Irish Identity and the Rebellion

One reason the Rebellion of 1916 gained traction, where earlier bids for Irish freedom had failed, is that by the beginning of the 20th century the Irish people had started to develop a sense of national consciousness which had not previously existed.

Centuries of invasion and occupation had decimated the Irish sense of identity. The Irish language was in decline and national self-regard was at an all-time low. The 19th Century in Ireland had brought the Great Famine, and failed rebellions in 1803, 1847 and 1867.

A number of new movements aimed at reviving Irish Nationalism emerged from the middle of 19th and at the beginning of the 20th century, including the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA); Conradh na Gaeilge (the Gaelic League); the Irish Volunteers; Cumann na nGaedheal, which led to the formation of Sinn Fein; and The Irish Literary Renaissance which sought to make the Irish people aware of their historical literary heritage.

The Irish Literary Renaissance, also known as the Celtic Revival, was greatly influenced by the works of Standish O’Grady (1846-1928), an Anglo-Irish aristocrat whose interest in the myths and legends of the native Irish began when he came across the translations of Gaelic scholar Eugene O’Curry. O’Grady was aware that the stories of the ancient heroes of Irish legend were not the true history of Ireland but he also knew that they had value. He believed that these stories would help restore a sense of national pride, and dispel the notion that the Irish were a feckless and artless race who needed to be governed by their superiors in Britain.

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Ireland had a ‘race history’ which had been guarded carefully over centuries of invasion and occupation, which was passed from generation to generation by poets, bards and storytellers who played an important part in the lives of the Irish peasants.

O’Grady wrote that ‘a nation’s history is made for it by circumstances, and the irresistible progress of events; but their legends they make for themselves….The legends represent the imagination of the country; they are that kind of history which a nation desires to possess. They betray the ambitions and ideals of the people, and in this respect, have a value far beyond the tale of actual events.’

In 1878 O’Grady published ‘History of Ireland: the Heroic Period.’ This was followed in 1880 by ‘History of Ireland: Cuchulain and his Contemporaries.’  His books were not bestsellers at the time of their publication, perhaps because they were presented as the actual history of country, but he is credited with sparking a renewed interest in the oral history of Ireland.

His work had a profound influence on the likes of W. B. Yeats, George Russell (A.E), Lady Gregory, James Stephens, Douglas Hyde and John Millington Synge, amongst other cultural and literary giants who came after him.  One reason for this is because in the re-telling of these stories he found a way to connect the ancient past of the Celtic people with their desire for an independent future.

W B Yeats acknowledged O’Grady as the ‘father of the Irish literary revival’ and referenced him as an influence many times. Yeats produced many works in the same vein. In his introduction to ‘Irish Fairy and Folk Tales,’ he talks of transcribing the stories told by the seanchaí, the ‘ancient hoarder of tales’ on Holy-eve, on creaking boats, and at wakes.  He sought to unlock the histories that were passed from generation to generation and in doing so to restore a pride in Celtic customs and traditions.

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The native Irish people took their storytelling seriously and seanchaí were respected and welcomed wherever they went. Yeats explains, ‘storytellers used to gather together of an evening, and if any had a different version from the others, they would all recite theirs and vote, and the man who had varied would have to abide by the verdict’ – thereby preserving the accuracy of the tale that was passed to the next generation. He observed that the tales they told ‘caught the voice of the people, the very pulse of life, each giving what was most noticed in his day.’

These were folk stories, tales of fairies, ghosts, banshees, mermaids and phantoms, and of families or individuals who were favoured or plagued. They were symbolic stories ‘steeped in the heart,’ tales of ‘birth, love, pain, and death…unchanged for centuries.’ Inherent in the tales are the archetypes that are present in the collective unconscious of every nation and society.

The Irish Literary Revival led to the publication of poetry, prose and drama about the Irish people, by Irish people. A lot of it was written in English, which drew criticism from the likes of D P Moran, a prominent journalist and social commentator at the time who thoroughly disapproved of the Ascendancy class, but English was the predominant language of the people, many of whom could not read or write. In time it led to the foundation of the Abbey Theatre, the first Irish national theatre, and to a pride in the Hiberno-English spoken by the ordinary people, which allows us to communicate what is wonderful about Ireland and its people in our own unique way.

