Monday 5 December 2016

My 1916: A walk through history with the ghosts of the GPO

The O'Connell St landmark is getting a refurb ahead of the centenary of the Rising. Writer Celine Naughton got an exclusive sneak preview

Published 13/08/2015 | 02:30

History in the making: Barney Whelan, director of communications and corporate affairs, An Post pictured in the GPO in Dublin. Photo: Damien Eagers.
History in the making: Barney Whelan, director of communications and corporate affairs, An Post pictured in the GPO in Dublin. Photo: Damien Eagers.

It's a bright morning in early August, sunlight is streaming through the windows, outside the traffic rumbles its daily course along O'Connell Street and here inside the GPO, An Post communications director Barney Whelan leads me on an exclusive tour of Irish history's most iconic building. On a day like this it's hard to visualise the harsh reality of 1916 when artillery shells blasted off the walls and bullets bounced off the concrete, but plans are afoot to retell the famous story in a way it's never been told before.

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No newspaper has yet set foot on to the site of the €7 million redevelopment of the GPO that's widely regarded as one of the most important projects of next year's commemorations, but the Irish Independent has managed to get a sneak peek.

We stand for a moment on the balcony overlooking the main post office, a bustling centre that sees 120,000 people come through its doors every year. Is it possible James Connolly or Patrick Pearse might have stood in this very spot leading the rebels within?

"Not here - just down there," points Barney to an area below where people are quietly going about their business across a polished floor. "That's where they most likely set up their base."

How utterly different the scene must have been with rebel soldiers holding out against attack and Cumann na mBan women tending to the wounded. Their ghosts are everywhere in this building and soon their voices will be heard again when the GPO opens its doors to bring one of the most pivotal times in Irish history to life.

"My 1916 started in 2011," says Barney, explaining that's when the team at An Post started to float ideas for the centenary commemorations.

"Put on a play," said one. "Have an exhibition," said another.

Barney wanted more. It's not just another historic building, after all. This was the heart of the action, the rebel HQ, the place where Pearse read the proclamation asserting Ireland's right to freedom. He had to think big.

"Yes, create an exhibition, but make it a permanent one, not just some candyfloss that would be over and done with by the end of 2016," he says.

"This is an opportunity for people to really engage with the building and our history. We had to produce a lasting legacy for the nation."

And what a legacy it promises to be: there's an exhibition centre bringing events of 100 years ago into the 21st century, an art gallery, café, shop and an open courtyard that can be used for different things, not least as a place to reflect. His plans were warmly received at an all-party committee in 2012, but the question was, where would the money come from?

"Securing funding was the most challenging part of the entire process. I knew we had something special, but An Post couldn't afford it and money was tight," says Barney.

"It was an enormous relief when Jimmy Deenihan (then Minister for Arts, Heritage and Gaeltacht Affairs) gave it the green light."

In Autumn 2013, the figure was approved in the Budget and from then on, it was full steam ahead.

"Suddenly, we went from all talk to all work. It was like a horse bolting and we've been charging forward ever since towards that no-pressure deadline of March 25 2016.

"We started by giving the building a good clean, something that hadn't happened since its completion in 1929. There was never enough money, but now we set to cleaning, restoring and conserving the facades."

He shows me a scale model of the planned redevelopment before we gear up in hard hats and high-vis vests to walk through the real thing.

Downstairs, work is in full swing to create the exhibition space.

Concrete columns are being polished and specialist lighting and air systems intalled in a vast room dominated by a semi-circular feature where gigantic screens will show videos and images while groups hear talks about the Rising.

Beyond it is a children's educational area laid out like a 1916 barricade, where kids will face such challenges as how to reconnect broken communication lines.

Elsewhere, booths with touch-screen technology will provide information in a way that caters for all ages "from schoolchildren to scholars." Over 300,000 visitors a year are expected to flood this space.

"The permanent exhibition will put the Easter Rising into a social, political and cultural context," says Barney. "It will deal with events leading up to the Rising, the Rising itself, the proclamation, the aftermath and the consequences."

We climb the stairs to what will be a gallery depicting how 1916 was commemorated over the following 100 years. With a café and shop at one end, the gallery opens out on to a bright, open courtyard, where a monument will honour the 40 children killed during the Rising.

"Joe Duffy has uncovered harrowing tales," says Barney. "Some babies died in their mother's arms from bullets that went through their mothers. Others were young boys, teenagers shot while looting."

Already it's the kind of space that beckons you to linger, but it's time to leave.

Among the hordes outside on the busy street is a group of evangelists handing out leaflets: 'Is there life after death?'

Who knows? But when it comes to the historic walls of the GPO, to borrow from WB Yeats, "We can write but one line that is certain, 'Here are ghosts.'"

Irish Independent

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