The final acts during the week of the Easter Rising took place here, in the narrow cobbled streets behind the rebel headquarters at the GPO.
Our last look at Colonel Hally’s map now includes the area of Moore Street and the nearby alleys, the olive circle next to the GPO.
After the initial action on Monday 24th April, little occurred outside the GPO over the next few days, apart from the occasional curious sightseer, and the inevitable looters who roamed the vicinity (after the Rising, more than 400 people were arrested for looting during the week). As the week wore on, however, Sackville Street and the GPO came under more serious British bombardment, fire breaking out in the buildings around, as well as some across the street, as described in Part One of this tour. By Friday 28th, despite their efforts to dampen the fires, it was clear to the GPO garrison that they would have to prepare to evacuate the building. James Connolly had been hit in the leg by a ricocheting bullet, handing over command to Pádraig Pearse, and it was he who subsequently ordered the evacuation.
Michael Joseph O’Rahilly, simply known as The O’Rahilly, was a founding member and Director of Arms of the Irish Volunteers in 1913. He was not in favour of the Rising, but once it began, he came up with surely the best quote of the week, “Well, I’ve helped to wind up the clock – I might as well hear it strike!” He spent Easter week with the garrison at the GPO, and it was he who, on Friday afternoon, volunteered to take a group of men to break the way through the British barricades to their proposed new headquarters. At the intersection of Great Britain (now Parnell) and Moore Streets, a British machine gun cut him and a number of others down. The O’Rahilly, wounded and crouching in a doorway on Moore Street, heard the British marking his position, and, making a break across the road, was hit again, this time fatally. The plaque (above) on this wall in Moore Street recreates his final letter to his wife, written as he lay dying in another doorway; “Written after I was shot. Darling Nancy I was shot leading a rush up Moore Street and took refuge in a doorway. While I was there I heard the men pointing out where I was and made a bolt for the laneway I am in now. I got more [than] one bullet I think. Tons and tons of love dearie to you and the boys and to Nell and Anna. It was a good fight anyhow. Please deliver this to Nannie O’ Rahilly, 40 Herbert Park, Dublin. Goodbye Darling.”
Although most accounts refer to The O’Rahilly (inset above) dying soon after, according to an ambulance driver, long after the surrender he still clung to life; “While driving through Moore Street to Jervis Street Hospital…the sergeant drew my attention to the body of a man lying in the gutter in Moore Lane. He was dressed in a green uniform. I took the sergeant and two men with a stretcher and approached the body which appeared to be still alive. We were about to lift it up when a young English officer stepped out of a doorway and refused to allow us to touch it. I told him of my instructions from HQ but all to no avail. We came back again about 9 o’clock that night. The body was still there and an officer guarding it, but this time I fancied I knew the officer – he was not the one I met before. I asked why I was not allowed to take the body and who was it? He replied that his life and job depended on it being left there. He would not say who it was. I never saw the body again but I was told by different people that it was The O’Rahilly. When back in the lorry I asked the sergeant what was the idea? His answer was – ‘he must be someone of importance and the bastards are leaving him there to die of his wounds. It’s the easiest way to get rid of him.”
The remaining members of the GPO garrison held on until Saturday morning, by which time they had no choice but to tunnel their way through the walls of the buildings neighbouring the GPO to evade the British machine guns, as they made their way to a new position at Number 16 Moore Street. In a back room on the first floor, five of the signatories of the Proclamation of Independence, Pádraig Pearse and his brother Willie, Tom Clarke, Joseph Plunkett and Seán MacDermott, gathered at the wounded James Connolly’s bedside to determine their course of action. Suggestions of a break out towards the Four Courts were rejected because of the potential loss of civilian lives in a highly populated area, and it is believed that this may have greatly influenced Pearse’s next decision.
On Saturday 29th April, from this new headquarters, realising they had no other realistic options, he issued an order for all rebel companies to surrender, Pearse himself surrendered the GPO garrison unconditionally to Brigadier General Lowe.
Across the city, other rebel positions surrendered as news of Pearse’s surrender order reached them, although sporadic fighting continued in some areas into Sunday.
On Saturday night, the defeated Volunteers from the GPO were marched to the Rotunda Hospital in Sackville Street, where, in the early hours of Sunday morning, Captain Percival Lea Wilson took charge. Wilson, a Londoner, had joined the Royal Irish Constabulary in 1909, stationed in Galway, before enlisting in the Royal Irish Rifles on the outbreak of the Great War. Seriously wounded on the Western Front, he rejoined the R.I.C. in March 1916, finding himself in Dublin prior to the Rising.
His attitude to his captives was appalling. Of Seán MacDermott, who walked with a limp from childhood polio and had to use a cane, he was heard to remark; “So you’ve got cripples in your army!”, but it was his treatment of Thomas Clarke, at fifty nine the oldest rebel leader and the first of the seven signatories of the original proclamation, that would seal his subsequent fate. Wilson stripped Clarke, making him stand naked on the Rotunda steps in view of the hospital nurses; “That old bastard is Commander-in-Chief. He keeps a tobacco shop across the street. Nice General for your fucking army.”
Four years later, Wilson was a 33 year old R.I.C. District Inspector living in the town of Gorey, County Wexford. On the morning of 15th June 1920, whilst walking towards the RIC barracks in the town in his civilian clothes, he was ambushed by five armed IRA men on the orders of Michael Collins. Two bullets dropped Wilson, who still managed to get up and run away before he was cut down a second time, a final bullet to the head ending his life. Joe Sweeney, Sinn Féin MP, happened to be in the bar of the Wicklow Hotel in Dublin that evening when he encountered Michael Collins: “We got the bugger, Joe.” “What are you talking about?” Sweeney asked. “Do you remember that first night outside the Rotunda – Lea Wilson?” “I’ll never forget it,” Sweeney replied. “Well” said Collins, “we got him today in Gorey.”
Once the Rising had ended, the Military Courts and the executions soon followed, and next Rising post we shall visit Kilmainham Gaol, where many of the rebels were held, and where their leaders were shot.