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Rebel Sisters

Marita Conlon-McKenna


From the Prologue

Friday, 28 April 1916

Nellie Gifford looked out over Dublin, a city at war. She could see clouds of thick smoke rising high in the fiery red sky from the buildings still burning across the other side of the river. Many of the shops and buildings on Sackville Street, Dublin's main thoroughfare, were in flames following the heavy bombardment and gun battles of the last few days.

Perched high on the roof of the College of Surgeons, she looked over St Stephen's Green, the city park with its leafy trees clothed in their spring blossom and its well-tended flowerbeds. Now the park was barricaded and empty, the trenches and shelters they had dug clearly visible.

Countess Markievicz said the rebellion had brought the city to its knees. There was pandemonium, with no trams or trains, no bread, milk or food, and many of Dublin's shops and businesses were closed as the mighty British army tried to regain control.

They still held the General Post Office and the Metropole Hotel on Sackville Street, although despatches said that James Connolly, Tom Clarke and their men were now under severe attack from a heavily armed British gunboat anchored on the River Liffey. There were rebel garrisons in Boland's Mill and the Four Courts. Eamonn Ceannt and his men controlled the huge South Dublin Union with its workhouses and hospitals, while Thomas MacDonagh was the commandant in charge of Jacob's Biscuit Factory.

She heard a barrage of shots ... A nearby sniper? Another army attack? Who could tell? On alert, Nellie crouched down on the narrow parapet of the roof, scanning the nearby buildings. In the Shelbourne Hotel at the other side of the park, a machine gun and rifles were directly trained on them.

Four days ago, on Easter Monday, Nellie had proudly taken her place marching with the Citizen Army and the Irish Volunteers through Dublin's streets, ready to rise up against British rule and join the fight for Irish freedom and independence. Their orders were to take 'the Green' and surrounding area. It was hard to believe that they were occupying one of the finest parts of Dublin.

They had set up a garrison there and dug in, fighting hard to hold their position under heavy attack. On Tuesday Commandant Mallin had given the order to evacuate the open expanse of the park. They had been forced to flee here, to the College of Surgeons, where they were now under constant bombardment from enemy snipers and heavy machine-gun fire.

Food and supplies had run out in their garrison two days ago. Nellie had searched the building and kitchens, and she and the other women had eked out rations as far as they could, making soups and porridges, but now there was absolutely nothing left to eat and she did not see how they would survive much longer.

Down below in the distance she could see an overturned milk float and the bloody, rigid corpse of a horse that someone had shot, still lying on the road. A dead dog, caught in the crossfire, lay sprawled in front of the building, blood and flies everywhere. The shooting was getting nearer and heavier as the city was flooded with new regiments sent from England to suppress the Rising.

Nellie took a deep breath, trying to compose and steady herself, refusing to give in to the fear and trepidation she felt as she thought of her family . . . her sisters . . .

A rebel, like the rest of the men and women in her garrison, she was determined to fight and hold firm and steadfast against the attacks of the approaching British army for as long as she possibly could . . .