Inside the GPO in 1916: Desmond FitzGerald’s eyewitness account

First published 50 years ago, this first-hand account by the father of the future taoiseach Garret FitzGerald created a storm by claiming that the rebel leaders sympathetically discussed the likelihood of the Germans putting a prince of their own on the Irish throne

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

 

On April 7th, 1966, The Irish Times published a supplement to mark the 50th anniversary of the Rising. It contained this first-hand account in which Desmond FitzGerald suggested that the rebel leaders were considering putting a German prince on the Irish throne

In it FitzGerald refers regularly to The O’Rahilly, who, despite being one of the leaders of the Irish Volunteers, was kept in the dark about plans for the Rising on Easter Monday. He travelled the country on Easter Sunday, trying to stop the Rising, only to return to Dublin to find that it had begun

Despite his belief that the rebels stood no chance, The O’Rahilly decided to participate. He was killed on Moore Street

As we approached the General Post Office we saw the flag being hoisted over the roof and Patrick Pearse standing on the street outside. It seemed almost impossible that this should really have happened. As my wife, Mabel, and I hurried forward Pearse saw us and came towards us with a welcome.

He looked rather graver than usual. I felt that, while he had something of elation, there was also a heavy sense of responsibility. He told me that O’Rahilly was inside the post office, that he was in charge of one side of the top part, and he appointed me O’Rahilly’s adjutant.

We went in and were greeted by many friends. When I reached the top floor O’Rahilly came forward, still smiling. “They were determined to have a Rising,” he said, “so here we are.”

“How long do you think we can hold out?” I asked. “By a miracle we might last for 24 hours,” he replied, “but I don’t think we’ll go for that long.” I thought his estimate extremely optimistic.

When O’Rahilly had shown me everything we settled down to try to establish some sort of order. When we had it all settled I suggested that we had better make a report to the leaders below. But he asked me to do that. Then we talked. He thought that a great mistake had been committed in precipitating the Rising at that moment.

We both agreed that it was only a matter of hours until we should be all wiped out. I saw that he felt he had been treated badly by the “others”, and I agreed with him. I think I was more indignant at the way they had behaved to him than he was himself. He was just hurt. It was quite clear that they had not thought he would be in the Rising when it took place.

At length I went down to make the report. I found that I had to report not only to Pearse but also to Tom Clarke and to James Connolly.

Pearse, as he looked at the men about him with their weapons – pitiful weapons to set out to beat the British Empire with: some were rifles but more of them were shotguns, and there were some that we called the Howth rifles, very antiquated – I could see that he was deeply moved.

These young men had come out at his bidding to give their lives for Ireland. He did not question any of the arrangements that we had made. I felt that he would hesitate to criticise any arrangement once we had come out in answer to the call.

He spoke affectionately of O’Rahilly. I could see that he felt that a grave injustice had been committed in the treatment that O’Rahilly had received from those he had worked with.

Then I went on to Clarke. He was clearly elated that Ireland had indeed risen in arms though so few were our numbers. He did not hide the fact that he had been and still was bitterly angry that the countermanding order had been sent out.

But time and again he hastened to add that, of all men, he admired O’Rahilly. And I felt he had good reason to do so. They had doubted if O’Rahilly really meant to come out and risk his life, and they now saw that in the service to which he was so devoted he was ready not only to give his life but to give it under the command of those whose action had imposed upon him a mortal insult.

I asked Clarke, as I had already asked Pearse, what prospects were before us. But in both cases I got no definite answer. Clarke digressed immediately to say what a fight we should have put up if no countermanding order had been given. But he did not by any means say that evening that, even in that case, it would have been a victorious fight, or even a fight whose outcome could conceivably be in our favour.

I could speak less freely to James Connolly. I had not known him before. I felt that it would take very little to make him angry.

Smoke seen in Dublin Bay

When I got back to my own part of the building I found Volunteers who had come up for food telling the girls that the Germans had landed troops somewhere.

I tried to discourage these rumours. But they could not be killed. The next time I went to Pearse I told him that I objected to having those under my orders filled with false hopes by false rumours. He quite agreed with me. I said that I wanted to tell them the most hopeful thing that was known for certain. Was there anything that suggested we were getting outside help?

He told me that smoke had been seen in Dublin Bay and that they honestly believed that submarines were there.

I asked was that all, and he said that was all. It was little enough, but still it was more than I expected. Somehow, now that the Rising was a reality, it was the amusing side of every incident that impressed my mind.

It was only when I had time to think, or was speaking with O’Rahilly or Pearse or Joe Plunkett, that the overshadowing tragedy became real.

At the same time there was much that depressed me. I have forgotten whether it was that first day or soon afterwards, but I remember standing outside the post office with Pearse.

