The Hollywood Star and Pearse’s Missing Cap Badge, 1916

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In the late 1940s the Irish Volunteer hat and Browning 7.65mm automatic pistol used by Patrick Pearse during Easter Week 1916 were donated to the National Museum of Ireland. The distinctive Australian style hat was missing something vital – its cap badge, with no information on its loss and no indication of its whereabouts. The mystery was solved in 1977 with the publication of Hollywood Hussar by actor John Loder, famous for his roles in The Doctor’s Secret – one of the first ‘talkies’, and King Solomon’s Mines.

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Loder was born John Lowe, the son of Brigadier General Arthur Lowe, the commander of the British troops in Ireland from the beginning of the rising, and the officer who took Pearse’s surrender on Saturday 29th April. Loder had followed his father into the army in the early months of World War I, and had seen service in Gallipoli and Egypt. He arrived in Ireland on the Friday before the outbreak of the rebellion to take up his new appointment as Aid-de-Camp to his father. On the outbreak of the rising, he went with Lowe to set up his headquarters in Dublin Castle.

 

 

His account of the rebellion is brief, but he describes the fighting in the city centre, the destruction of the GPO and the death of civilians. At the end of the week Elizabeth O’Farrell came to Dublin Castle with a message from Pearse proposing the negotiation of a surrender. Loder wrote the message back to Pearse with the instructions to meet at Britain Street and surrender unconditionally, dictated and signed by Lowe. Loder was with his father at 4pm when Pearse and O’Farrell arrived. The famous surrender photograph shows Loder to the fore, his tall frame slouched slightly, cigarette in mouth.

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An example of an Irish Volunteer’s cap badge of the period. There were a number of different designs of badge, but this is likely to have been the type on Pearse’s hat.

 

 

He describes taking Pearse into detention in a staff car, accompanied by a priest, though his memory of Pearse giving the priest his watch and ring to give to his wife must be a mis-interpretation of the events; Pearse was likely passing his possessions on to his mother or sister. Loder had asked the driver of the car to continue driving past the jail’s gates in order to allow Pearse to finish giving his last messages. In gratitude, Pearse took his hat off, removing what Loder described as the Sinn Fein badge and gave it to him. He ends this recollection saying that he would have liked to have given this memento to the National Museum to join the other items belonging to Pearse, but it was destroyed in his parent’s home during the London Blitz in 1940 to 1941.

 

 

 

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After the Dublin rebellion, he was posted to France, fighting at the Battle of the Somme, and was eventually taken prisoner by the German Army in March 1918. After the war he continued his army career at the British Military Mission in Berlin, and on his demobilisation he returned to civilian life, setting up a pickle business in Potsdam, Germany. He turned to acting and moved to America in the 1920s, winning parts in Hollywood and later Broadway, radio and television. Described in his IMDb entry as ‘A tall, debonair, immaculately-groomed British leading man best known for his pipe-smoking chaps’, he lived the Hollywood lifestyle, complete with five marriages, until 1958 when he became a rancher in South America. He returned to London after his last divorce, and died there in 1988.

 

Many thanks to Michael Lee for telling me Loder’s story and providing me with a copy of his book.

Waiting for Execution, Playing Cards, Thomas MacDonagh, May 1916

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In the previous blog post I looked at a letter written by Eamon de Valera in May 1916 in Kilmainham after he was sentenced to death for his part in the 1916 Rising. Like the majority of the 93 prisoners who received the death sentence in that month, de Valera’s sentence was commuted to penal servitude for life. In total, 16 men were executed; 14 in Kilmainham in Dublin, Thomas Kent in Cork Military Detention Barracks and Sir Roger Casement in Pentonville Prison in London.

One of the leaders whose sentence was enacted was Thomas MacDonagh. On 2nd May, MacDonagh, Patrick Pearse and Tom Clarke were court martialled and transferred to Kilmainham Gaol, where they were shot on the morning of the 3rd May.   This deck of playing cards is said to have been used by MacDonagh in his cell in the hours before his execution, and were given to the uncle of the donor by MacDonagh’s sister, a nun, who visited him in Kilmainham the night before his death. They were gifted to the National Museum in 1947.

