Saturday, May 05, 2012

British drive Irish column from St. Stephen’s Green

By Robert A. Mosher

  • Part 1: Hitting the Road
  • Getting the Guns
  • Easter Monday's Battle Arrays
  • Howth Gunrunners' 1914 Route
  • Tracing Robert's Howth Trek: Google Maps
  • Heritage Partner Mercier Press: Irish Publisher Irish Story
  • Heritage Partner: Know Thy Place ... Discover the Archaeology of Your Ancestors  

  • View Mallin's Column in a larger map
    Dublin -- On Easter Monday in 1916, there were actually two major columns gathering at Liberty Hall -- despite the confusion created by the contradictory orders issued, retracted, and reissued over the previous weekend. Amid the numerous Irish Volunteers, there were members of two other organizations -- the Hibernian Rifles, representing a militant wing of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and of greater interest to us today, the Irish Citizen Army (ICA).

    The Irish Citizen Army was created in 1913 -- before the Volunteers themselves -- by James Connolly and the Irish Transport and General Workers Union as a special force to protect workers during the Dublin Lockout that year. With its more political and socialist message and labor-related motivations, the ICA was never going to be a large mass movement -- but it was going to be a resolute one. They wore a uniform of similar cut to that which the Volunteers would adopt, though of a darker green cloth, and they wore a broad-brimmed slouch hat with the left brim pinned to the crown as did the Boers during Britain’s recent war in South Africa. In Dublin, this hat was called a “cronje” for Piet Cronje, one of the Boer commanders. The brim was fastened in place by a metal pin in the shape of the red hand of Ulster.

    1870/87 Vetterli-Vitali rifle
    The most common weapon carried by the ICA was the Italian 10.4 mm 1870/87 Vetterli-Vitali rifle with a four round magazine (nicknamed “the gas-pipe” because of the shape of its breech and bolt mechanism). About 4,000 of these rifles had also been imported at Larne in Northern Ireland in 1914 for the Ulster Volunteer Force and some of these in turn ended up on the hands of the ICA and the Irish Volunteers in addition the Howth Mausers and other weapons.  

    Robert Mosher being filmed at Liberty Hall

    Like the Volunteers, the ICA had been affected by the confusion of recent days and perhaps only two-thirds of their expected numbers were present at Liberty Hall, some 250 in all. Some would join the Composite HQ battalion destined for the General Post Office, but ICA Commandant James Connolly had a clear mission for 100 of them. As he moved back and forth across the pavement in front of Liberty Hall, Connolly stopped to speak with his deputy commander, Michael Mallin, a Dublin-born veteran of British army service in India, who had been instrumental in training the ICA.

    Connolly orders Mallin to take his column across the River Liffey, past Trinity College, to St. Stephen’s Green. There he is to deny use of the roads surrounding the Green to the British army and to act as a link between de Valera’s battalion to Mallin’s east (at Boland’s Bakery) and Thomas McDonagh’s battalion to his west (Jacob’s Biscuit Factory). Mallin’s deputy commander in this mission is one of the most singularly striking personages of the Easter Rising -- the Anglo-Irish woman with the Polish name, Constance Markievicz. The Countess was especially striking today in her tailored ICA officer’s uniform crowned by a “cronje” cap topped with a flurry of green ostrich feathers. She also carried a .38 calibre C-96 “broom-handle” Mauser automatic pistol -- clearly she had no interest serving as a female “auxiliary” as did many women with the Irish Volunteers. 

    Mauser automatic pistol

    Constant presence of rooftop snipers

    At roughly 11:30 a.m., Mallin put his column in motion, turning on to Eden Quay and marching toward central Dublin. As we follow in his footsteps, we are heading along the quay into a part of Dublin that is heavily populated by tourists today as it is most days. For this march, I’m being followed by a videographer, Graham Dillon, and his crew. I wonder if the people on the Dublin streets that Easter Monday took any more notice of the Irish Citizen Army column than the modern denizens are taking of us.

    Street traffic in 1916 would have been made up of mostly pedestrians, electric trams, horse-drawn vehicles of all kinds, bicyclists, and a mere handful of still rare motorized vehicles. The Easter Rising would be mostly fought with muscle power, by men and horses. (And thanks to the tourists and the racing industry in modern Ireland, you will still occasionally see horse-drawn carriages and racing sulkies moving through the streets of Dublin.)

