Ireland’s Wars: Mount Street Bridge

Having covered the opening exchanges of the Rising, we must now move to some of the more extended combats that took place elsewhere. One of these, in the south-east of the city, was to prove easily the most successful rebel engagement of the fighting, thanks to the brilliant tactical decisions of a handful of Volunteers.

What has become known as the Boland’s Mill operational area for the Volunteers was chosen for very specific reasons. The organisers of the Rising were smart enough to know that, even if they were able to cut communications in the capital, British counter-responses were just a matter of time, and that troop deployments from Britain were likely to be landed at Kingstown Harbour – modern-day Dun Laoghaire – before being marched into the city from a south-easterly direction. In a bid to delay, disrupt and maybe even turn back this, the 3rd Battalion was given the task of occupying key buildings on the expected route, centred around Boland’s Mill on the Grand Canal Dock. An added benefit was proximity to the Beggar’s Bush Barracks, which the Volunteers hoped to bottle up and neutralise. For the purpose of this post, we will be focusing our attention on one specific aspect of this area, namely the Volunteer defence of Mount Street Bridge, a crossing over the Grand Canal.

On Monday morning only around 17 men were assembled near the bridge, a small enough number to attempt to face down potentially legions of British troops, but an inevitability after the confusion of the previous days. They were commanded by Lieutenant Michael Malone. Malone was a well-regarded sharpshooter in the Volunteers – a skill that was going to come in handy shortly enough – and his family typified some of the divides in Ireland at the time, with his brother having been killed on the western front the previous year.

Malone organised his defence by posting small groups to four key buildings in the area: 25 Northumberland Road on the junction of Northumberland Road and Haddington Road, the Parochial Hall and St Stephens Schoolhouse which faced each other further up the street and Clanwilliam House at the rear, overlooking Mount Street Bridge itself on the other side of the canal. Taken together, these four positions – strong red-brick buildings that could take some degree of punishment if required – offered excellent fields of fire on the expected line of advance for the British, though they were potentially vulnerable to flanking attacks up side streets like Percy Lane and Percy Place.

That day was mostly spent fortifying the buildings that had been occupied once the owners surrendered them or were turfed out, using whatever was to hand: Malone, a carpenter by trade, was well adapted to this task, and the extended time allowed for this preparation would prove pivotal. Windows were boarded up, doorways were blocked and other obstacles were placed in the interiors.

The first engagement for Malone and his men came on Monday afternoon, when a unit of the Home Defence Force – World War One’s answer to “Dad’s Army” – passed through the area returning from manoeuvres. Four of them were killed when the Volunteers opened fire, before Malone ordered a cease fire: he realised quickly enough that the amateur opposition had no bullets in their guns, and they quickly fled the scene in any case. Aside from that there was also a brief engagement with a sniper sent from Beggar’s Bush, whom Malone eliminated himself. The remainder of the day, and night, passed without much incident.

On Tuesday Malone grew concerned at how stretched out and under-manned the various positions were, and decided to withdraw the troops in the Schoolhouse, sending them elsewhere; it would inadvertently prove a brilliant decision. Aside from that the day was spent in continued fortification of the other positions. Gunfire from the rest of the city, and the beginning of artillery strikes, were the main indications that a larger battle was underway. Before the end of the day Malone placed himself at 25 Northumberland Road, with only one other man for company, Seamus Grace a deserter from the Canadian Army.

On Wednesday morning the first British reinforcement arrived in Kingstown, consisting of men from the 59th Division. Owing to the suddenness of the rebellion the arrangements to get them across the sea had been messy; they lacked machine guns and other heavy weapons due to miscommunications, and some soldiers appear to have mistaken the surrounds for France, their original intended destination.

It was Colonel Cecil Vane’s portion of the Sherwood Foresters who would undertake the brunt of the coming fighting, with the regiments’ battalions split in terms of their approach on the capital. The two units we must concern ourselves with today are the 2/7th and 2/8th (the “2” here referring to the fact that the soldiers were of the “second line”, or reservists) who were ordered to take the coast road and then cut into the city through Ballsbridge, a route which would take them straight into the Boland’s Mill area. Their general orders were to pacify that area, and then move on to secure the nearby Trinity College.

