Tuesday 23 January 2018

Crowd of 200,000 turned out in the forgotten Easter of 1915

Charlie Chaplin was on in cinemas and the biggest hit was 'A Long Way to Tipperary'. Damian Corless catches the mood in the calm before the storm

Life 100 years ago: National Volunteers
Life 100 years ago: National Volunteers
Camogie players from 100 years ago

As Dublin's toffs and paupers strolled side-by-side in their parallel worlds at Easter 1915, none bar a handful of zealots had any cause to think that the next time the holiday came around, Sackville Street (as it was then called) would be razed to rubble.

On Easter Saturday 1915, some 200,000 spectators lined the streets from the Phoenix Park to the Parnell Monument at the top of Sackville Street to cheer a military parade of 27,000 National ­Volunteers. The Volunteers had been founded in 1913 as a counterweight to the Ulster Volunteers who were pledged to fight Home Rule tooth and nail.

John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party which held 73 of the 103 Irish seats at Westminster, had engineered a takeover of the Volunteers shortly after their foundation. Redmond inspected the troops at the Phoenix Park, and told reporters at the close of his show of strength: "I am informed that 20,000 regular troops are today engaged in the work of home defence, which most undoubtedly could be quite efficiently carried out by the magnificent body of Volunteers who visited Dublin today."

In other words, Redmond was putting his National Volunteers at the service of the UK state, and there was a big turn-out of politicians and officials from across nationalist Ireland to applaud the gesture of loyalty. The quid pro quo was that, at the war's end, Ireland would be granted Home Rule. As the big crowds cheered his formidable militia, it seemed that Redmond held all the cards, but there was another game in town.

The National Volunteers had started life as the Irish Volunteers. Redmond had taken the vast majority of the original force with him, down the road of cooperating with the British. This left a small but determined rump of some 10,000 members under the original banner, including IRB plotters Pádraig Pearse, Seán MacDermott and Éamonn Ceannt. This group kept most of the munitions, and intensified their training, in preparation for an armed insurrection.

The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) effectively took over the Irish Volunteers three weeks before Easter 1915, by clinching a number of top command posts. In the days and weeks after Easter, the IRB Military Council began to secretly firm up their Rising plans to mobilise the Irish Volunteers as their muscle.

The day after Redmond's big march, on Easter Sunday, Éamon de Valera led his battalion of Irish Volunteers in exercises at Finglas village. The untried Dev had just been promoted to commandant by Pearse, and senior officers who observed his first command reported back that Pearse had unearthed a fine military brain.

By 1915, the authorities and the newspapers had long fallen into the lazy habit of slapping the label 'Sinn Féin' on any anti-British group or action. One year on, the Rising would be routinely branded 'The Sinn Féin Rebellion' even though Arthur Griffith's party was not involved, and indeed was agitating not for a Republic, but for a devolved High King of Ireland.

In the run-up to Easter 1915, police raided the offices of the SF newspaper Scissors & Paste, shutting it down. By this point, just short of its 10th birthday, the party was, in the words of one member, "on the rocks", and so broke it couldn't pay the rent on its Harcourt Street HQ.

On that first Easter weekend of the Great War, much of Ireland was on the rocks, but the plain people made the most of the simple pleasures available to them. With the solemnities of Good Friday over, crowds poured into Sackville Street each of the next three days to catch trams to the seaside, while many thousands more made their way by the booming leisure vehicle of the day, the bicycle. A multitude flocked to the big race meeting at Fairyhouse.

For many, the city centre itself was the big attraction. Ice cream was a very rare treat, confined almost entirely to a cluster of Italian-owned parlours in Dublin and Cork. Silent movie cinemas were springing up and many of the larger towns had a music hall where comedians, bands and variety acts vied for applause. The biggest hit of the day was 'It's a Long Way to Tipperary', which had been published as sheet music three years earlier but had taken off as the signature tune of the troops in Flanders.

The holiday spirit was not universal. On the cusp of Good Friday, a temperance meeting in Dublin was told of "the shameless drinking of the wives and mothers of soldiers at the front". It was alleged that 'separation money' from the State was being "recklessly" squandered, leaving children hungry. Drink certainly was a problem in the sprawling red light district of Monto, a quarter square mile of crumbling tenements off Sackville Street. Just four years earlier, the Encyclopaedia Britannica had marvelled at how Dublin's skin trade was "carried on more publicly than even in the south of Europe or Algeria".

The brothels around Montgomery Street had sprung up to service the demands of British troops stationed here, but most of the troops arriving at Easter 1915 were Irishmen on leave from the front. As they stepped off the MV Leinster, any soldier with a pocket watch would have reset it to Dublin Mean Time. Ireland in 1915 ran its affairs 25 minutes behind GMT. In the wake of the Rising to come, Irish time would be extinguished by the British in the name of keeping a tighter control on this troublesome land.

* Dublin's O'Connell St will be closed to traffic on Monday as an army of volunteers in period costume transport the city centre back 100 years for the Road to the Rising festival. Attractions will include vintage gramophone serenades, silent movies, an Edwardian carousel, high teas, music hall acts and the spectacle of Clerys celebrated windows dressed as they were a century ago.


Easter Eggs: Chocolate eggs for the rich, painted duck eggs for the poor.

Sweet Treats: Sugar Plums; Jelly Babies; Fry's Chocolate Cream.

Top Movies: The Perils Of Pauline; Cinderella; Brewster's Millions; Around the World In 80 Days.

Top Box Office: Charlie Chaplin; Mary Pickford; Fatty Arbuckle; John Barrymore.

Top Sheet Music Hits: 'It's A Long Way To Tipperary'; 'Danny Boy'; 'Along the Rocky Road to Dublin'.

Bestsellers: Tarzan Of The Apes, Edgar Rice Burroughs; The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell.

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