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Dublin at Easter, a once-in-a-lifetime commemoration

Our trip to Dublin for the centenary of the Easter Rising involved a lot of planning, a bit of luck and a whole box of granola bars.

A bit of historic background: On Easter Monday in 1916, a group of people staged a rebellion against British rule, occupying the General Post Office in Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street) and other strategic buildings around the city. At four minutes past noon, Padraig Pearse stood on the steps of the GPO and read out the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, which begins with the words, “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.”

Britain’s attempt to dislodge the rebels included shelling the streets, and the bombardment and gunfire killed and injured many. After six days, forced to flee the burning GPO, Pearse ordered a surrender. James Connolly, Commandant-General of the Dublin Division of the Army of the Irish Republic, who had been shot in the ankle and was unable to stand, was carried to a hospital room at Dublin Castle; the other leaders were sent to Kilmainham Gaol, where they were court-martialed for treason during wartime and executed, starting with Pearse on May 3 and ending with Connolly, who was taken from his hospital bed, tied in a chair and shot in the prison yard on May 12.

Energized by the rebellion, the people of Ireland began to push for freedom, which led to the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1921.

Somewhere in its fraught history, the Irish decided to observe the Rising on the movable holiday of Easter rather than on its actual date of April 24.

Being present on O’Connell Street for the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the start of the Rising was a once-in-a-lifetime event. So on June 1, 2015, about a month after our return from last year’s trip to Ireland, during which we attended Easter ceremonies at Pearse’s remote Connemara cottage, I went to the website of the Gresham Hotel on O’Connell Street.

We chose the Gresham for two reasons: First, it’s convenient, located about two-tenths of a mile from the GPO and right on O’Connell Street, the route of the spectacular parade that would follow the ceremony at the GPO. Also, the hotel predates the Rising by 100 years and was shelled and extensively damaged in 1916.

The website said there was no availability from Good Friday to Easter Monday 2016, which I had expected. But I followed up the website check with an email, and to my surprise, was told that yes, the hotel had vacancies for that weekend.

We had stayed at the Gresham a few times in the mid-1990s and my clearest memory of the hotel was being escorted a long way down a narrow corridor to a smallish room. But we’ve stayed in smaller rooms in Dublin, where the main attraction is closeness to the city’s extensive cultural opportunities.

On March 11, two weeks before our arrival at the hotel, I began to read newspaper coverage of the planned Dublin events. And what I read was intimidating. The Irish Times reported that An Garda Síochána, the Irish police, were predicting a “tsunami of people,” more than 360,000 to descend on a metropolitan area of just 1.8 million. The center of the city, including the area around the Gresham, would be sealed off starting Thursday.

I packed comfortable shoes and a box of granola bars that would tide me over if the restaurants were full. I also wrote sheepishly to the hotel asking if they might have a room in the front with a view of the street. They replied that those rooms were booked, but they would let me know if there were any cancellations. I wasn’t surprised.

What happened was far better than I could have expected. First, when I asked a friend who lives outside the city center if she could suggest a park-and-ride site, she offered to let us park at her house. We arrived without trouble on Friday afternoon, and as we visited a bit before heading into the city, she said sadly that while she would love to see the parade, she was not able to stand for hours along the route. I offered to have her visit us in our room, saying that at least she could watch it on TV and wander out onto the street for the occasional direct glimpse of the festivities.

Then we took the city bus into town, pulling our bags along the busy but passable sidewalks. To our astonishment, at the Gresham we were directed to a room whose three large windows overlooked O’Connell Street, one floor up. While we had to open the outer double window and look down the street to see the GPO, we were located right over the parade route. We didn’t even ask how we had lucked into this perfect room.

I immediately called our Dublin friend, enthusiastically urging her to spend Easter in our room, and she agreed.

Saturday, we watched a re-enactment of a Citizen Army march from Liberty Hall. That evening, we saw a charming partially modern adaptation of the Easter Rising play “The Plough and the Stars” by Sean O’Casey, at the Abbey Theatre, which had seven members of its acting troupe and staff leave to fight in 1916. In between, we visited the alley where James Connolly was shot and the Moore Street terrace homes where the rebels sought refuge from the burning GPO, houses that activists are fighting today to preserve.

We met two other friends for dinner. The restaurants were busy but well-staffed. My granola bars went uneaten.

The next day, our friend came into the city and I met her at a Garda barricade to escort her to the hotel. It was eerie being the only person on the street besides Gardai, and the usually bustling avenue remained still and silent until shortly before 10 a.m., when people were finally allowed in to line the parade route for the noon ceremony. Although in past years we had been able to stand right outside the GPO, this year huge reviewing stands reserved for dignitaries and descendants of the rebels blocked the view. In our room, we watched the televised wreath-layings at Glasnevin Cemetery and at Kilmainham Gaol, and the start of the parade. When the procession reached the GPO, we went out onto the street, standing comfortably in the crowd despite the chilly wind. Around us, parents held their children on their shoulders, murmuring that they were witnessing something they would never see again. We kept our eyes on the huge screens set up in the street, flanked by speakers.

We heard Irish Army Capt. Peter Kelleher read the Proclamation, followed by a wreath-laying and a minute of silence. Then the screen showed the vertical bands of green, white and orange of the Irish tricolor as it was hoisted slowly up the flagpole atop the GPO, just as it had been 100 years ago by the small band of brave men and women who sought liberty. Then, from behind the screen, through the bare tree branches, we saw the flag itself rising on the GPO’s flagpole. A hundred years fell away. Chills.

The next day, O’Connell Street was packed, a festival of art, music and smaller parades. At the GPO, people were able to read the Proclamation themselves. Several groups filed to the front of the building and lay their own wreaths. People dressed in garb of the Rising era, including men and women in Irish Citizen Army uniforms – Connolly insisted that men and women were both essential to the success of the nation – mixed with the crowds.

We had plans to meet another friend in Rostrevor and to attend a commemoration in Belfast that night, so we had to miss most of the day’s festivities. But having “come from the land beyond the waves,” a line from the Irish national anthem, we felt grateful and privileged to be a part of the commemoration.