GPO Witness History - Recreating the Easter Rising

Saving Commandant Connolly - a key scene in the movie shown at GPO Witness History
Saving Commandant Connolly - a key scene in the movie shown at GPO Witness History. © Bernd Biege 2016

GPO Witness History is one of Dublin’s newest museums and a brash, exciting new lease of life for the basement areas of the venerable General Post Office in O'Connell Street. There is no comparison to the tiny museum hosted besides the Philatelic Desk in days of old – though the philatelists suffered a bit in the process. You enter via the Northern wing of the building, then descend into the new exhibition are and history. On a self-guided tour, or with a guide. And you’ll emerge an hour or so later, with a good knowledge of what went on in and around the GPO at Easter 1916.

GPO Witness History – a Museum Beneath

”Immersion” seems to be the keyword for GPO Witness History, not only are you going underground, but exhibits, displays, and personnel (at times in period costume) will drag you back into the heady days of Easter 1916, kicking and screaming. The latter literally, as a movie of the events is playing on a loop, the noise from it at times and in some areas deafening, so you’ll be wanting to talk a bit louder, just to be heard. We did a guided tour with headphones on, even then it was distracting at times …

What you will find in the vaults of the GPO are documents, full-size displays, images, and some recreated scenes from the Easter Rising, during which the General Post Office first witnessed the proclamation of the Irish Republic, then acted as headquarters and the main stronghold for the rebel forces, and in the process was ruined (much to the surprise of James Connolly, who was certain the capitalists would not destroy their own property - a myth that doomed the Easter Rising). So you are standing on historical ground, getting introduced to the history of the times, and the place, in quite a comprehensive way.

The huge number of images and documents on display will make sure you do not miss any major portion of the events, and the life-size displays will make history imminent, even tangible at times. But, there’s a rub. Actually, a large number of artifacts on display are artificial, or to be precise the use of recreations and replicas seems to be the norm. While there is nothing wrong with that, history nerds should beware of using these as a reference, 100% accuracy cannot be guaranteed. Admitted, this is a minor niggle.

Showtime – the 1916 Movie

As I mentioned before, you won’t get away from the movie … it’ll accompany you throughout the visit, and can at times be distracting. Having said that, I have to admit that it is great. The events of 1916 are presented in a state-of-the-art visual experience, with actors in period costume, nifty special effects, and in a highly dramatic way (without sacrificing historical accuracy). The production values are high, and the educational value certainly comes before the entertainment value … but entertained you will be.

Though, giving the choice of subject, you’d expect the jokes to be thin on the ground.

Is GPO Witness History Worth a Visit?

Yes, absolutely – while you may enter the GPO’s main hall for free, the restored glory does not convey that much of the historical events that took place here. It is clean, too clean and neat, and even the Cuchullain statue (awkwardly placed anyway, being only visible from the back without the reflective glare of the window) cannot even start to give a sense of the drama and tragedy that was played out here in 1916.

But you have to be prepared for a museum of a new kind. You’ll be assaulted by the movie representation of the Easter Rising, you may get a sense of the time through the replicas and bijou scenes, but if you want the full picture you’ll have to … look at a lot of pictures, read a lot of text. Now this I prefer to do at home, in a cozy armchair, with a cup of coffee. Not while being hustled by what seems to be a million other people (hats off to GPO Witness History for drawing such crowds, though).

Also, the lighting isn’t always that good. On the other hand, if you know your Irish history, you’ll more than likely skim the panels, give a nod now and then, refreshing your memory more than building up basic knowledge.

For an introduction of the Easter Rising, GPO Witness History certainly is a winner – an in-depth exploration of all the nooks and crannies of history it is not. It cannot be, focusing on the GPO’s role in 1916 more than on anything else. And given the limitations of what can be done to make such an exhibition not too overwhelming, suffocating the general public in arcane, esoteric, specialist knowledge. So, yes, full marks for the exhibition.

An added bonus is the opportunity to see the GPO from a different angle. The inner courtyard, long neglected and used as bicycle storage, has been reinvented as an open space. With seating for the café (which also is a good idea, and serves excellent coffee, tea, and cakes, though it is not accessible without an entry ticket). And a memorial to the children killed during the Easter Rising – stunning in its simplicity. So, all in all, a worthwhile addition to any Dublin agenda.

Guided Tour or Not?

We were treated to a tour with a guide in full costume, a nice surprise and basically what larger groups would experience on a scheduled guided tour – and it certainly was worth it. Niamh really let her enthusiasm for the whole period show through, and provided some interesting asides as well (plus the occasional laugh, like pointing out that the choice of symbol the Cumann na mBan adopted said a lot – not knitting needles, but a rifle). If all the guides are of this caliber, the tour certainly is worth the extra charge.

Though the history nerd in me could have launched into a discussion on some points in the presentation …

But there is a downside – if you are shepherded through the exhibition by a guide, you’ll almost certainly want to go back to some exhibits for a closer look. And as a tour will last an hour or so, your time in the GPO will stretch. Those pressed for time should decide on either a guided tour (recommended due to the comprehensive way the whole history and exhibition will be presented to you) or the self-guided approach (recommended for those who want to linger at their own points of interest).

Essential Information on GPO Witness History

  • Location: General Post Office (basement and inner courtyard), O’Connell Street, Dublin 1.
  • Public Transport: Connolly is the nearest rail, Abbey Street the nearest LUAS station, alternatively use Jervis LUAS station (a longer walk). Local buses stop in O’Connell Street or on Eden Quay. Long-distance buses terminate at Busaras, within reasonable walking distance
  • Parking: a number of car parks are in the area and signposted.
  • Opening Times: Mon-Sat 9 AM to 5.30 PM, last admission 4.30 PM, Sun 10 AM to 5.30 PM, last admission 4.30 PM, July and August extended opening times until 6.30 PM, last admission 5.30 PM.
  • Admission Fees: adults 10 €, children (over 5) 5 €, concessions available.
  • Estimated Time Needed: budget for 60 to 90 minutes (self-guided).
  • Guided Tours: available daily at 11 AM, 2 PM and 3.30 PM, these incur an extra cost.
  • Food & Drink: available at the exit, with seating in the inner courtyard.
  • Souvenir Shop: located at the exit, with a good selection of topical and general souvenirs.
  • Website: www.gpowitnesshistory.ie
  • Phone 01-8721916

As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary tickets and a special guided tour for review purposes. While it has not influenced this review, tripsavvy.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.