    Mosher crossing the O’Connell Bridge. Photo by Cashel O'Toole
    At O’Connell Street (which the English still called Sackville Street on that Eastern Monday even though many Dubliners had already “changed” its name), the General Post Office is visible up the street to the  right as the column turned left on to the bridge. Today, the surging crowd includes an amazing mix of international visitors, many of them students, and a veritable babel breaks out as they chat among themselves. On Easter Monday, there would have been far fewer people out and about on what was a holiday.
    Today, as we cross O’Connell Bridge, we can see to our left down the river the Customs House and tucked up against it Liberty Hall -- where Mallin formed his column and began his march. Upriver just a short way on the right, we can see the Four Courts Building and beyond that in the distance is the spire that is the Wellington Monument in Phoenix Park.

    We pause on the bridge and remark at how close the various sites of the battle are to each other -- easily within rifle range. Although much of the combat over Easter Week took place at ranges at or below 100 to 200 feet, there was also the constant presence of rooftop snipers whose long range marksmanship enabled a soldier at Trinity College to pick off Volunteers in the General Post Office, or Volunteers in the Four Courts to engage army snipers at Dublin Castle or in the bell tower at Christ Church Cathedral, both across the River Liffey.

    Mosher at Fusilier’s Arch, note 
    indentations from bullet strikes.
    Photo by Cashel O'Toole
    We resume our march from O’Connell Bridge on to the south bank of the River Liffey and follow in Mallin’s footsteps up Westmoreland Street and past Trinity College (still in 1916 a predominantly Anglo-Irish and Protestant institution). The road nearest the college is College Green where just before Easter on St Patrick’s Day of 1916, the Irish Volunteers held a parade with its reviewing stand here in front of the old Irish Parliament building (pre-dating the Act of Union in 1800). As we continue on, the street becomes Grafton Street, which takes us directly to the northwest corner of St. Stephen’s Green, Mallin’s objective.

    The gateway to the park here is marked by Fusiliers’ Arch, also widely known in 1916 as “Traitors’ Gate,” which commemorates the English war in South Africa against the Boers. One of the Volunteers’ commanders in this Rising, John McBride, was a veteran of that war in which he commanded an Irish Brigade that fought against the British in South Africa. In 1916, he was second in command to Thomas McDonagh at Jacobs’ Biscuit Factory to the immediate west. The arch and surrounding gateway still bear scars from the rifle and machine gun fire of the 1916 battle here.

    Shot dead -- 28-year-old constable Michael Lahiff

    St. Stephen’s Green takes its name from St. Stephen’s Church and Leper Hospital that stood on Mercer Street, just to the west, from the 13th to the 17th centuries. In 1916, that site is occupied by Mercer Hospital, built in 1734, and still active today. In 1916, it would treat numerous casualties from all sides.  The rectangular Green covers 22 acres (89,000 sq. meters) and has a series of connected ponds running along its longest northeastern side. The Green has a gate at each of its four corners.

    St. Stephen's Green monument to 
    Countess Markievicz. 
    Photo by Robert A. Mosher
    Historians and analysts continue to debate the reasons for the Volunteers to have occupied the Green rather than buildings that surround it. Numerous accounts suggest that they understood the potential value of those buildings, but in the end their lack of numbers left no choice but to try and create a consolidated position in the Green from which they could block the Army’s use of the surrounding roads rather than scattering their weak force into “penny packets” of 5-6 Volunteers each trying to hold different multi-story buildings. But the presence of the ponds, pathways, and plantings in the recently renovated and reopened Green would also make it hard for the Volunteers to move about and support each other against British attack. It may well be that all of the different arguments come down to the same basic problems -- not enough individual turned out Easter Monday to execute the plan that had been drawn up.

    Mallin’s column entered the Green in face of little opposition, save that the attempt of a single  unarmed constable, 28-year-old Michael Lahiff, from the Dublin Metropolitan Police, to physically block the column at the Fusilier’s Arch. While accounts disagree and are in some cases possibly overly lurid, he was reportedly shot down by Markiewicz with her Mauser automatic. Ironically, both Lahiff and the Countess would be interred at Glasnevin Cemetery.

    The C-96 Mauser pistols were widely used in 1916 and would continue to play a role throughout the War of Independence and the Irish Civil War. Nicknamed “Peter the Painter,” perhaps because of the paint-brush like rounded handgrip, their rate of fire and large magazines made them excellent weapons for urban warfare. It is suspected that in some instances, their rapid rate of fire persuaded British soldiers that the Irish had machine guns at some points around Dublin, when in fact the only possible machine guns would have been the 10 guns sent by the Germans, which, by Easter Monday, were rusting on the sea bottom near Queenstown.

