Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Irish Thermopylae’: 17 Irishmen Stymie Hundreds

Walking The Rising With Robert A. Mosher, Part 8 of 9


  • 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  

  • Monument to the Volunteers who 
    fought at Mount Street Canal 
    Bridge, possible erected as part 
    of the 50th Anniversary celebrations.
    All photos by Robert A. Mosher
    Dublin -- On Easter Monday, Commandant Eamon de Valera’s 3rd (Dublin City) Battalion was experiencing difficulties similar to those of the other columns as it tried to muster its Volunteers at Earlsfort Terrace (Companies A and C) and Westland Row. The battalion’s objectives were to neutralize the British force in Beggars Bush Barracks (now home to an apartment/townhouse complex) and to block the arrival of any reinforcements from the Royal Navy base at Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire), the principal landing place for troops coming from England. They intended to do this from Boland’s Bakery on Grand Canal Quay as well as from a number of additional supporting outposts all focused upon the several crossings of the Grand Canal that surrounds Dublin. This battalion would participate in some of the hardest fighting to confront the British army in Dublin during the Rising, although much of this would take place away from the Boland Mill and Bakery complex and de Valera’s headquarters.

    A Company mustered at Earlsfort Terrace, adjacent to St. Stephen’s Green, and was actually seen beginning its march by the then-arriving Irish Citizen Army column ordered to occupy the Green. The Company marched from the Terrace via Pembroke Street, around Fitzwilliam Square and on to Fitzwilliam Place (both locations of homes that would be used as hospitals during the Rising), and then along Merrion Square, finally moving down Mount Street to the area on the North side of the Grand Canal Street.  The Volunteers mustering at Westland Row, near the railway station now called Pearse Station, would march along Brunswick Street, turn on to Erne Street Upper and then Holles Street, from which they turned and deployed toward the Grand Canal. De Valera’s force at first muster would number only about 130 (and would include no women), and they would be thinly spread across his area of responsibility.

    Entrance gateway to Beggars Bush Barracks
    On Wednesday, the 2/7th Sherwood Foresters, as many as 400 strong advanced up the Northumberland Road toward the Mount Street Bridge over the canal heading for the first major encounter between de Valera’s 3rd Battalion and the British army. Having already scouted the march routes for the 3rd Battalion, I changed my strategy this time and rendezvoused with Dublin-based historian Mick O’Farrell, author of “A Walk Through Rebel Dublin 1916,” which I had picked up during this visit (as well as Mick’s newest book, “50 Things You Didn’t KnowAbout 1916”). Mick and I met at the corner of Baggot Street Upper and Haddington Road south of the Grand Canal (and on the British army’s left flank as it approached Dublin back in 1916.

    We start our time travel by walking along Haddington Road to visit St. Mary’s Church. Although the church’s website does not mention it, Mick tells me how the British army put snipers in the church’s bell tower and points out the visible pock marks where gunfire, presumably from the Volunteers, sought out those riflemen. We’re now about two-thirds of the way to Northumberland Road and as we approach the road intersection, Mick points out 25 Northumberland Road, standing on the west side of the intersection and overlooking the road for some distance. In the house that Wednesday were two Volunteers, Lieutenant Michael Malone and Section Commander James Grace (having sent two other volunteers who had not yet even reached the age of 16 back to their headquarters).

    On the other side of the Grand Canal, at the corner of Mount Street, stood Clanwilliam House (replaced now by a modern office block) also occupied by a party of Volunteers under George Reynolds. From that building, they had a dominating view of the bridge across the Grand Canal and of its approaches.

    The Mount Street Canal Bridge: The building at the left
    of the frame stands on the site of Clanwilliam House,
    from which the Volunteers dominated this position.
    The “Robin Hoods” (regiment’s nickname) came up the road from Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire), having crossed from England after receiving orders Monday night. Beginning their march at 10 a.m. Wednesday morning, many of those in the ranks thought they were in France and reportedly greeted the Irish they met in French as their column clocked off the miles to Dublin. The soldiers were actually greeted by cheers from the crowds they encountered along the road. The 2/7th Sherwood Foresters battalion reportedly carried out its march by the book -- with the leading Company C under Captain Frank Pragnell having one platoon leading the march in line formation across the width of the road supported by two platoons each in column at the edges of the roadway. A fourth platoon made up the final side of this box marching in support to their rear. Another 400 yards behind them came the 2/8th Sherwood Foresters in a similar formation, absent the fourth company rear guard.

    The column paused near Ballsbridge shortly after noon, at which time the officers were told to expect heavy opposition at Mount Street Canal Bridge (where the Volunteers waited) with the additional detail that the Irish had fortified a schoolhouse on the south canal bank at the right hand side of the road. The column resumed its march and would actually come under fire from Carisbrooke House on the left side of the road at Pembroke Road where the Volunteers had a small outpost. However, even as the relatively green conscript British soldiers responded to the orders of their officers, the Irish slipped away, but the exchange of gunfire would alert the other posts further up the road to the Army’s approach.

