The Destruction of Dublin
By Justin Dolan Stover
The 1916 Easter Rising damaged a variety of public and professional buildings and spaces in Dublin. Much of this destruction followed from rebels’ use of civic buildings as defensive positions, as well as the efforts of British forces to dislodge them. The centrality of the rebellion, which was concentrated on and adjacent to Dublin’s main thoroughfare of Sackville Street (O’Connell Street), claimed numerous homes and businesses, which succumbed to fire, looting, and artillery shelling. Like the Rising itself, the destruction of Dublin impacted Irish politics and society beyond Easter week. The establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922 failed to fully resolve the issue of financial compensation to individuals or the reconstruction and restoration of public buildings and private property.
Varieties & Extent of Damage
The scope and scale of destruction visited upon Dublin during Easter week varied by location and escalated as the Rising progressed. Early movements by rebels to establish positions and erect barricades in the General Post Office, Four Courts, City Hall, Jacob’s Factory, Boland’s Mill, the South Dublin Union and elsewhere on Easter Monday resulted in minor damage. Looters operated in the absence of an active police presence, which was retracted early in the week after members of the Dublin Metropolitan Police were killed. The social spectacle of the Rising created an atmosphere in which many felt justified in sampling from a variety of shops, including confectioners, jewellers, boot makers and booksellers. Opportunistic Dubliners gained access through forced entry or breaking plate glass display windows. Later in the week citizens, including women and children, sifted through rubble in an attempt to recover firewood for fuel. While some felt looting (and the damage it caused) blemished the Rising’s ideological beauty, others recognised it as the resourceful expression of Dublin’s desperate poor.
The large-scale destruction of Dublin is more iconic than that committed during the Rising’s early melees, or by its nonparticipants. Rebels’ failure to disrupt British reinforcement routes, particularly Kingsbridge Station (Heuston Station) and Kingstown Harbour (Dun Laoghaire), solidified their static position. Though challenged on their advance toward the city centre, most notably at Mount Street Bridge and Marrowbone Lane, British forces were ultimately able to establish and reinforce field artillery batteries in the north Dublin neighbourhood of Phibsborough and at Trinity College, in the heart of the city. Additionally, two 12-pound guns aboard the Royal Navy’s ‘armed yacht’ Helga harassed rebel positions from the River Liffey. The impact of artillery was decisive; it shattered rebel positions as well as morale.
Liberty Hall was shelled on Wednesday, 26 April. A place of refuge during the 1913 Lockout and home to James Connolly’s various newspapers, the building provided a space for open and covert defiance prior to the rebellion: a banner that read ‘We Serve Neither King nor Kaiser, But Ireland’ adorned its cornice, while small scale munitions were produced inside. Combined artillery fire from the Helga (based at Sir John Rogerson’s Quay approximately 900 metres away) and the field guns stationed at Trinity College eventually reduced the building to a pockmarked façade.
James Connolly and others shuffled personnel in preparation for more intimate engagements, refusing to believe Britain would intentionally destroy its own buildings to dislodge rebels. However, British Army command committed to bombing principle rebel positions rather than risking excessive casualties in infantry assaults, a move the Cabinet deemed necessary for the quick suppression of the rebellion. This policy’s effectiveness was felt from Wednesday of Easter week.
The Four Courts, a strategic imposition between the Royal Barracks (Collins Barracks) and the General Post Office, survived the Rising though its immediate neighbourhood was badly damaged. To prevent reinforcement of British positions in the area, the 1st Dublin Battalion Irish Volunteers burned the spacious, and virtually vacant Linenhall Barracks. Moreover, barricading and street fighting, which intensified on Thursday and Friday, impacted numerous properties in the vicinity, particularly those in North King Street and Great Brunswick Street.
The General Post Office was discriminately targeted on Thursday. Incendiary shells produced both immediate and consequential damage; fire spread to and from the GPO and adjacent buildings, accelerating the timetable of the Rising as rebel headquarters threatened to collapse. Walter Paget’s iconic painting, Birth of the Irish Republic’, speaks to the immediacy of the situation as an Irish Citizen Army man can be seen struggling to contain the blaze from within. The GPO leaders withdrew into an adjacent building on Moore Street before Patrick Pearse departed to negotiate surrender. The ruins of the post office continued to smoulder after the main fires were extinguished following the Rising; its hollow granite shell and framing provided Dubliners an unnecessary reminder of the Rising’s intensity.
