Augustine Birrell was in London for a Cabinet meeting at Easter having left Dublin for the holiday period. No military arrangements were put in place by the War Office after they learned of Casement’s arrest and in Dublin, just 400 troops were in a state of “immediate readiness”.
Elsewhere, at Dublin Castle, the guard consisted of just six soldiers. Many were on holiday weekend leave, or planned to attend the races in Fairyhouse, Co Meath. The Proclamation was printed that day on the printing press in Liberty Hall with Tom Clarke and Countess Markievicz still fuming that MacNeill, had ruined the insurrection.
The failure to land the German arms, along with MacNeill’s countermand, had devastated what was left of the Irish Volunteers, leaving them dispirited and confused. At noon on Easter Monday operations began, in reduced numbers.
In Dublin, the combined forces of the Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army amounted to just 3,000 and the number of Irish Volunteers in the country as a whole was no more than 12,000. As it turned out, apart from small numbers in parts of counties Wexford and Galway, the Irish Volunteers obeyed MacNeill’s countermand.
The rebels’ strategy was to occupy a number of defensible sites in Dublin and hold out until there was a general insurrection by the Irish Volunteers throughout the country. Pearse, Connolly, Mac Diarmada and Plunkett led the Irish Volunteers from Liberty Hall to the General Post Office in Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street).
Elsewhere, Commandant Ceannt led the 4th Battalion to the South Dublin Union, and Commandant MacDonagh led the 2nd Battalion to Jacob’s biscuit factory (now the national archives). Crucially, the rebels failed to capture the undefended centre of the administration at Dublin Castle.
Witness Helena Molony described Abbey actor Sean Connolly’s attempt to take the Castle as she followed with other Irish Citizen Army women. “It was at the castle the first shot was fired. I, with my girls, followed Sean Connolly and his party. We went right up to the Castle gate, up the narrow street. Just then a police sergeant came out, and seeing our determination he thought it was a parade, and that it would probably be going up Ship Street. When Connolly went to go past him, the sergeant put out his arm, and Connolly shot him dead. When the military guard saw that it was serious, he pulled the gates to.”
The rebels lost their chance to storm the Castle because of indecision and hesitation, and Molony recalled: “On the flash, the gates were closed.” Arthur Hamilton Norway, head of the Irish Post Office, who had just arrived at the Castle shortly before described the atmosphere. “At the foot of the staircase I found all of the messengers huddled together in a frightened crowd. They had seen the policeman at the gate shot through the heart. They were badly shaken.”
The first casualty had been an unarmed constable, 45-year-old James O’Brien. Sean Connolly was himself killed shortly afterwards, as the ICA held City Hall for less than 24 hours. Trinity College, in the heart of the city, the Bank of Ireland on College Green, and the Shelbourne Hotel were other notable bastions the rebels didn’t secure.
Despite this failure, on the north side of the city the Four Courts were seized under the command of Ned Daly while Sean Heuston took the Mendicity Institute on the south side. St Stephen’s Green and the College of Surgeons were occupied by the Citizen Army under Commandant Michael Mallin and Countess Markievicz while Eamon de Valera was in charge at Boland’s Mill and this detachment also covered Mouth Street Bridge, and Beggar’s Bush. Barricades were erected around the city which led to clashes with civilians who, rightfully, objected to their vehicles and belongings being seized.
One elderly man was killed trying to reclaim his lorry near the Shelbourne Hotel. The writer James Stephens, watching near the Shelbourne, heard one bystander proclaim: “The Sinn Feiners have sized the city.”
At Fairyhouse, Ernest Jordison, managing director of the British Petroleum Company learned of “great commotion in the reserved grandstand” and “rumours of terrible happenings at Dublin”.
Back at the GPO, Pearse proclaimed the establishment of the Republic to ambivalent Dubliners. Pearse began: “Irishmen and Irishwomen: In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom…”
The Argentine-born republican Eamon Bulfin was given the job of hoisting one of two flags on the roof of the GPO. It was green with a golden harp and the words “Irish Republic”. “The thing I remember most about hoisting it is that I had some kind of hazy idea that the flag should be rolled up in some kind of a ball, so that when it was hauled up, it would break out,” he said.
By the afternoon, however, the city centre was under rebel control as shops close, looting began and transport services ground to a halt. With considerable hostility from the Irish public towards the Volunteers, James Stephens reckoned: “None of these people were prepared for Insurrection. The thing had been sprung on them so suddenly they were unable to take sides.”
Three of the unarmed Dublin Metropolitan Police were shot dead on the first day of the Rising and their commissioner pulled them off the streets. Michael Mallin’s ICA brigade dug in around Stephen’s Green, and Countess Markievicz paraded the streets in full uniform. But If these Volunteers were feeling bold, things would soon turn.
During a rainswept night, the Brits arrived. Government troops slipped into the Shelbourne Hotel, unnoticed and unopposed by the rebels giving them a key vantage point of Mallin’s entrenched ICA forces below. The initial British reaction to the Rising was one of Bank Holiday immersed disregard, but when the military commander General Lowe did act, it was decisive.