Thursday, April 26, 2012

Easter Monday: GPO Becomes Enduring Symbol of Irish Resistance

  • Part 1: Hitting the Road
  • Getting the Guns
  • Easter Monday's Battle Arrays
  • Howth Gunrunners' 1914 Route
  • 1,700 Take On the British Empire
  • Heritage Partner Mercier Press: irish Publisher Irish Story
  • Heritage Partner: Know Thy Place ... Discover the Archaeology of Your Ancestors 

  • Four Courts Building from Grattan Bridge
    As I walk around Dublin, tracing the footsteps from Easter 1916, the first surprise is how close everything is to everything else. Dublin today is considered a very walkable city, and it must have seemed so as well in an age when few people had automobiles and were accustomed to going everywhere on foot, bicycle, horse drawn conveyance, or an electric tram. This, in turn, raises the probability that Dublin was quieter then than it is today (although an early Sunday morning in Dublin is pretty quiet even in the Temple Bar district).

    Easter Monday, April 24, 1916, also a holiday, must have been almost as quiet as that, but it was soon interrupted by some unusual noises. The weather was reportedly considered unseasonably warm with many, including the British military, going to enjoy the races or other peaceful, outdoor pursuits.

    The British army had some 2,400 officers and men in Dublin, principally at four barracks. The Royal (now Collins) Barracks had the 10th Royal Dublin Fusiliers (467 all ranks), while the 6th Reserve Cavalry Regiment (886 all ranks) was at the nearby Marlborough Barracks (now occupied by the Garda Siochona). Meanwhile, Richmond Barracks in Kilmainham had the 3rd Royal Irish Regiment (403 all ranks) and the Portobello (now Cathal Brugha) Barracks across the Royal Canal had the 3rd Royal Irish Rifles (671 all ranks).

    Small numbers of personnel from the various regiments were also on picket posts at various locations around the city, including the General Post Office, the Magazine Fort in Phoenix Park, and the military warehouses at the North Wall docks. The wartime auxiliary defense force popularly known as “Georgius Rex,” recruited from military veterans, were on a training march in the hills outside of Dublin. The 6th Reserve Cavalry at Marlborough Barracks did have a troop escorting an ammunition convoy from the North Wall Docks to the Magazine Fort in Phoenix Park. The only other vaguely military organizations in Dublin were the handful of Officer Training Corps cadres at Trinity College and the Royal College of Surgeons.

    The modern Liberty Hall on the same site. Here in 1916,
    both Irish Volunteers and members of the Irish Citizen Army
    assembled, formed their columns, and marched off to their 
    various destinatio​ns around Dublin.

    For the Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army (and the Hibernian Rifles), things were a bit less bucolic. I stand where Liberty Hall high-rise occupies the footprint of the 1916 building, and I’m gazing at the pavement in front of the building. This is one of the easier moments from 1916 to imagine, especially if you have ever worn a uniform. By 10 a.m., this area would have begun to fill up with young men and a few women as they arrived individually or in groups -- perhaps as many as a half dozen together depending upon whether they were neighbors or relatives. Some are in uniforms, especially the Irish Citizen Army members and the handful of the Hibernian Rifles, but a few of the volunteers as well. Almost all of them are carrying arms and wearing a leather bandolier or even different forms of leather harness, Sam Brown belt, or other ‘carrying’ gear, with the pouches full of ammunition.

    Standing near the front entrance of Liberty Hall is Padraig Pearse in his full uniform, quietly speaking --when speaking at all -- with James Connolly and his younger brother Willie. Connolly is all a bustle as he moves back and forth across the pavement speaking first with this one and then with that one. As he does so, some sense of organization and purpose begins to come over the people already filling the area in front of the building and absorbing the new arrivals that continue to appear.

    Capture of German arms throws plans into turmoil

    The GPO from the intersecti​on of O'Connell Street and Lower
    Abbey Street. The clock on the front of the building to the left
    of the statue marks Eason's bookstore, which also stood on this
    site on Easter Monday in 1916 - having sold many Volunteer
    officers the reprints of Britsh Army manuals from which they
    tried to learn how to be soldiers and officers.

    Similar scenes were, in fact, taking place at a number of locations then, across Dublin, on Easter Monday 96 years ago, although they came perilously close to never happening, as the Irish Volunteer leadership suffered a series of crippling blows to their plans. Two days earlier, Holy Saturday, the 1,200-ton German SMS Libau (in reality, the English Hull-built Castro, which had been seized in Germany’s Kiel Canal by German authorities when the First World War began) had entered enemy waters, i.e., British waters.

    SMS Libau was disguised as the neutral Norwegian freighter Aud and was carrying 10 machine guns, 20,000 captured Russian Mosin-Nagant rifles, a million rounds of ammunition, and explosives to be delivered to the Irish Volunteers at Fenit, County Kerry. However, when the Volunteers assigned to meet the German vessel failed to communicate with the ship (which, in fact, had no radio) at the designated rendezvous points on Good Friday, the German Captain and crew spent the night slowly drifting, contemplating what to do next.

