Apr 24

“A RARE TIME FOR DEATH…” – Sean O’Casey and the Easter Rising

Watercolour of Irish Volunteer uniform by Sean O’Casey

Watercolour of Irish Volunteer uniform by Sean O’Casey

O’Casey was not just one of Irelands greatest playwrights, he also wrote a large amount of other material, including six volumes of autobiography. In these edited extracts, we look at his own experiences during Easter week 1916. Despite his earlier involvement with many of the revolutionary movements in the city,  O’Casey was a non-combatant in the Rising .His account is very much from a civilian’s perspective, and is a unique record of events locally, not recounted in such detail elsewhere.  We begin on Monday afternoon (24th April 1916) , as a quiet Dublin City suddenly changes -

 GPO Easter 1916

O’Connell Street, Spencer Dock and Abercorn Road

“Down the centre of O’Connell Street, silent but for the tramp of their feet, came hundreds of armed Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army, led by Pearse, Connolly and Tom Clarke, to halt, wheel and face the General Post Office.

There go the go-boys! Muttered an old man, half to himself and half to an elderly, thin lady beside him who had stopped to help him stare at the volunteers. Well, Mac Neill put a stop to their gallop! What th’ hell are th’ up to now? They seem to be bent on disturbin’ th’ whoremony of the sacred day. Goin’ in, eh? Wha’ for, I wondher? Can’t be wantin’ postage stamps. Can’t be to get th’ right time, for there’s a clock in th’ window. What’r they doin, ma’am? I dunno. Somethin’ brewin’? Ma’am, there’s always somethin’ brewin’. I’m seventy, an’ I’ve never known an hour that I didn’t hear tell of somethin’ brewin’. Be God, they’re takin’ th’ clock outa th’ window! That’s odd, now. Looka, they’re smashin’ out th’ windows with their rifles! There’s a shower o’ glass – right over th’ passers-by! That’s goin’ beyond th’ beyond. Tha’s, tha’s just hooliganism. We betther be gettin’ outa here – th’ police’ll be here any minute! Didn’ I tell you before, ma’am, I dunno! They’re shovin’ out the Post Office workers; pointin’ their guns at them. We betther be getting’ outa here while we’re safe. Houl’ on a second – here’s someone out to read a paper. What’s he sayin’? I dunno. How th’ hell can you expect a fella to hear from here? Oh! Pushin’ th’ people off th’ streets, now. Eh? G’ on home, is it? An’ who are you t’ ordher me about? Takin’ over th’ city? D’ye tell me that? Well, you’re not goin’ to take over me! I’m a peaceful man out on a peaceful sthroll on a peace-ful day, an’ I stand be me constitutional rights. Gun-fire here soon? Arrah, from where? From where, ma’am? I dunno, I’m tellin’ you! He says he’s speakin’ in th’ name of th’ Irish Republic, so now you’re as wise as I am meself. Th’ police’ll soon explain matthers. Don’t be talkin’, looka what’s comin’ up O’Connell Street! A company o’ throttin’ lancers – full regalia with carbines, lances, an’ all! Comin’ to clear th’ Post Office. Don’t be pushin’ me ribs in, ma’am! Hear th’ jingle of them! This looks like busi-ness. Here we see, ma’am, the Irish Republic endin’ quicker’n  it began. Jasus, Mary, an’ Joseph! th’ fools are firin’ on them! Here get outa th’ way, ma’am, an’ let a man move! Near knocked you down? Why th’ hell are you clingin’ on me tail for, then? Didn’ I tell you hours ago that it was dangerous dawdlin’ here? D’ye hear that volley! Looka th’ police runnin’ for their lives! Here, let’s get outa this; we’ve dilly-dallied too long where we’ve no real business to be! “

"A company o’ throttin’ lancers ..."

