99 YEARS AGO ON 26th APRIL, THE BLOODIEST BATTLE OF THE EASTER RISING WAS FOUGHT IN A DUBLIN SUBURB
At a little past 6am on 26th April 1916, the SS Tynwald and SS Patriotic, two British troop-ships, had berthed in Dun Laoghaire harbour. The harbour and town had been renamed Kingstown by Unionist elements when King George IV came to visit the new port under construction in 1821. Although the town returned to its former name in 1920, it was known as “Kingstown” by most people in 1916, whatever their allegiance.
The troopships had been requested by General Maxwell, who had been given the responsibility for suppression of the Easter Rising, which was now in its third day. Several British thousand troops from the 59th Midland division began to disembark on a bright sunny morning. Hundreds of civilians went down to see them despite the early hour. Many in that town, especially around the seafront and some of the big houses, would have been sympathetic to the British – but by no means all and no doubt some eyes were noting the arrivals in order to report to the insurgents.
Around 9am, disembarkation completed, the soldiers were formed up and inspected, equipment checked and the Sherwood Foresters set off marching towards Dublin city centre, seven miles away, to be followed by Nottingham and Derby regiments around 10.30hrs. Their forces appear to have split up, with two Battalions marching to the city along the coast road and another two heading inland.
To reach the city centre from Dun Laoghaire, the most direct route is to proceed northward along the coast to Mount Merrion. Once there, the coast road goes through the railway level crossing to the right and continues along the seafront, into Ringsend and then along what is now Pearse Street to Trinity College. The British officers did not lead their men in that direction, perhaps because they had received intelligence of the Boland’s Mill strongpoint along their route. There would be no going past that without first taking it, which might prove a lengthy and difficult battle.
But one could avoid that by not turning right at Mount Merrion and instead continuing on what has become the main road, through Ballsbridge and Northumberland Road, across the Grand Union Canal at Mount Street Bridge, past the fashionable Merrion Square and into Nasseau Street and the city centre. That seemed the obvious choice, not just because of the Jacob’s garrison but also because at Mount Street Bridge was located Beggars’ Bush Barracks, one of the many such of the British Army in Dublin city.
Before the British troops arrived in the area, a female courier, probably Cumann na mBan, had brought news of the troops landed in Dún Laoghaire and that they were heading towards them to the insurgents waiting in the Mount Street Bridge area.
At around noon a burst of fire hit the forward sections of the British troops marching in from Dun Laoghaire. When fired upon, in order to find effective cover, it is important to know from where the firing is coming but the soldiers were unsure. No. 25 Northumberland Road, a house at the junction with Haddington Road, seemed to some to be the source of the firing but by how many was unknown.
Screams from wounded men filled the air in the quiet suburban upper-middle class and largely Loyalist residential street.
Soldiers began to maneouver to outflank No.25 Northumberland Road and a detachment reached Baggot Street Bridge, further west, which was apparently undefended. From there it is a straight road into Stephens Green and the southside city centre. The rest of the soldiers were not led by their officers in that direction, a decision which was to cost them dearly. Instead, shortly after being fired upon, at least two British platoons attacked 25 Northumberland Road but were driven back in disarray by fire from the building’s upper floors; yet as they turned they were also shot down in droves.
Perhaps under cover of that assault, at around 1pm some of the 2/7th Battalion Sherwood Foresters got past the corner house and made their way on to Percy Place, which runs along the south side of the canal between Mount Street and Baggot Street bridges. Now they came under fire from in front and from their left. They huddled for cover along the Canal.
The fire from the left of the British at this point was coming at long distance from the towers of Jacob’s Factory in Bishop Street, one of the insurgent strongpoints. A defensive line with insufficient mobilised insurgent numbers to hold it for very long stretched from Jacob’s down to the railway connecting Dublin and Dun Laoghaire and to Boland’s Mill beside it, overlooking the south bank of the Liffey. Roughly in the middle of this chain or defensive line were the Irish Volunteers in the Mount Street Bridge area, an outpost of the Boland’s Mill garrison. The total strength of the insurgent force defending that area had been 17 Volunteers but two had been sent home, being thought too young.
