James Stephens, writer and contemporary of James Joyce, recorded his experience in Dublin during Easter week of 1916
By Easter Tuesday the second city of the British Empire was in the hands of the Irish rebels. The military were largely absent on Monday, but by Tuesday morning reinforcements had arrived by overnight train from Belfast and the Curragh. By Tuesday afternoon there were now 3,000 British troops in the city. Within twenty-four hours of the outbreak of insurrection the British military had increased their mobilised presence ten-fold.
The rebels had entrenched themselves and barricaded and turned key buildings into fortresses. The city was a rebel cordon and the cityscape was cleared, primed and ready for battle. At Jacob’s biscuit factory Volunteer Seosamh de Brún spends the week fighting, at leisure and writing his diary, noting on for Tuesday:
“Location. Preparation. Barricading. Strengthening our position. Volunteers brave and hopeful. Manly fellows.”
From four in the morning, from the fourth floor of the Shelbourne Hotel, St Stephen’s Green under Mallin and Markievicz had been rained with Maxim machine gun fire. Rifles fire from nearly every window. British troops crept in late on Monday, giving them a commanding position overlooking the Green. By volume of hot lead they remove the militants from the public park. “The noise is deafening” write Molyneux and Kelly.
By noon rebels fall back to the Royal College of Surgeons. The shooting continues, except the rebels are no longer fatally exposed. Rebel marksmen position themselves on the crown of the Royal College.
L.G. Redmond-Howard who passed Monday night at the Imperial Hotel on Sackville Street described the scenes he witnessed on Easter Tuesday morning:
“About six o’clock we saw Connolly emerge [from the GPO]at the head of a band, and we could hear one of his subordinates call out Mr. Connolly this and Mr. Connolly that, and the commander-in-chief giave his orders in a clear, resonant, and fearless voice.”
The weather like events was dark – “a sultry, lowering day, and dusk skies fat with rain” recorded James Stephens.
L.G. Redmond-Howard described how the insurgents tried to blow up the famous Nelon’s Pillar:
“About eight we thought our last hour had come, for, looking towards the base of Nelson’s Pillar, we saw men running from a thin blue spiral of smoke rising up, followed by a terrific explosion. They were trying to blow up the monument.”
By 8am the City Hall is cleared of the Citizen Army. The adjacent Dublin Castle is secured by the military. The rebels consolidate their position across the road
The huge towers at Jacob’s biscuit factory, with commanding views of the city, have become sniper nests. Shots fire at Portobello Bridge and Dublin Castle. “The air stinks of gunpowder”, write Molyneux and Kelly.
James Stephens wakes on Easter Tuesday believing that the disturbances have passed. He was seriously mistaken.
He left for his office and at the corner he asked a man if the fighting was over; “it was not, and that, if anything, it was worse” came the reply.
There were no papers and no collection of letters, “all the shops in the City were shut. There was no traffic of any kind in the streets”, Stephens wrote. He came to understand the scale of the event before him:
“It appeared that everything claimed on the previous day was true, and that the City of Dublin was entirely in the hands of the Volunteers.”
Lillian Stokes, from a prominent Dublin family, wrote:
“It was impossible to stay indoors hearing firing in all directions and not knowing what was happening.”
At 11.20 the Irish Volunteers under Éamonn Ceannt’s push back an Royal Irish Regiment infantry approach to the South Dublin Union. Patients are caught in the crossfire. The famous Cathal Brugha is wounded 25 times. He is aided by future Taoiseach WT Cosgrave and fights on.
The city was full of rumour. The Irish Times said all the country was quiet. “It was said that Germans, thousands strong, had landed, and that many Irish Americans with German officers had arrived also with full military equipment” wrote Stephens.
He met a man early in the day, “a wild individual who spat rumour as though his mouth were a machine gun or a linotype machine.”
Joe Sweeney was 19 and was in the GPO that morning and remembered his time on the roof:
“On Tuesday morning I was ordered up to the roof, behind a thick balustrade there of granite at the corner of Henry Street and O’Connell Street. We noticed that the British troops were beginning to encircle us and I could see troops moving about freely on the tower of Amiens Street railway station. I reported back to central control below on the ground floor that these people were there and asked would I fire on them. I was told not to because they were the Inniskillings – an Irish regiment – and they might be friendly. Well, a very short time after that they indicated their feelings to me when they opened fire on me with a machine-gun. I got a right belt from a bit of granite on top of my head.”
