People like to know what is going on, and in a time of Insurrection even more so. During the Easter Rising of 1916, there was a more than usual reliance on the rumour-spreaders, as no real news was circulating. This is not to say that journalists and reporters were not out and about, collecting and filing the stories of the Rising on a daily basis. The Irish Times even published an edition on Tuesday April 25th, 1916, although it gave very little value for money, consisting almost totally of Official Government Proclamations, advertisements and a cringingly pro-government editorial. So, during my years of researching and collecting Rising stories, I have put the rumours to one side for this article. They are an important insight into what was being spread amongst the civilian residents of Dublin, and more importantly, believed by them in the absence of hard news. This small collection comes from the memories, newspaper articles, diary entries and personal reflections of Dubliners during and immediately after the Dublin Uprising of 1916.
Probably the best known and believed Rising rumour was that believed by Commandant James Connolly (photo left) himself. A cornerstone of his strategy for fortifying and defending the city from the expected British attack, was that a capitalist run British Empire would not use artillery against the property of their supporters. Hence, the Volunteers occupied large, solid buildings that infantry would find almost impossible to assault successfully. The Battle for Mount Street Bridge is a good example of the ability of a small group of volunteers to withhold far superior enemy forces. 17 volunteers held back 2 Battalions of Staffordshire soldiers for a full day, inflecting over 250 casualties on the military, for only three casualties, one fatal, among the volunteers. When the British artillery opened up on Wednesday, shelling Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street) and surrounding tenements, the writing was on the, now quickly being demolished, proverbial wall. Still, this was a fairly reasonable argument if you remember the fact that the property in question was Irish. Until the arrival of the artillery, the civilians were spectators to the fighting, and residents tried to live a normal life. Trinity continued to hold their final exams that week and Samuel Beckett recorded cycling to school every day of the Rising, into Earlsfort Terrace from Blackrock. People that would not normally socialise or even meet swapped the stories of the day. After Wednesday it was too dangerous for the spectators to circulate anymore and the ‘news’ became much more localised.
That Monday morning start of the Rising was considered by a large swath of Dubliners not to be something full of fear and danger, but almost a spectator sport for the Bank Holiday. Crowds mixed and walked throughout the inner city, even on Sackville Street, were shooting had begun in earnest. When the famous lancer charge happened on Sackville Street a large crowd had packed the lower end of the street and O’Connell Bridge to watch the event! When the surviving lancers tried to escape back up the street to safety, two Irish Independent reporters, Maurice Linnane and Michael Knightley chased after them, presumably looking for a quote!
Also witnessing the lancer charge were the diners in the Metropole Hotel (photo right), next door to the G.P.O. The place to sit was at one of the balcony tables, which gave a great view of the street. Two of the distinguished diners on the balconies were Louis G. Redmond-Howard and Douglas Marsh. Louis was a nephew of John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, while Douglas managed the spectacular Coliseum Theatre in Henry Street. So eager were they to observe the expected military attack on the G.P.O. that they held their seats for the whole day, until darkness forced them to move across the street, to beds in the Imperial Hotel. It had also treated the Insurrection as more entertainment than danger and the front façade windows were crowded with wedding guests, keen to witness the coming battle. An attentive groom managed to save his bride who had leaned too far out, to secure the best view!
James Stephens (photo left) was a clerk based in a solicitor’s office on Merrion Square. He wrote the excellent civilian book on the Rising, “The Insurrection in Dublin”. He walked the city during the day, and sat on his roof at night, watching the city burn. He quickly witnessed the rumour-spreaders among the spectators at Merrion Row and St Stephen’s Green on the Monday morning. He wondered if the man spreading rumours like a city crier actually changed the story for each group of listeners, or repeated the same drivel. Another keen writer on the Irish war for freedom was Ernie O’Malley, whose memories can still be read in ‘Another Man’s Wound’. He Rising started on reading the Proclamation stuck to the plinth of Nelson’s Pillar. He wrote that, “On the base of [the] pillar was a white poster. Gathered around were groups of men and women. Some looked at it with serious faces, others laughed and sniggered. I began to read it with a smile, but my smile ceased as I read.”
The failure of the military to launch a frontal assault on the G.P.O. did not disappoint the audience sufficiently to leave. Looters entertained everyone, despite the attempts to stop them by both a platoon of volunteers and a group of local priests. The crowd of diners cheered for the looters, as if they were a warming-up act before the military main feature. Under the controlling eye of the ‘Shawlies’ they witnessed a bonfire of Union Jack banners left over from the visit of Queen Victoria; two drunken harlots fighting over a headless dummy and a barefoot urchin, who entertained the G.P.O. garrison with his impressions of Charlie Chaplin. Louis and Douglas arrived into the Imperial Hotel, where the manager, Mr Wood sympathised with Louis on the news that his Uncle John had been captured by the Shinners and shot. Much to Louis’s relief this was to be another false rumour.
Tuesday, far from removing the civilians, gave them a sort of confidence to ‘carry on’. There are lots of accounts of people walking into the city (there were no trams and cars were too vulnerable to being hijacked), as much to find out the news as to witness anything unpleasant. They brought with them stories of the enemy everywhere and, when Dublin became too small, the rumours became national and eventually international.
