Five days in the GPO
Patrick Geoghegan on what really went on inside the General Post Office during the Rising and some of the stories that emerged from the rubble
When the GPO was taken by the rebels on Easter Monday, a number of women were there collecting their British Army Separation Allowance, awarded because their husbands were serving in the war. Known as 'Shawlees', they began abusing the rebels for disrupting things, while the rebels responded in kind. It was reported that "the banter between them was frequently lurid beyond discreet repetition and left little to the imagination". Some other women, however, took the side of the rebels, and for a time it appeared that it would descend into fighting.
Meanwhile, some postmen gathered nearby wondering if they should try and go to the GPO and collect the mail. However, one intrepid postman brought news back that he had been told at gunpoint that there would be no mail delivered that day.
Some soldiers were captured when the GPO was taken. Four unarmed privates had been standing guard and were taken easily, along with a lieutenant who had been there off duty. The lieutenant did not handle the pressure of being a prisoner very well, and sought solace in a bottle of brandy, aggressively demanding more when he finished it, "with tears in his eyes".
Later in the week, the other soldiers asked to be moved away from him, even though they were being kept in a nice room with a fire.
When asked why, one admitted that "the sight of the fellow" disgusted them. "When I do look at him I do be ashamed of being a man at all," he said.
A policeman was also taken prisoner, and he was placed in a chair and had his boots confiscated. One of the rebels, Desmond FitzGerald (the father of future Taoiseach Garrett), noticed that his grey socks were full of holes, with his heels and toes sticking out. The policeman was clutching a bottle of Guinness and was "a picture of gloom". FitzGerald wondered if it was because he thought he would be killed in the cross-fire, but in reality the policeman was more concerned about his career prospects after allowing the GPO to be captured.
The policeman had been given the very last bottle of stout, and there was very little alcohol in the GPO during the week. Two bottles of brandy were kept in reserve for the medical staff, but that was it. This was the work of Thomas Clarke, who disapproved of the makeshift bar, stocked with beer and soft drinks, which had been constructed upstairs. He emptied one bottle down the sink, and ordered that the same should be done with the rest. "I don't want the men tempted," he said.
One of Jim Larkin's men demanded a bottle of stout on the first day of fighting, and became truculent when informed there was none. Shouting and ranting that he wanted a drink, he was taken at his word by FitzGerald and handed a glass of water. At that, he walked off "gurgling with discontent".
On the afternoon of Easter Monday, "two strange-looking men" presented themselves at the GPO. They were seamen, one from Sweden, the other from Finland, and they wanted to join the fighting "for small nationalities". They revealed that they were siding with the rebels because England was allied with Russia, and Russia had eaten up their countries. Only the Swedish sailor spoke English, and he revealed they could only stay until Thursday, as they had to leave when their ship departed. One was given a shotgun, the other a rifle, and they were stationed at a window.
The two sailors ended up staying in the GPO until the very end. The Finn's name was Antli, and although he had no English, he soon became a popular figure and was called 'Tony' by the other rebels. One day there was a report of an impending attack, and everyone cocked their guns. It was a false alarm, but Antli accidentally banged his shotgun off the floor and it fired into the air, sending a shower of plaster over half a dozen of the rebels. Upon hearing the explosion, Joseph Plunkett ran to discover what had happened and began abusing the Finn. "Can you not talk, man?" His fellow sailor had to intervene and explain their status. "Amazing!" said Plunkett, and he set the men to filling tins with explosives to prevent further accidents.
Plunkett, the architect of the military strategy for the Rising despite having no actual experience, was the most unlikely figure in the GPO. "Gorgeously apparelled" in military uniform, he wore a long sword and a silk scarf around his neck, and looked nothing like a military commander. Some even thought he was "unsoldierly" because he wore jewellery. But he won over the doubters. As James Connolly told his son, "That's Joe Plunkett, and he has more courage in his little finger than all the other leaders combined".
