Easter Rising – Day 2: A baptism of unremitting fire

On the second day of the Easter Rising, soldiers poured into Dublin, and martial law was declared

Irish Volunteers and one Irish Citizen Army member inside the GPO 1916. Photograph: Defence Forces Military Archives, Cathal Brugha barracks www.militaryarchives.ie

Tuesday, April 25th, 1916

  • Government forces arrive in the city by train overnight from Belfast and the Curragh.
  • Machine-gun  fire  from  the  roof  of  the Shelbourne  Hotel  forces  the  rebels  to  leave  their positions in St Stephens Green and withdraw into the College of Surgeons.
  • Government troops retake City Hall and the nearby offices of the Daily Express.
  • The  deranged  Capt  Bowen-Colthurst  arrests  three  innocent  civilians,  including  the  pacifist Francis Sheehy Skeffington, and has them shot the next morning.
  • Lord Wimborne, one of the last Lords Lieutenant of Ireland, declares martial law.
  • Zeppelins  raid  Kent  and  Essex,  and  German  ships  bombard  Lowestoft  and  Great  Yarmouth. The  British  assume  (wrongly)  that  these  attacks  are  being  made  in  support  of  the  Irish rebels. 

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Martin Walton was just 15, although at 6ft tall he looked older. He had been in the Irish Volunteers for just three weeks. When he got up on Tuesday morning he found that his parents had taken the valves from the tyres in his bicycle to prevent him from going into the city centre to join the rebels. He convinced them, however, that he had to go to work or risk losing his job.

When he got to the GPO he was told to go to the Jacob's factory on Wexford Street. He had hardly ever been south of the Liffey and had to ask directions as he went along.

Archive captures the 1916 Rising and a bombed out Dublin through to the formation of the Free State. Video: Reuters

"When I arrived then at Jacob's the place was surrounded by a howling mob roaring at the Volunteers inside, 'Come out to France and fight, you lot of so-and-so slackers.' And then I started shouting up to the balustrade, 'Let me in, let me in.'

“And then I remember the first blood I ever saw shed. There was a big, very, very big tall woman with something very heavy in her hand, and she came across and lifted up her hand to make a bang at me. One of the Volunteers upstairs saw this and fired, and I just remember seeing her face and head disappear as she went down like a sack. That was my baptism of fire, and I remember my knees nearly going out from under me. I would have sold my mother and father and the pope just to get out of that bloody place.”


‘Fighting with splendid gallantry’

At around the same time Patrick Pearse, at the GPO, was writing a report for a republican news-sheet to be printed at Liberty Hall: "The Republican forces everywhere are fighting with splendid gallantry. The populace of Dublin are plainly with the Republic, and the officers and men are everywhere cheered as they march through the streets."

Pearse also issued a “Manifesto to the Citizens of Dublin”: “The country is rising in answer to Dublin’s call and the final achievement of Ireland’s freedom is now, with God’s help, only a matter of days . . . Irish Regiments in the British army have refused to act against their fellow-countrymen.”

Overnight the military authorities had begun to get to grips with the reality of the rebellion and to mount an organised response. Troops, including Brig Gen WHM Lowe, reached the city by train from Belfast and the Curragh during the night, and by 5.20am the whole Curragh Mobile Column of 1,600 men was in Dublin.

Shortly afterwards it was joined by the 1,000 men of the 25th Irish Reserve Infantry Brigade. By 4.20pm the number of troops available to the authorities had risen to about 3,000, and more were preparing to sail from Britain.

One of the soldiers rushed by train to Dublin overnight was 18-year-old Edward Casey, a "Cockney Irish" kid from a poor family of Irish exiles in the East End of London. He had joined the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and already served at Ypres and Salonica. He arrived in Dublin at daybreak.

“Marching in columns of fours, we were told by our officers, ‘This is not war: it’s rebellion.’ Our company was detailed to cover the Four Courts . . . My post was lying down behind an iron urinal on the banks of the Liffey, and right opposite the Guinness brewery.

“Streets were deserted, although on the way from the station the crowds of men and women greeted us with raised fists and curses. I noticed a dead horse and a tram car pushed over on its side . . .

“I was standing behind my iron box when I noticed an old lady walking slowly along the street. When she was in hearing distance I yelled, ‘Halt! Who goes there?’ ‘Oh Jesus, Mary and Joseph!’ came the reply. It was amusing but to me very sad.

"That old lady with her Irish accent reminded me so much of my mother. Leading her by the arm to the shelter of the urinal, I told her she may have to stay a while. Shots were being fired now and again from the big concrete building across the road." (Presumably the Mendicity Institute, on Usher's Quay.)

At daybreak the government troops in the Shelbourne Hotel opened fire with a machine gun on the rebels on St Stephen's Green. The thick vegetation saved them from horrific casualties, but their position was untenable, and by noon they had withdrawn to the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.

James Stephens noticed that "inside the Green railings four bodies could be seen lying on the ground. They were dead Volunteers. Some distance beyond the Shelbourne I saw another Volunteer stretched out on a seat just within the railings. He was not dead, for, now and again, his hand moved feebly in a gesture for aid; the hand was completely red with blood. His face could not be seen. He was just a limp mass, upon which the rain beat pitilessly, and he was sodden and shapeless, and most miserable to see."

