Brian John Spencer reports on Day 5 of the Easter Rising

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By ten o’clock on Friday night the GPO is a burning shell


At break of day on Friday the centre of Dublin is unrecognisable. Sackville Street is flattened, and other parts of the city, over 100,000 square yards in total.

From daybreak the shooting and sniping has been ongoing. All the while more British troops pour into Dublin.

The destruction of the civic centre puts Ireland in a European context and gives Ireland a European experience. The Western Front has come to Dublin.

Everything to the south of the river carries on. All to the north of the city is an urban wasteland. Eye witnesses draw comparisons with the German destruction of Belgium in Ypres and Louvain. Dublin is an Ypres-on-the-Liffey, and remains so for a decade.

Only a fortnight before this and Ireland was the “one bright spot”, Sackville Street was one of the finest boulevards in the western world. Redmond-Howard wrote:

“Now Dublin lay a heap of crumbling buildings, whose smoking ruins looked like the track of the Huns.”

It’s not just the appearance of the city, but the intensity of combat that resembles that on the Western Front. “Several have commented that the fighting here in Dublin has been worse at times than the trenches of the Western Front” wrote Molyneux and Kelly.

Mrs Hamilton Norway wrote that these were “days of horror and slaughter comparable only to the Indian Mutiny.”

The debris of war litter the streets of Dublin – burnt-out cars and trams, wagons and lorries, dead horses, and human corpses strewn like waifs.

The mood and weather are incongruent to the pity a ruined city, masonry and flesh strewn everywhere. As James Stephens wrote from the south side of Dublin:

“The sun is shining, and the streets are lively but discreet. All people continue to talk to one another without distinction of class, but nobody knows what any person thinks.”

He also said:

“Guns do not sound so bad in the day as they do at night, and no person can feel lonely while the sun shines.”

The mood of the rebels is upbeat, even joyful, as Volunteer Seosamh de Brún wrote in his diary of his week in Jacob’s biscuit factory:

“If it was not for occassional sniping the Factory would remind one of a huge entertainment, everybody merry & cheerful… the spirit of comradeship dominating all…

Resting at base on luxurious improvised settees. It suggests an hospital.”

Gen Sir John Maxwell arrived in Dublin at 2.30am that morning. He commander-in-chief of the forces in Ireland, and on this day he issues a proclamation:

“The most vigorous measures will be taken by me to stop the loss of life and damage to property which certain misguided persons are causing in their armed resistance to the law.”

Dick Humphreys who was in the GPO wrote “The weather is sunny and fine as usual.” Inside the GPO “the heat is stupefying” and a “heavy odour of burning cloth permeates the air”. He described his view of Sackville Street:

“Clouds of grey smoke are wreathing around everywhere, and it is difficult to see as far as the bridge.”

At eleven am the rebels maintain their hold of five key locations – Boland’s Bakery, the College of Surgeons, Jacob’s, the South Dublin Union and the Four Courts. By now the GPO and Sackville Street are in flames. James wrote:

“At eleven o’clock there is continuous firing… and in every direction of the City these sounds are being duplicated.”

The talk of the town is that “the end is in sight”, but “in many parts of the City hunger began to be troublesome.” Some have not eaten since Monday. Stephens also described the lay of the city:

“Merrion Square is strongly held by the soldiers… and their guns are continually barking up at the roofs which surround them in the great square… [Nelson’s Pillar] is wreathed in smoke.”

He commented on the attitude on the citizen to the rebel:

“The feeling that I tapped was definitely Anti-Volunteer, but the number of people who would speak was few.”

Just after eleven the troops in khaki start an approach to the distilleries of Marrowbone Lane. Despite the odds, the morale of the troops remained high. At the Marrowbone Lane distillery, the 19-year-old rebel Robert Holland still felt the rebels were destined for victory:

“All during [Thursday] night, the firing and banging continued and still our dogged spirit is 100 per cent with us all. We are winning and nothing else matters. We will surely get that help. The Germans could not be far from Dublin now and the country Volunteers are showing the way.”

