Brian John Spencer reports on the aftermath of the Easter Rising

 General John Maxwell

 

On Monday May 1 1916 Dublin is at peace, but it is a ruin of life and property. Grown men stand in Sackville Street and cry.

By daybreak all but a score or two of rebels are under the lock of British jailers. Normality in Dublin begins to fade back into view. James Stephens, writer and close friend of Thomas MacDonagh, wrote:

“In the morning on looking from my window [not far from Sackville Street] I saw four policemen marching into the street. They were the first I had seen for a week.”

As civil forces take back the reigns from the military, Stephens surmises about the future of Ireland:

“Soon now the military tale will finish, the police story will commence, the political story will recommence, and, perhaps, the weeks that follow this one will sow the seed of more hatred than so many centuries will be able to uproot again, for although Irish people do not greatly fear the military they fear the police, and they have very good reason to do so.”

 

John Redmond was more solid and startling in his prognosis for Ireland, stating in the House of Commons later that year:

“We have taken a leap back over generations of progress, and have actually had a rebellion, with its inevitable aftermath of brutalities, stupidities and inflamed passions.”

As the rebels were the Monday prior, the British are in total and complete possession of the city. On Monday, at 7 pm, Field-Marshal French proclaimed:

‘All the rebels in Dublin have surrendered and the city is reported to be quite safe.’

This applied to the concentrated bodies of rebels who surrendered en masse. But on Monday and into Tuesday isolated snipers still continued their work. Mother and diarist Mary Martin wrote on Monday:

“We are told that the fighting is practically over in town but there is still some sniping etc. in Ballsbridge district this seems to be the most disturbed of all.”

On Tuesday (May 2 1916) Capuchin priest Father Aloysius and another cleric went in a military car to see Pearse. He described the journey:

“We drove through the city in the direction of Charlemont Bridge. We were told that the soldiers had a couple of calls to make. The sniping from the roofs, however, was so bad that when we got as far as Charlemont Bridge we were obliged to turn back.”

On Tuesday at 7 pm Field-Marshal French declared:

‘Dublin is gradually reverting to its normal condition. The work of clearing some small districts around Irishtown is being carried out by an ever-contracting cordon.’

By Wednesday the last of the snipers were silenced.
The young John Flynn described the public reaction as he and other rebels were marched through the city:

“There was a whole series of demonstrations while we were marched down and it was fortunate for us that we had two rows of British soldiers on either side of us or some of the women would’ve, they shouted all sorts of expletives at us. They told the soldiers to “shoot the bastards.” So I can say this much most definitely the Rising in dublin was certainly not popular in 1916. I can say that without fear of contradiction.”

 An older Martin Walton

The 15 year old Martin Walton said:

“After the Rising… It was a terrible time. There were still thousands of Irishmen fighting in France and if you said you had been out in Easter Week one of their family was liable to shoot you.”

 Stephen Gwynn

However, the anti-rebellion sentiment wouldn’t last long. The British may have had a material victory, but by their bloody repression they quickly handed a moral victory to the rebels. As a shrewd and prosperous Nationalist businessman later decried to Home Rule MP Stephen Gwynn, with fury:

“The fools! It was the first rebellion that ever had the country against it, and they turned the people round in a week.”

On Monday Nora Connolly, who spent most of Easter Week walking back to Dublin from Tyrone, passed through the wasted city and described what she saw and her reaction to it:

“We were allowed to pass and after a circuitous route we arrived at the top of O’Connell Street, near the Parnell statue.

There were evidences of the fighting all around us. We saw the buildings falling, crumbling bit by bit, smoldering and smoking; a ruin looking like a gigantic cross swayed and swayed, yet never fell. I was reminded of pictures I had seen of the War Zone. Here were the same fantastic remains of houses. Crowds of silent people walked up and down the street in front of the Post Office. The horrible smell of burning filled the air. And on one side of the street were dead horses.

We saw the General Post Office, the head-quarters of the rebels, still standing, although entirely gutted by fire. The British gunners in their attempt to destroy the Post Office had destroyed every building between it and the river. All around were buildings levelled, or falling — but the General Post Office stood erect. It was symbolical of the Spirit of Ireland. Though all around lies death and destruction, though wasted by fire and sword, that very thing which England had put forth her might to crush, stands erect and provides a rallying place for those who follow after.

English guns will never destroy the Spirit of Ireland, or the demand for Irish freedom.”

Mrs. Hamilton Norway also visited the GPO on Monday and wrote:

“I have just returned from walking round the GPO and Sackville Street with H. and some of the officials. It passes all my powers of description, only one word describes it, “Desolation.” If you look at pictures of Ypres or Louvain after the bombardment it will give you some idea of the scene.”