 

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Thomas MacDonagh, born in Tipperary, started his career as a teacher, poet and playwright. He met Pearse on the Aran Islands while there to improve his Irish language skills, and in 1908 helped him found St. Enda’s School in Ranelagh, Dublin, becoming a teacher of English and French. Through his membership of the Gaelic League he met Joseph Plunkett, with whom he edited The Irish Review.

He joined the Irish Volunteers at its inception in late 1913, and was permitted to join the Irish Republican Brotherhood in 1915. By the time of the rising, he was the commander of the Irish Volunteers Dublin Brigade, a member of the military council and was one of the seven signatories of the Proclamation.

MacDonagh was first in command of the garrison at Jacob’s Biscuit Factory on Bishop’s Street during Easter Week. The area saw relatively little in the way of action, serving mostly to try to cut off British Army troops moving into the city centre from Portobello Barracks, and later supplying provisions and men to support other rebel outposts. The news of the surrender reached them on Sunday, and MacDonagh immediately went to Pearse, who at that point was detained, to confirm the order. On his return, he gave the news to his men; the surrender was official. He also gave them a choice – to surrender with him or make their escape, in the hopes of carrying on the fight for an Irish nation. You can read more about the surrender of the Jacob’s garrison in a previous blog post here.

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This deck of playing cards is not quite complete – there are 51 cards of the same set, branded ‘Gallaher’s Gold Bond Mixture’ tobacco, a Joker and Ace of Spades from a second deck, and another Joker from a third, replacing missing cards from the Gallaher’s deck. Two of these have their numbers and suits written on them, both in a different hand. They are well worn, to the extent that the Ace of Clubs symbol has been re-drawn on the card face. While it’s possible that they may have belonged to MacDonagh, it is more probable that they were given to him in the prison, perhaps by a warden, to occupy him in his final hours.

Father Augustine of the Capuchin Order, in his published personal recollections, stated that on the night of the 2nd MacDonagh had wished for his ministrations. He heard the confessions and gave Holy Communion to both he and Pearse, leaving them in prayer between 2 and 3am. He was ordered to leave the prison, and, unable to attend the executions, he returned to the gaol the next morning to retrieve the rosary beads given to MacDonagh the previous night by his sister, the nun Sister M. Francesca. There is no mention of the playing cards, which is perhaps not surprising given that card playing was disapproved of as gambling by the Church, and perhaps seen at the time as unfitting to MacDonagh’s memory.

 

MacDonagh’s last address to the court martial at his sentencing showed him to be proud to die for the cause of Irish freedom, and his friend James Stephens wrote that a British Officer who was witness to his execution said of him ‘They all died well, but MacDonagh died like a prince’.

In whatever way he spent his last hours, the playing cards bring to mind how it must feel to sit alone and wait for death in such a situation. MacDonagh had married Muriel Gifford in 1912, and together they had a young son, Donagh, and baby daughter, Barbara. Though he was accepting of his death, he must have felt the pain of knowing he was leaving his family without a husband and father.

Like Liam Mellow’s chessman, the cards may have provided some small distraction for him in those hours.

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The 1913 Lockout Baton Charge – Dublin Metropolitan Police batons

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It was recently announced that €22 million will be made available for a number of heritage and cultural projects as part of Ireland’s Decade of Commemorations. 

I was delighted to hear that the Henrietta Street Tenement Building is to receive funding to be developed into a museum to explore the reality of tenement life in Dublin’s north inner city.  Last year the Dublin Tenement Experience: Living the Lockout was a real highlight during the 1913 Lockout centenary, and was hugely successful.  I look forward to seeing this museum in the next few of years.

In the meantime, you can explore life in 1913 North Inner City Dublin in the wonderful Dublin Tenement Experience blog, which covers a range of topics such as personal stories from the tenements, the Church Street Tenement Collapse of September 1913, the effect of World War I on the families of Henrietta Street, and the photographs which highlighted the slum conditions in urban centres.   You can also read about the Dublin Metropolitan Police batons (NMI) which were used in the infamous Bloody Sunday Baton Charge of 31 August 1913.