New monument to The O’Rahilly unveiled

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2005), News, News, Volume 13

A new monument to Michael Joseph (The) O’Rahilly, who was shot during the dying hours of the Easter Rising, was unveiled to an enthusiastic crowd on O’Rahilly Parade on 29 April 2005. The artist, Shane Cullen, was commissioned to celebrate a courageous and gallant individual who died 89 years ago and has done this with a very respectful piece that replicates O’Rahilly’s last words.
Michael Joseph O’Rahilly was born in Ballylongford, Co. Kerry, in 1875. He was a republican and a language enthusiast, a member of An Coiste Gnótha, the Gaelic League’s governing body. He was well travelled, spending at least a decade in the United States and in Europe. He was a reasonably wealthy man; the Weekly Irish Times reported after the Easter Rising that O’Rahilly ‘enjoyed a private income of £900’ per annum, plenty of which went to ‘the cause he espoused’. More importantly, The O’Rahilly was a founding member of the Irish Volunteers, and as director of arms he personally directed the landing of Mausers at Howth on 26 July 1914.
O’Rahilly was not a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, notwithstanding his obvious support for militancy. Desmond Ryan notes in The Rising that The O’Rahilly, on hearing of the kidnapping of Bulmer Hobson, called out to St Enda’s on Good Friday 1916. Barging into Pearse’s study, brandishing his revolver, he announced: ‘Whoever kidnaps me will have to be a quicker shot!’ Unbelievably, The O’Rahilly fought with the GPO garrison during Easter Week despite the fact that he had just spent the best part of 24 hours driving to Limerick and back to Dublin with Eoin MacNeill’s countermanding order. But when he pulled up in his car and saw that the Irish Volunteers, Cumann na mBan and the Irish Citizen Army were mustering at Liberty Hall, he decided to join them. Yeats put it very well in his poem The O’Rahilly:

Because I helped wind the clock,
I come to hear it strike.

One of the first British prisoners taken in the GPO was Second Lieutenant A.D. Chalmers, who was bound with telephone wire and unceremoniously lodged in a telephone box by the young Volunteer captain and IRB activist Michael Collins. Chalmers recalled The O’Rahilly’s kindness to him. In a statement to a newspaper reporter, he said that he was taken from the telephone box after three hours and brought to the first floor, where O’Rahilly gave an order concerning the prisoner: ‘I want this officer to watch the safe to see that nothing is touched. You will see that no harm comes to him.’
On Friday 28 April, The O’Rahilly volunteered to lead a small party of men in search of a route out of the GPO to Williams and Woods, a factory on Great Britain Street (now Parnell Street). A British machinegun at the intersection of Great Britain Street and Moore Street caught him, along with most of his party. The O’Rahilly slumped into a doorway on Moore Street, wounded and bleeding badly, but soon made a dash across the road to find shelter in Sackville Lane (now O’Rahilly Parade). With this attempt to find shelter, O’Rahilly again exposed himself to sustained fire from the machinegunner.
It is often mooted that nineteen hours after receiving his wounds on Friday evening, and long after the surrender had taken place on Saturday afternoon, The O’Rahilly still clung to life. This story comes from an ambulance driver, Albert Mitchell, who begins his recollections by reminding the reader that it is more than thirty years after the event. It is clear, for instance, that O’Rahilly died in Sackville Lane, which joined onto Moore Lane, and Mitchell can be forgiven for confusing the two lanes. The following is an extract from Mitchell’s witness statement, now lodged in the Military Bureau collection (WS 196) recently made available to the public:

‘While driving through Moore Street to Jervis Street hospital one afternoon towards the end of the week the sergeant drew my attention to the body of a man lying in the gutter in Moore Lane. He was dressed in a green uniform. I took the sergeant and two men with a stretcher and approached the body which appeared to be still alive. We were about to lift it up when a young English officer stepped out of a doorway and refused to allow us to touch it. I told him of my instructions from HQ but all to no avail.
When back in the lorry I asked the sergeant what was the idea? His answer was—‘he must be someone of importance and the bastards are leaving him there to die of his wounds. It’s the easiest way to get rid of him’.
We came back again about 9 o’clock that night. The body was still there and an officer guarding it, but this time I fancied I knew the officer—he was not the one I met before. I asked why I was not allowed to take the body and who was it? He replied that his life and job depended on it being left there. He would not say who it was. I never saw the body again but I was told by different people that it was The O’Rahilly.’

Desmond Ryan’s The Rising maintains that it ‘was 2.30pm when Miss O’Farrell reached Moore Street, and as she passed Sackville Lane again, she saw The O’Rahilly’s corpse lying a few yards up the laneway, his feet against a stone stairway in front of a house, his head towards the street’.
The specific timing of The O’Rahilly’s death is very difficult to pin down faithfully, but we can be more precise when it comes to gaining an understanding of his final thoughts. Despite his obvious pain, The O’Rahilly took the time to write a message to his wife on the back of a letter he had received in the GPO from his son. It is this last message to Nancy that Shane Cullen has etched into his limestone and bronze sculpture:

‘Written after I was shot. Darling Nancy I was shot leading a rush up Moore Street and took refuge in a doorway. While I was there I heard the men pointing out where I was and made a bolt for the laneway I am in now. I got more [than] one bullet I think. Tons and tons of love dearie to you and the boys and to Nell and Anna. It was a good fight anyhow. Please deliver this to Nannie O’Rahilly, 40 Herbert Park, Dublin. Goodbye Darling.’

Blathnaid Uí Rathaille, The O’Rahilly’s daughter-in-law and oldest surviving relative, formally unveiled the new sculpture. Also present was former taoiseach Garret FitzGerald, whose father Desmond was a close friend of The O’Rahilly’s and also fought in the GPO.

Lorcan Collins and Conor Kostick are co-authors of The Easter Rising (O’Brien Press). See for more details.


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