In Jimmy Wren’s north Dublin home, there’s a dated black-and-white photograph in the hall showing about 300 people. The image is shallow but very wide. Behind the first row of people seated, there are five more rows, with everyone standing on raised ground so all may be seen.
"That's my father there," says Jimmy pointing to a small face in one of the middle rows, over on the right side of the frame, before going on to identify some of the others. "Sean T O'Kelly; Stephenson, the city librarian, Paddy Stephenson; Harry Colley. It's some photograph," he says.
It is, and it was taken in 1938. "Croke Park, Hill 16," says Jimmy by way of explanation, as he peers intensely at the picture, "before the Galway-Kerry All-Ireland final." "Galway won," he adds with a smile.
The people in the photograph all took part in the 1916 Rising, a subject dear to Jimmy's heart and the basis of his latest book, The GPO Garrison Easter Week 1916 – A Biographical Dictionary. The volume is a comprehensive, accessible and altogether fascinating, bringing together of data on the men and women who fought in and around the GPO.
Described accurately in a foreword by the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Críona Ní Dhálaigh, as a treasure and a labour of love, the book has been 30 years in the making.
“My aim was to bring the story of the people who wouldn’t normally appear [in history books] just to have a record of them in a publication,” says Jimmy, a man of few words and much modesty. “I always had an interest [in history] since school. I am very interested in local history.”
Jimmy is aged 78 and has written six other books on Dublin local history and the GAA. He has lived alone since the death 15 years ago of his wife Bernadette. For more than 40 years, he was a supervisor in the housing department of Dublin Corporation, overseeing the caretakers in the council’s inner city flat schemes.
His new book contains the biographies of 572 people. To date, the figure most commonly given for the number of men and women in the GPO garrison has been just over 400. However, by examining old newspapers, the archives of the Military History Bureau, the recently made available pension records and the 1916 Roll of Honour that was created in 1936, Jimmy has come up with what he says he believes is a comprehensive record of participants in the garrison.
“I don’t think there has been any biographies of the general participants, except leaders and well-known people,” says Jimmy. “This is about the ordinary rank-and-file.”
Some 320 of the 572 biographies are illustrated with small pen-and-ink portraits that Jimmy drew himself, using as his guide such grainy photographs as he could find in old newspapers. The book also contains a wealth of social data, compiled with the help of Kildare teacher David Gorry, confirming the strongly working class, north inner-city Dublin character of the rebels.
Of the known addresses of members of the garrison, 287 were in the north inner city. By age, 362 were under 30 and by social class, 56 per cent were skilled workers, shop assistants and clerks, and 18 per cent were semi- or unskilled workers.
“A lot of these were working people,” says Jimmy. “They were just patriotic. Beyond that, some of them weren’t very well educated. It was just pure patriotism that they took part.”
Thumbing through the volume, Jimmy stops at random entries and is able to talk about them all, as though he and they are old acquaintances. Page 222: Andy Mulligan, Irish Citizen Army; occupation: coal carter. "Andy Mulligan," says Jimmy, "he's an interesting guy. They nicknamed him 'The Dazzler'. He was a carter and brought the ammunition and guns from Liberty Hall to the GPO."
Mulligan also hauled the typeset from West’s Printers on Capel Street to Liberty Hall for the printing of the Proclamation. After the Rising, he was interned for four months in Frongoch camp in Wales but later helped reorganise the Citizen Army. He died an invalid in St Kevin’s Hospital in 1942.
"That guy there," says Jimmy pointing to an entry beside The Dazzler, "that's Stephen Mulvey. He was attached to the Bray company of the Volunteers and walked into the city from there. He won an All-Ireland medal with Dublin in 1902."
Jimmy's father, also named Jimmy, was also in the GPO, going there from his home on the North Strand. "On Easter Monday," says his entry, "at the age of 17½, he, accompanied his first cousin, Tommy Mahon, and friend, Paddy Halpin, went to the GPO and offered his services. He was given a shotgun and put on sentry duty.
“He was later sent out with dispatches and was attacked in the street by a pro-British crowd. He was badly beaten and he received a back injury. He made his way back to the GPO and was ordered home due to illness.”
After the Rising, Halpin emigrated to America and had a successful career as a civilian foreman with the US navy. Mahon joined the Free State Army but resigned before the Civil War and worked as a water mains inspector with Dublin Corporation.
According to Jimmy's record, there were 74 women associated with the garrison at one time or another throughout Easter Week. The biographies start and end with women. The first is Mary (Molly) Adrien from north Co Dublin, who delivered dispatches between Thomas Ashe of the Fingal Brigade and Patrick Pearse, and scouted the coastline.
Described as a “heroine ranking with the bravest”, she tended the wounded, volunteers and police, in the battle of Ashbourne.
The final biography is that of Nancy de Paor, a member of Cumann na mBan and daughter of prominent nationalist activists Jennie de Paor, founder of the Ladies Land League, and John Wyse Power, a prominent member of Sinn Féin.
From the GPO, de Paor delivered dispatches for Pearse and helped organise food for the rebels inside the building, and, with Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, for rebels at the Royal College of Surgeons as well. After independence, she joined the Civil Service.
Because he has worked so long on the book, Jimmy Wren met a number of those whose stories he tells. Most were gone by the 1970s, however, and many died in poverty. "What struck me," he says, "was the amount of people that died of ill-health – TB and from the result of imprisonment and taking part in Civil War . . . Their health was affected very badly.
“There was one guy, Largan, he was a Citizen Army man, he ended up selling newspapers. They didn’t get any help from the State at the time. There was Civil War politics involved in the pensions business. Michael Largan, a very sad one that. He died in the Pigeon House sanatorium. A lot of them died in the Pigeon House.”
When Largan was admitted in 1945 to the TB sanatorium in Poolbeg, formerly known as the Allan Ryan Home, his clothes were in such poor condition, they had to be burned. Was Largan’s story typical? For many, yes, says Jimmy: “Poverty and ill-health – the result of imprisonment and hardship.”
Were they let down by the country for which they fought?
Jimmy ascribes much to the way in which 1916 pensions were paid initially only to those rebels who took the Free State side in the Civil War.
“At first, pensions were only given to the Free State Army people. And then when Fianna Fáil got in ’31, they included everybody that took part in the Rising. But before that, it was just one side.”
He is phlegmatic as to the Ireland inherited from the Rising and War of Independence, noting today's housing crisis and levels of poverty. "I suppose it's the same in other countries too; you have a lot of poor." The GPO Garrison Easter Week 1916 is published by Geography Publications (with financial support from the GAA and Dublin City Council) and is available from bookshops, including Eason