19 March 2005

An Phoblacht

The South Dublin Union and Easter 1916

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The following is an extract from Down Dublin Streets by Eamon MacThomáis, which will be relaunched in McDowell's Pub, Inchicore, Dublin 8, on Wednesday 23 March by the Dublin Republican Commemoration Committee. Eamonn's involvement in the Republican Movement spanned four decades, and he also became well known as a writer and broadcaster. He was an endless fount of knowledge about Dublin

Queen Anne of England did not believe that Irishmen were born to be free but that they were born to be paupers. In the Poor Law Act, 1702, her Majesty set aside fields in James's Street, Dublin, where a house and home were to be built for her starving subjects.

The site chosen covered a vast area — almost 60 acres of land stretching from James's Street to Rialto Bridge. This was land where Brian Boru had rested on his way to the Battle of Clontarf on Good Friday, 1014. The same land where Cromwell rested and camped before he set forth to burn and butcher the people of Ireland.

In 1702 the first sod was turned and several years later the city arose — a city of grey grim buildings with iron bars on the windows, stone flags on the floors, crude tables and chairs, soup kitchens and hospitals, morgues and cells, rough whitewashed walls without pictures or trimmings. It was enclosed by high walls and strong gates and here thousands of men, women and children came to live and die.

Among those who died there were many who had fought for Ireland, including James Fitzharris ("Skin the Goat"), Fenian and Invincible, who suffered 15 years imprisonment in Kilmainham Jail rather than become an informer and betray his friends. Men and women could be taken from the streets and thrown into the South Dublin Union and there held as prisoners without charge or trial.

In the foundling home within the Union, thousands of infant babies were murdered because Queen Anne had not left enough money to buy food and cots for them. John Boyle O'Reilly often passed by the Union gates and pledged that one day he and his Fenian comrades would end the need for workhouses in Ireland. John was later arrested in a house 100 yards from the Union wall.

Oh, James Connolly, what was in your mind? Men have taken over the Mendicity Institution workhouse and now more men are marching by Rialto, by St James's Gate to take over another workhouse, the South Dublin Union.

The Fourth Battalion assembled at Emerald Square off Cork Street, Dublin. Éamonn Ceannt had expected 1,000 men but only 100 turned up. This failure was again due to MacNeill's countermanding orders.

Ceannt and his second in command, Cathal Brugha, after a short discussion decided to detail their forces.

Ceannt explained the position that the various areas were being held by Volunteers, Irish Citizen Army, Cumann na mBan and Na Fianna Éireann. "The Irish Republic has been proclaimed and here are your orders." The men listened carefully and moments later they were on the way to take up their posts.

A detail by James's Street to the South Dublin Union. A detail by Rialto Gate. A detail to Ardee Street. A detail to Marrowbone Lane. A detail to Roe's Distillery, Mount Brown.

The Angelus bells were ringing as Ceannt and Brugha led their men in by the Rialto Gate of South Dublin Union. The fight was on — telephone wires were cut, barricades erected. Thirty minutes later, the Volunteers were in command of Queen Anne Mansions.

About one mile away, above Kilmainham Hill, British soldiers in Richmond Barracks were being detailed for duty in Dublin city. The barrack gates opened and soldiers of the 3rd Irish Regiment, led by their advance guard, marched out onto the roadway. Left-right. Left-right-left. Within ten minutes they were approaching Mount Brown hill.

The riflemen in Roe's Distillery were waiting, fingers on the triggers as they brought the marching soldiers into their rifle sights. "FIRE-RAPID FIRE." The order given, British troops fell dead, others fled in panic. The men in the South Dublin Union at James's Street Gate picked off any soldiers who succeeded in getting to the top of the hill. Other British soldiers ran back to the Royal Hospital — the headquarters of the British military in Ireland, others went on the Richmond Barracks for reinforcements and machine guns.

The firing died down as the British withdrew. But the sudden quietness was broken by machine gun fire coming from the Royal Hospital and later supported by more troops from Richmond Barracks. The troops stormed the hill in armoured cars, Roe's Distillery became cut off and the men fell back to support the Union Garrison.

Across the road in McCaffrey's fields the Volunteers were raked by machine gun fire and many fell wounded. The Union walls were being taken on all sides by the British. Ceannt would have needed over 2,000 men to hold the walls and all that he had was 42 men. The Volunteers withdrew from the main gate to the inner buildings because they were now almost surrounded by British troops.

Con Colbert and his men, who were in Watkins Brewery, Ardee Street, moved up to help the Volunteers in the Marrowbone Lane area. The distillery in Marrowbone Lane was the main cover flank for the men in the Union as it overlooked the Union grounds. Here Volunteers, Cumann na mBan and Na Fianna Éireann made sure that the British did not attack the Union from the canal end.

The British troops were now in the Union grounds but they still had not taken Rialto Gate For over three hours they tried to break through but they were held back. It was not until the troops from the James's Street end had reached Rialto that the Volunteers holding the gate were completely outnumbered.

The divide and conquer method was put into effect by the British. They had sufficient soldiers to cover every nook and corner of the Unions grounds. As soon as they cut off one section of Volunteers, another had to be found. From building to building the Volunteers moved. Nurse Keogh, who went to the aid of a Volunteer who was wounded, was shot dead by a British soldier who thought she was one of the rebels.

Throughout the week the Volunteers could not be beaten or captured. The British had divided the Volunteer forces but yet each building, each doorway and each window seemed to produce another Volunteer.

Cathal Brugha, with 23 bullet wounds in his body, was taken to the Union Hospital, where he was captured by the British and taken to Dublin Castle on Friday 28 April. Mr Birrell, the Chief Secretary, ordered that Brugha was to be taken to hospital. "He's almost dead," said Birrell. "I don't think we'll have to worry about him." It is reported that right up to the very last bullet wound Cathal Brugha was fighting as hard as any man.

Back at the Union, the British had the Volunteers completely surrounded and cut off from one another The firing died down and the British now began to wait for the white flag or surrender. "We are not surrendering," said Ceannt. "We will fight to the last man." He also asked the Volunteers to say a prayer for Nurse Keogh who had been killed and always to remember her as being the first woman martyr in the Easter Rising.

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