Ireland’s Wars: Boland’s Mill

We have already discussed the most significant rebel action of the Boland’s Mill operational area, but we must today look at that area as a whole.

On Easter Monday it began by men of the 3rd battalion forcing the gates of Boland’s Bakery and Mill. The building was an imposing structure, located at the junction of Grand Canal Street and Clarence Street. Men busied themselves that morning preparing firing positions, occupying nearby water towers and breaking holes in the mills walls so the Volunteers could more easily access the railway line that connected to the bakery.

In the dispensary, Commandant Eamon de Valera set up his HQ. 34 at the time, de Valera was New York born with a somewhat cloudy beginning: the identity of his father, and that man’s exact relationship to de Valera’s mother, has remained confused, a not inconsiderable detail given how things fell out for de Valera in the immediate aftermath of the Rising. He had spent most of his life in Ireland, growing up and being educated in Limerick, Cork and eventually Dublin where he excelled at mathematics and considered a career in the priesthood. Studious and considered by others an overly-serious individual, he had gone through a very Catholic upbringing, and in his adult years become heavily involved in various nationalist organisations like the Gaelic League, where he met his wife, and was among the first to sign-up to the Irish Volunteers when it was formed in 1913. Despite some private misgivings about secret organisations, he was later sworn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood by Thomas McDonagh, in seeming recognition of his loyalty and abilities. “Dev” put aside his scruples in order to be closer to the uprising’s planning.

He advanced rapidly through the ranks of the Volunteers, helped perhaps by his adherence to the “Irish” side of the split from the moment it happened, having endured the indignity of parading a bare handful of men during the darker moments. Now, a few years on, he was the commander of a whole arm of the rebellion and was noted for the strength of his organisational abilities, with his subordinates amazed at the extent of his own planning for what was to occur when they were briefed the previous week.

However de Valera had intended for a lot more men than he actually had, and he was forced to curtail those detailed plans on Easter Monday. Having initially hoped to maintain control over an extensive part of both the railway leading south and north, he instead had to settle for digging a few trenches to cut the railway near Lansdowne Road, and occupying Westland Row Station (modern day Pearse Station). Other positions held included Robert’s Yard down the street from Clanwilliam House; the Railway Workshops on the opposite side of the canal from Boland’s Mills, Horan’s shop on Upper Grand Canal Street and Carrisbrooke House, mentioned in the last post. There was also, of course, those buildings involved in the Mount Street Bridge fighting. There was a certain amount of inter-connectedness in these garrisons, but from Westland Station to Carrisbrooke was a lengthy enough distance, and the limited number of men meant that de Valera did not have many options for manoeuvre.

Aside from attempting to disrupt British troop movements coming from the south-east, de Valera’s task was also to bottle up the sizable Beggars Bush barracks, and it was from here that the first contact with the enemy came, when a patrol emanating from its gates was hurled back inside by fire from Robert’s Yard. Shortly thereafter a contingent of the Home Defence Force heading for the barracks, part of the larger manoeuvres that the detachment ambushed at Northumberland Road had been part of, was attacked by Volunteers on the railway line, with one killed and several wounded before the others made it inside the barracks walls.

Much of what combat would occur near Boland’s Mills – excepting Mount Street Bridge of course – would consist of a quasi-siege of Beggars Bush, whose troops were commanded by a Colonel Frederick Shaw. Shaw was of no mind to stay bottled up and attempted numerous times to force a way out of the barracks with sortieing patrols, but to little avail. His first attempt was turned back by Volunteers at Horan’s shop and another shortly afterwards, consisting of troops who scaled the rear wall of the barracks, met a similar fate after fire from Boland’s Bakery. The Volunteers had neither the means nor the inclination to assault the barracks (the most serious threat to the garrison there was probably hunger), so a stand-of ensured, punctuated by sniper duels, continuing patrols and sorties.

On Monday night one of de Valera’s key subordinates, the recently promoted Captain Simon Donnelly, assembled Volunteers for a special mission, led by de Valera himself, to the nearby gasworks. Its occupants turfed out, the small group disabled various machines, which plunged a significant portion of the south east of Dublin into darkness.

Tuesday passed without much incident, as the various small garrisons nervously waited for a greater engagement. That evening though, the reality of the situation hit home hard, as the first British artillery opened fire on rebel positions. The source was the armed steam yacht, the HMY Helga II, a small enough vessel that was used mostly for anti-submarine sweeps and escort duty in the Irish Sea, and which happened to be the best-placed naval element the British had close to Dublin. The Helga’s gun fired two shells that smashed into Boland’s Mill, resulting in some small damage and stunned rebels, but no casualties. It was a sign of things to come however: for the rest of the week the Boland’s garrison could hear British artillery shelling the city centre not too far away and would suffer from the same source themselves.

Wednesday, of course, saw the focus of the fighting on Mount Street Bridge. It has been wondered by some since why de Valera did nothing to reinforce the rebels fighting there, with Clanwilliam House only a short distance from Robert’s Yard and then Boland’s itself. He certainly was aware of what was happening there, and some elements of other rebel positions that had line of sight did provide supporting fire for the defence. The stated reason for the lack of support is that the 3rd battalion was already operating as a skeleton basis anyway, and de Valera could not afford to weaken any outpost, which is not unreasonable; when the Mount Street positions fell, the Commandant’s focus was on what he believed to be an imminent attack on Boland’s Mill itself.

