Uncommon valour, p.1

Uncommon Valour, page 1


Uncommon Valour

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Uncommon Valour





  1916 & the Battle for the South Dublin Union



  3B Oak House, Bessboro Rd

  Blackrock, Cork, Ireland.




  © Paul O’Brien, 2010

  ISBN: 978 1 85635 704 3

  This eBook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author’s and publisher’s rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.







  Chapter 1 Easter Monday, Morning

  Chapter 2 Easter Monday, Noon

  Chapter 3 Easter Monday, Afternoon

  Chapter 4 Easter Monday, Evening

  Chapter 5 Tuesday 25 and Wednesday 26 April

  Chapter 6 Thursday 27 April, Morning

  Chapter 7 Thursday 27 April, Early Afternoon

  Chapter 8 Thursday 27 April, The Final Hours

  Chapter 9 Intermission

  Chapter 10 Surrender

  Chapter 11 May 1916

  Chapter 12 Murder and Mayhem at the Guinness Brewery?

  Chapter 13 Aftermath

  Chapter 14 April 1916: Military Success and Military Failure




  Map of the South Dublin Union

  (1) Fcialto entrance

  (2) K.C. Church

  (3) Auxiliary Workhouse

  (4) Ceanni’s forward position

  (5) Inlirmarv where Nurse Keogh was shot and where the Volunteers were chased from ward to ward

  (6) Matron’s House

  (7) Canal entrance

  (8) Convent

  (9) Wards through which British soldiers travelled

  (10) Nurses’ Home and Headquarters of the 4th Battalion

  (11) Wards occupied by British soldiers during frontal assault on the Nurse’s Home

  (12) Dining Hall. Ground floor occupied by British soldiers during the conflict

  (13) Cul-de-sac

  (14) Front of Souili Dublin Union. Boardroom with administrative offices on first floor. Occupied by volunteers 1916

  (15) R.C. Church

  (16) Laundry

  (17) Mortuary

  (18) Bakehouse

  (19) Main Gate


  This book would not have been possible without the help of Professor Davis Coakley of St James’s Hospital, Dublin, who was so generous with his time. By walking the grounds of the hospital, Professor Coakley brought the battlefield to life, an action I hope to recreate within these pages.

  Grateful thanks are once again due to the staff of the National Library, Dublin, National Archives, Military Archives at Cathal Brugha Barracks, Dublin, University College Dublin Archives, Kilmainham Gaol Archives, the Library of the Office of Public Works, The Allen Library, Carlow County Library, Guinness Ireland Archives and the staff of the Sherwood Forester Museum.

  I am indebted to Elizabeth Gillis for research on the Irish Volunteers, to Sue Sutton and Roger E. Nixon for their research in the British Military Archives at Kew in London, Michael Ó Doiblín for photography, Gerry Woods for cartography and to Andrew D. Hesketh and Dr Mike Briggs for material on the Sherwood Foresters.

  For supporting the idea and reading the initial drafts, a special word of thanks to Dr Mary Montaut.

  I would like to thank the following for their insight, support and encouragement: Cyril Wall, Henry Fairbrother, Ray Bateson, John McGuiggan, James W. Taylor, Eoin Purcell, John Morton, Martin Lyons, Tony Checkley, William Henry, Maureen Burke, Dr Barbara Smyth, Loretto Diskin and Phil Fitzpatrick.

  I would like to thank and all at Mercier Press in particular Wendy Logue, whose perceptive editing has made such a difference.

  Finally I would like to thank my fiancée Marian and my parents who have had to grow used to countless recitations of military facts and figures that may have seemed boring to them but were all-important to me. They have at all times given me sound advice and encouragement when it was needed.

  This book has been written using available historical records both in Ireland and in England.

  There are many people who helped with this book and in naming some of them I can only apologise to those who I fear I may have indirectly forgotten and I would like to invite them to make me aware of any omissions or relevant information that may be included in any future updated edition.

  My thanks are due to all those who provided help and information in the course of writing this book.


  I, like many people, have found myself a patient in St James’s Hospital, Dublin. Travelling through the maze of buildings and corridors one cannot help but notice the change in architectural features as modern hospital architecture becomes intertwined with pre-twentieth-century stone buildings. I was curious to find out about the history of these older buildings and in the course of my investigation discovered that one of the few urban battlefields that still exists intact may be found in the grounds of St James’s.

  St James’s Hospital started life as a poorhouse constructed in 1667, becoming a foundling hospital in 1727. In the early nineteenth century the hospital was closed and the structure then became a workhouse called the South Dublin Union, a place for Dublin’s destitute, infirm and the insane. The complex was spread over fifty acres and consisted of an array of buildings that in April 1916 housed 3,282 people, including patients, doctors, nurses and ancillary staff. The area, enclosed within a high stone wall, consisted of living quarters, churches, an infirmary, a bakery, a morgue, acres of green space and many stone hospital buildings connected by a labyrinth of streets, alleyways and courtyards.

