When British Army reinforcements arrived in Kingstown to put down the Easter Rising in 1916 many of the soldiers thought they had been sent to France and one Cockney soldier ‘wondered how everyone he met spoke such good English.’ On Wednesday morning, on day three of the Rising, hundreds of these soldiers marched into South Dublin along Northumberland Road where Eamon De Valera, who was commandant of the 3rd Battalion of the Irish Volunteers, had anticipated this approach and had placed two outposts along the Road approaching Mount Street Bridge.
The Volunteers here waited until the advance detachment of the British had passed before opening fire: ‘those who came in our direction were completely wiped out’, said one Volunteer. “Isn’t this a great day for Ireland” said Volunteer Paddy Doyle. The engagement that followed at Mount Street Bridge accounted for almost half British Army casualties in the Rising and only sheer weight of numbers and superior firepower allowed the British forces to eventually push through. Volunteer James Doyle, who had been knocked unconscious during the fighting, woke up to find that his outpost had been ripped apart by bullets and explosions and that his comrade Paddy Doyle was dead.
The 4th Battalion, ordered to take over the South Dublin Union -, the largest poorhouse in the country with three thousand inmates – included William Cosgrave who was quartermaster to Eamonn Ceannt, a signatory to the Proclamation of the Republic. Cosgrave later took over command from Cathal Brugha after Brugha was so badly wounded by a grenade that he was not expected to survive.
Brugha “was a hard hater of everything British” and “knew nothing of fear and had little sympathy for anyone who did.” When the Volunteers were forced to vacate their position in the nurse’s home one asked Cosgrave if they would take Brugha with them even though Brugha, thinking he was done for, had told the volunteers to leave. Cosgrave replied that “a soldier’s duty was to obey and pointed the way with a .45 revolver swinging on his finger.” Nevertheless Brugha was later to say that he remembered Cosgrave’s “extreme kindness” when he was wounded and would not forget it.
Cosgrave had been at the inaugural meeting of the Volunteers at the Rotunda in Dublin and took part in the gun running at Howth. His brother also participated in the Rising and was shot dead by a British sniper during the fighting. Though his garrison was complimented by one of the British commanders for having fought against great odds his court martial, lasting only ten to fifteen minutes, declared a sentence of “guilty, death by being shot.” However, like many others receiving the same verdict he escaped the death penalty.
Commandant De Valera, who was responsible for the Volunteers at Mount Street Bridge and for the extent of the British losses inflicted there, also escaped execution by the British, the only commandant not to be shot by a British firing squad.
Cosgrave later became a leader of the pro-Treaty faction of the republican movement and became head of the Free State after the death of Michael Collins. The split in the movement over the Treaty led to civil war, amongst the first casualties of which was Cathal Brugha.
In pursuit of this civil war Cosgrave introduced military courts, saying that “we are not going to treat rebels as prisoners of war.” This included the execution of four prominent members of the anti-Treaty movement in retaliation for the killing of a pro-Treaty TD, Cosgrave stating that “terror meets terror.” One of the four was Rory O’Connor, who was wounded in the Rising, and another the radical republican Liam Mellows who in 1916 had led the biggest mobilisation of Volunteers outside Dublin in attacks in County Galway.
‘The Irish Times’ noted that this action “eclipses in sudden and tragic severity the sternest measures of the British Crown” and even Catholic Archbishop Byrne expressed dismay. Seventy more anti-Treaty republicans were executed in the next five months, including Erskine Childers who had been on board the Asgard when it landed guns in Howth.
As later head of the new Free State Government Cosgrave introduced a conservative policy of low taxation, balanced budgets and free trade, leading for example to a cut in the pension for the blind and a particularly unpopular cut in the old age pension of 10 per cent in 1924. Social policy included heavy censorship of films and literature, including a Committee on Evil Literature, plus legislation to outlaw divorce and “the unnatural prevention of conception”.
