Tuesday 22 October 2019

Centenary Papers: Paper close to action as Rising erupts

Kim Bielenberg tells the story of the Irish Independent during the Rising - and how one reporter joined the rebels

Destroyed: Wynn's Hotel on Dublin's Abbey Street not far from the offices of the Irish Independent.
Destroyed: Wynn's Hotel on Dublin's Abbey Street not far from the offices of the Irish Independent.

April 24, 1916, seemed like just another quiet Easter Monday in the offices of the Irish Independent on Abbey Street as journalists turned up for work.

Reporter Michael Knightly was down in the news diary to cover a teachers' conference, but within hours he was to be caught up in the events of the Rising at the heart of the action in the GPO.

The Irish Independent, then owned by the wealthy businessman William Martin Murphy, was becoming a hugely popular newspaper at the time. With editor Timothy R Harrington at the helm, it had revolutionised the delivery of news in Ireland. Stories were written in a crisp, accessible style, and papers were delivered across the country much faster than those of rivals.

On that Easter Monday morning, Kerryman Knightly was just going through an advanced copy of a speech at the teachers' conference when news came through of trouble on O'Connell Street. The burly Irish Independent caretaker Pat Gaffney rushed up the stairs to the reporters' room and literally fell through the door.

"The Volunteers have gone into the GPO; they are breaking the glass with the butt of their rifles and sandbagging the windows," he shouted.

Knightly and another reporter, Maurice Linnane, were quickly down at the GPO. Linnane saw copies of the Proclamation being handed out to a somewhat puzzled crowd, and got hold of one of them.

An Irish Independent journalist, presumably Linnane, reported in one news story how a bomb was placed under a tram opposite the GPO: "The sound of an explosion was deafening. Crowds ran helter skelter in all directions out of O'Connell Street, and many were knocked down and trampled on in the rush."

Soon afterwards, a troop of lancers on horseback came charging down the street from the Parnell Monument towards the GPO, before they retreated under heavy gunfire from rebel positions. At this point onlookers were taking cover, but Irish Independent reporters Linnane and Knightly raced after the lancers as they retreated.

As the paper's later account of the incident reported: "(The lancers) were immediately fired on from the top of the GPO, and two men and two horses were killed. The dead horses lay in the street during the afternoon."

The sudden uprising in the centre of Dublin may have come as a shock to Dubliners, but it wasn't a great surprise to Knightly. In his spare time, the reporter was a member F Company of the Irish Volunteers.

In the days before the Rising, he had come across Commandant Ned Daly and another rebel reporter, Piaras Beaslaí, and they had hinted to him that something was up.

On the evening of Easter Monday, after the dramatic events of the day, Knightly set aside his reporting duties and joined his Volunteer comrades in the rebellion. He told a sympathetic colleague, Fred Cogley, of his intentions, and Cogley told him he wanted to accompany him to the GPO.

Knightly advised him to go home, and telling him it was "no married man's job".

Knightly later recalled in his witness statement to the Bureau of Military History: "I proceeded to the GPO and knocked at the main door. The door was opened by The O'Rahilly, to whom I explained that I was a volunteer belonging to F Company and that I desired to join up. He received me most cordially.

"The O'Rahilly, thinking, I suppose, that a reporter would not be much use as a gunman, conducted me to the kitchen and put me to work…"

He was later given a gun, and told to guard one of the windows on the ground floor of the GPO. He watched Pádraig Pearse and James Connolly coming and going. Pearse moved about slowly, as if in deep thought.

Connolly seemed to him to be the most active of the senior officers: "He struck me as being a man of exceptionally forcible character. I thought what a great general he would make in more favourable circumstances."

Meanwhile, back at the Irish Independent offices, operations more or less ground to a halt on Tuesday. An edition of the paper was printed, but it was decided not to distribute it because of the dangers involved. Linnane was out and about on the streets in the city centre.