Morale at the South Dublin Union with Eamonn Ceannt and his men, Volunteers 4th Battalion, also remains high. Major John MacBride

However affairs are different at Jacob’s biscuit factory under Major John MacBride, overnight friendly fire kills a volunteer. Peadar Macken is shot dead in the strained conditions of shattered nerves.

James Stephens spoke with a little girl whose views said “the poor people were against the Volunteers.” By afternoon much of Sackville Street is ablaze and by 6pm the GPO’s engineering yields to the endless bombardment as part of the roof collapses.

Just after noon the Robin Hoods are ambushed as they approach the rear of the GPO from Henry Street.
That afternoon Sackville Street is “an inferno of fire and destruction” write Mollyneux and Kelly.

Dorothy Stopford Price, who has been in the lodge in Phoenix Park all week, wrote about Day Five of the rebellion:

“Sir Matthew rang up at about 10 o’clock… The fighting now is all sniping by the Sinn Feiners from windows, a very difficult warfare for the military. The Sherwood Foresters have lost very heavily, mostly just after they arrived. There is a committee being formed today to organise provisons. The military have drawn a cordon round the city and no food can go past that, either out or in.

We are outside it and we are to see what we can do. Heaps more troops are arriving from England. It looks very serious. Mrs Bell Irving went away on a Troop ship. Mrs Nelson consulted with Mrs Hall. There is very little in the house.

No milk or butter to be got – no meat or eggs… I was surprised we had lasted out so long, but apparently the servants had been getting things in a very round about way… I dont mind about us, of course we shall be all right; but I can’t imagine what they are doing in Dublin. No shops going and people dare not go out of doors.”

North King Street is a scene of intense fighting, some of the fiercest of the week. The South Staffordshire Regiment under colonel Taylor suffer heavily, losing 14 dead and 32 wounded for only 150 yards. They suffer also the ignominy of slaughtering innocent Dublin citizens. This scene is remembered as the North King Street massacre.

Commandant Ned Daly

The rebel garrison at North King Street is just behind the Four Courts, about a ten minute walk from the GPO. Commandant Edward ‘Ned’ Daly and his volunteers had barricaded themselves within this tight network of lane and alley ways, tenements and derelict buildings and slum houses.

Like the battle of Mount Street Bridge, British tactics are desperately unsuitable for the surroundings; and once again, Irish rebels pick off at ease advancing British troops. A rebel later remarked, “some officer… lost his head and sent those lads out to their deaths.”

Fire came from the rooftops and windows, doorways and seemingly every dark crevice; but always migrating between one and the other, through backdoors and up or down staircases, or between the crowds of civilians. Supporting fire also comes from the roof of the Four Courts.

Maddened by the rebel tactics and the resultant losses, and with orders from General Lowe not to take any prisoners, the British troops took license to kill. On Friday evening and Saturday the British troops stormed the houses and shot or bayoneted 15 innocent civilian men accused of being rebels.

The massacre of these civilians was one of gross misconduct, one of the worst of the 20th Century. It stirred deep revulsion among the populace, turning minds in favour of the rebels, like Michael O’Donoaghue of Waterford’s family who wrote:

“A photo of some of the victims in a Dublin paper startled me. I recognised the faces of father and son butchered by English soldiers in their King St. home – William Hickey and his only son, Tommy.”

Thomas Hickey was described by his widow as a “great Britisher”. O’Donoaghue continued:

“This brutal atrocity filled me with a sort of personal loss and aroused in me a fierce hate for English soldiery. Even my father forgot his antipathy to the rebels to such an extent that he now lauded their actions. This, I think, was more by way Of revulsion to British atrocities in Dublin than to positive national convictions. He really did not believe that British soldiers could be such savages, but the Hickey Murders and the wholesale executions shocked and shamed him.”

This was only one example of British misconduct, many more, including the hasty and hidden executions, would turn even moderate Irish against the British.
By nine o’clock that evening Commandant Daly and his Volunteers reposition themselves in the Four Courts.

All afternoon the Four Courts is relentlessly fired upon.

It’s revolution de luxe at Jacob’s, as Volunteer Seosamh de Brún writes in his diary:

“Afternoon passes quietly. Refreshed after rest.

