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Published: July 25th 2009
General Post Office, Dublin
This was the most important location held by the rebels of the Easter Rising in 1916. It is on O'Connell Street in the center of Dublin.
We arrived in Dublin on Sunday. We are staying on the campus of Dublin City University (DCU), which is about 3-4 miles north of the center of Dublin. There’s so much to say about Dublin, but for now I’ll just share some photos and thoughts on the places we have visited that relate to the most important event in 20th century Irish history, the Easter Rising of 1916. The most important place in this regard is the Kilmainham jail.
If you don’t know about the 1916 Easter Rising, and the subsequent War for Independence in Ireland, I highly recommend that you read up on this time period in Irish history. It’s a story of ordinary people with extraordinary courage, who led an unsuccessful and unpopular uprising, which unexpectedly became the turning point in the 600+ year saga of British oppression of Ireland. Two excellent movies that cover this time period are Michael Collins, starring Liam Neeson, and The Wind That Shakes the Barley, which won the Golden Palm at Cannes in 2006.
Yeats said about this uprising, “I had no idea that any public event could so deeply move me." His poem, “Easter 1916,” has the haunting refrain,
All changed, changed utterly;
A terrible beauty is born.
Over the centuries, there had been a series of unsuccessful rebellions against British rule, in 1798, 1803, and 1848. In 1916, a group of Irish nationalists, largely without any military training, saw an opportunity in Britain’s involvement in World War I. While Britain's attention was somewhere else, they would take advantage. These men were largely intellectuals, not soldiers. They included teachers, labor activists, and shopkeepers. On Easter Monday, they took control of four strategic points in the city of Dublin, and read aloud, on the steps of the General Post Office in Dublin, their Proclamation of Independence. The rising was not well-organized, communication channels were poor, and when the British really rolled in the big guns (really big guns), the rebels were forced to surrender.
The 14 leaders of the uprising were arrested and taken to Kilmainham Jail. It’s important to understand that, at this point, these leaders did not have the support of most of the people in Dublin, who did not have any hope of overthrowing the British. Some had sons fighting with the British army in Europe. They were angry at the rebels
Chained Snakes over entrance to Kilmainham Jail
This design calls to mind celtic knotwork, but is also an image of great suffering and hopeless captivity.
because of the destruction to the city of Dublin and loss of civilian life that occurred during the Rising. As the rebel leaders were being led away to jail, they were jeered and pelted with garbage. The events of the next two weeks were to change all that.
The British decided to make an example of these men, and after giving them perfunctory “trials” they were executed by firing squad in the stonecutters’ yard at the jail. The shots fired could be heard in the neighborhood of the jail, and little by little stories leaked out. The story of how James Connelly, who had been wounded in the rising and could not stand up, had to be strapped to a chair in order to be executed. The story of Joseph Plunkett and his fiancee, Grace Gifford, who were married in the Jail chapel just hours before his execution. They were allowed ten minutes together after their wedding, in his cell, accompanied by four British soldiers who counted down the minutes.
The swift and decisive action by the British stunned and angered the Irish people, and led to a steady increase in popular support for the cause of Independence.
The early history of the Jail, through the 19th century, is explored in detailed exhibits. The number of prisoners reached a peak during the Famine years, with many people arrested for stealing a loaf of bread, or a chicken, or a blanket. Old women and small children mixed with men of all ages in the prison. As appalling as the conditions were, with over-crowding, terrible food, hard labor, etc., for many it was a better deal than their options on the outside during the famine.
Our tour guide at the jail, Emma, really gave us a sense of how important this Jail is as a symbol to the Irish people, in particular because of its connection to the Easter Rising of 1916. The jail closed in 1924, was restored by a group of dedicated volunteers in the 1960's, and is now maintained by the government as a historic site.
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