Easter Rising – Day 1: Rebels on the streets

On Easter Monday 1916, the rebels seize key buildings across Dublin city centre

Several different nationalist groups took part in the 1916 Rising, but many of the rebels shared a similar background and motivation.

 

Easter Monday, April 24th

  • The rebels turn out in reduced numbers in Dublin and begin operations at noon, seizing the 
  • General Post Office, Boland’s Mill, the South Dublin Union, Jacob’s factory and other buildings. 
  • The rebels fail to capture the largely undefended centre of the administration at Dublin Castle but occupy the adjacent City Hall instead. 
  • Patrick Pearse reads the Proclamation of the Irish Republic outside the GPO. Transport and distribution services break down throughout the city.   
  • Large-scale looting begins in the O’Connell Street area.   
  • During the night, government troops quietly occupy the Shelbourne Hotel, occupying a commanding position overlooking the Citizen Army positions in St Stephen’s Green.  
  • There are German Zeppelin raids on the coasts of Norfolk and Suffolk and an aeroplane attack on Dover It was a lovely day for an outing. 
 
 
 
It was a lovely day for an outing. Ernest Jordison, managing director of the British Petroleum Company in Ireland, had hired “the best motor car in Dublin” to take his friends to Fairyhouse, in Co Meath, for the Irish Grand National. They met on O’Connell Street, then drove to Dame Street, across the River Liffey, to collect the picnic they would eat at the racecourse.

As they drove along they passed several tramcars full of armed insurgents. They left the city at noon, and by the time they arrived at Fairyhouse there was “great commotion in the reserved grandstand” and “rumours of terrible happenings at Dublin”.

Arthur Hamilton Norway, head of the Irish Post Office, being a diligent public servant, had letters to write even though it was a bank holiday. While his wife sat sewing in the Royal Hibernian Hotel, on Dawson Street, where the family lived, and their son Nevil went for a ride on his motorbike, he dropped in to his office at the GPO to collect some papers.

He was just sitting down at his desk when the phone rang; it was Sir Matthew Nathan, under-secretary of the Irish administration, who asked him to go immediately to Dublin Castle. “I saw nothing unusual as I walked up to the castle. Nathan had with him Maj Price, the army intelligence officer. He turned to me as I came in and told me there was serious trouble in Kerry, where a ship had been seized with German officers on board, and material for a rising . . .

“The position was serious, and he desired me to take immediate steps for denying the use of the telephone and telegraph service over large areas of southern Ireland to all but military and naval use . . .

“I was just finishing the necessary order when a volley of musketry crashed out beneath the window. I looked up. ‘What’s that?’ I asked. ‘Oh, that’s probably the long-promised attack on the castle,’ cried Nathan, jumping up and leaving the room, while Maj Price shouted from the window to some person below, after which he too ran off.

“I waited for a few minutes and then went downstairs in search of some explanation. At the foot of the staircase I found all of the messengers huddled together in a frightened crowd. They had seen the policeman at the gate shot through the heart. They were badly shaken.”

Shortly before Arthur Norway had left his family at the Royal Hibernian, Helena Molony had left Liberty Hall with nine other women, all members of the Citizen Army. She was dressed in an Irish tweed costume with a Sam Browne belt slung across it. In it was a revolver.

She and the other women had been given the guns that morning by James Connolly, who told them: “Don’t use them except in the last resort.”

At about 11.50am the women followed a detachment of Citizen Army men, under the command of the Abbey Theatre actor Seán Connolly, up Dame Street and then turned left and marched to the front gate of the castle. “Just then,” she recalled, “a police sergeant came out . . . He thought it was a parade and that it would be going up Ship Street. When Connolly went to go past him the sergeant put out his arm, and Connolly shot him dead.”

Connolly, who “was excited because he had shot the policeman dead”, shouted to his detachment, “Get in, get in.” But the rebels, who seemed to Molony unsure of what they were doing, hesitated. “In a flash the gates were closed. The sentry went into his box and began firing.” The rebels withdrew into the adjacent City Hall.

The first military action of the Rising had failed to capture the castle. The first casualty was not in fact a sergeant but an unarmed constable, 45-year-old James O’Brien.

Eamon Bulfin, a lieutenant in the Irish Volunteers, heard the firing from Dublin Castle as he and about 20 men got off a tram from Rathfarnham. He had been in bed at 9am when an order arrived, written in blue pencil by Patrick Pearse’s brother, Willie, instructing him to assemble the Rathfarnham company and head for Liberty Hall.

