WITH ITS CENTENARY quickly approaching, the Easter Rising of 1916 is sure to be a topic of discussion over the next few years.
An important event in Irish history, the Easter Rising saw urban combat take place on the streets of Dublin, as more than 1,500 Irish men and women fought with members of the British army as they staged an insurrection.
Walking through Dublin city today, you can still see signs of the rising dotted around some of the capital’s best-known streets. While walking to the Luas, going shopping, or making your way into the city centre, you may be passing by the pock-marks and battle scars that signify the fighting that went on.
You can’t see the blood that was spilled on the streets, or hear the blasts of gunfire, but seeing these tactile reminders of the rising can help you imagine what happened.
We spoke to two experts, author and Irish military historian Paul O’Brien, and Dr Joanna Brück, a senior lecturer at UCD’s School of Archaeology, about the physical scars left by the 1916 Rising in Dublin.
Ireland was part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland when the rising began on Easter Monday, 24 April 1916.
On that date, seven Irishmen proclaimed the establishment of the Irish Republic – with themselves as its government. Involved were the Irish Volunteers, led by Pádraig Pearse, the much smaller Irish Citizen Army, led by James Connolly, and members of Cumann na mBan.
They numbered around 1,600 people, and went on to occupy buildings around Dublin city centre, including Liberty Hall. Their headquarters was the General Post Office (GPO) on Sackville St (what is now called O’Connell St).
The insurrection lasted a week, and cost nearly 500 lives (mostly civilian), while leaving more than 2,000 people wounded.
It also left many buildings burnt to the ground, including the GPO, of which only the facade remains. After surrendering to the British forces, the leaders were court martialled and executed, although one leader who escaped execution was the American-born future Irish president Éamon de Valera. (For more of the background into the lead-up to the event, see this National Library of Ireland document.)
Regardless of your opinion of the rising, walking around Dublin today you are able to see physical reminders of the events in some very prominent places.
Mount Street bridge and Northumberland Road
The schoolhouse (right) and the road to Mount St Bridge as it is today. Google Street View.
Mount street bridge crosses the canal and links Mount St onto Northumberland Road. “One of the biggest battles of the rising happened on that road,” said O’Brien.
25 Northumberland Road was occupied by Lt Michael Malone of the Irish Volunteers. The schoolhouse was occupied by another group of volunteers as well.
The old schoolhouse is still standing and is now a hotel and restaurant. British reinforcements came in and marched up that street, where many of them met their deaths. They were members of the 59th North Midlands Division, said O’Brien, and they ran into 17 volunteers who were positioned on that street.
There were 214 casualties on the British side. “They had them in cross fire – the British didn’t know what direction they were coming from or what position the Irish had,” explained O’Brien. “That battlefield is still there bar one building that was burnt down and is now an office block.”
St James’ Hospital
Google Street View
You’d be forgiven for thinking St James’ Hospital in Dublin 8 was completely new, but in fact part of the old buildings there still remain.
It was known as the South Dublin Union. It was a workhouse for the imporverished people. A man called Eamonn Ceannt was one of the Irish Volunteers and occupied the workhouse.
Near the hospital is a road called Ceannt Fort.
“The battlefield and the majority of the buildings are still there within the modern complex. You can see the nurse’s home; the convent is still there,” he added. There are also numerous old hospital buildings there. There were “fierce battles” in this area, said O’Brien.
The Four Courts area
North King St – Google Street View
The Four Courts is still present, but much of this area was rebuilt after the civil war, said O’Brien. “A lot of it was damaged or destroyed in the civil war – in relation to 1916, many battles took place in streets and alleyways behind the Four Courts.”
One of the biggest battles took place on North King St, and involved the Irish Volunteers and the South Staffordshire regiment from the British Army. The army suffered heavy casualties here, said O’Brien.
Urban combat was very new to the British Army, and they had to adapt very quickly to what was happening in Dublin.
Many of the houses here were knocked down, but some houses and buildings remain. The Irish Volunteers occupied a public house at the junction of North King St that was called Reilly’s. It still stands, but under a different name.
The Capuchin hall, where Comdt Edward Daly set up his headquarters, is also standing.
Also near the Four Courts was a medical mission, where a group of British lancers took shelter after being intercepted making their way up the quays. This building still stands today:
The whole front of that building is peppered with bullet holes.
St Stephen’s Green
If you’ve ever been in the Stephen’s Green area, you’ll know how busy it is today. People rush past on their way to the Luas, Grafton St, or the nearby shopping centre, or well-heeled visitors might be strolling to the Shelbourne Hotel. But during the rising, machine gunfire was blasting out of the hotel, while trenches were being dug in St Stephen’s Green.
St Stephen’s Green is a Victorian park that was opened in 1880, so the fact it was taken over by the Irish Citizens’ Army was quite symbolic, said Dr Brück.
The rebels dug trenches, probably at the four entrance ways and other places – the written sources aren’t very specific about where they were.
“The rebels took St Stephen’s Green over on Easter Monday,” said Dr Brück. “There has been debate over whether it was a strategically good location to take over or not. Some would say it was stupid to take over Stephen’s Green as it was looked over by different buildings and they didn’t have enough men to take control of buildings overlooking the green. Others would say there is a water sources so that was good.”
From Dr Brück’s perspective, the green “was the heartland of Unionist Dublin – quite a symbolic landscape”. The fact it was also the transport hub for the city meant that taking over the green was a disruptive act. The rebels were led by Michael Mallin and Countess Markiewiecz (there is a limestone bust of Markievicz in the park today).
The rebels dug trenches and put barricades up around entrances and smaller entrances in the park, and also commandeered passing vehicles to help them in their task, said Dr Brück.
They had to clear people out of park – at the start people wouldn’t believe there was a rising.
According to O’Brien, “one photograph taken of the trenches for a newspaper at the time showed them facing straight down Dawson St”. They were slip trenches, or ‘foxholes’, into which the rebels could slip away from the range of gunfire.
Today, you can see pock-marks and bullet holes on the Fusilier’s arch at the entrance to St Stephen’s Green.
During a recent search, the trenches were not uncovered using new archaeological techniques, but Dr Brück hasn’t given up her search for them.
On the Monday night, the British army snuck into the Shelbourne Hotel, which of course is still standing. Next time you pass by, picture a machine gun poking out of the fourth floor, as this is what occurred once they got in and barricaded themselves up there. At first light they began shooting at the rebels.
The army also located soldiers in the nearby United Services Club. The soldiers barricaded downstairs in the Shelbourne, and some guests were wounded by fire from the rebels in the park. The guests were moved to the rear of the building to avoid more injury.
While the inside of the hotel has been completely refurbished, the outside is as it was at that time.
Royal College of Surgeons
Google Street View
The rebels soon retreated to the Royal College of Surgeons, where they stayed until the surrender on the Sunday. “The buildings they took over were very symbolic,” said Dr Brück.
Take a look at the masonry at the entrance of the college, and you can see more pock-marks and bullet holes from the guns fired during shoot-outs while the rebels were inside and the British Army outside.
The GPO was the headquarters of the Irish Volunteers during the rising – at the time the street was called Sackville St. The building was burned down, so all you can see today is the remaining facade.
However, that is enough to give you some indication of what went on – look for chips in the masonry and bullet holes scattered along this facade, which was one of the major buildings during the rising. It was one of a number of buildings that was burned down during that week.
Here are some archive photographs of the aftermath of the rising, which serves to explain why some of the locations don’t show signs of what went on – they were destroyed during the fighting.