Witnesses to History

Sackville Street, April 24th, 1916:

Dublin is cloaked in an eerie silence. The Easter Rising is an afternoon old: A horse lies dead by Nelson’s Pillar.

“I shall not forget the strange atmosphere of that evening,” recalls Charles Wyse-Power.

“There were no trams, horses, motorcars or traffic of any kind. There was a hush over the street and the Dublin people were standing looking at the flag and wondering what the whole thing was about.”

 

Government Buildings, March 1959:

Mr Wyse’s is one of 1,770 statements locked with press cuttings, voice recordings and photographs into a unique time capsule.

The Bureau of Military History, established in 1947 to assemble first-hand accounts of the independence movement, locks its research in a strongroom not to be released until the last recipient of the military-service pension who testifies has died.

 

Cathal Brugha Barracks, March 11th, 2003:

The archives are formally opened to the public.

Present and former Taoisigh Bertie Ahern and Liam Cosgrave join uniformed officers, historians and the children and grandchildren of witnesses amidst an air of excited expectancy.

History is coughed up from 83 steel boxes.

The testimonies ranging from bands of brothers who walked from Meath and Kildare to women smuggling guns are revealed. The result is an entirely fresh angle on 1916.

“OK it’s way back in the past like history is,” says Annie Ryan, the first author to compile this treasure trove into book form.

“But I think it was sad the way it was taught in the schools — especially the relegation of 1916 to a group of terrorists.

“To me that’s sacrilegious.”

Ryan eschews moral revisionism to locate the Rising in the context of the First World War — a country seething with militarism and an era which saw courage as a defining value.

The daughter of Tom Harris — a member of the group who walked from Kildare to fight in the GPO — she seems well positioned for the task.

Much of interest emerges. That the Rising had its roots in a new nationalism emerging in Ireland from the 1890s onwards is old news.

But the statements reveal the extent to which the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) had infiltrated organisations such as the GAA, Gaelic League, Cumman na mBan and Irish Volunteers.

By design this revolutionary body recruited members, worked with emigrants and steered energy relentlessly towards its ends.

When the First World War broke out, placing the Irish Parliamentary Party’s Home Rule aspirations on ice the IRB seized its moment.

A Military Council was established. Patrick Pearse, Joseph Plunkett, Éamonn Ceannt, James Connolly and Thomas McDonagh were appointed as leaders. Big events became inevitable.

“For little more than a week before the Rising there was a tremendous excitement — a sort of seething undercurrent,” recalls Mairín Ryan, a courier during 1916.

“You felt that something was going to happen but what it was you did not know.”

What it was became clear on Easter Monday. Some 1,600 insurgents kicked-off events at noon and in little time key buildings including the GPO, the Four Courts, College of Surgeons and Boland’s Mills were taken.

A Proclamation of the Irish Republic was posted and the IRB knuckled down to defend its positions.

From the top floor of Marrowbone Lane Distillery 19-year-old Robert Holland could see soldiers deciding whether to scale or breach the wall at the South Dublin Union.

“It was very warm and dusty in the room. I fired several rounds at the bunch of soldiers through the ventilator and kept firing at them as long as any of them remained there. This kept up for about an hour and from what I could see a number of them were knocked out.”

Inspired by the IRB Holland and other insurgents lapped up stories of heroic streetfighting, of Brugha wounded 25 times and Malone and his band of nine holding two British battalion.

The battle plan was simple — seize important city centre structures and defend them by occupying an outer ring of buildings.

By Wednesday the British naval gunboat Helga was shelling Liberty Hall.

Robert Holland recalls Dublin glowing at night. Incendiary shells started fires on Sackville Street; buildings were aflame and caving in.

At dawn on Thursday, he settled down to a battle royal with surrounding British troops — but it was already apparent the tide had turned.

By noon on Sunday the Rising was over. Men knelt to say the rosary at 16 Moore Street. A ceasefire was ordered and a white flag dispatched.

Famously, the defeated rebels met with hostility from Dubliners. Few working-class families were without a son in the British army at the time, the Church had staunchly opposed an uprising and an air of pragmatism governed the business community.

But as news of executions filtered through attitudes changed.

One by one, Pearse, Connolly, MacDonagh, Plunkett et al were shot and Ireland entered into a state of shock.

Witness statements explain the swing from a quiescent unionism towards separatism which took slow, firm root after 1916.

Ninety years on the vigour of 1916 has faded for many.

Intoxicating rhetoric and evocative names like Collins, Markievicz and MacDermott seem to belong to a sepia-tinted era.

The values and lifestyle of modern Dublin would be unrecognisable to them.

But one thing is certain: After their fight and their deaths things were never the same again in Ireland.

The nation had been set upon a road on which there could be no turning back.

 


 
 
 
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