Revolutionary Remembrance: Thomas Smart

As per my statement in the last entry under this heading, I thought that I would follow through and look at some of those witness statements from the Bureau of Military History. Very simple methodology to find the entry: A random number generator of 1-26 to find the letter (S in this instance), then 1-74 to find an entry.

Our winner is witness number 255. Thomas Smart: C Company, 1st Battalion, Dublin Brigade, veteran of the Easter Rising.

Smart was a young member of the Irish Volunteers, who I can confidently guess was the younger Thomas in this home. At the time of his witness statement, he was around 48, but during the period he discusses he was just 16 or so, one of many very young men who probably graduated through to the Volunteers through Fianna Eireann. Smart joined the Volunteers in 1915, post split, and drilled in Foresters Hall on Parnell Street. He describes his company as having a majority who remained after the split, which would have been a rarity. His time with the Volunteers before the Rising involved extensive drilling and shooting practise, with some battalion-sized manoeuvres in the Swords and Finglas areas.

He claims to have had no prior knowledge of the Rising, which is believable. On the Saturday before the Rising, he was ordered to have his “section mobilised” the following day, which might indicate that Smart was more than just rank and file, though no other indications of rank are written about in the statement. On that Sunday morning, he was informed by future TD and Postmaster General J.J Walsh that all manoeuvres were cancelled.

The following maps are based on Smart’s account, and, due to the inherent likelihood of bias and misremembrance, are not intended to be a cast iron depiction of what occurred during the Easter Rising. Blue lines are for the Irish, red for the British. Thinner lines indicate position and direction of fire.

On Monday morning, the same person told him that mobilisation had gone ahead – Walsh would end up fighting in the GPO during the Rising, though Smart does not mention him again. Smart received this information on Blessington Street (1). From there, he attempted to get as many of his section mobilised, succedding with just four. Moving towards Blackhall Street, he ran into Commandant Ned Daly, commander of the 1st Battalion, advancing with his battalion down North Brunswick Street (2). From him, Smart received orders to move to the Four Courts (3).

Moving there, Smart hooked up with other members of his company in Hammond Lane (4), 30 in number, commanded by a Captain Frank Fahy. Smart was part of a group ordered to take the Four Courts. This group did so by moving to the east of the Courts to Chancery Place (5), gaining entry through locked gates by forcing a member of the DMP, at gunpoint, to give up the keys. After insuring the Four Courts was clear and that all DMP prisoners were accounted for, Smart was part of a group that set up a position at the south-east corner of the building, looking east down to the Quays (6).

The first moment of combat for this group occurred shortly afterwards according to Smart’s account, as a contingent of Lancers, of the 5th Royal Irish Lancers and the 12th Royal Lancers, was spotted moving down the Quays, escorting two horse-drawn lorries. Allowing them to pass a position taken up at the corner of Chancery Street and the Quay, Smart and his group opened fire, with the witness admitting freely that they did so first (7). Several Lancers were unhorsed and wounded. Others moved up Church Street to avoid the fighting (8). Smart and his group captured a few Lancers and made them prisoners in the Four Courts. This incident is considered one of the first moments of “action” in the Rising, occurring before the Lancers’ later “charge” past the GPO.

Following this bit of combat, Smart and his group were withdrawn from their south-east corner post, since the position was thought to have little use. Instead, they were moved to the west of the building, on the third storey (9), a point that over looked Hammond Lane and the northwest of the city.

They didn’t stay there long either though. A burst of machine gun fire from “somewhere in Smithfield” (10) hit the barricaded window, fatally wounding one of Smart’s comrades, named Tommy Allen. So exposed to enemy fire, this post was abandoned quickly.

After that, Smart was placed with others outside the Four Courts, at a hastily erected barricade on the corner of Church Street and the Quays, which was reinforced by “a company from Chapelizod” (11). A car approached the barricade and refused to stop, leading to the Volunteers opening fire. The driver was wounded, and two British officers – one of them Lord Dunsany, an Irish born noble and noted fantasy author – were discovered in the car, taken in to the Four Courts as prisoners.

Smart remained at this point, save for seeking shelters at night, and assisted in erecting another barricade, on the other corner of Church Street and the Quays (12), the following morning. The position was coming under some sniper fire, but the location of the shooter could not be determined.