Incredible as it seemed to the British when they learned of it later, there were only two Volunteers in No.25 Northumberland Road: 27 year-old Volunteer Lieutenant Michael Malone, a carpenter by trade, and Section Commander James Grace. In the Schoolhouse on the right-hand side just before the Bridge, there were two Volunteers. Next to that building was the Parochial Hall, held by four men: P.J. Doyle in command, Joe Clarke, William Christian and J. McGrath. Clanwilliam House, across the canal on the right-hand corner with the junction with Mount Street Lower, was occupied by seven Volunteers; the frontal fire hitting the British was coming from there.
The British were scattered around gardens and behind the granite steps leading up the to front doors of the elegant houses in the street. Their officers called them out and they launched an attack on the Schoolhouse in Northumberland Road. As they charged up the road they came under fire from across the Canal from Clanwilliam House; about a dozen reached the Schoolhouse but they left many bodies behind. And they were still coming under fire from across the Canal too.
The officers now attempted to outflank Mount Street Bridge and Northumberland Road by advancing along Shelbourne Road to the east but were stopped as they came under fire from Volunteers along the railway line and from positions in and around Horan’s Shop nearby.
The column advancing from Dun Laoghaire had set up a temporary HQ in Ballsbridge Town Hall. Incredibly, the officers there, receiving regular dispatches reporting their troops being slaughtered around Mount Street Bridge and, presumably, knowing that other troops had found Baggot Street Bridge undefended, continued to press for an advance across the killing field.
But at least the officers on the battlefield for the time being seem to have had enough of death-or-glory charges, which were bringing plenty of death and no glory. The soldiers are now crawling along the road but whenever any are visible, which is often, they are being fired at. Clanwilliam House is wreathed in smoke.
The weapon the Volunteers were using was almost certainly the Mauser Model 71, the weapon of most Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army during the Rising; 1,500 had been been delivered in two landings in July 1914, first at Howth, north Dublin and then at Kilcoole, Wicklow. It had been the first cartridge rifle adopted by the Prussian Army in 1872 which by 1914 had gone on to another more advanced model, presumably the reason that the rifle was being sold cheaply. The Model 71 fired a larger bullet than the British Army standard-issue Lee Enfield .303 but did not have a magazine, each cartridge having to be ejected and anew one inserted before firing again; its rate of fire was only four or five rounds a minute. The Lee Enfield took a ten-bullet magazine and the British Army were trained to fire fifteen rounds a minute. Despite this, the occupants in Clanwillian House and in No.25 in particular were able to lay down a tremendous rate of fire. Their guns grew so hot they burned to the touch and they had to cool them with wet rags. Down below, British officers blew their whistles and soldiers carried out more charges, only to be cut down by the Volunteers’ rifle fire.
During the late afternoon, a nurse ran on to the road and began treating the wounded British soldiers. The Volunteers agreed to a ceasefire as doctors and nurses from Sir Patrick Dunne’s hospital nearby went into Northumberland Road. But after a while the British attempted to use the ceasefire to advance their positions and the Volunteers ended it. Those wounded still to be tended lay where they were. This had been very different situation to what was to be seen in other areas of Dublin during the Rising, when British troops refused to allow wounded to be taken out unless the insurgents surrendered and when they accused Nurse Elizabeth Farrell of being a spy and tore her Red Cross bib–front off her.
The British got a machine gun up to the bell-tower of the church on Haddington Road so that they could fire over the roofs of the houses at Clanwilliam House, the bullets knocking chips off the outer walls and zipping through windows. They were also being backed by rifle snipers.
British soldiers recommenced attacking No.25, now with hand grenades as well as rifle fire. Finally they got close enough to blow the door in with explosives but incredibly were fired upon from inside as they tried to gain entry, injuring a number of them. They hurled grenades in and after they exploded, dashed in again. Coming down the stairs to meet them was Volunteer Lieutenant Michael Malone, his pipe in his mouth and was shot dead.
