A HUNDRED years ago on Easter Monday began a short, futile and unpopular insurrection in Dublin against British rule. Though it ended in inevitable failure within a week, British over-reaction would sow crucial seeds that eventually led to a partial Irish Free State, five years later. This is why the commemorations in Dublin this week are so big and why as a schoolboy many years ago I was taught to revere the Proclamation of Independence as read out on the steps of the Dublin General Post Office in 1916.
But the teaching of Irish history was not a cool, dispassionate thing at least not the version I got from blinkered Christian Brothers. I have written how the Black and Tans who featured prominently in the War of Independence in 1920-1921 were not evil as their reputation would suggest. So with the help of the wonderful Bureau of Military History, I decided to check out eye-witness testimony of 1916. Most of the leaders were executed before they could leave their memories but a search of “GPO” brought me quickly to the testimony of Diarmuid Lynch, who is little known, but a key participant during the rising in Dublin and someone who survived until 1950.
Lynch was a member of the Supreme Council of the Irish Republication Brotherhood and a later member of Dail Eireann. Born in Ireland in 1878, he emigrated to America as a young man where he became an influential member of the Gaelic League promoting the Irish language. When he returned home in 1907, he was contacted by the IRB and took on a leadership role in Cork. As the Irish Volunteers rose to face the threat of the Ulster Volunteers in 1913, he went back to the US on a fundraising mission and was away during the “split” where more radical members of the council decided on military action against England during the First World War.
When he returned again in 1915, Lynch allied with the insurgents and was aware of secret plans for the uprising under Patrick Pearse’s leadership. As an American citizen he had to register as a “Friendly Alien”. His job was to secure a port, initially Ventry Harbour and later Fenit in Kerry for an arms landing. In early 1916 planning for an Easter rising was well advanced. Pearce gave Lynch his orders “to hold the (Cork) County to the south of the Boggeragh mountains – left flank contacting the Kerry Brigade which was to extend eastwards from Tralee; Limerick was to contact the Kerry men on the south and those of Limerick – Clare – Galway to the north. Limerick, Clara and Galway were to hold the line of the Shannon to Athlone”.
However events would throw Lynch directly into the action in Dublin during Easter Week. In the paranoia before the Rising, none of the leaders would confirm it was happening. From his appearances at the delightfully named “Committee for Manholes” during April led by Sean McDermott, Lynch was convinced a Rising was planned for Easter Sunday. On Good Friday he lunched with McDermott who gave him sketches for the planned attack on the South Dublin Union, Four Courts, and Jacobs and Bolands factories. Lynch notified three other revolutionary leaders, Eamonn Ceannt, Thomas MacDonagh and fellow American Eamon De Valera.
On Easter Monday, Lynch and Jim O’Neill put together a “necklace of gelignite” in Liberty Hall for the manhole in front of the Dame Street entrance to Dublin Castle. He then reported for service at the GPO which had been commandeered by Volunteers. Lynch’s first job was to help smash the door and glass partition which separated the Public Office from the Primary Sorting Office. Then he led a group which manned and barricaded the front and side windows.
At 12.45pm the following day (Tuesday), Lynch was ordered out as part of a bodyguard for Pearse to the centre of O’Connell Street opposite the main entrance to the GPO. Standing on an improvised elevation, Pearse read the “Manifesto to the assembled citizens of Dublin”. Within a half hour a regiment of British Lancers arrived, forcing the rebels back inside the GPO. There they looked through official communications from RIC headquarters which spied on Volunteer activities, but which failed to predict the Rising.
On Tuesday afternoon, Lawrence’s shop diagonally across from the GPO was set ablaze by looters and a large crowd assembled in O’Connell Street. Lynch told James Connolly about the fire danger that threatened their position at the corner of Earl Street. Connolly ordered Lynch and George Plunkett to take a squad to stop the fire from spreading and compel the looters to cease. The Fire Brigade arrived and Volunteers raised the wires strung across O’Connell St that morning to enable the fire engines to get close to the burning building. A man and woman on the top of the building seemed intent on jumping to the street to avoid the flames, the Volunteers fired their pistols to force the crowd back and let the firemen get to work.
