On Monday 24 April, 1916, at about 11am, reports began to come in of Irish Volunteers in uniform assembling by Blackhall Place — just under a mile to the west of what is now called O’Connell Street. Within the next half hour, groups of volunteers began to move across the city, carrying weaponry, and some bandoliers of ammunition. They were en route to attack and eventually occupy Dublin landmarks, including not only the iconic Post Office but also the Shelbourne Hotel and Boland’s Bakery. By evening, civilian tragedies were reported.
I.—A note on the uprising
It is worth stating at first, for the sake of historical accuracy, that the term Sinn Fein, as applied to the Dublin insurrectionists, is a misnomer. The Sinn Feiner, properly speaking, is one who believes in a policy outlined twelve years ago by Mr. Arthur Griffiths, a Dublin editor, in a pamphlet called The Resurrection of Hungary: A Parallel for Ireland. Mr. Griffiths suggested that Irishmen should simply boycott the British Government by sending no more deputies to Westminster. They should call together a National Assembly in Dublin, and substitute native courts in arbitration for the established “English” tribunals. Meantime, steps should be taken to combat “Anglicisation” (by means of the revival of the Irish language), emigration, and recruiting in the British Army. Count Apponyi, the Hungarian statesman, when the pamphlet was shown him, said: “C’est très intéressant, mais c’est la première fois que j’en ai entendu parler.1” No attempt, of course, was made to carry out the policy as a whole. The name became a term of derision and abuse in the mouths of the official Home rulers, and was applied indiscriminately, but quite incorrectly, to all Nationalists who disputed the authority of Mr. Redmond; and particularly to the “Irish Volunteers.”
Mr. John MacNeill, lately chairman of the Irish Volunteer Organisation, was at no time in his life a Sinn Feiner; he used to support the policy of the Parliamentary Party, but until the outbreak of the war (when he led the defection from Mr. Redmond) was better known in the world of Irish scholarship than in that of Irish politics. He was a Professor at the National University and an ardent Gaelic Leaguer.2 One hears on all sides that Mr. MacNeill opposed the idea of a general rising; that in this attitude he was supported by Mr. Bulmer Hobson, a Belfast man, and another member of the Governing Committee of the Volunteers; that the fatal meeting lasted thirty hours, and that Liberty Hall, the headquarters of the Transport Workers’ Organisation, had a great influence on events. A large part of the Citizen Army was “out” on Monday. This army dates from the Dublin Strike of 1913-14. When Mr. Larkin went to America some eighteen months ago, the leadership at Liberty Hall devolved upon Mr. James Connolly, a man of real executive ability, and the author of an interesting book on Labour in Irish History—dedicated to the “Irish working-class,” the “incorruptible inheritors of the fight for freedom”—a criticism of bourgeois Nationalism, which included Sinn Fein and Redmondite ideals in an equal condemnation. The redoubtable Countess Markieqicz (an Irishwoman of the landlord class, and wife of a Russian officer), of whom much is being heard, was, in happier times, a painter of considerable merit; and, indeed, most of the advocates of violence in Ireland are persons distinguished in the arts of peace. With the exception of the Countess, all the leaders in the present affair are, so far as I know, Catholics and “true Gaels”—some of them speakers and writers of the Irish language. In the past, revolutionary Ireland usually chose Protestants and Anglo-Irishmen for its leaders. On the Thursday before the outbreak of the rising, Alderman Kelly, in the Dublin Corporation, read out a supposed military order, “recently addressed to, and on the files of, Dublin Castle,” according to which the arrest of all the leaders of the Irish Volunteers, together with the members of the Sinn Fein Council, the Executive Committee of the National (Redmondite) Volunteers, and the Executive Committee of the Gaelic League, has been sanctioned. Certain promises in Dublin and the neighbourhood were to be occupied by adequate forces, and the Archbishop’s Palace at Drumcondra was to be isolated. The Alderman’s speech appeared in the Dublin Evening Mail, with an editor’s note attached, stating, on the authority of the Military Command, that the document was an absolute fabrication; “the suggestion that the Archbishop’s Palace would be attacked” was “an indication of the object with which the fabrication was made.” Rumours of a coming crisis persisted, and the Volunteers seem to have been convinced that they would very soon be called upon to sacrifice their lives. “I go to mass every day—now,” one young man was overheard observing to a friend, and it is said that all but four of those who had decided to “come out” attended Communion on Easter Day. The four abstentionists—so the story goes—were dismissed from the ranks of the insurrectionists. “You will bring us bad luck,” their comrades said.
