1916 Easter Rising centenary, Dublin, Ireland: When revolution was in the Eire

Dublin is a city in the iron grip of revolutionary fever. From the second you step off the plane, billboards display the resolute faces of republican heroes. Newspapers, TV and radio are awash with news of the destruction of the capital. Tales of heroism and tragedy are trending on social media. Military vehicles belch diesel smoke as they chug about the city.

But don't panic. The billboards, media coverage, exhibitions and tours are just part of the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising, a small, rather chaotic insurrection that led to the formation of modern Ireland.

Ireland is a country where the distinction between past and present is blurred. History is not something that lives only in books and the rarefied halls of academia. History is messy, loud, very much alive and part of the daily conversation.

So visitors to Ireland over the next year, and particularly during the Easter weekend, should prepare for a deluge of chatter, gossip and personal tales about the Rising.

John Concannon, director of the 2016 Centenary Program, describes the 100th anniversary as a gargantuan series of events "that is respectful, authentic and anchored in the past".

"We want this to be inclusive, collaborative and engaging for all our citizens and our many visitors," says the likeable Galwayman who could charm a fish underwater.

While the seven-stranded program takes in thousands of events, the biggest focus is on Easter weekend.

"That will be really special. That will be when we really stop the nation."

The Rising started on Easter Monday when a handful of rebels occupied a series of buildings across Dublin, most famously the General Post Office. It was here Padraig Pearse read the proclamation of the Irish republic, signed by seven rebel leaders, a document that was inclusive of women, religious tolerance and equal opportunities for all.

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From the slums of one of the poorest cities in Europe rose a republic grounded in peace and tolerance. "People were in the gutter – but they were looking at the stars," Concannon says.

The actions of the 1400 or so rebels caught the British unawares, and they managed to hold out for six bloody days, during which time the GPO and surrounding buildings on what is now O'Connell Street, as well as several other sites, were heavily shelled by the British Army and gutted by fire.

Dubliners were largely unimpressed by the insurrection, but the subsequent executions of its leaders started to turn the tide of public opinion, eventually leading to independence.

One of the themes of the centenary is to acknowledge all who fought. "It wasn't just the rebels who suffered. There were many losses of life on both sides – and that is something we are proud to recognise this time around," Concannon says.

For a quirky and unique take on the Rising, visitors could do worse than start with the Little Museum of Dublin, a small space with a big heart. Located in a beautifully preserved Georgian terrace overlooking StStephen's Green, the museum is irreverent, eccentric and inclusive.

Director of development Sarah Costigan says Dublin artist Fergal McCarthy was commissioned to produce a 58-panel cartoon history of the Rising, 1916: A Country is Born. The idea is to appeal to children and adults alike. It's a bit like Father Ted meets Mambo.

On the first floor relics include a dusty-looking Union Jack. Costigan points through the long, rectangular windows to St Stephen's Green, where revolutionary leader Countess Constance Markievicz​ engaged in fierce fighting with British forces – apart from one hour each day when hostilities ceased so the greenkeeper could feed the ducks. You'll get lovely snippets like this from the impressive staff of the Little Museum, recently voted Ireland's top museum.

At the very apex of the rebellion is the imposing GPO. It will unveil a new permanent exhibition from March 29. GPO Witness History is an immersive, hands-on experience that involves sound, pictures and film to bring visitors into the heart of the action.

One of the revelations is getting behind the imposing facade of the building to a beautiful oasis of space inside the courtyard where there is a monument to the 40 children who lost their lives in the conflict.

"We are really trying to take people back to the dramatic events of that time, to show them what is was like to live on the streets during that time," Aline FitzGerald, the general manager of the exhibition, says.

STORMING THE BARRACKS

Follow the River Liffey upriver towards Phoenix Park and you will find the National Museum's, Collins Barracks, Proclaiming a Republic, which opened on March 3.

The museum will put about 300 objects on display out of its extensive 15,000-piece Easter 1916 collection.

"The emphasis is very much on the people, clothing, equipment, objects from their everyday lives. We want to bring the Dublin streetscapes of the time to life," curatorial researcher Padraig Clancy says.

Painstaking restoration work has been done, including a textile restorer putting two weeks' work into the green, woollen tunic of a 10-year-old member of youth group Fianna Eireann.

The exhibition features an original copy of the proclamation, the drafting table on which it was made, the new flag of the republic and the poignant last letters of the condemned prisoners.

