Tuesday 25 July 2017

My 1916: The tranquil street where so many lives were lost

Walking down Northumberland Road today, it's very difficult to imagine the horror of battle, writes Ger Siggins

The commemorative plaque for Lieut Michael Malone who died in 1916, at Northumberland Road. Picture: Arthur Carron
The commemorative plaque for Lieut Michael Malone who died in 1916, at Northumberland Road. Picture: Arthur Carron

Growing up close to the centre of Dublin the relics of 1916 were still very much in evidence more than half a century on. Almost every outing with my father included a diversion while he pointed out bullet holes still pock-marking the walls of the College of Surgeons, or Haddington Road church, or Boland's Mill. He also pointed out some old men whose names meant nothing to me at the time, men such as Patrick Kavanagh, Padraic Colum and Séamus Grace.

Lots of dad's stories stayed with me though and I often recalled them as I passed along the suburban streets that once had been bloody battlegrounds. And the name of Séamus Grace came back to me too, when I started to research a particular event from the Rising when writing a history of the Lansdowne Road stadium.

It occurred on the corner of Haddington Road and Northumberland Road, a leafy avenue where voices are raised these days only by the hat-and-scarf sellers on the way to internationals in Lansdowne Road. It was the first day of the Rising, and at the centre of the action was a man well known in that stadium.

Frank Browning had been one of Ireland's top cricketers when the game was still played on the back-pitch in Lansdowne Road, and also a noted rugby player. He was also, uniquely, President of both the Irish Cricket Union and the Irish Rugby Football Union. He was IRFU president when the Great War broke out and helped to found a 'pals' regiment of rugby players (later decimated at Suvla Bay), as well as a home guard unit for those too old for action.

There were over a thousand members of this group, the Irish Rugby Football Veterans Corps, which drilled at Lansdowne Road. The men of the IRFVC wore a red armband with the initials 'GR' - Latin for 'Georgius Rex', or 'King George'. And with the wit for which Dubliners are famous, the elderly GRs became known, inevitably, as the Gorgeous Wrecks.

Two years later, on Easter Monday 1916, the GRs were on manoeuvres in Ticknock in the foothills of the Dublin Mountains when the Rising broke out.

Hearing the news on the way back to barracks at Beggars Bush, the unarmed group split up at Ballsbridge. One party marched down Shelbourne Road where they came under sniper fire from the railway bridge over Bath Avenue, killing a solicitor called Arthur Clery, while Browning's group marched along Northumberland Road.

In a house on the corner where Haddington Road intersects, a pair of rebels, Michael Malone and Séamus Grace, were holed up with two 15-year-old boys, Michael Rowe and Paddy Byrne.

Number 25 had side windows and a balcony which gave an excellent view south along the road on which the uniformed column of men marched. As they neared the corner the two men opened fire and 13 veterans fell, five fatally. At least two bullets struck Frank Browning, piercing his chest and spine. He was carried to Beggars Bush and later to Baggot Street hospital, but died there two days later. He left a wife and young son.

The news that an unarmed group had been fired upon was greeted with anger in Dublin and helped ensure the Rising was initially unpopular. Padraig Pearse issued an order that evening that no unarmed persons were to be fired upon, whether they were wearing a uniform or not.

Two days later a battalion of Sherwood Foresters arrived to clean out the rebels from Number 25 and other outposts around Mount Street Bridge but came up against fierce resistance and suffered the greatest loss of British lives in Easter Week. 31 were killed and over 200 more wounded.

Early in the battle Michael Malone slipped down to Boland's to request more powerful weapons but his commander, Eamon de Valera, didn't have any to spare. He reputedly unbuckled his own Mauser, handed it along with 400 rounds to Malone, and told him, "Sorry I cannot do any more for you."

The two 15-year-olds escaped that night under cover of darkness, but Malone was killed when British troops stormed the house after five hours of sustained firing and is remembered in the nearby street name Malone Gardens.

Grace hid in the kitchen but was discovered next day in a garden shed. My father remembered Grace regularly visiting the schools of the neighbourhood relating the story of his dramatic three days as a rebel.

Almost a century on from the incident, a marble plaque sits between the two first floor windows of the house on the corner, which reads: 'Oglaigh na hEireann. In memory of Lieut. Michael Malone, C Co'y 3rd Battalion, killed in action 26th April 1916 in this house. Ar deis Dé go raibh a anam.'

There is no plaque to commemorate Frank Browning, or his comrades, but every time I pass Number 25, as I try to spot a bullet hole high in the masonry, I think of all those who perished on that now tranquil thoroughfare.

Irish Independent

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