It is the general opinion that there was a party among the Volunteers determined in any event to “proclaim the Republic,” and that this party was reinforced by fiery counsels from Liberty Hall. How many of the Volunteers did not come out it is impossible to say. The greater number perhaps. Mr. MacNeill’s proclamation in Sunday’s newspapers, forbidding his followers to take part next day in any parades, marches or assemblies must have had a considerable effect. After Monday’s events several local bodies in the county of Dublin dispersed themselves and broke up; the same thing is no doubt happening all over Ireland. According to the official reports certain parts of north County Dublin have been in trouble; but the places mentioned are, I fancy, centres of Citizen Army propaganda and not strongholds of the Irish Volunteers.
Stephen’s Green, from a house in which the writer had a little view of the insurrection, is the principal square in Dublin. Lockhart,3 in 1925, spoke of it as the most extensive square in Europe. “We found”, he says, “young Walter (Scott) and his bride established in one of the large and noble houses.” In the time of the Crusaders a lazar hospital was established upon the site, but it disappeared at the Reformation, and the green was a wild common until the end of the seventeenth century, when the sides were let out for building. It has been, in recent years, a well-kept public park, famous for its water-fowl, and the houses around it are among the largest in the city, and include the Shelbourne Hotel, a bank, the Royal College of Surgeons, and many clubs.
On Easter Monday, at about noon, an armed party of the insurrection—transport workers or Volunteers—seized the Green and a few of the houses about it. Presently the Republican flag floated over the Royal College of Surgeons. Terrible stories from other parts of the town were on everyone’s lips. . . . But one will write only of what one saw. It was towards evening that we, curious visitors, arrived in the amazed town, and found a point of view in one of the houses on the east side of the square. Then, seemingly, the insurrectionists in the park had an undisputed possession. No police, no soldiers anywhere in sight. Two derelict trams and an overturned cab stood below us in the street. Behind the palings the army of the revolution: young men with rifles among the bushes and little girls who walked up and down the paths of the Green, their arms interlaced—were they the celebrated Fianna, Madame Markieqicz’s scouts? Now and again shots rang out. Someone had refused to answer the challenge of the sentry. A cab dashed violently down the street; in an instant the horse lay dying, and we saw the driver make off round the corner as fast as his legs would carry him. Next a recalcitrant motor car; the shout “I’m dead,” whereupon two or three Volunteers ran out from their hiding-place and assisted the occupant—who did not seem to be very seriously wounded—into the rebel camp. The shooting for a time was confined to other portions of the Square. But we watched an old gentleman in Naval uniform walk out, greatly daring, from his club; he was at once arrested by two sentries and led into the Green, despite his protest: “But I’m not on duty.” Meanwhile, foot passengers in civilian dress were unmolested; some of them, indeed, passed along the path by the palings and exchanged words with the armed men among the bushes. Priests, peace negotiators perhaps, went by busily on their bicycles. Whatever may have happened in other parts of the city, the proceedings from our point of view were being conducted with some regard for military observance.
The household kept vigil that night. It became apparent in the early hours of the next day that some opposition had been brought to bear against the party in the Green. This opposition was directed from the top windows of the Shelbourne Hotel. A machine gun also came into play, and the noise banished all thoughts of sleep. There were occasional intervals of silence, and in one such interval the writer remembers looking out into the familiar street. It was a curious effect; dawn, and no sign of life or movement anywhere. An elderly man had fallen near our doorstep, and a Volunteer lay dead outside the entrance gates of the Park. The two cabs, the two trams, the motor car—all these stood where they had come to a standstill on the previous day. The flag on the College of Surgeons signalised the survival of the “Republic” through the night, and there were bullet marks on the walls of a few of the houses. But what had happened within the Green? It might have been evacuated under the fire from the Shelbourne Hotel. We were convinced that this was so, until one of us, coming downstairs about breakfast time, caught, through the fanlight of the door, a glimpse of an armed man who crawled under the bushes. . .
The historians Ronan Fanning and David Reynolds discuss the Easter Rising with the New Statesman assistant editor Michael Prodger at Cambridge Literary Festival on Saturday 9 April at 7:30pm
Sebastian Barry returns to his Man Booker shortlisted novel A Long Long Way, set during the 1916 Rising, in a conversation with New Statesman culture editor Tom Gatti at Cambridge Literary Festival on Sunday 10 April at 5:30pm