Friday 17 November 2017

My 1916: The scars of Easter Rising surround us

Paul O'Brien is the author of a new book exploring the military strategies that set Dublin aflame in 1916

Retracing steps: Paul O'Brien
Retracing steps: Paul O'Brien
My 1916 Badge

I was born and reared in Dublin, a city that is unique in Europe in more ways than one. Hidden among its urban landscape one can find an urban battlefield that, unlike the case in many European counterparts, is still intact today.

On April 24 1916, Patrick Pearse declared an independent Irish Republic from the steps of the General Post Office on Sackville Street, Dublin. As this event was taking place, Republican forces occupied a number of strategic positions throughout Dublin city. This was to be the beginning of a week-long bloody conflict.

Unlike castles and cathedrals, the battlefields of the Easter Rising are not easily found, however, they are still there, hidden among modern development.

The 1916 Rising was one of the first conflicts of the 20th century that saw the use of urban combat. For the ordinary soldier, urban combat would become known as Fighting in Someone Else's House (F.I.S.H) and Causing Havoc in People's Streets (C.H.I.P.S). Walking the streets of Dublin city, one may travel back in time to that turbulent week that was to change Ireland's future.

The 1916 Rising was planned and executed by an inner circle within the leadership of the Irish Volunteers. The military plan involved seizing a number of strategic buildings that were in turn supported by a number of outer posts.

The Irish Volunteers had undergone months of rigorous training in relation to fighting in built-up areas. Weekends were spent in Finglas and the Dublin mountains, learning assault and defence techniques.

However when the Irish Volunteers' Chief of Staff, Eoin McNeill, became aware of the plans he issued a countermanding order cancelling the mobilisation of the Volunteers that was to signal the beginning of the Rising.

Although this order dramatically reduced the number of Volunteers who turned out, it was decided to start the rebellion on Easter Monday 1916. On that Easter Monday morning, the rapid deployment of each Volunteer battalion in their designated area of operations ensured a strong defensive perimeter had been established before British troops could react.

The First Battalion of the Irish Volunteers were ordered to occupy and hold one of the most iconic buildings in the country; the Four Courts on Inns Quay. A defensive line was established that ran from the Courts on the north bank of the River Liffey to Cabra, where it was to link up with the Fifth Battalion under the command of Commandant Thomas Ashe.

Captain Sean Heuston was ordered to take and hold the Mendicity Institute situated along the quays of the River Liffey at Ushers Island. By holding this position, it would give Daly's unit time to take up and fortify their posts in the surrounding area.

The Second Battalion under Commandant Thomas MacDonagh, occupied and secured Jacob's Biscuit Factory. The Third Battalion of the Irish Volunteers under the command of Commandant Eamon de Valera, were assigned the defence of the southern approaches to the city centre. The Battalion was seriously under strength with only 120 men turning out when the unit consisted of 400 troops.

This area consisted of one square kilometre of dense urban terrain that even with the Third Battalion at full strength they would have had difficulty in covering the sprawling district. De Valera occupied the Boland's Bakery as his Battalion headquarters.

A unit from C Company under Lieutenant Michael Malone were detailed to cover the bridge at Lower Mount Street resulting in a battle that saw British Forces suffering their heaviest casualties that week.

Commandant Eamon Ceannt commanded the Fourth Battalion of the Irish Volunteers occupied the South Dublin Union (now St. James's Hospital) and a number of outposts in the surrounding area.

Ensconced in a labyrinth of streets, alleyways and hospital buildings, the Volunteers created a killing ground that would witness some of the fiercest fighting of the 1916 Rising.

Those Volunteers who would make up the Headquarter Battalion to occupy the General Post Office were drawn from the four city Battalions, the Irish Citizen Army and the Kimmage Volunteers. Men and women from these units would also occupy a number of outer posts in the immediate area.

Elements of the Irish Citizen Army occupied City Hall and St. Stephen's Green. Commandant Michael Mallin and his unit were detailed to occupy the Green as it was to serve as a depot for supplies and munitions. The reason to occupy and hold City Hall was to keep those enemy forces in Dublin Castle holed up so that they could not move out into the city.

In the week that followed, fierce fighting involving rifle, machine-gun and artillery fire devastated what many people considered what was the second city of the British Empire. Thousands of people lost their lives with more civilians being killed than combatants.

Te battle for Dublin city remains a classic study in urban warfare that clearly demonstrates not only the rigours and demands of fighting and defending in a built-up area, but also the valour and fortitude demanded of the soldiers and volunteers who fought in such a situation. The British army retook Dublin city from the Volunteers but paid a high price in doing so.

Today as one travels through the city, the battle scars of that Easter week can still be seen in many of those buildings that still play witness to that eventful week in Irish history.

'Battleground: The Battle for the General Post Office 1916', is published by New Island Press.

Irish Independent

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