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23 April 2016

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Easter Week 1916 as it unfolded

Based on an original article by Shane Mac Thomáis

ONE HUNDRED YEARS AGO in Dublin, seven visionaries led a small army of Irish men and women in a revolutionary enterprise. Their vision was that Ireland might be free. Their dream. an age-old one, was at first half-formed and rough-shaped but became clearly-defined down through the years. The United Irishmen gave it substance, Wolfe Tone delineated it, Emmet, the Young Irelanders and the Fenians strove to achieve it.

The battle of Easter 1916 raged for six days and resulted in the destruction of many parts of Dublin City. Following the Rising, the bloody executions of its leaders by the British awakened future generations to the cause of Irish freedom.

Monday 24 April 1916

At 12:30 on Easter Monday 1916, the Tricolour flag was hoisted at the Henry Street corner of the GPO and a banner bearing the inscription “Irish Republic” was flown at the Prince’s Street corner. A short time later, Pádraig Pearse, President of the Irish Republic, emerged into O’Connell Street and read the Proclamation.

Meanwhile, across the city, all the other positions occupied by the republican forces were getting ready for the fight. The British plan was simple and they pursued it consistently during the week. It was to throw a cordon round the Irish positions, extending on the north side of the Liffey from Parkgate Street to the North Wall, and on the south from Kingsbridge (now Heuston Bridge) to Ringsend, and then to strike at the centre of the resistance in the GPO, using their superior strength to capture or isolate the other insurgent positions.

The first shots were fired from the GPO at about 1:15pm. The British 6th Reserve Cavalry Regiment came into O’Connell Street from the north. As they neared Nelson’s Pillar, where the Spire is currently located, a volley from the roof and windows poured into their ranks. They suffered some casualties and the survivors retreated under fire.

Another early clash occurred on the north side of the city. About 3:30pm, a party of Volunteers bringing supplies from Fr Matthew Park, Fairview, to the GPO came under machine gun fire from the direction of the Great Northern Railway. Some of the party took up defensive positions near Ballybough Bridge while the remainder conveyed the supplies to the GPO. British infantry advancing towards Annesley Bridge from the Bull Island Training Camp came under heavy fire from republican positions hastily occupied in corner houses on North Strand, in Spring Garden Street and Annesley Place, and in Leinster Avenue.

Commandant Ceannt’s positions in the extensive buildings of the South Dublin Union were attacked on Monday by the British cordon pushing up from Kingsbridge. The attack was repulsed but the garrison, too thinly spread in the large grounds, was withdrawn to the Nurses’ Home at night. This was a strong building which had been well fortified.

Seán Heuston and Edward Daly

● Seán Heuston and Edward Daly

Tuesday

Seán Heuston’s post in the Mendicity Institute was overrun by superior British forces early on Tuesday.

Additions to the GPO garrison strength during Monday made it possible to extend the outposts covering it by the occupation of other buildings during the morning. In one of these (Reis’s at O’Connell Bridge) a radio broadcasting set was erected and, from Tuesday afternoon to midday on Wednesday, news of the Rising and of the progress of the fighting was broadcast.

The British utilised the Loop Line railway to establish the northern end of their cordon in and around Amiens Street (now Connolly Station). Troops brought from the Curragh to Kingsbridge by special trains were moved into these positions. A strong party of them emerged on Tuesday afternoon to repair the damaged Great Northern Railway line at the Sloblands (now Fairview Park) and came under heavy fire from the Annesley Bridge post. In two hours’ fighting they took numerous casualties. Overwhelming British strength forced a withdrawal of the outlying Fairview and Annesley Bridge posts late on Tuesday evening, although it made no impression on the nearer GPO outposts on the northside.

British Army barricade

● British Army barricade

Wednesday

On Wednesday morning, Volunteers of James Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army hoisted their flag, The Starry Plough, over the Imperial Hotel (now Clery’s department store) on O’Connell Street, then owned by William Martin Murphy who had led the employers against Dublin workers during the 1913 Lockout.

From Wednesday onwards, rifle and machine-gun fire on the GPO and its outposts, particularly those at the junction of O’Connell Street with the quays, became heavy and ceaseless. Much of it came from Trinity College and the tower of Tara Street Fire Station across the river.

Artillery located at Tara Street shelled Liberty Hall, which had been evacuated since Monday. From a position on the river below Butt Bridge, the gunboat Helga joined in the artillery barrage. In the afternoon, a heavy gun at the junction of D’Olier Street and College Street demolished the upper part of the post at Kelly’s corner and its little garrison was forced to withdraw to the Metropole.

Endeavoring on the northside to push forward towards O’Connell Street from Parkgate Street, the British forces encountered very stubborn resistance from Commandant Edward Daly’s posts in the Four Courts and the North King Street area.

There was heavy fighting in this district, in the course of which a number of buildings were set on fire but, apart from some changes to position, the area remained firmly in the hands of republican forces as night fell.

Two British infantry brigades were landed at Dún Laoghaire late on the evening before. By morning they were ordered to march on Dublin because Commandant de Valera’s 3rd Battalion were astride the railway line and denied them the use of it.