    The Shelbourne Hotel, occupied by the British and used 
    to serious advantage as their four machine guns and 
    almost 100 rifles dominated the Green.
    Photo by Robert A. Mosher
    The ICA spent a quiet night in the Green after that initial moment of violence. Surviving photographs show that they were actually able to stop several automobiles and other vehicles and create roadblocks at points around the Green. As the night continued and the Volunteers rested, the forces of the Crown were already responding. Captain Carl Elliotson with 100 men of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers moved from Dublin Castle toward St. Stephens Green and during the night occupied the multi-story Shelbourne Hotel, which still dominates the Green from its position on the north side. Placing four machine guns at windows across the fourth floor of the hotel and riflemen at other windows and on the roof, the British waited for dawn. In the growing morning light, the British opened fire and their machine gun bursts were soon sweeping the Green searching out the Irish positions.

    The management of today’s Shelbourne was quite responsive to our interest in the role played by the hotel in the 1916 Rising and subsequent history of Ireland, within the limits allowed of not disturbing their guests -- the hotel being fully booked meant that we would not be able to see that view from the 4th floor windows. However, we were given a guided tour of the small museum in the hotel, with the guest register dating from the beginning of the Rising. (The army took full control of the hotel as soon as they arrived -- but tried not to disturb the guests already there!)

    Morning tea at the Shelbourne

    The Shelbourne staff told of tea being served in the hotel as planned, only to be disturbed by rifle fire from the Volunteers on the Green shooting back at the British army. The only casualty among the guests was the hat worn by one very English young lady who reportedly took the whole thing calmly and with regret only for the damage to her bonnet. Nevertheless, the full service of tea was reportedly suspended until after the Rising ended.

    Bullet marks on façade of Royal College of Surgeons.
    Photo by Cashel O'Toole
    The Volunteers were rather more seriously troubled by the British fire and at about 6:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Mallin ordered everyone out of the Green and into the sturdy building of The Royal College of Surgeons on the far side of the Green from the Shelbourne. They executed this move in several waves, and as often happens, only the first wave escaped unscathed as they caught the British by surprise. One ICA member is reported to have managed to reach the iron fence opposite the College of Surgeons when he was first wounded and then killed as he recovered and made a second attempt to get over the obstacle. The ICA had by now suffered perhaps a half dozen casualties. Unfortunately, the force was further weakened since Mallin had sent detachments from his original force south to the Portobello Bridge over the Royal Canal and eastwards toward the railway station in hopes of denying both to the advancing British reinforcements from England and the army camps elsewhere in Ireland.

    Not being under fire, our small band walked more casually around the perimeter of the Green to face the two-story Royal College of Surgeons building. Our vantage point suffered only from the fact that a modern LUAS tram station was between us and the sanctuary sought back in 1916 by the ICA column.  Graham did his best with the video camera, as modern Dublin commuters ignored us and the tourists looked to see if any of us were famous. We had, in fact, pretty much reached the end of the St. Stephen’s Green story. Mallin, the Countess, and company holed up in the Royal College of Surgeons building until word came on Sunday, April 30, that Padraig Pearse had surrendered on behalf of what was now called the Irish Republican Army.

    Present day Dublin at peace, the Ha Penny Bridge. 
    Photo by Cashel O'Toole
    The story of the St. Stephen’s Green column truly is an example of the “what might have beens” of 1916. The column failed to maintain control of the Green or of the roads around the Green despite their automobile roadblocks. They weakened their force by the dispersal of columns to hold the Portobello Bridge over the Grand Canal to the south, and to take and hold the nearby railway station. In both instances these forces failed, as well. The Portobello Bridge force (five men led by a disgruntled pub employee) did seize Davy’s Pub dominating the bridge and its approaches, but armed with only shotguns and rifles they were definitely outgunned by a much larger British force supported by machine guns. While they bought time for Mallin’s force to take hold of St. Stephen’s Green, holding the position might have been an even greater contribution. The shortage of manpower made this impossible.

    By way of interesting coincidence, the building that was “Davy’s Pub” in 1916 is up for sale, according to an advertisement in The Irish Independent of May 2, 2012. The ad reads in part “The Portobello Hotel, 33 South Richmond Street, Dublin 2; Landmark City Hotel, Bar and Nightclub Business. Prominent corner trading position overlooking the Grand Canal at Portobello Bridge.” WG

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