Trenches…Hell…Biscuits: from the Rising to the battlefields of France, 1916

From April to June 2016, number 13 North Great George’s Street, Dublin was transformed into an art installation, styled as a shop. ‘The Souvenir Shop’ created by Rita Duffy and curated by Helen Carey, took inspiration from the tobacconist shop once owned by the 1916 Proclamation signatory, Tom Clarke. In this Georgian townhouse, Duffy reappraised the legacy of 1916 by presenting ‘souvenirs’ for sale that facilitate a reaction in the customer. By purchasing souvenirs such as ‘Free State’ jam, ‘Rise Up: Reach for a new Republic’ baking soda and Mexican graveside candles of Patrick Pearse, the customer is complicit in fulfilling the shop’s  raison d'être. The humour and irony in the ‘skewed meanings juxtaposed against original function’ seek to question our attitudes towards violence, commemoration, economics, gender and power.[1]

A few doors up from number 13, at the top of North Great George’s Street, is Belvedere House, the home of Belvedere College SJ. In 1916, twenty-four past pupils of the Jesuit-run Belvedere College were involved in the Rising, on both sides. Joseph Mary Plunkett on the rebel side and Reginald Clery, a member of the Georgius Rex Brigade (or “Gorgeous Wrecks” to the Dublin wags) on the British side, both died in the Rising.

During the Rising, the Belvedere Rector, Fr John Fahy SJ aided the wounded and supplied the local area with food and milk. The Minister of Belvedere College, Fr Martin Corbett SJ, kept a journal at that time: 

April 24 (Easter Monday): Sinn Fein rebellion began at mid-day…All chaplaincies (viz. by members of the community to nearby convents and hospitals) continue. Thursday: About 1pm military in George’s St fire about 100 rounds at Belvedere. About 50 bullets enter house. Providential escape of community. Later on in day shots fired at an upper window. No gas since Monday. Card party every evening in Gymnasium. Friday: Occasional shots strike the College. Saturday: Cease fire sounded about 2pm. Surrender of rebels in G.P.O. Punch each evening in refectory (out of military range). 1st May: Public allowed through the streets. Sniping and some fighting continues... [2]

The newly digitised ‘Property Losses (Ireland) Committee 1916’ compensation files by the National Archives  of Ireland show that the Jesuits claimed for ‘£62 2s 3d for damage to building due to Crown forces rifle fire at Belvedere College’ and they received full compensation.[3] Contemporaneously, a former teacher of Belvedere College, Fr Henry Gill SJ (1872-1945), was serving as a chaplain in the First World War.

Before the war, Gill studied physics at the Cavendish Laboratories, Cambridge, taught in Jesuit schools and conducted research into earthquakes. In his letters, diary and scrapbook held at the Irish Jesuit Archives, Gill chronicles his experiences as a chaplain at the Front. He comments on the Rising in early May 1916:

We cannot think of anything else than the terrible things which have been going on in Dublin.  Please god it is now over and that the authorities will use - as I am sure they will -tact in dealing with it. We only see the accounts in English, and French newspapers…Nothing has affected Irishmen out here more than this…But it has been a big lesson. Many who ought have known better seem to have been asleep. But least said soonest mended.I pity the poor young fools who got entangled into so horrible an affair. [4]  

A month later, Gill wrote ‘I think everyone must admit, no matter what their sympathies that “England has asked for trouble”. The thing which annoys me is the suggestion that we out here are unpatriotic.’[5]


The First World War diary of Sergeant George Hugh McLean (1890-1971), which has been digitised by the National Library of Ireland, and is available from the Digital Repository of Ireland and the Inspiring Ireland website, replicates the shock that news of the Rising instigated at the Front. McLean writes after the Rising:'disgraceful news about Dublin…rumour that Ulster Div[ision] is for home to have a go at the rebels…news…Dublin…very bad much safer out here. Wonder how they are managing at home sure mother is in a state’[6] McLean worked at the Albert Agriculture College, Glasnevin, specialising in the photography of plants, prior to joining the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers in 1914. Both McLean and Gill shared a passion for photography and recorded their war-time experiences in written and photographic mediums.