The British 5th and 6th Battalions, Sherwood Foresters, came in on the Blackrock/Stillorgan/Donnybrook Road and arrived in time to take part in the heavy fighting at the South Dublin Union. The 7th and 8th battalions, marching in via Ballsbridge, were halted by three Volunteer outposts covering Mount Street Bridge. This was the scene of the bloodiest fighting of the Rising.

In an epic defence of this position, 13 Volunteers of the Irish Republican Army pinned down two entire British Army battalions for nine hours in the streets and inflicted appalling casualties. The British admitted losses of 234 officers and men killed or wounded – in fact more than half their total casualties in the Rising.

Carisbrook House was overrun early in the fight, which reduced the defenders to nine – two in 25 Northumberland Road and seven in Clanwilliam House. Lieutenant Malone was killed in Number 25 and, after three hours’ fighting, two Volunteers were killed in Clanwilliam House. Number 25 was overrun and the assault on the sole remaining post became fiercer.

After five more bloody hours, its defenders were reduced to four when another Volunteer was killed, but the others fought on. At about 8pm, a party of the Royal Naval Reserve brought up a one-pounder gun on a lorry, and with incendiary shells set the building on fire. An hour later, the four survivors of this gallant defence retired from the blazing ruins – nine hours after they had fired the first shots.

Some of the damage caused during Easter Week

● Some of the damage caused during Easter Week

Thursday

On Thursday it was clear that the main British objective was the GPO and its outposts. The heavy fighting in the North King Street and Four Courts was an effort – unsuccessful for the British as it proved – to eliminate these obstacles to the principal objective.

Across the river, the South Dublin Union garrison held out during severe fighting in which the second-in-command, Cathal Brugha, was very seriously wounded. There was no determined assault on the main republican positions in Jacob’s and Boland’s.

James Connolly was wounded in the shoulder outside the GPO and, without drawing attention to himself, went to get first aid from the medic. A number of hours later, while assisting the manoeuvres, Connolly took a agonising ricochet to the left ankle. The wound shattered the bones in his foot, leaving him unable to walk or stand. He was to spend the rest of the Rising lying on a makeshift stretcher while the wound became gangerous.

Thomas Ashe

Thomas Ashe

Friday

On Friday, the Fingal Volunteers, then the 5th Battalion of the Dublin Brigade, under Commandant Thomas Ashe, carried out a most successful action at Ashbourne, County Meath. Here, 48 Volunteers, in a five-hour battle, out-fought and completely defeated a force of about 70 Royal Irish Constabulary.

At eight o clock on Friday evening, 28 April 1916, with the GPO engulfed in flames, the forces of the newly-formed Irish Republic retreated from the building and endeavoured to make their way to the Four Courts garrison. They left the GPO by the side entrance in Henry Street and made their way, under constant sniper fire, to Moore Lane.

Inside the GPO

Inside the GPO

Saturday

In Moore Street, Pádraig Pearse who, through a shattered window had seen a family carrying a white flag shot down, decided that they must surrender. Connolly agreed that the imminent risk of sacrificing further lives must not be tolerated. The leaders argued, wrangled and pleaded to convince themselves that the fight could be continued. But bitter reality could not be ignored. The frail, grey-haired 58-year-old Fenian, Tom Clarke, openly wept at the final decision.

Conveying the message to the enemy was entrusted to the dauntless Elizabeth O’Farrell. With Captain O’Reilly’s handkerchief tied to a piece of stick, she passed through the doorway of Number 15, bravely walking down the street of the dead. The British military assisted her over the barricade and conveyed her to Tom Clarke’s little shop in Parnell Street. There, General Lowe demanded that within a half an hour she must return with Pádraig Pearse to the Moore Street barricade, insisting that the only terms acceptable to him was unconditional surrender.

At 2:30pm, Pearse in his heavy military overcoat and Boer-shaped hat, marched down towards the barricade, Elizabeth O’Farrell by his side. Here he was received by General Lowe, to whom he handed his sword, pistol and ammunition, also his tin canteen which contained two large onions. On the footpath, outside of Byrne’s shop at the corner of Moore Street, an old wooden bench was brought out from the shop. Here Pearse stooped and signed the document of surrender which had been placed upon it.

Elizabeth O’Farrell agreed to their joint request to deliver the documents of surrender to the various Dublin outposts. Without speaking and with a smile he grasped her hand for the last time.

At the Moore Street headquarters, the Volunteers were stunned on learning the terms of the surrender. Most of them insisted on fighting to the death but Connolly was adamant that his boys must not be burned to death.

The men began to gather in the street. Filing up and forming ranks, with sloped arms, the first group marched off under Captain O’Reilly, picking up any stragglers on the way. Next, Willie Pearse headed the main body, waving his white flag. Close behind him walked Tom Clarke and, towards the rear, walked Seán Mac Diarmada and Joseph Plunkett, supported by his brave comrades Julia Grenan and Winifred Carney.

Leaving 16 Moore Street, the temporary headquarters of the Provisional Government, these weary warriors marched to a prison cell or grave. They were the spark which lit the fuse that will continue to burn until Ireland is united and free. 

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