A MOORE STREET HISTORY TOUR — A VISITOR’S EXPERIENCE IN THE FUTURE
Some decades into the future, I invite you to imagine a foreign-based tourist writing of her experience of the 1916 History and Cultural Quarter. Her name might be Isabela Etxebarria, from Argentina; she may be writing in her excellent English or perhaps her Castillian was translated.
This also formed part of my submission to the Minister’s Consultative Group on Moore Street which is soon to publish their recommendations. A number of important, not to say crucial, campaigns were excluded from that group but were permitted to make submissions. I contributed to two group contributions but this is piece is from my personal one, of which I have previously posted some sections:
“Dublin is an amazing city for someone interested in culture, literature or history. By virtue of its long existence as a centre of population, and also as a result of its history of invasions, occupations and resistance, it has enormous historical interest. It has also contributed three writers to the Nobel Prize pantheon and arguably would have contributed another one or more, were it not for certain prejudices of their times. I had read something about the Rising in Dublin against the British Empire early in the 20th Century — right in the middle of the First World War — and was eager to learn more.
I was also aware that an Argentinian citizen, Eamon Bulfin, of the Irish diaspora to my country, had raised the Irish Republic flag on the GPO, had been condemned to death after the Rising and then deported to Buenos Aires where he had functioned as a foreign representative of the revolutionary Irish Republican government. His sister Catalina had married Seán McBride, a Nobel laureate and also winner of the Lenin Peace Prize, son of John McBride, one of the sixteen executed in 1916, and of Maude Gonne, a prominent Irish Republican activist.
On Friday, we went to experience one of the famous historical tours of inner city Dublin. There are various history tours, some of which lead to a building called the General Post Office but which all the locals refer to only as “the GPO”. Other tours then take the ‘GPO’ as their starting point and it is one of those that I joined – its title was ‘The 1916 Rising – Evacuation, Advance & Surrender’.
The tickets of those participating were checked (except for children’s tours, the regulations restrict to no more than thirty at a time including ten children,) and we were handed audio earphones, radio receivers and issued with our instructions – stay with the group, obey the instructions of the guide, etc.
Our group contained some young children and a few in their late teens, with their parents. About half or more of the group 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. 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, the largest the World had ever seen.
In our imagination, aided by a commentary, it was the fifth 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 heavy 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, on the following day, 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 from the east all the way down Talbot Street from the tower of the train station at Amiens Street and indeed, some bullets traveling from the west along the street too.
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. Brass ‘footsteps’ laid into the street draw attention to the GPO Garrison’s evacuation route. 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.
The laneway here has murals and marking on the ground to mark the route of the evacuation. Immediately we stepped on the restored cobbles of the lane-way, the sounds of battle in our earphones 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 voice which I am told is Cork-accented, a representation of 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 from our earphones, reminding us that some of the Volunteers had been brought up in Britain. “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 muted groan of pain as Connolly is maneouvred through the doorway and up the stairs.
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 and our ‘holes’ are more like jagged doorways.
No.10 was the field hospital and here, represented by dummies and holograms, are the cramped bodies of wounded Volunteers and the British soldier rescued by George Plunkett. The woman of the house is trying to prepare food for the fighters.
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. The weather being fine, the transparent roof covering the street is withdrawn and through the double glazing of the houses 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 a couple of children do, 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 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 fed by Tom Crimmins, the last Volunteer to leave Moore St.).
Here are some Volunteers breaking through a wall; over there, exhausted Volunteers sleeping
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. But many were only surrendered on receipt of the order from Pearse or Connolly.
Snatches of poetry, of song come to us as we cross from room to room, from house to house, some of it nationalist, some traditional or folk, some even music hall from the era. 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 historical discussion between the leaders, creatively reconstructed on the basis of some witness statements. Pearse wishing to surrender to avoid further loss of civilian life (the names of the dead civilians in Moore Street, their ages and the manner of their dying appearing above him), Clarke arguing, a sob in his voice, Connolly saying maybe they should wait for Sean McLoughlin to get back (he is out preparing a diversion attack to allow a breakout) …. 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 civilian men and women have already been shot in died in that street, including one beneath a white flag.
Shortly afterwards, the faces of the dead civilians and Volunteers appear, then 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, with a list of the fallen rank-and-file, to a swelling chorus of The Soldiers’ Song, in English and in Irish.
At the end of the Terrace, we descend again, somewhat dazed 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 other foreign tourists.
The end of our tour lay ahead, through the underground tunnel under Parnell Street to the Rotunda. There the Volunteers had been publicly launched and recruited in 1913 and there too, in 1916, the GPO/ Moore Street garrison had been kept prisoners without food and water or toilet, some for two days, while political colonial police came down to identify whomsoever they could from among the prisoners. Here Tom Clarke had been cruelly stripped by his captors, diagonally across the road from one of his two tobacconist shops, on the corner of Parnell and O’Connell Streets. Elizabeth Farrell had been kept prisoner in that shop too by the British, before being escorted to deliver the surrender order to a number of garrisons.
In between the shop and the Rotunda stands the Parnell Monument, as it did then, honouring “the uncrowned King of Ireland”, who had tried by mostly parliamentary means, two decades earlier, to bring about Home Rule for Ireland and had failed. British officers had been photographed in front of the monument with the “Irish Republic” flag held upside down – had they been entirely conscious of the irony?
Directly across the road from us stands a historic building too – the premises of the Irish Land League and where the Irish Ladies Land League had been formed and also raided by the police.
Now the recordings in our earphones ask us to remove our earphones and to hand them to our guide, also to listen for a moment after she has collected them. 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, particularly of the years each side of the centenary year of the Rising, 2016, who had campaigned 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.
Pela invited us to applaud the campaigners, which we did, enthusiastically. She then asked us to turn around and view the reconstructed building we had left. There was a plaque on the wall there “Dedicated to the memory of the men, women, girls and boys of the early 21st Century ……” In bronze bas-relief, the plaque’s image depicts 16 houses in a terrace 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 building, the tour officially over, we thanked our guide and made for the Republican Café. I found we couldn’t say much, as my mind was half back in 1916. My companion was quiet too as were some other from our tour but some of the children seemed unaffected, brightly debating what to choose from the menu in the Rotunda café, or what souvenir they fancied from those on display.
We took a program of events, including film showings, lectures, dramatic representations and music and poetry performances, in order to choose which to attend later. There’s also a Moore Street and Dublin Street Traders’ Museum in the Rotunda which we intend to visit, perhaps tomorrow, after some shopping in the existing ancient street market.
Some of our tour group, we could hear, including the indefatigable man in the wheelchair, were going on the short walk up to the Remembrance Garden and we heard mention also of the Writers’ Museum and the Hugh Lane Gallery adjacent to the Garden.
We’d had enough for one day, however – we were full. It was truly an unforgettable experience and I knew that for me and probably for my companion, it was something that would remain forever alive in our memories.”