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The Young Volunteer

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Patrick Joseph Roe was one of the youngest Volunteers attached to The Irish Volunteers C. Company, 3rd Battalion, Dublin Brigade, who participated in the Battle of Mount Street Bridge. He had started a Fenian Group in Inchicore in 1912 with Liam Mellows, who was one of the founding members of the Volunteers. He went on to become a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood in 1913.

The particulars of the “military operations…or services rendered” by Roe during the week of 23 to 29 April 1916, show that he was engaged in “Removal of Arms, First Aid Dressings, Etc from Michael Malone’s home, 37 S C Road to 6 Harcourt Street – Test mobilisation – General preparation for the Rising – Communications” and “on the run.” He was also one of the four Volunteers who helped secure and defend 25 Northumberland Road during Easter Week, 1916, one of the bloodiest engagements of the Rebellion.

He was lucky to make it that far. When his Battalion arrived at Mount Street Bridge he was assigned with another young Volunteer, Michael Byrne, under the command of James Grace, to cover the gates of Beggars Bush Barracks at the junction of Haddington Road and Northumberland Road. While they were there two men approached them, one elderly and one young. The elderly man tried to induce Roe to let him look at his rifle. Grace, with his bayonet fixed, ordered the man to stand back. He persisted and advanced towards Roe, trying to take the rifle from his hands. Grace put his bayonet to the man’s throat and told him to stand back. The elderly man attempted to produce a weapon but was prevented from doing so by Grace.

Grace later discovered that the man, whose name was O’Connell, was a member of a pro-British territorial organisation, the G.R.s, who had instructions to rush and disarm Irish Volunteers when alone or in small numbers. Grace let him go but regretted it later and regarded it as a dereliction of duty.

Later that day Roe helped secure and defend 25 Northumberland Road. The Volunteers inside endured heavy sniper fire from Monday afternoon and throughout Tuesday.  At about 12 o’clock on Tuesday night Lieutenant Malone called Grace aside and told him they could “not hope to win owing to the confusion caused by the G.H.Q. countermanding order and also the overwhelming odds against them”. The expected German aid had failed to arrive. They were already exhausted and they had been involved in ongoing gun battles with the enemy since they took over the outpost.

Therefore, he decided that the two young volunteers, Roe and Byrne, should be sent away because he believed they were only sixteen or seventeen. This is disputed. Patrick was in fact twenty at the time. They were reluctant to go, rightly suspecting that the “dispatches” they were told to take to Malone’s house were an excuse to get them away from danger. Despite their protests Malone “gently but firmly” ordered them to take letters to his house on the South Circular Road and to wait there for further orders. Grace recalls in testimony given to the Bureau of Military History (1913-1921) that at “about 2.30 am they crept out through the skylight and over the roofs, gloomy enough, because they had been told that under no circumstances were they to come back to No. 25.” They made their way to Malone’s house on the South Circular Road to “await orders”.

Of course those orders never came.  At least not from Lieutenant Michael Malone, who “fell at his post” during the Battle of Mount Street Bridge.

Patrick Roe evaded arrest after the Easter Rising but was arrested and imprisoned during November, 1917, for illegal drilling. He was released after about 14 days following a hunger strike.

Undeterred, he continued in active service for the ‘cause,’ serving with the IRA between 1920 and 1923 during the War of Independence, Truce Period and the Civil War.

The Battle of Mount Street Bridge

On Easter Monday, April 24th, 1916, as Pádraig Pearse, Commander of the Irish Volunteers, prepared to read the Proclamation of the Irish Republic from the steps of the GPO, battalions of Irish Volunteers were occupying strategic positions throughout the city in order to defend the newly declared Republic.

One of these battalions, under the command of Eamon de Valera, occupied the Boland’s area, including the Mills and the Bakery, situated close to Mount Street Bridge, a key crossing point into Dublin from Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire).

De Valera and 2nd Lieutenant Michael Malone had reconnoitered the area sometime earlier to choose outposts for a mission designed to prevent British reinforcements, disembarking at Kingstown, from reaching the City Centre.

The Irish Volunteers C. Company, 3rd Battalion, Dublin Brigade, trained and paraded at Camden Row. Early on Easter Monday morning the Company was mobilised to Earlsford Terrace, where they were issued with Manser ammunition by Dick Carroll, the Company Quartermaster.

