Sunday, May 20, 2012

Easter 1916: Vicious Fighting By Four Courts

By Robert A. Mosher

  • Part 1: Hitting the Road
  • Getting the Guns
  • Easter Monday's Battle Arrays
  • Howth Gunrunners' 1914 Route
  • 1,700 Take On the British Empire
  • Unspoken Tales of the Women in Ireland's Freedom Struggle
  • Heritage Partner Mercier Press: irish Publisher Irish Story
  • Heritage Partner: Know Thy Place ... Discover the Archaeology of Your Ancestors  

  •  Blackhall Street

    Possibly the shortest march to be made Easter Monday would be by 1st (Dublin City) Battalion of Irish Volunteers (minus their D Company). The Volunteers’ command had divided the city into four quadrants or quarters along the River Liffey and Sackville Street, and each battalion was then recruited in a particular quadrant. 1st Battalion was raised in the northwest. Their muster point on April 24 was at 5 Blackhall Street, almost in sight of the Royal (now Collins) Barracks on the north bank of the River Liffey. It was commanded by Tom Clarke’s brother-in-law Edward “Ned” Daly, the youngest – at 25 – of the battalion commanders, and himself from a longstanding republican family.

    1st Battalion’s mission was to occupy the Four Courts building at King’s Inn Quay on the north bank of the River Liffey and then secure an extended perimeter around it that would reach across the river to include the Mendicity Institution and north of the river as far as the Phibsborough neighborhood. The objective here was to block the British army at Royal Barracks and from Marlborough (now the Garda) Barracks from entering the central part of Dublin.  The area north of the Four Courts building, along North King Street and where it met Church Street would see some of the most intense urban warfare of the Easter Rising as both sides fought from room to room, building to building, and street to street through a densely populated and very poor neighborhood. This fighting may have seen the highest civilian casualties of the Rising.
    North side of the Royal (Collins) Barracks at Arbour Hill.

    Daly’s battalion mustered almost 250 men on Easter Monday -- perhaps the biggest turnout of any of the four Dublin battalions. Relatively tiny Blackhall Street must have been awash with activity as the men reported individually or in bands and then took their places in the formation. Only the dozen or so men of Company D and its Captain, Sean Heuston, reported elsewhere -- at Mountjoy Square, reportedly upon the orders of James Connolly himself. Daly would lead his column from Blackhall Street, turning right onto Queen Street, left on to Benburb Street, right on to Church Street, and finally left toward the Chancery Gate to the Four Courts building, which served the Chancery Court -- one of four housed here.

    A separate group of some 30 men had already reported to Phoenix Park, dressed for football rather than a revolution.  Paddy Daly (no relation to Ned) and Gerry Holohan led this band (with a new football purchased just that morning!) on to the playing fields adjacent to the Magazine Fort (and which still make up an important part of today’s Phoenix Park, to judge by the number of amateur athletes active during my own visit). These footballers approached the fort’s gates in pursuit of their loose ball, surprised the sentries, and quickly overpowered the small garrison.  While successful in obtaining control of the Magazine Fort, the attackers failed to get the hoped-for windfall of explosives, rifles, and ammunition since the British officer commanding the fort had the keys with him as he enjoyed the Bank Holiday races at Fairyhouse, outside of Dublin. Gathering up what arms and ammunition were still accessible, the Volunteers placed the few bags of gelignite (found with in the open small arms store) against the wall of the main ammunition storage building, lit the fuse, and left for the Four Courts.

    The west wall of the Magazine Fort with the sports fields 
    behind the viewer at this point.
    The explosion of these bags of gelignite would be the first indication to elements of the British Army that something out of the ordinary was going on that day. One soldier who had been on guard at the magazine would die of his wounds. The other early casualty was Gerald Playfair,  the 14-year-old eldest son of the Fort commander George Playfair, who was on duty in France. As the Volunteers were leaving Phoenix Park, they spotted the young man apparently running to spread the alarm to the nearby barracks. Garry Holohan took to a bicycle to chase him down and would shoot Playfair three times on the doorstep of a nearby house. It was one of those moments that marked the transition of the Easter Rising from a Victorian romance to a brutal reality played out in the streets of Dublin.

    Grenades tossed back and forth

    As I walk through the morning rush-hour traffic of Dublin, following Daly’s route to the Four Courts, everyone around me is concentrating on that next traffic signal, looking for the next opening in traffic, listening to their car radio or on their ear buds to their MP3 player or their phone, and show little recognition of the tragic history that surrounds them as they approach the Four Courts. That said, Dubliners are almost always welcoming and hospitable to visitors. One man in a business suit notices me on the street corner, map and guide book in hand as I peer at the streets and vistas around me. When he asks if I need any help, I explain to him that I’m following the route of the Volunteer column that occupied the Four Courts on Easter Monday some 96 years before. He acknowledged a general recollection of the history and listened as I explained where the column had formed up and how they had come to pass the corner where we stood, and declared, “You know more about it than I do!” – and then laughed as I pointed out my advantage over him since “I’ve got the book in my hand here.”

    Having seized the Four Courts, the 1st Battalion would then disperse to other buildings in the surrounding neighborhood and began barricading the streets in order to prevent the British army from passing through to reach the GPO and central Dublin.  Daly put his headquarters at the North Dublin Union on North Brunswick Street on the northern edge of his area of operations and dispersed his men to hold the Four Courts and additional buildings. Their perimeter would be marked by the River Liffey, Church Street to the West, Capel Street to the East, and North King Street to the north (though they expanded beyond it to the old Linenhall Barracks on Wednesday, occupied only by unarmed British army clerks).

