With the weekend that has just passed, there was considerable emphasis on Easter 1917 and the first anniversary of the Easter Rising. Yesterday, a special edition of Liveline looked at how the first anniversary was marked in Dublin, while both The Irish Times and An Phoblacht produced interesting articles which examined the manner in which republicans reproduced the 1916 proclamation and utilised the ruins of the GPO as a place of commemoration, defiantly raising the tricolour over the building once again.
Certainly, in the years immediately after the Rising, the GPO had taken on a huge symbolic importance for Irish nationalists. The building would remain closed until 1929, an indication of the severity of the damage done to it. In an incredibly ill-advised move, a British Army recruitment banner was hung across the ruins of the building during the interim period between the Rising and the War of Independence. The banner met a predictable end.
Seán Harling of Na Fianna Éireann (republican boyscouts) remembered that:
There was one very big canvas streamer tied across the top of the GPO, with a picture of Kitchener and him pointing his finger at the people – “We Want You.” So my commandant came to me and said, “I’ve been instructed to get you to destroy that poster.” So I went down and I looked and I thought, “How the hell am I going to destroy that thing?”
The image of Lord Kitchener, drawn by graphic artist Alfred Leete, has become one of the iconic images of the First World War. In time, it inspired many copycats, from Uncle Sam to Soviet propaganda. For Harling and his comrades, getting Kitchener down from the GPO was a difficult talk:
It was way up near the roof, you see, and I knew if you put ladders up the police would be on top of you before you where you were.Then I had this bright idea. We went into a shop and bought a sod of turf and then let the turf steep in a bucket of paraffin oil. We put some wire around the turf then, because if you put twine on it it would just burn along with the turf. Then we died some twine on to the wire, lit the sod of turf and fired it up across the banner. Within a few minutes the whole thing was blazing, roaring. It was shocking.
When the Fire Brigade arrived on the scene, Harling recognised the familiar face of Joe Connolly, a Dublin firefighter who was also a Captain in the Citizen Army. He remembered that “they all looked and saw what was burning and turned around and went back.”
There are conflicting versions of just what the recruitment banner on the GPO proclaimed; Fianna Éireann activist Gary Holohan was adamant that the banner burnt was “a large scroll or banner of bunting across the top of the columns on the GPO, on which was painted an appeal for recruits for His Britannic Majesty’s Navy.” Holohan, like Harling, felt the banner was designed “to add insult to injury”, and remembered “this was too much for us.”
Regardless of what it proclaimed, it was destroyed by members of Na Fianna. It was clear that the GPO was considered sacred ground for Irish nationalists.
Seán Harling’s account of burning the Kitchener banner is taken from Kenneth Griffith and Timothy O’Grady’s classic Curious Journey: An Oral History of Ireland’s Unfinished Revolution.