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1916 Rising

De Valera’s ‘Last Letter’, Kilmainham, May 1916

Last letter of Eamon de Valera, May 1916 (copy) (NMI Collection)

The National Museum holds many of the last letters written by the men executed in Kilmainham Gaol in May 1916 for their part in the Rising. The collection includes Patrick Pearse’s letter to his mother, and letters from Con Colbert, Michael Mallin, Eamonn Ceannt and others, written to family and friends. All these letters have common themes; a final goodbye to loved ones, a sense of acceptance of their fate and a pride in having fought for their ideals and a free Ireland. They make for emotional reading, especially with the knowledge that within hours of writing their author was dead.

Among these is also a contemporary manuscript copy of a last letter written in May 1916 by Eamon de Valera, who had his death sentence commuted to penal servitude for life and was not executed along with the other leaders of the Rising. It was donated to the museum in 1975.

De Valera leads the surrender of the Boland's Mills Garrison, 30th May 1916 (NMI Collection)

After a week of fighting and widespread destruction in the centre of Dublin, Patrick Pearse ordered the surrender of the Irish rebels on Saturday 29 April.  De Valera was in command of the garrison stationed at Boland’s Mills in the Ringsend area of the city and the outlying posts around Northumberland Road and Mount Street Bridge, which saw heavy action and many casualties. On Sunday Elizabeth O’Farrell arrived at Boland’s Mills with a surrender order written by Pearse. Though at first there was some confusion over the order, the garrison, led by de Valera, marched out of the mills along Grand Canal Street towards a barricade manned by the Sherwood Foresters and surrendered their arms. They were held overnight on the grounds of the Royal Dublin Society at Ballsbridge, and transferred the next morning to Richmond Barracks. There began the military’s task of deciding what to do with the insurgent prisoners, of which there were about 600 and rising, with some being sent to England and Wales for internment, and others detained to be tried in Ireland.

Irish prisoners being marched under guard down Eden Quay for deportation to England (NMI Collection)

Almost as soon as the Rising had begun martial law was declared, transferring power in Ireland from the civil government to the military forces. By the time of the surrender, General John Maxwell, a veteran British Officer who had served in India, the Boer War and most recently on the Western Front in the ongoing war, had been appointed Military Governor of Ireland. His decision to court martial the leaders of the Rising under martial law was problematic from the first, with even the courts’ presidents raising legal difficulties. These military trials were conducted away from the public view, and the rebel leaders had no legal defence or jury. The leaders were charged with ‘waging war against His Majesty the King with the intention and for the purpose of assisting the enemy’. Pearse, Clarke and MacDonagh were tried on 2nd May, sentenced to death and transferred to Kilmainham Gaol, which, though it had been closed as a prison since 1910, was now in use by the British Military as a detention centre for military prisoners. They were executed on the 3rd May in the gaol’s stonebreakers yard.

The speed with which these sentences were carried out caused some concern to the British government, increasing over the next days with further executions. Prime Minister Asquith was especially concerned that a large number of executions would turn public opinion further in favour of the rebellion. Moreover, Maxwell’s final decisions as to who was to have their death sentence carried out seemed irregular, with some relatively unknown figures who had been detained after the Rising, such as Michael O’Hanrahan who had been 2nd in command at the Jacob’s Factory garrison which had seen little combat, having their death sentences enacted. On the 8th May Lord Wimborne, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, wrote to Maxwell of his concerns about this, urging him to cease the executions except in the case of ‘one or two very prominent and deeply implicated suspects’.

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De Valera, as a garrison commander, was court martialled on the 8th May and a death sentence was passed. He was transferred to Kilmainham Gaol to await his execution, and wrote this letter to Michael Ryan of Cashel, Co. Tipperary on the 9th May (it is incorrectly dated as the 4th May in the copy). He writes ‘Tomorrow I am to be shot, so pray for me, an old sport unselfishly played the game’, believing he was to die the next day, the 10th. However, on the 10th May Asquith sent an order that no further executions were to take place, though James Connolly and Sean MacDiarmada, court martialled on the 9th May, were executed on the 12th. Countess Constance Markievicz had already escaped death on the order that no woman was to be executed. De Valera also escaped his sentence when it was commuted to penal servitude for life. This raises the question as to how de Valera escaped execution.

