How to approach the Easter Rising? I had considered a chronological approach, but in the end discarded this as simply too complicated and hard to follow, jumping from garrison to garrison until the signal of events is lost in the noise. Instead, I will focus on operations and garrisons one after the other, in Dublin first and then in the country at large. We will start with the attacks on the first day, that did not go much beyond the first 24 hours of fighting.
It has become almost a tradition to say that the Easter Rising began with the seizure of the GPO and the reading of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic on the street outside, but this is only partially true. In the short space before that positions were being seized all over the city, and one operation, meant to signal the start of the uprising, was underway.
In 1735 the British administration had ordered built in Dublin’s Phoenix Park a star fort to serve as a gunpowder store for the army: 181 years later, with some alterations, it was still there and still serving the same purpose as storage for high explosive, known, as its remains still are, as the Magazine Fort. Members of the IRB and Volunteers, notably Sean McDermott, thought the Fort an excellent target to launch the Easter Rising.
The man to undertake this plan was a Volunteer Lieutenant named Paddy Daly who would eventually end his career as a General in the Free State Army. In 1916 he was fixated on the Fort. He had worked inside it as a civilian carpenter, and thus knew much of its layout and security: despite its manmade defences, deep ditches and high walls, he knew the actual guard was limited. The plan was simple: to gain access through subterfuge initially, then, at the point of gun, get access to the explosive stores, and detonate them. Despite the fact that much of the stores usually held there were currently being used to kill Germans, Daly hoped there was still enough left to make a very sizable explosion, one that would could be used as a spectacular opening to the rebellion. Daly was given 30 men for the task, a mix of Volunteers and boys from Fianna Eireann.
The postponement of the operations played havoc with Daly’s plans and when things went ahead that Monday, he had less men than he wanted operating with confused orders over the exact time they were supposed to proceed; he was obliged to hurriedly cobble together a new unit taken from men then forming up under the likes of Eamonn Ceannt and Con Colbert; dressed in civilian clothes and armed with concealed handguns, their plans were almost ruined when a van chosen to transport men to the Phoenix Park, and help them escape later, crashed, with one enterprising Volunteer holding up a horse-drawn cab to keep things moving.
Daly’s group approached the fort in the guise of men out to play a game of football in the park, a not uncommon sight; they kicked the ball over the walls, and when the obliging gatekeeper agreed to go and get it for them, they used the opportunity to rush the entrance. The few soldiers guarding the fort were quickly subdued, with one shot in the leg; unable to find the key to the room where the high explosives were being stored, Daly and his unit improvised an explosive charge from material in ammunition cases covered in paraffin that would be placed against the wall, and hoped this explosion would be enough to set off the whole supply (though, as some suspected, much of the gun cotton stores had been depleted).
The fuse was lit and the Volunteers and Fianna fled the scene; the only death as a result of the attack was the son of the Fort’s commander, who fled the nearby residence and was shot to prevent him from raising the alarm. Daly’s unit split apart and attempted to reach other garrisons, with the Rising now well underway, thinking from the dull boom they had heard in their flight that their mission was successful. They were incorrect: the bomb meant to breach the wall had gone off, but the larger supply of explosives remained undetonated (thought the fort was, for a time, set on fire). It was the first failed objective for the Volunteers, and it would not be the last.
On the other side of the city, a more expansive drama was unfolding around the centre of the British administration in Ireland: Dublin Castle, and neighbouring City Hall. The attack on this area was to be by a small force of men and women of the Irish Citizen Army who had marched from Liberty Hall: they were led by Captain Sean Connolly. Connolly was a man of firm nationalist stock: his father had taken part in the 1867 rebellion, with his son adding socialism to the mix with membership of the ITGWU and friendship with James Connolly. He was also, perhaps, one of the most well-known rebel commanders, being an accomplished stage actor; he had, in fact, just played Robert Emmett in the Abbey.
Captain Connolly’s aim was City Hall, the seat of Dublin’s local government. The aims of this part of the rebellion have been subject to debate: the failure to launch a more concerted effort to take Dublin Castle, a much larger target for political reasons if nothing else, has often been commented upon in discussions of the Rising. It has often been stated that it was not attacked as the rebellion’s leadership were ignorant of how few guards were there. While this may be true, Connolly also felt that taking both Dublin Castle and City Hall – or perhaps even just the larger Dublin Castle – would leave his force of barely more than 40 people dangerously overstretched and liable to be easily defeated by British countermoves. There was also a Red Cross hospital in that area, and Connolly wisely did not want the added responsibility of caring for its patients during the fighting.