She said that as she walked through the ruins on the Monday evening that “the streets were thronged with people.” She continued:

“Behind the GPO was the Coliseum Theatre, now only a shell; and on the other side of the street was the office of the Freeman’s Journal, with all the printing machinery lying among the debris, all twisted and distorted; but, worst of all, behind that was a great riding school, where all the horses were burnt to death.

If at all possible you ought to come over for Whitsuntide. You will see such a sight as you will never see in your life unless you go to Belgium.”

She also shared a moving story:

“We met Mr. O’B. returning from a similar walk. He could hardly speak of it, and said he stood in Sackville Street and cried, and many other men did the same.”

The Irish essayist Hubert Butler passed through the ruins and later said:

“[Passing through a Dublin] still smoking after the Easter Rebellion… [I decided] I was an Irish Nationalist. This led to constant quarrelling with my family.”

John Hewitt wrote about the Easter Rising in his poem, ‘Bangor, Spring 1916’, echoing the foreboding expressed by John Redmond and James Stephens:

‘Headmaster, back from ruined holiday

told once of Dublin and its Easter Week,

of the dead horses and abandoned cars.

But of the politics of that affray,

the seedbed and the source of future wars,

he certainly made no attempt to speak.’

Even in imprisonment, the morale of the rebels remained high and defiant. Watching the first batch of prisoners sent to England after the surrender, a special correspondent of the Press Association described the prisoners:

“The most surprising thing of all was the appearance of the men. The spirit of defiance and hatred which kept them fighting against overwhelming odds for upwards of a week, and bade them throw in their lot with Great Britain’s deadly enemy, was, notwithstanding their miserable condition, firmly stamped on their faces. There was a striking incident when a young Sinn Fein officer, who could not have been much more than twenty, came on board. He was wearing the full uniform of the Irish Volunteers, with cap, Sam Browne belt, and pack. Standing six feet in height, with a clean open countenance, he calmly folded his arms and stood on deck in the glare of the light of an officer’s electric torch. There was no evidence of fear written upon his face. It reflected nothing but determination and upon the word of command he passed down to his quarters with the other men without uttering a word. Another prisoner in mufti, as he reached the deck, fervently exclaimed in my hearing: ‘Are we downhearted? Good-bye, Ireland.’ He probably would have said more had he not been hurried on. Each of the prisoners, as he came on board, was handed a life-belt, and although the accommodation was somewhat crowded it cannot be said that they were very uncomfortable, considering the circumstances. It is stated that among the prisoners were women in male clothing.”

Mrs. Hamilton Norway wrote on Sunday that:

“People who saw them marched down Grafton Street said they held themselves erect, and looked absolutely defiant!”

It seems people got little sleep during the rebellion. L.G. Redmond-Howard wrote:

“Sleep on such a night (Monday April 24 1916) was of course out of the question.”

Nora Connolly, describing events on Easter Sunday when the Citizen Army marched in Dublin, wrote:

“They badly needed rest as they had had no sleep the night before. Our orders were to report at Liberty Hall the next morning at eight o’clock.”

Mrs Hamilton Norway wrote:

“The loss of eight nights’ sleep seems to have robbed me of the power of sleeping for more than an hour or two at a stretch, and even that is attended often with horrid dreams and nightmares.”

Returning home to his mother and Nora, having been released from Richmond Baracks, Rory Connolly said:

“We haven’t had a real sleep since Easter.”

Reflecting back on events in Dublin and on the “Cork Comedy”, L.G. Redmond-Howard wrote ruefully and suggests that, as happened in Cork, the military should have engaged in dialogue in order to disarm the rebels, as he wrote:

“Monday and Tuesday were for the most part employed in clearing the streets and preparing the field for the battle which was to last continuously until late on Saturday evening, but it seems a pity, looking back on the situation, that the time was not employed in trying to avoid such a fatal issue; and that it would have been possible as proved by the example of Cork, where all conflict was avoided by a timely negotiation between the rebels and the ordinary civil and ecclesiastical authorities.

However, of this more later; it was decided to treat the matter in the sternest possible manner, which was just, as it turned out, what the Sinn Feiners wanted, and the military authorities, as it were, fell into the trap prepared for them by those astute politicians: for that they foresaw the political effects of ruthless suppression is now an admitted fact.”

The loss of life was tremendous, and the military casualties were out of all proportion to those of the rebels, in some cases the skirmishes representing a proportion of ten, and even twenty, to one.

At the battle of Mount Street bridge the British lost 234 men, dead or wounded, while just 5 rebels died.
In all 447 people have been killed, including 252 civilians, and 2,585 wounded. 64 rebels have died along with 16 policemen and 116 British soldiers.

