Easter Rising – Day 5: Leaders flee the GPO
As British forces storm O’Connell Street, Patrick Pearse orders rebels to evacuate
From his position in the GPO, Dick Humphreys surveyed the scene. “The weather is sunny and fine as usual. On the opposite side of O’Connell Street nothing is left of the buildings save the bare walls.
“Clouds of grey smoke are wreathing around everywhere, and it is difficult to see as far as the bridge.
“Occasionally some side wall or roof falls in with a terrific crash. The heat is stupefying, and a heavy odour of burning cloth permeates the air.
“All the barbaric splendour that night had lent the scene has now faded away, and the pitiless sun illuminates the squalidness and horror of the destruction.”
In the early hours of Friday morning Gen Sir John Grenfell Maxwell finally arrived in Dublin as commander-in-chief of the forces in Ireland.
He issued a proclamation. “The most vigorous measures will be taken by me to stop the loss of life and damage to property which certain misguided persons are causing in their armed resistance to the law.”
For Dubliners both news and supplies were low. “This morning there are no newspapers, no bread, no milk, no news,” according to James Stephens.
“The sun is shining, and the streets are lively but discreet. All people continue to talk to one another without distinction of class, but nobody knows what any person thinks.
“In many parts of the city hunger began to be troublesome. A girl told me that her family, and another that had taken refuge with them, had eaten nothing for three days. On this day her father managed to get two loaves of bread somewhere, and he brought these home.
“ ‘When,’ said the girl, ‘my father came in with the bread the whole 14 of us ran at him, and in a minute we were all ashamed, for the loaves were gone to the last crumb, and we were all as hungry as we had been before he came in.
The poor man,’ said she, ‘did not even get a bit for himself.’ ”
No talk of surrender
“A very delicate elderly lady who is staying here said to me this morning, in answer to inquiry as to how she had slept: ‘I could not sleep at all. When the guns ceased the awful silence made me so nervous!’ I know exactly what she meant. When the roar of the guns ceases you can feel the silence.”
Victory for the government forces, she felt, was inevitable but not imminent.
“We now have 30,000 troops and plenty of artillery and machine-guns, so the result cannot be uncertain, though there is desperate work to be done before the end is in sight.”
Certainly, at Marrowbone Lane distillery, the 19-year-old insurgent Robert Holland was optimistic.
“Throughout the night we all slept in our turn for a few hours, although it seemed that we only closed our eyes. All during the night, the firing and banging continued and still our dogged spirit is 100 per cent with us all.
“We are winning and nothing else matters. We will surely get that help. The Germans could not be far from Dublin now and the country Volunteers are showing the way.”
Oscar Traynor was still leading the garrison at the Metropole Hotel. It was now on fire. They held out for most of the day until they received an order to return to the GPO.
“When we arrived at the post office, Pearse sent for me and asked me why did we evacuate our post. I informed him that my second in command had received a message from some person in the GPO.
“When we tried to confirm that fact we failed . . . We returned immediately and reoccupied all our former positions.”
At the GPO the first direct hit from a shell came at 3pm, and others soon followed. Eamon Bulfin recalled: “I remember distinctly the post office being hit by shells. We were informed that the floor above us was made of ferroconcrete and that there was absolutely no danger of the floor coming down.
“At first the hoses were working perfectly but, after a while, apparently the water was cut off or the mains failed. There was no water at all.”
The situation had become desperate in the GPO, and the wounded James Connolly, now propped on an iron bed, had appointed a 15-year-old boy as a commandant.
“It was duskish on Friday night when we were all ordered into the main hall,” according to Bulfin’s account.
“When we had assembled there we were addressed by Pearse. I don’t remember his exact words. We were ordered to take as much food and ammunition as possible with us, and to try and get in – as far as I can remember now – to Williams & Woods factory [on Parnell Street]. I did not know where it was at the time.”
It was 8pm, and the evacuation of the GPO had been ordered.
Pearse was last to leave
“We left in three sections, I being in the last. Comdt Pearse was the last to leave the building. He went round to see that no one was left behind. We immediately preceded him, bullets raining from all quarters as we rushed to Moore Lane.
“As I passed the barricade I tripped and fell; in a second a man rushed out of the house on the corner of Moore Lane and Moore Street, where the second section had taken cover, took me up in his arms and rushed back to the house.”
“We left the GPO and crossed Henry Street, under fire, into Henry Place,” continued Bulfin.
“At the junction of Henry Place and Moore Lane there was a house which we called the White House. It was a small one-storied slated house, as far as I remember, and was being hit by machine-gun fire and rifle fire from the top of Moore Lane.”
Having received the order to evacuate, Oscar Traynor had joined this party. “On entering one of the buildings in the middle of Moore Street we were met by a little family – an old man, a young woman and her children – cowering into the corner of a room, apparently terrified.
“I tried to reassure these people that they were safe. The old man stated that he was very anxious to secure the safety of his daughter and grandchildren and that, for that reason, he intended to make an effort to secure other accommodation.
“It was his intention to leave the house under a flag of truce, which, he said, he felt sure would be respected. I did my best to dissuade him from taking this action, especially during hours of darkness.
“He, however, appeared to be very confident and said he would make the effort.
“I appealed to his daughter not to allow her father to take this action. It appears that he eventually ignored the advice which I gave him, because when we were forming up in Moore Street, preparatory to the surrender, I saw the old man’s body lying on the side of the street almost wrapped in a white sheet, which he was apparently using as a flag of truce.”
James Connolly, Joseph Plunkett, Thomas Clarke and Seán Mac Diarmada had escaped from the GPO alongside Patrick Pearse. They planned to make their way through the streets to the Four Courts garrison for a final battle.
Elizabeth O’Farrell was present. “When I entered the parlour of the house I found some of the members of the provisional government already there, the house well barricaded, and James Connolly lying on a stretcher in the middle of the room.
“I went over and asked him how he felt; he answered ‘Bad’ and remarked: ‘The soldier who wounded me did a good day’s work for the British government.’ ”
Moving down the street, the rebels occupied buildings, punching their way through the walls.
During the evening the O’Rahilly had led a doomed charge down Henry Street, with most of those men, including himself, wounded or killed.
We do not know what is happening
“It is hard to get to bed these nights,” wrote James Stephens. “It is hard even to sit down, for the moment one does sit down one stands immediately up again, resuming that ridiculous ship’s march from the window to the wall and back.
“I am foot weary as I have never been before in my life, but I cannot say that I am excited.
“No person in Dublin is excited, but there exists a state of tension and expectancy which is mentally more exasperating than any excitement could be. The absence of news is largely responsible for this.
“We do not know what has happened, what is happening, or what is going to happen, and the reversion to barbarism (for barbarism is largely a lack of news) disturbs us.
“Each night we have got to bed at last, murmuring, ‘I wonder will it be all over tomorrow,’ and this night the like question accompanied us.”