  After the Irish Civil War in 1923, the complex continued to develop as a municipal hospital and the name was changed to St Kevin’s Hospital. In the late 1960s plans were made to amalgamate many of the voluntary infirmaries in Dublin and St Kevin’s became known as St James’s Hospital in 1971.1

  It was during the 1916 Easter Rising that this compound was to become one of the landmarks of the fight for Irish independence. After the implementation of the Act of Union in 1801, which abolished the Irish Parliament, Ireland was directly ruled from Westminster. In the years that followed, Home Rule became the main objective of Irish nationalists, but it wasn’t until a century later, in 1914, after decades of violence and political agitation, that the third Home Rule Bill was finally enacted for all but the north-east of the country. However, the bill’s implementation was postponed by the outbreak of the First World War. For many Irish nationalists this delay was unacceptable and their aim soon became full independence from Britain.2

  On Easter Monday 1916, the everyday existence of the South Dublin Union was shattered. Members of the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army, consisting of 1,500 men, women and teenage boys and girls, mobilised to declare an Irish republic independent from the British Empire. At this time the British Empire was the largest in the world, comprising a quarter of the world’s land surface as well as a quarter of its population, making it a massive opponent for the small band of Irish Volunteers. However, the majority of th
e Empire’s military might was focused on the First World War, thus providing the Irish insurgents with their best chance of success.

  On Easter Monday, 24 April 1916, members of the 4th Battalion of the Irish Volunteers under the command of Commandant Éamonn Ceannt occupied the site of the South Dublin Union. During the week that followed, Dublin, like Stalingrad, Berlin and more recently Sarajevo, became an urban battlefield. The South Dublin Union was one of the main focal points of the fighting in the city, until its forces finally surrendered on Patrick Pearse’s orders on Sunday 30 April.

  The battle for the South Dublin Union was complicated and poses a number of questions to the student of military history. Questions arise in relation to the military strategy and tactics deployed by the British army, and whether the South Dublin Union could have been overrun and taken by the British at the beginning of the week. The failure to consolidate early gains meant that later in the week traumatised and inexperienced troops of the Nottingham and Derbyshire regiments, having suffered heavy casualties at the hands of the Irish Volunteers during the battle for Mount Street Bridge, found themselves once again in action against a determined foe, resulting in further casualties on both sides.

  With regard to the Irish side, questions arise in relation to Eoin MacNeill’s countermanding order, an action that left the ranks of the Volunteers seriously under strength, as well as why a controversial order was issued that resulted in the evacuation of their headquarters during Thursday’s battle, leaving one man to single-handedly repulse a British attack and save the day. By examining the problems experienced by both the defenders and the attackers, it becomes clear that both sides faced significant obstacles which are as relevant in modern warfare as they were in 1916. The method of urban warfare that was employed during the battle of the South Dublin Union is instructive to modern armies and is often adapted in twenty-first-century conflicts such as Afghanistan and Iraq.

  In recent years the regeneration of Dublin city has eroded many of the remnants of Easter 1916. There have been attempts by various organisations to try to conserve those buildings linked with the conflict because they represent a wealth of the nation’s history. The architectural heritage within St James’s Hospital is an irreplaceable expression of the sacrifice and diversity of our past. Personal histories and events of that week have left their mark on these places and they should be preserved for posterity.

  A full and detailed account of the defence and the attack on the South Dublin Union has never been penned and it is in memory of the men on both sides who fought, lived and died in Dublin city during Easter week 1916 that this book has been written.

  Chapter 1

  Easter Monday, 24 April 1916


  On the morning of Easter Monday, 24 April 1916, at 11 a.m., members of the 4th Battalion of the Irish Volunteers mobilised at Emerald Square, Dolphin’s Barn, in Dublin city. A number of Volunteers who had assembled at Larkfield in Kimmage earlier that morning, marched to the square, arriving at 11 a.m., but even so the battalion was seriously under strength. This was due to an order issued by Eoin MacNeill and published on Sunday 23 April countermanding a previous order for all Volunteer groups to assemble that day. MacNeill’s order read:

  Owing to the critical position, all orders given to the Irish Volunteers for tomorrow, Easter Sunday, are hereby rescinded and no parades, marches or other movements of the Irish Volunteers will take place. Each individual Volunteer will obey this order strictly in every particular.3

  MacNeill, Chief-of-Staff of the Irish Volunteer Force, withdrew his support for the Rising having heard that Roger Casement had been arrested and that the Aud, a German ship laden with arms and ammunition for the Volunteers, had been intercepted by the Royal Navy. The Rising originally planned for Easter Sunday now looked to be in jeopardy, hence MacNeill’s actions, but the military council of the IRB decided to go ahead on Easter Monday instead. As a result of MacNeill’s countermanding order, the number of Volunteers who eventually did mobilise around the country was much smaller than if it had taken place as planned on Easter Sunday. Only 120 Volunteers mobilised out of the 4th Battalion’s full strength of 700.

  Éamonn Ceannt, the officer in command of the 4th Battalion, was thirty-five years old. A member of the Provisional Government and a signatory of the Proclamation, he was employed by Dublin Corporation and married with a young son. A fluent Irish speaker and an accomplished uilleann piper, he held the rank of commandant in the Irish Volunteers. Ceannt was a thoroughly efficient officer, respected by his men for his leadership and military expertise.

