Ireland’s Wars: Jacob’s Biscuit Factory

(Not counting the supplementary entries I have made on occasion, this is 300th edition of Ireland’s Wars. We’ve come a long way and have yet more to travel but let me once again thank all readers and subscribers for their time and attentions).

To the west of de Valera’s 3rd battalion, fighting in Easter Week centred around St Stephen’s Green and we will get to that in time. But even further west than that was the area designated to the Volunteers’ 2nd battalion, most notably the imposing structure of Jacob’s Biscuit Factory.

At first glance Jacob’s seems like a strange choice for a fortification, but it did serve some key Volunteer purposes. Like Boland’s with Beggars Bush, Jacobs lay close to several British Army barracks, most notably the major one at Portobello and the nearby Wellington as well, and so it was hoped that a prominent Volunteer position there could help bottle up British troop movements. The factory lay to the south of Dublin Castle and City Hall, and while the garrison would not be in a position to help with the attacks there that took place on Monday, they could exert some pressure on the British administration through their sheer presence. And Jacob’s was also part of a rough line of rebel positions dotting the south of city: leaving the area without any rebel troops would result in the South Dublin Union becoming isolated the moment the rebellion was launched. The factory itself was an old imposing multi-storied stone building, that could potentially withstand some punishment while offering excellent views of the surrounding area.

The man in charge of the 2nd battalion – and actually the Dublin Brigade in its entirety, though on Easter Week he was placed below James Connolly – was Commandant Thomas MacDonagh, who we have mentioned on a few occasions thus far. Born in Tipperary in 1878, he was raised by his parents – both teachers – with a reverence for both education and Irish culture. After considering a religious career for a time he became a lecturer in French, Latin and mathematics in Cork, where he opened a local branch of the Gaelic League, before moving to Dublin 1908. There, he came rapidly to the acquaintance of men like Eoin MacNeill, Joseph Plunkett and Padraig Pearse, the latter of which he joined in the opening of the nationalist school of St Enda’s. His interests branched out to the Irish language, which he tutored other signatories in, unionisation, as he helped to found the ASTI and to women’s suffrage. In 1913 he joined his friends in becoming part of the Irish Volunteers, and rapidly moved up its ranks due in no small part to his education and to his easy-going friendly manner.

MacDonagh did not come to Dublin a republican firebrand, but the influence of men like Pearse and the militarisation of society during the First World War told on him: by 1915 he had been sworn into the IRB, and helped plan the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa. Still, it took a while for MacDonagh to gain the complete trust of the higher-ups in the IRB, and he was only added to the military council planning the Rising very late in the process, just a few weeks before Easter Monday. Whatever issues men like Thomas Clarke may have had with him, he was still the CO of the Dublin Brigade, and it so was useful to have him involved, and as a signatory MacDonagh is naturally considered one of the main leaders of the Rising.

MacDonagh’s first second-in-command was his close friend Michael O’Hanrahan, a Wexford born member of both the Volunteers and IRB, but his position was superseded by a surprise arrival on Easter Monday. As MacDonagh’s men prepared to move out from their muster point, they were joined by the well-dressed figure of none other than John MacBride, the IRB member and fervent nationalist who had raised and led the Irish commando that fought in South Africa for the Boers 16 years previously. It had been a difficult intervening period for MacBride, owing to a stormy end to his marriage to the famous suffragette and actress Maud Gonne, which included foreign divorce proceedings and accusations (for which he was declared innocent) of molesting Gonne’s daughter by a previous relationship. Returning to Dublin he had become involved in various nationalist organisations but, owing to his popular profile, he was not included in the upper echelons of planning for the Easter Rising. He stumbled into the operation, being out in Dublin that morning on the way to meet his soon-to-be-married brother: when he saw MacDonagh and his men mustering he immediately volunteered his services. Presumably aware of MacBride’s experience in actual warfare, the commandant enthusiastically agreed, and “Major” MacBride was elevated into a second-in-command position there and then.

The 2nd Battalion moved out from St Stephen’s Green, leaving behind elements of the Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army who were already digging in there. It was a disparate lot, affected badly by the mobilisation confusion, with many elements of the garrison arriving at the last minute or late, and not all of them properly prepared for a week’s worth of fighting. It only took them a few minutes to reach Jacob’s, which was rapidly occupied, upon which a parade of hired hackneys arrived to leave arms and ammunition. The few occupiers were turned out, and the business of fortification began.

Jacob’s was not the only garrison in the immediate area, at least on Monday. A smaller group broke off and headed to the south-west, led by Vice Commandant Thomas Hunter and Lieutenant Dick McKee, where they occupied tenement buildings and Barmack’s Maltings, in order to closely observe and guard against British soldiers coming from Wellington Barracks. This would not end up being the best choice for these men, as the area, The Liberties, was full of low-income families many of whom were “separation women”, with husbands, brothers and sons in British uniform serving in the First World War. As such, they were not endeared to the cause of revolutionary nationalism as the Volunteers represented, and they were not shy about making their feelings known, especially when being forced from their homes at the barrel of a gun. Unarmed DMP constables who attempted to intervene were taken prisoner. Given the inherent hostility of the locals, it was only a matter of time before these outposts would become untenable.