On Wednesday morning Connolly ordered Lynch to take men and bore through the south wall of the GPO Henry Street end and then continue through the adjacent buildings until they met Frank Henderson’s men operating from the Coliseum. Contact was soon made. Returning to General Connolly he joked “We captured three English Generals” and after a moment’s pause added: “We got them in the waxworks”. Lynch said there was a flicker of a smile across Connolly’s face.
On Wednesday night Lynch was sent to inspect the position held by men under Liam Cullen on the second floor overlooking Henry Street. “They were quietly alert at their posts and especially watchful lest some of the enemy might have come over the roofs from Parnell Street from which they could have enfiladed our positions,” Lynch reported. His men shot out the glaring electric amps that still overhung Henry Street about 1am.On Friday MacDermott ordered Lynch to get a few men and transfer any surplus bombs and explosive materials from the upper building into the basement.
About daybreak MacDermott asked him to carry word to the outposts in O’Neill’s (corner of Liffey and Henry Streets), Lucas’s shop and the old Independent House on Middle Abbey Street, ordering retirement to the GPO. Proceeding through Williams Lane and Abbey Street he knocked at Independent House but the men not knowing who was there did not answer. “Those in Lucas’s, directly opposite, saw me: I crossed and gave them the order, Regressing to Independent House I was admitted,” he said.
He advanced on the south side of Liffey Street where he was spotted by a British garrison. He sped away back to the GPO via Abbey Street where all the recalled men lined up in the GPO yards and roll call showed only one missing – Sean Milroy. “But as Sean was said to have known every nook and cranny in the neighbourhood it was felt he would return in due course,” Lynch said. And Milroy did return. MacDermott and Clarke congratulated Lynch on his work and for three hours he enjoyed his first sleep of the week, on a mattress in the hospital section. Lynch became conscious of cannons booming knowing a shell would bring instant death but he somehow slept on. The booming increased but no shell struck the rear of the GPO.
Before resuming duty, Lynch permitted himself the luxury of a shave. British gunners soon had their range and the roof caught fire. To stop a frontal attack Lynch ordered his men to fill sacks with coal and build an L-shaped barricade midway on the floor. The flames ate their way through the glass roof of the cupola. While the garrison assembled in the General Sorting Room pending final evacuation, the fires spread along the Henry Street side of the roof. Sparks were coming down the open air-shaft to the basement near the explosives storeroom which had no door. MacDermott despatched men to fetch a fire hose. When this arrived The O’Rahilly temporarily put the fire out.
Lynch ordered 30 men to stack their arms and transfer the munitions to the Princes Street side to avoid an explosion. The O’Rahilly noted their prisoners (a British officer, privates and some DMP men) were in a room at the other side of the underground corridor endangered by the fire. Lynch told Connolly who told him to shift them to the rear of the General Sorting Room under guard.
At the subsequent court martial the British Officer testified he and his fellow prisoners had been “left to die like rats in a trap”. Lynch said their detention in the basement was temporary pending evacuation of the GPO and they were quickly moved once the explosives were removed. Lynch had his men soak mail bags in water and spread them over the explosive materials with the help of Harry Boland. Meanwhile the evacuation had been completed so Lynch may have been the last man to leave the GPO “which was a matter of no consequence as I view it,” he said. On reaching Henry street and crossing into Henry Place he saw rebel forces near a dead volunteer, killed by friendly fire (he had been shot by the discharge of a comrade’s gun during an attempt to break the door with its butt).
Then he met Pearse who ordered him to take half a dozen men, break into O’Brien’s and cross the roofs to Moore Street to avoid running the gauntlet of machine-gun fire down Moore Lane. From O’Brien’s roof they stepped across an open air-shaft and into the next building. They were blocked by a laneway and exited through a window on the groundfloor into Henry Place and proceeded to Moore Street where they entered a corner building. They bored through the walls with pieces of iron with slow progress to Henry Street. The men were exhausted from lack of sleep but took turns to bore the walls and barricade the windows.
