Social and labour historian Pádraig Yeates, author of A City in Wartime – Dublin 1914 – 1918: The Easter Rising, 1916, uses a wide variety of public objects and private memorabilia related to the Rising, and to global events, to reveal the wider stories of 1916 Ireland.
The Easter Rising may have been a transformative moment in the politics of modern Ireland but it had little impact on people’s everyday lives. Even in Dublin the deaths caused by the fighting saw the mortality rate rise by only three per thousand on the same quarter in 1915, before resuming its downward trend as living standards and health indices continued to improve. Looting may have had more material impact on the lives of inner city dwellers than the fighting, and the employment created by the demands of a war economy far more. The First World War was ‘good’ for Ireland and saw most people’s lives improve. The price was paid by the 35,000 or more soldiers who died, 5,000 of them from Dublin and thousands more physically and mentally shattered by their experiences.
Published: April 22, 2016
Among the main beneficiaries of the war were the ‘separation’ women, so named because of the separation allowances paid to them as dependents of soldiers. Most of them were wives and widows. The terms were generous given that most unskilled workers at the war’s outbreak earned between 18s and 25s a week. If a man worked for a public body such as Dublin Corporation, or firms that encouraged recruitment, because the war caused a downturn in business such as the Guinness Brewery they received half-pay on top of their 1s a day from the army. Wives were paid 12s 6d a week, plus 5s for the couple’s first child, 3s 6d for the second and 2s for every child thereafter. The system was extremely progressive with payments for child dependents continuing until they were 21 if they were in higher education or serving certain apprenticeships. The scheme was subsequently extended to unmarried mothers and, if a soldier was killed, his wife received a widow’s pension of 13s 6d a week, plus the children’s allowance. My paternal grandmother raised three sons on an army widow’s pension. Other beneficiaries of the war were farmers. In 1917 the British government introduced Agricultural Wage Boards that provided de facto recognition for trade unions and binding arbitration procedures to secure industrial peace while it was fighting the Central Powers. In little over a year more than 100,000 farm labourers joined the Irish Transport and General workers Union to secure better pay and conditions. When Connolly was executed in 1916 it had less than 5,000 members.
Prosperity percolated across all classes. The gent’s silver pocket watch bought by Kildare race horse owner Florence J Burke from Hopkins and Hopkins jewellery shop on Lower Sackville [O’Connell] Street was the sort of purchase only a citizen feeling confident about the future would make. The firm’s premises were completely destroyed during Easter week the shop re-opened in temporary premises in September 1916 – a testimony to the resilience of Irish businesses and the generosity of the British government through the Property Losses (Ireland) Commission. The British government was determined to ensure normality returned as quickly as possible to city centre streets devastated by fires and explosions that were mainly the work of its own artillery. Over £2.3 million was paid out to claimants, although Dublin’s Chief Fire Officer, Captain Thomas Purcell, put the real cost of the damage done at no more than £1 million. Hugh Love, the civil servant whose committee dealt with personal injury cases did what he could but had his awards routinely slashed by the Irish Treasury Remembrancer Maurice Headlam and the new Assistant Under Secretary John Taylor.
Not surprisingly, by 1917 the largest group of families in the Dublin tenements, after general labourers, was soldiers’ dependents. It is no wonder that volunteers such as Seamus Gough, beating a retreat with a wounded comrade from Portobello towards Stephen’s Green were attacked by soldiers’ wives. He said, ‘They fired bottles and jam pots and everything at us as were going down into the College of Surgeons’. The experience of British soldiers coming to Ireland to suppress the Rising was often far more welcoming, although it followed a rough crossing from Holyhead. Those who were bad sailors such as Arthur Geary and stayed on deck in case they threw up were distracted from their misery by the sight of Dublin city centre ablaze as they entered Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) harbour. Geary looked as a mate said, ‘By gum, Dublin’s got it’ and saw the sky painted red and black in the distance.