Section Commander James Grace had been downstairs using a cooker as cover from bullets and shrapnel and such was the bomb damage to the room that the British assumed anyone in there had to be dead. There was still plenty of fighting to do – they had not even crossed the Canal yet.
If they believed that two men alone had held out against repeated assaults for four hours and had inflicted such damage upon them, they must have been very fearful leaving No.25. But perhaps they thought there had been others who must have escaped in the last minutes. James Grace did escape to get out of the area after lying low for some hours; however he was arrested some days later.
With No.25 taken, the Sherwood Foresters are soon able to take the Parochial Hall but they find it empty. The garrison of four Volunteers had run out of rifle ammunition and evacuated into Percy Place, where British troops, who were now all around the area, captured them.
An officer takes Volunteer Joe Clarke‘s loaded pistol off him, puts him with his back to a door and fires at him. Missing Joe, the bullet goes through the door to where a doctor is attending to injured British soldiers. He storms out in rage, berating the officer and Joe Clarke’s life is saved (he continued active in the IRA and in Republican politics nearly until his death in 1976 at the age of 94).
British soldiers are occupying nearby houses for cover and for firing positions and they are also crouched behind the low wall along Percy Place. They are still being hit. Now, they attack the Schoolhouse from its front, running across enfilading fire from Clanwilliam House to their left as they attack and from other positions to their front. When they enter, they find the Schoolhouse unoccupied by any Volunteer, alive or dead. However, their storm of bullets during the attack has riddled the bodies of its caretaker and his wife.
The cost to the British has been enormous but they have at last taken the southern side of the Canal around Mount Street Bridge. Across it, waiting for them, is Clanwilliam House. And to the east, their right-hand side, snipers at Boland’s Mill and nearby positions are also firing at them.
Now the officers order forward their reserves who had been sheltering in St Mary’s Road. The soldiers charge for the Bridge, answering to their discipline and their officers as they and many like them will do across the WWI battlefields of Europe, Greece, Turkey and Russia for another three years. It is partly against this slaughter that James Connolly led the men and women of the Irish Citizen Army out this week. One of the ICA’s detachments is not far away, under the command of Michael Malin and Constance Markievicz, in the College of Surgeons on the side of Stephens Green and they have already taken casualties.
Despite the covering fire from the Vickers Machine Gun firing incendiary bullets from St Mary’s Church, this charge too is driven back, their casualties adding to the pile of khaki-clad bodies and wounded on Northumberland Road, the Canal banks and the Bridge.
Around 8pm, the British are finally across Mount Street Bridge. An officer was in the charge, one of their few unwounded, and is at Clanwilliam House’s outer walls. Firing continues from the windows of this last insurgent bastion and from the east, a hail of Mauser death is still hitting the Bridge and the northern side of the Canal.
The British are now close enough to throw grenades but one, thrown by a British NCO, bounced back from a second floor window and exploded next to his head, killing him. The British begin to make their way into the now-burning Clanwilliam House but are forced to retreat by the flames, leaving the fire to consume the bodies of the presumed dead Volunteers inside. They will not know now how many there were. In fact, there were only seven Volunteers, three are dead and the remaining four have escaped out the back.
Ninety-nine years ago in the Battle of Mount Street Bridge, despite having only single-shot rifles and some pistols, the Volunteers held off two British Battalions, numbering approximately1,600 between them, for five hours. Approximately 234 men (including 18 officers) of the British Army had become casualties at the hands of fifteen insurgents.
Article in http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/an-easter-rising-timeline-wednesday-april-26th-1916-1.2188089 drawing on When The Clock Struck in 1916 – Close-Quarter Combat in the Easter Rising by Derek Molyneux and Darren Kelly, Collins Press, at €17.99.
Remembering the Past – the battle of Mount Street Bridge, by Aengus O Snodaigh, article in http://www.anphoblacht.com/contents/6137
Article on the “Howth rifle” in http://www.historyireland.com/20th-century-contemporary-history/the-mauser-model-71-rifle/