    This question was answered for them the next morning when two Royal Navy sloops (in part, alerted by the capture of conspirator Roger Casement, who had been landed from a German U-boat) attempted to halt his the vessel’s progress, and indicatinged their desire to have the counterfeit “Aud” come into Queenstown under their escort. In Cork harbor, tThe German captain ran up the Kreigsmarine colors and he and his crew, now in their German uniforms, attempted to scuttle the ship in a vain attempt to bottle up Cork harbor.
    Within the day, the Volunteers’ leaders in Dublin now knew that not only were no German troops coming to their aid, there would be no German guns either, and the information did not help them resolve their other crisis. Meanwhile, the leadership of the Irish Volunteers clashed over the plans for a rising and exchanged order, counter order, counter-counter order, and accusations. The plans for a rising on April 23, 1916 -- Easter Sunday -- had collapsed in the confusion.

    The end of O'Connell Street looking towards
     Bachelors Walk. The corner building at this
     intersecti​on was Kelly's Fort garrisoned by
     the Volunteers in 1916.

    The Volunteers had already suffered a number of serious blows to their ambitions for a successful rising. The outbreak of World War I in August 1914 shattered the 188,000-strong Volunteer movement, when Irish Parliamentary Party leader John Redmond called for the Volunteers to enlist in the British army (The Ulster Volunteers also flocked “to the colors” in huge substantial numbers). The overwhelming majority followed Redmond leadership and either joined the British army or the newly christened “National Volunteers.” Only an estimated 13,500 “Irish Volunteers” remained to follow those seeking independence for Ireland, via force of arms, if necessary. However, most of these Volunteers remained committed even as Redmond’s National Volunteers had largely dissolved by 1915, with many of them now fighting in France (and perhaps a few hundred returning to the Irish Volunteers).

    The Volunteers leaders were not united in support for a rising at Easter, or for some individuals at any time, especially those who not also members of the clandestine revolutionary movement known as the Irish Republican Brotherhood. The IRP included the veteran “republican” Tom Clarke, Bulmer Hobson, Sean MacDermott, Padraig Pearse, Joseph Mary Plunkett, Eoin MacNeill, and Eamonn Céannt. But even within this group there were schisms. Bulmer Hobson had sided closely with John Redmond in 1914 and was subsequently kept uninformed of the plans for a Rising. The Volunteers’ Treasurer Michael “The O’Rahilly” O’Rahilly was equally opposed to any plans for a rising. The greatest challenge for the conspirators, though, would turn out to be the Volunteers’ official chief-of-staff, MacNeill.

    Smashing of windows in GPO signals Irish resolve

    On Holy Thursday, MacNeill inadvertently learned of the planned insurrection for Easter Sunday, but was persuaded by the conspirators that it was too late by then to call it off. However, on Saturday, he learned of the arrest of conspirator Roger Casement, the scuttling of the “Aud” and capture of its crew, and of the loss of the German guns. This time he did not hesitate to order the cancellation of the planned Sunday marches that were the cover for the uprising. To make sure of it, he sent written copies of his order by messenger to Volunteer units across Ireland (aided in this effort by The O’Rahilly) and personally presented copies to be published in the Sunday morning newspapers.

    Thus it was that the conspirators gathered at Liberty Hall on Easter Sunday, not to lead an uprising but to determine if it could be resurrected in the wake of MacNeill’s decision and the events that prompted it. As dejected and discouraged as they were, and understanding there was virtually no chance for victory, they determined to go ahead with the plans -- and new orders were issued for the volunteers to assemble as previously ordered, but now to do so 24 hours later – on Easter Monday rather than Easter Sunday. Their hoped-for rising that might turned out volunteers in the tens of thousands would now on Easter Monday see less than 3,000 volunteers rise up. 

    Main Gate of Dubln Castle where the Volunteers turned
    back after their attempted attack not realizing how
    weakly manned it was at that time. The clock tower
    at the right would become a vantage point for British
    marksmen and a target in return for the Volunteers​.

    Unbeknownst to the Volunteers, another meeting was taking place that Easter Sunday addressing their fate, this one being held in Dublin Castle. There it was decided that the authorities would assemble and dispatch its forces to seize and close down that nest of sedition that was Liberty Hall -- as soon as a field gun could be brought to Dublin from the army camp at Athlone. Many who rose up These men and women could reasonably have sensed that it was either rise now or never.

    But this was all background now to those gathered that Easter Monday at Liberty Hall. Even with reduced expectations, the turnout was low -- often less than half of the roster strength. Many volunteers had only received the order that very morning, and many chose to ignore them or were advised by their company officers who, ignorant of all that had happened, decided to obey the order of their known chief of staff and not turn out. At 11:40 a.m., James Connolly gave the order and bugler William Oman sounded “Fall In.” Soon columns and detachments began filtering out and onto the streets of Dublin toward their various objectives.

