Seizing the GPO in 1916 made military sense

The 1916 leaders seized what would have been today the country's vital telecommunications centre - in a strategic and sophisticated plan close off British lines of command and allow the Irish rebellion to succeed, writes Peter Berresford Ellis

MANY TIMES in this column I have pointed out that 'revisionism', which I would preferably call 'neo-colonial historiography', is still thriving. It ranges from the blatant to the subtle.

One of the most bizarre examples of the blatant was when historian Dr Brendan O'Shea justified the murder of Cork's elected Lord Mayor, Tomás Mac Curtain, in 1920 by the British crown forces because he was a 'legitimate target'. Additionally, Dr O'Shea explained that the burning of Cork City in December, 1920, by those same British crown forces, was inevitable because the city was sheltering 'terrorists'. Those who watched Dr O'Shea's performance on the RTÉ documentary, The Burning of Cork City, broadcast last November, must have been slightly bemused.

As this year the Irish state commemorates the 90th anniversaryof the Easter Insurrection of 1916, the event thateventually brought the Irish state into being, the 'revisionists' are out in force.

Many have lauded a new book, Easter 1916: the Irish rebellion by Charles Townshend (Penguin). The University of Keele's history professor's work is fairly predictable.

These days the garbage about 'blood sacrifice' has been thankfully muted. One remembers the rubbish, so long preached, about the insurgents going out with the purpose to make martyrs of themselves. These days, the 'revisionists' have turned to new criticisms to denigrate the insurgent leaders.

Professor Townshend is content to call the strategists of 1916 'muddled' planners and claim they 'botched' the insurrection. That they went out fully knowing that they did not have a chance of succeeding and therefore without adequate plans.

The idea that the leaders went out believing they would not be successful does seem to hark back to the 'blood sacrifice' rubbish. In April, 1991, the Irish Democrat published its 75th anniversary supplement. This columnist dealt with several of the myths then current and presented the corrective evidence to the myth of 'blood sacrifice'. The insurgents went out to win not to loose.

This column also dealt with the myth that the people of Dublin booed the insurgents as they were marched off to imprisonment or to their execution. Eyewitness accounts previously ignored put a lie to this. The majority of Dubliners actually cheered them.

It is not my intention to repeat the information in that article. But as to the charge that the leaders had not planned well, we find Professor Townshend claiming that instead of seizing a good strategic symbol like Dublin Castle as their headquarters, they chose the General Post Office in Sackville Street (now O'Connell Street) for reasons bestknown to themselves.

Oh dear! To someone claiming to know something about strategy and planning, those reasons should have been abundantly clear.

When one is staging a coup or an insurrection, what is the first objective to seize hold of? No prizes for answering. The first thing to go for is the country's communications centre - in recent times it would be radio and television stations. In other words, telecommunication centres. In1916 the General Post Office was the centre of communications in Ireland.

But let's deal first with why Dublin Castle was not a prime target to make it the insurgent headquarters. Dublin Castle may well have been a symbol of British rule in Ireland but it was not strategic. Desmond Ryan, in his book The Rising (1949) recounts that:

"Connolly had rejected the projectof capturing the Castle as not feasible, and not desirable, even if feasible: the place was well-guarded, it was a long and straggling collection of buildings difficult to defend and, moreover, there was a Red Cross hospital inside. The plan was to seal up the Castle by seizing the City Hall, the guard room in the Upper Castle Yard, the Evening Mail office and other buildings facing the gates."

This was certainly a logical plan from a very sound strategist as, indeed, James Connolly was. One only has to read his articles on revolutionary warfare. So, why make the General Post Office the insurgent headquarters? As I say, it was the centre of communications in Ireland.

I am surprised that in all the books written on 1916 no one seems to have turned toThe Post Office Electrical Engineers' Journal (Vol. IX, 1916) and quoted from an article by E Gomersall. Gomersall was the GPO's Superintending Engineer sent to Dublin to re-establish the communications system during the insurrection. He explained that the GPO building had been in the process of enlargement since 1904 and the work had been completed on March 6, 1915. The building housed not only the public offices but the Telegraph Instrument Room, Trunk Telephone Exchange, Sorting Offices, clerical offices of the Secretary Controller (Postal), Controller (Telegraphs) and other support offices. There was only a local exchange in nearby Crown Alley with an automatic exchange, which only have 4000 subscribers.

Reading some accounts of 1916 one would get the impression that the GPO was a simple building in which one bought stamps at the counter or sent off parcels. The communications equipment was vast and modern for its day and Gomersall lists it in fine and technical detail, also pointing out that while there were only 20 carrying wires on the roof, the bulk of the communication cables were brought into the building underground.

The GPO had its own central heating from three boilers in the basement, which housed a pneumatic power room, and there were two electric lifts in the building. Amazingly, the power plant and pipes were still intact when British engineers finally entered the GPO on 2 May but, the day after they took a photograph of the basement, the first floor collapsed due to artillery damage.