It was commonly thought that the fact he was an American citizen saved his life, as Britain executing a U.S. citizen at such a critical time in the war would have caused diplomatic issues. Robert Schmuhl has written that the de Valera personal papers in the UCD archives show that his wife Sinead appealed to the US Consul for help, and his half brother Reverend Thomas Wheelwright wrote letters to Washington on his behalf. However, it is less likely that his citizenship saved him, but the luck of the timing of his court martial. His trial was one of the later to take place, and he was not a well known figure at this time. The executions of Connolly and MacDiarmada, which took place after de Valera’s court martial and the British government’s order to cease the executions, were likely enacted due to these men’s very prominent role in the Rising and the fact that they were signatories of the Proclamation. De Valera had not been a high profile individual in the years before the Rising, and the government had little knowledge of him. It would appear that it was generally considered that he was not important enough to be executed.

De Valera's cell in Kilmainham Gaol, May 1916

Eamon de Valera went on to play a hugely significant role in 20th century Ireland. On the commuting of his death sentence, he was imprisoned in various jails in England until the general amnesty in June 1917. He went on to play key roles in the War of Independence period, becoming the President of the first Dáil Éireann in 1919, led the Anti-Treaty side in the Civil War, became leader of the Fianna Fáil Party, was Taoiseach of Ireland at various times from the 1930s to 1950s, wrote the Constitution of Ireland, and was elected President of Ireland from 1959 to 1973 before dying at the age of 92 in 1975.

But for a moment in May 1916, as evidenced in this letter, de Valera truly believed he was about to die.

The Victorian Wing's central stairwell, Kilmainham Gaol (NMI Collection)

Kilmainham Gaol is open to the public for guided tours, and I’d highly recommend visiting this site to learn more about the long history of this gaol as well as its role in the early 20th century fight for Irish Independence.

© Brenda Malone. This work is original to the author and requires citation when used to ensure readers can trace the source of the information and to avoid plagiarism.

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Sources and general reading used in the creation of these articles are listed on the Further Reading page.

Categories
1916 Rising

Irish Volunteer Tunic, The Surrender at Jacob’s Factory, 1916 Rising

During the week of the Easter Rising the site of Jacob’s Biscuit Factory on Bishop Street was occupied by up to 150 Irish Volunteers, Fianna Éireann and Cumann na mBan, led by Thomas MacDonagh, John McBride and Michael O’Hanrahan.

It was surrendered on Sunday 30 April, when one of the Volunteers left this tunic behind.  It was donated to the National Museum in 1917.

The Jacob’s complex, where the National Archives and DIT Aungier Street now stands, took up a large area between Bishop Street and Peter Street, and was closely surrounded by mostly tenement housing. It was positioned between Portobello Barracks and the city centre and its tall towers made it ideal for sniping – it was therefore a good position to try to cut off military reinforcements travelling to the centre of action. 

The main body of Volunteers took the Factory at mid-day on Monday 24th April, and set up outposts in Fumbally Lane, Camden Street, Wexford Street and Aungier Street. The factory was located in the Liberties and Blackpitts area which was quite pro-British, with many families connected to the British Army. The local community, including the ‘separation women’ (the dependents of Irish men in the British Army), was at first hostile to the Volunteers and were verbally abusive to them; one civilian who physically attacked a Volunteer was killed in his defence.

Thomas Slater, in his witness statement to the Bureau of Military History, tells of how they broke through the door with a sledge, politely telling the employee on duty that the best thing he could do was to get his hat and leave, along with any other employees. Being a bank holiday, the factory would have had a minimal level of staff on that day. The men barricaded themselves in, using sacks of flour against windows and doors.  As the week progressed the garrison saw little action in the form of assault on the buildings, apart from intermittent rifle fire between the Volunteers and the military, and focused on the sourcing of provisions to feed the men, who were otherwise surviving on biscuits and sweet goods.

