A Letter From Ireland – October 2015

Lucky seven? No question! Irish author and historian Paul O’Brien has hit it big…again. His seventh volume, each centred on the run-up to and the action surrounding Ireland’s 1916 Rebellion, recently hit bookshop shelves with justifiable acclaim. Entitled Battleground: The Battle for the General Post Office, 1916, it focuses on the men and women of the Irish Volunteers, Irish Citizen Army, Cumann na mBán [women volunteers] and Fianna Éireann [Irish boy scouts] who occupied battalion headquarters during that six-day conflict. In holding the iconic GPO in Sackville Street [today O’Connell Street] during Easter Week 1916, those brave souls, totalling a force of some three to four-hundred, faced the daunting task of holding off a portion of Britain’s great military empire.
Led by a somewhat introverted schoolmaster, poet and Gaelic intellectual Pádraig Henry Pearse and a dyed-in-the wool labour leader and self-avowed socialist James Connolly, much of Dublin’s rebel garrison mustered in front of Liberty Hall, Connolly’s union headquarters in Beresford Place, hard by the great Custom House. That fateful date was Easter Monday morning, 24 April 1916.
In his opening to the book, O’Brien paints the scene well. Dressed in an odd collection of military garb and civilian attire, the somewhat puzzled Irish combatants “…were armed with a variety of weapons, including rifles, revolvers, shotguns and automatic pistols.”
It was only then that the Volunteers’ speculation became reality and the full intent of their assemblage was realised.
As the action of Easter Week unfolds, the author deftly depicts a picture of an ill-prepared and poorly equipped insurgency that hurriedly begins fighting with increased determination and heightened patriotic fervour. Unfortunately, their foe, initially caught unawares, quickly rallies to engulf the rebels by sheer force of numbers and overwhelming military kit.
Battleground concludes the research and writing endeavour that Paul O’Brien set out for himself seven years ago. Intent on explaining and detailing the major events surrounding the 1916 Rebellion, he launched his ambitious scheme with Blood on the Streets: 1916 & the Battle for Mount Street Bridge in 2008. This volume was soon followed by Uncommon Valour: 1916 & the Battle for the South Dublin Union, my personal favourite, if I had to choose.
At this point, O’Brien faced the unexpected dilemma of having to change publishers. In a decision, I’m sure Mercier Press would soon regret, New Ireland Press stepped in and gladly assumed the publishing duties for Paul’s future works. Thus, in 2012, New Ireland published the military historian’s next volume as part of their 1916 in Focus series. Titled Crossfire: The Battle of the Four Courts, 1916, Eoin Purcell, the series editor, stated that with the growing plethora of new books centred on the Rebellion and the ensuing War of Independence, there’d be a likelihood that “…particular aspects of the Rising will be lost. [Thus], this series, 1916 in Focus, [brings the reader] short, accessible and informative books on very specific aspects of the Rising or individual events as an attempt to ensure [that] does not happen.”
With increased fervour, O’Brien completes Field of Fire: The Battle of Ashbourne, 1916 also in 2012, and just a year later, his new press publishes Shootout: The Battle for St Stephen’s Green, 1916.
At this point, the author takes a step back. In 2014, he completed A Question of Duty: The Curragh Incident, 1914. In this 164-page volume, he details one of the major political events of Anglo-Irish history that eventually helps trigger Dublin’s 1916 insurrection.
Finally, Battleground, his concluding 1916 piece, closes the circle on events surrounding the Rising. It’s a day-by-day accounting of events transpiring in and around Pearse and Connolly’s military headquarters, the GPO.
In O’Brien’s own words, “For seven days, [Ireland’s] newly proclaimed republic fought a week-long bloody engagement with British Crown Forces as part of the 1916 Rising that would see hundreds die and Dublin city reduced to rubble after an intensive artillery bombardment.”
Transported back in time, a hundred years, the reader experiences life as it was during that remarkable week. “As they opened the doors, the air outside was thick with smoke from the burning buildings and the smell of cordite from the British guns.”
Then, as the week dragged on, “Sackville Street burned throughout the evening. At 19.30 hours, the facade of the Waverly Hotel collapsed into the street, followed soon after by Hopkins and Hopkins. The DBC and Reis’s followed suit; the walls of flames, the acrid smoke and the noise of the crumbling buildings being ripped from the city’s skyline.”
O’Brien frequently uses first-hand written accounts of persons who experienced the conflict. One man, Charles Saurin, graphically states, “The men were soot-stained, steam-scalded and fire-scorched, sweating, weary and parched.”
In conclusion, O’Brien writes, “As the final shots echoed throughout the stonebreakers [sic] yard in Kilmainham Gaol, the blood sacrifice of those who participated in the Rising elevated a minor military encounter into an epic battle for Irish freedom.”
Of those many historians working today, Paul O’Brien is one of a handful who is able to distil history into clear, understandable and readable prose. Copies of his works are available in Irish bookshops and via the internet. Pick up one of his books and you’ll see what I mean.
In keeping with this 1916 theme, I owe Enda Kenny and his Government an apology. I was very impressed with its initial 1916-2016 event: The State Commemoration of the Funeral of O’Donovan Rossa 01.08.15. It, combined with Sinn Féin’s re-enactment later in the day, can be view in their entireties on YouTube.
In addition, the Government, in conjunction with the Glasnevin Trust, has created a commemorative booklet reproducing the original 1915 O’Donovan Rossa funeral pamphlet with period photographs and letters of tribute from such notables as Arthur Griffith, James Connolly, Thomas MacDonagh, O’Leary Curtis and P.H. Pearse himself. Entitled Souvenir of Public Funeral to Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, August 1st 1915, it’s a complete accounting and is fully illustrated…a true collector’s treasure. My thanks to Dublin’s Ronnie Daly. Slán, Cathal

2 Responses to “A Letter From Ireland – October 2015”

  1. Daniel Mc Laughlin says:

    Dear Cathal,

    Having read several of Paul’s books, I can’t wait to continue reading the remainder. I totally agree with your comments that he is one of the few historians that make his works clear, understandable and readable. I would like to add that his turn of phrase is typical of a great storyteller in true Irish tradition.

    With kind regards,


    • cathalladmin says:

      Daniel, I’ll be sure to pass along your thoughts to Paul. He’s in the process of finishing a book on the Auxies. It should be out soon. My best, Cathal

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