Under Siege

“Have you ever thought about joining up young man?” The police officer looked G in the eye, pointing his finger just inches from his face.

“No sir,” he shook his head, breaking the gaze and casting his eyes toward the floor.

“Fighting for your country is the most important thing you can do to end this conflict.” The officer turned and walked away, continuing his rant, calling for others to enlist in the military and go to the trenches of Europe.

We sat quietly, awaiting our turn to be admitted into Dublin Castle. Other guests milled about, while some sat on the surrounding benches. A simply dressed, if fashionable, young woman stood in front of the interior door.

Welcome to Dublin Castle,” a well-groomed young man sporting a gold-toned vest and starched, white, collared shirt called from from the main entry into the courtyard. “As a reminder, Britain is at war. Please turn off all electronic devices. We cannot risk intelligence leaks during this sensitive time.”

A hole in the space-time continuum between the courtyard and the entry of the Castle opened into Easter weekend, 1916, the eve of the most important armed rebellion against the British government that had brutalized the people of Ireland for nearly 800 years. We had scheduled our visit to get an insider’s view of the compound that housed the administrative headquarters of the tiny island’s occupying forces since the year 1230.

A man in a tweed jacket stormed into the entryway from the interior door, grumbling about being detained at work on a holiday weekend. Most of the staff had gone home early for Good Friday, yet he was unable to be at home with his family.

“Thank you for staying,” a man in a grey suit called as he walked inside from the main courtyard doors. “I’m sure you would rather have gone to the races, but this is a very important meeting.” The man in the tweed jacket played the part of the loyal and compliant assistant, glad to stay to lend a hand, not letting on that he wished to be with his family, nodding in agreement when his boss suggested the races.

The interior doors of the Castle opened again. A young woman carrying a well-worn, hard-side suitcase stepped forward. Seeing she had reached the entryway she called, “I’ve come in the wrong door. I’m lost. This is such a big building. And I’m late.” She was a volunteer for the Red Cross hospital located inside Dublin Castle during the Great War. Irish soldiers wounded on the front line in France were eventually transported back to the Red Cross hospital inside Dublin Castle.

The new recruit had made a poor impression on the matron, due to her tardiness and inexperience. She had no training or experience as a nurse, nor even basic CNA duties. She had never dressed a wound, dressed another adult, nor helped an adult to bath. Certainly it would be improper for her to see a man without his clothes. She would need to adjust to her new role quickly. Two years of trench warfare amplified the workload well faster than volunteers came forward to manage nursing duties.

These characters were very real, some of them by name. The events were both re-enactments and composites of history repeating itself in benign chambers.

At last the interior doors of Castle opened and the man in the gold vest gestured that we could enter. Much of the life-sized artwork in the grand staircase appeared as if they could have been original portraits of the monarchy, including King George II and Queen Charlotte flanking the doorway to what was, undoubtedly, the throne room.

We followed the characters through the important, if contentious, meeting with the man in the tweed jacket, his boss in the grey suit—the British minister assigned to direct operations in Ireland—and the chief administrator of the General Post Office, just a few blocks away and across the River Liffey.

An illegal shipment of guns and artillery had been intercepted coming into port in the west. The leader of the operation, Sir Roger Casement, a respected and trusted ally, had been taken into custody without incident. The three men disagreed whether any further action should be taken. The director of the GPO was confident that any potential resistance or conflict had been plucked out of the water with the guns. Someone had even placed an ad in the local paper specifying that volunteers would not be needed for the Irish Brotherhood that week. Seriously. The minister remained skeptical. With inadequate intelligence, and on a holiday weekend with few soldiers available, the men deferred any further action lest they inflame a disgruntled Irish majority.

Suddenly, we were interrupted by a rapid series of loud pops from the courtyard. The men rushed to the window.

“We’re under attack!” shouted the minister. “Assemble the staff!” The police officer who admonished G to enlist in the war effort had been shot dead at the Castle gate. Dublin Castle went into lockdown, trapping everyone inside, British leadership and Irish support staff alike. Neither inside the Castle nor out in the neighborhoods were Irish loyalties immediately directed to the Irish resisters.

In the next room, an oversized, wine-colored, velvet chair with deep wooden framing and sweeping back and arms sat on a platform to one side. A crown of gold and red velvet rested atop the gilded portico surrounding the platform. Presumably the next scene had taken us to the infamous throne room where important state events are still held. The Red Cross hospital was in the room next door.

A soldier dragged in a woman in an armlock. She had been injured in the gun battle and brought into the hospital for treatment. She was an enemy combatant, having fired at the soldier from atop the GPO.