No surrender

Inside City Hall Helena Molony and her comrades had been coming under sustained attack from artillery and machine guns since the early hours of the morning. As the troops stormed City Hall she heard a window smash at the back of the building, "and then we knew they were pouring in . . . A voice said, 'Surrender, in the name of the King.' At this point I felt a pluck on my arm, and our youngest girl, Annie Norgrove. said to me, 'Miss Molony, Miss Molony, we are not going to give in? Mr Connolly said we were not to surrender.' She was terrified, but there was no surrender about her."

As the soldiers continued to pour in, however, the defenders were overwhelmed. Molony and her female comrades were the cause of some confusion to the troops. "The British officers thought these girls had been taken prisoner by the rebels. They asked them, 'Did they do anything to you? Were they kind to you? How many are up here? Jinny Shanahan, quick enough, answered: 'No, they did not do anything to us. There are hundreds upstairs – big guns and everything.'

“She invented such a story that they thought there was a garrison up on the roof, with the result that they did delay and took precautions. It was not until the girls were brought out for safety, and, apparently, when they were bringing down some of the men, that one of the lads said, ‘Hullo, Jinny, are you all right?’ The officer looked at her, angry, the way he was fooled by this girl.”

Helena Molony and the other women were led to a dirty barrack room on the Ship Street side of the castle and imprisoned.

Stormed by troops

In the afternoon the Daily Express building on Cork Hill, which served as an outpost to the rebel detachment in City Hall, was also stormed by troops. One of the Trinity students who had helped to seal the college off from the insurgents watched in confusion.

"We were at the time in ignorance of what was actually happening, for we were possessed with the idea that the Sinn Féiners held the Castle. When, therefore, we saw at the head of Dame Street men in successive waves rush across the street from the City Hall towards the Express offices we thought they represented the enemy in process of expulsion from the Castle.

"As a matter of fact the waves of men were composed of the troops. From our position in front of the college we could see that a terrific fire was being directed against the Daily Express building: plaster and powdered brick were flying in showers from its facade. This fire was to cover the advance of our soldiers. But in spite of this we saw, more than once, one of the running figures pitch forward and fall . . . The fight seemed to last a considerable time – about an hour at its greatest intensity – before the firing began to wane."

Even as the authorities were beginning to pick off these rebel detachments, however, Dublin was buzzing with rumours of a vast uprising. Real news was at a premium.

The Irish Times appeared on the streets, but its extensive reports of the previous day's events had been suppressed, and it carried just two references to the Rising.

One was a proclamation from the lord lieutenant, Lord Wimborne, announcing an attempt "to incite rebellion" by "a reckless, though small, body of men" and warning that "the sternest measures" were being taken. The other was a tiny report, containing fewer than 50 words, beginning: "Yesterday morning an insurrectionary rising took place in the city of Dublin."

The vacuum was filled with rumour. James Stephens “met a wild individual who spat rumour as though his mouth were a machine gun or a Linotype machine. He believed everything he heard, and everything he heard became as by magic favourable to his hopes, which were violently anti-English.

“He said the Germans had landed in three places. One of these landings alone consisted of 15,000 men. The other landings probably beat that figure. The whole city of Cork was in the hands of the Volunteers, and, to that extent, might be said to be peaceful.

“German warships had defeated the English, and their transports were speeding from every side. The whole country was up, and the garrison was outnumbered by 100 to one. Those Dublin barracks which had not been taken were now besieged and on the point of surrender.”

O'Connell Street, where there was only sporadic shooting, was still a surreal site. Francis Sheehy Skeffington had printed leaflets condemning looting and asking for volunteers for a civic police force, but his efforts were unavailing. People were selling looted diamond rings and gold watches for sixpence or a shilling.

Ernie O’Malley watched as “kiddies carried golf bags and acted as caddies, as young gentlemen in bright football jerseys and tall hats . . . hit golf balls with their clubs, or indeed anything else”.

A young girl passed him with a fan in her hand and a gold bracelet on her wrist. “She wore a sable fur coat, the pockets overhung with stockings and pale pink drawers: on her head was a wide black hat to which she had pinned streamers of blue silk ribbon. She strutted in larkish delight, calling to others less splendid: ‘How do yez like me now?’ ”

At 4.10pm Eamon Bulfin, on the roof of the GPO, watched as children looted a photography and toy shop, Lawrence's, and came out with fireworks. They "made a huge pile of them in the middle of O'Connell Street and set fire to them. That is one thing that will stick in my mind forever.

“We had our bombs on top of the post office, and these fireworks were shooting up in the sky. We were very nervous. There were Catherine wheels going up O’Connell Street and Catherine wheels coming down O’Connell Street.” The looters then set Lawrence’s on fire.

Thomas Walsh and his brother Jim, who had both been with Éamon de Valera in Bolands Mill, were sent to reinforce the small garrison at Clanwilliam House, overlooking Mount Street Bridge. After dark, when Thomas was about to leave one of the rooms in the house, "I saw what I thought was a man hiding, and I called 'Hands up' twice. On the third challenge I still got no reply, and switched on the torch. You can imagine my surprise at finding it to be a dressmaker's model!"

But the mad carnival of the streets and the comedy of mistaken identity could turn deadly at any moment. During the evening one of Capt Gerrard’s sentries at Beggar’s Bush approached him. “‘I beg your pardon, sir. I have just shot two girls.’ I said, ‘What on earth did you do that for?’ He said, ‘I thought they were rebels. I was told they were dressed in all classes of attire.’ At a range of about 200 yards I saw two girls – about 20 – lying dead.”