Plunkett was not the only elaborately dressed man in the GPO. Another colourful figure wore earrings, a legacy of his travels around the world. "A small, sallow man", he entertained his fellow rebels with stories of his adventures abroad, including a tale of how he succeeded in cutting the head off a Greek man in one of his "foreign encounters". Some of the more religious men, who disapproved of strong language, were said to be "in a state of collapse almost". Religion seems to have been a strong feature of life in the GPO. Every night some of the men and women said the Rosary, and sometimes during the day as well. One recounted afterwards how it was "not an unusual sight to see a Volunteer with his rifle grasped firmly in his hands, and his rosary beads hanging from his fingers".
There was enough supplies to last three weeks, if necessary, and FitzGerald was in charge of ensuring that the provisions lasted. He became an unpopular figure because of his strict rationing. One evening, Michael Collins brought his men in after having spent the day demolishing walls and building barricades. Collins demanded that his men would be fed, even if it meant taking "the last food in the place". Considered by some "the most active and efficient officer in the place", and a dominant figure, Collins got his own way.
Pearse seems to have been an approachable figure during the week, and many rebels spoke to him directly. Moving about slowly, caught up in his own thoughts, his mere presence seems to have inspired those around him. One rebel admitted that they "almost worshipped" him, and speculated that his influence derived from his "innate spirituality".
The looting on Sackville Street disgusted Pearse. When asked if looters who were captured should be shot he replied simply "Yes". However, when a looter was actually captured he revealed his true feelings. "Ah, poor man" he said, "just keep him with the others".
Connolly took everything seriously during the week, and was a brooding presence. When one sniper spent the day trying to shoot off the nose off the statue of Admiral Nelson, he received a firm order from Connolly to stop wasting bullets.
By the Thursday, the shelling had transformed the landscape of the city centre. One rebel revealed that "the noise of bursting shells and tumbling walls and roofs was indescribable". One of the captured soldiers remarked that the whole thing was "worse than Flanders", hardly good for rebel morale. Indeed, morale seems to have collapsed as the roar of the flames increased.
It was decided to send some men across the street to Clerys to grab some mattresses for the barricades. On the way back, there was a shower of bullets and one man tripped and fell. The mattress fell on top of him, saving his life, and he got up, "quite calmly, and got in without a scratch".
The leaders had been expecting the rebellion to end with hand-to-hand fighting and so had brought with them some new laundry hampers filled with weapons. They were mainly police batons made of oak, with a wrist strap, which had been purchased by the Irish Citizen Army to defend future strikers. Other weapons included, "an assortment of daggers, bayonets, hatchets, cleavers, pistols ancient and modern, butchers' knives" and so on. Nothing was being left to chance, although some wondered how effective they would be against armed opponents. On the Friday, the decision was taken to evacuate the GPO, with Pearse informing the rebels that they had taken part in the greatest armed attempt against Britain since the 1798 Rebellion.
He told them they had deserved to win the fight, and perhaps would still win it, "in death". The order was given to withdraw, and many were reduced to tears as the emotion of the week got to them.
Waving his automatic pistol, Tom Clarke refused to leave the GPO, determined to stay to the end. He was eventually persuaded to leave. A few of the men began to sing 'A Soldier's Song' as the flames took over the building and the roof began to collapse.
The two Nordic sailors survived the rebellion and afterwards were arrested along with everyone else. The Swedish consul soon intervened, and the sailor was quickly released. The Finn, Antli, was less fortunate, and he was interned at Knutsford before being released. Although not a Catholic, it was said that by the end of his experience he was able to recite the Rosary in Irish. He returned home with tales of excitement, terror, and idealism from his five days in the GPO.
Patrick Geoghegan is professor of history at Trinity College Dublin. He presents the award-winning Talking History on Newstalk radio. His online course, 'Ireland in Rebellion', can be viewed free-of charge on YouTube