    Placing himself at the head of the last formation, Connolly called out the commands that set them in motion – with their backs to the Customs House they turned and began to march down Abbey Street toward Sackville Street (reportedly already called “O’Connell Street’” by many Dubliners). This force reportedly number 150-180 strong -- mostly Irish Volunteers, some from the Irish Citizen Army, and about 20 Hibernian Rifles. With them, in addition to Connolly, were Padraig Pearse, Joseph Plunkett, Tom Clarke, and a last minute arrival in The O’Rahilly, who explained his presence in spite of his active opposition to this rising by saying, "Well, I've helped to wind up the clock -- I might as well hear it strike!"

    Looking along Lower Abbey Street towards  O'Connell
     Street after turning on to it from Beresford Place.
    As they marched along Abbey Street, with rifles probably at their shoulders, the column would nearly have filled the street as it rang to their cadence. It would have literally been a matter of a few minutes to reach Sackville Street at a point very near the General Post Office. Here, where the broad avenue is 150 feet across, they would have seemed merely one more passing amusement on a quiet holiday day. Even as they approached the Post Office and were ordered by Connolly to halt and left face toward the Post Office and then to seize it -- British officers watching from the windows of thea near-by Metropole Hhotel at first thought it was merely one more “sham attack,” such as those carried out by the Volunteers for months against buildings all over Dublin. The sound of breaking glass as the Volunteers cleared the windows for firing positions persuaded these officers otherwise.

    ‘For the glory of God and the honor of Ireland’

    The General Post Office would be for the next five days the headquarters, capitol, and executive mansion of the newborn Irish Republic, proclaimed on its steps by Padraig Pearse shortly after the building was occupied. But many of the Volunteers fighting for a new Ireland would be shocked to find some of the old problems of Ireland still demanding their attention, as well.

    In addition to the destruction of the newly renovated and reopened General Post Office in which they held out, most of the shops, hotels, and commercial enterprises up and down the street would be destroyed. This was not just the result of the British deploying machine guns and cannon against the rifles and hand grenades of the Volunteers. Dublin’s poor, and it had many, came out to take advantage of the chaos. The combination of looting and artillery and rifle fire resulted in parts of Dublin burning virtually to the ground around the combatants.

    The General Post Office or GPO from across  O'Connell
     Street at Earl Street North.

    It was in very many ways a truly modern example of what is now called “Military Operations in Urban Terrain” (MOUT), as Connolly and Pearse sent detachments from the Post Office to secure the key road intersections around the Post Office. One of these detachments secured a nearby building, which had formerly housed a wireless radio training school, and found enough equipment there to enable them to broadcast an announcement of the Rising. Volunteers posted on the roof of the Post Office found themselves exchanging fire with British soldiers atop the roofs of Dublin Castle across the River Liffey.

    As the British army recovered from its initial surprise, reinforcements would come by road and rail from elsewhere in Ireland, and by ship from England. The British closed the ring around the Post Office and began to cut off the new Republic’s “Executive” there from the other columns around Dublin. Now both British and Irish were exchanging fire from street barricades, windows, and rooftops. In response to the encirclement, the Volunteers began tunneling through the walls of the Post Office and then adjacent buildings, improving their ability to move within the area around the GPO that they controlled.

    They would eventually use the resulting above-ground network of tunnels to attempt to break out of the tightening grasp of the British army. The failure of their breakout attempt on Friday resulted in a brief intense exchange of fire in the streets behind the GPO and in the death of The O’Rahilly in almost operatic fashion. 

    The plaque marking the spot where The O'Rahilly died,
    presenting the text of the letter he wrote to  his wife as
    he lay dying here. It was found on his body.

    The O’Rahilly was leading the group attempting to break out of the GPO into Henry Street, in hopes of providing cover and distraction as the rest of the Volunteers tried to make their way to a nearby warehouse to set up a new headquarters. Tragically, the attempt dissolved as British riflemen fired from barricades and rooftops into the Volunteers now in the street. The surviving Volunteers went back to tunneling through surrounding building walls to try and escape the British ring. The O’Rahilly himself, having ordered the charge “for the glory of God and the honor of Ireland,” was seriously wounded and took cover in a narrow lane, almost an alleyway, near the GPO. He held out there alone long enough to reportedly be heard alternately exchanging fire with the British soldiers, singing, and writing a last letter to his wife. Today, the spot is marked by a large plaque bearing the text of that letter in O’Rahilly’s own hand. 

    More From WG on the Easter Rising:
    Dublin, Easter Monday, 1916: 1,700 Take On the British Empire
    Unspoken Tales of the Women in Ireland's Freedom Struggle

    “Written after I was shot. Darling Nancy I was shot leading a rush up Moore Street and took refuge in a doorway. While I was there I heard the men pointing out where I was and made a bolt for the laneway I am in now. I got more [than] one bullet I think. Tons and tons of love dearie to you and the boys and to Nell and Anna. It was a good fight anyhow. Please deliver this to Nannie O'Rahilly, 40 Herbert Park, Dublin. Goodbye Darling.” WG

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