In Seosamh de Brun’s beautifully descriptive statement he tells of how the men occupied themselves during rest periods inbetween their duties, when the combatants slept, read books from the Jacob’s library, wrote diaries and even formed study circles. Seamus Pounch relates that the men and women held a céilí during a lull in the fighting.

The Jacob’s men were mainly active in supplying nearby garrisons such as the Irish Citizen Army in the Royal College of Surgeons with provisions, forming parties to gather information on what was happening in the city (the last communication from the GPO was on the Wednesday) and supporting other garrisons by sending men to join the fighting. In particular, a group of 20 men was sent to de Valera’s Boland’s Mills and Westland Row Railway Station, which was under heavy fire from the British Army. When they reached the Mount Street area they were fired on and were forced to retreat, with Volunteer John O’Grady mortally wounded – the only member of the garrison to die that week.

 

Patrick Pearse officially surrendered to General Lowe on Saturday 29 April, but the news did not reach Jacob’s that day.  On the Sunday, Father Aloysius, a Capuchin father, came to the factory with the order. Thomas MacDonagh, refusing to accept the surrender order as binding as Pearse was a prisoner, went with the priest to confer with him in person. Thomas Slater stated that before he left, he told the men ‘to get away if they could, as there was no use of lives being lost’, and many left at this point.   On his return, he conferred with the other commanding officers, confirming the surrender order and breaking down with the words ‘Boys, we must surrender, we must leave some to carry on the struggle’.

He called the men to the headquarters on the ground floor to inform them. Michael Walker remembered his words, ‘We are about to surrender but we have established the Irish Republic according to international law by holding out for a week. Though I have assurance from his reverence here that nobody will be shot, I know I will be shot, but you men will be treated as prisoners’ (of war).  At this there was uproar, with the men declaring that they did not trust the word of the British, and some urging to continue the fight.  

The men had the option of either marching out and surrendering, or escaping. Some took that option; escaping through windows wearing the civilian clothing which had been supplied to them by the Whitefriars Street Priory. Walker was one of these, though he was later found and arrested.  Seamus Pounch escaped arrest and had to lay low for some weeks, describing ‘how awkward it was now to have appeared so prominently and so often in uniform in the years leading up to the Rising’.

Vincent Byrne, a 15 year old Volunteer who would later become a member of Michael Collins’ ‘Squad’, remembers being lifted out of a window onto the street to escape, where he was taken into a house by a local woman to brush the telltale flour off his clothing.

Those who officially surrendered were brought to Richmond Barracks before being deported to various prisons and internment camps in Britain.  The leaders – Thomas MacDonagh, John McBride, and Michael O’Hanrahan were court martialled and executed the following month.

 

This Irish Volunteer tunic is of the pattern decided upon by the organisation’s uniform subcommittee in early 1914, and is one of the earliest examples of the type to survive. It was donated to the National Museum in 1917, just one year after the Rising, when its aftermath was still keenly felt by the city, and so it is not only a fine example of contemporary collecting, but is also the earliest object from the 1916 Rising to enter a national cultural institution.

It was found in Jacob’s Factory after Easter Week, and it is likely, given what the witness statements tell us about the surrender, that the Volunteer who wore it made the decision to abandon it before attempting escape.  We don’t know who owned this tunic, or whether or not he avoided arrest and internment.  I believe that it cannot have been an easy decision for him to make. From a personal perspective, he would have paid for this tunic on a weekly basis over a long period of time, and a number of small, neat repairs to the breast pocket show how valued it was by its owner.

On a practical level, if he had been arrested in uniform he would have had a better chance of being treated as a prisoner of war (though this did not in fact happen to the arrested rebels), but being dressed as a civilian increased his chances of escape. To abandon his uniform and escape may also have been regarded as dishonourable, despite having the full permission of his commanding officers to do so. We can assume from the pattern of the uniform that he was a member of the Irish Volunteers from at least early 1914, and that he was dedicated to the cause of the Irish Republic. Perhaps he went on with the struggle for independence, as MacDonagh hoped when he surrendered the garrison and himself, wishing to ‘leave some to carry on the struggle’.

 

© Brenda Malone. This work is original to the author and requires citation when used to ensure readers can trace the source of the information and to avoid plagiarism.

