Diarmaid Ferriter, Professor of Modern Irish History at University College Dublin, considers sources and objects that paint a more complicated narrative of the 1916 Rising and the consequences of Easter Week for Irish men, women and children at this time.
Published: May 13, 2016
‘blue, despondent, down and out, hopeless and at the end of my tether’…
At various stages in the decades after the 1916 Rising, veterans of the rebellion sought to encapsulate what it had all meant. Some of the participants and their champions sought to narrowly frame their motives as essentially religious, or as Florence O’Donoghue, whose cousin was killed in the Rising, was later to express it, 1916 “the expression in action of an idea essentially spiritual.” Aodh de Blacam, a Sinn Féin propagandist during the War of Independence, was also fond of this mode of interpretation; he insisted the Rising proved “the strength of Ireland is the spirituality of her ideal.”
In contrast, Gerald O’Sullivan, an Irish member of the British navy, wrote to his father a few weeks after the Rising, on hearing news of Easter week in Dublin “I was worried and restless…but I will not waste time in dogmatising on such madness…it would seem as if the temple of glory built by our brave Irish regiments had been pulled down by their own kindred. In a paper that Maggie sent me I notice the name and address of Dot’s brother as one of the rebels deported. I wonder what his own brother Jack will say when he hears the news at the Front. That half-demented, crazy, misguided fool…Patriotism! My God! And he knows as much about Irish history as a Fiji cannibal.”
O’Sullivan’s is the type of letter that has come to prominence in recent years, contributing to a complicating of the narrative of 1916 in relation to individual and collective experiences and the multiple definitions of loyalty that characterised the Irish experience 100 years ago. As a result, analysis of the Rising is now a much more textured one; many hitherto hidden histories have emerged, making it possible to shed light on the struggles of people living their ordinary lives during extraordinary political, military and economic upheaval.
For all the headline grabbing events, putting bread on the table was still the most important priority for most. Research of contemporary newspapers, correspondence and newly released archival material offers a multitude of perspectives on the political, military and administrative concerns of an elite involved in governance, and a relatively small group of conspirators involved in rebellion, but also the personal and communal preoccupations of those, some deliberately, others unwittingly, who found themselves in the midst of the fighting and then had to deal with the consequences of the Rising.
During Easter week, 485 men women and children were killed and over 2,600 injured. Over 70% of people killed were aged between 17 and 49 years. Over 200 buildings were damaged or destroyed by fires and shelling during the Rising. In the aftermath, however, it was the scale of the arrests and executions that were to have the most profound impact. Roughly 3,500 people were arrested and although many of them were quickly released, in the region of 2,000 were interned, with prisoners deported to Welsh, English and Scottish prisons. What did it feel like to experience incarceration and what did it mean for those left behind? The practical difficulties were summed up in the letter Eamonn Duggan wrote to his fiancé May Kavanagh when he was detained in Portland Prison in October 1916:
“You see I rely on you to do everything for me while I am here. I don’t know what I should have done without you. Well, some day I hope to be able to show my appreciation of it all”.
Incarceration was a mental as well as physical challenge and provided time to write and hone patriotic sentiment and verse. Poems and songs of the revolutionary era were full of self-righteous certainty and highlight, in the words of musician and archivist Terry Moylan, who has collected many of them, “the tendency to see all matters in absolute terms. No shades of grey here!” As George Zimmerman pointed out nearly sixty years ago in his Songs of Irish Rebellion, they were more about “confirming people in their own already existing attitudes”. An example can be seen in the poem Knutsford Hotel, written by an Irish rebel in Knutsford Prison
“Can law and its arm make Irishmen fear,
Or hard labour’s lot from us drag a tear,
Oh! No, Mother Erin, that never shall be,
We’re willing to suffer, my darling, for thee!”
Attending to the welfare of prisoners’ families was both a political and material concern. Shortly after the Rising, a number of organisations emerged, including the Irish National Aid Association (INAA) and the Irish Volunteer Dependent’s Fund (IVDF), both based in Dublin. Efforts were also made to appeal to the Irish in Britain through the creation of the National Relief Fund (NRF), centred in London. Kathleen Clarke, the widow of Thomas Clarke, one of the executed 1916 leaders, founded the IVDF and was assisted by members of Cumann na mBan, the female auxiliary organisation of the Irish Volunteers; its committee was largely composed of spouses of the 1916 rebels. By early August 1916, the INAA had collected £13,415 and the IVDF £4,459.
There was also an American fundraising body established in the aftermath of the Rising, the Irish Relief Fund Committee. The proliferation of organisations and fears of duplication led to an agreement that both the INAA and IVDF would merge into the Irish National Aid & Volunteer Dependent’s Fund (INAVDF) which became associated with advanced nationalism and put much effort into propaganda and an aggressive support of prisoners’ rights. After Michael Collins was released from internment in Frongoch, he began to work for the INAVDF and was instrumental in rebuilding the IRB; these two organisations became the basis for Collins’s rise to dominance within advanced nationalist ranks. In relation to the welfare of prisoners’ families, the attention to detail is apparent from the list of dependents receiving financial assistance from the INAVDF and their varied material circumstances:
“Mrs McGarry: Husband sentenced to eight years, received £20”
“Mrs O’Sullivan: Son sentenced to eight years. Brother and 2 sisters working, received £10”
What of the consequences of the Rising for businesses? The Chief Fire Officer for Dublin City estimated the damage caused was in the region of £2.5 million. Historian Pádraig Yeates has highlighted that “the families of civilians killed in the fighting did not fare nearly so well as big business” Many of the families were put through a demeaning bureaucratic nightmare to prove they were destitute; a 2 year old whose leg was amputated after she was shot was eventually offered a paltry £100.