In 1932 the Cosgrave led Cumann na nGaedheal party failed to convince the electorate that the Fianna Fail party was communist, beginning decades of domination of that party led by De Valera before the reins of Taoiseach passed to fellow 1916 veteran Sean Lemass in 1959. His economic policy was less centred on agriculture and during the protectionist 1930s he was willing to promote national industrial development behind tariffs. His new constitution of the Irish State in 1937 recognised the special position of the Catholic Church and the position of women in the home.
He kept the Irish State out of and officially neutral during the Second World War and also used hated Cumann na nGaedheal laws to drag members of the remaining IRA before military tribunals, introducing internment of republicans and letting prisoners die on hunger strike. He also, like the Free State forces during the civil war and indeed the British, carried out executions of IRA members by firing squad. These included Patrick McGrath, another veteran of 1916.
While Liam Mellows had led the largest mobilisation of Volunteers outside Dublin in 1916 it was the Volunteers of the 5th Battalion led by Thomas Ashe in North Dublin and Meath that inflicted the most casualties. These forces led by Ashe were joined by another smaller group of Volunteers led by Richard Mulcahy, a future chief of staff of the Irish Republican Army.
Mulcahy’s plans for Easter originally involved a three-day religious retreat and a holiday with his family and while he got away on the first the second had to wait. Suffering from the same confusion of many volunteers who had seen the countermanding order against mobilisation by the leader of the Volunteers, Eoin Mac Neill, he went out uniformed ready to take part in the Rising if one was to take place.
After bumping into James Connolly, who didn’t confirm any plans to him, he later met Thomas MacDonagh, who told him to be ready to “strike at twelve”. This involved destruction of cables at Howth railway junction and with two other Volunteers he set off to carry out his orders, only to find out that one of his comrades had left his gun at home! Having got the errant revolutionary to go home and get his weapon the group came across two members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), who fortunately were so used to Volunteers marching about that they passed them by with hardly a glance. The Volunteers then carried out their orders and cut the Howth communication cables.
Having met up with Ashe, Mulcahy was made second-in-command, together leading the attack on two RIC barracks at Swords and Donabate. It was the attack on the barracks at Ashbourne however that was to be most dramatic and testified to the leadership qualities of Mulcahy.
Realising that the Rising had not gone to plan a number of the 5th Battalion Volunteers questioned the legitimacy of their actions and continuation of their attacks. In response Mulcahy gave a lecture on their duty to their country and after calling a vote only a handful failed to take the step forward that indicated their willingness to continue the fight.
The next day the Battalion attacked the Ashbourne barracks, defended by only ten RIC men. Just as the RIC inside were about to surrender a seventeen –strong column of cars containing at least fifty-four police appeared, threatening to reverse the outcome of the engagement and provoke a panicked rout.
Mulcahy prevented the panic and led the outnumbered Volunteers in holding their ground against the new RIC column, surrounding it and subjecting it to relentless fire from all angles – one volunteer Bernard McAllister recalled that “we had a clear view and decimated them with our fire. Some took cover under the cars but were visible to us there. . . our fellows were making bets as to who would shoot the most.”
Pressing home the advantage in an engagement that lasted over five hours the Volunteers led by Mulcahy pushed forward, resulting in fierce close-quarters fighting:
“John Crinigan of Swords looked through a gap in the ditch to locate any police, he was seen by D.I. Smith [Smyth] who fired at and shot him through the head with a revolver. Vice-Commandant Frank Lawless who was immediately behind joined fire on the D.I. with a Howth Mauser rifle at a distance of about 6 yards and shot him through the head.”
Richard Mulcahy then led a bayonet charge against the RIC who surrendered by throwing their rifles out on the road.
The victory was possible for a number of reasons, including that Mulcahy was able to convince Ashe not to retreat when the RIC column stumbled on the original attack. In many ways this action was significant because it prefigured republican military tactics during the later War of Independence in which Mulcahy was to play a major role. One of Mulcahy’s colleagues was to remark that he was the only one to come out of 1916 with a military reputation.
In the history of the later struggle however Mulcahy was very much overshadowed by the figure of Michael Collins, Minister of Finance in the Republican Government, Adjutant-General of the War of Independence Volunteers and Director of Intelligence, often portrayed as the tragic hero of the war against the British, comparable to those who were to be executed at the end of the Rising.