Unlike the straggling buildings comprising the Dublin Castle complex, the GPO was compact and more easily defendable, though, of course, not against artillery or heavy guns fired from warships steaming up the Liffey. Here, perhaps, is the one fault in planning, that many thought - perhaps hoped is a better term - that the British would not use artillery with such abandoned concern of civilian casualties, as they then did in what the London government maintained was a 'British' city.

However, from the strategic planning viewpoint, there was no building better suited for the headquarters of the insurgent forces. When the insurgents took control of the GPO on Monday, 24 April, just before noon, they immediately expelled the staff, the engineers and replaced them with their own men. Michael Collins himself had worked for the GPO and doubtless knew the systems.

Michael Staines led a detachment of insurgents to the Telegraph Instrument Room which was then evacuated by the female operators whose supervisors was a Scottish lady. Seven armed British soldiers commanded by a sergeant guarded the telegraphs. After Staines fired a shot, they surrendered. Significantly, the historians Caulfield, Foy and Barton all report that the Scottish supervisor asked if she could finish sending out some telegraph death notices before she left. Staines replied: "No. Some of my men will do that."

Thus it is clear that the insurgents did have trained telegraph operators with them. It is not known who took over the sending of the Declaration of the Irish Republic over the telegraph system. We know that the broadcast was picked up in England and several parts of Europe, also by Transatlantic ships which took the news to the USA.

We also know that Pearse ordered three insurgents, one of whom was a former signaller in the British Army, to assemble another transmitter in the Atlantic School of Wireless situated nearby and attempt further broadcasts.

Thus the primary task of any coup or insurrection was achieved. Communications were in the hands of the insurgents and immediately denied to the occupying forces. The British engineer Gomersall says:

"Telegraphic and trunk telephonic communications was essential for military purposes. New telephone circuits had to be provided for military purposes, and the local telephone system had to be maintained. Many members of the staff could not leave the vicinity of their homes. Many of those who could were unable to reach their normal places of duty."

The insurgents were in firm control of communications throughout Monday, April 24.

Gomesall continues:

"On Monday night, at 11 pm, when trunk telephonic communication was urgently needed, several men were sent by motor cycle and sidecar, supplied by the Chief Engineer, Irish Command, to points several miles outside Dublin. After midnight one important circuit was cut into on very high poles and diverted by means of subscribers' circuits into an exchange which was still in communication with the main exchange."

This was a means of getting military messages through but within a few hours the insurgents, having spotted this, cut the line.

"Linemen who went after the fault were threatened by the rebels and fired upon," says Gomersall. "The military headquarters were informed of the locality in which the rebels were, and in the evening it was possible to make good the wires. On the next morning, Wednesday, the rebels cut down the line again some miles further away from Dublin."

It is obvious that the insurgents knew what they were doing and Gomersall admits the telephone and telegraphic services between Ireland and Britain had been severed for a considerable time. Local lines, used for military and official purposes, "had also been cut down at a large number of place - evidently a characteristic feature of the operations of the rebels and the restoration of communication from these temporary offices had necessarily to be preceded by making good the external plant."

What is clear, dealing with 1916 from this aspect alone, is clear, level-headed planning by the insurgent forces. Certainly it is not that of the amateurish, muddled thinking of would-be martyrs that our 'revisionist' friends would like to make out.

Gomersall goes on to list all the damage done to communications. Main lines around Dublin were generally cut in two or three places. Telegraph poles were chopped down, wires cut, telegraph and telephone instruments were removed from offices, block and electric train staff instruments and telegraph and telephone apparatus in signal boxes were destroyed. Gomersall says he personally could name over 60 places where major equipment had been damaged in Dublin and the suburbs.

Even more astonishing, emerging from Gomersall's report, is the cutting of the underground telegraph and trunk telephone cables by insurgents who clearly knew what they were doing.

Gomersall admits:

"The provision of additional circuits for military purposes was a matter of much difficulty and unusual methods had to be employed... the provision and maintenance of the circuits during the rebellion was both difficult and dangerous..."

He says:

"On Tuesday, May 2, it became possible to ascertain the extent of the damage, to approach the Post office, and gradually to organise the work of restoration. The magnitude of the task was soon apparent. It was clear that a new telegraph office would have to be installed, and that this work would have to proceed simultaneously with the repair of cables and wires, the diversion of the wires to a new office, the diversion of trunk and telephone circuits to the local exchange and the restoration of block signal and telegraph wires on the railways and of the damaged local telephone circuits."

When Gomersall and his engineers moved into the GPO he found that British artillery had so destroyed it "only the shell of the building remained, and in places the débris was still burning and the surrounding ground was extremely hot".

It was not until Wednesday May 3 that a new temporary telegraph office had to be installed on the upper floor of the Parcels Office at Amiens Street pending reconstruction and it was not until Thursday, 11 May, that all the temporary systems were finally in place.

It seems there is still much to learn about the 1916 rising, even ninety years after the event.

<< | Up | >>

This document was last modified by David Granville on 2006-02-12 16:22:27.
Connolly Association, c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London, NW1 1JD
Copyright © 2006 Peter Berresford Ellis