The soldiers disembarkation was well observed by locals, some of whom came to offer encouragement, others who came to spy, and who hurriedly set off into the city by bicycle. Malone and the others were thus well-warned of the enemy force that were coming their way, far better warned about what was about to occur than their British counterparts, who arrived to the battlefield exhausted and hungry from their march. It was to be the task of the 2/7th battalion to break past Mount Street Bridge, with the main target being the Schoolhouse; the British were largely ignorant of the disposition of the Volunteers. The 2/8th would then continue on to Trinity College.

The 7th would have got an inkling of what was about to occur when a sniper from Carrisbrook House found his mark as they advanced towards Northumberland Road, felling one of them; when this position was stormed the sniper had already fled. The firing was the last warning the Volunteers would get.

C Company of the 7th battalion was the first into the firing line, advancing towards the schoolhouse in parade group formation, despite the warnings of rebels in the area. As they reached the junction of Northumberland Road and Haddington Road, Malone and Grace opened fire. With only a short distance between them and the massed enemy, but well defended behind the barricaded doors and windows, the two Volunteers could hardly miss with any of their shots. Many became casualties within seconds, among them the company commander Captain Dietrichsen, who had happened to meet his family, based in Dublin, on the line of march.

It must be remembered that the Foresters were untested men fighting in their first engagement (so were the Volunteers, but they were fighting on the defensive) so it took some time for them to formulate a response, which eventually became a loosely coordinated attack on No 25. But the Foresters lacked the ability to quickly break down the barricades at the entrances of the house, and while they tried they continued to be easy targets, both for Grace and Malone, and for the Volunteers in Clanwilliam House under section commander George Reynolds, with the British in their field of fire as they got close to No. 25. This new source of harassing fire provoked further confusion, and led to an unorderly withdrawal.

Fane ordered his B Company to outflank No. 25, by moving down Haddington Road to Baggot Street Bridge, and then back up Percy Place, with the aim of attacking the Schoolhouse from the other side. The move was another disaster: despite attempts to lay down covering fire, B Company was cut to pieces as it moved past No. 25, with around 20 casualties taken. Similar was to follow for the remainder: when they moved down Percy Place, they came under fire from Clanwilliam House and soon found themselves pinned down, with a charge for the schoolhouse swiftly repulsed.

The battered C Company was soon called upon to attack past No. 25 once more, and the result was similar, with Malone and Grace again having their pick of targets. Those who made it past were then ambushed by Volunteers based in the Parochial House, directly opposite the Schoolhouse, and again from Clanwilliam House further ahead. The trap had been sprung spectacularly, and the British, unable to break into the Schoolhouse, eventually retreated again.

Still convinced that the Schoolhouse was the primary threat, the Fane now ordered a flanking attack from the other direction, carried out by A Company, but this was pinned down by fire from the rest of the Boland’s Mill area, and weakened when the commander of Beggars Bush insisted they reinforce his position. At that point the 7th’s commander sought reinforcements, but it would be a whole before they arrived.

Rather than wait, Fane decided to deploy everything that he had, ordering elements of D Company to occupy No. 26, directly opposite 25, while what was left of C would reinforce B. The first part was smart, and soon the British were able to lay down a somewhat effective covering fire from concealed positions, liming Malone and Grace’s options. The second part did not go so well: C Company took more casualties from No. 25 moving to B’s position, and when they got there were unable to affect any kind of solid forward movement against Clanwilliam House, despite several attempts to openly charge, or to crawl through underbrush to the position.

A brief ceasefire soon came into effect so that the multitude of British wounded, many left in the streets where they had been hit, could be dragged to safety and tended to, but it was not to last long: Forester attempts to take advantage by moving men closer to the rebel positions soon resulted in returned fire.

Again the British tried to charge at the Schoolhouse. Again the weight of rebel arms drove them back, though No. 25’s defenders could no longer command as unopposed a field of fire as they had at the beginning of the engagement. It was not until a machine gun crew set themselves up in the bell tower of the nearby St Mary’s Church that the balance began to shift more decidedly with the repeating fire from their weapon helping to greater pin down the defenders of Clanwilliam House.

