Interactive visitor centre brings living history to Dublin's GPO

History comes to life for Jenny Lee who visits GPO Witness History, a new interactive visitor centre, which has been opened in the building that was at the centre of the Easter Rising

GPO Witness History visitor experience opens this Easter at the iconic GPO building on O'Connell Street, Dublin

WHEN the Rising began on Easter Monday 1916, Republican leaders seized Dublin's GPO, replacing the British Union flag with the flag of the new republic. And it was from here that Patrick Pearse read out Proclamation of the Irish Republic for the first time.

Despite being the only major rebel post to be taken during the week, over the past 100 years, the GPO in Dublin’s O’Connell Street retains strong symbolic importance for the people of Ireland. Today sees the opening of a new permanent visitor attraction commemorating the events of Easter 1916 in the building.

Today the GPO is thought to be the world’s longest operational post office HQ, and the country’s busiest post office, containing six floors and 950 staff. The new euro 10 million centre, GPO Witness History, and the refurbishment of it's inner courtyard, which was simply a disused area with a smoking and cycling shed, gives visitors a unique inside into it’s history and redresses the absence of an appropriate memorial to the Rising at its central location.

GPO Witness History investigates the prelude, and aftermath of the Rising, from the eyewitness perspective of active participants on both sides, and bystanders caught in the middle.

Touch-screen panels allow visitors to explore strands of the narrative through interactive graphics, which bring home the human cost and how civilian casualties escalated over the course of the week and makes history very accessible to those with little former knowledge of the history of Ireland.

The centrepiece to the centre is an immersive, semi-circular, audio-visual feature, which mixes CGI and dramatisation and puts visitors right at the centre of the events of Easter Week, giving them a bird’s eye view of to portray the decisions being made and the brutality of events unfolding across the city.

It features the seven members of Irish Republican Brotherhood Military Council who planned the Rising and includes the influential role Belfast girl Winifred Carney played as part of the Citizens Army. Whilst a centre for all ages and nationalities, the video with it’s fast-moving strategy game quality is sure to appeal to older children and teens and bring history to life.

Younger visitors will be amused by the real-life appearance of some costumed soldiers and key figures from that period. They will also enjoy discovering and using tele communications equipment of the time – including morse code keypads and vintage telephones.

The children who lost their lives are central to the new centre, with a sculpture entitled 'They are of us all', by Dublin-based artist Barbara Knezevic commemorating the 40 children who died during Easter week 1916 in Dublin. Symbolically the black limestones were taken from the site of the Jacobs’ biscuit factory – one of the positions the insurgents occupied during the Easter Rising.

Visitors can witness the economic divide in the city at the time though two reconstructed bedrooms side by side – one from an opulent Georgian house; another from a single-room tenement. You also discover the fact that in 1916 87,000 of Dublin’s 300,000 population live in slums, with 26,000 families living in 5000 tenements.

As well as an original copy of the Proclamation, artefacts included in GPO Eye Witness include James Connolly’s birth certificate printing plate, Eamonn Ceannt’s razor and case, Thomas Clarke’s American diary and a scrapbook belonging to 16-year-old Bridge McKane, who died alongside her father killed.

Whilst the Rising was ultimately a ‘failure’, it had a great influence on people and paved the way for Ireland to become independent a few years later. An interactive asks visitors to give their own opinions on the history of the Rising, including the thought-provoking question: Did the legacy of the Easter Rising justify republican conflict like the Irish Civil War and Northern Irish troubles?

The upper level of the new centre, which showcases how the Rising was commemorated over the past 100 years, and its impact internationally, and within the island of Ireland.

A timeline of events both north and south, written by Ballymena academic Roisin Higgins, a senior history lecturer at Teesside University, runs parallel to each other in the commemorative gallery. The Belfast Blitz, Northern Ireland Education Act 1947, internment, hunger strikes and peace process are all included in the history of the north and there is the famous image of ‘chuckle brothers’ – the then First and Deputy First Ministers Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness.

The walls of the newly refurbished interior of the GPO also bears over 400 names of all those known to have helped defend the building during Easter Week 1916. Included is Hugh and Joseph Lee. It made me wonder, like many other will, if my own ancestors played a role?

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