Elsie McDermid's 1916 Letter
Published on 13th January 2016
On Wednesday, 27th May 2015, Dublin City Council's Public Library Service took possession of a copy of a rare eye-witness account of the outbreak of the 1916 Easter Rising. The account was in the form of a letter written by Elsie McDermid (seen on the right), a popular opera singer of the era, to her mother in England on the occasion of Elsie's visit to Dublin. She was in Dublin to perform in Gilbert and Sullivan shows at Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre with the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company. However, the performances were cancelled as a result of the dramatic outbreak of the Easter Rising on Monday 24th April 1916. Elsie wrote a 26-page letter and in it she related, among other things, the digging of trenches in St. Stephen’s Green and eye-witness accounts of the first casualties on the streets of Dublin.
View PDF version below.
The letter, which includes Elsie’s hand-drawn maps of Dublin during the Rising, now forms part of a personal 1916 archive owned by Elsie’s nephew Colin McDermid.
Colin visited Dublin in May 2015 and donated a digital copy of the letter to Dublin City Public Libraries. The copy now forms an important part of the 'Citizens in Conflict: Dublin 1916' exhibition that runs at Dublin City Public Library and Archive, Pearse Street from 14th January to mid-June this year. We are delighted to say also that the letter and related material is now available online (follow Image Gallery link above). Read more about the donation of the letter at the Mansion House on the 27th May 2015.
The letter begins “We are living in stirring times. I am writing this to be posted if there is any post office left and will keep it till I know it will go.” Elsie McDermid kept the letter and other souvenirs of 1916, including shell casings and postcards, which her family preserved. The letter has never been published in historical accounts of the Rising but it and the other items in Elsie’s 1916 archive featured on the BBC's 'Antiques Roadshow' in the Spring of 2015.
Dublin City Public Libraries and Archive would like to extend a sincere thanks and its appreciation to Colin for the donation.
Elsie McDermid made her stage debut in Covent Garden in 1914 and had a London stage career well into the 1920s. She performed leading roles in many Gilbert and Sullivan classics including ‘The Pirates of Penzance’, ‘The Mikado’ and ‘The Gondoliers’. She also performed roles in Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’ and Verdi’s ‘Rigoletto’. Born in Middlesbrough in 1889, she died in Eston, North Yorkshire, in 1933.
Extracts from Elsie McDermid’s letter:
“There they were with fixed bayonets and digging trenches in the Green!”
“One of the maids came home and told us 2 girls had been shot near her in Sackville Street and they were digging trenches there. We went to bed then and just as we were dozing off about 12.30 it began and oh what a night!! You would have thought you were at the war. Shot after shot – volleys after volleys…”
“People seem to be going about as usual but you cant get up that part of the town at all. Daisy and I are going to try to get to the theatre as our laundry is there and we have no blouses clean!”
“Shots are being fired all the time but we are quite accustomed to them now”
“They say the north side of the city is starving there are no bakeries there and the bread and milk vans run the risks of being shot”
“The street at our side (Holles St) is all barricaded with big boxes full of clay and the seats out of the gardens. I am sitting on the floor behind the bed writing this. Daisy is doing her hair- I’ve just had a lovely bath but had to get out in a hurry as they started at the back and the bathroom has a big window and I could hear their bullets hitting the side of the house. Even the lavatories are full of soldiers.”
View PDF version below.
The Elsie McDermid 1916 Letter - Usage Statement
Ownership of the Elsie McDermid Letter resides with Colin McDermid. Colin has very kindly granted Dublin City Council rights to reproduce the letter here.
Printing or downloading of the letter (text, images) is permitted on a temporary, non-commercial basis for personal use only.
Commercial Use and Reproduction:
Those wishing to use the content of the Elsie McDermid Letter (text, images) for commercial purposes or to publish* the content should contact Dublin City Public Libraries ([email protected]) for permission. When applying please state which content is being used and give the precise details of the type of use planned – exhibition, book, magazine, newspaper, performance or other. Conditions to apply.
*Includes website or other electronic means.