Many people would claim in the decades that followed the Easter Rising that they were in the General Post Office, and in some cases such claims have proven untrue. One man who was there however, and who certainly wished to be anywhere else, was Second Lieutenant A.D Chalmers of the 14th Royal Fusiliers. Chalmers, who was on leave at the time, was going about his business in the General Post Office when the combined forces of the Irish Volunteers, Irish Citizen Army and other nationalist organisations came charging into the building. He had the total misfortune of becoming one of the first prisoners – if not the very first prisoner – of the newly declared Irish Republic.
There are references to Chalmers and his fellow prisoners in a number of rebel Witness Statements, but he also gave a colourful recollection of events to The Irish Times in the days that followed the insurrection. On 5 May 1916, a time when executions were still underway, the paper reported that Chalmers was at the post office at noon on Easter Monday when he noticed “about three hundred Sinn Féiners” coming up the street. He claimed that he then turned to another spectator and said “look at that awful crowd; they must be on a route march.” In the weeks and months leading up to the Rising, the sight of armed men parading on the streets of Dublin is one that ordinary Dubliners would have witnessed. As such, many people (including Chalmers) didn’t quite take things seriously at first that April morning.
Chalmers told a journalist that he heard the cry of “Charge!”, and next thing he knew he was taken prisoner as:
One of them presented a bayonet at his breast, and the other prodded him in the back with a pike, a weapon favoured by many of the rebels. Lieutenant Chalmers, who was in Dublin on sick leave, was unarmed. After being searched for arms, the lieutenant was bound with wire obtained from the telephone box and put into the box, which faced Nelson Pillar. By this time the public had scattered…
By contrast with the claims of Chalmers himself, Irish Volunteer Desmond Ryan would later allege that the prisoner had “bandied indignant words” at the rebels as they took control of the building, and in this historian Lorcan Collins has suggested he may well have been “the author of his own misfortune.” Clad in a military uniform however, it’s difficult to see any circumstance in which he wouldn’t have become a prisoner. One of those who helped bundle Chalmers into the telephone box was a young Michael Collins.
The telephone box was not the safest place to be on Easter Monday. When a force of Lancers arrived on horseback to inspect the scene, a volley of shots rang out from the General Post Office, sending men and horses alike crashing to the ground beside the Nelson Pillar. It was reported that “bullets went through the telephone box” in the midst of this.
One man who showed sympathy for the plight of Chalmers was The O’Rahilly, the Kerryman who had spent the previous day travelling the country informing Volunteers that the rebellion was off. When it went ahead, on a smaller scale than envisioned, he took his place in the fight, telling Countess Markievicz that “it is madness, but it is a glorious madness.” It was O’Rahilly who had Chalmers removed from the telephone box, according to Chalmers telling Volunteers on duty that “I want this officer to watch the safe to see that nothing is touched. You will see that no harm comes to him.”
The Sinn Fein Rebellion Handbook, published in the aftermath of the fighting, claimed that in total the number of prisoners grew to sixteen, and that “prisoners had been taken in as occasion offered.” Fearghal McGarry, in his study of rebel Witness Statements, The Rising: Easter 1916, suggests that the number of prisoners was much higher than this, and that “there were around thirty-five in the GPO, and another thirty in the Four Courts.” These were primarily policemen and soldiers captured in the early stages of the rebellion. As McGarry notes, “the GPO garrison was fortunate enough to seize an Indian army medical officer who cheerfully offered his expertise to his captors.”
Michael Knightly, a Volunteer, told a good story about visiting the kitchen of the GPO during the fighting, and encountering two prisoners who had “been members of the guard when the GPO was captured.” Knightly remembered that “the soldiers were preparing tea and were as cheerful as if nothing out of the ordinary had taken place.” He had a chat with the men, remembering that:
I discussed their capture with them. One of the soldiers, an Irishman, was very upset about their Corporal. “The worst of it is”, he said, “the Corporal was out for a pint when the place was taken”. I reassured him by saying that he would make a good excuse. He would probably say he had escaped!
According to the account of Chalmers, on the Friday of Easter Week “the prisoners were taken to a basement right below the building. Here were stores of gelignite, cordite, gun cotton and dynamite – stacks of it. Men came down to the basement calling for bombs.” Chalmers also claimed that when they were removed from the cellar of the GPO and brought into a room at the back of the Post Office, “they were put under the charge of a woman in male attire, who flourished a big loaded revolver.” This wasn’t his only comment on women in the GPO, he also remembered that “the girls serving in the dining room at the Post Office were dressed in the finest clothes, and wore knives and pistols in their belts. They also wore white, green and orange sashes.”
The GPO position became untenable for the rebels, as a result of sustained bombardment and the fires that were raging on the street all around the building. Chalmers alleges in his recollections that the prisoners were used as a sort of human shield in the evacuation of the GPO:
Lieutenant Chalmers was placed at the head of the line of prisoners, and on his left hand was a private of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. Pointing a Mauser pistol at the Lieutenant one of the rebels told him to run or he would fire. About 150 yards away were the troops with a machine gun, and they were firing down a line. Lieutenant Chalmers started to run, but had not got ten yards before he was shot in the thigh, and the Dublin Fusilier through the head.
Joe Good, a Volunteer who would later pen an exciting memoir of the week, claimed a different series of events led to this situation, and that:
…some of our military prisoners, whom we had captured during the week appeared terrified – as was natural in the confusion – being lined up as they were against a wall…I suggested to O’Rahilly that they be let go to take their chances on escaping. It looked to me as if we were trapped; but he misunderstood me, and thought I was suggesting using them as cover, and he almost struck me. Then he saw my point and apologised, and let them go.
Chalmers claims to have made it to “the back of Lipton’s store”, where he “collapsed from his nerve-wrecking experiences.” The following day, with the collapse of the uprising, he was safe from harm.
Chalmers recollections were challenged by Diarmuid Lynch, an IRB man and Volunteer in the GPO Garrison. Lynch remembered that Chalmers was called upon to testify against him, as to his presence in the Post Office. Lynch joked years later that “any man who should endeavour to prove the contrary I would deem my worst enemy.” Lynch claimed that “naturally, I bear Chalmers not the slightest ill-will for testifying against me, but for his malicious lies in the Times Handbook – which in view of the facts are ridiculous – he deserved no better treatment than that usually accorded to a ‘rat in a trap’.”
We would certainly be interested in hearing what happened next for Chalmers, or in any images of him. While he found his little place in the history of the 1916 Rising, he would probably have preferred not to.