He got the men on the tram, but it stopped at the corner of Dame Street and South Great George’s Street because of the firing at the castle. “The tram driver and conductor simply abandoned ship and fled. Our party marched down to Liberty Hall . . . and found no one there.” A messenger arrived with an order to head for the GPO. They loaded their ammunition and supplies on a hand cart and headed up Abbey Street.

Unable to march

Arthur Norway had just left the GPO for Dublin Castle when, at about 11.50am, a frail, bespectacled man and another man with a bad limp and a walking stick made their painstaking way on to O’Connell Street. Tom Clarke, whose health had been damaged by 15 years in prison, and Seán Mac Diarmada, whose leg had been withered by polio, had walked from Liberty Hall because they were unable to march.

They were waiting outside the GPO when about 150 rebels under James Connolly and Patrick Pearse marched up O’Connell Street as far as the Imperial Hotel. Connolly gave a sudden command to wheel left and charge the GPO.

Norway had ensured that a military guard was on duty at the GPO, but the soldiers had no ammunition and could put up no resistance. Once the rebels were inside their immediate task was to persuade baffled customers and staff that they were serious and that bystanders had to leave. The rebels then sent detachments to the Imperial Hotel, Clerys department store and the shops facing O’Connell Bridge.

Pearse, who had been designated president of the Republic, emerged from the GPO looking “very pale” and read a proclamation. One sympathetic observer, Stephen McKenna, noted ruefully that “for once his magnetism had left him; the response was chilling; a few thin, perfunctory cheers, no direct hostility just then, but no enthusiasm whatever”.

Half an hour later Eamon Bulfin’s detachment arrived at the Prince’s Street North side of the GPO, just in time to see a company of lancers ride down the street with their sabres drawn. The rebels fired on them from the GPO and the Imperial Hotel, killing four men and scattering the rest.

Bulfin “did not know where the shots were coming from. In the confusion and noise nobody seemed to give us any attention at all, and the position was looking critical.”

He spotted a side window. “I broke the window with my rifle, and incidentally broke my rifle. Any chaps that were near me, I called them out by name and hooched them up the window. Jack Kiely was actually on his hands and knees on the window sill when he was hit by a bullet.”

Once Bulfin was inside he reported to Patrick Pearse and was sent to the roof of the building. Up there he was given the job of hoisting one of two flags. Someone else raised a Tricolour. Bulfin was given a green flag with a golden harp and the words “Irish Republic”.

“The thing I remember most about hoisting it is that I had some kind of hazy idea that the flag should be rolled up in some kind of a ball, so that when it was hauled up it would break out.” Looking down from the parapet, he saw that people had begun to loot the shops on the street below.

Ernie O’Malley, an 18-year-old medical student, was walking up O’Connell Street; he saw two dead horses that had belonged to some of the lancers. “Seated on a dead horse was a woman, a shawl around her head, untidy wisps of hair straggled across her dirty face. She swayed slowly, drunk, singing: ‘Boys in khaki, boys in blue, here’s the best of jolly good luck to you.’ ”

At about 2.30pm, on Dundrum Road, in the foothills of the Dublin Mountains, an anonymous Trinity College student was enjoying “a day of peaceful thoughts if ever there was one” when about 120 British army veterans and civilian volunteers passed him by.

They wore civilian clothes with armbands emblazoned with the letters GR – Georgius Rex – giving rise to the derisive nationalist nicknames “Gorgeous Wrecks” and “God’s Rejected”.

They had been in Ticknock, where they had conducted a sham fight against the GRs of Kingstown and Greystones.

“The GRs came swinging along at a steady pace, their faces towards the city. An officer on horseback led them. As he passed us we recognised in him Maj Harris of the officers’ training corps of the University of Dublin” – Trinity College, in other words. “He stopped us. ‘Have you heard that the Sinn Féiners have risen in Dublin, and seized the General Post Office and Stephen’s Green, and shot several of the police?’ The veterans passed on their way to the city, leaving us bewildered.”

An hour later the GRs, who were either unarmed or had rifles but no ammunition, were fired on by rebels on Haddington Road, in Dublin 4. Four were killed and nine wounded.

The Trinity student made his way to the college, a key location at the centre of the city, which the rebels, for some reason, had made no attempt to occupy even though it was defended by little more than the student officers’ training corps, or OTC.