I knew that the apparently inevitable fate of all of us weighed heavily on his mind, and I knew also that he derived consolation from the thoughts that Ireland had again risen in arms and that his own life would be given in the service of her people.

But we could look along the street and see the “people” surging into shops and looting. I was overwhelmed by the thought that the sacrifice he was making meant no more to them than that the sanctions of ordered society were toppling over and gave them a chance to enrich themselves with stolen goods. Pearse stood beside me looking down the street at them, and there was tragedy written on his face.

All his own nobility and his sacrifice of himself and those poor souls that followed his lead weighed as nothing in the scales against the opportunity it offered to go home with a sackful of boots. I asked were those caught looting to be shot, and he answered: “Yes”.

But I knew that he said it without any conviction. And some time later a prisoner was actually handed over to me charged with looting. When I reported this to Pearse and asked what was to be done, he replied: “Ah, poor man, just keep him with the others.”

Bad news began on the very first day

Again, O’Rahilly would come along to talk to me. He agreed that once the preparations for the Rising had been pushed ahead a certain distance it was unthinkable that he should not take his place in it.

But at the same time he was quite convinced that it was badly timed, and he could not be satisfied that a real justification existed for leading those young men out to die. And at the back of his mind was the knowledge that he had left a devoted wife and family to give his life in an action that not only had not the assent of his own judgment but also that had been decided upon by men who had treated him as he had been treated. They had treated him as of no account and yet at their words of command he had had no option but to give his life supporting them.

Bad news began on the very first day. When we had entered the post office Pearse had told us of the buildings that had been seized. Among them he mentioned Dublin Castle. That seemed wonderful to me. In all the uprisings in Ireland, Dublin Castle had remained in English hands.

He then asked my wife to take a flag to be hoisted over the Castle. But some time later she came up to our part of the building with a different story. She had hurried to the Castle, taking it for granted that our men were in possession.

She was hurrying in at some entrance when she found bayonets pointed at her. She thought that it was one of our men on guard and looked up to assure him that it was all right when she found herself facing soldiers dressed in khaki. She hurriedly turned about. The attempt to take the Castle had failed. In our Rising as in those of previous centuries Dublin Castle remained in the enemy’s power.

Practically every time I went down to the big hall on the ground floor I stopped and spoke to Joseph Mary Plunkett. He looked appallingly ill but at the same time very cheerful. Then, probably on the Monday evening, he came up to my part of the building, looking like a dying man.

“I must have a rest” he said. “Can’t you sit down and let us talk?”

I told someone to bring him food and sit down with him. Although he looked like a dying man he seemed to be supremely happy. We talked about our friends, many of whom were due to take part in the Rising, but we did not know where those who were not in the post office might be.

Then he went on to give me a long account of a visit to Germany. I found it intensely interesting. I was enormously impressed to know at first hand that we had negotiated with a foreign power.

I remember thinking to myself that if it were not for the fact that I should never leave that building alive I should make notes of what he told me. But, as it was, it seemed quite pointless that I should make mental notes of his story. There were many details that I meant to ask him about just because of my own personal interest, when Pearse came and joined us.

I felt that he also was exhausted and that he wanted rest. We even tried to talk about unrelated things, but it was impossible to abstract our minds from the circumstances of the moment.

I was firmly convinced that it was only a matter of hours until we should all three be dead, and I was also sure that they both shared that conviction with me. I certainly could not ask Mr Pearse how long he thought we should hold out as I had asked O’Rahilly.

He talked of the Rising as a glorious thing in itself, without reference to what it might or might not achieve in the light of the position at the moment.

Both he and Plunkett spoke of how much bigger an event it would have been had the original plans gone forward unchecked. But they did not suggest that even in that case we might have expected a military victory. The very fact that the conversation returned so steadily to what might have been was an admission that there was no doubt now about what was going to be.

I could not ask why a date had been fixed and persisted in when no help was forthcoming from outside, beyond the ship of arms that had failed to land its cargo. Whenever that ship was referred to Pearse was careful to repeat that the arms it had contained were not a gift, that they had been bought and paid for either by or through our own people in the United States.

The reiteration of that point in the circumstances of that moment seemed to me to be significant in establishing that the Rising was our own work without any outside participation.

Pearse’s face revealed that his mind was occupied with the burden of responsibility that lay upon him. I could not voice my questions. I agreed heartily that in all probability what was then happening would rectify the spirit of Irish nationalism that had seemed to perish at the declaration of war.

Provided that the faith lived on, when the mutations of history brought, as they ultimately must bring, the favourable moment, the Irish nation would be ready to seize the occasion and to spring into life.

The German prince

Again the talk went back to what might have been and with the assurance that the arms that had been sent were purchased, and that the Germans had done no more than to try, unsuccessfully, to send them to the purchaser without even attempting to send a voluntary support.

