As Friday began, and the fifth day of fighting in the centre of Dublin commenced, it was clear that the GPO was in serious peril. British artillery was demolishing the building piece by piece, and every time the brave Volunteers-turned-firefighters put out one blaze, another would start somewhere else. And they could do nothing about the great conflagration on Sackville Street, that had already, or soon would leave, its grand Georgian building burnt out husks. The effect of being under such fire was maddening, especially as there were precious few targets to shoot back at.
The British cordon was contracting around the rebel positions, with troops taking position just over O’Connell Bridge, up Abbey Street and up Henry Street to the rear of the GPO, with small-scale exchanges of fire the result. The British, demonstrating a patience that had not existed earlier in other parts of Dublin earlier in the week, resisted any desire to launch a full-on assault and instead tightened the noose with barricades blocking the western end of Henry Street and the north end of nearby Moore Street.
That morning a few tactical decisions were taken. Sean McLoughlin and his men in the Irish Independent offices were pulled back to the GPO, while those Cumann na mBan members who formed part of the garrison were ordered to leave, with the exception of nursing staff; under a white flag they crossed the lines and went into captivity. The nearby Metropole Hotel was all but evacuated owing to its top-floor fires, which now threatened to set the roof of the GPO ablaze. Soldiers at windows waiting for targets were moved to firefighting duty, a task whose Sisyphean quality was almost comic when trying to put out flames with a rubber hose filled with bullet holes. That they were able to keep the fires at bay at all is remarkable; that they did so while being contentiously shelled and strafed by machine-guns is extraordinary.
So the day passed, with the southern section of the GPO’s roof collapsing in the evening, just as the wounded had been moved to neighbouring Coliseum Theatre (a short time late they would cross the British lines and surrender). The dust and debris this foisted on the remaining garrison was the last straw: after a brief consultation, the Rising’s leaders knew the GPO was untenable, and prepared to evacuate.
But to where? British positions surrounded the rebels on all sides, and no help was coming. Pearse and company initially settled on the William & Woods Sweet and Soap Factory, on the other side of Great Britain Street (now Parnell Street). To do so they would need to, under the cover of night, breach the British lines, but if they could, the factory was a large enough building to hold the 300 strong garrison, might dissuade British shells due to its proximity to British soldiers, and might facilitate a re-joining of the line with the 1st Battalion area. In order to avoid the British position on the top of Moore Street, the most straightforward path, the rebel plan was to use the smaller laneways between the GPO and William & Woods.
30 men were picked as an advance force to secure the factory with the O’Rahilly volunteering to lead them. They advanced in two lines up Moore Street, into the waiting fire positions of the British barricade. 20 were killed or wounded in the rather hopeless attack, including O’Rahilly himself, who survived long enough to reach a side street that now bares his name and write a last letter to his wife.
The evacuation could not be deferred however. The few remaining men in the Metropole came into the GPO just before the hotel finally collapsed, trading one burning building for another. It was only for a short time, as the evacuation commenced almost immediately, with the GPO garrison crossing Henry Street to the Henry Place side street in sections, dogged by British fire the whole time. It was Sean McLoughlin, rapidly becoming a key figure in the chaos, who found the solution, ordering men to force an entrance into the buildings on Moore Street from the rear, since the rebels current positions would inevitably result in them being cut to pieces by British fire from the heights of the nearby Rotunda Hospital if they stayed there much longer.
The evacuation thus turned from abject to disorder to some form of cohesion, helped by McLoughlin’s leadership, the suppressing fire offered by men under Michael Collins, and the fact that the GPO was close to a final collapse. Pearse was one of the last out of the GPO, after the few prisoners kept there were released to their fate: the building fell in on itself a short time later.
The first HQ of the Irish Republic was done, and the second, in Moore Street, was already under fire. The leaders placed themselves first in Cogan’s Shop and then later No 16 while more loopholes stretched the garrison out to the rest of the buildings in the row. Connolly, confined to a stretcher, convinced the others that a new military leader needed to be assigned: McLoughlin was the unanimous choice, going from runner to Commandant-General of the Volunteers within two days. He inherited a command that was unenviable: the Volunteers held the loopholed Moore Street buildings, but could move nowhere else without facing British barricades and machine-gun posts.