McLean’s diary documents his work as a Signaller in the Wireless Section Royal Engineers (36th Ulster Division) and mentions illness, homesickness, death and conditions in the trenches. McClean and Gill also endured the horrors of war. McLean noted on consecutive days in late June 1916:

           Trenches…Hell…Biscuits & B…Gas Attack…No Water

                Trenches…Biscuits…Hell…nearly blinded by Gas

                Trenches…Over top tomorrow…This is the most miserable time I ever remember…no    water…only B&B…a regular hell…Wish I was - .[7]

Gill writes in early July 1916, at the start of the battle of the Somme:

Just a line to say I am still alive. We are of course, as always, “in it”. I believe I may not say how many casualties we lost during the attack, which is I suppose the first of a series…This is about the fifth attack I have been in, and I feel I know more than I want about shells of all sizes and conditions. It is a horrible and squalid business. Trenches full of mud with bodies of dead Germans and British lying unburied all along. Please God it will end soon, and that we may be able to forgot it all as quickly as possible.[8]

Gill never forgot. He returned to teaching at Belvedere College and conducted research into philosophy and science however the four years spent at the Front had a lasting adverse effect on him. Asked once by a fellow Jesuit about his courage, devotion and “unfailing gaiety in the worst circumstances” that the officers and men of his battalion spoke of, Gill remarked: “Well, one made the offering of one’s life at mass in the morning, and then it didn’t really matter.”[9] Having survived the war, McLean opened a photographic studio in Clare Street, Dublin and worked with photography for the rest of his life.

Returning to ‘The Souvenir Shop’; one of its aims is to examine ‘how ordinary people and everyday heroes cope with conflict and resolution’. An object for sale entitled, Grandmother‘s letter, consists of a typewritten letter printed on a tea-towel, with a watermarked image of a sparrow. Unlike any other object for sale, there is no humour or farce inherent. It stands alone as a memento. The essence of this textual object is to involve us in questioning its provenance and survival. The letter begins:

I hope you will pardon me for not writing to you sooner, to tell you how sorry I was and am about your great loss in losing your husband. He was a brave and good man. Whenever there was difficult or dangerous work to be done he was always in it, and more than once his Company Commander singled him out for praise.

He was one of those I knew best and I was grieved indeed to hear of his death.

Your Husband lived a good life and died a Hero’s death, that will not make your sorrow less, but it will help you to bear it in resignation to God’s will, Who, does not even a allow a   sparrow to fall without his Providence.

He only lived a few minutes after he was shot and can have suffered but little pain, He always went to Confession and Holy Communion before an attack, now you may therefore       be at ease about him.[10]

The letter was written by Fr Henry Gill SJ to Rita Duffy’s grandmother, Maggie Duffy in September 1916. Her husband, John Duffy was killed at the battle of the Somme in July 1916 and is commemorated on the Thiepval memorial.

About the author:  Damien Burke is Assistant Archivist at the Irish Jesuit Archives and editor of ‘Irish Jesuit Chaplains in the First World War’ (Messenger Publications, 2014).

Image Credits:
1. Irish Jesuit Archives: Fr Henry Gill SJ photograph of men at rest, 1915-16.
2. National Museum of Ireland: Joseph Plunkett's rosary beads.
3. National Library of Ireland: Photograph of Sgt. George McClean.
4. National Library of Ireland: World War I Diary of Sgt. George McClean.
5. 'The Souvenir Shop 1916-2016' courtesy of Rita Duffy. Acknowledging the support of the Arts Council, Cavan Arts Office, the Irish Countrywomen’s Association, Rhonda Tidy and Arts and Disability Ireland.


[2] Belvedere College Archives, COM/2.

[4] Irish Jesuit Archives - IE IJA/CHP1/25/47, 3 May 1916.

[5] IE IJA/CHP1/25/49, 24 June 1916.

[7] Ibid.

[8] IE IJA/CHP1/25/50, 11 July 1916.

[9] Fr Henry Gill SJ by Simon Carswell, Irish Jesuit Chaplains in the First World War (2014), p65.

[10] Grandmother‘s letter by Rita Duffy.


Cite this blog post using the following format (MLA):
Burke, Damien, “A Closer Look at Inspiring Ireland 1916: "From the Rising to the Battlefields of France.” Digital Repository of Ireland. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to Inspiring Ireland 1916].