A magical history tour of 1916
Tracing the steps of the 1916 rebels brings a new dimension to the Easter Rising story
It's one of the great 'what ifs' of 1916. On the first day of the Rising on Easter Monday, Dublin Castle was all but deserted when a force of 10 men and nine women from the Irish Citizen Army arrived with orders to seize the nerve centre of British power in Ireland.
Leading them was Sean Connolly, who confronted the RIC officer on duty at the gates, demanding to be let in. But Constable James O'Brien refused. Connolly shot him dead, one Irish man slaying another. The Easter Rising had claimed its first casualty.
Yet having achieved the element of surprise, Connolly failed to press his advantage. Had he but known it, the castle was virtually empty. Apart from six caretakers, most of its usual occupants had taken a day off for the bank holiday, many of them enjoying the races at Fairyhouse, where the Grand National attracted crowds of holidaymakers oblivious to the mayhem that was about to erupt in the city.
"It could have been a very different outcome had Connolly realised the castle was almost empty," says historian John Ducie. "Had his force penetrated the main gates, they could have quite easily taken the building, which would have given the rebels an important strategic advantage."
Having failed in their mission, the rebels instead occupied City Hall next door. As British reinforcements converged on the building, Connolly's force soon discovered their position was hopeless.
"City Hall was impossible to defend," John explains. "Troops on the roof of the castle started firing at the rebels on the roof of City Hall and by two o'clock, Sean Connolly was dead."
As an official guide on the 1916 Revolution Day Tour of Dublin, John's speculation on how the assault on the Castle might have turned out is just one of the countless Rising stories he delivers daily to tour groups of people from home and abroad. Reading about the Rising is one thing, but as the small group of Irish, Italian and Scottish people taking part in today's tour soon discover, learning about key events of the rebellion where they actually happened brings a whole new dimension to the story.
Case in point - before leaving the grounds of Dublin Castle, John points to the statue of Lady Justice atop the main gate.
"In other countries, this sculpture is typically depicted wearing a blindfold, representing the ideal of justice being blind to discrimination," he says.
"It's also usually positioned looking out over the people of the city. However, Dublin's iconic statue features certain characteristics that betray the kind of justice favoured by the British authorities who erected it in 1751.
"Her eyes are unbound, the scales slightly tilted towards the Revenue office and she faces into the castle, hence the Dublin saying, 'The Statue of Justice, mark well her station, her face to the castle and arse to the nation.'"
Back on the bus, we drive past the Mendicity Institution, Four Courts, the Royal Barracks and, not least, Kilmainham Jail.
Then it's on to Rathfarnham and a tour of St Enda's, which Pearse set up as an example of how he felt a school should be run. Students were inculcated with a love of books, culture, sport, Irish language and unyielding patriotism, while a mock fort in the grounds provided an ideal venue for the boys of Na Fianna Éireann, the rebels' youth wing, to train in military exercises.
Following lunch, the tour continues to Dun Laoghaire, or Kingstown as it was then, where British troops arrived on Wednesday April 26 1916.
"The Sherwood Foresters, or 'Robin Hoods,' as they were known, were made up of raw young recruits, most of whom had never fired a rifle before," says John.
"They assembled on the quays and received instruction in musketry, their only preparation for the disaster that was to befall them later at the Battle of Mount Street Bridge."
It was here a strategically placed group of only 15 rebels held the outpost, resulting in the deaths of four officers and 24 other ranks of the Sherwood Foresters, and over 200 others badly wounded.
Their Captain Frederick Dietrichsen, a 33-year-old barrister from London, who'd married a woman from Blackrock, was surprised to meet his wife at the RDS. Warmly embracing her and his two children, he walked 500 yards down the road and was shot dead. Civilians were also killed.
"Responding to the cries of the wounded, a dentist called Osborne and his neighbour dragged injured soldiers and passers-by to his house and treated them, effectively turning his home into a First Aid unit," says John.
"That night, he was killed by a passing sniper, as was the captain of the St John's Ambulance. "
For tour organiser Terry Lambert of Hilltop Treks, the excursion is more than a smart business venture - it's personal.
"My grandfather, Thomas Lambert and his friend Noel Lemass, both members of Na Fianna, turned up at Stephen's Green to join the rebellion but were turned away because they were only 16," he says. "They later went on to fight in the Civil War and Thomas was made captain.
"Noel Lemass was murdered in 1923 and his body was found in the Dublin Hills, now marked by a commemorative cross. It will be interesting to see how the country commemorates that period."
For more information see hilltoptreks.com