The Easter Rising of 1916 that began on Easter Monday (April 24th) in the heart of Dublin was perhaps the most pivotal moment in 20th-century Irish history.
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Planning for the uprising, also known as the Easter Rebellion, began two years beforehand when members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) met in September of 1914 shortly after the British government had declared war on Germany.
Shortly after the outbreak of the war, the sister organization of the IRB, the US-based Clan na Gael petitioned Germany for help.
The Germans rejected the plan but promised to send arms and ammunition to the Irish instead.
A merchant steamship originally named “Libau” but masquerading as the Norwegian vessel, the SS Aud, was chosen to transport much-needed supplies for the effort.
They included 20,000 rifles, one million rounds of ammunition, 10 machine guns, and other explosives which were intended for Tralee Bay off the County Kerry coast, all under the cover of timber cargo.
The ship arrived on April 20th, Holy Thursday, but the volunteers based in Kerry were expecting the ship the following day.
British destroyers subsequently captured the captain of the ship and the German crew on board deliberately sank the vessel to prevent the British from getting hold of the arms.
In many ways, this was just the beginning of the tragic series of events that would unfold a couple of days later in Dublin, with the arrest of the Rising’s leaders and their subsequent execution at Kilmainham Jail.
Dublin tour guides Alan Swaine of Dublin City Tours and Dublin School Tours, and Alan Byrne of AB Tours, both Dublin natives, are experts in the history of the city and in particular, the events that took place during the Rising.
Here are their recommendations on how you can see the Dublin of 1916 through today’s modern lens.
The Abbey Theatre
While Dublin’s famous Abbey Theatre wasn’t damaged during the weeklong Rising, it is central to fully understanding the events that happened not just that week but, in the years that followed.
The theatre, which was co-founded by Lady Augusta Gregory and William Butler Yeats, contributed to a real sense of national identity among the Irish at the time and a rethinking of British rule in Ireland.
The many plays that it hosted also helped in this national literary renaissance.
Some might say that Yeats’s play, “Kathleen Ni Houlihan,” which debuted in 1902, idealized the fight for a united Ireland, and in many ways, it certainly influenced those who participated in it.
Some of the people who were heavily involved in the Abbey Theatre’s productions also participated in the Rebellion.
They included Countess Constance Markievicz, who acted in several plays and served as second-in-command at Stephen’s Green, and Thomas McDonagh, the writer of the three-act play “When the Dawn is Come,” who was later executed for his role in the event.
A performance scheduled to take place on Easter Monday and featuring actors Sean Connolly and Arthur Shields was postponed.
Both Connolly and Shields took part in the conflict.
In fact, Connolly was one of the men who fired the first shots of the rebellion and was also the first rebel to be killed by the British.
A 1916 Easter Rising tour of Dublin wouldn’t be complete without a stop at Liberty Hall, today the headquarter of SIPTU, and in 1916, also the headquarters for the country’s leading workers union, the ITGWU founded by James Larkin.
It was also the headquarters of the Irish Citizen Army (ICA).
Located close to the Custom House, it was the building where, in the days and weeks leading up to the Rising, much of the planning for the Rising took place.
The famous Proclamation of the Irish Republic was also printed there.
Within the building, ICA members armed themselves with rifles bought from Germany, with both men and women trained in the use of the weapons.
Wynn’s Hotel, Abbey Street
Located on Abbey Street, Wynn’s Hotel played a vital role in the lead-up to the 1916 Easter Rising.
First opened in 1845, it was actually a boarding house before it became a hotel.
Founded by Phoebe Wynn, it was a popular haunt for the local Church of Ireland clergy. When Wynn sold it, the boarding house was registered as a hotel and was favored by the Catholic clergy.
It was acquired by the Clarence Hotel Company in 1898.
Over time, Wynn’s Hotel turned into a popular nationalist meeting spot, with groups such as the Irish Volunteers and Cumann na mBan (pronounced “Comin na Mon”), a female paramilitary organization, meeting there regularly.
A plaque in the hotel commemorates one of the first political meetings there.
During the Easter Rising, the hotel was unsurprisingly burned to the ground after being bombarded by British artillery. At the end of the conflict, there was nothing left of it and in 1921, it was rebuilt.
Byrne says there is usually great interest in Dublin’s GPO, otherwise known as The General Post Office, and rightly so because it featured heavily during the Easter Rising of 1916.
“The building was held by the rebels from Easter Monday until a retreat was ordered the following Friday,” explains Byrne.
“The building came under fire from rifles as well as heavy artillery and eventually the roof caught fire hastening a retreat to Moore Street.”
Bullet holes can still be seen in the pillars outside the building.
James Connolly, Tom Clarke, and Patrick Pearse, all executed by the British, were stationed at the GPO.
On April 24, 1916, Pearse stood outside the building and read aloud the Proclamation of the Irish Republic.
If you want to visit the GPO separate from a walking tour, there is an immersive and engaging visitor center in the building that is worth seeing.
The award-winning GPO Witness History Interpretive Exhibition Centre includes state-of-the-art digital displays and authentic artifacts that bring those harrowing days to life.
