19.10.12

Special Delivery

Friday, 11 May 1900 - Dublin, Ireland

Today I visited the General Post Office on Sackville Street here in downtown Dublin. Built between 1814 and 1818, it is the last great Georgian structure in Dublin. The grand columns are like a temple to the goddess of postal service. Indeed there are three statues on top of the roof: Mercury, the god of commerce, to the left; Fidelity, symbol of faithfulness, to the right; and in the middle, Hibernia, the personification of Ireland, holding a harp. I’m not sure what Fidelity has to do with mail, unless the GPO is promising to deliver packages to their rightful owners.

General Post Office on the left as it looks in 1900
It’s a very nice and grand post office as befits a large city, however it is an ordinary boring post office. People take the mail to clerks who take it to a backroom to be sorted and sent out for delivery. Ask an Irishman in a hundred years and he will tell you this stodgy institution is in fact the birthplace of the Irish Republic.

Right now there is a push for Home Rule, the reestablishment of the Irish Parliament. They are slowly winning over the majority who want to keep the Union as it is. When I say majority, I mean a majority of the wealthy and powerful who run the country. Nationalists pushing for a complete break from Great Britain and independence are a small minority.

1914, just as Ireland was on the brink of getting Home Rule, World War II broke out and dreams of an Irish Parliament were shelved. The real majority, the poor Irish Catholics, saw this as just another excuse, but decided to be patient.

1916 came and still no action. Several nationalists organizations got together to form a revolution. While the British army was busy overseas, now would be the perfect time to strike. On the 24th of April, the day following Easter Sunday, the rebels captured key buildings throughout Dublin. The buildings were taken without much fight from the civilian population. The centrally located General Post Office would serve as their headquarters. The flag of the Irish Republic was hoisted above the roof. The leader Patrick Pearse, came out on the steps and read the Proclamation of the Irish Republic.

flag hoisted over the General Post Office
When the rebels made it public that the Germans had given them their guns, England panicked. This was more than just a troublemakers, this was the Germans trying to attack Britain from two fronts! The British sent 16,000 soldiers to deal with the 1200 rebels. The Post Office and other buildings were bombarded and downtown Dublin went up in flames. 64 rebels were killed along with nearly 300 innocent bystanders.

British troops shelling the General Post Office in 1916
By Saturday it was all over. Rebels were told to surrender unconditionally. They were marched to Kilmainham Gaol while crowds jeered and threw garbage at them. Then the stupidest thing Britain could have ever done happened. Martial Law was proclaimed and General Sir John Maxwell was put in charge.

Maxwell was a military man who knew nothing of politics or public opinion and treated Dublin as an enemy camp. A total of 3,430 men and 79 women were arrested. Trials were held behind closed doors. The accused were not allowed defense, with Maxwell as the judge and jury. 187 trials were held in three weeks, as many as thirty in a day. By the 12th of May fifteen men had been executed by firing squad. The first was the school teacher, Patrick Pearce. The last was James Connolly, so badly wounded he had to tie him to a chair. A list of 90 men convicted to be shot was tacked on the door.

Burnt out Post Office after Easter Rising
If the rebels had been handed over to the police and then put on public trial, things would have been very different. As it was Dublin saw this as an assault against the liberties of all Irishmen. Didn’t citizens of the United Kingdom deserve their civil rights--or were the Irish not included? Suddenly those ruffians they had booed became martyrs in their eyes and the dream of an independent Irish Republic not that crazy after all.

By the time Prime Minister Herbert Asquith showed up and put a halt to any more executions, the damage had been done. Ireland no longer trusted Britain. In the next election in 1918, the Sinn Fein, the nationalist party, won 73 of the 105 seats that Ireland held in the United Kingdom House of Parliament. Instead of showing up for work in London, the Sinn Fein MPs formed the Dail Eireann, Parliament of Ireland, and declared Ireland a republic. That in turn led to the Irish War of Independence. This time the rebels had the backing of the majority of the people.

In 1925 the new independent Irish Free State will be left with the still burnt-out shell of their former post office. Should they tear it down and build their new parliament on this now sacred ground? Maybe a shrine would be more applicable? Instead they will decide the best idea will be to turn it back into a post office and try to recreate it as best they could. The only reminder will be a plaque on the wall in Gaelic and English; a statue of the mythic Celtic warrior, Cuchulainn (made five years before the Easter Rising;) and paintings of scenes from the uprising up on the walls.

As I stood in the very spot Cuchulainn would one day occupy, I glanced about at all the busy customers rushing to get their letters mailed. I wondered what they would think if I told them that one day this post office would have a special delivery for them--freedom.


"The Dying of Chuculainn" by Oliver Sheppard
Now in the General Post Office in Dublin
So, what does a mythic warrior have to do with rebels? In Irish legend Chuculainn held back an entire army. He knew how much he was feared so he tied himself to a menhir so his enemy wouldn't know when they had killed him. They only knew when a raven sat down on his dead form and began pecking out his eyes. His sacrifice however won time for his people to defeat their enemy.
 
By putting this statue in the Post Office, the Irish are comparing the martyrdom of the rebels with Cuchulainn's martyrdom. The leaders Patrick Pearce and James Connolly knew full well they would probably not win and would be executed as the ring leaders, but felt their sacrifice would spur the public into demanding freedom. It isn't a coincidence they set the date Easter Monday.
 
Footage and photos of the Easter Rising

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

that picture you have of british troops shelling the General Post Office in 1916 is fake that street does not exist it's from a movie called MICHAEL COLLINS it was built just for the movie

Dub Lin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

This is how "Urban Myths" get started. Someone claims it's a real photo and it gets repeated a dozen times by the naïve (like me.) I'll take your word it's a movie still. Either that or some VERY brave photographer took it.