Tracing the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin

Crowds around the General Post Office in Ireland in the wake of the Easter Rising

Sick of living under British rule, and tired of being asked to support their British oppressors in WWI, a faction of Irish citizens planned to take action in Dublin on the Easter weekend of 1916. 100 years later, the world remembers the Easter Rising, and Dublin still bears the scars.

Though many rebels got cold feet and one leader actually called off the Rising on 23rd April 1916, the remaining fighters dug trenches and took strongholds as arranged on 24th April, in the name of the Free Irish Republic. Their proclamation was issued from the General Post Office, which became their command hub from Easter Monday and was left gutted by the end of the fighting on 29th April.

The rebellion had little support from the Irish; locals weren’t impressed by Dublin being turned into a battleground for days on end, with shops and businesses left in ruins and innocent civilians killed in the process (particularly in North King Street). It wasn’t until the key rebels were executed that sympathy began to build for them. During my trip to Dublin last year, I tried to uncover the best ways to understand the Rising.

1916 Freedom Tour review with tourists on bus trip at Merrion Square
The bus is plastered with images and there’s also a screen at the front to follow the route. This is one well-considered tour!

1916 Freedom Tour

1916tour.ie has been offering unique Easter Rising tours to small groups since 1st July 2015, on a bus designed to resemble an army truck. The tour leader really does know the inside track on all things Rising, including an unusual gem about ducks getting in the way of the revolution: everyone agreed to a cease-fire in St. Stephen’s Green whilst the park keeper fed the ducks in the pond.

This was not your average uprising, and it didn’t even come from military men – they were artists, teachers and poets with ideas of a free Ireland. Seeing the different sites they fought in, scattered across the city, is important for gaining perspective. Wrap up warm and take notes, because it’s a cold and mind-boggling but fascinating trip.

As the tour leader explains, the rebels had Mauser guns from 1871, with a range of only 50 yards, and capable of 6-7 rounds a minute; these are described today as ‘militarily useless’. They also had a handful of Lee Enfield 303 rifles, with a much bigger range of 250 yards and a capability of at least 10 rounds a minute without adjusting, and 20 rounds minimum.

In contrast, the British solely used the Lee Enfield 303s, so they could all shoot from greater distances and with much more ammunition per minute than most of the rebels. Today you can see bullet holes in the Royal College of Surgeons building on St. Stephen’s Green, and on one of the winged ‘Angels of Dublin’ statues at the bottom of O’Connell Street.

1916 Freedom Tours take place Wednesday-Sunday at 10am, 12pm, 2pm and 4pm, from the marked bus stop on Merrion Square; mine took about 90 minutes, but the official time is 1 hour. Tickets €20 (adults), €16 (students/OAPs), €15 (13-17-year-olds), €12 (children 12 and under).

Winged Dublin Angel statue with damaged arm from Rising
Just one of the bullet holes left on the streets.

A Numbers Game

The expected numbers of rebels and volunteers turned out to be wildly optimistic, probably because the Rising had officially been called off. For example, 5,000 were expected to occupy key buildings, but only 1,300 turned up at the GPO. Here are some more stats uncovered on the tour:

  • St. Stephen’s Green: 200 expected, 46 arrived.
  • Dublin Castle: 200 expected, 36 arrived; this meant only two buildings, instead of nine, could be occupied.
  • Jacob’s Biscuit Factory: 400 expected, 136 arrived.

When you add those low numbers to old-fashioned weapons and a lack of public support, it’s clear with hindsight where this was heading.

Women who fought for the Irish Republic in 1916 arranged for photograph in barracks
These sixty women, members of Cumann na mBan, were all held after the Rising. Credit: RichmondBarracks.ie.

Men, Women and Children

Volunteers were a real cross-section of society – all religions, denominations, and up to 65 years old. Some were from London, Liverpool and Edinburgh. However, this wasn’t a boys’ club: there was also support from the women’s organisation, Cumann na mBan.

The Proclamation of Independence, read out by Padraig Pearse on the steps of the GPO, promised Irish men and women ‘religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens’; gender equality was a revolutionary idea at the time. Women were heavily involved in the Rising, smuggling guns, becoming snipers or message carriers and helping the wounded, and only one stronghold (Boland’s Mill, held by Eamon de Valera) didn’t allow female fighters. Countess Constance Markiewicz, a formidable presence, was second in command at St. Stephen’s Green.

86-100 women were incarcerated for their part in the event. However, because history is written by men, they have often been overlooked. Elizabeth O’Farrell, who played one of the biggest roles and informed each stronghold that they needed to surrender, even had her feet airbrushed out of the famous surrender photo.

Oppressive looking jail in Dublin used to house criminals and the site of 1916 executions
The grim outline of Kilmainham against the sky.

Inside Kilmainham Gaol

Kilmainham Gaol is where most of the rebels were executed, between 3rd-12th May 1916. 97 were sentenced to be executed but only 16 had their sentences carried out. The ‘1916 corridor’ of Kilmainham held Joseph Plunkett, Michael Mallon and Padraig Pearse, amongst others.

Countess Markiewicz was only spared execution because of her gender, so her sentence was commuted to life in prison. She was freed in the general amnesty of 1917 and she stood for election the following year. Elected to Westminster, she refused to take her seat, then set up her own parliament instead.

You can only visit with a guided tour, but it’s well worth doing, as you cover so much ground here, and see where prisoners were held. The cell walls are damp due to the permeable limestone inside. Kilmainham was packed out during the Great Hunger, or the Irish Famine, between 1845-50. The Vagrant Act saw many beggars arrested, and there were 5-6 people per cell; not bad when you consider the jail had 60 people per cell at its very limits, but still not ideal. It’s estimated that 1.5 million people died and 1 million emigrated due to the famine.

Eamon de Valera was held on the second floor; he wasn’t executed as he was born in America. Weirdly, as the guide explains when you go round the site, de Valera was the last man to be held in Kilmainham and the first to see it afterwards – this time he returned as the President of Ireland.

The Gaol is open daily 9:30am-6pm between April-September, and Mon-Sat 9:30am-5:30pm and Sun 10:00-18:00 from October-March. Last admission 1 hour before closing; guided tour only and no pre-booking. Tickets €4 (adults), €3 (seniors), €2 (children).

Stonebreakers' Yard where Connolly, Pearse et al were executed for Easter Rising 1916
If walls could talk… the execution site at Kilmainham.

Facing the Firing Squad

14 of the 16 executions of the Rising were carried out in the Stonebreakers’ Yard, as its high walls meant it wasn’t overlooked. Each man was blindfolded, their hands tied, and sandbags were placed behind them to prevent bullets ricocheting off the walls. 12 soldiers took aim, one of which had a blank in his gun as a psychological measure.

The biggest outrage came from the execution of James Connolly, who was injured in the Rising and had developed gangrene. He was kept alive in Dublin Castle by the British Red Cross, purely so he could be executed here. Due to his injuries, Connolly had to be stretchered in and was given a chair as he couldn’t stand up. This death provoked the most outrage, as he was already dying of his injuries.

Padraig Pearse surrender location Moore Street Dublin plaque
Moore Street, where the official surrender took place. Pearse and O’Farrell were there, but O’Farrell was edited out of the photos.

Recommended Reading

  • Easter Widows, by Sinéad McCoole – what happened to six women whose husbands were all executed for participating in the 1916 Rising.
  • Easter Dawn: The 1916 Rising, by Turtle Bunbury – a comprehensive, but easy to digest, guide to what happened and when. Loads of pictures and mini biographies help identify who’s who.
  • Easter 1916 – this website is another great starting point, full of original images.

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