“A company o’ throttin’ lancers …”

“When the shooting seemed to have got less, Sean slid cautiously out of his shelter and, keeping close to the walls of the shop and house, made his way home. Darkness had fallen, and his near-sighted eyes could see but a few feet in front of them.  Coming to the bridge across the canal at Spencer Dock, his semi-consciousness heard a calm, tired voice say somewhere, Halt! Who goes there? A few steps farther, and the voice, tired no longer, terse and threatening, said again, Who goes there? In the hesitating shock of seeing nothing, he managed to say, Friend, and a moment after, passed by the dim form of a soldier with the rifle at the ready, who passed him by with the advice of, Answer quicker, next time friend. A narrow squeak, that! A few seconds more of hesitation and he’d have been high among the stars. Watch your steps, Sean. A little farther on, his breast almost touched a bayonet as another voice said, Who goes there? Murmuring, Friend, the bayonet was lowered, and a soldier’s voice said, Pass on, friend. They were dotted along the road up to the corner of the street that held his home. Pouring in by the North Wall, and no one here to stop them. Poor ould Ireland!

Spencer Dock (with St Laurence O'Tooles Church in background)

Spencer Dock (with St Laurence O’Tooles Church in background)

He halted at the doorway thrust through with the knowledge that it was dangerous for him to be abroad at night. His eyes were blank in the darkness. He thought of the things that had happened, and wondered how it would all end.  It was a deserted city now, but for those who fought each other. The pubs had emptied, the trams has jingled back to their sheds, the shops were shut.  Lansdowne Road, Rathmines, and Rathgar gathered up their fine clothes and ran home; the janitors of the Bank of Ireland came rushing out to slam-to the great iron gates with a clang, turning the thick lips of the lock with hurried hands, and the sentries rushed into the guardroom; those coming home from Fairyhouse had been stopped by British barricades, and choruses of How th’ hell am I goin’ to get home ascended to God and His blessed saints. And Sean, standing in the doorway of his house, gazed back towards the centre of the city and saw a great plume of flame rising high into the sky: the first passion flower had blossomed.”

Bell-tower of St Barnabas Church , as seen from the O'Casey house

Bell-tower of St Barnabas Church , as seen from the O’Casey house

Saint Barnabas Church , Snipers , and Soldiers.

“Sean was behind his mother when she gawked out of the window in the back room, seeking to see something of what was happening.

-There’s some soldiers in th’ church tower, she said, the last word blending with a cracking roar, while the two of them staggered about the room, choked and blinded from a cloud of powered mortar thick as white thundercloud.

-I’m shot, Jack she whimpered; but feeling her all over, he found she wasn’t; and he hurried her into the other room where she lay down, panting, on the old horsehair sofa. He gave her a drink of water, then coaxed her down to a neighbour below who set about making a cup of tea for her. As he was going back to see what had happened, a number of soldiers, in charge of an officer and sergeant, came in and went upstairs with him, leaving two men to guard the outside door. The officer stood beside Sean, a revolver in his hand, while the sergeant searched the back room. After some time, the sergeant came out and whispered to the officer.

-Come downstairs with me, said the officer to Sean.

