Saturday 19 October 2019

The Rising erupts

On Easter Monday morning, the rebels began to gather at Liberty Hall, St Stephen's Green and other parts of the city. As shots began to ring out, Patrick Pearse stood outside the GPO and began to read the Proclamation, writes Donal Fallon

English troops under fire in Talbot Street during Easter Monday, 1916. Picture: Getty Images
English troops under fire in Talbot Street during Easter Monday, 1916. Picture: Getty Images
James Connolly
Author and historian Donal Fallon

The planning of rebellion, by its very nature, is a clandestine affair. Still, James Stephens began his diary The Insurrection in Dublin by noting that "this has taken everyone by surprise. It is possible, that with the exception of their Staff, it has taken the Volunteers themselves by surprise".

In the confusion of orders and countermanding orders issued in the days and hours before the rebellion, Easter Monday began on a downbeat note for the rebel forces. At mobilisation points across the city, the painful effects of Eoin MacNeill's countermanding order of the previous day quickly became apparent.

Poor turnouts at certain gathering points meant that the plans of the insurrection were altered dramatically in places. Thomas Slater of the Second Battalion of the Irish Volunteers, who served under Thomas MacDonagh, remembered that as men began to mobilise at St Stephen's Green, it was clear they would not be able to carry out their duties in full. In addition to seizing Jacob's, a large imposing factory on Bishop Street, it was also hoped men from this Battalion would seize Trinity College Dublin, but "the numbers which could be spared from the main body at Stephen's Green were so small, MacDonagh decided to call off the taking of Trinity College".

Some stumbled on the insurrection by chance. Major John MacBride, a veteran of the Second Boer War who was employed by Dublin Corporation at the time of the rebellion, was innocently in the city to meet his brother for lunch. On seeing men mobilising at St Stephen's Green, he recalled that, "I considered it my duty to join them."

The largest body of participants was mobilised at Liberty Hall, the home of the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union, which had become central to the planning of the insurrection. Patrick Stephenson remembered that by 8am, hours before the rebellion, there was a "fair amount of bustle and coming and going", as Volunteers, Irish Citizen Army members and others arrived there.

The ICA had been unaffected by MacNeill's countermanding order, yet by comparison with the Volunteers it was a small force, and about 200 of its members participated in the rebellion. Willie Oman was one member of the workers' militia, and as bugler, the teenager would sound the fall-in at Liberty Hall for the assembled forces. He remembered that in the weeks beforehand, "each member of the Citizen Army had been called in before Commandant Connolly and Commandant Mallin and asked if he was prepared to act without assistance of the Volunteers. Commandant Connolly explained… that he was anxious to know the position and how many men he could rely on."

At Liberty Hall, barely more than 150 of the Headquarters Battalion destined to seize the General Post Office had mobilised. Still, the strength of the GPO garrison would rise drastically during the week. While the strength of the garrison is often listed in histories of the Rising at about 400, the most comprehensive study to date, Jimmy Wren's recent The GPO Garrison Easter Week 1916 - A Biographical Dictionary, illustrates clearly that it rose to over 500.

Liam Tannam of the Irish Volunteers remembered two very unusual outsiders in the mix, in the form of a Swede and a Finn, both seamen, who happened to be in Dublin at the time and wished to fight. When Tannam asked why, he was told that "Russia with the British, therefore, we against."

While not quite as exotic as the Nordic rebels, the Irish Diaspora was represented in the form of the Kimmage Garrison, a body of men from Liverpool, Glasgow and other Irish centres of migration in Britain who had been preparing for the Rising at the Larkfield Mill in Kimmage, staying on the property of George Plunkett. Arthur Agnew recalled: "We marched to Harold's Cross, where we boarded a tram. Plunkett insisted on paying the conductor for our tickets."

