News 1916

Wednesday 13 December 2017

Heroic tale of last volunteer taken in 1916

Tom Crimmins was just 18 when he made a charge with The O'Rahilly from the GPO

BAND OF BROTHERS: Tom Crimmins (second left, back row) held out in the GPO before making a final charge with The O’Rahilly
BAND OF BROTHERS: Tom Crimmins (second left, back row) held out in the GPO before making a final charge with The O’Rahilly

Michael O'Carroll

As an 18-year-old Irish Citizen Army soldier, Tom Crimmins stood 6ft 1in in his volunteer uniform. The Dublin native had been a leading Na Fianna scout and was decorated by Countess Markievicz for rescuing the body of 18-year-old Peter Doyle of Sandyford from a quarry hole on Three Rock Mountain as a 15-year-old. He was a piper with the Fintan Lalor Pipe Band and, by his own admission, as a soldier he was a well coached marksman.

His untold story is like hundreds of others caught up in the events of Easter week. His commanding officer Captain Diarmuid Lynch was the last man to leave the GPO. Crimmins, from Ballybough, had the distinction of being the last volunteer from the GPO garrison to be taken prisoner on Sunday, April 30 after he left the GPO on April 28, 1916 with a group led by The O'Rahilly, in an abortive attempt to link up with the volunteers in Williams and Woods or the Four Courts.

Crimmins was 12 years old when he joined Na Fianna, which was based in Liberty Hall. Later he transferred to the Camden Street branch only because they were starting a piper's band and it was there that he learned to play the bagpipes, to drill and use firearms. Most of the arms training was done at or near Countess Markievicz's cottage in the Dublin Mountains.

In 1915, he transferred to E Company, 2nd Battalion of the Irish Citizen Army and while that unit was assigned to Jacob's factory on Easter Monday, for some unexplained reason Crimmins was not mobilised that morning. In fact he had planned going to the Dublin Mountains with some friends when he got the news that the "scrap was on". "So I went back home, changed into my uniform, got my rifle and 45 Colt revolver and said goodbye to my mother, telling her to get some food in because no one knew how long the fight would last."

Tom went to Liberty Hall where he was assigned to guard duty and it was while there, under the instructions of O/C Capt Frank Thornton that they commandeered a lorry full of beef and took it to the GPO, entering on the Princess Street side.

It was then that he met 41-year-old Kerryman The O'Rahilly for the first time, as well as Jim Connolly and Padraig Pearse. Crimmins was put under the command of Diarmuid Lynch who had him carry out several tasks, including sniping, as well as caring for the British prisoners, who were well treated, and in the command of The O'Rahilly.

By Friday, April 28, the GPO was under severe attack and serious fires had started on the roof. "I was told by my officer to report to The O'Rahilly in the cellars where a lot of homemade grenades were stored. The fire was getting close to them and we played a water hose over them before we moved them to a safer place. We then went to the main floor and witnessed Pearse and Connolly announcing the decision to evacuate."

Crimmins told me how he remembered The O'Rahilly suggesting that he would take an advanced party from the Post Office. "I was standing beside Pearse and Tom Clark as The O'Rahilly asked for volunteers. I think it was 12 men he was looking for, but there was no shortage of people stepping forward and five of them were friends of mine."

Crimmins had also been asked to carry the injured Jim Connolly out of the Post Office. He had to decline because of his commitment to The O'Rahilly. But his two friends from Na Fianna, Harry Walpole and Louis Marie, were members of the stretcher party. Five of the volunteers that stepped in behind O'Rahilly were also his friends - Gibson, Kenny, Shortis, Dowling and Green.

"It was about 4.30 when Pearse said a few words and we marched out into Henry Street, removing the barricade on the way. The O'Rahilly had his Lugar revolver mounted on a wooden stock and we formed two lines behind him as we went into Moore Street - The O'Rahilly moving forward quickly, taking the right side, with Patrick Shortis and Joe Gahan next in line. There was no cover from the GPO because all the men were by now downstairs getting ready to evacuate. We had just entered the street when I saw a British sniper rush from a house on the opposite side of the street. I fired and he went down. At the same moment, they opened up with machine-gun fire from Great Britain Street (Parnell Street). I made my way as far as O'Hanlon's Fish Market and I got hit in the ankle and at the same time the stock of my rifle was shot in two. My left ankle was shattered.

"I followed The O'Rahilly until I got to Sackville Lane (it is now O'Rahilly Parade). I got out of the line of fire and removed my badly damaged boot. There were only four of us who got down that far - O'Rahilly and myself on the right and the Fianna lad James Saville and another man I did not recognise on the left. It was probably Patrick Shortis?

"The O'Rahilly went by the lane and was standing hidden in a doorway. When he made a dash to get into Sackville Lane they opened up on him with rifle and machine-gun fire. He fell on the sidewalk in Moore Street and the corner of the lane. He said he was hit in the stomach and the spine. He was not able to crawl very far, and he was praying aloud. He asked me how I was and I told him about my ankle."

Crimmins tried to get into the fish market shop and a pub in Sackville Lane. Both were locked. He crawled down the lane to a tenement house. He went inside to rest and later went back to O'Rahilly in the hope he could get his leader to crawl into the tenement. Crimmins could not pull him because he could not stand. He was then ordered by The O'Rahilly to look after himself.

"I got back into the flat, had some biscuits and water and fell asleep on the bed. Next day I woke up with a start. There were three young fellows in the room. I knew two of them - a Kelly and Carney. Their families had shops in Moore Street. I asked them if there was a dead volunteer at the corner. They said he was not dead and that there were British soldiers all over the place. It was Saturday morning, April 29."

The three young fellows left the area without saying anything. Crimmins went back to bed and again fell asleep. When he awoke on the Sunday morning he had lost track of time and knew nothing about the surrender the previous day. He was taken out and removed to the Red Cross Hospital in Dublin Castle as a prisoner.

"I was the last member of the GPO garrison to be arrested. A few weeks after that arrest I was visited by Sheila Humphries, a relative of The O'Rahilly, enquiring about the gold watch which he was wearing. It was my guess that it was lifted by the British military since civilians were not allowed near the body."

Crimmins' ankle was seriously injured, so much so that he wore a prosthesis for the rest of his life and a special boot. He emigrated to the west coast of the United States in the early 20s, working at several jobs including being bodyguard and driver for the owner of the Reindeer Brewery in Seattle.

It was there, and in Spokane, following the death of his wife that he befriended my sister-in-law Mary Collins from Dunlavin, her Kinsale-born husband John and met my future wife Phyllis. I got to know and appreciate his stories when he returned to live in Ireland in late 1961 after buying a home at Bayside, Sutton.

Following the 1966 50th anniversary of the Rising, and mainly because of his dislike for the Irish weather, he returned to the United States, where some years later he passed away without ever finding out if the gold watch belonging to The O'Rahilly was ever recovered.

Sunday Independent

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