Witnessing History in the flesh

Since I heard about the GPO Witness History exhibition opening, I was excited to go see it and eventually got to visit 5 months after it opened and I was not disappointed! Walking into the iconic GPO on O’Connell Street in the heart of the capital is pretty special at any time. There’s so much history in this building and a couple of years ago I was lucky enough to have a behind the scenes tour with the An Post historian Stephen Ferguson for a radio piece I was doing for Dublin’s Q102.

The lady at the front desk was buzzing with excitement as the previous day they had unveiled a temporary display – Padraig Pearse’s surrender letter written on April 30, 1916, three days before his execution, at Arbour Hill Prison in Dublin. I handed over my €10 which I think is a fair price for admission. Down the stairs I went and into the heart of the exhibition. While I have an interest in the history of the time itself, I’m always keen to see how these exhibitions are “produced” and staged.

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Heading into the exhibition

The production is amazing and very detailed – very easy to read everything and all is laid out very well. The mock streetscape of Dublin is very well done and the displays of old artefacts and uniforms bring you right back to what was happening and how people were dressed 100 years ago.

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There’s a lot of information to take in and some of the exhibition space is a little small, particularly if there’s a lot of people there. I just happened to arrive after one of the guided tours had started so they took up one whole area. I skipped on  ahead to watch the movie “Fire & Steel” in the large screen area – a really well produced 20 minute film about the days leading up to and during the rising. The screen was really wide and the cinematography was a technique I had never seen before – but it was effective. On the back wall of the screening area sits one of the few remaining copies of the original proclamation signed by the 7 signatories back in 1916.

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Large screen area showing the movie “Fire & Steel”
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An original copy of the proclamation hangs in the GPO

Moving on round to the rest of the exhibition there’s plenty more to see including models of what was happening in the actual GPO at the time of the rising – it was of course a huge communications centre and most of the country was connected to it by wires and telegraphs – it was also the main sorting centre for Dublin.

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The GPO was a sorting office for the country.

Just because the rising happened in 1916, it doesn’t mean that the exhibition stops there – as you move further through it covers the years following the rising and the rebuilding of the badly hit GPO.  It became home to Ireland’s first radio station – 2RN in 1928 – later to be called Radio Éireann and become home to such broadcasting legends as Eamon Andrews, Gay Byrne and Terry Wogan. In fact radio broadcasting didn’t leave the GPO until the 1970s when it moved to the RTE broadcasting complex at Montrose, Donnybrook.

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A mention needs to be made of the latest temporary exhibition – the surrender letter of Padraig Pearse, written in Arbour Hill just days before his execution in 1916. The letter, never before seen in public will be on exhibit until the end of November when it will be auctioned and is expected to reach up to €1.5million!

The letter reads: “‘In order to prevent further slaughter of the civil population and in the hope of saving the lives of our followers, the members of the Provisional Government present at headquarters have decided on an unconditional surrender, and commandants or officers commanding districts will order their commands to lay down arms. P.H.Pearse, Dublin, 30th April 1916.”

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The letter on display
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More of the displays, and the Tricolour.

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The main exhibition ends downstairs and in the open hallway area a digital display shows the names of the men, women and children who lost their lives during the rising. When you go upstairs, there’s a chance to walk into the courtyard which would have not had any public access until now. There a monument stands in memoriam of the 40 children who died during the rising.

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It is very special to walk through this courtyard and look up to see the Irish tricolour flying proudly over the building as well as seeing the top of the spire.

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The self guided tour ends, as all good tours do, in the well stocked gift shop and coffee shop. This really is a great tour for anyone interested in the happenings around 1916 and beyond. Well done to everyone who put this exhibition together – a real treasure in an historic building.

Find out more about GPO Witness History on their website 

 

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