17 April 2019
A week that shook the British Empire
This feature first appeared in An Phoblacht/Republican News on March 28th 1991 to mark the 75th anniversary of the Easter Rising
IT IS NO EXAGGERATION to say that the events of Easter Week in 1916 radically altered the, course of Irish history. This is the story of the Rising in Dublin during that week, an event that reawakened the national demand for Irish freedom, the struggle for which continues to this day.
Thursday, April 20th
Plans for a nationwide Rising received a cruel blow on Thursday, April 20th, 1916, when the German arms ship, the Aud, arrived in Tralee Bay at 4.15pm with arms and ammunition for the insurgents. It failed to make contact with Irish Volunteers ashore, however, because it wasn’t expected until Sunday.
Friday, April 21st
On Good Friday, the next day, at 2.15 in the morning, Roger Casement landed from a German submarine on Banna Strand in Kerry. At 1.30pm he was arrested at McKenna’s Fort by armed members of the Royal Irish Constabulary. At half-past six that evening, the Aud was surrounded by British naval vessels and was ordered to Cobh (then known as Queenstown). Three Volunteers who had been sent to dismantle the wireless station at Cahirciveen and to set up a transmitter in Tralee to help Casement were tragically drowned when their car plunged into the River Laune at Ballykissane Pier in a freak accident.
Saturday, April 22nd
On the orders of its commander, Captain Karl Spindler, the Aud was scuttled off the Cork coast in the early hours of the morning. The captain and crew abandoned ship and were all captured.
Towards midnight that night, Eoin MacNeill, the Chief of Staff of the Irish Volunteers, issued the now infamous countermanding order cancelling the Rising, which had been arranged for Sunday. He had only found out on the Thursday about the Rising, which had been planned by the Military Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood since January. He confronted Pádraig Pearse and Seán Mac Diarmada, who had both then managed to persuade him that the Rising would be a success because of the imminent arrival of the German arms shipment.
The news of Casement’s capture and the scuttling of the Aud led to his countermanding of Pearse’s orders for a full mobilisation on the Sunday morning.
Easter Sunday, April 23rd
On Easter Sunday, the IRB’s Military Council, (which had been formed in February 1915 and consisted first of Pádraig Pearse, Eamonn Ceannt and Joseph Plunkett but was later expanded to include Thomas Clarke, Seán Mac Diarmada, James Connolly and Thomas MacDonagh) met at 9am in Liberty Hall. It confirmed the cancellation of the Rising for Sunday but decided to go ahead the following day. From noon onwards, printing of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, signed by the seven members of the Military Council, now the Provisional Government, commenced.
New mobilisation orders were issued but, as a result of the confusion caused by MacNeill’s countermanding order, the Rising was mostly confined to Dublin City.
Easter Monday, April 24th
Even in Dublin, mobilisation was far from complete. The details of how many Volunteers, Irish Citizen Army, Cumann na mBan, Fianna Éireann and Hibernian Rifles members turned out are sketchy but it appears that at the start of the week the total number was less than a thousand but this was augmented during the week. At its peak the republican side consisted of around 1,800, of which over 200 were Citizen Army.
At 12 noon, having marched from Liberty Hall, the main body of insurgents – headed by Pearse and Connolly, and including Clarke, Mac Diarmada and Plunkett – occupied the General Post Office in Sackville (now O’Connell) Street as headquarters.
Connolly sent small detachments to occupy Hopkins the Jewellers and Kelly’s Gun Store, the corner shops commanding Bachelor’s Walk, Eden Quay and Carlisle (now O’Connell) Bridge.
Prince’s Street from the GPO after Rising
Later, other small parties would be sent to take over such prominent buildings as the Metropole Hotel, just across Prince’s Street from the GPO, the Manfield boot factory and Easons bookshop on the corner of Abbey Street. On the other side of Sackville Street, the Imperial Hotel, Marconi House and the tall Dublin Bread Company building were occupied. Connolly had the Starry Plough run up on the roof of the Imperial Hotel, a capitalist stronghold during the 1913 Lockout. A barricade was constructed at the junction of Abbey Street and Sackville Street to hold off the expected British reinforcements’ line of march from Amiens Street railway station.
Pearse stepped outside the front of the GPO into Sackville Street and read the Proclamation of the Republic. Two hundred copies of the Proclamation were pasted around the city centre.
The 1st Battalion of the Irish Volunteers (under Commandant Edward Daly) occupied the Four Courts and established posts at Jameson’s Distillery and buildings in the Church Street/North King Street area. The Mendicity Institute was occupied by ‘D’ Company under the command of Captain Seán Heuston.
The 2nd Battalion (under Commandant Thomas MacDonagh) occupied Jacob’s Factory. Some units occupied positions in the Fairview/Ballybough area.
A contingent of the Citizen Army (under Commandant Michael Mallin, with Constance Markievicz as second-in-command) occupied the St Stephen’s Green area and the Royal College of Surgeons.
