Ireland’s Wars: South Dublin Union

The western-most fighting within Dublin would belong to the 4th battalion of the Irish Volunteers, and most of that fighting would be done in a large complex called the South Dublin Union, located to the south-west at the city centre, near Kingsbridge Train Station (modern day Heuston Station). The Union was essentially an evolution from the poorhouses of the previous century, now holding a number of hospitals and other medical facilities, along with buildings to house nurses and members of religious orders, with several entrances and high walls surrounding. The 50-acre estate had several obvious strategic advantages that made it the target that it became, not least its proximity to Richmond Barracks and Kingsbridge Station both sources of potential British entanglements for the rebels. By extension, it could also serve as an impediment to any British soldiers that would be sent towards Dublin from the Army headquarters in the Curragh, Kildare.

The man in charge of the 4th battalion was Commandant Eamonn Ceannt. Born in Galway in 1881, son of an RIC officer (the future signatory was apparently born in a police barracks), Ceannt was brought up in an extremely Catholic household, and educated in schools with an extremely Catholic ethos and found his nationalist spirit invoked by events such as the 1798 centenary and the Boer War. After excellent academic results he could have worked for the civil service but choose instead to accept a job with the Dublin corporation, not wishing to work for the British directly. He developed a strong appreciation for the Irish language and Irish music, and it was through the Gaelic League that he was introduced to men like Pearse and MacNeill, and eventually came to join both the Volunteers and the IRB, advancing rapidly through his work as a fund raiser, and in in helping with events like the Howth gun-running. That was the not the limit of his nationalist or left-wing activities however, as he was also a member of Sinn Fein and a committed trade unionist. Ceannt was a member of the IRB’s military council from May 1915, and thus involved intimately in the planning of the Rising; he was well-placed to instigate such plans when he was made the commander of Dublin’s 4th battalion and was important enough to become a signatory.

Of all the garrisons of Easter Week, that of the South Dublin Union may have been the most badly effected by the confusion arising from MacNeill’s countermanding order. Some of those who reported for duty on Monday believed afterwards that only a fifth of the expected number were present, coming to about a hundred men. Ceannt, a respected if untested officer, did his best to soothe the anxieties of his men before they set off from their muster point at Emerald Square.

Such was the built-up nature of the area, Ceannt decided to seize what he hoped would be three vital outposts to bolster the defence of the main South Dublin Union position. These were Jameson’s Distillery on Marrowbone Lane to the south-east under Seamus Murphy, Watkin’s Brewery even further east under Con Colbert (a key figure in Fianna Eireann and the IRB in his own right) and Roe’s Distillery to the north under Tommy McCarthy (St James’ Brewery was also nearby, showing clearly the main industry of the area). All three of these positions were taken with little resistance.

The main attack on the Union, through its northwards facing gate was led by two future national leaders: Ceannt’s second-in-command, a travelling salesman named Cathal Brugha and Lieutenant William T. Cosgrave, a Sinn Fein Councillor. Ceannt entered from the western Rialto gate. The entrances were secured, and then the interior, as much as Ceannt and his limited men were able to do so. The gates were barricaded while Ceannt made his HQ in the nurses home in the centre of the complex: in terms of specific areas of focus a group of Volunteers was dispatched to the grassy ground of the Union’s north-west section, known as McCaffrey’s Orchard, and others to guard the north wall facing Roe’s Distillery. In their fortification efforts the Volunteers had to deal with the unfortunate issue of the Union’s medical and religious staff, not to mention the patients who weren’t in a position to leave. Now stuck in what was to become an active warzone, the best they could do was hunker down in the hospital and ward buildings.

It did not take long for the first engagement with the British military to come. 100 men of the 3rd Royal Irish Regiment, many of whom were just back from France, had been dispatched from Richmond Barracks upon word of the Rising, to help secure Dublin Castle. As they moved past the north side of the Union they saw the defenders; they pressed forward regardless, until the Volunteers opened fire. Some casualties were taken before the Royal Irish found cover, before others headed into the nearby Royal Hospital and used its higher stories and roof as an excellent vantage point to give harassing fire. The men in the Orchard were too exposed to remain where they were, and reluctantly pulled back, leaving dead and wounded behind, with the Roe’s Distillery position offering what cover they could before they too came under withering fire from the hospital.