Patrick Pearse produced a report for a republican newspaper to be printed at Liberty Hall:
“The Republican forces everywhere are fighting with splendid gallantry. The populace of Dublin are plainly with the Republic, and the officers and men are everywhere cheered as they march through the streets.”
He also issued a ‘Manifesto to the Citizens of Dublin‘:
“The country is rising in answer to Dublin’s call and the final achievement of Ireland’s freedom is now, with God’s help, only a matter of days… Irish Regiments in the British army have refused to act against their fellow-countrymen.”
James described the weather as he continued his odyssey of a city in insurrection:
“The rain was falling now persistently, and persistently from the Green and from the Shelbourne Hotel snipers were exchanging bullets.”
Having secured the Castle and recaptured City Hall, the area is still contested. The rebels held the Daily Express and Evening Mail offices across the road on Cork Hill, which had served as an outpost to the rebel detachment in City Hall. They fight for their hold with total resistance. “The air stinks of gunpowder and the street is littered with wounded” write Molyneux and Kelly.
Watching from the roof of the hotel on Sackville Street, “a mass of tingling nerves”, L.G. Redmond-Howard described the scenes:
“As the afternoon wore on Sackville Street began to assume two totally distinct characteristics—one of tragedy and the other of comedy. South of the Pillar the scene might have been a battlefield; north of the Pillar it might have been a nursery gone tipsy, for by this time all the children of the slums had discovered that a perfect paradise of toys lay at their absolute mercy at Lawrence’s bazaar, and accordingly a pinafore and knickerbocker army began to lay siege to it, the mothers taking seats upon the stiffened corpses of the lancers’ horses to watch the sight of thousands of Union-jacks made into bonfires.
The scene was indescribable for chaos: there were men locked in deadly combat for the sake of Empire and Fatherland, and here were the very children they were fighting for—some dying for—revelling in a children’s paradise of toys—balloons, soldiers, rackets, and lollypops, as if it had all been arranged for their special benefit…
All the while, in the opposite direction, Red War was at its height: the rifle-fire along the quays was terrific, and ambulances were rushing backwards and forwards and relays of Volunteers were issuing from the central depôt to the firing-line.”
The writer and activist Francis Sheehy Skeffington was on the streets with his printed leaflets condemning the looting and trying to arrange volunteer police units to control the mayhem.
By 4pm Eamon Bulfin was on the roof of the GPO and witnessed the ecstasy and pageantry of the looting. Children raided Lawrence’s bazaar and created a great pyre of fireworks; and setting it alight Catherine wheels and rockets shooting up and down and across Sackville Street. Then they set the bazaar itself alight. This act of arson created a gap in the high row of shops, later proving propitious as this gap saved more serious fires later in the week from the south engulfing the northern portion of the city.
Redmond-Howard continued his analysis of events in Dublin that Easter Tuesday, drawing a baleful and pitiful portrait:
“Probably never in the world’s history had there been such a strange combination of pathos and humour, and it will haunt everyone who saw it to their dying day: and if mere passive spectators felt the clash of divergent emotions how much more must these, for all their idealism must have appeared to them as crashing down at the first touch of reality.
It was so much the repetition of Emmet’s revolt, ending in riot and loot and degradation—nay, worse, it seemed a very pantomime.”
Redmond-Howard saw a crowd which looked like it had “stepped direct off the French Revolution scenes of the “Scarlet Pimpernel” or “The Only Way”.”
Dublin citizens and the ordinary public are taking their life in their hands if they leave their place of residence or shelter. As Mrs Hamilton Norway wrote:
“I went out twice… but we were turned back by shots being fired from upper windows… the risks are many and great, as in this kind of street fighting, where all the firing is from windows or from house-tops, the ambulance are frequently under fire…
There was absolutely no safety anywhere from the snipers; man, woman, or child, nothing came amiss to them. It was dastardly fighting, if it could be called fighting at all.”
