The First Airship in Dublin?, Sackville Street, 26 May 1916

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I came across a wonderful original photograph album in the stores last week. It’s a little unusual, as many of the albums we have in the collection are of souvenir postcard photographs showing the destruction of the city centre after the Rising, which were on sale quite soon after the event.  The album is described simply as photographs taken after the Sinn Fein Rebellion May 1916, with handwritten notes describing the location of each photograph, and was acquired by the museum from a Mr Smith in 1975.

 As I went through it a particular image caught my eye. It was a little different to the others, which were shots focusing on the damaged buildings and streets. This photograph had no apparent focus, until I looked very closely. The text underneath reads ‘The first British airship to visit Dublin coming up Sackville Street’. And there, only vaguely visible over the street, is an airship!  Also noticeable in the photograph are groups of people looking upwards in its direction; a group of people have gathered around the statue of Sir John Grey in the centre of the street, and to the right of the image the drivers of a horse drawn cart appear to be turning around to get a view of it.

This unusual event was reported in The Irish Times on 27 May. ‘A British airship, flying the naval ensign and bearing the Allied distinguishing mark – coloured circles – on its rudders, appeared over Dublin yesterday (Friday 26 May), and attracted very keen attention. It was first noticed east of the Custom House, and, after flying over the neighbourhood of Amiens Street Station, passed over the ruins of the Imperial Hotel, crossed Sackville Street, then turned south nearly as far as the offices of the Port and Docks Board. It then proceeded eastwards over the Liffey, and performed some evolutions over the buildings on the South Wall. As it came low an excellent view of its design was obtained by the hundreds of persons observing its movement. Three figures could be seen in the airship. The navigating officers acknowledged the cheers of the crowd by waving their hands’.

Another airship was sighted a month later on Thursday 20 July, and the Irish Times described it as an airship ‘of a type not previously seen by the citizens’, which manoeuvred slowly over the city for about half an hour.

 

This begs the question as to why this airship flew over Dublin on these days.

A second photograph shows it passing over D’Olier Street, which is clear enough to identify what type of airship it was.

 

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The shape of the balloon envelope and the car underneath matches the SS Class blimp (Sea Scout or Submarine Scout) which the Royal Naval Air Service put into production in February 1915 after the Imperial German Admiralty declared that all enemy merchant vessels found in the waters around Great Britain and Ireland would be destroyed. These airships were equipped with bombs and a Lewis machine gun, as well as a camera, and would act as escorts for ships to protect them from the threat of the German U-boat.

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As the SS Class blimp carried a camera, I suspect the purpose of this ship’s flight over Dublin was to take aerial photographs of the city centre. Aerial reconnaissance was well established by 1916, and there had been major developments in the quality of cameras. It is estimated that over a million photographs were taken by British forces during the course of World War I.  If the Dublin airship did take aerial shots of the post-Rising city I have not yet found them in a public collection, but I will keep looking.

 

So was this the first visit of an airship to Dublin?  The first airship stations in Ireland, such as Malahide and Johnstown Castle in Wexford, weren’t built until 1918, so this airship must have travelled from a station somewhere around the west coast of Britain, the closest being Anglesey and Pembroke, or was possibly on anti-submarine patrol in the Irish Sea.  Ces Mowthorpe, in his book Battlebags, records that the SS-17 broke free of its moorings in Luce Bay in Scotland, probably sometime in 1915, and drifted across the Irish Sea, complete with crew, until they were able to land in Ireland. However, that ship most likely landed in the northern Irish counties, so this rare photograph in the Smith album may well be an image of the first airship in Dublin.

 

Limerick tax roll, Four Courts Explosion, 1922

 

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Though the Four Courts on Dublin’s Inns Quay was one of the main buildings occupied by the Irish Volunteers in 1916, it escaped the destruction that devastated the city centre. It wasn’t so lucky six years later, when it was occupied by Republican Forces opposed to the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, and destroyed on 30 June 1922 in a massive explosion that rocked the city and saw the start of a bloody civil war.  It was also home to the Public Record Office, and this burned fragment of a 1737 tax roll from Askeaton, Co. Limerick, was presumably picked up on the streets afterwards, and donated to the museum in 1937.