“It happened that Trinity College seemed almost without defenders. Maj Tate, the CO, was unfortunately away. But Capt Alton of the OTC, Lieut Luce of the Royal Irish Rifles, who was home from the front on sick leave, and Lieut Waterhouse were fortunately at hand.

“A few boys in khaki were about. There was no doubt of the seriousness of the position. Help from military or police was not to be expected for some time – possibly for some days. That the college had not already been captured was most inexplicable. It was obviously the most central and commanding position in the city. There was the additional attraction of the military stores of the OTC depot. In this were kept some hundreds of service rifles and many thousands of rounds of ammunition.”

Helena Molony was sent from City Hall to the GPO to ask for reinforcements. As she was leaving one of the rebels approached her “nearly in tears: ‘Miss Molony, give that note – it is a note for the ould mott’ – his wife”.

Dispirited

Walking down Dame Street, she met the left-wing journalist Francis Sheehy Skeffington, “looking very white and dispirited”, distressed by the looting.

She carried on to the GPO, delivered her message and walked back to City Hall. She was on the roof at about 2pm when she saw a stray bullet hit Seán Connolly. “He was bleeding very much from the stomach. I said the act of contrition into his ear. We had no priest . . . His young brother, Matt, who was only 15, was also on the roof and saw his brother dying.”

While Connolly was dying the writer James Stephens was encountering the other main detachment of the Citizen Army, under Michael Mallin, at St Stephen’s Green. He had left his office at the National Gallery of Ireland to go for lunch; he was walking down Merrion Row when he noticed that people were gathering in a mood of “silence and expectation and excitement”.

He asked what was happening. “Don’t you know? The Sinn Féiners have seized the city this morning.” Stephens ran towards the green and heard rifle fire “like sharply cracking whips”.

He saw armed men in the park and a rough barricade of carts and cars built across the road. He went back to his office and returned to St Stephen’s Green at 5pm.

As he watched, a man approached the barricade. He was, as James Connolly had once been, a carter, a labourer who hauled goods around the city by hand. His only means of livelihood was by cart – known as a lorry – and it was in the barricade.

He started to pull it free when armed men appeared at the park railings, shouting: “Put down that lorry. Let out and go away. Let out at once.” He kept pulling until the men fired some warning shots. He walked over to speak to the rebels. “ ‘Go and put back that lorry or you are a dead man. Go before I count four. One, two, three, four. . .’

“A rifle spat at him, and in two undulating movements the man sank on himself and sagged to the ground. I ran to him with some others while a woman screamed unmeaningly, all on one strident note.

“The man was picked up and carried to a hospital beside the Arts Club. There was a hole in the top of his head, and one does not know how ugly blood can look until it has been seen clotted in hair.”

Capt Gerrard, home on leave from the Dardanelles, was walking in civilian clothes along Grafton Street when he too saw the rebels on St Stephen’s Green. “I realised there was something serious on, and I went home and got my uniform.” He went to Beggar’s Bush barracks, on Haddington Road, at about 8pm. There were no arms and little ammunition.

“There were Sir Frederick Shaw, myself, one or two ranker officers, four noncommissioned officers, and about 10 men, three of whom were invalids.” Just two had ever fired a shot in anger: Gerrard, during the war; and Shaw, who was now commander of the second battalion of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, against the Fenians in 1867.

Dead horses

Driving back from Fairyhouse, and looking down O’Connell Street from Parnell Square, Ernest Jordison “actually saw boys with cricket bats and balls, playing in the middle of the road”, and two dead horses lying amid huge pools of blood.

At Annesley Bridge, which crosses the River Tolka in Fairview, he was stopped by a group of rebels. He told them he was coming from the races at Fairyhouse. “One Volunteer asked me if Civil War had won [the Grand National]. I told him it was third.”

As evening fell it began to rain. During the night government troops slipped into the Shelbourne Hotel unnoticed by the rebels and therefore unopposed, giving themselves a commanding position overlooking St Stephen’s Green.

James Stephens lay awake in his flat on the Green. “Every five minutes a rifle cracked somewhere, but about a quarter to twelve a sharp volleying came from the direction of Portobello Bridge, and died away after some time . . . In another quarter of an hour there were volleys from Stephen’s Green direction, and this continued with intensity for about 25 minutes. Then it fell into a sputter of fire and ceased.

“I went to bed about four o’clock convinced that the Green had been rushed by the military, and captured, and that the Rising was at an end.”

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