The O'Rahilly

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Plaque in Ballylongford, County Kerry.

Michael Joseph O'Rahilly (Irish: Mícheál Seosamh Ó Rathaille or Ua Rathghaille; 22 April 1875 – 29 April 1916) known as The O'Rahilly, was an Irish republican and nationalist; he was a founding member of the Irish Volunteers in 1913 and served as Director of Arms. Despite opposing the action, he took part in the Easter Rising in Dublin and was killed during the fighting.

Early life[edit]

Born in Ballylongford, County Kerry, O'Rahilly was educated in Clongowes Wood College (1890-3).[1] As an adult, he became a republican and a language enthusiast. He joined the Gaelic League and became a member of An Coiste Gnotha, its governing body. He was well travelled, spending at least a decade in the United States and in Europe before settling in Dublin.

O'Rahilly was a founding member of the Irish Volunteers in 1913, who organized to work for Irish independence and resist the proposed Home Rule; he served as the IV Director of Arms. He personally directed the first major arming of the Irish Volunteers, the landing of 900 Mausers at the Howth gun-running on 26 July 1914.[citation needed]

O'Rahilly was a reasonably wealthy man; the Weekly Irish Times reported after the Easter Rising that he "enjoyed a private income of £900" per annum, plenty of which went to "the cause he espoused."[citation needed]

The Irish Volunteers[edit]

O'Rahilly was not a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), and was not a party to the plans for the Easter Rising. The IRB went to great lengths to prevent those leaders of the Volunteers who were opposed to unprovoked, unilateral action from learning that a rising was imminent, including its Chief-of-Staff Eoin MacNeill, Bulmer Hobson, and O'Rahilly. When Hobson (who was still a member of the IRB at least in name, despite being estranged from its leaders) discovered that an insurrection was planned, he was kidnapped by the IRB leadership.

Learning this, O'Rahilly went to St. Enda's School on Good Friday to confront Patrick Pearse who worked there. He barged into Pearse's study, brandishing his revolver as he announced "Whoever kidnaps me will have to be a quicker shot!" Pearse calmed O'Rahilly, assuring him that Hobson was unharmed, and would be released after the rising began. O'Rahilly spent the entire night driving throughout the country, informing Volunteers leaders in Cork, Kerry, Tipperary, and Limerick that they were not to mobilize their forces on Sunday, thus largely preventing any rising outside of Dublin.[citation needed]

Easter Rising[edit]

After arriving home, he learned that the Rising was about to begin in Dublin on Easter Monday. Despite his efforts to prevent such action (which he felt could only lead to defeat), he set out to Liberty Hall to join Pearse, James Connolly, Tom Clarke, and the other leaders. Arriving in his motorcar, he gave one of the most quoted lines of the rising, "Well, I've helped to wind up the clock -- I might as well hear it strike!" Another famous, if less quoted line, was his comment to Countess Markievicz, "It is madness, but it is glorious madness." He fought with the GPO garrison during Easter Week, though he spent much of his time on the upstairs floor, away from the other leaders, with whom he was still angry.

One of the first British prisoners taken in the GPO was Second Lieutenant AD 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 later recalled 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, 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, with the GPO on fire, O'Rahilly volunteered to lead a small party of men in search of a route to Williams and Woods, a factory on Great Britain Street (now Parnell Street). A British machine-gun at the intersection of Great Britain and Moore streets caught him along with most of his party. 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). This effort exposed him to sustained fire from the machine-gunner.

Most accounts attest to O'Rahilly's dying in Sackville Lane which joined onto Moore Lane - however, the interconnected lanes were generally both known as Moore Lane by Dubliners.

According to ambulance driver Albert Mitchell, long after the surrender had taken place on Saturday afternoon and 19 hours after being severely wounded, O'Rahilly still clung to life. Mitchell said he was recounting events more than 30 years later. The following is an extract from Mitchel's witness statement (WS 196):

While driving through Moore St. to Jervis St. 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 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.

On the other hand, Desmond Ryan's The Rising maintains that it "was 2.30p.m. when Miss O'Farrell reached Moore Street, and as she passed Sackville Lane again, she saw 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 memorial in O'Rahilly Parade, Dublin.

O'Rahilly wrote a message to his wife on the back of a letter he had received in the GPO from his son. Shane Cullen etched this last message to Nancy O'Rahilly into his limestone and bronze memorial sculpture to The O'Rahilly. 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.’[citation needed]

Source of name[edit]

In Gaelic tradition, chief of clans were called by their clan name preceded by the determinate article, for example Robert The Bruce. O'Rahilly's calling himself "The O'Rahilly" was purely his own idea. In 1938, the poet William Butler Yeats defended O'Rahilly on this point in a well-known poem, which begins:


O'Rahilly's De Dion-Bouton car, which was used to fetch supplies (likely including arms) during the Easter Rising siege, was used as part of a barricade on Prince's St., where it was burnt out. The De Dion was buried, along with other rubble from Sackville St. and environs, beneath the Hill 16 terrace in Ireland's largest sporting stadium, Croke Park.[3]


  1. ^ Humphrys Family Tree
  2. ^ Yeats, William Butler, Collected Poems, at 307-308, Collier 1988 ISBN 0-02-055650-0
  3. ^ "Driving into action in the Easter Rising", The Irish Times, 14 March 2007 at


  • O'Rahilly, Aodogán; Winding the Clock - O'Rahilly and the 1916 Rising, Lilliput Press, 1991
  • Caulfield, Max; The Easter Rebellion, Dublin 1916, Roberts Reinhart, 1963

External links[edit]