Germans (photo right) were invading at Queenstown (now Cobh in county Cork) and Howth in north Dublin. Fifty thousand Irish Americans had landed in Sligo. It did not matter how weird the rumours were. The Lord Lieutenant, Lord Wimborne was a prisoner in Liberty Hall. Pope Benedict XV and the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, William Walsh had committed suicide! Rebels had killed all the women on a south bound tram and a loyalist army, raised from Ulster Unionists was fighting their way south. The Turkish army had even captured Waterford. Witnesses also swore to having met German soldiers on the Naas Road!
On Wednesday, James Stephens made the journey to the quays to see the artillery shelling of Sackville Street. He witnessed the bombardment of Kelly & Sons on the corner with Bachelor’s Walk, noting that the shelling lasted for three hours. Instantly, the non-combatants were off the street. Suddenly, the great sweeping rumours became very local and personal. Some rumours were true, and other accounts that sound like rumours were in fact true. For example, a soldier in the Shelbourne Hotel did don a chambermaid’s pinafore over his khaki, as camouflage. He was shot dead by a volunteer sniper on the roof of the College of Surgeons, because he had a beard! A sniper on the same roof (maybe the same volunteer?) survived 23 bullet wounds from a machine-gun in the Shelbourne Hotel, only to die from the flu epidemic the following year. Also, to set the record straight, an unofficial ceasefire did occur each day of the Uprising, to let the park wardens feed the Stephens Green ducks! It actually happened twice a day, at dawn and dusk, lasting about 20 minutes per break. The wardens were recognised by their wheelbarrow and the ceasefire was never broken by either side.
A major problem for the residents of the city was the weather. It was particularly mild and became known as ‘Rebellion Weather’. As the utilities were cut by the military, there was no further supply of water, gas or electricity; in modern speak: no water, heating, cooking or light! They also had to deal with the hyperinflation of the profiteers, who forced the citizens to riot, attacking grain stores in Phisbourgh and Drumcondra. Eventually, the military and the volunteers took control for food rationing in the areas that they controlled. No services continued, including the sewerage system and even the funerals of people dying by natural causes, unrelated by the Insurrection. Wakes were banned by the military, and only one close family member was allowed to accompany the coffin.
Children starved by modern standards, and many of the civilian deaths were parents who ventured out in search for food. The Gresham Hotel even reported that people hoping to dine at their restaurant had to bring their own food to be cooked! Wednesday also opened a Class War among the city’s visitors, as the English Aristocracy in the Shelbourne Hotel were replaced by the military. They had to slum it with the jockeys from the Irish Grand National, in the Gresham Hotel in Sackville Street (photo above). Within a day their servants were fighting with the jockeys, and on Thursday the jockeys left the hotel in disgust, walking through the combat zone to the port, where they hired a ship back to Wales.
People that could get to the suburbs went there in search of food and news. The food suffered a tenfold increase on pre-Rising prices, despite a bumper harvest. At the same time, the locals were using the mild weather to bring forward their Summer activities, so that the visitors from the city watched tennis, sailing and hiking in a surreal atmosphere, just miles from the fighting. Still, life tried to continue, such as the wedding that took place in Clontarf, while a British machine-gun fired from the footpath outside the church. The British Authority also surcomed to the circulating rumours. This is an example of what Dublin Castle’s RIC believed:
Chief Secretary’s Office
Transmit following message from Irish Command Headquarters to County Inspectors in your area with directions to distribute it as widely as possible.
“The Sinn Fein Rebels in the area Capel St, Great Britain St and Lower Gardiner St, are completely surrounded by a cordon of troops which is gradually closing on to the centre – the troops assisted by artillery are gradually overcoming resistance – one of the principal leader rebels Patrick H Pearse is known to be inside the cordon suffering from a fractured thigh – the woman known as Countess Markovitch [sic] has also been seen inside, another leader James Connolly is reported killed – the adjoining area containing the four Courts is also surrounded by a cordon which is closing on its centre and containing therein most of the rebels – a division complete with artillery is now operating in the Dublin area and more troops are constantly arriving, arrangements are being made to intern in England all Sinn Feiners captured or surrendered who are not dealt with here, Roger Casement has declared that Germany has sent all assistance she is going to send and this is now at the bottom of the sea.
Another rumour that can clear up is this famous photo of Commandant Padraig Pearse surrendering to General Lowe. The Irish Times removed all trace of Nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell from their version of the picture, supposedly because the military did not wish to acknowledge that there were women in the forces that they were fighting. In this official version of the photo, Nurse O’Farrell’s feet can be clearly seen below Pearse’s greatcoat. However, the truth was very simple and Elizabeth herself explained it, in an interview years later. Asked why she was hidden in the photo, rather than standing proudly in full view, she said that she was standing forward of Pearse, when she saw the military photographer preparing to take the photograph. Believing that it was Pearse’s moment she, not wishing in any way to take from it, she simply took one step back to stand beside Pearse. She did admit greatly regretting that decision! A last footnote on this photo concerns the British officer nearest the camera, Captain John Lowe, General Lowe’s son. He survived the Great War and moved to Hollywood. He starred in 40 movies, and married Heidi Lemarr!
It seems to me fitting to let the last quote come from a Dublin shopkeeper, John Clarke who said,
“Thus ends the last attempt for poor old Ireland. What noble fellows. The cream of the land. None of your corner-boy class.”