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After the bombardment: representing the ruins of 1916
Three men survey the damage caused to a building in Dublin during the Easter Rising Photo: National Museum of Ireland

After the bombardment: representing the ruins of 1916

By Stephen O’Neill

The reopening of the Rotunda picture house at the top of Sackville Street in the early weeks of May, 1916 was a signal of the gradual restoration of normality to Dublin after the Easter Rising. Indeed the cinema on the city’s central thoroughfare was fortunate to survive intact, as their advertisement placed in The Irish Times on 9 May explained: ‘[t]he fabric of that historic building, the Rotunda, has happily escaped almost unscathed from the recent ordeal of fire…’. Those Dubliners hoping to escape the flickering embers of this ordeal by taking in a silent film or two may, however, have been bitterly disappointed. While the cinema’s feature-length listings were diverse, promising D. W. Griffith’s comedy Three Friends, and the adaptation of Cleveland Moffat’s puzzling short story The Mysterious Card, the Rotunda would also broadcast moving images of a more recent and local source: newsreel footage from the ‘Recent events in Dublin’, which largely featured scenes of the ruins surrounding the Liffey. The Rotunda’s neighbour and rival Carlton Cinema, located on Upper Sackville Street, promised the even more specific Dublin Ruins, ‘depicting the desolation of the Irish metropolis, consequent upon the insurrection’. 

Newsreel footage of the destruction in Dublin in the aftermath of the Rising courtesy of British Pathé.

Reference to this desolation was readily found across all newspapers in the aftermath of the Rising. Businesses in the city made sure that the public were aware of the damage done to their property and that they, as property owners, were seeking full or partial compensation from both the government and insurance companies. On 11 May 1916, for instance, the recently-formed Committee of the Licensed Grocers’ and Vintners’ Protection Association ‘place[d] upon record an expression of [their] very deep sympathy with those citizens whose property, through no fault of their own, has been destroyed in the recent unparalleled disturbances in the city’. 

That the 1916 Rising was fought out, for the most part, in the commercial heartland of Dublin was no accident. Though the decision of the rebels to occupy what were largely exposed buildings has often been characterised as military suicide, it is notable that James Connolly had famously presumed that the British would ‘not wish to destroy their own valuable property’ by shelling the city. In proving Connolly emphatically wrong, the British authorities may have achieved a swift and decisive military victory, but it came at a serious cost in terms of commerce and propaganda. Both before and after this bombardment of Dublin by British artillery, the leaders of the Rising had occasionally emphasised the symbolic impact of the capital city’s destruction. Patrick Pearse had once banged his fist on a table in front of pupils at his St. Enda’s school and declared that he ‘would rather see all Dublin in ruins than that we should go on living as we are at present’. For Pearse, the staging of the battle in the capital was also an act of reclaiming the city, or as he put it late during Easter week, of ‘redeem[ing] Dublin from many shames’. 

The events of Easter 1916 gave rise to other acts of reclamation. For instance, the cultural historian Clair Wills has described how, in the weeks, months, and years following the Rising, the ruined General Post Office became sacred for Irish nationalism. Likewise, the ruins of O'Connell Street became a place of pilgrimage where Dubliners looked, as Wills puts it, ‘not for souvenirs but for relics’. Even neutral onlookers were aware of the historical import of the detritus of the Rising, the papers of John Joly, eyewitness and Trinity Professor of Geology, making specific reference to his desire to save documents ‘from the still-hot ruins of the G.P.O.’. All this was perhaps unsurprising given the general enthusiasm for cultural retrieval across the city, which was highlighted in the August and September 1916 issue of The Irish Book Lover, a periodical which documented the culture of reading and publishing in and about Ireland. The periodical described how ‘Sinn Fein [sic] pamphlets and propaganda papers’ which had been handed out to uninterested Dubliners before the Rising were now being ‘eagerly sought by collectors’, with ‘fancy prices [for] the literature that but yesterday was being given away’. It was, at the same time, becoming a popular place of attraction for British and Irish tourists, eager to go on sightseeing visits to the city. In a letter home, one soldier stationed in Dublin after the Rising noted that there was ‘just enough time’ for tourists ‘to have a look at the principal damage, and to have tea at Harrisons’.

