Archivist Helen explores the Post Office's role in the events of Easter Rising.

In recent years much attention has been paid to the First World War and the Post Office’s role in ensuring international communications were kept open. Domestic events during this period have not received such high profile attention.

At the outbreak of the First World War Ireland was subject to British rule. There was a growing sense of nationalism and three Home Rule Bills had been introduced to Parliament in the period 1886-1912. The First World War led to a postponement of any further discussions of Home Rule, but a sense of Irish nationalism persisted.

From a postal perspective, these tensions were reflected by Sinn Fein labels appearing on envelopes and the use of the Irish language in addresses. Files in the archive discuss how this mail should be handled.

Postcard addressed in Gaelic 1906, POST 31/36

On 24 April 1916, Easter Monday, Patrick Pearse and James Connolly together with a group of Irish Volunteers entered the GPO building in Sackville Street, Dublin.

The Post Office had been on this site since 1818 and had undergone a number of improvements in the early twentieth century which were completed in March 1916, just a month before the Rising. The GPO became the Headquarters of the Irish Volunteers throughout the Rising and Pearse read the Proclamation of Independence from the steps of this building.

The Rising took authorities somewhat by surprise. The Secretary to the Post Office, Arthur Hamilton Norway, wrote in a report dated 27 April 1916:

‘Although the obviously increasing armed strength of the Irish Volunteers has appeared to me for many months a serious danger, I saw no reason to anticipate an outbreak’

 

Despite the element of surprise Post Office staff acted swiftly to attempt to raise the alarm and to secure the communications systems. Staff from the GPO attended other locations within the city to assist with the efforts to maintain telegraphic systems. This included Amiens Street station where telegraph lines remained open, allowing staff to inform London of developments.

Telegram from Gomersall to London informing them of events, POST 56/177

In addition to the GPO building the Irish Volunteers also seized control of a number of other locations across the city. These included; Four Courts, the Mendacity Institute, Jacob’s biscuit factory, Bolands Mill, South Dublin Union, and Dublin City Hall.

Fortunately for the Post Office other locations including; Dublin Castle, Amiens Street railway station, Crown Alley telephone exchange, and Aldeborough House (stores department) were not seized by the Volunteers.

Map showing locations of Irish Volunteers and British Forces during the Rising. Credit: Scolaire

These locations enabled the Post Office to maintain lines of communication. Conditions for staff working at these locations were harsh with some staff unable to return home due to the dangerous conditions across the city. In a report to Evelyn Murray, Secretary to the Post Office in London, on 30 April 1916, Norway states:

‘I doubt if you can possibly understand without coming over how much the service owes to take only one point, and not the largest, to the twenty girls who maintained the telephone service, for 6 days, amid sounds of fighting which are very hard to describe, and a certain indisputable personal danger, which has been met with wonderful pluck’

Notice outside Savings Bank stating it will reopen when law and order restored, POST 56/179

While the maintenance of the telecommunications network was deemed vital resolving the situation in Dublin, Norway was keenly aware of the risks his staff were undertaking. In light of this he resisted pressure to resume postal services until there was reasonable assurance of their safety:

‘I will not allow my staff to risk their lives merely to get public correspondence into England a day or so sooner’ (Report to Murray, 30 April 1916, POST 56/177)

 

He had complete confidence in the commitment of his staff stating in a report on 27 April:

‘I need hardly say that as soon as the Post Office is regained the whole staff will unitedly work unsparingly to restore the services’

 

The Volunteers surrendered on 29 April but small pockets of resistance continued throughout the city. By the time of the surrender the GPO building in Dublin had been completed gutted by the fighting that had taken place over the past week.

Gutted GPO Dublin POST 56/179

The destruction of GPO Dublin caused a number of problems for the Post Office. Firstly, a temporary sorting office was required for postal work. This was secured at the Rotunda and delivery work resumed on the morning on 3 May.

Temporary arrangements at the Rotunda, POST 56/179

Secondly, the contents of GPO Dublin had been destroyed along with the building. This led to claims for compensation for parcels and registered letters lost. Claims were also made for perishable items which had been delayed in the post during the Rising. The Post Office determined that no compensation was payable in these circumstances.

Destruction of Secretary’s Registry GPO Dublin, POST 56/178

There were also questions around the loyalty of Post Office staff which some concerns that staff may have been complicit in the Rising. Discussions in the House of Commons related to a telephone message received in Cork on 25 April stating ‘Dublin has risen: let Cork rise’.

However, it was quickly proven that the message was sent after the Volunteers had seized control of GPO Dublin and therefore was not sent by a Post Office employee.

Instructions were quickly issued that only messages from the Amiens Street exchange should be accepted for transmission. Of a total staff of 17 000 only 46 came under suspicion of conspiracy which demonstrates the prevailing loyalties of the Post Office staff.

A general view of the devastated area around Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street), including GPO Dublin, POST 56/179

The Easter Rising was one element of a decade long period of unrest in Ireland which culminated in the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922.

A selection of original material relating to the Easter Rising will be on display in the Discovery Room until 26 April 2019.

– Helen Dafter, Archivist