Capuchin priest Father Aloysius who had worked all Sunday “for peace and the prevention of bloodshed”, visited the Castle on Monday afternoon. James Connolly had requested him, and while Aloysius was there he also saw other prisoner-patients in the “Sinn Fein” ward. He also spoke with officials in the Castle:

“Lord Powerscourt (Assistant Provost Marshal) and some officers paid a tribute to the bravery of the Volunteers, one of the officers remarking that “they were the cleanest and bravest lot of boys he had ever met”.”

Redmond-Howard had already remarked upon the respect that existed between the regular British recruits and Irish rebels:

“I heard one young Lancashire Tommy say: “The poor beggars! They only obeyed the word of command, and they fought like heroes,” but he was cut short by an English officer.”

Even the English Conservative papers broke with the line taken up by Irish Unionist organs in the name of the Castle; the Daily Mail, published the following from its Special Correspondent in Dublin, May 18 1916:

“The leaders were absolute blood-guilty traitors to Britain, but in some ways their sentiments were worthy of respect. Theirs was an intense local patriotism. They believed in Ireland. They believed that she would never prosper or be happy under British rule. They knew that there were 16,000 families in Dublin living on less than one pound a week. They saw the infinite misery of the Dublin slums, the foulest spot in Europe, where a quarter of the total population are forced to live in the indescribable squalor of one-room tenements—I quote from official records—and they believed that this was due to England’s neglect (as, indeed, it was), and that the Irish Republic would end these things. Therefore they struck, and as far as they could exercise direct control over the rebel army they tried to fight a clean fight. They begged their followers not to disgrace the Republican flag. They posted guards to prevent looting. They fought with magnificent courage. Nevertheless, their control was not far-reaching, and they were disgraced by the anarchy of some of their followers. But it is necessary to point out their virtues, because it is those and their ideals that non-rebel Irishmen are remembering to-day.”

These are sentiments that Ulster papers would have closed down before publishing.

More than 1,000 men and women are held prisoner by British authorities. Many arrests are made in the ensuing days, over 3,500 men and women, many of whom are innocent. 1,480 men are imprisoned in Britain and held until the end of 1916.

The closed court martials under General Maxwell begin on Tuesday May 2, ninety men are sentenced to death. The fateful executions of the rebel leaders begin on May 3 and conclude on 12 May.

In the end 15 men are executed including Roger Casement who is hanged in London in August.
Redmond Howard wrote, knowing ahead of the event, the affect any execution would have on the psyche of the Irish:

“I knew that it only needed this [the execution of the rebels] to make martyrs of every one of them.

England has learnt how fatal that mistake has been…We’re surely not going to set Ireland back a hundred years by such a pogrom as followed 1798…”

Michael Collins 

The rebels also knew death by firing squad was imminent. Nineteen year old rebel Joe Sweeney who spent all week in the GPO and was friends with Michael Collins, explained that the executed rebel leaders saw the Rising as only the First Act in the New Departure:

“We were addressed by Sean MacDermott who [said]… it’s up to you fellas to carry on the struggle afterwards.”

Martin Walton described life after the Rising, it is one of clear intention and preparation, the fight will go on:

“After the Rising we started to reorganize immediately – to look for guns, try and buck up the language, the Gaelic League and any other organizations that weren’t banned and that we could get into. It was a terrible time.

With the surrender in 1916 and the immediate raids by the military and the round-up, the country was disarmed.

Here and there we managed to hold onto a few guns, but very few, so looking for arms was a very high priority. I remember getting the key of an old Sinn Fein Hall from an old Fenian, and we started there, about eight, ten or twelve of us, drilling and organizing. I always thought that was the great test of a man – if he was able to keep coming to meetings, without any arms and with nothing happening, just drilling and going through the long haul until he could see combat.

It was in that hall that one of the most famous of the guerrilla fighters, Ernie O’Malley, was brought into the movement. That little hall dissolved then and we took up headquarters in the painters’ union – the Tara Hall, Gloucester Street, which is now Sean MacDermott Street. We met and drilled there. We were under cover of the painters’ union, you see, so we got away with it. We more or less just kept in touch until the prisoners were released from Frongoch, because they were the ones who would be able to lay the foundations for the fight to come.”

In one week the worst excesses of Irish and British passions have set relations on these islands back centuries.

Tilled and manured by Ireland’s patriots and patriot dead, Easter Nineteen Sixteen is now the seedbed and source of troubles that will endure in Ireland for a century more.

The week of inflamed passions, brutalities and stupidities has opened gates that can’t be shut. The Irish have done away with politics of parliament, it’s now of the politics of barricade and affray.

 

Read about events on Easter Sunday here, Easter Monday Day 1 of the Rising here, Easter Tuesday Day 2 here, Day 3 here, Day 4 here, Day 5 here, Day 6 here, Day 7 here, and Monday and Tuesday afterwards here.

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