Extract from Dublin 1916: The Siege of the GPO
THE RISING is a rare treat in the history of political insurrection before the age of television, an event that was explored at the time from dozens of perspectives. This is partly because it occurred less than three hundred miles from the metropolis.
The moment there was a let up in the security situation the London newspapers despatched reporters; within a few days of the surrender the newsreels were coming in. But it was also because the insurgencys leaders were highly literate men, who knew the value of communication. Likewise Dublin was full of well-educated citizens whose natural response was to write about what they had witnessed.
Memoirs, histories, exhaustive questionnaires sent to veterans of the rebellion, all form the raw material for our picture of what was happening inside and outside the GPO.
We know, for example – in extraordinary detail – exactly what happened to those rebels who turned up on Tuesday. Pumped full of Pearsian oratory the new arrivals were brought out into O’Connell Street where Connolly divided them into three groups, detailed to create a new outpost in the Hotel Metropole; and to fortify the positions in the Imperial Hotel and in Henry Street. This last group was ordered to put up barricades either side of Moore Street:
“We had to construct these of whatever materials came to our hands. One of them was partly composed of bales of cloth taken from a tailor’s shop, but the mob which was now in the street ran away with the bales as quickly as our men put them down. To stop this I ordered shots to be fired over their heads but they paid no attention to this. Finally I ordered a bayonet charge and this had the desired result.”
This group was also in charge of boring holes through internal walls from the back of the GPO through to Bewley’s, through the Coliseum Theatre, and then on to Arnotts, the department store. For all the trouble with looters, the men did attract some support: “A milkman brought us milk two or three times during the day and came again on Thursday. He refused to accept payment and was most enthusiastic in his wishes for our success”.
We know rather less about how ordinary citizens were faring across the city, but the literary diarists help fill in the picture. By Thursday the rebels boring along Henry Street were almost the only people in the city to have a ready supply of milk. For ordinary residents the difficulty of getting milk and bread was almost as difficult as that of getting news. St John Ervine was embarrassed to recall that on the Tuesday the residents of his club on Stephen’s Green had lamented the lack of milk for breakfast, even while a dead man still lay on the pavement outside. By the end of the week James Stephens was beginning his diary each day with a list of basic foodstuffs which had run out. No food had been brought into the city since Saturday.
Despite the lucky few supplied with milk, the question of food loomed large inside the GPO all week. It was, to say the least, unevenly distributed. Men on the roof complained they were left without so much as a biscuit. Even on the second floor insurgents recalled they were left without food from Tuesday to Thursday, when Desmond FitzGerald arrived with “a bucket of tea”. On the other hand those who made it to the diningroom were served lavish and almost formal dinners. As FitzGerald recalled, some of the men had little to do for long stretches at a time, and made themselves more than comfortable at the dinner tables, while others were not relieved at their posts and went hungry.
In the first days, as food was brought in from the Imperial and the Metropole hotels, and from the provision stores in Henry Street, those in charge of the kitchen were asked to calculate how long the provisions would last. They reckoned they had enough for a three-week fight. This didn’t count supplying food to other positions, but through Tuesday and Wednesday it became clear that some posts were without any sort of provisions at all. Fifteen-year-old Mary McLoughlin spent much of Tuesday dragging sackfuls of food from the GPO to the College of Surgeons, helped by Hanna Sheehy Skeffington. Her brother Sean meanwhile was taking parcels of food to the Mendicity Institute. On the Tuesday morning Dick Humphreys was detailed to take the O’Rahilly’s De Dion car, with a long list of requirements from FitzGerald, and to commandeer what he could. As he put it, “we become expert house-breakers”, loading the car to such an extent that he feared for the axle.
But the principle task in the kitchen was cooking and dishing up food to the 400 or so men in the GPO. All the paraphernalia of plates and cutlery produced mountains of washing up:
“There were a couple of prisoners there. One was a British officer, who just sat there looking glum. He was not asked to do any work, but the Tommies were washing up. There were two or three Tommies who were quite cheerful. I think they were in uniform. They were taken prisoners in the street.”
Several of the volunteers mention the miserable British officer in their accounts, including some rather dismissive comments about his drinking, and his abject fear under the bombardment towards the end of the week. From a contemporary perspective it is clear he was suffering from shell shock. At any rate, he was in no fit state to help with the cooking but the Tommies were aided by a small army of women. When Phyllis Ryan arrived with her brother on Tuesday morning she was put under Gavan Duffy:
“I was put to carve a lot of beef. At that time there were nearby the Metropole, the DBC and the Imperial Hotel. All the stuff that was in these places was commandeered and brought into the Post Office and receipts were given on behalf of the Irish Republican Army. I remember carving, carving.”
For all the industrial canteen numbers, however, FitzGerald seems to have been keen to run his dining-room on surprisingly formal lines. When two young women were promoted to officers on the field for particular distinction in dispatch carrying, they were permitted to eat at a separate table in the dining room. (“We thought it was marvellous.”) The ceremony of Officers’ Tables was only one example of the care lavished on dining. Fitzgerald had been part of pre-war avant-garde literary circles in London – friends with TE Hulme, HD, Harold Munro and Richard Aldington – and he was used to a decent class of dinner. He may also have felt the rather fancy hotel fare which had been commandeered deserved generous treatment. At any rate Mary McLaughlin recalled that when she was brought up to the kitchen, exhausted after a day of back and forth to the College of Surgeons: “This was the first time I saw a whole salmon cooked laid on a dish”.