Tuesday 19 November 2019

Courage was rebels' main weapon on that fateful day in 1916

Easter Monday was a day of revolution with no hope of military success, writes Tim Pat Coogan

A scene from the movie ‘Rebel Heart’, depicting rebels firing from within the GPO
A scene from the movie ‘Rebel Heart’, depicting rebels firing from within the GPO
Thomas Clark

Tim Pat Coogan

Thus Easter Monday in Dublin, 24 April 1916, dawned strangely and tentatively. It was to be a day of revolution with no prospect of military success - but pregnant with enormous, albeit largely unforeseen, potential. And as events transpired, it would become clear that this potential would be realised not so much through Irish efforts as through British actions and errors.

The plan, or rather, the hope, was to echo Robert Emmet's plan for an uprising in Dublin that would spark uncontrollable rebellion across the country.

The 1,500-odd rebels, as they fanned out across the city that Monday morning, intended to seize strategic buildings and locations, pin down British forces, bunker down - and hope for the best.

At first, some of these plans succeeded: the rebels seized City Hall, well located on high ground south of the river and adjoining the centre of British power at Dublin Castle, which, had the rebels realised it, was theirs for the taking since it had been left virtually unguarded because of the Easter holiday.

But the chance was missed, and the General Post Office - which commanded views up and down the wide boulevard of Sackville (now O'Connell) Street - became the principal command centre.

They also seized ground inside St Stephen's Green, where they began to dig trenches across the smooth lawns of the park. But lack of manpower meant that they did not seize the easily defensible quadrangles and grounds of Trinity College or the main railway stations.

The rebels' strategic shortcomings soon became all too evident. By the end of that first day, order was breaking down across Dublin; the rebels encamped in St Stephen's Green became the prey of snipers on the roofs of the surrounding buildings and were forced to take shelter in the Royal College of Surgeons building.

British control of the railway network enabled a secure flow of supplies and resources - and inexorably the noose began to close around the rebels, who had few weapons and resources and no artillery.

Machine guns played little or no part in their plans; the main weapon they had to hand was their courage. This enabled them to withstand bombardment and to hold their centres in Dublin for almost a week against a modern army equipped with artillery and resources in manpower which enabled thousands of troops to encircle the rebels.

Certain locations, certain figures, certain episodes are especially remembered. One such is the General Post Office, which became headquarters for the duration of the Rising and the base of, among others, Pearse, Connolly, Michael Collins - who would play a central role in later Irish history - and Thomas Clarke.

Clarke had become an icon of the physical force school because of his part in a dynamiting campaign in England organised by the Fenians towards the end of the 19th Century. He served a lengthy prison sentence in grim conditions under the alias of Wilson and his case aroused such sympathy in Ireland that even John Redmond was forced to campaign on his behalf.

On his release, he went to America and returned to Ireland in 1907. His little tobacconist's shop in Parnell Square in Dublin and his newspaper, 'Irish Freedom', became focal points for a new generation of would-be Fenians.

Chief amongst these was Seán Mac Diarmada, who grew up as part of a family of 10 brothers and sisters, raised in a tiny cottage on a remote Leitrim hillside. A bad hip meant that he walked in pain and with the aid of a stick, but he became the IRB's principal organiser, travelling the country, allegedly in his capacity as general manager of 'Irish Freedom' and in a real sense literally walking in Clarke's footsteps.

Clarke went into the GPO to take part in the fighting, even though he was then 59 and suffering from a bullet wound in his elbow, sustained during revolver practice before the Rising.

Another location was the rebel post in Boland's Mill, which, under the command of the American-born Éamon de Valera, was the last to surrender to the British. The area under his surveillance included Mount Street Bridge, the surroundings of which accounted for half of all the British casualties sustained in the Rising.

De Valera himself was out of contact with his men in the Mount Street area for much of the Rising period - but this did not prevent his reputation from being substantially burnished in retrospect. The Mount Street Bridge scenes, indeed, encapsulated all the bravery, all the tragedy and all the folly, not alone of Easter 1916 but of how warfare in general was conducted in the era of what was euphemistically termed the 'Great War'.

Firstly, the bridge was held by command posts containing only a handful of men, reduced in number because the Irish rebel leader commanding the posts, Michael Malone, sent a half a dozen or so of his youthful troops home in order to save their lives.

The remaining men were only lightly armed - though Malone himself held in his possession a Mauser automatic pistol and this had the potential to be a lethal weapon when wielded with skill. Interestingly, this pistol was given to Malone by de Valera when he discovered that his men at Mount Street were short of weapons. But they had enough in their possession to inflict losses on the British.

The first to walk into the Mount Street trap was a party of Home Guards, mainly middle-aged men who were marched from Dún Laoghaire, some six miles away, when news of the Rising broke. Their tunics were inscribed Georgius Rex. As a result they had been nicknamed 'gorgeous wrecks'.

They had no ammunition for their rifles and were mowed down when they encountered Malone's men.

The next party to arrive was a battalion of Sherwood Foresters, who had only recently disembarked at Dún Laoghaire. Some of them were so raw and inexperienced that they had to be shown how to fire a rifle on disembarkation.

They marched, hot and foot-sore, from the harbour at Dún Laoghaire to be cut down in a deadly fusillade from Malone and his men.

Amongst the Foresters was a Captain Frederick Dietrichsen, who had earlier sent his Dublin-born wife Beatrice and their children back to Ireland as a safer location in a Europe gripped by war. Marching towards the sound of gunfire with his men, Captain Dietrichsen was astounded to see his wife and children walking along the footpath. The family had a brief, joyful reunion before he had to run to catch up with his men. Dietrichsen was subsequently killed in the fighting.

The death toll would have been much less had General William Lowe, the British commander in Dublin, not ordered his troops to march along Mount Street to the city centre, clearing out the rebels en route.

His staff pleaded with him to allow them to take flanking routes to bypass Mount Street itself, but he insisted that his men march this route, to their deaths.

How much of the slaughter which occurred in the trenches during the Great War was caused by similar pig-headed instructions from brass hats to their men?

On the rebel side, meanwhile, both Malone and his deputy, James Grace, were eventually killed in the fighting. Malone's Mauser passed into the hands of a British officer - who in his turn many years later returned it to de Valera.

In a very real sense, de Valera's power flowed from the barrel of that gun.

Though the rebels had little by way of weaponry, they did have at their disposal the power of symbolism. In particular, the text of the Proclamation of the Republic, read that Easter Monday by Pearse from his position in front of the GPO, has taken on a power and authority of its own.

Irish Independent

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