Sunday 18 February 2018

The accidental front-liners

As the Rising erupted, Dublin descended into a surreal, chaotic and ultimately deadly place for ordinary civilians, writes Richard McElligott

Wynn's Hotel, Abbey Street, Dublin in the aftermath of the Rising.
Wynn's Hotel, Abbey Street, Dublin in the aftermath of the Rising.
British soldiers force entry to a rebel building during The Easter Rising
Francis Sheehy Skeffington pictured with his wife Hannah Sheehy Skeffington
Dr Richard McElligott

The Rising was an undemocratic act. The rebels represented the political margins of Irish life in 1916 - an unlikely cohort of Sinn Féin advocates, Fenians and socialists. As the Irish MP John Dillon mused, this was the first insurrection in Irish history in which the British Government had the majority on its side.

However, it was the ordinary people who would suffer most as the battle between the forces of the self-proclaimed Irish Republic and the British Army pounded central Dublin. The civilian experience of Easter week has often been overshadowed in accounts of the rebellion. Yet their fate during these six days illustrates the merciless nature of modern urban warfare.

Dublin basked in glorious sunshine on Easter Monday. Indeed frustrated at the lack of action the previous day, many of the Volunteers had decided to absent themselves from their units and follow the throngs making for the highly popular annual race day at Fairyhouse. The city centre itself was relatively quiet as bank holiday crowds clambered onto trams and trains seeking to make the most of the fine weather.

Little heed was paid to the band of armed and uniformed Volunteers, making the short march from Liberty Hall towards the GPO shortly before noon. After all, due to the Great War, men in uniforms had become ubiquitous on Dublin's streets. Marches by the Irish Volunteers had also become a common occurrence. It was only when the force wheeled right and charged into the GPO and physically evicted the bewildered customers and staff inside that passers-by began to suspect that something serious was unfolding.

As the rebels began taking over buildings and commandeering vehicles to construct barricades, clashes with civilians became inevitable. In St Stephen's Green, one old man, who repeatedly tried to remove his lorry from a barricade near the Shelbourne Hotel, became an early fatality when he was shot dead by an exasperated Volunteer.

Among the race day patrons crammed into the hotel bar, the atmosphere of light hearted bemusement gave way to the screams of onlooking women. Violent encounters with civilians were a regular occurrence during the first hours of the Rising and naturally had an unsettling impact on the rebels themselves.

When Volunteers occupied Roe's Distillery near Kilmainham, they ran into an angry mob of locals who came out to oppose their occupation and barricading of the streets. Many were 'separation-women', the wives or widows of enlisted Irishmen serving in the British Army. In order to disperse them, the Volunteers beat them back with the butts of their rifles.

The Rising's outbreak created a surreal atmosphere in Dublin. At first there were wild rumours that this was some sort of German invasion. Traffic into the city centre swiftly ceased while tramways ground to a halt. The postal service was completely disrupted and soon even the street lighting was cut off. The authorities quickly declared Martial Law across the city and cinemas, restaurants and public houses were forced to shut their doors. Shops and business closed and soon wages dried up. Banks ceased trading and even the well-off found it hard to buy essentials like bread and milk. Dublin finally experienced something of the war conditions suffered by Parisians of the era.

Shortly after the capture of the GPO, three members of the Dublin Metropolitan Police were killed. Immediately the decision was made to take the unarmed force off the streets. This vacuum in law and order was quickly exploited. Looting became a defining feature of the first days of the rebellion. Hordes of opportunistic individuals, mainly from the poverty-stricken inner city tenements, converged around Sackville Street to ransack shops and premises. Owners that got in the way were mercilessly beaten. Ernie O'Malley, who happened to be on Sackville Street, recalled looters selling "diamond rings and pocketsful of gold watches… for sixpence and a shilling". The situation became even more dangerous when they began to start fires to cover their actions.

For those who resided in Dublin's southern suburbs, the fighting and the fires attracted crowds of sightseers anxious to catch a glimpse of some action. Yet for those forced to live in the squalor of Dublin's inner city, the close quarter fighting proved deadly. It is estimated that around 256 civilians, 38 of whom were children, were killed over the course of the rebellion. Most were simply caught in the crossfire.

On Thursday 28 April, ferocious house-to-house fighting enveloped the area around North King Street as British troops advanced on rebel positions near the Four Courts. The British were forced to bore through walls from one house to the next, in the process several civilians sheltering in cellars were buried alive. Many more died from fires or stray bullets. Enraged by the heavy casualties they were sustaining, soldiers of the South Staffordshire regiment broke into the homes of locals on the Friday evening and shot or bayoneted 15 civilian men whom they accused of being rebels. A token military inquiry into the incident later concluded that the deaths could not be blamed on any specific individual.

Perhaps the most famous civilian death of the rebellion was Francis Sheehy-Skeffington. A well-known radical pacifist, he had been trying to organise a small crowd into an anti-looting patrol when he was arrested by a suspicious Army lieutenant on the Tuesday evening. Skeffington was taken to Portobello Barracks where, the next morning, Captain JC Bowen Colthurst of the Royal Irish Regiment executed him and two other innocent men he suspected of being involved in the rebellion.

The evening before, Colthurst had also casually shot dead a boy passing outside. Colthurst was declared insane during his subsequent court-martial but it is an indication of the frenzied atmosphere ordinary Dubliners endured that even after the killings, none of his superiors felt the need to detain him. He remained at large for some time.

In the fallout from the Rising, the attempts by the British Army to cover up the circumstances of Sheehy-Skeffington's death would become a long running and, arguably, fatal public relations disaster for the British administration in Ireland.

Dr Richard McElligott lectures in Modern Irish History in UCD.

Irish Independent

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