When these youngsters, most of them raw recruits, landed on the quayside a sergeant put them through their rifle drill to restore some sense of routine and discipline. Their experiences were as varied as that of their opponents. While some of the Irish Volunteers spent the week eating biscuits in Jacob’s factory and others fought in the furnace of Mount Street Bridge, Orson Lucas’s detachment of Sherwood Foresters was sent south and west to intercept rebel columns approaching Dublin. They were welcomed as saviours by the locals and entertained to dinner at Foxrock Golf Club. Albert Palmer on the other hand was marched into the city and saw one of his officers, Lieutenant Frederick Dietrichsen, a Nottingham barrister shot dead before his eyes in the first deadly volleys on Northumberland Road. The British Army suffered half of its total casualties in the Rising on this stretch of suburban roadway.
One of the neglected figures of the Rising is Robert Monteith, who followed Sir Roger Casement to Germany on Tom Clarke’s instructions to recruit prisoners of war to an Irish Brigade. Himself a former Sergeant Major in the British army and veteran of the Boer War, Monteith enjoyed little success. Irish prisoners generally gave both men a hostile reception and only 56 signed up. Disappointed, Monteith and Casement return to Ireland on the eve of the Rising, the latter in a vain attempt to call it off. Monteith managed to evade capture and escaped to America, where he later worked selling bonds on behalf of the American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic. There was of course little appetite for reminding the American public during the War of Independence of the leaders of the Easter Rising’s links with Imperial Germany. Like the vast majority of his compatriots, on all sides in the struggle, Monteith had little to show for his sacrifice and sufferings when he died in Michigan, USA, in 1956.
Undoubtedly the most significant casualty of the Easter Rising was someone who did not fire a shot and was opposed to militant nationalism, the Irish Party leader John Redmond. However, contrary to the widely distributed leaflet issued in the South Roscommon by-election in 1917, the first of a series of victories for his opponents, neither Redmond nor his colleagues cheered the news of the executions of the 1916 leaders in the House of Commons. It was nevertheless widely believed and assiduously promoted by Laurence Ginnell, who defected from the Irish Party to Sinn Fein and was absent from the House of Commons chamber when the alleged cheering was supposed to have taken place. The report proved an early nail in the political coffins of his colleagues.
The Rising did not stop Munitions Minister David Lloyd George from pressing ahead with his plan for a National Shell Factory in Dublin. He argued that if people were given work they would be too busy to engage in sedition. Besides, the British army needed ammunition and shells and it needed men to use them, so there was a general clear out of males from the munitions industry creating new employment opportunities for women. There was already a small factory run by the Dublin Dockyard Company in Dublin’s East Wall but the National Shell Factory on the Conyngham Road was a much bigger state undertaking that would manufacture over 80 per cent of the shells produced in Ireland for the British war effort. These women could earn up to 60s a week, as much as a printer or bricklayer, at a time when domestic servants earned £13 to £16 a year and a trained VAD nurse serving with the armed forces £40 to £45. Preference was given to the wives and widows of serving soldiers and, unlike Britain, where the high pay attracted women from all but the highest social classes, the Dublin munitions workers were drawn overwhelmingly from working class areas.
Even before the bad press that separation women and ‘munitioneers’ received from nationalists after the Rising, there was widespread resentment that they were being paid too much and spending their wages on drink, clothes, frequenting ‘the low saloon of O’Connell Street’ and otherwise behaving inappropriately for their station in life. One of the few ecumenical middle class movements to emerge in the city was the Ladies Patrols, each composed of two Catholics and one Protestant member, who, accompanied by members of the DMP, sought to put manners on these ‘girls’. Undoubtedly many of the latter did have a good time but, judging by the fall in child cruelty cases from 4,411 in 1913 to 1,913 by 1919, so did many of their children. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, albeit an overwhelmingly Protestant charity supportive of the war effort, was unequivocal in attributing the downward trend in cruelty and hardship cases to the fact that the families of servicemen were ‘better off financially than they have ever been and consequently the homes are better provided for with food and clothing than during normal conditions in time of peace’. The proof came with the return of peace when complaints of cruelty, neglect and malnutrition once more began to rise.