Instead, he felt more productive targets were the nearby offices of the Daily Express and Dublin Evening Mail newspapers. With these and City Hall in rebel hands, they could command a field of fire on Parliament Street and bottle up Dublin Castle. A larger strategic aim may also have been to cut off Dublin Castle without occupying it, with the rebels attempting to neutralise communications to the outside world. We can also not discount the simple fact that far fewer soldiers showed up on Monday than had on Sunday: with more men and women available, perhaps Connolly would have been more ambitious.
The first combatant death of the Easter Rising is commonly accepted as DMP Constable James O’Brien, guarding the gate of the Castle that day, unarmed, who was shot dead by Connolly as the ICA Captain attempted to gain control of the entrance. The subsequent shooting – British Army personnel were nearby – alerted Under-Secretary Sit Matthew Nathan, taking a meeting inside the Castle, to the reality of what was occurring. He wisely moved to have the other gates to the Castle locked and the constables on guard armed, while others alerted the nearest Army barracks’ and then the British military and administration at large. The rebels cut telephone lines, but the Castle retained access to a working telegraph.
Connolly men went about seizing City Hall, barricading ground floor windows while others took position on the roof. They were soon engaged by British soldiers coming from the Royal Barracks on Benburb Street, members of the Royal Irish Fusiliers and Royal Irish Rifles, and other British soldiers who made it inside the Castle grounds. As Connolly went about the roof checking on his men and firing a few shots at targets below, he was struck in the chest, fatally. He is commonly accepted as the first rebel killed in the Rising. A lieutenant John O’Reilly took command. Around the same time the first British officer died, 2nd Lieutenant Guy Pinfield of the 8th Royal Hussars, shot dead as he led a rush on the exterior Castle gate.
A few hours after these initial engagements reinforcements were already arriving in Dublin; troopers from the 3rd Cavalry Brigade secured the Castle despite harassing fire on their march from Kingsbridge (Heuston) Station. They brought machine gun crews with them, which significantly altered the balance of available firepower. The ICA force in City Hall was pinned down, though not neutralised.
The British launched an infantry attack and seized the exterior Castle gate, but ran into trouble as they attempted to advance up Parliament Street, taking many casualties; thereafter they used basements and cellars to gain access into the Hall from below, with Lieutenant O’Reilly killed around this time by machine gun fire; what was left may have been commanded by a medical officer, Kathleen Lynn, from this point on. Forcing their way into the ground floor, they engaged the rebels near point black, forcing them to retreat upwards. The City Hall position was thus hopelessly compromised, but bitter fighting remained before the British secured it.
Forced to attack up stairways held by a determined enemy, in enclosed positions liable to become chocked with smoke, they took more casualties before forcing the remaining ICA members on the first floor to surrender. Exhausted and thinking the rebels on the roof numbered far more than they actually did, the final clear-out was postponed until the following morning, when the British attacked again, taking more casualties before the final dozen or so rebels were killed or captured.
That left the newspaper offices on either side of Parliament Street, which were well-defended; British frontal attacks on the positions, in successive waves, resulted in a firefight that lasted several hours, with the buildings only taken in the late afternoon; further rebel posts in the nearby Exchange Hotel continued to inflict casualties, but most of the fighting in the area was over. What rebels were still alive and not captured slipped away as best they could to join other garrisons, especially those at St Stephens Green and the GPO.
In offering a judgement on these opening engagements of the Rising, we must keep in mind both the practical military results, and the symbolic effect; the latter being arguably of much greater significance than the former, given what the orchestrators of the overall rebellion had in mind.
In a military sense, the Magazine Fort raid was a partial success: the Fort had been breached and secured, and the rebels were able to initiate an explosion, all without taking any casualties, but failed to blow the entire Fort sky high. Symbolically, the mass explosion some had hoped would provide a signal to the entirety of Dublin did not take place, but the fact that a small group of Volunteers had gotten as far as they did inside an important military position can only be considered a poor reflection on the British Army.
The City Hall fighting had confused objectives but can’t really be considered a military success. Dublin Castle was neither secured or silenced, and only bottled up for a very short-time, British military forces in the area suffered casualties but were not defeated while the positions the ICA took held out for little more than 24 hours, unlike many of the others around Dublin. Symbolically though, it was a strike at the heart of the British administration that demonstrated the potential reach of the rebels, and while even the temporary taking of the Castle would have been an even greater coup – one can imagine how the British Army having to storm their own castle would have looked to the outside world, as well as the capture of the Under-Secretary – the sacrifice of Connolly and the others cannot be considered a completely worthless endeavour.
The Rising was underway, and now the more serious fights were starting. On the other side of the city, perhaps the most successful rebel operation of the battle was about to begin.
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