  At 11.35 a.m. the battalion moved out in two parties. The plan was to occupy the South Dublin Union workhouse as battalion headquarters, along with three strategically located outposts: Roe’s Distillery in Mount Brown, Watkins’ Brewery at Ardee Street and Jameson’s Distillery at Marrowbone Lane. Ceannt led the first group, which consisted of a dozen cyclists and a few Volunteers on foot, along the banks of the Grand Canal towards the Rialto entrance at the rear of the South Dublin Union. The Volunteers, many of them in uniform, were armed with a variety of weapons including Mauser rifles from the Howth landing, British-issue short magazine Lee-Enfield rifles, shotguns, revolvers and automatic pistols.

  Lieutenant William Thomas Cosgrave led the second group. In order to avoid detection by the authorities, this main group of Volunteers was led through a warren of side streets until they reached the front gates of the South Dublin Union. Lieutenant Cosgrave was thirty-six years old, a Dublin city councillor and a local man. Accompanying him was forty-two-year-old Vice-Commandment Cathal Brugha. Born Charles Burgess at Richmond Avenue, Dublin, on 18 July 1874, Brugha was educated at the Colmcille Schools in Dublin and later Belvedere College. Invigorated by the Gaelic renaissance of the early twentieth century, Brugha began to look at the nation’s heroic past. Immersing himself in Irish culture, he became a fluent Gaelic speaker. A man of great vigour he was driven by a relentless determination and his position as vice-commandant of the 4th Battalion would be crucial in the coming days. He was known as a patriot and soldier dedicated to the cause of Irish independence.

  As this second group marched to its destination, small parties detached from the main column and took up their posts along the route. Each outpost consisted of an officer and about twenty Volunteers: Captain Con Colbert was detailed to Watkins’ Brewery in Ardee Street, Captain Seamus Murphy took up position at Jameson’s Distillery in Marrowbone Lane and Captain Thomas McCarthy occupied Roe’s Distillery in Mount Brown. These positions were chosen with the aim of preventing British troops from entering the city from the southwest. It was planned that military movements could be checked and halted along the quays of the River Liffey, at Kingsbridge Railway Station (now Heuston Station), and at the headquarters of the British commander-in-chief in Ireland, the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham. Ceannt knew that British reinforcements would be dispatched from Richmond barracks, Islandbridge barracks and the Royal barracks. Others would come from Britain’s largest camp, the Curragh, via train from County Kildare. The South Dublin Union and its outposts were a major defensive position in the south-west of the city.

  Ceannt entered the Union through a small door at Brookfield Road, Rialto. The only resistance he met was that of the gatekeeper who was pushed aside and relieved of his keys. The phone lines were cut and nine Volunteers under the command of Captain George Irvine were deployed to secure the Rialto entrance. These Volunteers occupied a corrugated iron structure (Auxiliary Workhouse) that faced the large gate (3). This building was used to house the male mental patients of the Union. It was 300 feet long, twenty-six feet wide and divided into six dormitories by wooden partitions that were connected by narrow corridors. The Volunteers entered the structure through the porch entrance facing the Catholic church. The ward-master and patients were directed to a place of safety at the rear of the sixth dormitory. Permission was granted to staff who wanted to leave the area. Captain Irvine instructed his men to fortify their pos
ition, which they proceeded to do, using mattresses, chairs, tables and bed ends to reinforce the walls of the corrugated building. One Volunteer proceeded to dig a slit trench in front of the gate.

  Arriving late, Volunteer James Burke and brothers James and Paddy Morrissey found the Rialto gate already barricaded, so they scrambled over the wall and reported to Captain Irvine. They assisted in barricading the windows that faced the wall over which they had climbed. Having prepared their position they took up their posts facing Mountshannon Road, vigilant and ready for the impending attack.

  After leaving Captain Irvine, Ceannt proceeded half a mile through the grounds to the front gate of the Union. Here he joined with the main force led by Cathal Brugha that had entered through the main gate at James’s Street.

  The Volunteers quickly occupied the offices above the arched gateway that fronted onto James’s Street (14). Within this block of buildings was the South Dublin Rural District Council office with the boardroom above. The building also contained administration offices and wards. At the end of this block was the paint shop and adjacent to this was the Nurses’ Home (10). Volunteers, including James Foran, began barricading the windows with leather-bound ledgers. In order to allow them to traverse the building without leaving cover, they began tunnelling through the adjoining internal walls that were eighteen inches thick. Each building was to become an impregnable fortress.

  Shortly afterwards the main gate was opened to allow a horse and cart to enter. Having spoken with Ceannt, the driver removed the horse’s harness and departed. The gate was then locked and barricaded. The dray was laden with homemade hand grenades, supplies of barbed wire, shovels, picks and other equipment, and was quickly unloaded. It was then overturned and used as a barricade in front of the church that was opposite the main gate. Boxes and bags were filled with clay from the garden borders to make improvised sandbag defences that reinforced the position.

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