Dr Edmund J. McWeeney inspecting the Proclamation of the Irish republic on the railings of St Stephen's Green in Dublin city. (Image: National Library of Ireland, NPA PROC)

In many ways, this commercialisation of Rising-related artefacts, memorabilia and imagery came at an opportune time. The publishing industry, largely located in and around Sackville Street, was among the most seriously disrupted by the physical destruction of Easter week. Dr John Crone’s ‘Editor’s Gossip’ column for the June and July 1916 edition of the The Irish Book Lover described in detail how the ‘publishing trade suffered severely’ with, for example, ‘hardly a vestige remain[ing]’ of the offices belonging to Easons or Sealey Byers, companies that had their entire plates and stock destroyed by the fires of Easter week. Yet there was a large demand for local treatment of an event which had ‘occupie[d] a good deal of space in the English magazines’, and Irish publishers moved quickly to meet this demand. In the ‘Forthcoming Books’ category of the summer issue of The Book Lover, there were more Rising-themed books listed than for any other single subject-matter. Included was a detailed military record from The London Gazette, as well as hastily-compiled histories by John F. Boyle and F. A. McKenzie, amongst others.

Of course, the very act of highlighting the devastation visited upon Dublin’s city centre - and its main thoroughfare in particular - was expedient for these publishers, especially since many companies had become dependent on government aid and compensation for their survival. The publication of images showcasing the destruction visited upon the ‘finest’ or the most ‘prosperous’ street in the city certainly suited the interests of these businesses, then looking to the government for compensation to help reconstruct their damaged property. Maunsel and Co, remembered now for their rejection of James Joyce’s Dubliners (1912), were among the most prominent businesses seeking compensation. Their offices had been left ‘an empty shell’ after the British bombardment of Lower Abbey Street. After quickly finding new premises, Maunsel printed a number of books documenting the causes and effects of these ‘disturbances’, while simultaneously ‘piecing together a claim against the British government for stock-in-trade, moulds, plates, blocks, original drawings, and furniture to the value of £1,470’ (approx. €155,000 in 2016). In the Maunsel case, it was, as the Irish book historian Clare Hutton has suggested, very convenient that the company records were destroyed, since their loss made it impossible for both insurers and the government to disprove their claims.

Amongst other works, Maunsel and Co published James Stephens’ book, The Insurrection in Dublin (1916), which, for them, was a helpfully emphatic account of the ruination of the inner city. Then a Registrar at the National Gallery of Ireland, Stephens offered an eye-witness survey of Easter Week in which he observed that the most striking aspect of the rebellion was the loss of property - the ‘finest part of [the] city… blown to smithereens’ - rather than the loss of life. This was characteristic of a prevailing mood in the weeks following the Rising, in which the needs of property owners were often afforded equal, if not greater, importance than the dead or injured. As to where responsibility for all this resided, many of the ‘instant histories’ of the event indicted the various belligerents. Unsurprisingly, General John Maxwell, ordered to Dublin by the British government to suppress the Rising, pointed the finger of blame in the direction of the insurgents. In his official report on the Rising, he wrote:

'I wish to emphasise that the responsibility for the loss of life, however it occurred, the destruction of property, and other losses, rests entirely with those who engineered this revolt, and who, at a time when the Empire is engaged in a gigantic struggle, invited the co-operation of the Germans.'

General Maxwell placed responsibility for the destruction of property and civilian casualties firmly at the rebels' door (Image: Record of the Irish Rebellion of 1916, National Library of Ireland)

The established press in Dublin generally concurred with Maxwell’s assessment. Many of the immediate histories of the fighting were written for a middle-class audience, and thus subtly directed blame towards the rebels in their eyewitness histories. As such, the Irish Life magazine wasted little time in publishing their Record of the Irish Rebellion of 1916, which collated military reports, images, and civilian accounts, in what they called ‘a plain narrative of events as they occurred, with just sufficient reference to the political situation in Ireland preceding the outbreak to render such a narrative intelligible’. The Record largely described Dublin before the Rising as loyal, prosperous, and dull, placing particular emphasis upon the Castle: ‘a collection of ugly brick offices where certain Government clerks are supposed to do a certain amount of clerical work’. By contrast, its civilian eyewitness account of the fighting, complemented with detailed photographs of a ruined inner-city, highlighted how Sackville Street during Easter week presented ‘a bizarre appearance… it was entirely deserted, with here and there a dead horse, the buildings in flames, and the only signs of life were the firemen working furiously to check the conflagration’. 