A tense and restless night for the remaining Volunteers followed, with little sleep to be found due to British artillery targeting nearby Henry Street. On Saturday morning, McLoughlin met the other leaders and outlined the plan he had come up with to relieve the situation. He called for a diversionary assault, in force, on the Moore Street barricade (from the front down Moore Street, and from the rear by men looping around through Moore Lane) while the rest of the garrison would use the distraction to break-out in the direction of the Four Courts garrison. Even in the circumstances it was a desperate plan: any frontal attack on the Moore Street barricade was doomed to fail and to take heavy casualties in doing so, while a break-out to the Four Courts would require an attack on the British positions in Capel Street. McLoughlin warned that many Volunteers and civilians would die in the operation, but an agreement was made to prepare for the attack.
McLoughlin found volunteers for the diversionary assault that he would lead himself, to be launched from a backyard on the side street of Sackville Lane. Moments before the order was made, he was called back to meet Pearse and the others, to be questioned again about possible civilian casualties. Once this was done, he prepared to attack again, only for another messenger to stop them just before the order was given, and to further order McLoughlin to arrange a ceasefire with the British. Pearse, and the others, had had enough. They would surrender.
The headquarters garrison was probably that which suffered the most from the static nature of the rebels plans, largely because it was the only garrison to come under sustained artillery bombardment. The leaders kept expecting a more straightforward British attack on their position, but with the exception of the Lancers and the moves up Abbey Street, this never materialised. Instead, trapped within their chosen positions, the majority of their week was enduring shellfire and putting out flames. Once the British got a cordon in place, the effectiveness of the Sackville Street position as a leadership point was muted. The way they kept the fight going all the way to the denouement in Moore Street is admirable in a way, but the battle was decided in Britain’s favour long before it actually ended.
In a symbolic sense however, it cannot be denied that the fighting in Sackville Street and Moore Street was a gigantic success for the rebels. They held out for a week under a terrible artillery bombardment, and the British were obliged to largely destroy Dublin’s city centre to gain their military victory. The ruins of the GPO and its surrounding buildings provided a greater propaganda coup to the cause of Irish nationalism than anything else that occurred in Easter Week, as did the tales of individual heroism, like that of the O’Rahilly, that sprang up from among the headquarters garrison. Having a place in that garrison was a point of honour for many, many years afterwards even if you were someone like Michael Collins, who would come to look at the events of the Easter Rising as disastrously planned and executed.
What motivated Pearse to make the decision to surrender then has been the subject of debate. In practical terms Pearse, much like Plunkett, Clarke and Mac Diarmada, did very little in Easter Week, beyond write and deliver bombastic speeches to the garrison about the glory they were obtaining, the insurrection spreading across Ireland and the victory they would undoubtedly obtain. The actual commanding of military affairs was left to others, most notably Connolly, and there was no government to speak of. During the last terrible hours since the evacuation of the GPO, Pearse found his view of blood sacrifice and honourable death in combat badly shaken by the sight of civilians in Moore Street being cut down by both British and Volunteer fire. McLoughlin’s warning that the break-out plan would lead to more civilian casualties seemed to have been the last straw for the Irish Republic’s nominal leader, though others feel his actions may have been to save the rank and file of the Volunteers as much or moreso.
Into this last act, so pivotal in Irish history, stepped 32-year-old midwife Elizabeth O’Farrell, who had served as a nurse and dispatch runner that week. She was given a white flag and told to approach British lines to open negotiations. An hour later she met with General Lowe, who demanded nothing short of unconditional surrender. The British held all the cards at this point, and were prepared to resume the bombardment. O’Farrell reported back to Pearse, who soon joined her in going back to Lowe. An agreement was reached on surrender, which Pearse would sign at Irish Command Headquarters in Parkgate Street before being transported to prison, with O’Farrell to be given a British escort to the other garrisons to carry the message. In the short missive, Pearse specifically noted that it was felt they had done enough to secure the Irish Republic international recognition at any post-war peace conference, that he was prioritising the lives of civilians and Volunteers, and that the decision to surrender had been reached “by a majority”. Connolly provided his own message for Irish Citizen Army personnel. And so the drawn-out laying down of arms in the capital began.