Collins too had taken part in the 1916 rebellion and though not then the renowned figure he was to become it has been noted that he stood out in a number of atypical ways. Before and during the Rising Volunteers showed remarkable piety and religious observance. This was a reflection of the strength of Catholicism in Irish society at the time, a strength which captured many later popular perceptions of the Rising as enshrining a Catholic ethos, leading to portrayal of the Rising in quasi-religious terms.
There are many reports of the Volunteers praying, holding rosary beads along with their guns, attending confession and receiving Holy Communion before and during the Rising. But this was not true everyone. Near the end of the week’s fighting as the morale of some began to falter Collins rounded on a fellow Volunteer for neglecting to focus on fighting by saying “Are you fucking praying too?”
Collins and Mulcahy were to become leading figures in the guerrilla war against Britain and then in the pro-Treaty regime that arose from acceptance of the peace terms dictated by the British. During the war Collins became the celebrated organiser of a special assassination unit called ‘The Squad’ formed to kill British agents and informers. Although criticised for his apparently ruthless approach he cited the universal war-time practise of executing enemy spies who were, in his words, “hunting victims for execution.”
In 1920 a bounty of £10,000 (equivalent in 2010 to £300,000/€360,000) was offered for information leading to his capture or death. One of his operatives in the Squad was Vinnie Byrne who had also ‘fought’ in the Rising as a fifteen year old, although he later admitted he never fired a shot and was released when the Rising was over after a stern lecture by a British officer.
Collins shared the leadership of the military campaign against the British with Mulcahy who also supported the Treaty, serving as Defence Minister in the new Free State Government from January 1922 until March 1924. During the civil war that followed the signing of the Treaty Mulcahy earned notoriety through his order that anti-Treaty activists captured carrying arms were liable for execution and a total of 77 anti-Treaty prisoners suffered this fate.
Another of Collins’ associates in the War against the British was Joseph McGrath who had taken part in fierce fighting in Marrowbone Lane in 1916 under the command of Eamonn Ceantt. He also supported the Treaty and as head of the Criminal Investigation Unit was responsible for abducting and killing Anti-Treaty republicans during the civil war. A policy of repression was also used against the regime’s first striking workers in September 1922 when the Free State Government opposed the right of postal workers to withdraw their labour. One of the workers’ pickets was shot, surviving only because the bullet deflected off her suspender buckle.
Collins had fought in the Rising as Joseph Plunkett’s aide-de-camp at the GPO alongside Patrick Pearse and James Connolly. Despite Pearse being commander-in-chief it was Connolly who was made Commandant-General of the Dublin Division, in effect leading the forces in the GPO, which was the headquarters of the Rising. One Volunteer remembered that “his physical energy and strength were amazing. He was always on the move”. His principal weakness as a leader according to Oscar Traynor was his indifference to his own safety, which was characterised by other Volunteers as “remarkable coolness.”
William Whelan noted that when some of his number were shaken by crowds looting shops and began firing wildly “Connolly came out of the Post Office and marched up and down in front of it. He said “Steady, we are going to have a good fight”. He quelled the panic”.
Connolly was wounded twice, the second more seriously, ending his effective leadership of the Rising. This also resulted in one of the most poignant episodes in the Rising – Connolly being carried on a stretcher to his execution as two members of the firing squad were ordered to aim at his head. He died without any movement, the bullets shattering the back of his chair.
In his last meeting with his daughter Nora she recalled her Mother’s lament “But your beautiful life, James’. “Hasn’t it been a full life? Isn’t this a good end?” he said. ‘Then they took us away.’
This full and beautiful life included founding the Irish Socialist Republican Party and the Irish Transport and General Workers Union; membership and organisation of socialist parties and the militant ‘Wobblies’ union in the United States; numerous Marxist writings on socialism, politics and Irish history and leadership of the Irish Citizens Army, which fought in the Rising.
In the centenary anniversary of the Rising we are called upon to remember those who fought. Let us remember them all.
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