Staff of the sister paper, the Evening Herald, had been trapped in the building as bullets flew around them. They made their way to the basement and then out on to Abbey Street through an underground passage. They emerged behind rebel barricades, and fled to safety waving white hankies over their heads.

Irish Independent editor Harrington continued to come into work, but any hopes of bringing out the paper during that week were dashed when the gas and electricity, which powered the machinery in the print plant, were cut off.

By Thursday, the GPO was coming under heavy bombardment. Rebel reporter Knightly stayed for much of this time in the GPO, but also kept a look-out for advancing British troops at the nearby Coliseum Theatre.

Connolly feared that British troops were advancing close to the Independent offices. He summoned young volunteer Sean McLoughlin and told him: "I have had word brought in that the British are advancing along Abbey Street and coming across from the Quays up Liffey Street. I want you to go around into Abbey Street and seize the Independent offices, and the building on the opposite corner so that you can command Abbey Street looking towards Capel Street and overlooking Liffey Street."

As McLoughlin and his men moved down Abbey Street, there was heavy gunfire. At first, when the volunteers arrived at the Irish Independent, some remaining staff refused to let them in and locked the doors, but they smashed their way in through a side entrance, ordering the staff to clear out.

McLoughlin's men occupied the sub-editors' room, blocking the windows with tables and reference books, as they kept watch over the street with rifles. The sports editor's office was turned into the kitchen (staff returning after the Rising found bread, tin cans and other leftovers).

McLoughlin later said in his witness statement: "I went on to the roof... Now we saw the extent of the damage... The eastern side O'Connell Street was in flames. The Imperial Hotel, and Reis's were emitting huge columns of smoke. It was a terrific spectacle."

As Volunteers kept watch from the sub-editors' room, news came through that cavalry might be approaching. Hearing horses' hooves, McLoughlin was just about to give the order to open fire when he spotted that the horses were riderless.

On Friday, as the situation in the GPO became more desperate, McLoughlin received an order from Pearse to return to base. When the British forces took control of the area, three volunteers were arrested in the vicinity of Independent building, but the paper's offices and print works were undamaged.

Linnane had tried to get back into the office on Thursday but could only get as far as Phibsborough, because movement through the city was restricted by Crown forces.

Passing through numerous checkpoints on his bicycle, the editor managed to get into the building on Sunday, the day after the rebel surrender, and by the time the paper re-appeared it had been off the streets for over a week.

The loyalist Irish Times had managed to publish an edition, but it only had the most cursory mention of the Rising, and an official proclamation by the government declaring martial law.

News of what had actually happened was scarce and some eager readers waited up half the night until the first copies of the Irish Independent came off the presses.

The printers struggled to keep up with the demand, and there were problems distributing the paper across the country.

In those days, the front page was made up of advertisements, but across an inside page there was a banner headline: "THE COLLAPSE OF THE SINN FÉIN RISING".

"The Sinn Féin insurrection, which broke out in Dublin City on Easter Monday at noon, has been effectively quelled," the opening paragraph read.

An editorial written by editor Harrington, with the headline 'Criminal Madness', criticised the rebels: "No term of denunciation … would be too strong to apply to those responsible for the insane and criminal rising."

By May 10, with the number of executions increasing, the public mood was changing and sympathy for the volunteers increasing.

An editorial warned the government not to be "so severe as to create a revulsion of feeling".

However, the same editorial advised: "Let the worst of the ringleaders be singled out and dealt with as they deserve."

This was widely interpreted as a call for Connolly to be shot. He was executed two days later.

In the aftermath of the Rising, the paper gradually became more sympathetic to Sinn Féin and opposed conscription of Irishmen to the British forces, while also opposing the violence of the IRA.

Despite the paper's editorial stance against violence, the well-known IRA volunteer Dan Breen observed in his memoir: "Many of the [Independent's] staff members were members of the Irish Republican Army."

Knightly survived the Rising, and was later interned in Frongoch in Wales.

Upon his return he rejoined the Irish Independent, and became Director of Press Intelligence under Michael Collins.

Harrington continued as editor of the paper until 1931.

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