By then the British commanders in the area could tell the situation was untenable, and sought a way to outflank the entire area, but their orders to do so were countermanded by General William Lowe, the commander of all forces in Dublin, operating out of Kilmainham, who it is alleged was unwilling to alter initial plans in the face of rebel activity. Despite remonstrations from various Colonels – even Fane had now been injured, though he stayed where he was – Lowe could not be dissuaded.

The 2/8th was now thrown into the fray with the 2/7th, as repeated attacks continued to be made against No. 25. By now they had been trying to take the house for nearly five hours, and still had not made any headway, but reinforcements bringing explosives with them altered the tactical picture. Malone and Grace, exhausted from the constant combat, could not prevent a hole being blown in the barricaded entrance of No. 25, and while they inflicted further casualties as the British attempted to manoeuvre past the internal obstackles, the writing was on the wall. When the Foresters finally broke through, Malone was shot down, while Grace was able to temporarily escape out the basement before being captured later. The British was presumably stunned to find the position that had inflicted so many casualties on them over the last six hours so lightly defended.

With this key obstacle out of the way, the British now targeted the Parochial House further up the street, which rapidly became untenable for the few defenders inside, targeted by small arms and grenades, who fled out the back, only to stumble into British troops on Percy Lane. They were fortunate not to be shot out of hand by the enraged soldiers, but cooler heads prevailed – on this occasion – and they were taken prisoner instead.

The 2/8th now went forward, aiming at Clanwilliam House. Attacks on the position were driven back owing to bad co-ordination with the supporting machine gun, and they instead turned their attention, again, to the schoolhouse, which they finally breached, only to find it deserted of enemy troops, the only occupants being the dead bodies of the caretaker and his wife, unintended victims of British fire.

Now all of the Foresters’ attention could fall on Clanwilliam House, though other positions on or near Boland’s Mills continued to harass the British. Another attack on the final rebel position was thrown back, even with all of the suppressing fire being brought to bear, the building increasingly smashed up, the rebels forced to fire from the back of rooms to avoid fire near the windows.

The drives at Mount Street Bridge and at Clanwilliam House continued, and the causalities piled up for the British. After a time Clanwilliam House, battered by rifles, machine guns and grenades, caught fire in several places, and a few of the tiny amount of defenders now became casualties themselves, leaving just five. The Foresters secured Mount Street Bridge, with loss, but still faced the task of breaching Clanwilliam House to secure the area.

As the evening came on the Foresters prepared their last effort, and finally were able to use grenades to breach the barricades. Reynolds was killed at this time, but not before he ordered the others to flee; as the British attempted to occupy the increasingly blazing building, the four remaining Volunteers were able to slip out the back and escape. Some would remain uncaptured, others were not so lucky: all four of them would later fight in the War of Independence. Clanwilliam House went up in flames, and was little more than a burnt out husk when the Easter Rising came to an end.

The Foresters had finally secured the area and opened up a route towards Trinity College and the inner city. It had cost them 234 casualties, 28 of those dead, which amounts to a colossal two-thirds of the British Army casualties in the entire Rising. In exchange the Volunteers had lost four men killed out of 17. At least 20 or so civilians were also killed in the vicinity.

While descriptions of Mount Street Bridge as an “Irish Thermopylae” can be considered hyperbole, it is undeniable that it amounted to the most successful operations the Irish Volunteers ever carried out in their brief history. The fighting there is a perfect demonstration of how a numerically inferior force with limited arms can best a much greater, better armed force with the correct preparation of positions and sufficient training when it comes to accuracy with a rifle. Despite facing nearly two full battalions, little more than a platoon’s strength of rebels held up their enemy for over six hours and inflicted frightful casualties. Yes, the British forced the route open and eventually captured the rebel positions, but if we are to call it a victory for them it must be dubbed a pyrrhic one.

The Volunteers achieved this because of the work they had done on their own defences, because of the inexperience and ignorance of the enemy and, while we cannot discount the bravery of the repeated charges from the British, because of their own courage in the face of such strong opposition. Mount Street Bridge shows that at least some units of the Volunteers were more than capable soldiers, and we must wonder what more they could have achieved if greater numbers had turned out on Easter Monday.

Of course, Mount Street Bridge was just one part of that area of operations. In the next entry, we will look at the events that occurred in Boland’s Mills, and the claimed actions of its commander, Eamon de Valera.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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