Instead, the troops in Boland’s Mill and Bakery had to deal with the large amounts of snipers taking aim at their every movement, to the extent that shuffling troops from one building to another became an increasingly dicey task. Crackshots from the barracks and from advancing units would move independently and take up positions where they could; while the casualty rate they inflicted would not be spectacular, their use was as much in deterring movement and in denying rest to the Volunteers, many of whom went without sleep for much of the week. The Volunteers did their best to root them out, while maintaining their own fire on the barracks gates at the slightest sign of movement.

The next significant engagement occurred when another patrol from the barracks, again hopping the wall, advanced down the railway line in the hope of removing the rebels from there, and perhaps from Horan’s shop too; they were quickly repulsed, with loss, when the Volunteers on the line caught sight. More probes of a similar nature would occur the following day, but more conservative in nature, meant more to assess strength and harass than force a way through. For the rest of the day the Volunteers did their best to support the defence of Clanwilliam House, firing from Water Towers attached to Boland’s, but they could do little to prevent the British from neutralising the position.

On Thursday additional British battalions, notably the 2/6th South Staffordshire’s, arriving in the area only increased the amount of sniper firing now being brought to bear on Boland’s. A British patrol broke into the railway workshops and a firefight ensued; the British were forced back after a bayonet charge, a rare occurrence for the Volunteers that week.

Later that day the British artillery threat returned, now from pieces situated at Percy Place. The Mill came under fire; rapid movement of flour bags helped to shore up positions, while de Valera ordered a golden harp flag to be hoisted on the unoccupied distillery tower nearby to serve as a distraction. The ploy worked, though the tower, and a nearby water tower, was soon the subject of several direct hits, dumping masonry and a load of water onto the ground below. One of the volleys ended up in the Liffey and provoked the Helga into firing a response, a spectacular case of friendly fire. At the same time the Volunteers in Horan’s shop were hard-pressed, raked by machine gun fire from a post set-up at the barracks, and from sniper positions in St Mary’s bell tower, but held out.

That night the Boland’s area controlled by the Volunteers contracted, with troops on the railway line called into the Bakery. The positions that were still held now braced themselves for a more concerted attack from the British.

By Friday Boland’s had become truly isolated, cut off from communicating with other garrisons across the city, and struggling to exert any pressure on the British now swarming through the city. De Valera and others toyed with fanciful schemes to break out in a westerly or southern direction, to take the fight to the mountains, but if these had ever been attempted it is extremely unlikely that they would have been successful. Any movement was hampered by snipers and the Volunteers were uniformly exhausted, but no major engagement took place that day, or the next, as the rebels took in the disconcerting sight of the city centre in flames little more than a mile away. The British had moved more troops north of the Liffey and seemed satisfied to leave the Boland’s position as they were for the moment.

On Sunday morning, a woman bearing a white flag arrived at the garrison. Her name was Elizabeth O’Farrell, and she was a nurse serving with the GPO garrison. She bore a message from Padraig Pearse, ordering de Valera to surrender.

We cannot close our account of Boland’s Mill without discussing the actions, supposed or otherwise, of de Valera, that have generated some discussion since. As noted, de Valera was admired for his organisational abilities, but this does not automatically translate into effective frontline leadership, and more than one account of that week mentions that the Commandant exhibited something akin to an acute stress reaction to the events transpiring. The most damaging suggest he suffered a mental breakdown and came close to being shot by his own men when he blundered near sentries without saying the right passwords; lesser claims are that he did not sleep that week and maintained a manic, unhelpful demeanour, especially in the latter half of the fighting.

It is only fair to include that others disagree and say de Valera acted reasonably that week, and that some of the other claims may well have been politically motivated, coming out only after the later Treaty split, in an effort to discredit a man who became an enemy. The complete truth will likely never be known, but as for me I feel that much of the discussion misses a key point: even if de Valera did suffer a mental breakdown, this should not be considered as some kind of stain on his character. Combat is a gruelling experience, as is an absence of activity in the middle of a warzone; he would have been far from the only one who suffered such things, if it is true, and using the story in order to apply a label of cowardice or inadequacy says more about the people making the insult than the victim.  What is undeniable however, is that de Valera was known for exaggerating his own part in events, claiming later in his life that he had personally placed the flag at the water tower that had drawn artillery fire, something numerous other accounts dispute.

We also must note de Valera’s almost unique aversion to using the women of Cumann na mBan in his garrison. Throughout his life de Valera would showcase a conservative view of the usefulness of women is various contexts, and 1916 was no different. When the contingent of Cumann na mBan assigned to him assembled on Easter Monday, they found themselves without direction or orders; de Valera didn’t want them in the firing line in any way, even with his manpower shortages. His sentiments would be shared by others, but few commanders turned their noses up at such assistance give the circumstances.

The success of the Boland’s Mill area must be assessed carefully. The Mount Street Bridge fighting was a huge success in terms of the casualties inflicted, but the overall aim of limiting British troops movements from the south-east could only be maintained for the first part of the week. From there the various garrisons and outposts were increasingly ineffective, being isolated and bypassed in different measures. In symbolic terms the casualties inflicted at Mount Street Bridge were of huge significance, and de Valera’s prominence in years to come was aided by his status as one of the highest ranking leaders of the Rising who survived, though it is fair to say that outside of those two points the specifics of what occurred in Boland’s Mills is little noted.

Next week, we will move across the city to a different garrison, where one of the signatories had turned a confectionary factory into a fortress.

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

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