James Stephens' first-hand account of the Easter Rising, The Insurrection in Dublin (Maunsel & Co. 1916), is essential reading today, 100 years after the rebellion. Stephens was a novelist and poet closely associated with leaders of the Rising and members of the Irish Literary Revival. He worked in the National Gallery of Ireland from 1915 to 1925, and the Gallery is currently holding an exhibition on Stephens' book, with portraits and artworks linked to it. One of Stephens' closest friends, Thomas MacDonagh, was executed on May 3, 1916 for his role in the Rising.
The Insurrection in Dublin
James Stephens (1916)
Chapter I: Monday
This has taken everyone by surprise. It is possible, that, with the exception of their Staff, it has taken the Volunteers themselves by surprise; but, to-day, our peaceful city is no longer peaceful; guns are sounding, or rolling and crackling from different directions, and, although rarely, the rattle of machine guns can be heard also.
Two days ago war seemed very far away - so far, that I have covenanted with myself to learn the alphabet of music. Tom Bodkin had promised to present me with a musical instrument called a dulcimer - I persist in thinking that this is a species of guitar, although I am assured that it is a number of small metal plates which are struck with sticks, and I confess that this description of its function prejudices me more than a little against it. There is no reason why I should think dubiously of such an instrument, but I do not relish the idea of procuring music with a stick. With this dulcimer I shall be able to tap out our Irish melodies when I am abroad, and transport myself to Ireland for a few minutes, or a few bars.
In preparation for this present I had through Saturday and Sunday been learning the notes of the Scale. The notes and spaces on the lines did not trouble me much, but those above and below the line seemed ingenious and complicated to a degree that frightened me.
On Saturday I got the Irish Times, and found in it a long article by Bernard Shaw (reprinted from the New York Times). One reads things written by Shaw. Why one does read them I do not know exactly, except that it is a habit we got into years ago, and we read an article by Shaw just as we put on our boots in the morning - that is, without thinking about it, and without any idea of reward.
His article angered me exceedingly. It was called ‘Irish Nonsense talked in Ireland’. It was written (as is almost all of his journalistic work) with that bonhomie which he has cultivated - it is his mannerism - and which is essentially hypocritical and untrue. Bonhomie! It is that man-of-the-world attitude, that shop attitude, that between-you-and-me-for-are-we-not-equal-and-cultured attitude, which is the tone of a card-sharper or a trick-of-the-loop man. That was the tone of Shaw’s article. I wrote an open letter to him which I sent to the New Age, because I doubted that the Dublin papers would print it if I sent it to them, and I knew that the Irish people who read the other papers had never heard of Shaw, except as a trade-mark under which very good Limerick bacon is sold, and that they would not be interested in the opinions of a person named Shaw on any subject not relevant to bacon. I struck out of my letter a good many harsh things which I said of him, and hoped he would reply to it in order that I could furnish these acidities to him in a second letter.
That was Saturday.
On Sunday I had to go to my office, as the Director was absent in London, and there I applied myself to the notes and spaces below the stave, but relinquished the exercise, convinced that these mysteries were unattainable by man, while the knowledge that above the stave there were others and not less complex, stayed mournfully with me.
I returned home, and as novels (perhaps it is only for the duration of the war) do not now interest me I read for some time in Madame Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine, which book interests me profoundly. George Russell was out of town or I would have gone round to his house in the evening to tell him what I thought about Shaw, and to listen to his own much finer ideas on that as on every other subject. I went to bed.
On the morning following I awoke into full insurrection and bloody war, but I did not know anything about it. It was Bank Holiday, but for employments such as mine there are not any holidays, so I went to my office at the usual hour, and after transacting what business was necessary I bent myself to the notes above and below the stave, and marvelled anew at the ingenuity of man.
Peace was in the building, and if any of the attendants had knowledge or rumour of war they did not mention it to me.
At one o’clock I went to lunch. Passing the corner of Merrion Row I saw two small groups of people. These people were regarding steadfastly in the direction of St. Stephen’s Green Park, and they spoke occasionally to one another with that detached confidence which proved they were mutually unknown. I also, but without approaching them, stared in the direction of the Green. I saw nothing but the narrow street which widened to the Park. Some few people were standing in tentative attitudes, and all looking in the one direction. As I turned from them homewards I received an impression of silence and expectation and excitement.
