by Michealín Ní Dhochartaigh
Just before noon on Easter Monday, April 24th, a group of 150 men strode out of Liberty Hall in Dublin, then marched toward Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street) a few hundred yards away. About one fourth of the marchers wore the dark-green uniform of the Irish Citizen Army, others wore the grey-green of the Irish Volunteers. Still others — perhaps most of them — wore no uniform. Armed with an odd mixture of rifles, shotguns, and handguns, they moved in step, heading straight for the General Post Office (GPO).
The Dublin citizenry took little notice. Such sights had become quite common over the past three years — groups of men playing at soldiers. Today was different. When the men arrived at the post office, their leader, James Connolly, gave the order to charge. The guards on duty were taken completely by surprise.
Once inside, the men took control of the building, removing the British flag and replacing it with two others, a plain green one with the words ‘Irish Republic’ and a green, white, and orange tricolor. It was the first time that flag had flown over Dublin. The man who hoisted the flag was Skibbereen-born Gearoid O’Sullivan, later to become Adjutant General of the Irish Free State. O’Sullivan was a distant cousin to and a few years later, would marry Kitty Kiernan’s sister, Maud.
In addition to affiliation with Irish Volunteers or the Irish Citizen Army, many of these men had connections to the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). This secret society, sometimes called Fenians, was founded in 1858 and conspired to overthrow British rule by force. Earlier rebellions had failed, and by the turn of the century, the group had achieved little. At this time, however, younger men joined, men with new ideas and fire. Within ten years, the revitalized IRB had planned the Easter Rising.
Two of the most active IRB men in the Dublin area were Tom Clarke and Sean MacDiarmada (MacDermott). Clarke had served prison time for his part if the dynamite plot of the 1880s; Leitrim-born MacDermott, a generation younger, was a born organizer who traveled throughout the country on behalf of the Brotherhood. Clarke, MacDiarmada and a few others in the Brotherhood formed the military council and included Padraig Pearse and Joseph Mary Plunkett.
James Connolly, the leader of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, was planning a rising of his own. The IRB wisely let him in on the plans. Connolly proved to be their best commander in the field. Michael Collins, adjutant to Plunkett, was also an IRB man.
The military council’s greatest need was for arms. Roger Casement, a British Foreign Office employee, was a passionate nationalist. At the outbreak of WWI, he went to Germany and arranged a shipment of arms to arrive off the southwest coast of Ireland aboard the Aud. Good Friday 1916 was the date set for the arms arrival.
Dublin Castle knew something was going on, but they couldn’t be sure what exactly. Then came the news that the Aud had been intercepted by a Royal navy ship. The German captain scuttled the arms cache, and Casement was captured from an accompanying German submarine.
With the arms gone, everyone assumed the rising was off. On Easter, the day originally set for the encounter, the military council gathered and decided to plan the action for the following day, despite the arms shortage and the fact that Volunteer leader, Eoin MacNeill, ordered all activities canceled.
The men leading the charge on the GPO, therefore, were the secret military council. Once inside, they sandbagged and fortified their garrison against the expected British counter-attack. Barricades were set up in the streets, and snipers moved into position.
The counter-attack began on Tuesday morning. Troops under the command of General W. H. M. Lowe arrived from the Curragh, thirty-five miles away, and took up positions in several areas. They cordoned off Dublin from west to east which brought them into immediate conflict with some rebels. A British machine gun crew positioned themselves on the fourth floor of the Shelbourne Hotel, the tallest building around St. Stephen’s Green, and began shelling the rebels who had retreated to the College of Surgeons. By seven o’clock, the rebels there had been reduced to about 100 counting men, women, and boys. Their position hopeless, they would hold on for five days until the surrender.
Around the city, other rebel commands maintained as much pressure as they could on British troops, however, it was now clear that MacNeill’s orders canceling activity had taken its toll. Turnout was much lower than hoped, and Dublin was virtually on its own.
By nightfall of the second day, General Lowe had nearly 5,000 British troops at his disposal, vastly outnumbering the rebels. Four pieces of artillery had arrived earlier, and Lowe began to cordon off the northern suburbs which, with the southern cordon already established, would trap the rebels’ GPO and Four Courts garrisons.
On Wednesday, the Helga, a grey fisheries patrol boat, sailed up the Liffey and tied up on the south quays opposite the Custom House. Her duty: to shell the rebel positions. The first target — Liberty Hall.
By now, the fighting centered on the Mendicity Institution. Twenty men, commanded by rebel Sean Heuston, inflicted casualties on over one hundred British, but soon the rebels were surrounded on all sides. After the British forces lobbed hand grenades into the building, Heuston was forced to surrender. The Helga sailed down the Liffey to begin shelling the rear of Boland’s Mills garrison, commanded by Éamon de Valera.