It seemed to me that if they were apparently so indifferent to our success now, when by helping us they might well recognise that they were helping themselves, and when our success might well make the difference between success and failure for themselves, then there was still less assurance that in the hour of their victory, if they were to be victorious, they would put themselves out to make the satisfaction of our demand for freedom a condition of the peace that was to follow the war.

I therefore asked Pearse what interest the Germans would have in coupling our demands with their own when and if the hour of their victory came.

In putting my question I did not relate it to the fact that the Germans had made so little effort to assist us at that moment.

Both Pearse and Plunkett hastened to put forward the theory that even in the event of German victory the Germans would still have to look forward to possible dangers.

Obviously they would not attempt to annex England, for to do so would merely create for them a permanent source of weakness within their own system. Neither would they attempt to annex Ireland, for that would merely make us a weakness to them as we were now to England.

But they would need to see that England should not be able to challenge them again in the immediate future. In those circumstances it would obviously be good policy for them to take steps to establish an independent Ireland with a German prince as king. They even named the prince: Joachim, the youngest son of Kaiser Wilhelm II.

In those circumstances they would have an Ireland on the far side of England, linked with them in friendship flowing from the fact that they had promoted that independence and from the link of royal relationship.

That would have certain advantages for us. It would mean that a movement for de-anglicisation would flow from the head of the state downwards, for what was English would be foreign to the head of the state. He would naturally turn to those who were more Irish and Gaelic, as to his friends, for the non-nationalist element in our country had shown themselves to be so bitterly anti-German.

Such a ruler would necessarily favour the Irish language, for it would be impossible to make the country German-speaking, while it would be against his own interests to foster English.

For the first generation or so it would be an advantage, in view of our natural weakness, to have a ruler who linked us with a dominant European power, and thereafter, when we were better prepared to stand alone, or when it might be undesirable that our ruler should turn by personal choice to one power rather than be guided by what was most natural and beneficial for our country, the ruler of that time would have become completely Irish.

Talking of those things that might conceivably have been may seem to have been more calculated to depress us, seeing that even while we were speaking we were conscious that when the assault came it must necessarily overcome us. But somehow they cheered me, and it was quite evident that Pearse and Plunkett found comfort in speaking of what might have been.

Those talks between the three of us were repeated at various times during the week. No matter what might be happening when Pearse and Plunkett came in, I went to them immediately.

With Pearse it was different

In spite of Plunkett’s cheerfulness, and in spite of the fact that I thought that every one of us in that building had at the most a few days to live, my feeling that Plunkett was a dying man inspired me with a great pity for him. I could not look at Pearse’s face without being moved. Its natural gravity now conveyed a sense of great tragedy. There was no doubt in my mind that when he looked around at the men and girls there, he was convinced that they must all perish in the Rising to which he had brought them.

And, having decided both for himself and for others that they should sacrifice their lives for the Irish people, he knew that those who had been out about the streets on various errands came back and reported that the people were ready to attack them.

And he had seen how the people had seized the opportunity that he had given them to loot the shops, and were too preoccupied with their own cupidity to give a thought to the fate that he had chosen for himself and his followers. Plunkett could not forget in conversation the facts that surrounded us.

Sometimes, when there were only the two of us together, we would talk about literature and writers, and he would ask questions about writers who were friends of mine. But with Pearse it was different.

Even when he spoke of what might have been one felt that the major part of his mind was turning over what actually was. Time and again we came back to one favourite topic that could not be avoided. And that was the moral rectitude of what we had undertaken. He brought forward every theological argument and quotation that justified the Rising. And if one of us could adduce a point that the other two had not been aware of, it was carefully noted. I remember asking to have such points repeated and for exact references.

One of the reasons for this was that in talking with others this question so often arose and that any quotation that seemed to be authoritative and that favoured us was comforting to the questioner. During those talks I probably persuaded myself that we were only interested in being able to give some reassurance to others. But, looking back since then, I know quite well that as far as I was concerned I was also seeking for reassurance for myself.

Certainly, none of the three of us ever gave voice to any argument that might call the rightness of our action into question, unless it was that we had an immediate refutation ready for it.

The beginning of the end

I noticed a marked collapse in the general optimism one evening, which I think must have been the Wednesday (although it may have been the Thursday). O’Rahilly and I went around, as usual, to see that the windows of the various rooms were all properly manned. The men were at the windows, looking out at burning buildings. They spoke with quiet voices, as though they did not want to exclude the roar of the flames.

They felt, as we did, that these fires were the beginning of the end. When we made our last round we saw that the fires were steadily growing, at least it seemed so to us.