On the way home I noticed that many silent people were standing in their doorways - an unusual thing in Dublin outside of the back streets. The glance of a Dublin man or woman conveys generally a criticism of one’s personal appearance, and is a little hostile to the passer. The look of each person as I passed was steadfast, and contained an enquiry instead of a criticism. I felt faintly uneasy, but withdrew my mind to a meditation which I had covenanted with myself to perform daily, and passed to my house.
There I was told that there had been a great deal of rifle firing all the morning, and we concluded that the Military recruits or Volunteer detachments were practising that arm. My return to business was by the way I had already come. At the corner of Merrion Row I found the same silent groups, who were still looking in the direction of the Green, and addressing each other occasionally with the detached confidence of strangers. Suddenly, and on the spur of the moment, I addressed one of these silent gazers.
‘Has there been an accident ?’ said I.
I indicated the people standing about.
‘What’s all this for?’
He was a sleepy, rough-looking man about 40 years of age, with a blunt red moustache, and the distant eyes which one sees in sailors. He looked at me, stared at me as at a person from a different country. He grew wakeful and vivid.
‘Don’t you know’, said he.
And then he saw that I did not know.
‘The Sinn Feiners have seized the City this morning’.
‘Oh’! said I.
He continued with the savage earnestness of one who has amazement in his mouth:
‘They seized the City at eleven o’clock this morning. The Green there is full of them. They have captured the Castle. They have taken the Post Office’.
‘My God’! said I, staring at him, and instantly I turned and went running towards the Green.
In a few seconds I banished astonishment and began to walk. As I drew near the Green rifle fire began like sharply-cracking whips. It was from the further side. I saw that the Gates were closed and men were standing inside with guns on their shoulders. I passed a house, the windows of which were smashed in. As I went by a man in civilian clothes slipped through the Park gates, which instantly closed behind him. He ran towards me, and I halted. He was carrying two small packets in his hand. He passed me hurriedly, and, placing his leg inside the broken window of the house behind me, he disappeared. Almost immediately another man in civilian clothes appeared from the broken window of another house. He also had something (I don’t know what) in his hand. He ran urgently towards the gates, which opened, admitted him, and closed again.
In the centre of this side of the Park a rough barricade of carts and motor cars had been sketched. It was still full of gaps. Behind it was a halted tram, and along the vistas of the Green one saw other trams derelict, untenanted.
I came to the barricade. As I reached it and stood by the Shelbourne Hotel, which it faced, a loud cry came from the Park. The gates opened and three men ran out. Two of them held rifles with fixed bayonets. The third gripped a heavy revolver in his fist. They ran towards a motor car which had just turned the corner, and halted it. The men with bayonets took position instantly on either side of the car.
[Footnote: As I pen these words rifle shot is cracking from three different direction and continually. Three minutes ago there was two discharges from heavy guns. These are the first heavy guns used in the Insurrection, 25th April.]
The man with the revolver saluted, and I heard him begging the occupants to pardon him, and directing them to dismount. A man and woman got down. They were again saluted and requested to go to the sidewalk. They did so.
The man crossed and stood by me. He was very tall and thin, middle- aged, with a shaven, wasted face. ‘I want to get down to Armagh to- day’, he said to no one in particular. The loose bluish skin under his eyes was twitching. The Volunteers directed the chauffeur to drive to the barricade and lodge his car in a particular position there. He did it awkwardly, and after three attempts he succeeded in pleasing them. He was a big, brown-faced man, whose knees were rather high for the seat he was in, and they jerked with the speed and persistence of something moved with a powerful spring. His face was composed and fully under command, although his legs were not. He locked the car into the barricade, and then, being a man accustomed to be commanded, he awaited an order to descend. When the order came he walked directly to his master, still preserving all the solemnity of his features. These two men did not address a word to each other, but their drilled and expressionless eyes were loud with surprise and fear and rage. They went into the Hotel.
I spoke to the man with the revolver. He was no more than a boy, not more certainly than twenty years of age, short in stature, with close curling red hair and blue eyes - a kindly-looking lad. The strap of his sombrero had torn loose on one side, and except while he held it in his teeth it flapped about his chin. His face was sunburnt and grimy with dust and sweat.
