“Beware of the Risen People, that have harried and held, Ye that have bullied and bribed.” The words graffiti-ed on the wall are by Patrick Henry Pearse, who was executed in Kilmainham Gaol for his part in the Easter Rising.
Arriving at Dublin Airport in the early hours of the morning on a flight from London back in December 2011, I was more than excited to set out and explore the lively capital of the Republic of Ireland, which is famous amongst beer lovers for Guinness, and for literary fans, the home of James Joyce, William Butler Yeats and George Bernard Shaw. Indeed, Dublin seems to be the perfect European city where travellers would go on a pub crawl and down a couple of pints, before or after — or both before and after — paying homage at museums and centres dedicated to their literary idols. While pub crawling and poetry exploration are quintessential Dublin experiences, I secretly harboured more ambition. What else did Dublin have in store for this history buff? Fortunately for me, it didn’t take long before the opportunity to delve into a less-explored aspect of this over 1,000-year-old city presented itself – and a story about courage, loyalty and unity unfolded.
Nearly a century ago in April 1916, the city of Dublin was the focal point for the Easter Rising, which is arguably the defining point in the battle for Irish independence. At that time, the United Kingdom (England prior to 1707) had successfully controlled the political and social life of the Irish for nearly eight centuries. On Easter Monday of 1916, 1,600 republican rebels, intent on ending British rule in Ireland once and for all, seized several key buildings in the city and declared an independent Ireland — much to the surprise of the British. Rebel joy was short lived, however. British reinforcements soon arrived to wrestle Dublin back from the revolutionaries, who eventually lost and surrendered. The leaders of the rebellion were then executed in May that year, less than a month after the rising. Despite the setback, the next two decades of politicking and civil unrest saw Ireland succeed in winning full independence in 1937 – even though many who took part in the uprising did not live to see their dream of an independent Ireland fulfilled.
Today’s Dublin is certainly a much more peaceful place than the events of Easter 1916, but several key buildings in the Easter Rising are still around, which allow visitors to Dublin to walk in the footsteps of the Irish rebels who first made their stand in the spring of 1916. I started off my Dublin journey by visiting the General Post Office (affectionately known as “the GPO”) on O’Connoll Street, where rebel leaders James Connolly and Padraig Pearce set up their headquarters, hoisted the Irish tricolour and read out their famous Proclamation of the Republic. Unfortunately, much of the post office was destroyed when the British routed the republican rebels, although the building was later rebuilt and its function restored. As I entered the GPO, I could see people going about their daily business, but at the same time, I could not help but notice a plaque that commemorates the rising, as well as a statue depicting the death of the mythical hero Cúchulainn. There may scarce be any link between the two, but to me the remarkable story of the bloody resistance here was subtly accorded the same importance as a celebrated character famed for his battle heroics.
I then hopped onto the Luas (or “speed” in Irish) tram and headed west to Collins Barracks. The buildings here were home to British and Irish soldiers for nearly three centuries. Indeed, during the uprising in 1916, it was here where the British successfully dispatched soldiers from the barracks to fight the revolutionaries. These days, the buildings been converted to the Decorative Arts and History branch of the National Museum of Ireland. During my self-exploration of the museum, I came across the exhibition of the Easter Rising told in the context of the social, economic and cultural background in mind. It was here that I found myself in front of an original copy of the Proclamation of the Republic, as well as the beautifully-illuminated “Book of the Resurrection” that commemorates the history of the struggle for freedom. With a better understanding of Irish history and the momentous event, I felt appreciative of the efforts of ordinary Irish men and women who fought for what they believed in, and in the process, helped shape the Dublin and Ireland of today.
My last stop was Kilmainham Gaol, one of Europe’s most notorious prison buildings. Built in 1796 by the British, the detention facility had played an important part in Irish history — many leaders of Irish rebellions were imprisoned here, with some executions carried out. Indeed, it was here that rebel leaders such as Padraig Pearse, James Connolly and Joseph Plunkett were executed. In the case of Plunkett, his execution came just hours after his marriage to Grace Gifford in the prison’s chapel. Walking through the narrow halls of the prison on a specialised guided tour, the claustrophobic passageways and dark cells were unnerving and fascinating all at once. I could not help but imagine how conditions were like during the 19th and early 20th century, when rebel leaders who fought hard for independence met with a martyr’s end. It would be fair to say that the prison tour led me thinking about the meaning of freedom and to further hours of reflecting about the history of the city and what the decades of struggle meant to the people of Ireland.
Almost as soon as I started the day to explore the history of the uprising, my day ended as the tour proceeded out into the courtyard of the prison. We were taken to the spot where the rebel leaders were executed — a corner of the prison with rubble lying below a high wall, where a solitary flagpole sprouted like a spire from the rubble flying the Irish tricolour proudly in the cold December sky. As we examined the surroundings, my guide ended by sharing her personal hope that, as with the rebels who fought the British, the people of Ireland may be united and strong once again. Nobody can tell when or whether Ireland will see that day, but whatever it may be, I am glad that the travel experience that I chose provided me the rare opportunity to explore this lesser-known side of Dublin. My personal hope for the future would be that visitors to the Emerald Island can take some time beyond the eclectic sights in Dublin to soak in this significant part of Irish history and draw upon the lessons of the past. Someday I’ll definitely be back here to experience and ponder over again.