Meanwhile, at the port of Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire), British troops landed and marched toward the Royal Hospital, some nine miles away. En route, they marched into the rebel forces at Mount Street Bridge, where twelve men held off the British for the remainder of the day, inflicting over two hundred casualties. Four of the rebels survived.
The Helga now shelled the GPO, the British forces’ main objective. By late afternoon, they added the boom of artillery to the barrage.
Sackville Street burned on Thursday following a 10 am non-stop artillery attack. Inside the GPO, the flames were so intense the rebels had to hose down the sacking on the barricaded windows. By 10 pm, an oil works directly opposite the GPO caught fire. As sparks began to hit the roof, the rebels moved their explosives to the basement.
The leaders knew their position was hopeless — had known it from the start — but felt the need for an armed rebellion. National honor demanded it and the IRB principle demanded it. The rebels could now only delay the inevitable for as long as possible to get public opinion on their side.
James Connolly was full of energy and directed GPO operations in a brisk, no-nonsense way until that afternoon he was struck just above the ankle by a ricocheting bullet. The pain was intense, and greatly weakened by it and the loss of blood, he was not the same afterward. Clarke and MacDiarmada also took leading roles, Pearse busied himself with writing proclamations and bulletins.
A furious gun battle ensued at the South Dublin Union between British troops and the rebels under the command of Eamonn Ceannt and his second in command, fiery Cathal Brugha.
On Friday, James Connolly was carried into the public office of the GPO, in pain, but wanting to stay at the center of the operation. He dictated a lengthy address to his troops which was taken by his secretary, Winifred Carney. It spoke of victory, when in fact there was defeat, of the entire country taking up arms, when in fact, it was just in Dublin, of armed Volunteers marching on Dublin when there were none. Connolly knew the Rising was a gesture, but the longer the gesture went on, the longer Irish patriots were seen to be fighting the might of the British Empire, the greater the rebels’ chance of winning the hearts and minds of the Irish people.
By 4 pm on Friday, the roof of the GPO was on fire and the Volunteers were forced to evacuate. Pearse and Connolly were the last to leave. As the GPO was burning, Gen. Lowe ordered a savage frontal attack on the North King Street rebels that lasted until Saturday morning. The South Staffordshire Regiment, unused to fighting men who didn’t always wear uniforms, took out their wrath on the civilian populace by murdering fifteen innocent men.
By 9 am Saturday morning it was over. The last headquarters of the Irish Republic was established in the back parlor of Hanlon’s fishmonger’s shop at No. 16 Moore Street. No further retreat without the possibility of high civilian casualties was possible. The military council decided to surrender.
Nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell made her way up Moore Street wearing Red Cross markings and carrying the white flag of truce. She was taken to see Gen. Lowe who demanded an unconditional surrender. She returned to No. 16 and half an hour later, returned with Pearse. Pearse took off his sword and handed it over to Lowe in a formal act of surrender. The photo of Pearse surrendering to Gen. Lowe shows the general with his son who served under him. Lowe’s son later became known as John Loder, a British actor of minor note.
Pearse was driven away to see General Maxwell at army headquarters where he drafted the formal surrender document. Nurse O’Farrell then delivered this document to the other rebel garrisons. Shortly afterward, the wounded Connolly was taken to the Red Cross Hospital. The main body of Volunteers was marched under military orders into Sackville Street where they laid down their arms before the British. The Four Courts garrison surrendered next and joined their comrades, now totaling about 400 men. They spent the night in the open, huddled under guard in the gardens of the Rotunda Hospital at the top of Sackville Street.
On Sunday morning, they were marched off to Richmond Barracks. As they passed through some areas of the city, people hurled rotten fruit and vegetables at them. On their return from imprisonment, these same Volunteers would be hailed as heroes.
The leaders were court-martialed, and fifteen of them were sentenced to execution by firing squad. On May 3, they shot Padraig Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh, and Tom Clarke. The executions continued until May 12 with the shooting that disgusted everyone. There was little outcry at first, but as the executions continued, public figures pleaded for clemency. Maxwell refused. To him, they were traitors who had committed treason and deserved to die.
On May 12, Sean MacDiarmada was executed, followed by James Connolly, who was too ill to stand and had to be tied to a chair. Countess Markievicz had her sentence commuted to life imprisonment, as did Eamon de Valera — Markievicz because she was a woman, de Valera because he was born in America.
The Rising was over, but it was not over. It has been called ‘the triumph of failure’ because it made martyrs of its leaders and their deaths revived the spirit of republican separatism. Within a year, the Sinn Féin party which had nothing to do with the rebellion, would be taken over by the republican survivors of the Rising and would win numerous by-elections. The quest for freedom became a national pursuit, run by IRB men, 1916 survivors and inmates of Frongoch, the prisoner of war camp in Wales known as the ‘University of Revolution.’
By W.B. Yeats
I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
That woman’s days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our winged horse;
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
A terrible beauty is born.
Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road.
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone’s in the midst of all.
Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven’s part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse -
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.