They placed him stiff against the wall of the house, outside, while the sergeant searched him, taking off his old boots to have a look inside, a soldier kneeling on one knee before him, butt of rifle to the knee, the bayonet but a foot away from Sean’s chest. They were searching for an automatic, they told him, and he wondered how one could fit into either of his boots.  A violent explosion in the wasteland beyond the wall bordering the railway sent a storm of stones, tufts of grass, and bunches of poppies sky-high, showers of them falling around Sean and his searchers. Another, and then, a second later, a vicious ping on the wall beside him, sent Sean word that some sniper was having a shot at the soldiers around him.  The officer slid down the street into a shop, and the soldiers, bending low, followed him, leaving Sean stretched out against the wall, alone, watched by neighbours who were peeping from their doorways in the houses lower down the street.  He took his outstretched arms from the wall, turned in, and mounted the stairs to his home. While by the wall, he had felt that his end was near, and had had a stiff time trying to hold on to his pride and dignity. Now he was shaking, and tense with fright. Either the badly-aimed shells fired from the gunboat Helga or the sniper’s bullet may have saved his life. For a long time he had tried to keep out of danger, and as often had found himself in the thick of it. Three times, at work, he had had narrow escapes: once when a bucket had been whipped from a swinging hand by a train passing by at fifty miles an hour; once when a scaffold had collapsed, and he had come down with it, escaping with a bad shock and many sore bruises; and once on a high roof, cleaning glass, a fellow worker, in a hurry to show the foreman how alert he was, stepped on a plank, leading over the glass, before him; the plank had snapped, the glass had given way, and the poor devil had fallen forty or fifty feet, to be smashed to pieces on a concrete floor below. And today, he and his mother had had a stream of machine-gun bullets sweeping between their two heads, making a hash of the wall behind them. How often during the riots of drunken policemen had he escaped a batoning? More often than he wished to remember. He didn’t like this sort of thing at all. As he grew in grace and wisdom, he was growing less and less of a hero. Like the fine and upright Alderman Tom Kelly, he wanted to die in bed surrounded by medicine bottles.

"Dodging bullets in Dublin..." - sketch by Sean O'Casey

“Dodging bullets in Dublin…” – sketch by Sean O’Casey

Good God! Looka th’ mess the back room was in! The one old palliasse they had had been ripped open with a bayonet, and the dirty feathers had been scattered about. Their one mattress, too, had been torn the same way, and the straw, mixed with the feathers, littered the floor. And all this on top of his aching, trembling legs, and oozing neck. Had he been made of less sterner stuff, he’d have sat on the edge of the ruined bed to weep. But he must sway his thought away from an inclination to tears to hard resistance, and an icy acceptance of what was beyond his power to avoid.

He lighted some sticks, put some water into a small saucepan, and made himself a cup of tea. In the old dresser he found a small lump of loaf, and cut himself a slice; no more, for the neighbours might send back his mother any minute and she’s need her share. But he ate all the bread there. For he wanted all he could get to modify with new strength the energy lost through his oozing neck, his aching legs, and troubled mind. He was sipping the tea, when in came a sergeant and two Tommies, and his heart sank again.

-Ere, you, said the sergeant, motioning towards the Tommies, go with ‘em; the church; ‘urry! Why? Never mind the why. They ‘as their orders – that’s enough for you.

-Whose orders – the Lord Lieutant’s?

- Naw! Company officer’s. ‘Urry!

Sean sighed, and slipped a volume of Keats into a pocket, put on his cap, and went with them to the church. In the porch a young officer sat by a small table, a notebook before him, a pencil in hand. Name? Address? Age? Occupation? Sean saw the officer bend a searching look at him when he said, Unemployed. Another search. What’s this, eh? Oh, a book! Poetry – harmless enough. Why don’t you join the Army? No interest in armies – not even the Salvation Army. Civil answers, my man, will serve you better. Into the church with him.

Soldiers were asleep, asprawl, in the bapistry; others snored lying on the tiles of the chancel; and an armed sentry stood at the east end and west end of the church. Piles of haversacks, belts, boots, and rifles were heaped on, and around, the Communion Table. But two other prisoners were there, each widely separated from the other. It was strange to be this way in a church where he had so often sat as a worshipper, in which he found his first genuine, educated friend – the Rector. How angry he would be if he knew the soldiers were making themselves at home in the House of God! Do This in Remembrance of Me were words forming a semicircle above the Holy Table.

That whole evening, and throughout the night, he sat wearily on the hard bench, finding out that things even of beauty weren’t joys for ever.”