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Sources and general reading used in the creation of these articles are listed on the Further Reading page.

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1916 Rising

Toffee Axe, Looting in Dublin, 1916 Rising

Just before mid-day on Monday 24 April, Patrick Pearse stood at the front of the GPO and read the Proclamation declaring the Irish Republic. The rebels entered the building and began barricading the doors and windows, and smaller garrisons took their positions in outposts around Sackville Street such as the Metropole and Imperial Hotels, and shops such as Kelly’s and Hopkins. Shortly afterwards, the looting in Dublin’s main street began.

This 7 inch long toffee axe, more than likely taken from a confectioner’s shop, was kept as a souvenir by a Mr Daly after it was thrown at him, hitting his hat, by a looter in Sackville Street during the week of the Rising. It was given to the National Museum in 1980.

At almost the same moment as the Proclamation was being read, DMP Constable James O’Brien was shot dead by the rebels in Dublin Castle Yard, and Constable Michael Lahiff was shot at St. Stephen’s Green. Immediately after these incidents the Dublin Metropolitan Police were withdrawn and ordered to their barracks. Being an unarmed force, they would have been targets for the rebels and, with only their standard issue wooden batons, they would have had no way to defend themselves against the rebels’ rifles. This left the streets without its normal law enforcement at a time when the city was descending into chaos. Still, despite the order for the DMP to return to their barracks, the arrests of at least 27 people were made.

Most of the looting took place in the first three days, amid the crossfire between the rebels and the British Army Regiments, but before the fires took firm hold in the central streets.  Lower Sackville Street was a focal point, with clothes, toy and sports shops proving popular. Noblett’s and Lemon’s confectioners shops were looted for chocolates and sweets; the toffee axe may have come from one of these. The Cable Shoe Company (pictured) had its windows smashed, and The Daily Mail reported that people were seen trying on boots and shoes, and returning for another pair if the first selection failed to fit correctly.

Lawrence’s Photographic and toy emporium was also cleared of its contents. Fireworks were taken, and The Irish Times described the scene – ‘Rockets rushed up in the air and burst with a sound like a cannon, and all the smaller sorts of fireworks were thrown whizzing about among the crowd. Finally the premises were set on fire and burned to the ground’.

 

Efforts were made by other citizens to stop the activity. On Monday Francis Sheehy Skeffington, known to be opposed to the use of physical force, made efforts to prevent the looting in the city by personally appealing to the people. The next evening he called a meeting at Westmoreland Chambers with the same aim. It was after this meeting, as he was returning home, that he was arrested and brought to Portobello Barracks, where he was shot on the orders of Colonel Bowen Colthurst.

Pearse himself issued a proclamation from the Provisional Government to the Citizens of Dublin, at one point condemning the behavior with the lines ‘The Provisional Government hopes that its supporters – which means the vast bulk of the people of Dublin – will preserve order and self-restraint. Such looting as has already occurred has been done by hangers-on of the British Army. Ireland must keep her new honour unsmirched’.

Although the reports focus mainly on the shops in the Sackville Street area which sold luxury items, looting was also happening when the opportunity arose in other areas where the rebels had taken position. For example, it was recorded that after the rebels surrendered their position in Jacob’s Factory, the crowd looted the building on an ‘extensive scale’, taking flour and biscuits.  The citizens of Dublin, many of whom lived in extreme poverty, took not only the luxury items they could never afford, but also the basic foodstuffs they needed. This need was also seen in the aftermath of the Rising; where people, including children, searched the still smoking wreckage of buildings for anything they could use, and took the wood from the rebels’ street barricades for their fires.

In an item titled ‘The Lighter Side of the Dublin Troubles’ by G.H. Mumford (Evening News, London, 6 May 1916), the author describes the atmosphere in the city after the Rising ended –

Now that the trouble is all over it is permissible to forget the deplorable and dwell a moment on the ludicrous. Ireland always smiles through her tears.

