Mission accomplished: How the Army documented the Rising
Our military has created an online archive of first-hand accounts of the events of 1916, allowing Damian Corless to delve into history
As the race hots up amongst the various political factions to claim credit for the 1916 Easter Rising, the Defence Forces have gone about the task of putting some hard facts and figures to the event. A huge amount of documents relating to the Rising, the War of Independence and the Civil War that followed are now available for all to view at militaryarchives.ie and bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie.
Between them, the sites contain fascinating first-hand accounts of the events that would lead to the break-up of the all-powerful British Empire which, in 1916, cloaked a quarter of the globe in red. The press cuttings from the day illustrate the hostility of the bulk of the Irish media to the Rising - a hostility that contrasted with the broad sympathy of many newspapers abroad.
Down under, for example, the media reported that the rebellion was supported by the Irish National Association of Australia, in a land where it was stated that one in every three white people were of "Irish blood". The press cuttings from 1916 also provide some compelling insights into how those opposed to the Rising mobilised in the days after the insurrection. As the dust settled on the ruins of the GPO in the aftermath of the Rising, the staunchly Protestant Trinity College commemorated a Catholic Mass in honour of the many Irish troops who had died at the front in Flanders wearing the uniform of the British Army. It was an unusual affair staged to make a political point.
A joke grew up in the decades after 1916 that the entire population of the new Free State had managed to squeeze themselves into the GPO during that turbulent week of Easter. But it was no laughing matter. The stark fact was that following independence, Ireland suffered terribly from the break with its main market of Britain, and the State pension to dependents of the rebels became a matter of survival to some.
The officer in charge of the military archives at Cathal Brugha Barracks, Commandant Padraic Kennedy says: "From an expenditure point of view, these pensions to those disabled, and the dependents, was quite heavy. There was a lot of emigration during the Revolutionary Period so not everybody stayed around to apply for a pension, and for those that did the qualification process was rigorous. There were several grades of pension, with the highest at £350 per year, which would provide a comfortable living."
One of those awarded the highest grade of pension by the Free State was Aine Ceannt, the widow of Eamonn, one of the executed leaders of the Rising. Her pension claim ran to 80 typed pages. She wrote about her final visit to her husband, and the tiny chink of hope that his life might be spared. She wrote: "We reached Kilmainham and had about 20 minutes' interview with my husband. He was in a different cell, and had been given a couple of boards on which I presume he rested. He also had a soap box, a chair, a candle and pen and ink. No executions had taken place for some days... and the soldiers were coming in and out in a jocose manner, saying such things as 'It's a long way to Tipperary' and 'You never know what will happen.' Eamonn said his mind had been disturbed. He said: 'I was quite prepared to walk out of this at a quarter to four this morning, but all this has upset me.'"
There was no reprieve for Eamonn Ceannt. Aine learned of his fate from a priest who told her: "He is gone to Heaven."
The newly posted archive from the Army chimes neatly with first-hand accounts from members of the public which can be viewed at http://dh.tcd.ie/letters1916/diyhistory/collections/show/1. In a letter posted from Rathgar in Easter week 1916, one Patrick Carphin broke bad news to his sister Jo in Scotland. He began: "We are living here in an atmosphere which you can hardly imagine. No telegrams, no telephones, no newspapers, no gas and not much to eat all through the Sinn Fein Rising about which you have no doubt read in the papers. I am only guessing that the news has reached you.
"On Monday last Muriel, Doreen and I went to spend the bank holiday at Lusk. We left a peaceful spot and had a most enjoyable day in the country. About 2.30 we heard a bang which did not at the time attract much attention but afterwards discovered that the Sinn Fein lot had attempted to blow up a railway viaduct between us and Dublin, half an hour before the Lord Lieutenant's tram was due to pass."
It was Easter Monday, the start of the Rising. The family had left the city in the sleepy tranquility of a bank holiday morning, and returned into the middle of a war zone. They walked up towards the GPO looking for a tram, but there were none.
"Not knowing what to make of it I asked a bystander 'What has happened to the tram service?' He looked at me for a minute as if I were either a fool or an escaped lunatic and then said 'do you mean to say you don't know that Dublin is in a state of riot?'"
Bullets flying, father, mother and little Doreen walked through Sackville Street and up to Grafton Street when: "From the direction of Harcourt Street came a scurrying rush of men, women and children which I could not understand. We drew aside to get the shelter of a church porch as the crowd swept by when Doreen suddenly cried 'Oh Mother I am shot' and something (like a boy throwing a stone) hit her hard on the ankle. I never bothered about anything but picked Doreen up. I cut her clothes off and put an improvised tourniquet on her leg."
When they gathered themselves they found bullet holes in wife Muriel's voluptuous skirts. Miraculously not one had even scratched her. Patrick finished off his account: "What hit me afterwards turned out to be a spent bullet so all three of us had marvellous escapes!"