The 3rd Battalion (under Commandant Eamon de Valera) occupied Boland’s Bakery and flourmill and the railway from Landsdowne Road to Westland Row station, with outposts at Mount Street Bridge and Northumberland Road.
The 4th Battalion (under Commandant Eamonn Ceannt and Vice-Commandant Cathal Brugha) occupied the South Dublin Union, James’s Street Hospital, with outposts at Marrowbone Lane, Roe’s Distillery, Ardee Street brewery and Cork Street.
A company of Citizen Army men and women (under Captain Seán Connolly) occupied the City Hall and houses facing Dublin Castle, the seat of British government in Ireland. The Castle was almost undefended and probably could have been taken had the republicans known it. The first casualties of Easter Week occurred here: a police officer at the Castle gate and then Seán Connolly himself on the roof of the City Hall as he was attempting to raise the Tricolour.
The insurgents also attacked Haddington Road and Beggar’s Bush Barracks but 2,500 British troops from the Curragh arrived and engaged them in the Dublin Castle, area and recovered City Hall.
The Mendicity Institute, held by Volunteers and Fianna members under Seán Heuston, came under attack, as did the South Dublin Union. The British gained entry to the grounds of the Union. During the day, a cavalry detachment of lancers charged down Sackville Street but were repulsed without firing a shot. Six cavalrymen were killed with the accidental shooting dead of one Volunteer in this first encounter in Sackville Street In the Ballybough/North Strand area, a party of Volunteers bringing supplies from Fairview to the GPO came under machine-gun attack but the crown forces, who were advancing towards Annesley Bridge, were successfully repulsed by snipers in the North Strand and the main contingent of Volunteers continued on their way to the GPO.
1916 aftermath from the Pillar
A small party, consisting mainly of Fianna with a few Volunteers, raided the Magazine Fort in the Phoenix Park, the main munitions store for crown forces in Dublin, and blew up the explosives store.
The British had so far been taken completely by surprise although the republicans had made a basic error in overlooking the importance of seizing the Crown Alley telephone exchange.
Tuesday, April 25th
The Lord Lieutenant, Viscount Wimborne, declared martial law. The British attack on the Mendicity Institute continued and they took Citizen Army posts at the Dublin Daily Express and Evening Mail building and the Henry and James shop nearby.
Artillery pounded barricades at Phibsboro and the British secured the North Circular Road. The British occupied the Shelbourne Hotel and from it and the United Services Club kept up fire on the Volunteers in St Stephen’s Green, forcing a withdrawal into the College of Surgeons.
General W.H.M. Lowe took command of the crown forces in Dublin and established a cordon from Kingsbridge to College Green via Dame Street. British reinforcements arrived from Belfast and Templemore with artillery support from Athlone.
The South Dublin Union was attacked and the British cordoned off the route from the North Wall to Kingsbridge (now Heuston) Station. Irish positions throughout the city came under attack. Despite inflicting many casualties on British forces repairing the damaged Great Northern Railway line at the Sloblands, British strength forced a withdrawal of republican outposts from the outlying Fairview and Annesley Bridge posts late in the day. At noon that day, the insurgents had produced their own newspaper, Irish War News, priced one penny, giving details of all that had taken place so far.
Control of Trinity College and Dublin Castle enabled the British to attack the GPO with artillery from the southside of the river, this wedge in the ring of rebel defensive positions also making it unnecessary to do more than contain the insurgents at Boland’s, Jacob’s and the South Dublin Union. It wasn’t until Friday that the gunners got the range of the GPO accurately. Two British infantry brigades were landed at Dún Laoghaire late on Tuesday evening.
Wednesday, April 26th
These reinforcements marched towards the city centre.
The 5th and 6th Battalions, Sherwood Foresters, came in on the Blackrock/Stillorgan/Donnybrook road in time to take part in 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. For nine hours, 12 men held down the two battalions, inflicting appalling casualties on them. The British admitted losses of 234 officers and men killed or wounded –– in fact, more than half their total casualties in the Rising, an unnecessarily stubborn waste of lives as there were other undefended routes into the city. Four Volunteers survived the epic battle, retiring from Clanwilliam House only when it was in flames from incendiary artillery fire.
British Sherwood Foresters on Northumberland Road
That day the rebels burnt the Linenhall Barracks and took the surrender of the garrison. The unoccupied Liberty Hall was shelled by the gunboat Helga. The Helga had sailed up the Liffey to Butt Bridge but the Loop Line bridge prevented direct firing. British forces took up positions in Sackville Street while rifle and machine-gun fire on the GPO and other IRA outposts in Sackville Street and on the quays became heavy and ceaseless. This was mainly coming from Trinity College and the tower of Tara Street Fire Station across the river. Artillery at Tara Street also shelled Liberty Hall. In the afternoon, a heavy gun at the corner 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. The Mendicity Institute was bombed and its rebel garrison was forced to surrender despite causing heavy British losses.
College of Surgeons
Crown forces advancing on Sackville Street from Parkgate met stiff resistance from Daly’s posts in the Four Courts and North King Street area. By the end of the day, a cordon had been thrown around the city centre north of the Liffey. Two more battalions were also on their way from England.