The admission fee for adults 18 and over is €13.50; for seniors, students (18+) and children ages 14-18, it is €10.50; for children ages 6-13, it is €6.50; for a family of 4, it is €33, and a family of 6, it is €38.50. Children under the age of 5 are admitted free of charge.
The Four Courts Building
The Irish rebels faced down the superior British forces for a considerable time around the Four Courts building, which is Ireland’s most prominent courts building located on Inns Quay.
In fact, some of the Rising’s intense fighting took place there and around the area of Church, North King, and North Brunswick streets.
At the end of the week, the Four Courts building had become the headquarters of the 1st Battalion.
During the Civil War of 1922, the west wing of the building was destroyed in a huge explosion that sadly ruined the Irish Public Record Office at the back of the building, along with all the precious records that it held.
Nearly a thousand years of archives were destroyed by the explosion, as well as the ensuing fire and the water used to put it out.
The iconic Moore Street known for its outdoor stalls and authentic Dublin sellers is also a key stop on any Easter Rising tour of Dublin.
This is where the Irish Volunteers, commanded by Pearse, surrendered to British forces on April 30, 1916, from a nearby block of terraced houses.
In fact, five of the seven signatories of the Irish Proclamation of Independence, surrendered at this spot, having run from the burning GPO building under a hail of gunfire.
They included Pearse, James Connolly, Thomas Clarke, Joseph Plunkett, Seán Mac Diarmada, and Michael Collins.
Swaine says he often takes visitors interested in the Easter Rising events on the exact route of retreat that was taken by the rebels and then on to the Garden of Remembrance, a memorial garden that was officially opened by President Eamonn de Valera in 1966.
St. Stephen's Green
This popular city park was one of the garrisons of the Irish Citizen Army in 1916, led by Michael Malin and Markievicz.
“Trenches were dug inside the park but proved ineffective due to the proximity of high buildings,” explained Byrne.
“The bandstands were commandeered to make a field hospital and a kitchen, and a truce was agreed between the rebels and the Crown forces for 30 minutes each day so that the park ranger could feed the ducks.”
Eventually, the rebels were forced to retreat across the street to the Royal College of Surgeons building, where they remained until surrendering.
As with the GPO, bullet marks can still be seen on the college facade. Admission to the park is free, and plaques have been installed to explain its role in the rebellion.
There are other places around Dublin that speak to the tragic events that unfolded during the Easter week of 1916.
The Final Days of the Rebels at Kilmainham Gaol
Kilmainham Gaol (Jail) is one of them.
This was the place of incarceration for the leaders of the rebellion as well as many other participants. It is also where 14 of the rebels were executed by firing squad at dawn.
All of them were tried in secrecy at Richmond Barracks in a series of court-martials where no defense counsel was allowed.
“Admission to the jail is by guided tour only, but the guides are experts on both the site as well as the wider history of rebellion,” he adds.
Some of the most moving events of the rebellion occurred at Kilmainham Gaol, including the wedding of Joseph Plunkett to Grace Gifford, which took place on the night of May 3rd, a few hours before Plunkett was executed by firing squad.
“It can create quite a harrowing response being in the spaces where these historic and tragic events occurred,” Byrne says.
Attached to the jail is a museum that features many of the artifacts and personal effects of the participants, making it hallowed ground for most Irish people.
Advance booking is a must as admission is always in high demand. Expect your tour of the jail to take an hour. Admission is €8 for adults, €4 for children/students, €6 for seniors, and €20 for a family of 4.
National Museum Collins Barracks
Byrne says this museum, located in the Arbour Hill section of the city, was converted from an old British army barracks and originally housed only decorative arts but has been expanded to take in the history of Ireland's struggle for independence going back to the 18th century.
The barracks were the oldest continuously used barracks in the world, held by both Irish and British forces for three centuries.
It was originally called “The Barracks,” then its name was changed to the “Royal Barracks” and in 1922, officials in the newly formed Irish Free State government changed it to “Collins Barracks” in honor of the revolutionary hero Michael Collins who had been killed earlier that year.
Since 1997, the building has been home to collections from the National Museum of Ireland – Decorative Arts and History and it is there that you will find the wonderful permanent exhibition titled, “Proclaiming a Republic: The 1916 Rising.”
The exhibition is now available as a virtual tour, which you can see in the video below.
Byrne says that a neighboring building houses a reconstructed ship known as The Asgard, which was used to smuggle arms for the Irish Volunteers in 1914.
Admission to the National Museum Collins Barracks is free.
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This historic cemetery contains the burial grounds of many who were involved in the 1916 Easter Rising but evaded the firing squad at Kilmainham Gaol.
“Many of the 1916 veterans buried here also went on to play a significant role in the Irish War of Independence 1919-21 and in Irish politics, including Eamon De Valera, Michael Collins, Countess Markievicz, Elizabeth O'Farrell, and others buried in the ‘Republican Plot',” explains Byrne.
The cemetery also contains the grave of Sir Roger Casement, who was arrested on Good Friday 1916 and later hanged for treason for his role in importing arms from Germany.
Casement's body was repatriated in 1965 following years of campaigning by the Irish Government.
Admission to the cemetery is free, although several guided tours are also available.
Are you interested in the history of Dublin and in particular, the Easter Rising events of 1916? Let me know in the comments below.