One of its lesser-known treasures is The Book of Resurrection (or Leabhar na hAiseirighe in Irish), created by Art O'Murnaghan. The 39-page artwork is based on ancient Celtic artworks and is an idiosyncratic wonder.

Audrey Whitty, keeper, art and industrial division, says it is an undervalued relic. "It's one of the finest pieces of neo-Celtic art and yet most people are unaware of its existence."

Just around the corner is the Abbey Theatre, which will also play its part in the commemorations.

As well as remembering the direct involvement of several staff, the theatre will put on many plays about the events of 1916, including Sean O'Casey's Plough and the Stars, which sparked rioting when it was first produced in 1926 because of its unflattering view of the locals. The play started on March 9 and runs until April 23.

Visitors can take a backstage tour of the theatre, a terrific insight if you are going to a show. Ask your guide about ghosts as you clamber along narrow, darkened corridors in the bowels of the building.

For those willing to venture a little further afield, you will find the hidden treasure of Richmond Barracks, where the leaders were court-martialled.

Over the decades the barracks in Inchicore have been allowed to fall into disrepair, with several buildings demolished.

However, the centenary commemorations will aid the restoration of remaining buildings, as well as opening the adjoining Goldenbridge Cemetery, the oldest Catholic cemetery in Dublin.

The cemetery's compact size and unkempt state make it a powerful reminder of the painful past. It holds the bones of an eight-year-old boy who died in the fighting, as well as former Irish prime minister William Cosgrave.

In 1916 Dublin was one of the poorest cities in Europe, and Inchicore today is a link to that impoverished past. Eadaoin Ni ChleIrigh, executive chairman of the Richmond Barracks restoration project, is excited about the prospect of visitors coming to the area.

"This project will help spark a revival of this area, and is a genuine community initiative."

The barracks are due to open on May 2 and will reward visitors with a unique slice of Dublin life linking the past with a colourful and edgy present.

Nearby, visitors will find the atmospheric Kilmainham Gaol, another key location for understanding the Rising.

It was here rebel leaders were held in cold, stone cells in what has become known as the 1916 corridor. Padraig Pearse was the first to be shot, marched in the middle of the night on May 2 to the stone-breakers' yard. Pearse was comforted by thought of the liberty of his brother, Willie, unaware he was in the cell next to him.

Another cell was occupied by Joseph Mary Plunkett, who was married just five hours before he was shot.

The final of the 12 executions was that of James Connolly, a founder of the Irish labour movement, who was brought to the jail by ambulance. He had been wounded during fighting and gangrene had set into his leg to such an extent he was days from death.

Unable to stand he was carried in a stretcher and strapped to a chair. As your feet crunch under grey, hard stones in the yard, it's easy to understand the anger of the time.

The words of poet W. B. Yeats come to mind in this unforgiving yard where the sun's rays never seem able to warm, and where the rebel leaders' lives were snatched away but their dreams live on:

I write it out in a verse


MacDonagh and MacBride


And Connolly and Pearse


Now and in time to be,


Wherever green is worn,


Are changed, changed utterly:


A terrible beauty is born.

After all this revolutionary fervour, you'll want to return to Australia and launch our own republic. But that's another story.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Emirates flies from Australia to Dubai 77 times per week, where you can connect with a flight to Dublin. Call 1300 303 777 or see emirates.com/au.

STAYING THERE

The Gresham Hotel, 23 Upper O'Connell Street, is almost directly across the road from the GPO and was used by the British Army to fire on the GPO. The building has been recently renovated and offers plenty of Georgian charm. Rooms start from €160 a night for a double. Hotel will be heavily booked during the Easter weekend. Phone: 353-1-513 5979. Email: info@thegresham.com

SEE + DO

www.ireland.com

National Museum, Collins Barracks, Proclaiming a Republic

Kilmainham Gaol

The Gresham Hotel

Glasnevin Cemetery

Abbey Theatre

GPO Witness History

EPIC Ireland

Richmond Barracks

Little Museum of Dublin

Pat Liddy's walking tours

1916: Freedom Tour

DINING THERE

If you're on the Southside of the city, Avoca on Suffolk Street is a great place to grab some lunch – and do some classy gift shopping too.

Avoca.com 11-13 Suffolk Street. Cafe closes 4.30pm. Tel: +353 1 677 4215.

On the Northside, Chapter One remains the high-water mark of contemporary fine dining.

Chapter One, 18-19 Parnell Square. Tel: +353 1 8732266.

Liam Phelan travelled courtesy of Tourism Ireland and The Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

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