Friday 17 November 2017

The O'Rahilly's poignant letter to wife as he lay dying on Moore St

In this extract from Gene Kerrigan's book 'The Scrap', the rebels are evacuating the GPO as it burns down around them. The O'Rahilly leads a unit down Moore Street, attempting to break through the British cordon. The rebels are trapped in the lanes behind Moore Street. Some will die there

TRUE HERO: The O'Rahilly died after leading the charge on Moore Street
TRUE HERO: The O'Rahilly died after leading the charge on Moore Street
British soldiers survey the damage inside the GPO on O'Connell Street
Executed: Tom Clarke
James Connolly
The Scrap by Gene Kerrigan
Michael Collins

When they got to the junction with Moore Street, The O'Rahilly split his men into two files, one on each side of the street. He himself was on the left side. They advanced slowly, moving perhaps half of the 240-yard length of Moore Street without incident. The O'Rahilly finally raised his pistol and yelled, "Charge!"

Paddy Murray was within seconds lying on the pavement, badly wounded. After running 30 yards, John Kenny was cut down, rose and carried on, and was hit again, his leg shattered by bullets. Others were still running, some were on the ground, some were scattering towards cover - the charge was immediately broken up by the intensity of the machine-gun fire.

The O'Rahilly made it up Moore Street to within 50 yards of the barricade. He crouched in a doorway. Paddy Shortis of F Company was in cover nearby. In shops and lanes and nooks and crannies the length of the street, Volunteers squatted, waited, didn't dare move. It was impossible to go on, it was impossible to go back. Out there was nothing but blood, pain and death. From his hiding place, The O'Rahilly could hear British soldiers calling to the machine gunners, telling them the rebel officer was in a doorway to their right.

Before they could resume shooting, The O'Rahilly jumped out of the doorway and ran - the machine gun firing now - heading for the safety of Sackville Lane, on the other side of the street.

There was panic in the Moore Street lanes.

Sixty-five yards in from Henry Street, Henry Place took a sharp left turn. Thirty yards down from the turn there was a three-storey building, the ground floor whitewashed.

Countless tiny puffs of smoke were erupting from the building. Volunteers scrambled to find cover where there was none.

The sound of firing was non-stop. A couple of men went down. Some Volunteers were trying to break in the door to the house, using the butts of their rifles.

In the scramble, safety catches had been shaken off and when the butts hit the door the rifles fired, hitting those standing behind.

Harry Coyle of F Company died this way.

Tom Clarke shot at the lock on another building, trying to find a place where the men could find cover. It didn't work.

The injured James Connolly was left lying on his back in the lane, alone and shouting orders.

Volunteer Sean McLoughlin was screaming at whoever was inside the whitewashed house. "You're firing on your own men."

A Volunteer took a bullet in the chest and went down, falling across the handles of Connolly's stretcher. Connolly panicked, trying to get off the stretcher - he was sure that it was Joe Plunkett who had been shot and wanted to get him into cover. Just then, Plunkett came walking calmly up the lane.

Joe Good decided this problem needed a hand grenade. One grenade in the window of the whitewashed building and the shooting would stop, the panic would end, the advance could continue.

It was their own men in there, their own men they would kill - but that's not what mattered, Joe decided.

The panic centred around the whitewashed building was creating chaos and putting everything at risk. It had to be stopped.

He went back down the lane asking Volunteers if anyone had a grenade.

No one had.

One Volunteer pointed back towards the GPO. It was full of abandoned grenades and bombs.

In the GPO, Charlie Saurin held his rifle in his left hand as blood streamed from the bullet wound in his right palm. The GPO's first aid post had gone with the Cumann na mBan nurses.

MW O'Reilly was helping a wounded man and called to Charlie to help carry a stretcher - Saurin showed him his bloody hand and moved to take his turn at the exit into Henry Street. On his turn, he ran across the street into Henry Place, bullets hitting the ground like hailstones.

He ran up the lane and rounded the corner to where the panicked Volunteers were still clustered.

Someone shouted a command to fix bayonets. There was to be a charge on the whitewashed house. Saurin fixed his sword bayonet to the top of his Martini-Henry rifle and prepared to join the charge. Oscar Traynor and Liam Cullen from F Company were first in the door, with others crowding in after them. The house was empty.

The shooting, however, continued.

Liam Cullen went into a front room, took a bullet in the thigh and went down.

Facing the whitewashed house there was a long lane - Moore Lane, almost parallel to Moore Street and stretching right up to the Rotunda Hospital in Great Britain Street. From two-thirds of the way up the lane, a British machine gun was strafing all in front of it, the bullets peppering the whitewashed house, the white dust rising from each bullet, giving the impression that the firing was coming from inside the house.

Men had been shot, some accidentally at the hands of their own comrades, in a pointless assault on an empty house.

Patrick Pearse and his brother Willie, along with Frank Henderson, George Plunkett, MW O'Reilly and about 10 others, were standing just inside the Henry Street exit from the GPO. The firing from the bottom of Henry Street was intense.

I'm going back, Pearse said, to make sure there's no one left behind. He spent a while moving from room to room, finding them all empty - then he remembered James Kavanagh, ordered to try to shoot the British sniper on the rooftops above Henry Street.

Pearse found an exhausted Kavanagh asleep. "I was nearly forgetting you - they're all gone." Kavanagh hurried to the side door, while Pearse had one last quick look around. When Pearse came back to the side door - his face swollen with heat and smeared with soot and dust - all but a handful of the remaining GPO garrison had run across the street into Henry Place.