The pacifist Francis Sheehy-Skeffington (who had been arrested the previous day while trying to prevent looting in the city centre) was killed, along with two journalists, on Wednesday by British troops in Portobello Barracks, Rathmines.
Thursday, April 27th
Communications between the republican outposts had been cut and it became clear that the principal British objective was the GPO and its outposts.
Heavy fighting in the North King Street and Four Courts area was an unsuccessful effort on the crown forces’ part to eliminate these obstacles to the principal objective. The Four Courts were shelled and an armoured car was used by the British in North King Street. Artillery attacks and incendiary bombs aimed at the GPO continued. Fires raging throughout Sackville Street spread rapidly.
Flag on GPO
James Connolly was severely wounded twice but continued to direct the defence from a stretcher. In the South Dublin Union, Cathal Brugha was also very seriously wounded in heavy fighting but continued firing. The British were forced to temporarily retreat. There was no very determined assault on the main republican positions in Jacob’s and Boland’s.
John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, condemned the Rising in the House of Commons.
Friday, April 28th
Major General Sir John Maxwell arrived from England as Commander-in-Chief of the British forces.
At 9.30am, Pearse, President of the Provisional Government and Commander-in-Chief of the Forces of the Irish Republic, issued his last manifesto paying tribute to his troops and singling out James Connolly for special mention:
“If I were to mention names of individuals my list would be a long one. I will name only that of Commandant General James Connolly, commanding the Dublin Division. He lies wounded, but is still the guiding brain of our resistance . . . If we accomplish no more than we have accomplished, I am satisfied. I am satisfied that we have saved Ireland’s honour. For my part, as to anything I have done in this, I am not afraid to face either the judgement of God or the judgement of posterity.”
Connolly himself ended an order with the words:
“Courage, boys, we are winning, and in the hour of our victory let us not forget the women who have everywhere stood by us and cheered us on. Never had man or woman a grander cause, never was a cause more grandly served.”
The Fingal Volunteers, then the 5th Battalion of the Dublin Brigade, under the command of Thomas Ashe and numbering 48, out-fought and completely defeated a superior force of about 70 RIC officers at Rath Cross, Ashbourne, the Volunteers having taken four RIC barracks. They captured arms and ammunition but failed to take Ashbourne Barracks.
However, in the city, the beginning of the end of the Rising was marked when the British artillery finally got the range of the GPO. The building was set on fire and the prisoners who had been taken and the wounded were withdrawn by Volunteers and Cumann na mBan members to Jervis Street Hospital. The GPO could no longer be defended and the decision was taken to evacuate it. Connolly remained in command but as the garrison unsuccessfully attempted to break through a British barricade in Moore Street, hoping to fight their way through to a soap factory on Great Britain (now Parnell Street) The O’Rahilly was killed.
At 8.40pm the new headquarters were set up in a house at the Moore Street end of Henry Place.
British soldiers of the South Staffordshire Regiment shot dead 15 civilians in the North King Street area.
The ruins of the GPO
Saturday, April 29th
From first light on, the battle raged with mounting intensity. British forces closed in on other posts where fighting continued. By morning, headquarters in Moore Street were isolated.
Around Connolly’s bedside, Pearse and members of the Provisional Government (except MacDonagh and Ceannt, whose commands were in Jacob’s and the South Dublin Union) decided to negotiate terms of surrender. Preliminary arrangements were made by Cumann na mBan member Elizabeth O’Farrell, who took the dangerous job of delivering the message to the British in Moore Street. General Lowe would accept only unconditional surrender.
At 3.30pm, Pearse agreed to this and handed his sword to Lowe. Fifteen minutes later, he signed orders to the other outposts:
“In order to prevent the further slaughter of Dublin citizens and in the hope of saving the lives of our followers, now surrounded and hopelessly outnumbered, the members of the Provisional Government present at Headquarters have agreed to an unconditional surrender, and the commandants in the various districts of the city and county will order their commands to lay down arms.”
The Tricolour was hauled down from the roof of the GPO by British soldiers and the headquarters garrison marched out to surrender late in the afternoon. Daly’s garrison in the Four Courts also surrendered. The 400 republicans taken prisoner spent the night in the open in the grounds of the Rotunda Hospital.
Sunday, April 30th
All the other strongpoints (the South Dublin Union, Jacob’s, the College of Surgeons, and Boland’s Mill) were still in action but, after assurances of the genuineness of Pearse’s order, all the other commandants, with their officers and men and women, surrendered.
The republicans who had been held prisoner at the Rotunda were taken to Richmond Barracks at Inchicore. Hundreds were taken from here to the North Wall to be interned in Wales and England.
On Wednesday, May 3rd, the executions began.
Sixty-four republicans had been killed in action during the Rising.
Of the 20,000 British troops involved, 516 officers and men were officially listed as killed, wounded or missing.
Somewhere between 160 and 216 civilians had been killed.
British shelling had reduced much of the city centre to charred rubble.