If it were not for the Sackville Street holocaust and for the long casualty list one would regard the happenings of last week as a weird and bad extravaganza, with Dublin beating Sir W.S. Gilbert’s Titipu to a frazzle. To tell the truth, a large section of people hardly knows whether to be mirthful or melancholy about it even yet. Some visitors yesterday were becoming lugubrious over the ruins and the losses when one of them directed the attention of his companions to a hoarding opposite. There in a big type they read this: ‘All Easter Week, The Christian’. Condolences dissolved in convulsions.

Every second man one meets has quaint stories of the looting to tell. One relates to a man who, having taken a haul from a hosier’s window, was seen coming back. A second looter expostulated to him, suggesting that surely he had got his share, and it was somebody else’s turn. ‘That’s all right’ said the man addressed. ‘But I’m going to change one of these shirts. I want that one over there with the blue spots’.

A priest, meeting one of his Sunday scholars, said cheerily ‘Well, my little maid, and what do you think of “Ireland A Nation”?

The child paused, as though mentally balancing the family’s gains and losses. ‘I dunno’, she replied slowly. ‘Mother’s got a new fur coat, but father’s got a bullet in the ankle’. 

© Brenda Malone. This work is original to the author and requires citation when used to ensure readers can trace the source of the information and to avoid plagiarism.

https://libguides.ucd.ie/academicintegrity/referencingandcitation

Sources and general reading used in the creation of these articles are listed on the Further Reading page.

Categories
1916 Rising

16 Days of Internment; Alderman James J. Kelly, 1916

 

 In 1942 Maeve Cavanagh; poet, wife of composer and revolutionary Cathal MacDowell and sister of political cartoonist Ernest Kavanagh, deposited their souvenir album of postcards and photographs in the National Museum of Ireland. These cards were produced mostly between 1913 and 1922, and covered topics such as the Labour war of 1913-14, the 1916 Rising, the Irish Volunteers and National Volunteers, conscription and various propaganda cartoons, many of them drawn by MacDowell and Kavanagh themselves.  

 

Among the postcard photographs were two very different images of Alderman James Joseph Kelly, which he personally sent to his friend MacDowell, each with a message of explanation on the reverse.  One photograph is of James Kelly, taken in Dublin in 1916 before his arrest. The other is of the same man, taken in London after his release from prison after just 16 days.

James J. Kelly, a 45 year old merchant, owned a tobacconist shop on the corner of Camden Street and Harrington Street, also known as ‘Kelly’s Corner’. He was a Dublin Corporation Alderman, a Justice of the Peace and had previously held the office of High Sheriff of Dublin.  Kelly was a Nationalist, but not a member of either Sinn Fein or the Irish Volunteers, believing more moderately in self-determination for Ireland. However, on the 26th April 1916, the third day of the Rising, he found himself suddenly linked to the rebels and to the story of Francis Sheehy Skeffington.

 

Sheehy Skeffington, journalist, suffragist and pacifist, was arrested on 25th April and detained in Portobello Barracks, not far from Camden Street. He had not taken any part in the Rising, and he had been in the city appealing for peace and trying to prevent looting. British Army officer Captain Bowen-Colthurst of the Royal Irish Rifles was at that time attached to the 3rd Battalion stationed at the barracks. On the 26th April he decided to lead a raiding party into the city in search of Sinn Feiners, using Sheehy Skeffington as a hostage. As he marched into the city he shot 19 year old mechanic James Coade on the Rathmines Road, and 40 year old bricklayer Richard O’Carroll as he reached Camden Street. As the people on the streets fled from the gunfire, Thomas Dickson, editor of The Eye Opener, took shelter in Kelly’s shop, which Bowen-Colthurt’s party was heading towards in the belief that Kelly was a member of Sinn Fein. Patrick McIntyre, the editor of the Searchlight and a friend of Kelly’s, was already inside. Dickson and McIntyre were both arrested and brought to Portobello Barracks, where they were shot alongside Sheehy Skeffington.  Kelly himself was not present at the time of their arrests, but was arrested later and sent to Richmond Barracks.  His sister gave evidence to the Royal Commission of Inquiry which investigated the events, stating that the soldiers wrecked the shop, then bombed it with hand grenades.