Just down the Quays to the west was where the next part of Smart’s account took place. Smart and others determined that men in civilian clothing passing parcels into a clothing factory next to a “public house” on Bridgefoot Street were enemy soldiers in disguise. Smart and others used home-made grenades to set the public house on fire, in the hope that this would end this activity, which it apparently did. The pub (13) was burnt out, with the Dublin Fire Brigade arriving too late to do anything about it. Smart, for some reason, is unsure whether this occurred on the Monday or Tuesday of Easter Week.

At this point Smart seemed to be dividing his time between the barricade at Church Street and a barricade on Bridgefoot Street. The barricade at Bridgefoot Street came under constant sniper fire, with two of Smart’s fellow soldiers, Mick Lennon and Joe Brabazon, wounded. Lennon was hit after trying to scrounge supplies to make stretchers, indicating that the positions were becoming hard pressed. The fire was eventually ascertained to be from a sniper on the Bridgefoot Area (14), far enough down on the south side of the city. Volunteer fire ended this attack, but Smart is unsure as to whether the sniper was killed or not.

Next, Smart briefly relates British attempts to get artillery trained on the Four Courts, efforts that were ineffective owing to the lack of decent position. Volunteer fire drove British guns from the Wood Quay area (15), and only a brief bombardment later from the “corner of Parliament Street” (16) was affected, which destroyed a Volunteer outpost in the south-west corner of the Courts.

On the Thursday evening of that week, Smart volunteered to take a dispatch from the Church Street position north to Ned Daly, who was in Father Matthew Hall. The episode is somewhat immaterial, save for the confusion that nearly got Smart killed, when he was given the wrong password for rebel barricades at the corner of Mary Lane (17) and outside the Church Street church (18). Smart did eventually make it to the hall (19), and then returned to his post, without ever knowing what the dispatches contained.

On Friday, with British forces closing in, Smart and others were withdrawn from the Church Street barricades (20) and sent to “the Bridewell”, a building north of the Four Courts which houses a Garda station today (21). The British had advanced down North King Street (22) and were seeking to move south down Beresford Street (23). Volunteer fire and support from the Bridewell area helped to stem this advance for a time, and to inflict enough casualties on the British to be notable, but the end result was inevitable.

On Saturday evening, what was left of the Four Courts garrison received two orders to surrender from the Volunteer command, the situation increasingly untenable. Finally accepting this after receiving the second order, the remaining Volunteers moved to destroy what equipment they could and, for those in civilian clothing, attempt escape from capture.

Smart, apparently in civilian clothing due to the slapdash nature of his mobilisation, was one of those lucky enough to escape. The remainder of his account is a narrative of just that as, with the aid of a woman who was romantically involved with a British soldier setting up the cordon around the Four Courts area, he was able to get outside the encircling ring without too much trouble. Hiding in the homes of several different sympathisers, and avoiding confinement by the skin of his teeth on a couple of occasions, Smart made it home three weeks after the Rising, but was still a wanted man.

The narrative ends very suddenly, as Smart recounts how he tried to regain his former job but fled from an interview when, in his view, his former manager attempted to contact the authorities about his presence. Smart adds nothing more. Whether this means that he played no further part in the Irish Revolutionary Period, or that he just didn’t want to talk about it, is unknown.

Smart’s role in the ranks of the Volunteers during the Easter Rising seems fairly typical: brief moments of action coming in-between long bouts of tense tedium. Smart mentions only a handful of notable events and only three of them involved exchanges of fire with the enemy. The rest of the time goes by the wayside, simple patrolling of barricades not worthy of much note, Irish Volunteers waiting for events to unfold around them. When contact with the enemy was made, it seems to have been an mixture: a quick ambush over in seconds, a drawn out annoyance from a hidden sniper and then a desperate last stand just trying to delay an advance as long as possible.

Smart’s account, like most from 1916, illustrates the failings of the operation on a military level. The Volunteers were left hopelessly static by the approach of seizing key buildings and hold them, with little ability to manoeuvre or face the oncoming British threat with any potency. Smart’s area of operation was less than half a KM around the Four Courts for the entirety of Easter Week. The Four Courts might have offered protection and a decent view of the surrounding city, but was also a magnet for fire – the Volunteers did well enough to prevent an artillery bombardment they would have been powerless under. Six years later, the anti-Treaty IRA would be unable to do the same.

The Four Courts garrison were able to avoid much of the destruction suffered by other garrisons, particularly just a few streets over around the GPO. But, like so many other garrisons, they lacked opportunities or targets to really make any kind of impact. Smart was part of that effort, but appears to have faded into obscurity afterwards. But now, you and I will be able to better remember him and the effort he made.

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