Monday 21 October 2019

The heroes hidden in the archives

The rebels weren't saints or fanatics. They acted as they thought best in violent times

Moral rigour: Sean MacDermott, pictured circa 1910, was a leading organiser of the Irish
Republican Brotherhood, and was executed following the Easter Rising Photo: Sean Sexton/Getty Images
Moral rigour: Sean MacDermott, pictured circa 1910, was a leading organiser of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and was executed following the Easter Rising Photo: Sean Sexton/Getty Images
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

Charlie Saurin was 18 and he'd a choice to make and I think he made the right one. He joined the Irish Volunteers in 1914, with about 180,000 others.

The next decision he had to make was when he rejected John Redmond's call to join the British army and defend the Empire in the First World War. All but about 11,000 of his comrades went with Redmond, splitting the Volunteers.

On Easter Monday, April 24, 1916, at the age of 20, Charlie Saurin turned out with F Company, 2nd Battalion, Dublin Brigade, at Fairview, to declare a republic. The right decision, I think.

By chance, I came across Saurin's statement in the Bureau of Military History. I had no intention of writing a book on 1916. I have an aversion to flag-waving, and both my grandfathers were in the British army in 1916. But Saurin's voice, and that of his captain, Frank Henderson, drew me into the story.

For the first 50 years after the Rising, the Volunteers were treated as saints, beyond criticism. From about 1970, with the North afire, condemnation of the Provisional IRA inexorably morphed into portraying all nationalists, including the 1916 veterans, as mindless flag-wavers aflame with blood lust.

The voices in the archive give the lie to those depictions of the men and women of 1916 - they were neither saints nor lunatics.

There were, of course, some flag-wavers among them. But most were intelligent people. They lived in a subordinate country, badly and sometimes cruelly governed by an empire confident of its own superiority. They assessed the options and made the choices they thought best.

We know the independent Ireland they shaped was in turn badly and sometimes cruelly governed by a coalition of conservative politicians and Catholic bishops, confident of their own superiority. History doesn't play out like a drama, with conflict leading to resolution. It's a continuing story.

From statements made by members of F Company, and statements of others referring to them, I constructed a narrative of their experiences that week, as Saurin and his comrades moved from Fairview to the GPO and Clery's, and from there through the frantic hours before the surrender in Moore Street.

Few in the archives spoke in heroic phrases - they talked of "the scrap". You accepted the rule of the empire, or you trained for a scrap.

If there are heroes in times of turmoil they are such people, the rank and file who quietly make courageous choices when faced with a turning point in history.

By 1912, the scent of impending violence was in the air.

Today, those who condemn the Rising say the legalising of Home Rule, achieved by John Redmond, would have brought as much independence as was achieved. The rebels, they say, needlessly chose a violent path.

That is not what happened.

First, the choice was not between peace and violence. When the First World War started, it was made clear that the future implementation of Home Rule depended on Redmond and his party agreeing to recruit tens of thousands of men as cannon fodder for the war between the empires.

Second, had the Rising not happened, with the consequent eruption of national feeling, conscription would have been attempted earlier, and would have had a better chance of success. Charlie Saurin would more likely have wielded a rifle in France than in Dublin.

Third, the Home Rule on offer was pitiful. Take the word of Home Rule supporter Arthur Hammond Norway, Secretary of the Post Office in Ireland, an able, loyal servant of the crown, who described himself as "a liberal of the imperialist school". After independence he wrote that Redmond's Home Rule "differed widely" from what was achieved by the War of Independence. All it offered was "a purely subordinate legislature in Dublin, subject in all respects to the ultimate control of parliament at Westminster". London could review and reverse all Acts passed in Dublin.

Even this was postponed while the British empire fought the German empire.

Fourth, the greatest fear of violence was not that of a nationalist uprising but the threat of a civil war initiated by unionists.

They had already set up a paramilitary army, the Ulster Volunteers, and imported tens of thousands of modern weapons. They were blunt: if the government tried to implement parliament's decision on Home Rule they would launch a civil war. British army officers made it clear that they would not enforce the rule of parliament, they would side with the unionists.