She further described the dangers and injuries suffered by Joe public:
“[My husband has] just come in, having seen Dr. W. (now Major W.), Surgeon to the Forces in Ireland. He told them that so far we had had about 500 casualties, two-thirds of them being civilians, shot in the streets.”
She recorded more gruesome anecdotes of death:
“In this street an old lady of seventy-three was shot through the leg in her own room, and was taken to Dr. W.’s home, where she had to have her leg amputated; and in another house a servant flashed on her electric light when going to bed and was instantly shot through the head! Our friend Miss K. also had a narrow escape. She had only just left her drawing-room, when a bullet passed straight through the room and buried itself in a picture.”
L.G. Redmond-Howard wrote about the threat to life that seemed to pervade the city:
“All the while stories were coming in of hairbreadth escapes, of stray shots, apparently from the sky, picking off unfortunate wayfarers.”
The ordinary rule of life in the city had been completely up-ended, as Redmond-Howard further described:
“Everywhere civilians were being bullied into obedience at the point of the bayonet: young boys in their teens brandished revolvers in the high roads: rough, brawny dockers walked about endowed apparently with unlimited authority, and in the dark recesses of the General Post Office, beyond the reach of law or argument, the mysterious Republican Brotherhood—omnipotent.”
At around 5pm L.G. Redmond-Howard was ordered, very politely, by the rebels to vacate the Imperial hotel, he described the initial stages of his walk to Howth:
“As soon as we reached the Parnell Monument, close to the Rotunda, we turned to the right, and made our way through the long lines of tenements—refugees.”
He wrote that there was at string of refugees, “as one might have seen fleeing from Ypres, for we knew that the place was now doomed to be shelled.” It would be entirely down to chance where the artillery would fall. Redmond-Howard continued his description of his walk to Howh as the weather deteriorated:
“The rain poured down… Every cross-road had its Sinn Fein sentries, every point of vantage was loopholed for miles around.”
Rebels now occupy the Imperial Hotel which faces the GPO and the Metropole opposite it. The rebels hold the whole of the southern section of Sackville Street and are smashing and dynamiting walls to connect neighbouring buildings. They establish positions in Henry Street that strengthen the flank of the GPO headquarters.
At ten to eight the Dublin Fusiliers, Irishmen fighting in the British Army, capture the Daily Express and Evening Mail building on Cork Hill, but 23 die on nearby Parliament Street in an ambush; troops were to be seen writhing and screaming in agony. Rebels there retreat across the Liffey.
James described the pro-British sentiment that continued to sway in Dublin:
“A lady who lived in Baggot Street said she had been up all night, and, with her neighbours, had supplied tea and bread to the soldiers who were lining the street.”
At 8pm a British gunboat sailed into the Grand Canal Dock and started firing at Boland’s Mills and Bakery, tearing into the top floors. The city echoed with the thumps of artillery fire.
More sniping is happening between the Royal College of Surgeons and the Shelbourne Hotel. Molyneux and Kelly wrote that “Dublin City remains in a state of shock. Volunteer morale appears very high.”
By Tuesday evening Martial law is declared by Lord Wimborne, the Lord Lieutenant. James Stephens records how the weather was that night on Easter Tuesday:
“At eleven o’clock the rain ceased, and to it succeeded a beautiful night, gusty with wind, and packed with sailing clouds and stars.”
He had three visitors and had expected more, but they were scared away by the guns. James and his guests listened to a constellation of sound that bloomed across the city.
“We listened from my window to the guns at the Green challenging and replying to each other, and to where, further away, the Trinity snipers were crackling, and beyond again to the sounds of war from Sackville Street. The firing was fairly heavy, and often the short rattle of machine guns could be heard.”
Stephens later wrote:
“It was three o’clock before I got to sleep last night, and during the hours machine guns and rifle firing had been continuous.”
At day break the rebels had total control of the city, but with reinforcements flowing in from Belfast and the Curragh, and troops due from England, the rate and fate of the insurrection would soon lift and turn.
Soon the British troops would hold a cordon round the city and the rebels would soon be isolated.
Wednesday would be the day the fighting really got going.