British army officer’s diary of 1916 Rising found in junk shop

Eyewitness account of drama at GPO in Dublin to be auctioned in England

 

An English auction house has described as “sensational” the diary kept by a British army officer during the Easter Rising that has come to light after almost a century.

The diary was kept by Col Bertram Portal who, it has emerged, arrested Patrick Pearse on Friday, April 28th, 1916. Mullock’s auctioneers said the vendor had found the diary “in a junk shop” and had no idea of its significance until he read the first-hand account of the dramatic events in Dublin. The firm claims that the contents could “change the accepted versions of this historic event”.

The diary will go under the hammer at the Historical Documents & Ephemera auction at Mullock’s Auctions in Ludlow, Shropshire, on May 21st with an estimate of £50,000-£70,000 (€59,000-€83,000). Mullock’s said “the diary, compiled by Col Bertram Portal, who took operational command of the British forces which put down the Rising and subsequently took devastating reprisals against its leaders, tells the story of the whole episode, day-by-day”.

The firm’s expert on historical documents, Richard Westwood-Brookes, said the diary had “lain forgotten for the best part of a century”. This was understandable, as Portal wrote the diary in an otherwise completely undistinguished army field service correspondence book, which he used to write out his daily orders.

It emerges from the diary that Portal had negotiated with the Cumann na mBan messenger, Elizabeth O’Farrell, whom he described as a “Rebel Red Cross Nurse”. She had been sent by Pearse to offer the rebels’ surrender to prevent further loss of life.

Portal contacted his superior, Gen Lowe, who came to Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street) to accept Pearse’s surrender in person. But it was Portal who arrested Pearse and arranged for him to be taken into custody.

The auctioneers believe that “perhaps the most sensational revelation of all” is that the diary suggests that the British had been warned in advance of the Rising. Portal wrote in the opening paragraph that he had been “warned about a fortnight ago by G.O.C. [General Officer Commanding] that there was a chance of Rising attack so fortunately the Curragh officers were not on leave”.

Portal had been ordered to go to Dublin from France where he was commanding troops on the Western Front in the first World War. Mullock interprets this as a move based on prior information.

“It suggests,” he says, “that the British authorities knew well in advance of the intentions of the Irish to stage the Rising, and knew so far in advance that they could bring in a specialist officer to take command of events as they unfolded.”

The 26-page diary deals with events from April 24th to May 22nd, 1916. Portal, according to his diary, then went fishing after a “job well done”.

He was honoured by King George V, with a CB (Commander of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath), in 1917 for his services in Ireland. He died in 1949.

For further information about the diary, and other Irish items in the sale of Historical Documents & Ephemera, see mullocksauctions.co.uk

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