#OTD in 1916 – Death of Michael Joseph O’Rahilly, ‘The O’Rahilly’, a republican who took part in the Easter Rising, during which he was killed in the fighting.

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 despite his obvious support for national militancy. Nor did he express any sympathy for the socialist ideas of James Connolly. Nevertheless he fought with the GPO garrison during Easter Week despite the fact that he had just spent the best part of twenty-four hours driving to Limerick and back to Dublin with Eoin MacNeill’s countermanding order. But when The O’Rahilly 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 in with them. Yeats put it very well in his poem The O’Rahilly:

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

On Friday 28th 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 machine-gun 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 machine-gunner.

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 a Red Cross ambulance driver, Albert Mitchell. The following is an extract from Mitchell’s witness statement, now lodged in the Military Bureau collection (WS 196) and recently made available to the public:

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 H.Q. 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.

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 artist Shane Cullen has etched into his limestone and bronze sculpture. The text reads:

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.

‘The O’Rahilly’
(William Butler Yeats)

SING of the O’Rahilly,
Do not deny his right;
Sing a ‘the’ before his name;
Allow that he, despite
All those learned historians,
Established it for good;
He wrote out that word himself,
He christened himself with blood.
How goes the weather?

Sing of the O’Rahilly
That had such little sense
He told Pearse and Connolly
He’d gone to great expense
Keeping all the Kerry men
Out of that crazy fight;
That he might be there himself
Had travelled half the night.
How goes the weather?

‘Am I such a craven that
I should not get the word
But for what some travelling man
Had heard I had not heard?’
Then on Pearse and Connolly
He fixed a bitter look:
‘Because I helped to wind the clock
I come to hear it strike.’
How goes the weather?

What remains to sing about
But of the death he met
Stretched under a doorway
Somewhere off Henry Street;
They that found him found upon
The door above his head
‘Here died the O’Rahilly.
R.I.P.’ writ in blood.
How goes the weather?

Image credit | Declan Kerr – Irish Art


Posted by

Stair na hÉireann is steeped in Ireland's turbulent history, culture, ancient secrets and thousands of places that link us to our past and the present. With insight to folklore, literature, art, and music, you’ll experience an irresistible tour through the remarkable Emerald Isle.