Set alongside the chaos of this scene, the preface voiced sympathy towards those middle- and upper-class Dubliners whose property had been destroyed in the fire, referencing the ‘smouldering’ ruins left in the wake of the rebellion. Moreover, the frontispiece was a vivid colour drawing of the burning Sackville Street, watched from O’Connell Bridge by a helpless squad of British soldiers, serving as an evocative visual reminder of the damaged quarter to precede the written accounts. In capturing the viewpoint of the British soldiers overlooking these ruins, this striking image gave the Record’s readers an emblem for the perspective of a magazine whose loyalties were clear. This perspective was also reinforced even by its strict adherence to a particular terminology. ‘Conflagration’ was one of the Record’s preferred terms to describe the events of Easter Week, implying that the fighting was not primarily an insurrection against British rule, but a great fire which had destroyed much of what was, and remains, prime real estate alongside Sackville Street and Eden Quay.

Left: A detail of the frontispiece of Irish Life's Record of the Irish Rebellion. It shows the Sackville Street inferno from the perspective of the British troops. (Image: Record of the Irish Rebellion, National Library of Ireland)
Right: Eason vendors selling copies of Irish Life's Record of the Irish Rebellion. (Image: Irish Life, 21 July 1916. Full collection available at the National Library of Ireland)

Even the more private reflections on the Rising tended to focus on the loss of property rather than the loss of life. On 4 May 1916, a letter from Miss Julia Taylor to Maire Elizabeth Savage Armstrong from Strangford, Co. Down, lamented the fact that ‘what was Sackville St, is now like Ypres… Such terrible loss of life and destruction of property… beyond the pillar there is only a black, smoking stinking mass’. Miss Taylor’s letter reflected not just how traumatic such destruction was, but also how widespread this conflation of the loss of life and property had become. In 1917, the Weekly Irish TimesSinn Fein Rebellion Handbook, which in many ways bore a remarkable similarity to the Irish Life’s Record, called the fighting during Easter Week as ‘AN ORGIE OF FIRE AND SLAUGHTER’ with two main consequences: ‘the city and the suburbs were the scene of grave loss of life and destruction of property’. With more plentiful detail, the handbook included an article by Captain Purcell, Chief of the Dublin Fire Brigade, itemising the damage. Purcell also noted the locations and status of affected buildings and put the total cost of damage at £2.5 million (in 2016, roughly €300m). 

For others, this was a conservative estimate. Laying the blame at the mismanagement of Viceroy Lord Aberdeen and Chief Secretary Augustine Birrell, W .J. Lawrence suggested that, quite ‘apart from the terrible loss of life’, the Rising had ‘inflicted on Dublin citizens an outrageous penalty not to be covered by the outlay of five million pounds sterling’ (€600m in 2016). Even those more nationalist commemorative texts, many of which were published in America, were filled with images of the GPO and surrounding buildings. One such publication was The Irish Rebellion of 1916 and its martyrs: Erin's tragic Easter (1916) edited by Maurice Joy. While Francis Rigney’s cover illustration for the guide featured portraits of the 16 executed leaders, they were surrounded by sketches of four buildings - the GPO, Liberty Hall, the Four Courts and the Royal College of Surgeons - which were placed in each corner of the cover. A few weeks before, it would have been unthinkable that largely administrative buildings with no real symbolic value could have been transformed into totems of Irish nationalism. Yet their status crystallised very quickly in the wake of the Rising, and in the accompanying text the blame for their destruction was laid anywhere but with the rebels: ‘the Citizen Army indulged in no looting and caused no wilful damage to property. Both the hotel and the store were burned down, but not by the Citizen Army’. Such a passage would probably not have survived if published in Ireland; with the nation under Martial law, strict controls were placed on such publications by Lord Decie, appointed State Censor in June 1916 by General Maxwell. In his first weeks in office, Decie had decisively railed against the nationalist ‘mosquito press’ which sprung up after the Rising. 

