Northern Ireland

Easter Rising 1916: A Newry man's perilous odyssey through the rebellion

Patrick Rankin Image copyright Rankin family
Image caption Patrick Rankin fought in the Easter Rising after cycling 70 miles from County Down

You won't have heard of Patrick Rankin.

He wasn't a major figure in the Easter Rising.

He wasn't a leader of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), the rising's driving force, or one of the names written on the Irish proclamation.

But, as a volunteer who travelled 70 perilous miles by bike from County Down to join the fighting against the will of his family, Patrick Rankin's story is one that takes in all the major milestones of the Easter Rising.

It's a story that saw him fighting side-by-side with some of the Rising's most prominent figures, like Tom Clarke and Willie Pearse, brother of Pádraig.

And it's a story we know thanks to witness statements compiled by the man himself, held by the Irish Military Archive, and the memories of his own family.

"My grandfather was a gentle, thoughtful man," says Carol Rankin. "He was extremely well-read, self-educated and loved books."

"To fight in a rising like that, it would have been a lifelong dream of his," adds Joe Murray, his grandson.

"To do something for Ireland, contribute something to freeing Ireland. He would have considered it the main purpose of his life.

"However, Paddy never spoke about his experiences to his family. He never even spoke about it even to my father, as far as I know."

Image copyright Rankin family
Image caption Patrick Rankin (left) in his Home Guard uniform while in the United States

A painter-decorator by trade, based in Newry, Patrick Rankin first joined the IRB in 1907.

He emigrated to North America in 1913 and trained as a marksman with the United States Home Guard while living in Philadelphia, an skill that came in useful for the aspiring Irish rebel.

"At every shooting session, he would pocketed left-over rounds," said Joe. "He ended up with 600, and when he moved home in 1915 he put them at the bottom of his suitcase under a pile of books.

"Unfortunately, a customs official in Liverpool took a great interest in the books and was rifling through them. Another officer told him to hurry my grandfather along, thankfully, before he discovered the ammo."

That close shave was the first of many for young Patrick Rankin on the road to the Rising, an event he heard about in the week leading up to Easter in 1916.

"He was told it would start on 24 April," says Joe. "He was given a code. I can't remember exactly what it was, but it was something like: 'The butter will be delivered on the 24th'."

Patrick resolved to travel to Dublin on the Tuesday, 25 April, with his brother.

"However, he decided it was enough for one Rankin to fight for Ireland," says Carol. "So, he got up early and left without his brother."

Image copyright Rankin family
Image caption Patrick Rankin resolved to travel to Dublin to find out if the Rising had begun

Armed with a six-inch revolver and some ammunition, he made his way along the back roads to Dublin by bike, dodging Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) patrols before arriving at his sister's house, soaking wet.

If he was hoping for a warm, family welcome, he was mistaken.

"His sister, brother-in-law and, as far as we know, his mother were there - but they would've been disappointed," said Joe.

"He had arrived without his brother. And they particularly would've been disappointed he arrived armed."

So disappointed, in fact, that they tried to stop him joining the fighting.

Image copyright Willow Design & Publishing
Image caption Tom Clarke, one of the main leaders of the Rising, who met Patrick at the GPO

The morning after he arrived, Patrick woke to find his gun and ammo missing - Carol and Joe believe one of his family members threw them into the nearby Royal Canal.

Undeterred, Patrick told them he was going outside to clean his bicycle after breakfast - and promptly hopped a wall to begin his journey to the General Post Office (GPO), the nerve centre of the rising.

This was no easy journey - particularly for someone with a northern accent - but Patrick made it to a barricade just north of the GPO and was ushered inside.

Soon, he was talking to Tom Clarke - one of the Rising's main leaders and a co-signatory of the Irish proclamation.

In his witness statement, Patrick's wrote: "Clarke looked about 30 years younger and seemed so happy.

"You would imagine you were talking to him in his old shop in Parnell Street."

With his training as a marksman, Patrick soon found himself installed on the GPO roof as a sniper.

However, Joe said that his grandfather's statements do not mention using the rifle at all, although they do note "a bullet whizzing past his head".

"That was almost the end of young Patrick Rankin," added Joe.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The GPO was heavily damaged by artillery fire during the Rising

By Friday, 28 April, after the heavy onslaught of British forces, the rebels left the GPO.

It was here that Patrick's notes recall the moment a young man, Lieutenant Macken, died in his arms after being shot near Moore Lane.

The next day - after Patrick and some fellow fighters stayed the night in an abandoned house near the GPO - the rebels surrendered.


Along with hundreds of others, Patrick was marched onto a ship bound for Stafford Prison and Frongoch internment camp in Wales.

Joe says that Patrick's notes recount how a "drunken brute" of an officer cut the epaulettes from the uniform of Willie Pearse.

Days later, Willie would become one of 16 executed Rising leaders.

Patrick Rankin died in 1964, two years before the commemorations of the Rising's 50th anniversary.

Carol says this will be an "emotional time" for the entire Rankin family, and a reunion event has been organised in Dublin on Easter Sunday.

"Family are coming from many corners of the world," she says. "It'll be a celebration of our grandfather's fight for freedom. We'll all raise a glass to him."

Image copyright Rankin family
Image caption Patrick Rankin with his wife Kathleen

Joe, meanwhile, says his grandfather remained patriotic despite some "disappointment" with how the Irish Republic progressed after independence in 1922.

"He discovered in 1939 that he'd been overpaid in his 1916 veterans' pension," said Joe. "It was about 70 or 80 pounds in five years, a lot of money to repay for a man earning £5 or £6 pounds a week

"But he wrote a letter apologising for what had happened. "He wrote: 'I'm an old 1916 veteran and would feel very sorry for giving any offence to my country'."

"That sums him up."

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