The remains of the headquarters garrison marched back to Sackville Street to deposit their arms before going into official captivity, while the Dublin Fire Brigade continued what would be a multi-day battle to stop the flames in Sackville Street from spreading to the rest of the city. Their treatment varied, with stories of humanity and contempt: one British officer, a Captain Lee-Wilson, was abusive towards both Tom Clarke and Sean Mac Diarmada, witnessed by Collins: the officer would later be shot dead in the War of Independence. Others got lucky: McLoughlin was ordered to remove the signs that he was an officer from his uniform on account of his age, an act that may have ended up saving his life in the week ahead.
In the Four Courts the notice of surrender arrived for Ned Daly through a local priest and British soldier first, before O’Farrell arrived a few hours later. As would be typical of the Volunteer garrisons, there was a mixture of acceptance, surprise and anger at the news: Daly was a respected enough leader to bring an end to some mutinous talk of continuing the fight, but the bitterness was apparent, even as the garrison marched to join their comrades on Sackville Street. The outposts throughout the 1st Battalion’s area took a bit longer to get the message, and some firing near Reilly’s pub continued for a time before the Volunteers there too surrendered, and were marched to Dublin Castle.
The following morning in Boland’s Mills, de Valera initially dismissed O’Farrell’s message from Pearse, as it had not been counter-signed by his immediate superior, Thomas McDonagh. She would eventually return with the signature but by then de Valera had accepted the inevitable, and informed his garrison. There was rancour, but the officers got it under control after a short time.
At the Royal College of Surgeons O’Farrell was first met by Markievicz, then Mallin. The Citizen Army men and women were angered at the idea of surrendering when they considered themselves still well in the fight, and some even contemplated arresting Mallin, but their commander gained a semblance of control: the Citizen Army went into captivity, but one man had to be wrestled to the ground when he attempted to shoot the British officers arranging the surrender. On the march into captivity this garrison was one of those who suffered the jeers, abuse and even physical attacks from some Dublin residents, angered at the destruction to the city.
At Jacob’s Biscuit Factory, McDonagh refused to surrender when given the order, reasoning that as the men who signed it were now prisoners it now fell to him to assume the role of commander-in-chief. Perhaps this was mostly bluster. Regardless, MacDonagh acquiesced to meet with Lowe and in this meeting agreed to surrender, avoiding the pre-planned assault on the factory that the British were readying. He counter-signed the surrender order for de Valera and addressed his own men. Some tried to rally around John MacBride as an alternative leader to continue the fight, but the Boer veteran refused, advising only that, if the time came again, that the rebels should avoid getting trapped “inside four walls”. MacDonagh allowed those that could to try and escape: one who did was young Vincent “Vinny” Byrne, who had civilian clothing, and would go on to play an important role in Dublin’s War of Independence. MacBride had the opportunity to escape also, but choose to stay.
Afterwards MacDonagh, using General Lowe’s car, traveled to the South Dublin Union to officially inform Eamonn Ceannt. He was perhaps the most appalled of the garrison commanders at the idea, but he and his men conducted themselves professionally, and the Union, and the outpost at Jameson’s, laid down arms without fuss. The British officer overseeing did Ceannt’s men the honour of inspecting the ranks as they surrendered.
Roughly 2’000 rebels went into captivity that day, the majority kept for a time in various barracks before being transported across the Irish Sea to prisons and camps in Britain. The leaders were detained in Dublin, to face trial and judgement from a British military court. But before we discuss the fates of both those parties, we have a few other things to cover. Shortly I will start a series of posts on the Easter Rising outside of Dublin but first I want to focus on the British experience of the fighting in Dublin from a command perspective.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.