Frank Henderson, MW O'Reilly, George Plunkett, Willie Pearse, James Kavanagh and finally Patrick Pearse left the GPO. They ran across Henry Street, bullets clipping the ground around their feet, and into the lanes that led to Moore Street. There were now between two and three hundred rebels in the narrow lanes. Artillery shells were still landing throughout the area. The crackling noises and the drifting smoke from the many burning buildings overlay everything.

Worst of all, the air was alive with bullets from the British machine guns.

The rebels couldn't go forward on to Moore Street, or turn right into Moore Lane, without being mown down.

British snipers picked off occasional targets.

Some rebels clambered over walls, into yards.

Waving his revolver, Tom Clarke urged the men to run past the entrance to Moore Lane.

"One more rally for Ireland!"

Volunteer John Twamley got past safely; a Volunteer behind him took a bullet in the calf and went down.

Twamley reached out and pulled him out of the line of fire.

A Volunteer with a shotgun rested against a wall and put the gun down, butt first. The gun went off and he took the blast in the throat.

Michael Collins located a van somewhere and organised a detail to push it across the entrance to Moore Lane.

The move worked - the van sheltered the Volunteers from view, and from the deadly machine-gun fire, as they ran past the entrance to the lane.

Moore Street was a market area, but it was also residential. Citizens had suffered days of gunfire, shortage of food, hour after hour of artillery shells landing nearby, and were too afraid to leave. Now, there were armed men all over the place, frantically seeking cover.

John Twamley kicked open the door at the end of Henry Place and found a terrified old couple inside. It's all right, he told, them, we won't harm you. The pair ran off and locked themselves into the basement. At the back of one house, a Volunteer couldn't open a door.

He either tried to shoot the lock or smash the glass panel and accidentally discharged his rifle. Either way, the bullet went through the door, through a lung of the man who lived there, Thomas McKane, and killed his 15-year-old daughter Brigid, standing behind him. Sean MacDermott was enraged, demanding to know who had fired that shot. The girl's distraught mother said she knew it was an accident.

The rebels now had access to Cogan's grocery shop, at the junction of Henry Place and Moore Street. Inside, John Twamley was barricading the back-room window against snipers. Pearse came into the shop, then James Connolly was carried in on a stretcher.

A couple of Cumann na mBan women began cooking a large ham.

Oscar Traynor stood at the entrance to Cogan's, directing the men into the shop and up to the first floor. "Arthur Shields is gone upstairs," he told Charlie Saurin.

The front room upstairs was dark. It had two windows, but it was night outside and the windows were covered.

The room was very crowded. Volunteers huddled together in the dark. It took Saurin some moments to find Boss Shields, hunkered down near a window, rifle in his hand. From outside, the sound of the British machine guns - bullets scoring along the brickwork of the buildings.

The crack of the rebels' rifles, the flames roaring from the GPO and other buildings nearby.

Many in the room were asleep, all were worn out. Most had been awake day and night over the previous few days.

A Volunteer complained to an older man, who was sitting with his back to the wall, his hands clasped around his knees. You took my place, he said, you took my place.

Charlie Saurin recognised the older man as Tom Clarke. He leaned over and put his hand on the Volunteer's leg and gently told him who he was quarrelling with. The man stopped complaining. He clung to Saurin's hand.

The air was alive with raw nerves and mortal fear. Across the road from Cogan's shop, a British soldier was lying in the street, badly wounded. He repeatedly called for help.

He was one of the prisoners released from the GPO. George Plunkett took a water bottle from another Volunteer and ran across the street, knelt beside the soldier and gave him a drink. In the darkness, the British machine gunners most likely couldn't see much of what was happening.

Their persistent firing was randomly disruptive. But anyone on the street was putting themselves in danger. Plunkett carried the soldier to safety. Then he went out on to the street again and brought back the soldier's rifle.

Even at this stage of things, good weapons couldn't be allowed go to waste. Someone could use the rifle against the comrades of the man Plunkett helped.

At the far end of Moore Street, in Sackville Lane, 40 yards from the British barricade, The O'Rahilly was preparing to die.

He'd made it to the lane, badly wounded, a number of bullets hitting him diagonally from left hip to right shoulder.

Committed to the last to doing what he saw as the proper thing, he wrote a final note to his wife. He found his son Aodogan's letter in a pocket, folded over, a hole through it from one of the bullets that hit him. He wrote on the back of this, in pencil:

Written after I was shot - Darling Nancy, I was shot leading a rush up Moore Street took refuge in a doorway. While I was there I heard the men pointing out where I was & I made a bolt for the lane I am in now. I got more [than] one bullet I think

Tons and tons of love dearie to you & to the boys & to Nell & Anna. It was a good fight anyhow.

Please deliver this to Nannie O'Rahilly, 40 Herbert Park, Dublin.

Good bye Darling.

Later, there would be claims that the British withheld medical help, to ensure The O'Rahilly died. Given that they tended the wounds of others, including rebels more senior than The O'Rahilly, the evidence for this is so terribly weak as to be dismissible.

He fought as he thought best. Alone, as his comrades further down Moore Street struggled to find a way out of the encircling enemy, The O'Rahilly lay back and died from his wounds.

A British officer later found the note and ensured it was delivered to Nancy.

Sunday Independent

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