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Wednesday 29 November 2023 Dublin: 4°C
Courtesy to The National Library of Ireland 'The O'Rahilly'

Opinion Goodbye to O'Rahilly's 40 Herbert Park, an integral part of the story of 1916

Historian Donal Fallon tells of ‘The O’Rahilly’, one of The Rising’s most colourful characters and how his recently demolished home, 40 Herbert Park, played a part in the history of the rebellion.

MICHAEL JOSEPH O’RAHILLY, self-styled The O’Rahilly, was a remarkably colourful character, even by the standards of the Irish revolutionary generation. He is best recalled for the manner of his death, gunned down leading a charge from the blazing GPO, across Henry Street and in the direction of the neighbouring Moore Street.

O’Rahilly had been opposed to the insurrection, convinced it could not succeed, but had gone to participate in it anyway. With poetic licence, William Butler Yeats took his words and placed them in one of his finest poems, where O’Rahilly tells us:

Because I helped to wind the clock. I come to hear it strike.

One Volunteer recounted his words of excitement as they prepared to leave the GPO: “Fancy missing this and getting killed running for a tram or catching a cold!”

Unique home for a unique character

In recent weeks, The O’Rahilly has been back in the news cycle owing to questions around the future of his home, 40 Herbert Park, a debate now ended by its demolition in the early hours of yesterday morning. 

O’Rahilly was born in Ballylongford, County Kerry, the son of a successful merchant family who invested in property, leaving to him a substantial annual income.

Independently wealthy, he drove a beautiful De Dion Bouton car, an unusual sight on the streets of the Irish capital. It had been painted blue for France – he had it painted green for Ireland.

The car met its sad end on a rebel barricade. A long-standing urban myth in Dublin maintained that it, and the rubble of O’Connell Street, was utilised in the construction of the Hill 16 terrace in Croke Park.

de.dion.4a O'Rahilly's car

There is no truth in it, and the terrace, in fact, predated the Rising, but the myth has endured significantly enough to be included in the assessment of the historical significance of 40 Herbert Park. 

That was attached as an appendix to the architectural heritage report on the site, with leading historian Charles Townshend pondering “if the remains of his car could be extracted from the fabric of Croke Park stadium.”

To have a car was, in itself, a peculiar thing. Liam Cosgrave, Taoiseach and son of W.T Cosgrave, recounted that “my father drove with The O’Rahilly to a meeting in Balbriggan about 1915 in O’Rahilly’s car. He was the only Sinn Feiner with a car. W.T. had to get out and wipe the rain off the windscreen. No wipers then.” O’Rahilly’s exotic choice of car said much about his personality, but so too did his home.

‘The biggest show in town’ – Herbert Park and the 1907 exhibition

Herbert Park, in Dublin’s Ballsbridge, had been the location of the Irish International Exhibition in 1907, a sort of lavish World’s Fair, which some 2.75 million visitors passed through. The influential businessman and media tycoon William Martin Murphy had been central to the affair.

004 O Rahilly House Farrell / The O’Rahilly House No. 40 Herbert Park, Dublin, demolished yesterday. Farrell / /

A Home Rule nationalist and former M.P, Murphy even turned down the offer of a Knighthood for his involvement in the impressive spectacle. Walking Herbert Park today, the impressive display halls and performance theatres constructed for the International Exhibition are long gone, but a pond and bandstand remain as physical reminders.

In the aftermath of the International Exhibition, a series of beautiful Edwardian homes were constructed on the site. They attracted interesting individuals; O’Rahilly’s neighbour was Robert Bruce (1841-1920), Agricultural Inspector at the neighbouring Royal Dublin Society.

Together with his wife Nancy – who had been born on 5th Avenue in the heart of Manhattan, but who was herself a committed Irish nationalist – O’Rahilly and family built a happy home in the leafy setting of Herbert Park, complete with servants and the De Dion Bouton which took pride of place outside the home.

O’Rahilly became a founding member of the Irish Volunteers, formally established at a packed meeting in Dublin’s Rotunda Rink in November 1913, a nationalist response to the Ulster Volunteer Force.

O’Rahilly became Treasurer of the new volunteer army, and later its Director of Arms, centrally important in arming the Volunteers with the very weapons they would carry into battle at Easter Week.

O’Rahilly’s dying letter to 40 Herbert Park

As O’Rahilly lay dying in a Dublin doorway, he penned a departing note to his beloved, addressed to her at 40 Herbert Park. It contains within it one of the defining lines of the insurrection, in his assertion that “it was a good fight anyhow.”

Written after I was shot –

Darling Nancy,

I was shot leading a rush up Moore Street took refuge in a doorway. While I was there I heard the men pointing out where I was and made a bolt for the laneway I am in now.

I got more [than] one bullet I think.

Tons and tons of love dearie to you & to the boys & to Nell & to Anna. It was a good fight anyhow.

Please deliver this to Nannie O’Rahilly, 40 Herbert Park, Dublin.

Goodbye Darling.

That 40 Herbert Park was closely monitored by the G Men, the intelligence division of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, is evident from their surviving notes, the ‘Movement of Extremist Files’. Niall Carson Members of the Cabra Historical Society stage an Easter Rising re-enactment of the historic O'Rahilly Charge on Moore Street in Dublin. Niall Carson

It was the G Men who made their way through the ranks of interned rebels in Richmond Barracks following the rebellion and identified key figures for court-martial and later execution. Undoubtedly, had he survived the rebellion, O’Rahilly would have stood little chance of dodging execution.

The War of Independence

40 Herbert Place remained significant to the subsequent revolutionary period – Nancy was herself a member of Cumann na mBan and was symbolically elected vice-president of the body in 1920, along with other widows and mothers of the 1916 dead.

Her home would be utilised by departments of Dáil Éireann, the clandestine revolutionary government, and by the IRA. It was in 40 Herbert Park that one of the most dramatic decisions of the period was made.

Oscar Traynor, later Fianna Fáil Minister and FAI President, but then Officer Commanding of the Dublin Brigade IRA, remembered a meeting there attended by Cathal Brugha, Eamon de Valera, Michael Collins and others, where De Valera suggested “something in the nature of a big action in Dublin was necessary in order to bring public opinion abroad to bear on the question of Ireland’s case.

003 O Rahilly Protest Rolling News Protesters for the preservation of 40 Herbert Park outside the Mansion House. Rolling News

He felt that such an action in the capital city, which was as well known abroad as London or Paris, would be certain to succeed.” The Custom House was burnt on 25 May 1921, one of the last major engagements of the War of Independence.

The architectural value of the three Edwardian houses beside Herbert Park has been debated. In a city defined by her Georgian age, and with a smattering of remarkable Victorian architecture, they were interesting if not spectacular examples of early twentieth century Edwardian villa housing, and a link to the days of the great Irish International Exhibition.

Yet it remains undeniable The O’Rahilly’s home – the home of the Director of Arms of the Irish Volunteers, later utilised by Collins, de Valera and others to plan the last great spectacle of the Irish War of Independence – had historic value. Like O’Rahilly’s De Dion Bouton on a Princes Street barricade, it is sadly lost forever.

Donal Fallon is a historian and presenter of the Three Castles Burning podcast, an episode of which explores The O’Rahilly.

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