In response, the nationalists set up the Irish Volunteers. They imported about 1,500 obsolete rifles.

While the authorities tolerated the gun-running by the Ulster Volunteers, they attempted to seize the Howth guns. They failed, and crowds jeered the soldiers. The soldiers fired and bayonetted civilians at Bachelors Walk. Four died, 38 were wounded. These were the first killings in the struggle.

It was rage at this incident that caused Charlie Saurin and thousands more to join the Volunteers.

Three things are clear from the archives: the Rising was planned secretly by the IRB; most rank-and-file Volunteers didn't know when the Rising would happen, but they knew it was coming; and the leaders gave plenty of warning that anyone not inclined to fight should leave.

Thomas MacDonagh addressed F Company the Thursday before the Rising: "Don't worry about your families - our friends in America have provided sufficient funds to ensure they'll be looked after."

There was no question of the rank and file being duped.

But, say those who condemn the Rising, the Volunteers didn't have a mandate.

True. It was an age of violence and no one sought a mandate for killing. No one sought a mandate to defy in arms the decisions of the House of Commons. No one sought a mandate for the Battle of the Somme.

But, say those who condemn the Rising, it brought destruction on Dublin.

So it did. The 1,500 rebels took fixed positions and prepared to give their lives in a fight against an army of thousands. It never occurred to anyone that the British would unleash a barrage of artillery shells and an unceasing hail of machine gun bullets into a densely populated inner city.

It hasn't been fashionable to say this, but it's true: the rebels fought cleanly and behaved with restraint. The British were reckless with the use of artillery and machine guns, and official policy led to a string of murders.

The insurgents "fought very bravely", Prime Minister Asquith told the House of Commons. "They conducted themselves as far as our knowledge goes, with humanity."

The British army murdered civilians at North King Street. Orders to take no prisoners led to blatant murder elsewhere. At the Mendicity Institute, two soldiers discussed how they should kill a wounded Volunteer, Richard Balfe - by gun or bayonet. A British medical officer saw what was going on and claimed Balfe as his prisoner. There has been enough dirty work, he said.

At Guinness's factory two British officers and two factory workers were stood against a wall and shot dead in cold blood by soldiers who believed they were rebels, and therefore could be legally killed.

On the way to the GPO, a rebel pointed out a detective named Hoey, who had proved very efficient at harassing nationalists. Let's kill him now, he said. Sean MacDermott was livid at the suggestion. You do not shoot policemen in the street. Ten days later, at Richmond Barracks, MacDermott - his significance unrecognised by the British - was on his way to be interned. Hoey passed by, saw him and arrested him and MacDermott was executed.

During the War of Independence, Michael Collins set up a squad of assassins who specialised in shooting policemen in the street. One of those they killed was Hoey.

MacDermott was the more morally rigorous, and it cost him his life.

Collins was ruthless, and brought the British to the negotiating table.

That, for good or ill, is the truth of it. And Collins's success - not the Rising - led to a belief in the efficacy of violence.

On that first day of the Rising, crouched at the parapet of Newcomen Bridge, Charlie Saurin saw a British sentry on the railway line 200 yards away. He lined up the shot, the enemy soldier oblivious to the danger.

When the order came to move out, minutes later, Saurin still hadn't squeezed the trigger. He'd responded with courage and enthusiasm that morning, when engaging in a shooting match with a force of 100 British soldiers at Fairview. Now, he chose not to shoot the unsuspecting enemy.

Some 30 years later, he remembered that moment. Perhaps he wondered if the soldier he spared survived the Great War to have descendants who would be around 100 years later, because Saurin was dutiful as a soldier, but not bloodthirsty.

Members of F Company continued the fight after 1916. When the Treaty was signed and an unnecessary Civil War broke out, Captain Frank Henderson went with de Valera. Charlie Saurin went with Collins. I think he was right in that decision, too.

Gene Kerrigan's The Scrap is published by Transworld.

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