    View from along the canal embankmant back 
    toward the Mount Street Canal Bridge battlefield.
    As Mick and I look at today’s little-changed Northumberland Road, I am struck by how wide and open it is and how little cover is available, especially against the Irish firing from the upper floors and rooftops.  Much of this fighting was done with rifles, handguns, grenades, and eventually a few British machine guns, at ranges of perhaps as much as 100 yards (with the exception of the occasional sniper) and more often at no more than 100 or 200 feet -- and it’s usually the Irish that have the advantage of cover and surprise. Malone, armed with the C-96 Mauser automatic pistol (seemingly ubiquitous among the Volunteers) and Grace, reportedly an expert marksman, waited until the British were almost literally under their guns and even allowed the British front rank to pass their position before opening fire. Malone emptied his 10-round magazine into the British ranks supported and followed up by Grace’s fire. Captain Dietrichsen, adjutant of 2/7 Sherwood Foresters, is killed here just hours after meeting his children who had been sent to live with their grandparents in Dublin to escape the German Zeppelin raids over England. The fire of the Mauser automatic would lead several British soldiers to conclude that the Irish had a machine gun in Number 25.

    This was the volley that really began the battle of Mount Street Canal Bridge -- called by some “the Irish Thermopylae” – as a handful of relatively poorly armed Irish Volunteers hold off battalions of British troops through Wednesday and into Thursday, resulting in the greatest British casualties during the Rising -- a reported 234 officers and other ranks killed or wounded. This was due to a combination of Irish determination, good defensive positions, and a number of poor decisions by the British officers on the scene.

    An early example of this came immediately in the wake of that first volley from Malone and Grace. As the two Irishmen paused to reload, two surviving officers stood up among the soldiers scattered around them hugging the pavement of Northumberland Road, drew their swords, and ordered a charge against No 25.  Lieutenant Colonel Fane (commanding 2/7th Sherwood Foresters) and Captain Pragnell (C Company) led the charge personally only to find the doors to the building too heavily barricaded to be broken down. Their attack resulted also in a crowd of British soldiers milling around directly under Malone and Grace -- who again emptied their weapons into the mass.

    The canal side of the Old Schoolhouse, which 
    must have also been used by British troops 
    trying to fire on the Volunteers across the Canal.
    As this assault was taking place, the other company officers had organized their troops for a direct attack on the bridge itself, but this too fell victim to Irish fire, from Clanwilliam House and other buildings that flanked the approaches to the bridge. Eventually, though, the British would break down the doors at No 25 and find Malone descending the stairs, his pipe clenched in his teeth, to confront them. He was shot right at that moment and buried in the grounds of the house until after The Rising. Grace would evade the Army, hiding in the house grounds until the army left, and would be arrested a few days later as the Rising ended.

    The British soldiers at this point were crawling on the pavement or taking cover behind whatever wall or other structure offered shelter, and finally beginning to move to adjacent streets in hopes of outflanking the Irish. Mick and I strolled casually up Northumberland Road toward the canal that was the British objective. About half way to the bridge, the Army was again surprised by pointblank fire from another building, its field of fire limited to the pavement directly in front of it because it was set back from the street farther than its neighbors. As the soldiers deployed against the new threat and continued to try and push toward the bridge, they came under pointblank fire again -- this time from a schoolhouse (now housing a restaurant) on the opposite side of the road. And during this whole advance they continue to receive fire from the Volunteers on the north side of the canal in Clanwilliam House.

    Mick and I can still see the bullet impacts pockmarking the schoolhouse and the interior ceiling of the restaurant’s seating area. Directly opposite across the canal is the site of Clanwilliam House, now a modern office block, since the fighting and resulting fire destroy the original building. The Irish in the upper floors and on the roof of that building have a clear field of fire across which the British have to come. It seems as if it was numbers alone that defeated the Irish, but here the British would eventually also deploy machine guns, grenades, and snipers firing across the rooftops from nearby church bell towers. There is a monument at the bridge perhaps dating from the 1966 commemorations, though there are no plaques or other indications to tell us. 25 Northumberland Road has a stone marker embedded in its wall to commemorate Lieutenant Malone, but the British soldiers who found themselves dying in Dublin rather than in the mud of France are not commemorated here.

    Before he returns to his day job, Mick and I survey the scene one last time as he indicates the bridges one block over and the other avenues used by the British to finally outflank the Irish position. Reportedly, there were, at most, 17 Volunteers engaged at Mount Street Bridge, fighting with the all the advantages of cover, concealment, surprise, and commitment. They lacked only numbers and the additional firepower of machine guns, grenades, and even artillery that a modern regular army would normally enjoy -- and yet they inflicted the most serious blow against the British army of any Irish Republican Army element during the Easter Rising. WG

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