Images from T.W. Murphy's Dublin After the Six Day Insurrection published in the wake of the Easter Rising. To view the whole book click here. (Images: Digital Library@Villanova University)

Whereas text-light photobooks like T.W. Murphy’s Dublin After the Six Days Insurrection (1916) survived such censorship, more descriptive accounts did not. Martial law prohibitions favoured the medium of photography over what were considered more dangerously detailed narratives. For example, Belfast-born Sinn Féiner W.J. Lawrence’s work of citizen journalism, Dublin and the Sinn Féin Rising (1916), was scathing about what it termed the ‘neo-Fenianism’ of the rebels. Published by Wilson Hartnell, the book was ‘cut in half’ by the censor, removing the many references to civilian deaths at the hands of the British Army in the initial text. Instead the most detailed part of what remained after these excisions was an extended survey of the ruined buildings of the inner city, again described as a place ‘most important owing to the numerous public buildings, great businesses, the theatre, two great hotels, and other important interests therein situated’. With the souvenir-book amply furnished with photographs of such buildings before and after the Rising, the eyewitness account betrayed a widespread reaction: ‘I had seen the Ypres of the “Pictures” translated into a living reality. Alas that the translation should have been accomplished in the beautiful city of Eblana’.

The published pictures of the rebellion underlined both the scale of destruction and the historic importance of the event. On 30 April 1916, with the Rising finally crushed, the New York Times Magazine published a perceptively-written opinion piece, in which it was envisaged that ‘the Dublin incident… will serve very well for the historian of a Free Ireland as a picturesque point of departure’. A civilian account of the Rising, which was published in the Irish Life magazine, suggested something similar:

‘The blaze gradually creeps its way up along the upper stories of the D.B.C. Restaurant, and at 4.30 p.m. the dome is on fire. The flames kissing the ball on the dome’s summit are singularly impressive. Standing high above the lower plane of flame and smoke it is thrown out in relief by a background of clouds. A scene of greater grandeur I have never before witnessed, not even in the realms of cinematography.’

It was clear from the start of the destruction that the ruins would become a focal point for representations of the Rising. As early as the 5 May the Chicago Tribune noted that, as opposed to sentencing the rebels to death, ‘it might have been far more effective to turn the three men [Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh and Tom Clarke] loose in Dublin. Their heroism would have oozed away a little every time a citizen looked at the wrecked Post Office’. 

An aerial shot of the ruined GPO on Dublin's Sackville Street, taken from Nelson's Pillar. (Image: National Museum of Ireland)

Instead, that ruined Post Office was a stage for mass demonstrations of grief, solidarity, and protest, immediately turned into what historian Claire Wills calls a ‘theatre for showing sympathy and support for the rebels’. The ruins are today often included on posters, book-covers, and postcards to retrospectively claim fidelity to the aims and ideals of the rebels. However, almost from the outset, the Easter Rising was instantly recognised and recorded as a highly symbolic - almost cinematic - series of events against the astonishing backdrop of this ruined inner city. Initially this symbolism was not just a nationalist perception, but one shared by many witnesses and onlookers, and the constant and wide-ranging representation of these scenes also distinguished the Easter Rising from previous Irish uprisings. While it remains deeply embedded in the cultural routines of remembering previous Irish rebellions, unlike 1798, 1803, or 1848, the immediate representations of 1916 were created in an age of mechanical reproduction, and so reports of Dublin’s ruination quickly obtained a global audience. More locally, photographs of ruins were also transferred onto postcards, mass cards and across a range of newly published books and commemorative brochures and magazines.

In some of these texts, images of the ruins were placed to suggest the havoc wreaked by the British Army in Dublin; in others they were used to advance the propertied interests of middle-class unionists seeking compensation from the government. In many they were simply objects of picturesque curiosity. From unrepentant Irish republicans, readers of American newspapers, cinema enthusiasts, constitutional Irish nationalists, British tourists, General John Maxwell, citizen journalists, to those Dublin publishers wishing to tell the story of the ruins to a new audience, the damaged quarter of Ireland’s capital city offered a range of opportunities for interpretations in the aftermath of Easter 1916. Whether these considered the events a conflagration, an insurrection, a rebellion, a revolution, or a nuisance, images of the ruins would provide sustenance to multiple interpretations, an instantly transferrable and consumable piece of evidence for what had recently occurred on the streets of Dublin.

Stephen O’Neill is a Government of Ireland Postgraduate Research Scholar at the School of English, Trinity College Dublin and under the Making Ireland research theme. He is researching the representation of the country and the city in Irish novels published after partition, and this project is generously funded by the Irish Research Council.

RTÉ

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