The signal that the rebellion had begun was to be the destruction of the Magazine Fort in the Phoenix Park, a task that was left primarily to members of Na Fianna Éireann, the youth movement established in 1909. Fianna Commandant Eamon Martin recalled that, "we arrived at the outside of the Fort, pretending to be a football team, and by passing the ball from one to the other got near enough to the outside sentry to rush and disarm him". While the Fianna activists succeeded in gaining access to the Fort, the blast that followed was not sufficient to announce the rebellion in the spectacular fashion which they had hoped.

The first fatalities on both sides occurred in the vicinity of Dublin Castle, the symbolic home of British rule in the city. Unbeknownst to the Citizen Army, the Castle was poorly defended on Easter Monday, yet they still failed to breach its main gates. Constable James O'Brien of the Dublin Metropolitan Police was shot dead at the gates.

Having failed to penetrate the Castle beyond its guardroom, the Citizen Army occupied the neighbouring City Hall, and it was there that Seán Connolly became the first rebel casualty of the fighting. Connolly, a civil servant and a talented actor in the Abbey Theatre, worked in the motor tax department of Dublin Corporation, housed in City Hall. Connolly was joined in City Hall by a number of his siblings, all committed Citizen Army members, while his brother Joseph fought at the College of Surgeons, having walked out of Tara Street fire station to partake in the Rising.

The failure of the rebels to seize the Castle was disastrous, and as Fearghal McGarry has noted, "not only would its seizure have represented a tremendous propaganda coup, it would have netted leading members of the Irish administration and provided the rebels with a strategically important stronghold."

Outside of Dublin, news that events had gone ahead forced men into action. Volunteers in Maynooth marched into the city. In their midst was Thomas Byrne, who had earlier fought in the Boer War. He recalled that the men slept in Glasnevin Cemetery, before making their way onto the city. He remembered telling the men that "the grave-diggers will be here early in the morning and you must all scatter".

Patrick Colgan, who had also spent the night in the cemetery, remembered that when the men finally got to the GPO and met James Connolly there, "we must have appeared as a motley group of warriors to him, yet the welcoming smile which he gave us made us feel very full of ourselves."

For many civilians on the streets, the first indication that a rebellion was underway was the sight of the rebel Proclamation. Read by Pearse at the General Post Office, it was distributed by young Volunteers, including Seán T O'Kelly. O'Kelly had not mobilised at Liberty Hall, but arrived on Sackville Street as the occupation of the GPO was beginning. He watched Volunteers smash out the glass of the windows of the building, and remembered "the strange impression this smashing of the windows left on me. It was one of the first things that made one realise."

A copy of the Proclamation was placed at the base of the Nelson Pillar, and the young medical student Ernie O'Malley would recall that "some looked at it with serious faces, others laughed and sniggered." When a party of Lancers arrived onto Sackville Street in the very early stages of the rebellion to investigate events, a volley of shots rang out from the GPO as they approached the Pillar, with devastating consequences.

From the beginning, it was clear the civilian population were going to cause problems for the Volunteers. Curious, they milled around rebel positions, and in some cases were openly hostile. A member of the Jacob's garrison remembered that, "the women around the Coombe were in a terrible state; they were like French revolution furies and were throwing their arms round the police".

Hostility from working-class women was something the Jacob's garrison in particular had to contend with in the early stages of the Rising. 'Separation women', as they were known, were often dependent on the income of family members fighting in the trenches of the First World War. Almost 400 Jacob's employees enlisted in the British Army during the conflict, and their relations were sometimes more than willing to make their feelings clear.

For some civilians, the outbreak of the rebellion created an opportunity to loot, in particular on Sackville Street. One newspaper would write that "half the shops in Sackville Street were sacked. Children who have never possessed two pence of their own were imitating Charlie Chaplin with stolen silk hats in the middle of the turmoil and murder." Yet the first two shops looted were shoe shops, indicative of the intense poverty of inner-city Dublin.

On the first day of the rebellion, the looters proved a headache for the Dublin Fire Brigade. Lawrence's toyshop was predictably emptied and burned, and two people taken down by fire escape proved to be looters.

Mere hours into events, Sackville Street was already burning.

Donal Fallon is an author and historian, currently researching republican commemoration and memory at UCD School of History

Irish Independent

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