This young man did not appear to me to be acting from his reason. He was doing his work from a determination implanted previously, days, weeks perhaps, on his imagination. His mind was - where? It was not with his body. And continually his eyes went searching widely, looking for spaces, scanning hastily the clouds, the vistas of the streets, looking for something that did not hinder him, looking away for a moment from the immediacies and rigours which were impressed where his mind had been.
When I spoke he looked at me, and I know that for some seconds he did not see me. I said: -
‘What is the meaning of all this? What has happened’?
He replied collectedly enough in speech, but with that ramble and errancy clouding his eyes.
‘We have taken the City. We are expecting an attack from the military at any moment, and those people’, he indicated knots of men, women and children clustered towards the end of the Green, ‘won’t go home for me. We have the Post Office, and the Railways, and the Castle. We have all the City. We have everything’.
(Some men and two women drew behind me to listen).
‘This morning’, said he, ‘the police rushed us. One ran at me to take my revolver. I fired but I missed him, and I hit a - ’
‘You have far too much talk’, said a voice to the young man.
I turned a few steps away, and glancing back saw that he was staring after me, but I know that he did not see me - he was looking at turmoil, and blood, and at figures that ran towards him and ran away - a world in motion and he in the centre of it astonished.
The men with him did not utter a sound. They were both older. One, indeed, a short, sturdy man, had a heavy white moustache. He was quite collected, and took no notice of the skies, or the spaces. He saw a man in rubbers placing his hand on a motor bicycle in the barricade, and called to him instantly: ‘Let that alone’.
The motorist did not at once remove his hand, whereupon the white- moustached man gripped his gun in both hands and ran violently towards him. He ran directly to him body to body, and, as he was short and the motorist was very tall, stared fixedly up in his face. He roared up at his face in a mighty voice.
‘Are you deaf? Are you deaf? Move back!’
The motorist moved away, pursued by an eye as steady and savage as the point of the bayonet that was level with it.
Another motor car came round the Ely Place corner of the Green and wobbled at the sight of the barricade. The three men who had returned to the gates roared ‘Halt’, but the driver made a tentative effort to turn his wheel. A great shout of many voices came then, and the three men ran to him.
‘Drive to the barricade’, came the order.
The driver turned his wheel a point further towards escape, and instantly one of the men clapped a gun to the wheel and blew the tyre open. Some words were exchanged, and then a shout:
‘Drive it on the rim, drive it’.
The tone was very menacing, and the motorist turned his car slowly to the barricade and placed it in.
For an hour I tramped the City, seeing everywhere these knots of watchful strangers speaking together in low tones, and it sank into my mind that what I had heard was true, and that the City was in insurrection. It had been promised for so long, and had been threatened for so long. Now it was here. I had seen it in the Green, others had seen it in other parts - the same men clad in dark green and equipped with rifle, bayonet, and bandolier, the same silent activity. The police had disappeared from the streets. At that hour I did not see one policeman, nor did I see one for many days, and men said that several of them had been shot earlier in the morning; that an officer had been shot on Portobello Bridge, that many soldiers had been killed, and that a good many civilians were dead also.
Around me as I walked the rumour of war and death was in the air. Continually and from every direction rifles were crackling and rolling; sometimes there was only one shot, against would be a roll of firing crested with single, short explosions, and sinking again to whip-like snaps and whip-like echoes; then for a moment silence, and then again the guns leaped in the air.
The rumour of positions, bridges, public places, railway stations, Government offices, having been seized was persistent, and was not denied by any voice.
I met some few people I knew. P. H., T. M., who said: ‘Well’! and thrust their eyes into me as though they were rummaging me for information.
But there were not very many people in the streets, The greater part of the population were away on Bank Holiday, and did not know anything of this business. Many of them would not know anything until they found they had to walk home from Kingstown, Dalkey, Howth, or wherever they were.
I returned to my office, decided that I would close it for the day. The men were very relieved when I came in, and were more relieved when I ordered the gong to be sounded. There were some few people in the place, and they were soon put out. The outer gates were locked, and the great door, but I kept the men on duty until the evening. We were the last public institution open; all the others had been closed for hours.