The Rialto entrance was attacked shortly after by additional companies that were rushed up after news came of the initial engagement, but the British got nowhere fast until a Lewis Gun on the hospital roof was able to focus its attention, hitting several Volunteers and isolating the few men holding the gate. The British soon expanded their offensive: around 50 of the Royal Irish attacked along the southern wall of the Union but were blindsided by the men inside the nearby Jameson’s Distillery, who laid down a lethal amount of fire. The Canal entrance to the south was also targeted, and the smaller gate on Mount Shannon Road. It took several charges to force this gate, with its narrow passage way easy to plug up with fire, but eventually the British broke through, killing or capturing the defenders at that point, while the Canal entrance was also captured. With these positions falling, the Rialto gate was left hopelessly exposed, and this too was taken shortly afterwards.

The British thus had every opportunity to pour into the Union, and with better leadership and luck they may have snuffed out the Union that very afternoon. But here the layout of the Union worked to the Volunteers’ advantage, as the British now had to navigate the various buildings in that section of the complex, a mixture of hospitals, wards and outbuildings that the Volunteers had made sure to occupy, or at least their vital points. It might be an exaggeration to call them a maze, but the level of fire and manoeuvre that the Volunteers were able to employ certainly confused the advanced British units and prevented a wide-scale breakthrough into the rest of the Union.

The fighting was desperate all the same, especially when it moved to the interior of those same buildings, many of which were full of nurses and their patients; the Union had a population of 3’000 at any given time. Here was a close-range fight of butts, knives and bayonets alongside rifles, pistols and bombs as the Volunteers defended numerous hallways and stairwells from the British attacks; even Ceannt was involved in the defence, while Brugha quickly developed a reputation for throwing himself into danger at every opportunity. In the confusion, it wasn’t clear who exactly was winning and losing, as the battle devolved into small-scale firefights between handfuls of soldiers. There were plenty of civilian casualties to add to the terror.

Eventually the superior British numbers told, and the Volunteers were obliged to quit these medical buildings, fleeing in the direction of the nurses home. The exhausted Royal Irish did not pursue. The final major combat of the day was an effort to rescue the wounded and trapped men left behind in the Orchard, which was partially successful, some of the men rescued but other casualties taken in the attempt.

A nervous night passed, before fire resumed on Tuesday morning, with the Lewis gun on the Royal Hospital roof severely limited the ability of the Volunteers to move from position to position, building to building. Ceannt and the others must have fully expected what would have been a final assault. Instead, to the astonishment of both the Volunteers and the British soldiers, the Royal Irish were ordered to retreat from the Union by General Lowe and move from there to Kingsbridge Station. The reason for this has never really been made clear, and the commanders on site only carried out the orders under protest, with the Regimental history dubbing the decision “extraordinary” after the casualties and effort it had taken to get as far as they did. Perhaps Lowe did not wish to risk additional men in a fight for the Union or felt that the Royal Irish could not be reinforced without loss. It has also been suggested that, with Dublin Castle secured, the British leadership preferred to ward against an attack on Richmond Barracks and beyond. Whatever the reason, the British surrendered their only real chance to clear out the Union for the rest of the week, and the Volunteers gleefully took the chance to re-fortify their positions.

Instead of the Union interior, their focus turned to the Jameson’s Distillery position, with elements of the Royal Irish joining cavalry lancers in an effort to pinch it out from the canal side. This was to be a tall order, given the size and strength of the Jameson’s defensive position, with its higher stories and towers well manned by rebel sharpshooters. The attack commenced around 2 p.m, and rapidly turned into somewhat of a bloodbath, as the cavalry found their mounts unsuited to the urban environment, and the infantry found themselves unable to make much progress. After two hours the British withdrew, leaving a large number of dead and wounded infantry and horses behind them.

After getting orders from Major John MacBride in Jacob’s, technically the nearest available officer above him, Captain Con Colbert abandoned the Watkin’s Brewery position, bringing his men to Jameson’s: he was joined shortly thereafter by the men who had been left in Roe’s, those who were able to make the journey at any rate. Their positions were simply too isolated ton be effective, and Colbert was anxious owing to their lack of contact with the enemy; for that reason alone a re-positioning to Jameson’s made sense, though it left the 4th battalion’s overall area of operations contracted.

