MOORE STREET – A VISION
(Looking into the future, a couple of generations on)
THE GPO EVACUATION AND MOORE STREET LAST STAND
Our tour group gathered in the GPO for the Evacuation & Last Stand part of the tour; one can take this tour on its own or as part of longer tours. We said goodbye to Rónán, who handed us over to our Evacuation Guide, Pela.
Our tickets were checked and we were handed audio earphones, receivers and issued with our instructions – stay with the group, obey the instructions of the guide, etc.
Our group had about thirty people in it and ours had the only young children, although there were a few in their late teens. About half or more looked like tourists and some asked for the foreign-language options of receivers. There was one man in a wheelchair.
As instructed by the guide in a number of languages, we tested our receivers to find the volume settings appropriate for each individual. This took a bit longer for our two younger girls. Then our guide motioned for us to listen to our earphones … and the narration began. Gradually, we were pulled back across the decades until we were in that amazing Rising, taking place in what had once been considered the second city of the British Empire, rising up against that very same Empire, one of the largest the World had ever seen.
It was the fourth day of the Rising and many of the buildings in the city centre were ablaze. Through our earphones, against a backdrop of booming cannon and crashing shell, chattering machine guns, rifles’ crack and whining ricochet, we could hear the crackle of flames. Irish Volunteers’ voices reported that the glass in Clery’s building opposite had melted and was running across the street like water. The ledgers the Volunteers had placed in the GPO windows to protect against bullets were smouldering. Other voices added that despite fire-fighting efforts the roof was on fire and the roof lead melting. We could almost smell the smoke. Then finally, the order to evacuate given in an Edinburgh accent – James Connolly, the socialist commandant of the HQ of the Rising, the General Post Office.
In the hubbub of people getting ready to evacuate some voices stood out: Elizabeth O’Farrell, giving instructions about the moving of the injured James Connolly; calls to evacuate by the side door and caution about crossing Henry Street, with machine-gun sniper fire coming all the way down Talbot Street from the tower of the train station at Amiens Street.
A man’s voice in our earphones says “It’s lucky we have oul’ Nelson there to shield us some of the way!” and we hear a few people laugh.
Then, The O’Rahilly’s voice, calling for volunteers to charge the barricade at the top of Moore Street and a chorus of voices answering, clamouring to be chosen.
Now we are out in a group and crossing Henry Street. The man in the wheelchair, having politely declined offers to push his chair, is propelling his wheels strongly along with his leather-covered hands. It is weird to see the pedestrian shoppers and sightseers of the Twenty-First Century as half our minds are back in the second decade of the Twentieth. Across this short stretch to Henry Place we went, the crack of rifles and chatter of machine guns louder now in our earphones. And explosions of shells and of combustibles. The garrison scurried across this gap carrying the wounded Connolly on a bed frame and Winifred Carney, carrying her typewriter and Webley pistol, interposed her body between Connolly and a possible bullet from the train station tower.
With the rest of our tour group, Sadhbh and I cross into into Henry Place, holding the kids’ hands, following the route of the evacuation. Immediately we stepped on the restored cobbles of the lane-way, the sounds of battle receded somewhat.
“No bullets can reach us here!” shouts a voice in our earphones.
“No, but bejaysus them artillery shells can!” replies another.
Other shouts a little ahead warn us that gunfire is being directed down what is now Moore Lane from a British barricade on the junction with Parnell Street.
A sudden shouted warning about a building ahead of us, to our left, facing Moore Lane.
“See the white house? The bastards are in there too,” shouts a strong Cork-accented voice, almost certainly the young Michael Collins. “Let’s root them out. Who’s with me?”
Another chorus of voices, a flurry of Mauser and Parabellum fire, then only the steady chatter of the machine gun up at the British barricade and the sound of bullets striking walls.
The Cork sing-song voice again. “I can’t believe it — The place was empty, like!”.
“Aye, it was so many bullet’s hoppin’ off the walls made us think the firing was coming from inside,” a voice says, in the accents of Ulster.
Then an unmistakably Dublin working class accent: “Would yez ever give us a hand with this!” followed by the creak and rattle of wheels on the cobblestones as the cart is dragged across the intersection. Now we can hear the machine gun bullets thudding into the cart.
“Quick now, cross the gap!” comes the order and the dash across the gap begins. Nearly 300 men and women? Someone is bound to get hit and yes, they do and we hear that one of them died here.
Across the gap, nowadays mercifully free of enemy fire but still feeling vulnerable, we follow Pela, our guide, to the corner with Moore Street. In character, she peers carefully around as we hear machine-gun and rifle here too, but Mausers and Parabellum as well as Lee-Enfields.
“Gor blimey!” exclaims a London accent, reminding us that some of the Volunteers had been brought up in England. “O’Rahilly’s lads are getting a pastin’. None of ’em made it as far as the barricade!”
An Irish voice: “Into these houses then – no other way! We have to get into cover to plan our next move.” This is followed by the sound of a door being hit and then splintering as they break into No.10, the first house on the famous 1916 Terrace.
“Careful now,” Elizabeth Farrell’s voice, followed by a groan of pain as Connolly is manoeuvred through the doorway.