I went upstairs and sat down, but had barely reached the chair before I stood up again, and began to pace my room, to and fro, to and fro; amazed, expectant, inquiet; turning my ear to the shots, and my mind to speculations that began in the middle, and were chased from there by others before they had taken one thought forward. But then I took myself resolutely and sat me down, and I pencilled out exercises above the stave, and under the stave; and discovered suddenly that I was again marching the floor, to and fro, to and fro, with thoughts bursting about my head as though they were fired on me from concealed batteries.
At five o’clock I left. I met Miss P., all of whose rumours coincided with those I had gathered. She was in exceeding good humour and interested. Leaving her I met Cy---, and we turned together up to the Green. As we proceeded, the sound of firing grew more distinct, but when we reached the Green it died away again. We stood a little below the Shelbourne Hotel, looking at the barricade and into the Park. We could see nothing. Not a Volunteer was in sight. The Green seemed a desert. There were only the trees to be seen, and through them small green vistas of sward.
Just then a man stepped on the footpath and walked directly to the barricade. He stopped and gripped the shafts of a lorry lodged near the centre. At that instant the Park exploded into life and sound; from nowhere armed men appeared at the railings, and they all shouted at the man.
‘Put down that lorry. Let out and go away. Let out at once’.
These were the cries. The man did not let out. He halted with the shafts in his hand, and looked towards the vociferous pairings. Then, and very slowly, he began to draw the lorry out of the barricade. The shouts came to him again, very loud, very threatening, but he did not attend to them.
‘He is the man that owns the lorry’, said a voice beside me.
Dead silence fell on the people around while the man slowly drew his cart down by the footpath. Then three shots rang out in succession. At the distance he could not be missed, and it was obvious they were trying to frighten him. He dropped the shafts, and instead of going away he walked over to the Volunteers.
‘He has a nerve’, said another voice behind me.
The man walked directly towards the Volunteers, who, to the number of about ten, were lining the railings. He walked slowly, bent a little forward, with one hand raised and one finger up as though he were going to make a speech. Ten guns were pointing at him, and a voice repeated many times:
‘Go and put back that lorry or you are a dead man. Go before I count four. One, two, three, four -’
A rifle spat at him, and in two undulating movements the man sank on himself and sagged to the ground.
I ran to him with some others, while a woman screamed unmeaningly, all on one strident note. The man was picked up and carried to a hospital beside the Arts Club. There was a hole in the top of his head, and one does not know how ugly blood can look until it has been seen clotted in hair. As the poor man was being carried in, a woman plumped to her knees in the road and began not to scream but to screech.
At that moment the Volunteers were hated. The men by whom I was and who were lifting the body, roared into the railings: -
‘We’ll be coming back for you, damn you’.
From the railings there came no reply, and in an instant the place was again desert and silent, and the little green vistas were slumbering among the trees.
No one seemed able to estimate the number of men inside the Green, and through the day no considerable body of men had been seen, only those who held the gates, and the small parties of threes and fours who arrested motors and carts for their barricades. Among these were some who were only infants - one boy seemed about twelve years of age. He was strutting the centre of the road with a large revolver in his small fist. A motor car came by him containing three men, and in the shortest of time he had the car lodged in his barricade, and dismissed its stupified occupants with a wave of his armed hand.
The knots were increasing about the streets, for now the Bank Holiday people began to wander back from places that were not distant, and to them it had all to be explained anew. Free movement was possible everywhere in the City, but the constant crackle of rifles restricted somewhat that freedom. Up to one o’clock at night belated travellers were straggling into the City, and curious people were wandering from group to group still trying to gather information.
I remained awake until four o’clock in the morning. Every five minutes a rifle cracked somewhere, but about a quarter to twelve sharp volleying came from the direction of Portobello Bridge, and died away after some time. The windows of my flat listen out towards the Green, and obliquely towards Sackville Street. In another quarter of an hour there were volleys from Stephen’s Green direction, and this continued with intensity for about twenty-five minutes. Then it fell into a sputter of fire and ceased.
I went to bed about four o’clock convinced that the Green had been rushed by the military and captured, and that the rising was at an end.
That was the first day of the insurrection.
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