THE LAST STAND ON MOORE STREET
12.30pm, Saturday 29 April 1916. As Seán MacDiarmada looked out the window at the three elderly men lying dead on the footpath, still clutching their white flags, he told those with him that this was why Patrick Pearse was right. ‘We must surrender to save the lives of the citizens.’
It had been just over 16 hours since MacDiarmada, Pearse and the other surviving member of the GPO garrison had staggered into the houses on Moore Street to make their last stand. The exit from the GPO had been crushing and many fine men had fallen to the British guns.
And yet staying in the GPO was not an option. The building had been on fire since Friday afternoon and there was no water to douse the flames. Moreover, while Pearse sized up the situation, James Connolly, the rebellions military leader, was suffering a mortally gangrenous ankle wound. It was only a matter of time before the British overpowered the building.
At 8pm on Friday evening, with darkness falling fast, Pearse assembled the GPO garrison in the smoke-filled hall and instructed them to load up as much food and ammunition as possible and to make their way to a new position at the William and Woods’ factory in Great Britain (now Parnell Street).
Among those listening to Pearse was Michael Rahilly (The O’Rahilly), a co-founder of the Irish Volunteers. Despite his personal opposition to the Rising, he had joined the rebels as soon as he learned it was underway, arriving in his De Dion-Bouton motorcar on Easter Monday with the majestic words, ‘I helped wind this clock and I’ve come to hear it strike.’
Shortly after Pearse finished his address, The O’Rahilly took a group of men out of a side entrance of the GPO in an attempt to clear the way. Holding his sword in front of him, he led his men ‘at the double’ up Henry Street but as they rounded Moore Street they found themselves confronted by a barricade, constructed across the top of Great Britain (now Parnell) Street, by Sergeant Major Samuel Lomas of the Sherwood Forresters and a dozen fellow British soldiers. The soldiers had made the barricade by raiding the nearby butcher’s shop of Messrs Simpson and Wallace, taking the butcher’s block, as well as bedding, bedsteads, wardrobes, mattresses and an armchair in which Lomas had briefly managed to get some shut-eye.
An alert British machine-gunner from Lomas’s company spotted O’Rahilly’s group and opened fie. Among the Volunteers who died in the ensuing hail of bullets were Dublin hurler Harry Coyle, Kerry wireless operator Patrick Shortis, Rathfarnham hairdresser Francis Macken and Glasgow-born tailor Charlie Carrigan.
This was also to be The O’Rahilly’s last hurrah. Riddled with lead, he managed to crawl into the doorway of Leahy Brothers Public House at the corner of Moore Street and Sackville Lane (now O’Rahilly Parade) where he scribbled a poignant letter to his wife ‘dear Nancy’, sending ‘tons & tons of love dearie to you & the boys & to Nell & Anna. It was a good fight anyhow … Goodbye Darling’. He died in the doorway some hours later, thus becoming the most senior member of the Irish Volunteers to die in action. As he awaited his execution the following week, Patrick Pearse reputedly said, ‘I envy O’Rahilly – that is the way I wanted to die.’
O’Rahilly’s mission had failed but, as the flames began to engulf the GPO, the men inside were compelled to take their chances. The prisoners they had held since Easter Monday were released and the garrison then exited in small groups. According to volunteer Eamon Bulfin it was ‘every man for himself’ as the Volunteers crossed Henry Street into Henry Place under heavy fire.
Pearse and Connolly were among the last to leave, with the latter, unable to walk, being carried out on a stretcher. Nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell, a member of Cumann na mBan who was serving with the GPO garrison, recalled how Pearse ‘went around to see that no one was left behind. We immediately preceded him, bullets raining from all quarters as we rushed to Moore Lane.’
As she ran, Nurse O’Farrell tripped. A man galloped out of a house on the corner of Moore Lane and Moore Street and hauled her inside.
Other volunteers took refuge in the narrow houses that ran alongside either side of Moore Street. Some began to bore and sledgehammer their way through the internal walls so that they might proceed up the street unexposed to British fire.
The occupants of one house refused to open up until a Volunteer put his gun to the door and shot off the lock. When they got inside, they discovered the gun blast had killed an old man within.
Oscar Traynor recalled bursting into another house on Moore Street ‘where we were met by a little family – an old man, a young woman and her children – cowering into the corner of a room, apparently terrified’. The old man was determined to get his daughter and grandchildren out of harm’s way. Despite Traynor’s warning, he advanced out onto Moore Street waving a large white sheet. His bullet-riddled body still lay where he fell, wrapped in the sheet, when Traynor went outside for the formal surrender.
Elsewhere a Volunteer was killed when he tried to burst open a door on Henry Place with a loaded rifle that appears to have backfired.
The leadership itself managed to barricade themselves into a row of houses on Moore Street, believed to have been No’s 14-17, with No. 16 – a fish and poultry shop belonging to Seamus Scully – being their main stronghold.
It should be added that historians Ann Mathews and Charles Townshend have expressed reservations that these were the houses where the leaders holed up. According to an eyewitness statement by volunteer Liam Tannam, they occupied either Kelly’s fish shop at 24/25 Moore Street, or the house next door, while Oscar Traynor maintained they were above Hanlon’s fish shop at 20/21 Moore Street.
Whichever house it was, Pearse, MacDiarmada, Tom Clarke and even Joe Plunkett were in better shape than their fellow Proclamation signatory Connolly who was now lying in agony on a mattress. Seventeen Volunteers had been wounded during the dash from the GPO and Nurse O’Farrell spent that long Friday night tending to them, listening to ‘the roar of burning buildings, machine guns playing [and] hand grenades’.
She would later recall a curiously poignant moment when a wounded British soldier who they had taken prisoner asked Pearse to help make him a little more comfortable on the bed where he lay. The soldier put his arms around Pearse’s neck while the commandant gently moved him.
However, with Dublin burning all around him and civilian and Volunteer casualties continuing to mount, Pearse summoned his last ‘council of war’ on Saturday morning and voiced his intention to surrender.
He may have felt compelled to act after witnessing three unarmed, elderly men on Moore Street being scythed down by a machine gun, despite the fact that all three were carrying white flags. Pearse later told the Wexford rebel leader Seamus Doyle that he had only surrendered because the British were ‘shooting women and children in the streets’.
All of the remaining leaders agreed with his decision except for Clarke who wanted to fight on.
At 12:45pm, armed with a hastily made Red Cross insignia, Nurse O’Farrell stepped out onto Moore Street and waved a white flag. The guns stopped and in that eerie silence she advanced towards Lomas’s barricade, noticing The O’Rahilly’s hat and revolver on the ground as she did so.
At length, she delivered her message: ‘The Commandant of the Irish Republican Army wishes to treat with the Commandant of the British Forces in Ireland.’
She was then taken to Tom Clarke’s newsagent shop (now Londis) on the corner of Parnell and O’Connell Streets where she met with Brigadier General Lowe who advised her that any surrender must be unconditional. As she returned to Moore Street, she saw The O’Rahilly’s body lying in the doorway of Leahy’s pub.
At 2:30pm, Pearse formally surrendered his sword to Lowe near Lomas’s barricade. By early evening the remnant of the GPO garrison had filed out onto Moore Street and lined up in fours under the belief that they were surrendering as prisoners of war. As they were marched into captivity, some of the Moore Street women are said to have pelted them with rotten vegetables and the contents of their chamber pots.
All that remained now was to let the other garrisons around the city know of the surrender and Elizabeth O’Farrell was once again drafted in to help.
Within 24 hours, the Easter Rising was over.
With many thanks to: Easter Rising War of Independence and Irish Civil war History.