At about 11am the men, under the command of Captain Simon Donnelly, marched to Mount Street Bridge, where they met with Lieutenant Michael Malone. He instructed James Grace, Commander of No. 4 Section, to take two young Volunteers, Paddy Roe and Michael Byrne, to the junction of Haddington Road and Northumberland Road to cover the gates of Beggars Bush Barracks.

Section Commander George Reynolds, Jimmy Doyle, Richard Murphy and Willie Ronan were sent to take over Clanwilliam House. Joe Clarke, Joe Christian and Joseph Doyle were sent to take over the Mission Hall, Northumberland Road, and Section Commander Dinny Donoghue and four or five Volunteers were told to occupy the Schoolhouse opposite the Mission Hall.

When the garrisons of Clanwilliam House, Mission Hall and the Schoolhouse were installed, Malone, Grace, Roe and Byrne took possession of 25 Northumberland Road and prepared the building for a state of siege, erecting barricades from the furniture and ensuring food and water supplies for a couple of days. The Cussens, who owned 25 Northumberland Road, were sympathetic to the cause and had already vacated the house.

Almost immediately, the Volunteers in 25 Northumberland Road were involved in clashes with a Company of G.Ws, (part of a local Home Guard unit) marching towards their garrison at Beggars Bush. Four of the G.W.s were killed and more were injured. Unknown to Malone and Grace, the G.W.s were unable to return fire as their rifles were unloaded.

According to Grace’s witness statement, recorded later by the Bureau of Military History (1913-1921), from that point on the Volunteers were subjected to persistent sniping. They gave as good as they got. One sniper in the house opposite 25 Northumberland Road was “particularly troublesome.” Grace attracted fire from him from an upstairs window, losing his cap to a bullet in the process, giving Malone, who was a crack shot, the opportunity to take him down, which he duly did.

At some point, the men occupying the Schoolhouse were instructed to return to the Boland’s area, leaving the seventeen men to defend the remaining outposts.

Late Tuesday night Malone resolved to send Roe and Byrne on “despatch work” (sic).  In fact, he had decided that they were both too young – he believed that they were sixteen or seventeen, according to Grace’s testimony – to face what was to come, a fight they could not win. The boys were reluctant to go but nevertheless obeyed orders, escaping through a skylight to make their way to Malone’s house in South Circular Road to “await orders.”

Exhausted from lack of sleep and in spite of the overwhelming odds against them, including the failure of expected German aid to arrive and the confusion caused by countermanding orders from G.H.Q., Malone and Grace were determined to hold their positions.

At about 1pm on Wednesday, April 26th, word came that the English troops had landed at Kingstown and were on their way. The young recruits of the Sherwood Foresters, who were advancing towards the city, were so inexperienced that many had to be shown on the pier at Kingstown how to fire and reload their weapons.

As they reached the junction of Northumberland Road and Haddington Road, Malone and Grace opened fire, as did the Volunteers based in Clanwilliam House and the Mission Hall. They were supported by sniper fire from Boland’s Bakery and from the nearby railway tracks. Three of the Volunteers positioned at Clanwilliam House lost their lives in the ensuing battle. The surviving four escaped through the rear of the building and evading capture.

The men based at Mission Hall ran out of ammunition and attempted to escape via Percy Lane, at the back of the building, where they were apprehended by British troops.

Lieutenant Malone was shot dead by British soldiers when they stormed 25 Northumberland Road. Grace survived by hiding behind a stove in the basement but he was later captured and sent to prison.

MS Survivors(1)The British troops suffered heavy casualties, in part due to the decision taken by their commander, General Lowe, that Mount Street Bridge had to be taken “at all costs”. Throughout the day his men, led by officers, charged into the path of the fire, even though there were alternative routes into the city. The resulting carnage saw four British officers dead and 216 other ranks of the Sherwood Foresters killed or badly wounded.  Four civilians were also killed in the crossfire.

The brave Volunteers of C. Company, 3rd Battalion, Dublin Brigade, held off the advancing British troops for over nine hours.

The Battle of Mount Street Bridge has been compared to The Battle of Thermopylae, where a group of 300 Spartans battled against an army of over 10,000 Persian invaders and held them at bay until they were betrayed by one of their own. To this day, it is used it as an example of Guerrilla war tactics in officer training courses.