This moment was a test of allegiance of the hospital staff. Some of the women held onto fantasies of meeting a soldier or statesman who would liberate them from the poverty and oppression they experienced under British law when at home. Some were loyal to the wounded Irish soldiers who, acting as British troupes, risk their lives for Crown and country—but whose country? How could these women accept an insurgent to treat along side their brave Irish soldiers? Moreover, by this time, all of the building staff had been at work for days on end, with only the supplies available at the Castle before the fighting began. Telecommunication services had been completely disrupted, limiting communication with their families to human couriers willing to risk transversing streets that had become active battlefields. These women had every reason to be disgruntled.

“We do not choose our patients,” the matron reminded the nurses. The Red Cross, a product of the Geneva Conventions, is bound to absolute neutrality. Like so many prior treaties, even some of the early signatories of the Geneva Conventions have consistently failed to uphold their obligations under one of the most important international pacts that assures their own citizens are treated fairly and with dignity during times of war.

Inside the hospital ward a young man on convalescence from France was having hallucinations. He shouted, cried, and screamed at people who were not there. He relived the explosion that landed him in the hospital, which buried him in the bodies of his fellow-soldiers who were not as lucky as him. Shell-shocked soldiers were usually executed for cowardice. Whose battle had he been fighting?

No, G had no regrets about not enlisting. What was the cause anyway? More warm bodies just turned into more cold bodies. Cold Irish bodies only worsened the unjust conditions under which their surviving families were forced to live. The Irish recruits may have been fighting to make a living for their families, but they were not fighting for Ireland.

Outside, the battle accelerated as cannon fire launched into the Irish rebel strongholds. Six days after we first heard the gunfire in the courtyard the resisters surrendered to halt the bloodletting.

Leading Irish Republican, James Connolly, was sent to hospital instead of prison because he had sustained a gunshot wound during the fighting. Connolly’s gangrenous wound had turned septic. Even an amputation could not save his life, though it would have been of no consequence anyway. The deliriously ill rebel was tried in a secret court martial, carried to the firing squad on a stretcher, and tied to a chair to prevent him from falling over during his execution.

Despite their long hours and compassion for the men they served from the trenches, or maybe because of it, the atrocities of their British overlords tipped the sympathies of Irish nurses toward the freedom fighters who led the Rising. True to Red Cross standards of respect for all patients equally, medical staff defied orders and snuck out to notify Connolly’s family of his impending death, risking severe retaliation if they got caught.

Some 90 Irish locals assuredly deserved to be sent to their graves as traitors of the Crown. The leadership of London ordered the executions terminated, anticipating accurately that these examples made would merely be the final blow to their dominance over Ireland. Hegemony depends on allowing the oppressed enough contentment to accept the conditions, but not so much to enable the wherewithal to resist. Connolly’s obscene demise swiftly broke the hegemonic lock on Ireland.

With the battle over and government administration restored, we were finally allowed to leave the Castle. As our afternoon transformed into a week, the sky had turned to dusk out in the courtyard, 100 years of hope into the future. The battle wounds on the city had long since been stitched and dressed, though deep and tender scar tissue remains.

The Crown and the Red Cross created an opportunity to experience the events of the Easter Rising from inside the beating heart of the oppressive regime. The women and men of Dublin Castle were not all British tyrants. Some were there out of compassion and loyalty to their brethren who had risk their lives in the trenches of a war they did not own. Some were there to make a living. Some were there seeking hope for a better future. Of course, the Rising outside may have been of little consequence to those at the Castle who were convalescing from their trauma of war.

The live action glimpse at history from inside the fortress that dominated the people of Ireland for centuries is a part of the ongoing healing process. The living history production inside Dublin Castle was a natural progression from the Witness History exhibit at the GPO. This year of commemoration is a commitment to therapeutic recovery. Many hundreds of years of economic, political, and religious oppression, starvation, land appropriation, and outright cruelty by force cannot be mended by the stroke of a pen. The 26 free counties of Ireland have only been united independently as long as most living World War II veterans have been alive, many of whom still have not processed their own personal traumas of war. The people of the Irish Republic only became fully free of the British Commonwealth the same year Bruce Springsteen and Nineteen Eighty-Four came into being.

Wounds that are many generations deep require many generations to recover. Trauma, once inflicted, can never be erased, though it can be integrated as part of the whole being and identity of a body. The body Ireland is not defined by its trauma, but rather its rich cultural history of literature, music, dance, and theatre as we experienced in Dublin Castle. I suspect the depth and range of spirit of the arts tradition developed, in part, as an expressive outlet and relief valve for the chronic assaults on the families, and the fine ale and whiskey as a coping mechanism. The wholeness and integrity of the community despite it all must have certainly been a blessing to celebrate with the lively tradition of arts and community gatherings.

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