Vintage view: The GPO, Dublin

A few weeks away from the start of the national celebrations to mark the centenary of the 1916 Rising, Kya deLongchamps wonders why the leaders chose the General Post Office as a theatre of war?
Vintage view: The GPO, Dublin

The atmosphere surrounding the 1916 rebellion is easily projected on the dusty heights of the surrounding city by just standing quietly for a few minutes on O’Connell Street.

If you want to grab a child’s full attention — then take them to the shelter of the monument dedicated to the Emancipator, and start by pointing out the bullet holes pierced in the breasts of the bowing angels (officially called The Winged Victories).

Then, eyes on, make your way directly to the GPO, just shy of a hundred years older than the Rising itself.

O’Connell Street, even carved up with bus lanes and café pods, remains as wide and impressive as a battlefield.

Take a wander in the quiet of an early Sunday morning.

Imagine the splicing gunfire, desperate human roars and shell rounds exploding the red brick terraces and classic capitals — frightening the figures of Hibernia, Mercury and Fidelity on the roof of the building.

Including executions, 463 people would die in the actions surrounding the GPO, many resolute in belief, some ordinary citizens caught up in the chaos.

The building of the General Post Office was started in 1814 to a design by Francis Johnson.

Altered and reconstructed, it was re-opened by W T Cosgrave in 1929 behind what remained of the shattered facade, (with royal arms quietly removed).

Doubled in size to serve a new Ireland, with ornament and surroundings taken from the Art Deco era, the present building sits magnificent within the original neo-classical frame.

The GPO was, and is, a stately, architectural palace of a place.

In 1916, it spoke of conformity, commercial progress and good manners.

Throughout the late 19th century is represented a highly visible, respected, well oiled crank driving the Crown’s bureaucratic machinery in Ireland. (Novelist Anthony Trollope was one of its more unlikely early employees.)

The Ionic portico of the GPO was therefore a spectacular (if fatal), strategic and symbolic choice for leaders Patrick Pearse and James Connolly.

Slap bang in the centre of the city, and as the master office of the postal service, it held a vital social and political importance for all Irish people.

Linked to the developing rail service from the mid 19th century, the GPO was a communications conduit not only between Dublin and the shaggiest reaches of rural Ireland, but also back out into an ever expanding world.

What better point of leverage for the IRB’s Military Council? Five of the seven members were present there on Easter Monday.

With 19,000 British soldiers descending on Dublin, it’s little wonder that the Rising was seen as the work of a tribe of trouble makers and a misguided intelligentsia who initially met with anger and confusion from ordinary Dubliners.

It spat full in the face of the British and those Irish soldiers fighting in the trenches.

Taking the GPO was unthinkable, and some members of the telegraph staff working that Monday, along with off-duty soldiers, barricaded themselves into upstairs rooms, in a pathetic if brave effort to defend the workings of the postal service itself.

To get a real feel of the desperate moments of that week go to the Bureau of Military History ( www.beareaumilitaryhistory.ie ) and read the accounts of Diarmuid Lynch, (Member Supreme Council IRB, and a member of the 1st and 2nd Dail), given in the 1940s.

His description preserved in inky type, of tackling an out of control fire in the basement of the building in which the defending forces had stacked lethal explosives just prior to the evacuation, is chilling.

He complains stoically of the difficulty he experienced carrying ‘bombs’ through 3-4’ high passages between the GPO yard and Princes Street.

The British gunship Helga, and intense artillery fire from the grounds of Trinity College on the south side of the Liffey, sealed the fate of the Citizen Army, Irish Volunteers and Cumann na mBan, and turned the GPO inside out with fire and collapse.

The building is said (by purple tongued tour guides) to carry proud battle scars all over the surviving façade.

The apparent bullet holes pointed out eagerly from the pavement below have never been officially confirmed as relics of those five days of fighting, and may be explained away by weathering.

With its emerald green Connemara marble floors, toffee-dark timber panelling and fat accenting of brass fittings — the building hangs over An Post workers in an immersive underwater light.

Most visitors whether carrying their TV licence renewal form, or a foam footed American tourist taking in the An Post Museum — instinctively take on a hushed, reverential tone.

The statue of The Death of Cúchulainn by Oliver Shepard, the figure draped Christ -like from the trunk of a tree, is set in the front hall (c1911).

DeValera in re-interpreting this piece for the 20th celebration of the Rising in 1936, determined we should never forget what men and women gave up freely for us at this place.

Take an online journey to the Bureau of Military History (Cathal Brugha Brks), to find eye-witness accounts of the Rising. There are also free CDs of contemporary press cuttings to download.

www.bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie

Stephen Ferguson’s book, ‘Business as Usual - GPO Staff in 1916 is on sale at the GPO. and at www.irishstamps.ie

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