Collateral damage to property was prominent during the Rising. Fire spread and consumed buildings on Sackville, Abbey, and Henry Streets, and along Eden Quay, faster than the Dublin Fire Brigade could respond, or were able to under rifle fire. Though mainly confined to Sackville Street, outlying businesses and residences were also affected. For instance, the Irish Volunteers commandeered Clanwilliam House in Ballsbridge due to its strategic position in the Mount Street Bridge area overlooking Northumberland Road. It was eventually burned to its braces. Confusion stemming from Eoin MacNeill’s mobilisation counter-order on Easter Sunday meant Volunteer units throughout Ireland failed to rise in unison. Still, approximately 1,000 Volunteers took part in operations in places such as Galway, Meath, Wexford and Louth, though the physical damage that resulted was minimal. By contrast, telegraph lines and equipment were cut and destroyed in north county Dublin to coincide with operations, most notably at Ashbourne.
Broken glass, toppled stone and razed buildings are one element of the physical damage that resulted from the Easter Rising. But what was the environmental impact of the rebellion? This is undoubtedly a 21st century question, though one that may nevertheless contribute to our understanding of the cost of 1916. For instance, the fires that ravaged the GPO and surrounding buildings provided a sombre testament to the scale and intensity of the Rising, but they also released immeasurable levels of smoke into the atmosphere. At times, fire consumed more than timber and plaster, compounding its imprint. Paddy Holohan recalled how the Linenhall Barracks fire engulfed large barrels of oil, which exploded and filled the air with thick smoke. Michael Mallin, Constance Markievicz and members of the Irish Citizen Army altered the landscape of St Stephen’s Green by digging trenches and pits. Rain on Easter Monday soaked the trenches, which contributed to the unpleasantness of being fired upon from the Shelbourne Hotel, opposite the Green. The weather also underlined the proximity of death in the city. An unseasonably warm spring emphasised the decay of dead bodies, while odoriferous evidence of the unsuccessful cavalry charge that had occurred on Easter Monday became increasingly apparent as the week progressed. We might also examine how the scuttling of the 1,200-ton Aud outside Queenstown (Cobh) – and its cargo of 20,000 rifles and ammunition – has impacted local marine ecology of the Cork coast. The environmental impact of the Easter Rising is incidental when viewed in the broader context of the First World War. However, the scenes in Dublin presented a micro view of the spectacle of destruction taking place on the continent.
Cost, Compensation, and Reconstruction
When did the Easter Rising ‘end’? The execution of the Rising’s principle leaders in early May 1916 (Casement was hanged in August) failed to pacify Irish opinion; it, in fact, had the opposite effect. The release of internees the following December is similarly seen as contributing to the growth of popular radicalism in Ireland, for which the Rising had provided a foundation. While W.B. Yeats was quite right to assert that after the Rising all was ‘changed, changed utterly,’ many looked to restore or replace their damaged property – often as it had stood prior to the Rising.
This was a difficult task. Tallying the damage and affixing an accurate value was (and remains) difficult. The political situation was also delicate. In early May 1916, the Council of the Dublin Chamber of Commerce accused Dublin Castle of ‘unpardonable laxity’ in their failure to prevent rebellion. As such, the Council were resolved that the Treasury should finance the restoration of property. (Irish Times, 6 May 1916) Businessmen and property owners advocated for themselves and formed the Dublin Fire and Property Losses Association. In late May its 1,500 members reported claims for damage that totalled £2,500,000. Debate over how best to restore or restructure Dublin also continued throughout the summer. In June the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland wrote to the Home Secretary, Herbert Samuel, urging builders observe conformity, ‘harmony and symmetry’ when undertaking reconstruction. The majority of claims were settled between 1916-17 with over £1.8 million provided in grants and a further £700,000 loaned to Dublin Corporation. Broad reconstruction efforts failed to materialise until demobilisation following the First World War flooded Dublin with labour. However, the General Post Office – epicentre of the Easter Rising – remained derelict during and after the Irish Revolution. It was eventually restored under the direction of the Office of Public Works and reopened by President Cosgrave in 1929.
Justin Dolan Stover is Assistant Professor of History at Idaho State University.
‘Easter 1916: The Places’ via Easter 1916
Fearghal McGarry, The Rising: Ireland: Easter 1916 (Oxford, 2011)
Daithí Ó Corráin, ‘“They blew up the best portion of our city and … it is their duty to replace it”: compensation and reconstruction in the aftermath of the 1916 Rising’ in Irish Historical Studies, xxxix, no. 154 (November 2014), pp 272-95.
Charles Townshend, Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion (London, 2006).