Kelly spent from 26th April to 8th May in Richmond Barracks, from where he was deported to Wandsworth Prison in London on a cattle boat along with 196 other men. He appears on the Released List for the 12th May, so spent a total of about 16 days in detention before his release, unlike the many men who would spend up to eight months in prison camps. However, what Kelly suffered in those 16 days is evident on his face; apart from the tough conditions in prison, on close inspection there are also signs of his being beaten, evident in the black eye visible in the photograph.

On the 15th May 1916 during the Commons sitting on the Disturbances in Ireland, the Under-Secretary of State for War was questioned about Kelly’s case, in particular on ‘what charge, if any, was made against Alderman Kelly; and if he will be compensated for the loss sustained by the action of the military authorities?’ The Under-Secretary replied that ‘Mr. Kelly was arrested on suspicion, but, on investigation of the facts, it was determined that no charge should be preferred, and he has been released. The Government cannot recognise any claim to compensation’.

Kelly returned to politics after the Rising, and ran as an Independent nationalist candidate in the 1918 General Election in the St. Patrick’s Division of Dublin. He ran against the Irish Party candidate William Field who had held the seat since 1892, and the Sinn Fein candidate Countess Constance Markievicz.  Markievicz won, but refused her seat in the British Imperial Parliament in Westminster and joined the newly formed Dáil Éireann in January 1919. 

© Brenda Malone. This work is original to the author and requires citation when used to ensure readers can trace the source of the information and to avoid plagiarism.

https://libguides.ucd.ie/academicintegrity/referencingandcitation

Sources and general reading used in the creation of these articles are listed on the Further Reading page.

Categories
1916 Rising

The End of the Rising; Souvenir Photographs of Dublin’s Destruction, 1916

On Saturday 29th April, six days after the Rising began, the rebels had been driven from their central position at the GPO. From their new base at No. 16 Moore Street, Patrick Pearse, accompanied by Elizabeth O’Farrell, surrendered unconditionally to Brigadier General Lowe.  He was taken to Arbour Hill Prison, from where he issued the surrender order to the various garrisons. By Sunday evening all the outlying garrisons in Dublin had surrendered. When the fighting stopped Dublin could begin to assess its loss. There had been many deaths; about 65 Volunteers, up to 300 civilians and over 100 British Army soldiers had lost their lives, with many more injured. The extent of the physical damage to the city centre could now also be seen, with many areas receiving significant damage, and the areas around the GPO and Middle Abbey Street, Sackville Street, Henry Street and Eden Quay being almost completely destroyed.

 

Soon afterwards a number of publications appeared featuring photographs of the aftermath of the Rising; Dublin After The Six Days Insurrection by T. W. Murphy, published by Mecredy Percy, Dublin, Dublin and the Sinn Fein Rising published by Wilson Hartnell of Dublin, The Sinn Fein Revolt Illustrated published by Hely’s of Dublin, The Sinn Fein Rebellion Picture Souvenir published by W. & G. Baird Ltd of Belfast, and The Rebellion in Dublin, April 1916 published by Eason & Son Ltd.  Souvenir photographs of the Rising were in demand!

 

Valentine & Sons, a picture postcard company, also produced a set of photo postcards depicting the city, sold in a set of six. These are often seen in museum collections not only as individual cards but also as part of scrapbooks and albums that people made in the months after the Rising. I often think the creation of these albums, containing the postcard photographs alongside newspaper cuttings, is an indication of how the people of Dublin at the time were affected by the sight of the destruction of their city.

 

This is a selection of photographs taken from Dublin After The Six Days Insurrection, taken by T. W. Murphy.  They are full of people, and it always strikes me that life for them had to go on despite the very changed city landscape they suddenly found themselves in.

 

This weekend was the Object Matters – Making 1916 Conference in Dublin. It was a great event; congratulations to the organisers and the speakers, who gave papers ranging from the 1916 Proclamation, ephemera, internment material and the various public collections, their objects and their exhibitions. I’m looking forward to the proceedings!

© Brenda Malone. This work is original to the author and requires citation when used to ensure readers can trace the source of the information and to avoid plagiarism.

https://libguides.ucd.ie/academicintegrity/referencingandcitation

Sources and general reading used in the creation of these articles are listed on the Further Reading page.