 

 

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On 6 December 1921, the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed, bringing an end to the War of Independence and establishing the Irish Free State, a self-governing dominion of the British Empire. Opinion within Sinn Fein was immediately split, with the pro-treaty members believing this to be a step towards a fully independent state in a situation where continuing the war with England would lead to complete defeat, and anti-treaty members viewing the terms, which included retaining the Oath of Allegiance to the British Crown and the separation of Northern Ireland from the south, as unacceptable.  Tensions grew, and on 16 April 1922 about 200 men under the command of Rory O’Connor occupied the Four Courts in the hopes of creating a situation which would make the Treaty unviable and restart the fight for an all-Ireland Republic. From there high profile assassinations and kidnappings were carried out, including the murder of Field Marshall Sir Henry Wilson on 22 June.

The pro-treaty candidates won the majority vote in the 1922 general election, and formed a Provisional Government led by Michael Collins.  Under increasing pressure from Britain to crush the rebels, the Free State forces received two 18 pounder artillery guns and other weapons and set up a cordon around the Four Courts area. At 4.07 in the morning of Wednesday 28 June the shelling of the building began from across the Liffey, now officially seen as the beginning of the Civil War. Dan Breen, a member of the 3rd Tipperary Brigade and author of ‘My Fight for Irish Freedom’ wrote that the headlines in the British newspapers the following morning read ‘Collins shells the rebels; Collins makes good’.

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Two days into the fighting there was a large explosion in the western end of the complex, destroying it and the large central dome of the Courts.  The western block housed the Public Record Office, and was used by the Republican forces to store munitions. This explosion led to the eventual evacuation and surrender of the garrison.

Patrick Kelly, a Lieutenant in the anti-treaty I.R.A. describes the moment of the explosion from his position around the Capel Street area in his witness statement to the Bureau of Military History. ‘At this point there was a terrific explosion and a column of smoke and flame shot several hundred feet in the air. The Four Courts had blown up. The explosion shattered windows all around us and debris of all sorts fell into the street’.

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Cumann na mBan had also splintered over the Anglo-Irish Treaty, when it adopted a new constitution taking an anti-treaty stance in 1922. Officer Annie O’Brien remained with the anti-treaty faction, and was staying with friends in Kildare when news of the fighting in Dublin reached her. She made her way back, determined to take up her position at a First Aid post. She describes coming down Winetavern Street and watching a Free State soldier loading a shell into an 18 pounder gun, who then ordered them out of the danger zone. ‘We went down along the south quays as far as the Metal Bridge, but it was manned also. Just then the shell was fired at the Four Courts and we saw the dome collapse and our hearts nearly collapsed too when we thought of all our friends there. We saw a shower of papers rising from the building. We thought none of the garrison could have survived. The shop where we were standing shook from the terrific blast’.

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Geraldine O’Donell, the proprietress of O’Donell’s Nursing Home on Eccles Street was inside the Four Courts caring for the wounded when the explosion occurred. She reported that from quite early in the fight the garrison were tunnelling an escape route, fearing they would be trapped, and that just as the tunnel was practically finished the explosion took place that destroyed the dome. She speculated that it was caused by a shell that touched off the ammunition stored there.

 

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It is unclear what actually caused the explosion. Reports vary from the building’s fires reaching the store of explosives, a Free State shell hitting the store, and the rumour that the Republican forces deliberately mined the area. We will probably never know the exact cause, but we know that nearly a thousand years of irreplaceable Irish archives were lost on this day as they burned and scattered across the city. 18th and 19th century census records, court records, military, parish and legal records which would have been such an important resource for historians, researchers and other members of the public will now never be studied.  Ernie O’Malley, in his book ‘The Singing Flame’, describes seeing ‘leaves of white paper; they looked like hovering white birds’.  This fragment of a tax roll from Askeaton was one of those leaves of white paper, and its partial remains give us a hint of what was lost in the mere seconds of the explosion that destroyed the Four Courts that day.

