general post office headquarters

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Postman’s Park

Formerly headquarters for the General Post Office of London, and built on the burial grounds of what was St. Botolph’s Aldersgate Church, Postman’s Park is a memorial to those who died heroically, albeit at times unusually.
In 1887 artist George Fredric Watts proposed a memorial to “heroism in every-day life.” It took many years for Watts’ vision to be realized, but finally in 1900, a wall of ceramic plaques commemorating the brave Victorians who had given up their lives for the common man was unveiled in Postman’s Park.

Each plaque tells, quite frankly, how the commemorated died. While the accounts can be moving in their forthright simplicity, a whiff of the grimness of Victorian life can be detected through the brightly colored plaques.

April 24, 1916 - First Day of the Easter Rising

Pictured - As a wrecked barricade blazes behind them, British troops fire and advance down a Dublin street.

Dubliners woke to the sound of gunfire on Easter Monday as 1,500 insurgents rose up against British rule. The rebels, members of the pro-independence, anti-British Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army, seized key buildings in the city center, making their headquarters at the General Post Office, which soon had two green flags fluttering above it, emblazoned with the words “Irish Republic”.  It was the beginning of the Easter Rising, an attempt by Ireland’s radical nationalists to establish an independent Irish state that lead to six days of bloody street battles in Dublin and a few other areas throughout the country.

The Rising was spearheaded by members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a revolutionary organization which rejected the position of milder independence groups, which wanted to help Britain in the First World War, after which they hoped the British would implement a Home Rule bill, granting Ireland self-government.  The leaders of the IRB, however, believed that only a violent revolution could win Irish independence.  Lead by Irish teacher and poet Pádraig Pearse, and James Connolly, the commander of a nationalist paramilitary called the Irish Volunteers, the revolutionaries planned an uprising to take place on Easter week, aimed at ending British control in Ireland while Britain was distracted by the war. 

Planning for the rebellion, however, had not been well organized.  The Royal Navy had captured a German ship bringing modern rifles to the rebels, and the British had captured Sir Roger Casement, one of the rebel leaders.  London knew that a rebellion was planned for Easter based on these captures and radio signals intercepted from Germany, which supported the rebels.  London telegraphed orders to officers in Ireland to arrest leaders of the independence movement on Monday, April 24.

Many members of the Irish revolutionary movement argued against launching the Rising, since it was known that the British were aware, and because of the capture of the German ship carrying modern Mosin-Nagant rifles with which the rebels had planned to arm their troops.  Most of the Irish Volunteers and Citizen Army troops only had handguns or old Mauser rifles smuggled in from Germany before the war, that had to be reloaded with every shot and sent up great plumes of smoke, plus a smattering of more up-to-date arms and hand-grenades.  Eoin MacNeill, the Chief-of-Staff of the Irish Volunteers, believed that the uprising was hopeless and published orders in all Sunday newspapers warning Irish Volunteers not to take part in any armed rebellion.  Because of MacNeill’s order, far fewer rebels took to the streets on April 24 than planned.

The seven-man Military Council of the IRB met to discuss whether to call off the operation, but news of the incoming arrests by the British government persuaded them to give the go-ahead.  On Monday, April 24, 1,500 rebels, divided into several brigades and including 90 women, captured the GPO and other strategic buildings in Dublin city-center.  Pearse stood outside the GPO and read out a proclomation announcing the creation of the Irish Republic, which began:

“Irishmen and Irishwomen, in the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.”

Somewhat unwisely, a further paragraph praised Germany, the Republic’s “gallant Allies”, a choice of words which must have upset many Dubliners whose fathers, brothers, and sons, in the words of one historian, “had been fighting those allies in Europe for the past twenty months.”

Though there were far fewer than hoped, the rebels planned to hold the center of Dublin against British counterattacks, defending from positions such as the GPO, the Four Courts law building, the seat of the government at Dublin Castle, the armory at Phoenix Park, and a wireless station, which sent out a Morse code message announcing the birth of the Irish Republic.  Squads from the Irish Citizen Army, no doubt influenced by news from the front, dug trenches in St. Stephen’s Green.  It was not long before their defenses were put to the test.

British guards in Dublin had been overwhelmed by the initial outburst of violence, and the Dublin Metropolitan Police had been pulled off the street after the rebels killed several unarmed policemen.  Although the rebels had hoped to spark a popular uprising, they had very limited public support. The first detachments of British reinforcements to arrive were Irish soldiers of the two most-recently raised Irish regiments, the 3rd Royal Irish Rifles and the 10th Royal Dublin Fusiliers (including your author’s great-grand uncle, then a lance-corporal with the Royal Irish Rifles).  Taken aback and surprised at the rebellion, most Dubliners welcomed the British troops openly, cheering them on in the streets, while a handful of armed students successfully defended Trinity College from capture.  One Irish soldier spotted his wife and children in the crowd and gave them a happy wave.  A few minutes later, he lay dead in the street, killed by a rebel sharpshooter.

A rebel squad of Irish Volunteers on-top the roof of the College of Surgeons. Armed with forty-year old single-shot Mauser rifles, they were outgunned from the start.

The British counter-attack was uncoordinated on the first day, but the British troops had weight of numbers, superior weaponry, and more training and experience on their side.  Nevertheless, they made little impact on the rebel positions on day one.  A troop of British cavalry, sent to investigate the position at the GPO, took casualties from rebel fire, as well as a platoon of elderly reservists. A British gunboat in the River Liffey retaliated by wrecking the rebel position at Liberty Hall. 

Besides constant sniping from rooftops and barricades, the first day of the Easter Rising ended with little other significant combat. Outside of Dublin, a few minor firefights flared up in other cities and in the countryside.  Meanwhile, thousands of British troops continued to pour into Dublin, preparing to fight the next day.  Civilians suffered worse in the claustrophobic city battle, from both sides: besides policemen, the rebels shot dead a number of civilians attempting to dismantle their barricades, while the British troops gunned down a nurse, Margaret Keogh, as she tried to tend to wounded people in the street.