The flames from the GPO spread across Henry street pushing towards them. At daybreak on Saturday Lynch reported his situation to GHQ and got orders to join the main body at Moore Street. Connolly was badly wounded and the only enemy force they could fire on was the barricade at Parnell and Moore Streets while they were pinned down with fire. Lynch saw one desperate chance to escape, via “a bayonet charge from the yard abutting Sackville Lane against the enemy sand bag barricade located 50 yards away”. Lynch passed word to officers to line 50 men up in the yard with rifles and bayonets.
Lynch told Pearse his plan but the commandant refused. Pearse told him negotiations had been opened with the British Command. Lynch could not go back to the yard to tell the men the decision, instead he went to talk with MacDermott who said Connolly was being taken on a stretcher to meet the British commander. MacDermott told Lynch to discard his Sam Brown and pistol and accompany the Connolly stretcher party.
Lynch unhesitatingly stepped out to the sidewalk and two British officers in Riddall’s beckoned him to advance. The party was searched, which Lynch protested on the ground they were under a flag of truce and “the search was a reflection on our honour as Irish soldiers”. In Lynch’s pocket tunic they found loose pistol ammunition which he had overlooked. Then, surrounded by a heavy armed guard the party advanced to the Parnell Monument before being ordered to Dublin Castle.
In the Upper Castle Yard Lynch asked Connolly if he had any message to send thinking they would be sent back to Moore St. He said no and the party were marched off to Ship Street Barracks. They never saw Connolly again. Lynch protested their detention as prisoners but they were kept there overnight. Next morning his request to be returned was denied and on Sunday afternoon around 25-30 prisoners were marched off to Kilmainham. There a warder unceremoniously cuffed and pushed them through the doorway. Lynch’s protest against such treatment of “prisoners of war” was answered by a baton on the jaw.
The jailers vented their spleen against the new prisoners with sneers, threats and provocation. One stole Lynch’s pig-skin gaiters. An inquisition was afoot in an adjoining room where British officers demanded the name of each prisoner, his rank, position during the fight and the name of his commanding officer. Lynch insisted his men not answer the questions. The inquisition ceased and they were marched off to the disused rooms of the old prison infirmary. Early on Wednesday morning they were awakened by peculiar noises which Lynch wondered were the sound of volleys. Later they found out three leaders had been executed. Three more followed Thursday morning. That day all prisoners in the hospital were transferred to Richmond Barracks, several hundred prisoners (including many from country districts who had not participated in the Rising) were lined up in the barrack square for deportation to England, the rumour ran.
Lynch found himself with de Valera, Count Plunkett, John O’Mahony, Laurence O’Neill, and others. De Valera was taken and did not return. Lynch asked a guard to request his sister-to-law bring along a suit of ordinary clothes next day. “This he delivered to me and the following day took out a parcel which contained my uniform coat, breeches, shirt and tie. These mementos of Easter Week I still possess,” Lynch said. He dispatched a note to the American Consul requesting he be present at a courtmartial.
On Thursday May 18, the court decision was announced to Lynch at Kilmainham. He was sentenced to be shot – and then the further information this was commuted to 10 years penal servitude. Lynch was sent to Pentonville prison in England and released on June 16, 1917. Back in Ireland he helped fellow rebel Michael Collins reorganise the IRB, and he was arrested again in 1918 for seizing pigs in Dublin bound for Britain. A balled “The Pig Push” was named in his honour. He was deported to America and became a TD in absentia for Cork South East in the first Dail.
Lynch fell out with De Valera over strategy in America and resigned his seat in 1920. He stayed away during the War of Independence and subsequent Civil War. In 1933 he returned to County Cork. He contributed greatly to the work of the Bureau of Military History in the late 1940s not just with his own detailed testimony but in collecting witness statements from those who had taken part in the War of Independence and in reviewing historical publications. He ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 1944 and died in 1950 aged 78. As he said about one of his accusers “thank God he and his ilk have passed into the limbo of forgotten things.” Alas the same may have happened to Lynch, but his testimony at the BMH shines on.