Michael Joseph O’Rahilly, Irish republican and nationalist known as The O’Rahilly, dies in Dublin on April 29, 1916 during the Easter Rising. He is a founding member of the Irish Volunteers in 1913 and serves as Director of Arms. Despite opposing the rising, he takes part and is killed in a charge on a British machine gun post covering the retreat from the General Post Office (GPO) during the fighting.
O’Rahilly is born in Ballylongford, County Kerry to Richard Rahilly, a grocer, and Ellen Rahilly (née Mangan). He has two siblings who live to adulthood, Mary Ellen “Nell” Humphreys (née Rahilly) and Anno O’Rahilly, both of whom are active in the Irish revolutionary period. He is educated in Clongowes Wood College (1890–1893). As an adult, he becomes a republican and a language enthusiast. He joins the Gaelic League and becomes a member of An Coiste Gnotha, its governing body. He is well traveled, spending at least a decade in the United States and in Europe before settling in Dublin.
In 1913 O’Rahilly is a founding member of the Irish Volunteers, who organize to work for Irish independence and resist the proposed Home Rule. He serves as the IV Director of Arms. He personally directs the first major arming of the Irish Volunteers, the landing of 900 Mausers at the Howth gun-running on July 26, 1914.
O’Rahilly is not party to the plans for the Easter Rising, nor is he a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), but he is one of the main people who trains the Irish Volunteers for the coming fight. The planners of the Rising go to great lengths to prevent those leaders of the Volunteers who are opposed to unprovoked, unilateral action from learning that a rising is imminent, including its Chief-of-Staff Eoin MacNeill, Bulmer Hobson, and O’Rahilly. When Hobson discovers that an insurrection is planned, he is kidnapped by the Military Council leadership.
Learning this, O’Rahilly goes to Patrick Pearse‘s school, Scoil Éanna, on Good Friday. He barges into Pearse’s study, brandishing his revolver as he announces “Whoever kidnaps me will have to be a quicker shot!” Pearse calms him down, assuring him that Hobson is unharmed and will be released after the rising begins.
O’Rahilly takes instructions from MacNeill and spends the night driving throughout the country, informing Volunteer leaders in Cork, Kerry, Tipperary, and Limerick that they are not to mobilise their forces for planned manoeuvres on Sunday.
Arriving home, O’Rahilly learns that the Rising is about to begin in Dublin on the following day, Easter Monday, April 24, 1916. Despite his efforts to prevent such action, he sets out to Liberty Hall to join Pearse, James Connolly, Thomas MacDonagh, Tom Clarke, Joseph Plunkett, Countess Markievicz, Seán Mac Diarmada, Éamonn Ceannt and their Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army troops. Arriving in his De Dion-Bouton motorcar, he gives 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!” His car is used to fetch supplies during the siege and later as part of a barricade on Prince’s Street, where it is burned out.
O’Rahilly fights with the GPO garrison during Easter Week. One of the first British prisoners taken in the GPO is Second Lieutenant AD Chalmers, who is bound with telephone wire and lodged in a telephone box by the young Volunteer Captain and IRB activist, Michael Collins. Chalmers later recalls O’Rahilly’s kindness to him. In a statement to a newspaper reporter, he says that he was taken from the phone box after three hours and brought up to O’Rahilly, who ordered, “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, April 28, with the GPO on fire, O’Rahilly volunteers to lead a party of men along 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 cuts him and several of the others down. He slumps into a doorway on Moore Street, wounded and bleeding badly but, hearing the English marking his position, makes a dash across the road to find shelter in Sackville Lane, now O’Rahilly Parade. He is wounded diagonally from shoulder to hip by sustained fire from the machine-gunner.
According to ambulance driver Albert Mitchell in a witness statement more than 30 years later, O’Rahilly still clung to life 19 hours after being severely wounded, long after the surrender had taken place on Saturday afternoon.
Desmond Ryan‘s The Rising: The Complete Story of Easter Week maintains that it “was 2:30 PM 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.”