turbulent Years, will no doubt produce a great work on Seán MacDiarmada. Another prolific writer and well known Galweigan, William Henry, who I have known for some years is researching the life of John MacBride, which I’m very much looking forward to reading.
One of the more rewarding tasks, for me personally, was the picture and image research. We needed a decent stock of good qulaity images so for the past couple of years I’ve been quite active in this area. We ended up with three big photo albums full of images of the destruction visited on Dublin in 1916. Kilmainham Gaol, the Pearse Museum and the NLI proved to be a huge and generous resource. The fact that three of our authors are directly related to their subjects is also a great bonus as they have ready access to family images that have never been published before now.
Working with O’Brien Press on 16 Lives has been very rewarding. I’ve been working for myself for a long time and it was unusual for me to suddenly have colleagues. None of us have been involved in a project of this type before so it has been fascinating to see how people have pulled together. Although myself and Ruan are series co-editors, each individual author also has an in-house editor; Susan Houlden (who edited my book on Connolly with great patience, dilligence and skill), Ide Ní Laoghaire, Helen Carr and Mary Webb are all gearing up for a busy few years ahead. The months leading up to Christmas 2011 were very busy for all concerned as the deadlines for the first three books, Connolly, Plunkett and Mallin approached. The busy period culminated with a gathering of all the 16 Lives authors and editors. It was a great night, seeing and meeting each other, in many cases for the first time and it gave a great sense of cohesion to the whole project. I also felt that all the authors could get a grasp of collective nature of this project – it meant that the authors could get to know each other and would feel enthusiastic about sharing and exchanging research.
I hope 16 Lives appeals to the general reader as well as the serious historian. All the books will be very well researched but they will also be accessible. I hope the events of Easter Week will catch the attention of the new generation and ensure that the legacy of these men and women who gave so much will live on. We all really hope that younger readers will enjoy and collect these books too. Emma, the in-house designer for O’Brien Press has done a magnificent job on producing these books. It was Emma who came up with the idea to splice a large image into 16 strips and place one on the spine of each book. That way if they are all lined up on a book shelf they will produce an image. But I can’t tell you what that image is…you’ll just have to collect all 16 Lives!