Reading. Smoking and playing cards to music of gramophone & piano.”

That afternoon Pearse ordered the members of the Cumann na mBan to leave the GPO, though three who remained: Miss Winifred Carney, Miss Julia Grenan and Elizabeth O’Farrell. 

That Friday afternoon is also spent barricading important city positions, as the rebels had done on Monday and Tuesday. The Royal Irish Rifles and Sherwood Foresters raise a barricade across the width of Moore Street, machine guns positioned in support.

The artillery blast the GPO and the Metropole and Henry Street without let up. The quayside on the Liffey is completely flattened.

After 6 o’clock part of the GPO’s roof begins to collapse; debris and smoke and masonry lie everywhere.  

The O’Rahilly

By 7 o’clock the writing is on the wall and the rebels plan to make leave of the GPO. Just before eight a patrol of around 30 men led by the O’Rahilly launch for a Moore Street.

They nearly all fall before the hail of machine gun fire. Survivors take refute in Henry Place.

By now the Metropole Hotel has collapsed and the rebels have taken to the GPO.

A little after eight Pearse delivers a rousing speech. Then in twos and threes, dodging machine gun fire coming from the Rotunda, the rebels sprint from the side entrance in Henry Street, crossed to Henry Place and around into Moore Lane. Pearse, Joseph Plunkett, Thomas Clarke, Seán Mac Diarmada and the wounded James Connolly all make their escape with other rebels. Pearse is the last to leave.

Capt Michael Collins and 15-year-old Capt Michael McLoughlin establish a position to provide covering fire, shooting at the British gunners installed at the Rotunda. They also fortify a barricade with a truck, shielding them from the worst of the machine gun nest.

With this cover the rebels, hundreds of them, enter Moore Street from its southern end at Henry Street. Immediately they storm into the buildings and punch through the walls to take neighbouring buildings.

They re-establish Headquarters on Moore Street. The plan is to make it to the Four Courts for a final battle. But on Moore Street the white heat of the onslaught continues. By nine pm Moore Street is a battle field.
Elizabeth O’Farrell was at the rebel HQ on Moore Street, Cogan’s Shop at the junction of Henry Place and Moore Street, and described being there:

“When I entered the parlour of the house I found some of the members of the provisional government already there, the house well barricaded, and James Connolly lying on a stretcher in the middle of the room. I went over and asked him how he felt; he answered ‘Bad’ and remarked: ‘The soldier who wounded me did a good day’s work for the British government’.”

The rebels attempt to make a barricade outside Cogan’s Shop but take casualties. The rebels have punched as far as Hanlon’s Fish Shop at number 25 Moore Street. By ten o’clock the GPO has collapsed in a total inferno, only the external shell remains.

In the rebel HQ at Cogan’s an emergency council of war has been convened. The rebel leaders are incapacitated by injury and fatigue. The twenty-year-old Seán McLoughlin is appointed Commandant.

New Headquarters are established at number 16 Moore Street. They dig in and established sentries. They are utterly exhausted but still have hope.

That night “the firing was heavy from almost every direction; and in the direction of Sackville Street a red glare told again of fire,” James Stephens wrote.

Anticipation and uncertainty remains everywhere, as Stephens wrote:

“Each night we have got to bed at last murmuring, ‘I wonder will it be all over tomorrow,’ and this night the like question accompanied us.”

Everywhere time is spent in a state of suspense, as Stephens further described:

“It is hard to get to bed these nights. It is hard even to sit down, for the moment one does sit down one stands immediately up again resuming that ridiculous ship’s march from the window to the wall and back.”

L.G. Redmond-Howard wrote that the”instinct of expectation gripped me like a vice.” By ten o’clock the city quietens as artillery and machine gun ease back.

The rebels are cordoned and hemmed in but are determined to make it to the Four Courts or one of the other garrisons.

The British are determined to isolate and contain each rebel position.

The rebels have held the second city of Empire and held the British army at bay for nearly a week. The streets and buildings are packed with the hungry and the desperate, a city full of rapidly starving refugees. It is a city in absolute chaos.

A grand showdown looms, and Saturday is the date.

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Brian is a writer, artist and law graduate.

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