Our lives are full of choices. Every day we face them – some small and trivial and others that change lives. If we’re lucky (or unlucky as the case may be) some even change the course of history – and it is important to acknowledge those choices with the gravitas they deserve. The North of Ireland is about to have one of those game-changing elections and it needs to be carefully considered because the next few decades and any remaining scraps of the Good Friday agreement are just the beginning of what’s at stake.
Reading headlines from Ireland over the last few weeks was strange because I could have sworn I’d read them before…and I have. Hunger Strike commemorations, anger over parades, riot police protecting interlopers over residents, arson fires at community centers, the birth of new political parties, and spies in the IRA have dominated the media of late. The anger, frustration, and general sense of “what the fxck” that came with it all was a bit stronger in the last couple of weeks than it has been in much of the last few decades. The pictures, headlines, and videos gave me a sense of foreboding and a lingering confusion which kind of felt like I was having a bad flashback. Unfortunately, that was not the case.
Well, not in this life anyway. (Yet) 98 years ago, on Easter Monday, a big thing began in Dublin. I cannot help but feel that I was there in some form or another – in a different life – because how else could I explain the connection I have to Ireland in general and that time in particular? The entire time I was there, I had a never-ending sense of deja-vu and since I have been back, I have longed every day and dreamed every night of the emerald isle. I’m even learning Irish – and it drives me bonkers every day – but I cannot stop.
So this Easter to celebrate the Rising, I am wearing an Easter Lily for Ireland’s patriot dead and I added the GPO into the Atlas Obscura lexicon. It was all I could do, since I am on the wrong continent today. It is a lonely place in my head and heart – standing alone amongst the people I know in the things and the history that is so vital to who I am and learning a language that I have no one to speak it with. Still…as the fiddles play on the stereo and I watch Gerry Adams give a speech to the commemorative crowd in Dublin, I know in my heart that I found a home – and continue to explore it every day – even from too great a distance. And as he said this morning, “If this were 19 and 16, we would all be in the GPO”. I know I would, I think I was …and I will be again for the 100 year anniversary.
I repeat and expand on the Atlas entry here too…because of a deep love of the Irish Nationalist history and the fact that today is the day to celebrate the one place in all the world that I’d be OK with being labeled a Republican.
The General Post Office in Dublin on O’Connell street is the headquarters of the Irish Postal Service and a bustling hub of activity, but every Easter Monday it becomes a symbol of Irish revolution and a somber place of remembrance.
Dublin was still under British rule in 1916, when seven unlikely revolutionaries hatched a plan for an armed uprising during the Easter holiday. They were a headmaster, a poet, a tobacco enthusiast, a philosopher and more – just ordinary men who had grown weary of the boot on their necks. They were born of desperation and idealism – sure that all they had to do was begin before their whole country stood with them. In secret, they wrote a Proclamation of Independence and chose strategic sites in downtown Dublin for their Rising, including the post office along the main thoroughfare of the city. They felt that once the revolution began the people of Ireland would rise with them and they assumed that the British would not destroy their own property in retaliation. They were mistaken on all counts.
The Rising had its problems from the beginning. Due to a split in leadership and miscommunications, even the date was confused. When the fighting didn’t begin on Easter as many thought, much needed would-be reinforcements turned around and went home. Despite this, the planned takeovers of government buildings began on Easter Monday, and the destruction of a large portion of Dublin shortly followed.
The general post office, or GPO, was the headquarters of the revolution. The men took over the GPO – not harming anyone who was there but not leaving either. Here the Irish flag was raised and the Proclamation was recited loudly, by Padraig Pearse to the jeers and complaints of the citizenry who just wanted to post their mail. When the British began to shell the area with heavy artillery, the complaints grew louder. The post office was eventually set on fire and mostly destroyed, along with many of the buildings around it. In the end, the British army had no qualms about destroying most of downtown Dublin to defeat the upstarts in the GPO.
The Easter Rising only had to last for 3 days to have a chance, because of an agreement with Germany. The German government had promised that if they could last 3 days, the question of Irish independence would be put on a global platform. Unfortunately, it was Germany…in the middle of World War 1 and well, the Irish rebels chose poorly in their ally in this matter. Still, the Rising lasted for 6 days – with less than 500 volunteer fighters against the might of the British Army. It would likely have been a mere footnote in history, but for the fact that all seven signatories and on the Proclamation and many others were then tried in secret and executed by the Crown, at which point they became martyrs to Irish freedom. Their short-lived fight eventually led to Ireland’s independence and the leaders are revered to this day. Decades later, their proclamation is located in many Irish government buildings including the GPO and on countless memorials. It is read every year on Easter Monday at the renovated post office by a member of the Irish Defense Forces.
An Easter Lily is worn by Nationalists to symbolize the rising – and it too can be found everywhere in Ireland – in statues, memorials, Northern Irish murals and on countless lapels throughout the country and the world. No one honors their history or their martyrs like the Irish.
All that remains of the original GPO is the beautiful Georgian facade. The facade has its own visible scars of bullet holes, cracks and mortar damage that stand in mute testimony to the history of Irish Nationalism. It is a powerful place for anyone who enjoys history and it brought tears to my eyes. It is still one of the busiest post offices in all of Ireland and it houses a permanent exhibition of its role in the Rising called Letters, Lives and Liberty. Every year on Easter Monday, a wreath is laid outside the General Post Office, parades honor Ireland’s patriot dead the Proclamation is read to commemorate the men and women who fought in 1916.