I said goodnight to O’Rahilly, and though, as usual, we made a few jokes together, they certainly lacked spontaneity and sparkle. As time went on the fires around us increased, and the roar of the flames grew.

In talking to my chiefs I felt that there was no longer any point in avoiding reference to the end that approached. I even found it easier to talk to Connolly. At the earlier stages I had always felt when I went to talk to him that he was likely to round on me and rend me. Now when I went to him I felt that I was received in a much more friendly way.

I don’t know why, but before that I had assumed that he viewed anyone who was not associated with the Citizen Army as only dubiously well disposed. But now when I went to speak to him as he lay upon the stretcher, probably in considerable pain, he would keep me there, talking over things.

We even talked of the difficulty there would be in moving him when the end came. On the Thursday morning Tom Clarke called me and took me out to a yard to show me a concrete opening like a room, and he told me that I was promoted (although I wasn’t sure what rank the promotion gave me) and that when the end came I was to gather all the girls I could in that shelter and defend them to the last.

“It means,” he said, “that if you are not killed beforehand you will be taken by the enemy and probably executed.”

Now that one could talk quite freely about the approaching end, I went to Pearse and said that I thought it was ridiculous to keep with us the girls who were looking after the feeding of the men.

Before making this proposal I had discussed it with two who had shown themselves outstanding in efficiency and devotion to work. One was the girl from Liverpool who was expert in all matters relating to the feeding of the men [Peggy Downey]; the other was Louise Gavan-Duffy.

She had worked unceasingly day and night. She had not only not slept but had also hardly sat down. She had been well known in the women’s organisation before the Rising began, but when she had reported to me she had made no secret of the fact that she felt our position was at least doubtful from a moral point of view.

Nevertheless, as the Rising had taken place, and as the men were there in arms, she felt that it was her duty to come and do all that lay in her power to ameliorate their condition. She certainly would not have taken up arms under any circumstances.

Her sense of humour was keenly alive. She was apparently devoid of fear. She remained perfectly calm, no matter what danger threatened. These two agreed with what I proposed but suggested that they themselves might remain behind when the others went. They had in fact made themselves indispensable. And Pearse had observed that, and agreed that they should stay on.

Death waiting for us

At a later stage Pearse came and told me that the General Post Office was to be evacuated. Meanwhile, he told me that I was promoted. He was quite unaware that Clarke had told me the same thing before. Pearse went on to explain my duties. The main body would leave by the door leading from the main hall on to Henry Street.

Meanwhile, men were to go ahead with breaking holes through walls until they reached as far as a music hall that I think was called the Coliseum. I should be responsible for getting the wounded men, and any others that remained, through to the music hall.

There I was to put out a Red Cross flag and then see if the wounded men could be got to Jervis Street Hospital.”You must try to get them there,” he said, “but I think it is in the hands of the enemy.” That was quite a blow to me.

O’Rahilly came to say goodbye. He was in charge of one of the bodies of men to be evacuated. He clasped my hand. “Goodbye, Desmond,” he said. “This is the end now for certain. I never dreamed it would last as long. The only thing that grieves me is that so many of these lads are good Gaelgeoirí. But never mind: when it comes to the end I’ll say, ‘English speakers to the fore, Irish speakers to the rear. Charge!’ ”

Then, as he turned to go, he said with a smile, “but fancy missing this and then catching cold running for a tram!”

There were tears in my eyes as I left him. We had been bound up in the most intimate friendship. That friendship began in carefree days when we shared our love of the beautiful countryside of Co Kerry and shared our dreams of a new and heroic spirit of Irish nationalism that was about to come into being.

Now it ended with the city on fire about us and in a building already on fire, with, as we assumed, death waiting for us when we left that building.

He had shown his readiness to give his life for Ireland, as anyone who knew him as I did knew he would do. But the joy of that sacrifice had been marred by the knowledge that those with whom he worked and with whom he shared his hopes thought that a consideration of his personal safety would influence his decision.

I felt that he was the most tragic figure in that tragic gathering of men. He was devoted to his wife and family with a rare devotion, but he had decided to leave them to serve Ireland even when the call to service came from men who were revealed as not having realised how ready he was to give all for his country.

Epilogue

Desmond FitzGerald evacuated the wounded to Jervis Street Hospital and then led the escape of the escort party. Later he was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment, commuted to 20 years. With the other prisoners, he was released in 1917. He was elected Sinn Féin MP for the Pembroke constituency of Dublin in the1918 general election. In 1919 he was appointed substitute director of publicity by Dáil Éireann. He accompanied the Treaty delegation to London. In 1922 he was appointed minister for external affairs and in 1927 minister for defence. He was a member of the Dáil until 1937 and a senator from 1938 to 1943.

These edited extracts are from an autobiographical account that Desmond FitzGerald wrote before his death, in 1947

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