Pela sends the man in the wheelchair up in the lift and leads us up the stairs. When the lift and the last of our group arrive we proceed across the restored upper floors from house to house, passing through holes in the walls, as the GPO Garrison did in 1916 – except that they had to break through the walls themselves, working in shifts. Through a few unshuttered windows, we can see the busy street market below us going about its business, apparently oblivious of our passage above them. But then, thousands of tour groups have gone through here over the decades. Through the double glazing one can just barely hear the street traders calling out their wares and prices.
We pass through those hallowed rooms, listening to ghosts. Here and there a hologram appears and speaks, echoes of the past. Dummies dressed in the uniforms of the Irish Citizen Army, the Irish Volunteers, Cumann na mBan, Na Fianna and Hibernian Rifles are on display here and there. Imitation Mausers and Parabellums and Martinis, each one carefully made and to the same weight as the original, are there. They are security-chained but we know people are free to pick them up and feel the weight, as Rory does, to imagine carrying and firing one. But not to be flash-photographed, which is not permitted here. Replica Cumann na mBan medical kits are on display, open so one could inspect the replica contents. The houses also have period furniture, fireplaces, beds …. chamber pots …. kitchens with utensils … bedrooms ….. There are dummies dressed too in civilian clothes of the time typical of that area — women, men, children (even the dog that the last Volunteer to leave Moore St. fed).
We see magnified historical newspaper headlines, photos, badges and medals. A map of Dublin with fighting locations flashing on them, some of them going out as they fall, the dates appearing above them to show when that happened.
Snatches of poetry, of song come to us as we cross from room to room, from house to house. And for our eyes, the holograms of the Proclamation, the portraits of the executed 16 and many others who fought and died or who survived, flags, the Tricolour, the Irish Republic, the green-and-gold Starry Plough, waving in the wind above Clery’s ….
Half-way along the terrace we come to the discussion between the leaders, creatively reconstructed on the basis of some witness statements. Pearse wishing to surrender to avoid further loss of civilian life, Clarke arguing, a sob in his voice, Connolly saying maybe they should wait for Sean McLoughlin to get back (he is out reconnoitering a breakthrough route) …. Then the arguments with some of the other Volunteers, Mac Diarmada having to use all his powers of persuasion. Oh, such emotion in such short discussions! Then the decision, and Elizabeth O’Farrell volunteering to go with the white flag to open negotiations with the enemy …. even though a couple and their child have already died beneath a white flag in that street.
Shortly afterwards, the faces of the sixteen executed come into view, suspended in the air in front and a little above us. We stand there while passages are read out from their trials, letters from their condemned cells, words to relatives …. Then the dates appear above them and we hear the fusillades as by one their faces blink out, until finally only Casement remains, the image of the gallows and then he too is gone. All is dark for a moment, then all sixteen faces appear again, over a background of the three flags of the Rising, to a swelling chorus of The Soldiers’ Song, in English and in Irish.
At the end of the Terrace, we descend again and here view the O’Rahilly monument plaque and in our earphones hear the words of his final letter to his wife read out – he wrote it as he lay dying from a number of bullet wounds. I found my eyes moistening again as they had several times during the tour and some of the others were visibly crying – including foreign tourists.
The end of our tour lay ahead, through the underground tunnel under Parnell Street to the Rotunda. Here the Volunteers had been publicly launched and recruited in 1913 and here, in 1916, the GPO/ Moore Street garrison had been kept prisoners without food and water for two days, while G-Men of the DMP came down to identify whomsoever they could from among the prisoners.
Now the recordings in our earphones ask us to listen to the guide for a moment as she collects our earphones and receivers. Having gathered the sets and put them away in her bag, Pela asks us all to give a moment’s thoughts to the men and women and children of the centenary year of the Rising, 2016, who had fought to preserve this monument for future generations. Pela tells us that her own grandmother had been one of the activists.
Incredible though it may now seem, the whole terrace except for four houses had been about to be demolished to make way for a shopping centre, which would also have swallowed up the street market. It had taken a determined campaign and occupations of buildings with people prepared to face imprisonment to protect it for our generation and others to come. The State of those years had little interest in history and much in facilitating speculators. She invited us to applaud the campaigners, which we did, enthusiastically. She then asked us to turn around and view the building we had left. There was a plaque on the wall there “Dedicated to the memory of the men, women, girls and boys of 2016 ……” In bronze bas-relief, it depicts the 16 houses with activists on the scaffolding erected by those who intended demolition, with a chain of people of all ages holding hands around the site and in one corner, a campaign table surrounded by people apparently signing a petition.
Once through the underpass and inside the Rotunda, the tour officially over, we thanked our guide and made for the Republican Café. Sadhb and I found we couldn’t say much, as our minds were half back in 1916. Rory was quiet too but Eva and ‘Brigie’ seemed unaffected, brightly debating what to choose from the menu in the Rotunda café, or what souvenir they fancied from those on display.
There’s a Moore Street and Dublin Street Traders’ Museum and there are films one can see all day in the Rotunda, often too lectures, reenactments, plays …. We’d had enough for one day, however – we were full. It was truly an unforgettable experience and I knew that for Sadhbh too and probably for Rory, it was something that would remain forever alive in our memories. The girls? Years from now, who knows ….. but they had certainly not been bored, anyway.