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Chapters

The 1916 Easter Rising

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as he was about to pass an open door, a stream of machine-gun bullets, having entered a window passed through an entire room without encountering anything solid, crossed his path. Saurin stopped short, watched the bullets reduce the corridor wall in front of him to plaster dust, then, glancing over his shoulder at the dirty clouds behind him raised by the two shell bursts, sat down with a shrug of resignation to wait for a lull.

When the smoke cleared and the machine gun fire abated, Lieutenant Oscar Traynor ordered Saurin and all but one of the other men at the top of the building to come down to the comparative safety of the lower floors. The man he left at the top was a London Irishman, who had no interest in descending to a lavel where his view of the action would be restricted. Traynor, after arguing with the man about the danger involved in remaining, decided it might be useful to leave someone on the roof as a fire watch. The man stayed, sitting on a parapet from which he could see the raging fire across the street and through field glasses, the booming British artillery guns across the river. In the Post office, someone saw an armoured car approaching from the west along Henry Street. So many men crowded around the windows on that side to look out at it that the building would have sunk if it had been a boat. And if the armoured car had been equipped with a machine gun or two

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British shells striking the General Post Office

the insurgent headquarters would have been decimated. As it developed, this armoured-car incident, the second of the week, was a standoff. None of the insurgent bullets fired at the thick metal plating inflicted any damage; at the same time, the unseen men in the vehicle had so littel firepower they could inflict no damage on the Post Office. Eventually the armoured car retired and was soon forgotten, and the insurgents, whose anxious minds became occupied once more by the nerve-straining wait for the final battle. As the afternoon progressed, the cannonading intensified and the flames on the east side of Sackville Street continued to spread. They were now consuming the entire short block to the north of Abbey Street as far as Sackville Place. They had also spread south from Abbey Street to the river, a block away, and were eating the houses on Eden Quay. From one building after another fire-frightened people emerged, running east away from Sackville Street toward the Custom House, with bundles of belongings in their arms. The gunfire from across the river suddenly ceased; a British soldier appeared from the east to knock on the doors and make sure all the doomed buildings were evacuated. Another soldier arrived with a megaphone and raised a shout that had to compete with only the roar of the fire now that the guns were silent. ' Come out! Come out! he called. More and more people emerged, to be steered toward the Custom House. Then, as the two soldiers followed the refugees and reached the safety of the nearest british barricade, the big guns from Trinity College boomed again and the first shell landed a short distance from the Post office.

The British now brought into action another artillery piece, which they installed north of the Post Office near Parnell Square. Its first lob overshot the Post Office and crashed through a dormer window on the top floor of the Metropole Hotel, from which Lieutenant Traynor had fortunately evacuated his men. Succeeding shells from the north came closer and closer to the intended target. The explosions and machine gun fire, increasing from all directions, made the men on the Post Office roof acutely aware that they had only one exit in case of disaster and prompted them to begin chopping a hole near the parapet through which to descend if hard pressed. As the shells continued to explode near the building, one man was wounded, then another and another, until Lieutenant Michael Boland, who was in command, began to think that the British were using shrapnel. A closer examination of the wounds, only one of which was serious, convinced him they were caused by bullets. But whatever comfort this might have brought was quickly banished by the force of a shell that struck the north portico of the Post Office, shattering part of the ballustrade. Though it left virtually undamaged the statue representing Fidelity, just a few feet away, it neatly eliminated the pole from which one of the Republican flags had flown. This explosion rocked the building and everyone inside it. The O'Rahilly was so worried about the prisoners, of whom there were now sixteen, that he removed them to an interior room on the second floor, where they would be safest. ' I give you my word ' he said to them, ' that you will escape with your lives. Have no fear of that. ' He spoke with such determination many of their faces brightened visibly, as if they were getting this word from a man completely capable of fulfilling it. There was no doubt that, if possible, O'Rahilly intended to fulfill it. After leaving the prisoners relatively secure, he gathered their guards together and addressed them soberly, almost sternly. ' Let every man remember this, ' he said. ' As custodians of the prisoners you must never forget the honour of your country. Whatever happenes to the rest of us, the prisoners must be our first concern. '

The great fire had now advanced so much closer and had become enormous and intense that even the extraordinary width of Sackville Street no longer protected the unwindowed Post Office from its scorching heat. Billowing clouds of dark smoke carried with them sparks and bits of burning debris as an accelerating wind pushed the inferno northward. On the Post Office roof, the coughing, squinting riflemen carried their three wounded comrades to the stairway exit, from which they were removed to the infirmary below. In this process, two more men were wounded. Within the building, the heat was so searing and the air so smoky that the fire-watching pastime had lost its appeal. Men sat on the floor at the rear of the building, looking glum, waiting for ne catastrophes. Morale was such a critical factor that Patrick pearse had been working since the previous night on a speech to the men. At three o'clock, the speech was and finished and polished. James Connolly, after posting sentries at the doors, lined up all the available troops in the main room on the ground floor. When everyone was in place, Pearse approached. Connolly stepped back a pace, and Pearse, in his slow, deliberate but forceful voice, began to speak.

' The forces of the Irish Republic, which was proclaimed in Dublin on Easter Monday, have been in possession of the central part of the capital since 12 noon on that day. Up to yesterday afternoon, headquarters was in touch with all the main outlying positions, and despite furious and almost continuous assaults by the British forces all those positions were then still being held and the Commanders in charge were confident of their ability to hold them for a long time. During the course of yesterday afternoon and evening, the enemy succeeded in cutting our communications with our other positions in the city, and Headquarters is today isolated. The enemy has burnt down whole blocks of houses, apparently with the object of giving themselves a clear field for the play of artillery and field guns against us. We have been bombarded during the evening and night with shrapnel and machine gun fire, but without material damage to our position, which is of great strength. We are busy completing arrangements for the final defence of Headquarters, and are determined to hold it while the buildings last.

I desire now, lest i may not have an opportunity later, to pay homage to the gallantry of the soldiers of Irish freedom, who have during the past four days been writing with fire and steel the most glorious chapter in the later history of Ireland. Justice can never be done to their heroism, to their discipline, to their gay and unconquerable spirit in the midst of peril and death. Let me, who have led them into this, speak in my own name, and in my fellow commandant's names, and in the name of Ireland present and to come, their praise, and ask those who come after them to remember them. For four days they have fought and toiled, almost without cessation, almost without sleep, and in the intervals of fighting they have sung songs of the freedom of Ireland. No man has complained, no man has asked ' Why? ' Each individual has spent himself, happy to pour out his strength for Ireland and for freedom. If they do not win this fight, they will at least deserve to win it. But win it they will although they may win it in death. Already they have done a great thing. They have redeemed Dublin from many shames, and made her name splendid among the namees of cities. They have held out for four days against the might of the British Empire. They have established Ireland's right to be called a Republic, and they have established this government's right to sit at the peace table at the end of the European War. '

Aside from the concluding fantasy, the speech sounded more like an apology to posterity than a pep talk to the troops. Phrases like ' final defence of Headquarters ' and ' although they may win in death ' ( a concept Pearse cherished ) could not have been reassuring to anyone who listened carefully, yet many of the men were uplifted by it, perhaps because it offered them something that would at last pass for information about their plight. After a spontaneous cheer, they went back to their posts with renewed belief in what they were doing.