Friday 26 May 2017

Snipers played a deadly game of cat-and-mouse

Gun battle: Irish Citizen Army snipers on a rooftop.
Gun battle: Irish Citizen Army snipers on a rooftop.

The Easter Rising was notable for its sniper duels, described by one rebel commandant as 'a form of deadly hide and seek'. It was a way of picking off combatants who strayed into sight, although sometimes targets were picked indiscriminately. For the rebels, it was essential to their survival that enemy snipers and machine gun nests were disrupted and forced to move position. The preferred weapon was the German Mauser rifle or the Lee-Enfield, with others using Martini-Henry rifles or hunting rifles.

Michael Foy and Brian Barton have described the sniper duels as "a battle of wits" requiring great patience and nerve. Some snipers deliberately presented themselves as targets so that they would draw fire and allow their colleagues to get a clean shot. They did not last long.

WJ Brennan-Whitmore, a first-class shot with a rifle, was the commander of the rebel position at the head of North Earl Street. Over two days, he engaged in a running duel with a sniper firing from the roof of Trinity College, and he later admitted that the contest took on "an almost personal character". His opponent was "up to every trick in the bag", and after every burst of fire he "would lie doggo" and then wait for movement before sending a bullet "whistling past". Once Brennan-Whitmore got someone to raise a hat over the window, to draw the fire of the sniper, and then took his shot. But he was never able to hit his man.

One of the best shots on the rebel side was Frank Shouldice, a Mayo man who played Gaelic football for Dublin and who had won the Croke Cup only a couple of weeks earlier. Using a borrowed pair of binoculars, he did much damage from his position on the granary tower in the Jameson Malthouse. Credited with taking out a machine gunner from half-a-mile away, he was later grazed by a bullet and his face swelled up.

The British snipers found a perfect base in Trinity for firing on the GPO and the nearby areas. At 4am on Tuesday, April 25, three despatch riders attempted to bring messages back to Pearse in the GPO, and four shots from the snipers took down two of them. One, a 20-year-old called Gerald Keogh, who was a former student of Pearse, was shot dead, and his body was brought into Trinity.

Many innocent civilians became victims of the snipers. For example, a 13-year old girl, Margaret Veale, used a pair of binoculars to look out of the window of her house in Haddington Road and was shot dead. One of the key British snipers was based in McBirney's on Aston Quay, a building that provided a useful height advantage. This sniper was responsible for a number of civilian casualties. He took down a blind man who had ventured out of his house at Eden Quay, and then fired on the St John Ambulance man who went to treat him.

Later in the week, the sniper targeted the three-man rebel unit in the jewellers at the corner of Sackville Street and Eden Quay, but missed his target and killed a young woman.

At the Shelbourne Hotel, an ingenious British sniper dressed in a maid's outfit so he would not attract fire when moving around, taking shots from cover when a target presented itself. He was eventually identified by a rebel sniper and shot dead.

On Sackville Street, two soldiers had the same idea and dressed in blouses, shawls and hats, with one acting as the spotter and the other as the shooter, but the ruse was discovered.

The rebels had their own tricks. To cover their retreat at the end of the week they rigged up a dummy with a rifle on the roof of a nursing home by Mountjoy Square. It attracted British fire for two days.

Among the ranks of the rebel snipers were some real women, including one remarkable figure. Margaret Skinnider, a 23-year-old schoolteacher, was a private in the Irish Citizen Army, and proved a deadly shot. Based at St Stephen's Green, she killed a number of enemy snipers, recounting in her subsequent autobiography that it was "good to be in action". Skinnider was wounded in combat, and after independence was denied a military pension because she wasn't considered a soldier in the "masculine sense".

After the rebel surrender, the British soldiers refused to believe that the snipers they had faced were Irish. The question of 'where are the German snipers?' became almost an obsession.

Brennan-Whitmore even met the sniper he had duelled with, asking him if he was "the so-and-so that was sniping at us out of the corner of Trinity College?" The sniper was delighted to meet his rival, calling it "a great game". He even smuggled in some tea and biscuits for "old times".

Despite the failure of the Rising, the rebels drew a certain amount of comfort from the praise of their shooting. As Brennan-Whitmore said: "It brought home to us that our efforts on behalf of our country had not been so futile."

Patrick Geoghegan is Professor of History at Trinity College Dublin and is the presenter of the award-winning Talking History on Newstalk radio. His free online course, 'Ireland in Rebellion', can be found on YouTube

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