Friday 18 October 2019

Ordinary life in the wake of the Rising

John Gibney

By 6 May 1916 the Henry Street Warehouse (later Roches Stores) was advertising ‘costumes and coats injured by rifle fire', while Hely’s Stationer of Dame St was already advertising postcards of ‘Dublin after the Sinn Fein insurrection’.

These are small indications of how, after the Easter Rising, Dublin's inhabitants picked up the pieces of ordinary life as best they could.  Accounts of the immediate aftermath of the Easter Rising tend to be dominated by the executions of the leaders or the detention of republican prisoners, but far more people witnessed or were affected by the Rising then fought in it. Civilians were more than merely looters or onlookers.

The activities of looters in and around Sackville St became a notorious feature of the Rising. The Dublin Metropolitan Police had been withdrawn from the streets within hours of the outbreak of the rebellion, and given that Sackville St bordered an extensive slum area, it was probably inevitable that the urban poor would seek to get what was ordinarily out of reach for them.


Much of what was reportedly taken in the initial phases of looting were not good nor essential to life and death: sweets, furniture, drink and sporting goods, amongst many others, all feature in eyewitness accounts of the looting.

Clothes, especially footwear, were naturally at a premium, and, as Padraig Yeates has recently shown, prosecutions for larceny skyrocketed in the aftermath of the Rising. As the week wore on, however, any lighthearted aspect to the looting gave way to far more serious matters as the fighting brought life in the city to a halt.

Shops and banks were closed, trams stopped running, gas supplies were cut off, newspapers ceased operations, and food became scarce; many of the civilian casualties of the Rising who may well have been killed in the crossfire as they sought food for their families in the war torn inner city.

Suburban Life

Life in the suburbs was somewhat easier, but disruptions were felt. The Limerick accountant Wesley Hanna, in what is now Dublin 4, noted that 'if it weren't so awfully tragic it would be amusing to see the swells round here carrying home bread'; a small hint that domestic servants and deliverymen may have been absent from work. The British presence in the city had major implications, as movements were severely curtailed under martial law.

A macabre indication of the human cost of the fighting was to be seen in the stark red epidemic notices distributed throughout the city immediately after the Rising, stating that 'persons discovering dead bodies should inform the police of the Chief Medical officer of Health, Municipal Building, Castle St, immediately'.

In the days that followed, members of bereaved families began to make their way towards cemeteries such as Glasnevin, which was swamped with an additional workload; the numbers who could make such a tragic journey were further curtailed by the restrictions imposed by the British military.

The British army did, however, attempt to deal with the shortages of food in the city in the days after the Rising, by distributing food to institutions from the military depot on Parkgate St and even taking over the supplies of a Boveril Warehouse on Eustace St.

Food Queues

H237A Food Queues.jpg
A crowd outside the city dispensary on Castle St waiting for bread supplies, 1916. The gates of Christ Church Cathedral can be seen at the top of the picture. (Part of the Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection)

They also sought to enforce order amongst the lengthy queues that were to found outside bakeries, and private charities and the local authorities stepped in to ensure a food supply to the citizens of a city that had previously been affected by war from afar, but which had now seen war come to its streets (though a famous image of girls scavenging for wood - fuel - in the aftermath hints that the destruction of Dublin brought its own opportunities).

By early May vegetables were to be seen in the shops once more, and businesses (such as the Henry St warehouse) re-opened as military restrictions were eased, though not lifted. By mid-May most essential services had been restored in Dublin, and even cinemas were opening their doors; but the ongoing military curfews ensured that prospective movie-goers would have to settle for the matinee.

John Gibney is currently Glasnevin Trust Assistant Professor of Public History and Cultural Heritage at Trinity College Dublin.

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