A prisoner in ‘the Merchants’

“The next evening, all the lusty men of the locality were marshalled, about a hundred of them, Sean joining in, and were marched under guard (anyone trying to bolt was to be shot dead) down a desolate road to a great granary. Into the dreary building they filed, one by one; up a long flight of dark stone steps, to a narrow doorway, where each, as he came forward, was told to jump through into the darkness and take a chance of what was at the bottom.  Sean dropped through, finding that he landed many feet below on a great heap of maize that sent up a cloud of fine dust, near choking him. When his eyes got accustomed to it, he saw a narrow beam of light trickling in through some badly shuttered windows, and realized he was in a huge grain store, the maize never less than five feet deep so that it was a burden to walk from one spot to another, for each leg sank down to the thigh, and had to be dragged up before another step could be taken. It took him a long time to get to a window, and crouch there, watching the sky over the city through a crack in the shutters. A burning molten glow shone in the sky beyond, and it looked as if the whole city was blazing. One ear caught the talk of a group of men nearby who were playing cards. He couldn’t read Keats here, for the light was too bad for his eyes. More light, were the last words of Goethe, and it looked as if they would be his last words too.

Merchants Warehousing Company , Sheriff Street

Merchants Warehousing Company , Sheriff Street

-I dunno how it’ll end, said one of the card-players; the German submarines are sweepin’ up th’ Liffey like salmon, an’ when they let loose it’s goodbye England. My trick, there eh!

-I heard, said another player, that th’ Dublin Mountains is black with them – coal-scuttle helmets an’ all – your deal, Ned.

-Th’ Sinn Feiners has taken to an unknown destination that fella who ordehered the Volunteers in th’ counthry to stay incognito wherever they were -  what’s his name? Oh, I’ve said it a hundhred times. What’s this it is?

-Is it Father O’Flynn? Asked a mocking voice in a corner.

-No mockery, Skinner Doyle; this isn’t a time for jokin’. Eh, houl’ on there – see th’ ace o’ hearts!

Then they heard them, and all the heads turned to where Sean was crouching at the window; for in the fussy brattle of ceaseless musketry fire, all now listened to the slow, dignified, deadly boom of the big guns.

-Christ help them now! Said Skinner Doyle.”

Liberty Hall , showing scars of bombardment

Liberty Hall , showing scars of bombardment

A ‘cup of scald’

“Next day, he heard his name called from the hole at the end of the store where the sentry stood.  Wading through the corn, he was told to leap up, and leaping, was caught by a corporal who helped him to scramble to the floor above. He was to go home for a meal, accompanied by a soldier, for a while the rest were permitted to disperse home for an hour, they were suspicious of him because his room was the one that received the fire from those searching out a sniper. He was covered with the dust of the corn, and though he had pulled up the collar of his coat to protect the wound in his neck, he felt the dust of the grain tearing against its rawness and felt anxious about it. But he had to be patient, so he trudged home, silent, by the side of the soldier. When he sat down, and, in reply to the soldier’s question, said there was nothing in the house with which to make a meal,

-Wot, nothink? asked the soldier, shocked. Isn’t there somewhere as you can get some grub?

-Yes, said Sean; a huckster’s round the corner, but I’ve no money to pay for it.

-E’ll give it, ‘e’ll ‘ave to; you come with me, said the Tommy; Gawd blimey, a man ‘as to eat!

So round to Murphy’s went the Saxon and the Gael, for food.

Murphy was a man who, by paying a hundred pounds for a dispensation, had married his dead wife’s sister, so that the property might be kept in the family; and Sean thought how much comfort and security for a long time such a sum would bring to his mother and to him. The soldier’s sharp request to give this prisoner fella some grub got Sean a loaf, tea and sugar, milk in a bottle, rashers and a pound of bully beef. On the way back, Sean got his mother, and they had a royal meal, the soldier joining them in a cup of scald.”


Extracts from “Drums under the windows” (1945)




(All six volumes of Sean O’Casey Autobiographies, republished by Faber and Faber , are currently available in both print and kindle editions).

Contact : eastwallhistory@gmail.com




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