The rest of Tuesday, and then Wednesday, passed quietly enough, save for the increased activity of snipers in the area, and the sounds of battle in the other parts of the city which, like the other garrison, had little practical effect on the situation, but served to continually harass the Volunteers. The British used the advantage of darkness to dig better positions on the approach to Jameson’s, ready for another attempt to take the distillery on the Thursday.

That morning the amount of sniper fire increased, until it became a cacophony, as the dug-in soldiers joined the chorus: at 10 a.m, the next attack began proper. Again defensive fire took a terrible toll, but this time the volume of British fire allowed some soldiers to reach the distillery walls, before they were driven off by a succession of thrown bombs coming from the hands of Colbert and a group under his command. Again, the attack petered out with the rebels still in control of the distillery.

The bigger drama of the day was taking place in the Union again, as the 2/8th Sherwood Foresters, having just gotten through the bloody business of Mount Street Bridge, were ordered into the fray once more. This time, they were to be at the forefront, while their mauled brethren in the 2/7th formed the rearguard. From positions in the Royal Hospital, they prepared to re-enter the Union from the positions as before.

Despite harassing fire from the Union and Jameson’s, they were able to make that entrance, but that was as easy as the operation would get. The Volunteers in the union, probably because of their low numbers, had not firmly secured the previous battleground, but maintained an excellent field of fire from their more central and northern positions. Despite the support of the Royal Hospital Lewis gun, the British took many casualties as they moved towards the new primary target of the nurses home.

This and its surrounding buildings were the scene of grim fighting, as the Foresters pressed and the Volunteers did their best to stand their ground. A repeat of the Monday fighting now took place, as the battle took to the rooms and corridors, with the Volunteers fighting behind pre-prepared barricades, and the British attempting to tunnel between rooms and buildings as best they could. One of the more notable incidents of the Union fighting occurred here, as Cathal Brugha took a truly extraordinary amount of wounds (25 according to come reports) in single-handedly defending an stairwell, singing as he did so. Despite the grenade and bullet wounds, Brugha prevented the British advance until a Volunteer counter-attack drove them back: as noted, he was somehow able to survive, and would play a bigger part in the revolutionary struggle in years to come.

The strength of the rebel positions eventually told, as the British, despairing of the casualties they had taken and likely would take if they stayed on the attack, withdrew from the Union yet again. Instead, Lowe decided that, as with Jacob’s and the College of Surgeons, the Union would be surrounded and isolated as much as possible.

The remainder of the week thus passed fairly quietly, as the Union and Jameson’s garrison rested and prepared for future combat, largely ignorant of what was occurring in the rest of Dublin. Morale remained high, and stayed as such, until Sunday, when Commandant MacDonagh arrived at the Union, with the news of the surrender.

The South Dublin Union, while among the lesser noted areas of combat in the Easter Rising, provided some of the fiercest fighting of that week. Twice the British got close enough to the rebels that they engaged hand-to-hand; twice the Irish survived, albeit the first time it was more to do with baffling British decisions than anything else. Both the defence of the nurses home and Jameson’s Distillery demonstrated the strength of the Volunteers when they occupied strong positions, and the stupidity of British commanders who ordered open assaults on such positions. From a military perspective, the South Dublin Union area thus accomplished at least some of its objectives, in pinning down British forces for a time and influencing the general direction of British strategy in the Volunteers’ favour. But like other garrisons, the effectiveness of the Union and Jameson’s declined as the week went on, they failed to put any pressure on Kingsbridge Station and if the British had decided to leave things be on Thursday it is likely that little would have changed.

On a symbolic level, Ceannt also did quite well. His defence of the nurses home was exemplary, and men like Brugha and Cosgrave would benefit greatly in year to come from the reputation they gained that week, with Ceannt also praised for his general attitude and coolness under fire, traits not shared by some other signatories and garrison commanders. Again seasoned British veterans had been mauled by Irish militia, some of whom were implementing tactics that were not entirely unlike guerrilla warfare, and had actually retreated in the face of such opposition.

Our coverage of the Easter Rising is now approaching the end of the battle in Dublin and must now move to the north side of the city. Before we focus on the Volunteer Headquarters, we must look further west, to the fighting around the Four Courts and North King Street.

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

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