 

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Metropole Hotel bowls, Sackville Street, 1916

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Just a few doors down from Elvery’s (where the cricket bat met its end) was the Metropole Hotel.  Situated directly next to the General Post Office, and occupied by about 22 members of the Irish Volunteers under the command of Oscar Traynor during the Rising, it came under direct fire from the British Forces and was burnt to the ground in the fires that spread though the city centre. This stack of five bowls, fused together and blackened by the fire, was picked up as a souvenir and later donated to the National Museum in 1939.

ImageThe Metropole Hotel was actually four Georgian houses renovated as a hotel in the 19th century. It was located on the corner of Sackville Street and Prince’s Street, next to Eason’s & Son newsagents, D. Dimmit & Son’s insurance office, an office building (Browne’s), and Manfield & Sons shoe shop on the corner of Middle Abbey Street. On the evening of Tuesday 25th April a garrison of Irish Volunteers, mostly just arrived into the city centre from Fairview and Summerhill, was ordered to occupy this block of buildings by digging through the interior walls, and to erect barricades and post men at windows and other vantage points for defence from British snipers on Abbey Street.  According to Oscar Traynor, they entered the Metropole and gave notice to the guests that they had fifteen minutes to leave. Over the next few hours there was a series of written communications between James Connolly and D. H. Oliver, the hotel manager, organizing passes to ensure the safety of the remaining guests and himself as they left the city centre. Supplies such as bedding and food (and the odd cigar) were also requisitioned, one example in the NMI (for bread, onions, sausages, mutton and chicken) is signed for by Liam Tannam as ‘received on behalf of the Irish Republic’.

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The fighting intensified from rifle fire on Tuesday to shelling by Wednesday night. As the Metropole garrison held their position, they watched the fires taking hold on the other side of Sackville Street, and tried to signal the men there to leave. After an almost quiet start to the Rising, the street was in chaos at this stage. Joseph Good, an Irish Volunteer from London, described the experience in his witness statement to the Bureau of Military History. He was posted to the top floor of the hotel as lookout, along with 12 young civilian lads who had asked to join the fight, whom he described as ‘rather depressed; long gazing at burning buildings caused them to moan in their sleep’.

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D.H. Oliver also gave an account of what he saw in his short diary of the week (NMI Collection). His view was probably representative of the opinion of many in Dublin that week, writing on the Wednesday ‘What a row the big guns make, rather terrifying but still glad to hear. The devils must quake at the Met’. He observed a dead civilian lying on the street near O’Connell Bridge, and witnessed groups of panic stricken people trying to leave the area, ‘some with white flags, others wrapped in white cloths and blankets, some holding up hands. They all seemed of the poorer class and the sight was a most moving one’.

It seems the roof of the Metropole was set on fire by an incendiary bomb sometime on Thursday night, but the outpost was considered vital for defence and so was not evacuated until the official order came through on Friday, at which point the building was firmly ablaze. The G.P.O. was also in flames and being evacuated at this point, and Frank Henderson stated that in the confusion the men at the Metropole were nearly forgotten until Sean MacDermott sent him to tell them to follow the main body into Moore Street via Henry Street. As they ran across Princes Street into the G.P.O., another Irish Volunteer Londoner who went by the name of John Neale was hit, the bullet exploding his ammunition pouch and ripping open his lower torso. He died of his wounds the next day.  The hotel was burned to the ground by Friday night.

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Of all the objects in the collection that represent the destruction of Sackville Street, for me the bowls from the Metropole Hotel are the most expressive. They’re such an everyday, common object that sits on a shelf of any home, and I can imagine them sitting stacked on a dresser in the restaurant or kitchen, ready to be used. But these bowls are blackened and fused by the fires, and ingrained with soot and ash. There is even a river of molten glass along one side, presumably from a glass vessel that was next to it which melted in the extreme heat. Considering the complete destruction of the building, it’s amazing they survived in this form at all.

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As for the Metropole Hotel itself, by 1922 it had been rebuilt in a lovely classical style by architect Aubrey V. O’Rourke, and was opened as The Metropole, containing restaurants, bars, a ballroom and cinema. It was closed in 1972 and sold to the retail chain British Home Stores (BHS), and was subsequently demolished and replaced with a new concrete building. It’s now home to the O’Connell Street branch of Penny’s.

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