Tuesday 20 August 2019

Revealed: The story of the mystery Englishman who fought for Ireland

Arthur Wicks was killed after an explosion at the GPO
Arthur Wicks was killed after an explosion at the GPO
Ian MacKenzie was shot dead in Cork

Alan O'Keeffe

The mystery of Arthur Wicks, an Englishman who took up arms to fight for Irish freedom, remained unresolved a century after he died from his wounds.

He is not listed by his real name on the 1916 Rising monument that was unveiled in Glasnevin Cemetery three years ago.

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He is listed under his alias ''John Neal''.

He was one of a number of people from Britain without any close connection to Ireland who chose to fight against British forces in Ireland between 1916 and 1921.

Historian Dr Padraig Og O'Ruairc tells the story of Wicks and writes about a number of men from Britain who deserted British forces to fight for Ireland during the War of Independence in a booklet entitled Deserters, Defectors and Diehards to be launched this Saturday.

"While a few dozen 1916 and War of Independence rebels were from Britain, most had Irish ancestry but some, like Wicks, had no links with Ireland," said Dr O'Ruairc.

The 1916 memorial wall in Glasnevin lists the names of rebels and members of the British forces, the police, and civilians who died in the conflict. The name ''John Neal'' is listed as a civilian.

The Englishman was the son of a bootmaker from Norwich. He worked in the hotel industry in England and joined the Industrial Workers of the World in 1911. He was known as a trade union orator.

He was imprisoned for his key role in the 1913 London Hotel Strike. On his release, he discovered he was blacklisted to prevent his employment in hotels in Britain.

He moved to Dublin in March 1916 and placed an advertisement in The Irish Times seeking employment in the hotel sector using the name ''John Neal''. He found work as a waiter and later was hired by the Shelbourne Hotel.

When the Rising broke out, he joined the Irish Citizen Army which was led by James Connolly who was born and raised in Scotland.

Irish Citizen Army veteran Thomas Craven recalled the 23-year-old Englishman had dark hair and bright dark eyes. He wore an Industrial Workers of the World badge as he asked to join the revolution.

Wicks told Craven he was a ''conscientious objector'' to fighting for a capitalist and imperialistic government and he also had a conscientious objection to being left out of a fight for liberty.

He was accepted when he reported for duty at the Rising's headquarters at the GPO.

Wicks was among 10 Irish Citizen Army members sent to Fairview in the afternoon of Easter Monday to occupy the Wicklow Chemical Manure Factory at Ballybough Road. During the first two days of the insurrection, Wicks and his comrades made sniping attacks on British soldiers.

The men became heavily outnumbered and were recalled to the GPO where they were commended by Patrick Pearse.

Wicks and others were then sent across the street to occupy the Metropole Hotel where they remained during three more days of heavy fighting.

As the hotel came under artillery fire, the volunteers were evacuated but Wicks and volunteer Charles Saurin were ordered to remain behind on the top floor to monitor enemy movements. Saurin said Wicks bravely remained on a parapet using a pair of field glasses, oblivious to the danger.

"He was one of the calmest and bravest individuals that I have ever encountered," Saurin recalled years later.

On Friday, Wicks and others were ordered back to the GPO which was being evacuated. An ammunition pouch exploded and Wicks suffered devastating shrapnel injuries.

Saurin remembered Wicks falling against him, saying "Can't you stand away and let a fellow lie down?"

Lying across a pile of mail sacks, Wicks told rebel officer Oscar Traynor: "I'm dying, comrade."

Traynor recalled later: "Upon his handsome face a look settled that I can only describe as dignified in the extreme."

Following the surrender, Wicks was carried on a stretcher to Dublin Castle and he died that night in the castle courtyard.

He was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery in the area that became the 1916 plot and he was listed as ''John Neal''. On the memorial wall unveiled in 2016, he is listed as ''Neal, John - Civilian''.

Dr O'Ruairc said it was "a disgrace" that Wicks was not acknowledged on the monument as a combatant who fought for Irish freedom.

A Glasnevin Trust spokeswoman said it required two contemporary primary sources for a name to be included in the Necrology Wall. The name John Neal was found entered in the cemetery register following his burial and the name was also included as a casualty in the 1916 Rebellion Handbook published at the time.

Such is the complex nature of Irish history, Dr O'Ruairc stated that 41 Irishmen killed in the 1916 Rising were on duty in the ranks of the British Army and police.

Another man from Britain to take up arms for Irish freedom was a young Scotsman, Ian MacKenzie, from the Highlands who joined the Irish Volunteers during the War of Independence.

His brother was killed in action in France in 1916 and his father was a major in the British army. His mother later moved with Ian to Killarney, Co Kerry, in the hope of saving her son from conscription and death in the trenches.

MacKenzie spoke Scots Gaelic and he was able to converse with native Irish Gaelic speakers. In 1918, he moved to the Gaelic speaking district of Ballingeary in Co Cork to study Irish.

He became involved with the Irish volunteers and was arrested by police for possession of a revolver. He was released without charge and he later cheekily demanded the revolver back but was refused.

A friend of MacKenzie, journalist Geraldine Neeson, described him as "a most attractive person whom we all liked very much. An extrovert… he had a sharp frequently used wit and a clear, infectious laugh, and was excellent company".

MacKenzie's main role was making improvised grenades for the IRA and he travelled to England in early 1921 and returned with 11 new revolvers. He took the Republican side in the Civil War and was shot dead in Cork in 1922. He is buried in the Republican Plot in Saint Finbarr's Cemetery in Cork City.

Dr O'Ruairc's book also details a number of British soldiers with no links to Ireland who went over to the other side to fight for Irish freedom.

'Deserters, Defectors and Diehards' will be launched in Connolly Books, Temple Bar, Dublin, at 3pm this Saturday.

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