WITH THE ANNIVERSARY commemoration of the 1916 Easter Rising very much under way, a new book seeks to detail exactly who was in the GPO on Dublin’s O’Connell Street during that fateful April week.
Many of us will be familiar with the drawings of rebel-leader James Connolly lying wounded on a stretcher during the last throes of the rising, but greater than that our knowledge of who was actually there may be a little limited.
You may be surprised to learn that detailed records of who was present at the GPO do exist – in the military archives, old newspapers, pension records recently made available and in the 1916 roll of honour.
Retired Dublin City Council (DCC) worker Jimmy Wren has spent the last 30 years trawling the likes of the pension claims of retired soldiers who served during the rising and cross-referencing with documented evidence.
The resulting book, The GPO Garrison Easter Week 1916 - A Biographical Dictionary, contains over 520 names of GPO garrison members, men and women, whose ages ranged from 12 to 63 years, with full biographies and supporting evidence for each.
As both a reference tool, and a historical document, it’s a fascinating read, one the Sinn Féin Lord Mayor of Dublin Críona Ní Dhálaigh describes as a “treasure” and a “labour of love” in her foreword.
It’s historic relevance is indisputable also – prior to its publication the accepted general figure for those present in the GPO was in or around 400, a number the book effectively refutes.
78-year-old Dublin native Jimmy tells TheJournal.ie how the whole idea started “a long time ago with a visit to the 1916 room of the National Museum” with a surprise discovery.
“I was with a friend when we came across the rising roll of honour, and we both discovered our father’s name on the list,” he says.
It was such a surprise. I had had a vague idea that he was involved in the rising alright but no more – he died when I was 15.
As it happened, Jimmy’s father James, and his cousins Paddy and Tommy Mahon were all present in the GPO as part of the building’s garrison during the rising.
Thus began a painstaking 30-year journey for Jimmy as he set out to document each and every soldier who set foot in the GPO that fateful week.
“The complete number would be 572 participants in the GPO and in the outposts across the road, in the buildings between Earl Street and Eden Quay, Henry Street, the Hotel Metropole, and the whole surrounding area,” he says.
The research behind the book sounds daunting, if intuitive.
“I just kept at it, you know. Not all my time has been dedicated to this! I was working on other stuff down through the years as well,” he says (he has written six other books on local Dublin history and the GAA).
The most problematic side of the research was the sheer numbers of people involved, which “were certainly great, there were so many”.
I ran through newspapers, obituaries, lists of people who stated they were in the GPO that week.
Then it was a question of cross-referencing with the Military Archives collection and the pension records.
So you have the people who fought with the pro-treaty side, the national army in the civil war (1922-23).
The republican side weren’t documented until later years. But everybody who took part eventually applied for a pension.
Some 320 of the 572 biographies contained in the book are illustrated with pen pictures drawn by the author himself, using old newspaper cuttings as a template.
“I’ve always had a great interest in art and illustration,” he says.
It’s a pity I haven’t got the complete drawings, but that was as much as I could pull together at the time.
The GPO Garrison Easter Week 1916 - A Biographical Dictionary is available now, priced €29.95