    The Four Courts buiding at King's Inn Quay on the north 
    bank of the River Liffey. 
    Not garrisoned by 1st Battalion was the Mendicity Institution roughly a kilometer (0.6 mile) to the west on the south bank of the River Liffey. This was held by 1st Battalion’s D Company but had been personally ordered here by James Connolly rather than marching with the rest of the battalion. D Company was made up almost entirely of boys and young men either still in or only recently graduated from the ranks of Na Fianna Eireann, led by  25-year-old Captain Seán Heuston. At 1 p.m., about one hour after taking up their positions, they would also be among the first to seriously engage the British army as a column marched out of the Royal Barracks on the north bank and began marching toward the city center crossing to the south bank of the river to avoid the Four Court positions. The fighting at the Institution would rage on until Wednesday afternoon when the dwindling Volunteer force found themselves literally fighting across the window sills against grenade-tossing British soldiers in overwhelming numbers supported by machine guns. Some of the Volunteers were wounded or killed attempting to toss the grenades back at their besiegers.

    Snipers at work across city center

    The last Volunteer casualty at the Mendicity Institution would come as a British sniper several blocks away would fire on the Volunteers as they exited the building to surrender, apparently unaware that a surrender was in progress. The story highlights a key element of a battle for Dublin that was fought in the streets, in the buildings, and on the rooftops of the city. Snipers from both sides would engage each other across the skyline, from Dublin Castle into the Four Courts or the GPO on O’Connell Street, from the spire of Christ Church Cathedral into the Four Courts, from Trinity College into the GPO, and so on. Each unit on both sides were confronted not just by the others who could be seen at barricade or building window, but also by riflemen firing at them from several blocks distance. 

    A (time lapse) panoramic view of the Mendicity Institute site, now filled by a modern  building
    at the center of the image. The older building at the left and the wall, however,  still present
     their 1916 appearance​.

    On the other side of the river, the Volunteers in the Four Courts were engaged on Easter Monday when they fired on a small convoy of lorries and their mounted escort of Lancers making their way to the Magazine Fort in Phoenix Park, unaware they were riding into the midst of a rebellion.  Under fire, the five lorries turned back into Charles Street (east of the Four Courts building) and held there until relieved Thursday. A different unit of Lancers would be fired at from the GPO on Sackville (O’Connell) Street when sent to investigate the reported disturbances there.

    By Thursday, the South Staffords and Sherwood Foresters regiments had cordoned off much of the 1st battalion’s perimeter. The army and the Volunteers mostly exchanged fire from their respective barricades and buildings, but even with the support of an improvised armored car (courtesy of the Guinness workshops), the army could not break through.  The pub at the intersection of King and Church streets, nicknamed “Reilly’s Fort” (which still stands doing business as a pub as confirmed by a customer with whom I briefly chatted), was finally abandoned by the Volunteers after 15 hours of fighting late into Thursday/early Friday when they were almost out of ammunition but that had not resulted in any major British advance against the remaining Irish barricades and defended buildings.

    Reilly's Fort

    Even today this is primarily a residential street and you can still see in the neighborhood surviving examples of the small houses that would have lined North King and Church Streets in 1916. These houses were crowded with large families representing several generations or several households. Sanitation would have been poor, and water often provided via a communal tap on the street. There is still a memorial today to those killed in the 1913 collapse of two tenement buildings in this district.

    During the early morning hours of Saturday, the British army started copying the Irish Volunteers tactic of punching through the walls of the buildings lining North King Street, meaning that now soldiers, volunteers, and civilians would have been further intermixed. After making only 200 yards progress in this fashion, the Colonel ordered what would be another bloody charge down King Street into the rifles of the Volunteers still behind their barricades. The battalion of the South Staffordshire Regiment fighting here had been taking no prisoners from the onset, and the mounting casualties, fatigue, and frustration were not improving their mood. This would be the situation right up to the decision by Padraig Pearse that day to surrender the Irish Republican Army.

    As I study military history and especially the detailed accounts of wars, campaigns, and battles, my sympathies almost always lie with the average soldier rather than with those commanding the armies.  With a few exceptions, much of what happens to soldiers on a battlefield and how they react to those events is fundamentally beyond the control of the individual soldiers. One of the benefits that comes from walking a battlefield is the insight it offers into some of the factors affecting the soldier in battle. Street fighting, or as it’s called today “military operations in urban terrain” or MOUT, is just about the hardest kind of fighting there is for military organizations and requires either the very best of infantry personnel – or a lot of firepower to just knock down everything in sight.

    When I read accounts of actions such as those taken against civilians by soldiers of the South Staffordshire regiment along North King Street in the last days of Easter Week I start ticking off the contributing factors – poor training, poor leadership, poor command and control, poor situational awareness, poor communications, casualties taken with little compensating gain in either ground or casualties inflicted on the enemy, among others. But even with all of that , the only thing more shameful than these attacks on civilians is the virtual whitewash of this and other incidents carried out by the British Army leadership of the time. WG


    Johnny Doyle said...

    the man killed following the raid on the Magazine Fort was George Alexander Playfair, aged 23, rather than his brother Gerald. Gerald moved to Canada and died in 1934.

    Gerry Regan said...

    Johnny, thanks for this. How did you come on this bit of knowledge? BTW, why not join us as we continue to explore and celebrate the epic heritage of the Irish worldwide at our new site, at Gerry Regan