O’Connell Street In Flames, 1916

“Irish Rebellion, May, 1916, Sackville Street in flames: a photograph taken by a “Daily Sketch” photographer under fire”
“Irish Rebellion, May, 1916, Sackville Street in flames: a photograph taken by a “Daily Sketch” photographer under fire”
O’Connell Street, Dublin, during fighting between the Irish Republican Army and the British Occupation Forces, 1916 Easter Rising
O’Connell Street, Dublin, during fighting between the Irish Republican Army and the British Occupation Forces, the 1916 Easter Rising. A restored version of the two images above

On the morning of Monday the 24th of April 1916 a number of republican and nationalist organisations in Ireland, directed by the covert leadership of the revolutionary Irish Republican Brotherhood, took to the streets of Dublin city in the first stage of a planned national insurrection across the island against the colonial rule of the United Kingdom. A “Provisional Government of the Irish Republic” was proclaimed in the capital and an “Army of the Irish Republic” was founded through the amalgamation of several pre-existing militant groups, notably the Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizens Army (this unified force was also known as the Irish Republican Army or IRA). By the 27th of April the military and paramilitary units of the British Occupation Forces in the country had effectively isolated the “rebellion” in the city and a handful of other areas, confused orders and instructions restricting the would-be revolution to the counties of Dublin, Meath, Wexford and Galway. On the 28th of April the Provisional Government, led by its president and commander-in-chief, Patrick Pearse, agreed a general ceasefire with the representatives of the UK forces followed by the surrender of all units under its control. Bar some scattered clashes the revolution was over and within days the British authorities would begin executing the republican leaders by military firing squads.

Despite the presence of a significant domestic press in Ireland, plus some foreign correspondents from overseas, relatively few photographs were taken during the fighting of 1916, the vast majority of published images dating from its ruinous aftermath. One of the very few photos to have emerged from the conflict was produced by an anonymous employee of the “Daily Sketch”, a bellicose British tabloid newspaper based in Manchester (many years later it would merge with the UK’s notorious “Daily Mail”). Almost certainly photographed on the night of April 28th 1916, probably from an elevated position in or near the modern Rotunda Hospital, it shows Upper O’Connell Street (or “Sackville Street” before its post-independence renaming) in flames, the buildings on both sides of the thoroughfare towards the GPO – the headquarters of the republican government – burning after days of British artillery and machine gun bombardment, the night-sky lit up with the intensity of the conflagration engulfing the capital. To the fore of the image is the then recently erected Parnell Monument while in the distance the towering Nelson’s Pillar is awash with fire.

The image was reproduced later that year in a series of commemorative postcards published by the Daily Sketch for Eason’s & Son, the well-known Irish book- and newspaper-sellers, with the caption, “Irish Rebellion, May, 1916, Sackville Street in flames: a photograph taken by a “Daily Sketch” photographer under fire” (note the slightly incorrect date, typical of the period). This has been reprinted in a number of publications since then, though most copies exist in relatively poor quality, the newspaper’s original film and negatives almost certainly lost. The first two images above are from UCD’s digital postcards of 1916 archive and a similar online collection with South Dublin Libraries. Both show obvious signs of age, as well as poor digitisation. The third image is a cleaned up composite of the previous two, having been lightly edited in Photoshop, with the more glaring examples of wear and tear removed or toned down. Any changes are purely cosmetic and the original photographic or granular feel of the cards has been retained.

Other examples of the Daily Sketch postcard can be seen at the online archive of the National Library of Ireland.

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