Monday 20 November 2017

Easter 1916: How a terrible beauty was born

A new docudrama tells the human stories of the Rising's biggest street battle from both sides of the conflict.

Young volunteer Tom Halpin waits for battle
Young volunteer Tom Halpin waits for battle
Gun nest: A British soldier (Laurence Thermes) keeps watch
Waiting for the enemy: Volunteers at barricades at North King Street
Cmdt Ned Daly (Owen McDonnell) takes aim
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

For almost a week the sedate streets of Dublin 4 echoed to the sounds of gunfire. Bullets ricocheted off Georgian walls and residents looked on in horror as soldiers, rebels and civilians were gunned down in front of them.

Walking along leafy Northumberland Road today, it is hard to fathom that this was once the scene of one of the most prolonged and violent Irish street battles of the 20th Century.

The story of the shoot-out near Mount Street Bridge on the edge of Dublin 4 and other episodes in the 1916 Easter Rising will be told in the docudrama Terrible Beauty, to be shown on TG4 next Monday.

The screening of the film is timely, coming just days after Queen Elizabeth announced that the royal family will take part in centenary celebrations of the Rising in 2016.

Rather than honing in on leaders such as Padraig Pearse and James Connolly, director Keith Farrell decided to focus on ordinary participants in the Rising, including those who fought on the British side.

"I believe that there is now a willingness to hear both sides of the story," says Keith Farrell. "Until now the British soldiers who fought in the Rising have been more or less forgotten, partly because it was seen as an embarrassment, but there is a new interest in them."

Farrell does not flinch from chronicling some of the atrocities committed by British troops, including the shooting of innocent civilians in the North King Street area.

But the film, narrated by Love/Hate actor Peter Coonan, highlights a strong element of tragedy on the British side as well, and puts a human face on soldiers, who have until now been seen as little more than pawns of imperial oppression.

The story of the Dubliner Beatrice Dietrichsen, who was married to an English barrister Frederick, shows the suffering inflicted on families.

Beatrice, who grew up as part of the Mitchell wine family in Dublin, met the Englishman and they lived for a time in Nottinghamshire.

When the World War I broke out, Nottingham came under attack from German Zeppelins, and Frederick dispatched his wife and children back to Dublin in the hope of greater safety. He himself joined the British Army, expecting to be sent to fight in France.

Little did the family know that he would be sent over to Dublin to help quell the Rising. Mr and Mrs Dietrichsen came across each other there by chance, and he was to meet his fate soon afterwards at the hands of the rebels.

The organisation of the Rising may have been chaotic, with one commander calling it off days before it started, and then another giving orders that it should happen. But the film shows that the British response was also a shambles, with inexperienced ill-equipped soldiers sent to fight rebels in heavily populated streets.

Keith Farrell, who researched British regimental records for the programme, says: "Some of the soldiers actually thought they were landing in France, and there are stories of troops greeting people in Dun Laoghaire (then Kingstown) with 'Bonjour'.

"Some of the rebels were actually better-trained than the British because they had had a lot of weapons practice at firing ranges around Dublin in the months leading up to the Rising."

When the Rising started on Easter Monday, most Dubliners, the British Army and some of the rebels themselves were caught off guard. They were enjoying the long weekend, the races at Fairyhouse and the RDS Spring Show.

On Easter Monday morning, a band of volunteers led by a carpenter Michael Malone started to take up positions in buildings along Northumberland Road, one of the main routes into the centre of the city – leading to the canal bridge at Mount Street.

The film shows how Malone and his men were among the most effective fighters in the Rising and inflicted heavy casualties on the British forces.

Malone was fortifying his stronghold at 25 Northumberland Road when a group of Home Guard soldiers known as the Gorgeous Wrecks (after their inscription 'eorgius Rex') was spotted.

Malone and his fellow volunteer James Grace opened fire, hitting several soldiers and within minutes bodies littered the streets. In the first volleys four troops were killed.

The British Army desperately needed reinforcements and at short notice Captain Dietrichsen and his poorly prepared comrades, known as the 'Sherwood Foresters', were sent over to Dun Laoghaire.

They were all expecting to fight on the front in France, and Captain Dietrichsen must have been surprised to suddenly find himself in the city were his wife and children were living.

Keith Farrell says: "Some of the British troops did not even know how to use a rifle, and there were reports of them learning to use a gun by firing out to sea in Dun Laoghaire."

According to historical accounts, most Dubliners did not support the Rising at the time, and as the British soldiers marched into the city through affluent suburbs they were cheered and given cups of tea.

Among the welcoming crowd was Beatrice Dietrichsen, who must have been amazed to meet her husband. The film shows him breaking ranks to embrace her, as she stood with their children.

After this exchange, Captain Dietrichsen continued with his battalion through Ballsbridge and along Northumberland Road.

Again it was the sharp shooter Michael Malone who spotted these British troops coming towards the junction of Haddington Road. Malone and fellow rebel James Grace opened fire. Within minutes, the scene on the street was one of absolute carnage.

In this burst of gunfire, 10 troops lost their lives and Captain Dietrichsen was among them. He was buried at Dean's Grange Cemetery near Dun Laoghaire. Most of the British troops from the Rising are buried in a military graveyard in Grangegorman – forgotten and uncelebrated victims of a rebellion they never expected to fight.

In the film, Dietrichsen's grand-daughter Nicola Wilson recalls the impact of the Rising on her family. She remembers how her own mother talked about the excitement of meeting her father that day as a young girl, and then later confronting the awful realisation that he was dead.

The atmosphere around Ballsbridge that week was one of bewildering unreality. The RDS Spring Show continued and many locals gathered daily to watch the gun battles, according to one account.

The writer James Stephens highlighted the plight of children caught in the rebellion's crossfire: "Small boys bolted in to see these sights and bolted out again with bullets quickening their feet.

"Small boys do not believe that people will really kill them, but small boys were killed."

The shooting then continued along Northumberland Road, as Michael Malone and rebels in other buildings on either side of Mount Street bridge held out with volley after volley of shots.

Eventually, by sheer force of numbers, the British began to exert control, storming Malone's building, and shooting the young volunteer dead. He was buried by British troops in the garden (he was later reburied with military honours by republicans in Glasnevin Cemetery).

Meanwhile, Malone's comrade Seamus Grace managed to evade the troops by hiding behind a metal stove in the house, and escaped.

By the time the rebels surrendered and the insurrection petered out across Dublin, much of the city centre was a smouldering ruin.

Four hundred and fifty people had been killed and most of these were civilians.

But as the leaders of the uprising were executed, opinion swung behind the rebels. WB Yeats summed up the mood in his poem Easter 1916, written later that year: "All changed, changed utterly. A terrible beauty is born."

TERRIBLE BEAUTY WILL BE SHOWN ON TG4 ON EASTER MONDAY AT 9.30PM (1916FILM.COM).

Irish Independent

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