In the meantime, MacDonagh and MacBride supervised the fortification of Jacob’s. All the while more people showed up, including members of the Irish Citizen Army fleeing a position at nearby Davy’s pub, and opportunistic members of Cumann na mBan who just happened to be in the area (MacDonagh would only allow them to serve in the kitchens however). The Citizen Army men fled ahead of the first engagement that the Jacob’s garrison had, as an element of the Royal Irish Rifles, moving out from Portobello, came within sight. Caught by fire from multiple directions, they suffered six casualties before retreating rapidly. MacDonagh and others now put their men under full alert for what they believed would be an imminent attack; in a recurring theme for the garrison, this would not happen.

More action was happening for Hunter and McKee but not the kind they had prepared for or wanted. Angry crowds of civilians assembled outside Barmack’s and other smaller outposts, yelling insults, throwing stones and refusing to move. Inevitably, violence ensued, and a man who tried to grab a Volunteer rifle away from its owner was shot dead, alongside another DMP official. That cleared the crowds for a time, but they soon returned with renewed hostility. That night, Hunter gladly received orders from MacDonagh to pull back to Jacob’s. They were followed all the way by the same angry crowds, who attempted to free the DMP prisoners. When Hunter and McKee’s men got inside Jacob’s, the crowds stayed outside the main gate, and later attempted to force an entrance: MacDonagh ordered blanks to be fired, which finally got the crowd to disperse.

That night MacDonagh ordered two more outposts to be established, in nearby Byrne’s store and Delahunt’s pub. It was a fitful night for the Jacob’s garrison, kept awake by the noise of rifle and machine gun fire coming from nearby St Stephen’s Green and Dublin Castle. The following morning another advance came from Portobello Barracks which, after a brief firefight, forced the Volunteers to retreat from Byrne’s and Delahunt’s. The British advanced further, into the same killing ground as their comrades the previous day: after another few casualties taken, in fire coordinated by MacBride, they retreated again.

The Jacob’s garrison didn’t realise it yet, but they had just ended their last truly significant engagement of Easter Week. The British decided, either through active analysis or sheer expediency, that Jacob’s was not worth bothering with at the time, and to take an elongated route to their objectives on the north side of the city. As such MacDonagh and his garrison became truly isolated and, if we are being honest, increasingly ineffective in terms of the larger battle. Jacob’s, especially its higher points, still attracted machine gun and sniper fire, but this was mostly a nuisance that prevented sleep and frayed nerves without any serious threat to the garrison at large.

Tuesday passed in such relative quiet, and Wednesday also, barring a sortie to look for foodstuffs in the surrounding area: the factory was, naturally, full of biscuits and other confectioneries, but these lost their lustre after a while, even for the poorer members of the garrison. Machine gun and sniper fire remained constant, creating the ever-present impression that an attack was imminent, but it would never come. The garrison benefitted from the cool leadership of MacBride who busied himself checking positions and engaging with the men where he could; he perhaps served better than the inexperienced MacDonagh who is recorded, like de Valera, of being increasingly unhelpful through sheer tiredness and stress.

On Thursday MacDonagh received word that some other garrisons were in need of resupply and decided he would be the one to send the aid. To that end, he sent 20 men towards Westland Train Station, the western most position of the Boland’s Mill area, and around 12 towards the College of Surgeons near St Stephen’s Green. The first effort petered out in the face of enemy resistance, with the sortie obliged to turn back after an exchange of fire with the British near Merrion Square, with casualties. But the second did get through, though at stage it is debatable what benefit the additional men and supplies were.

The following two days were again quiet, save for the machine-gun and sniper fire. The Jacob’s garrison observed the effects of British artillery on the rest of the city and waited continuously for an attack on their own position that never came, much to the frustration of some, and I suppose the relief of others. On Sunday McDonagh first received word of the surrender order from two priests tasked with the job by General Lowe.

The Jacob’s position is one of the least-noted in the remembrance of the Easter Rising, on account of the limited amount of actual activity that took place there. As in this post, most of the commentary tends to focus on the men in charge. The strength of the position that MacDonagh and MacBride created had both positives and negatives: on the one hand it was strong enough that the British balked from a direct assault, but on the other it became a static irrelevancy that was easily by-passed by an enemy with better things to do. The stated aim of bottling up nearby barracks was only partially successful, and even from the symbolic viewpoint there was little glory to be gained from what occurred there. MacDonagh might have been better served with a more direct connection with the positions at St Stephen’s Green; being little more than a threat in being was hardly the best use of the men under his command. It is St Stephen’s Green will be the focus of our next entry, where a large portion of the Citizen Army were engaged.

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

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