Now one of Dublin’s most historic and iconic buildings, the General Post Office (GPO) might never have been where it is on O’Connell Street had not some houses collapsed there in 1796. First bid to redevelop the site, this time for a cathedral, was from the Roman Catholic church. Due to Protestant opposition this idea was abandoned. A more favourable view was taken when the Irish Post Office sought to erect their new headquarters here.
The city’s first Postmaster was appointed in 1562 and gradually a nation-wide postal service was established. There were various locations for the Letter Office, later known as the General Post Office, before it finally settled on Sackville (now O’Connell) Street. The foundation stone was laid in 1814 and the splendid building, designed by Francis Johnston, was opened in January 1818. Fashioned in Greek Revival style with six soaring Portland stone Ionic columns, the GPO literally became the centre-piece of Dublin’s main street and the vital centre of communications, both postal and telegraphic.
Expensively restored and updated it reopened to great acclaim in March 1916 only to become smashed to ruin a mere month later. The GPO had been seized on April 24 by rebels during the Easter Rising in order to disable the telegraph office. The building was also used as their headquarters during that fateful week. Around 300 insurgents were cooped up there by the Thursday of Easter Week by which time the British Army had begun firing incendiary shells at the building. Soon uncontrollable fires swept through the whole edifice and the rebels evacuated on Friday and surrendered the next day from nearby Moore Street.
Except for the still-standing front façade, the GPO was a smouldering wreck and it would take over 12 years to rebuild it. Nearly tripled in length down Henry and Palace Streets the GPO re-opened in 1929. Now it is seen as the birthplace of Irish independence and the statue behind the central window reflects this. It represents a heroic figure from Irish mythology, Cúchulainn, who single-handedly defended his Ulster homeland against an invading army. On his plinth is an extract from the revolutionary Proclamation of Independence read outside the GPO on that Easter Monday by Pádraig Pearse, one of the doomed rebel leaders (they were later executed).
During the current Decade of Commemorations (remembering the seminal years in Ireland’s struggle for independence. 1913 to 1923), an excellent way to find out more about this turbulent period, and especially the Rising of 1916, is to visit the GPO Witness History Exhibition. Through state-of-the-art electronic touch screens, video, audio visual booths, sound and authentic artefacts – many of which previously unseen – history comes to life as attendees experience events from the perspective of both sides of the conflict and the bystanders caught in the crossfire.
The exhibition is open daily, on Monday to Saturday from 10:00 to 17:30 (last admission 16:30). For Sundays and Bank Holidays, opening hours are 12:00 to 17:30. It is closed New Year’s Day, St Patrick’s Day and Easter Sunday. For more information and to book tickets, visit here.