The Property Losses (Ireland) Committee (PLIC) was established in June 1916 to assess claims for damages to buildings and property as a result of the destruction and its archive brings abstract statistics right down to the individual household and business level. The collection provides an insight into the scale of destruction to the area around Sackville Street [now O’Connell Street] and Henry Street. It also includes a number of claims for destruction and looting in Wexford and Galway. Many claims for compensation related to household furniture seized by the British army for use as barricades against the rebels. The loss of personal belongings by those living in staff quarters was underlined in a letter accompanying a claim by Lizzie Walsh, a chambermaid in the Metropole Hotel who complained that the amount of the award granted was insufficient to purchase a new uniform, preventing her from obtaining a new job.
Annie Gallagher, a housekeeper in Moore Street Dublin, clamed £9 for the loss of her son’s bicycle but an inspector’s valuation only valued it at £5: “I was by no means favourably impressed by the claimant…the mother stated to me positively that she herself paid in cash the sum of £9 for her son’s bicycle the week before the rebellion. She stated the machine was bought from Mr Kelly of Lower Abbey Street, but unfortunately their books were burned…how she was able to shell out such an amount for a bicycle for such a young lad is a mystery”. Class considerations are to the fore in these files: Margaret McKane from Percy Place who was compensated to the tune of £20 for damage to her jewellery from gunfire was characterised as “respectable”, but the real tragedy for that family was revealed in this succinct, bureaucratic summary: “Daughter (Brigid) aged 16 years killed. Husband (Thomas) receiving 5 bullet wounds in breast at same time”.
Martin Carty’s claim for the commandeering of bicycles at Slaney Street in Enniscorthy, Wexford, was “declined” due to “complicity”; he was imprisoned after the rebellion and interned for 3 months; he was deemed “an extreme Sinn Féiner…his house has been a meeting house, before and since the rebellion for parties who were implicated in the rebellion”.
The looting during the Rising also had obvious consequences for small businesses. Joseph Larkin of Dorset Street Lower lodged a claim for £350 for the looting of tobacco and stock at his shop in Wexford Street. His claim is a reminder that for some during Easter Week, there was an opportunity to smoke ill-gotten cigarettes to excess: he listed his losses, including 230 boxes of woodbine cigarettes, 1500 3 Castle cigarettes, 100lbs of roll tobacco and 30lbs of plug tobacco; an award of £172 was recommended by the committee. More strikingly, John Hughes, the station sergeant for the Dublin Metropolitan Police at Green Street, lodged a claim for £10 for the destruction of a shirt due to blood stains after he was shot and held hostage by rebels in Stephen’s Green.
Incidents such as these are central to the debate about what sort of fight the Rising had been. The Proclamation unveiled at the outset of the Rising had ordered the rebels not to dishonour their cause “by cowardice, inhumanity or rapine”. As Desmond Ryan recalled, “Orders were given that prisoners were to be treated courteously. No firing was to take place except under orders or to repel attack”. But how could these instructions have been rigidly enforced? It is true that, overall, the rebels, in the words of historian Fearghal McGarry, “attempted to live up to these standards…policemen and unarmed soldiers were not systematically targeted” and there were acts of chivalry on both sides, but “there were also less palatable occurrences” which included the shooting of civilians and unarmed policemen.
Another archive, on a much bigger scale, which also highlights the afterlife and material circumstances of participants and those affected by the Rising and subsequent conflict is that of the Military Service Pensions Collection. The collection has its origins in a decision of the Oireachtas in June 1923 to recognise and compensate wounded participants and deceased participants’ dependents. The archive contains an extraordinary level of testimony and detail about individual and collective republican military endeavor, but it also reveals much about frustrated expectations, concern about status and reputation, and difficulties of verification of service. While the list of those awarded military service pensions at the highest grade reads like a roll call of some of the best known gunmen and later politicians of that era, the bulk of the archive is filled with the voices of those who were not household names, and documents many voices of desperation and urgent pleas for pensions due to the abject circumstances of 1916 veterans.
The multitudes of narratives in the archive contain a variety of sentiments and tones; pride, arrogance, anger; self-belief, righteousness and, more often than not, dignity. In July 1941, Nora Connolly O’Brien, daughter of the labour leader James Connolly, executed after his leading role in the 1916 Rising, and who herself had been an active member of Cumann na mBan, wrote to a confidante that she had not “heard a word yet from the Pensions Board…I am at my wits end. We are absolutely on the racks. This week will see the end of us unless I have something definite to count upon…There seems no prospect of anything here so we have written to England applying for jobs. I’m absolutely blue, despondent, down and out, hopeless and at the end of my tether.”
There was relatively good news for her in October 1941 when she was a pension of £29.7.6 per year. For those seeking to survive or eke out a bare subsistence in the 1930s and 1940s, every penny generated by 1916 service was precious.
Diarmaid Ferriter was appointed Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD in 2008, having lectured on the subject since earning his doctorate in 1996. His main research interests are the social, political and cultural histories of twentieth century Ireland. He has published extensively and his most recent book is A Nation and not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution, 1913-23 (Profile Books).