Ireland’s Wars: The 1st Battalion’s Rising

The 1st battalion of the Irish Volunteers had an unenviable task on Easter Week. Their area of operations was to be a sprawling mix of city-centre and suburban, from the imposing Four Courts buildings on the Liffey quays, through North Brunswick and North King Streets and on to the outskirts of Cabra to the north, with plenty of narrow streets in-between. Maintaining a Volunteer presence in the area had many benefits; it would neutralise (hopefully) police and military buildings in the area and around it; it would (hopefully) stymie attempts to send reinforcements into Dublin from west, especially through Kingsbridge Train Station; it would (hopefully) shield the Volunteer HQ in Sackville Street from attacks; and it would, all going well, leave an escape route open to the Volunteers leading north (it was later suggested the idea may have been to link up with Dublin’s 5th Battalion, based in the county, under Thomas Ashe, but if this was the plan it was never adequately prepared for). Given the scale of the area ion question, much would depend on the amount of men available.

The 1st Battalion was led by Commandant Edward Daly, better known as Ned. Originally from Limerick, Daly was the only son of ten siblings, with one of his sisters, Kathleen, married to Tom Clarke. Combined with the fact that his father and uncle were both Fenian veterans (the uncle had taken part in the Dynamite Campaign), and it is not hard to see the influences of and avenues into Irish republicanism that Daly was afforded. A string of different trades – baker, timber, chemist – put Daly around every part of Ireland, but he eventually settled in Dublin, where he was a member of the IRB, and an early recruit to the Irish Volunteers. Whether because of his family connections, natural talent or a combination of both, Daly rose with great speed, and was only 25 when granted his rank and battalion command in March 1915. He was admired for his study of military tactics and for his dedication to professionalism in the Volunteers, and played an important part in the Howth gun running. The enormity of the task that lay before him on Easter Week would provide a stern test of those abilities.

And that reality was exacerbated by the turn-out on Easter Monday. Volunteers and Citizen Army personnel would trickle in over the week, but when the battle for Dublin began perhaps only 120 or so men and women arrived at the 1st Battalion’s Blackhall Place muster point, much less than Daly would have hoped for given the area he was supposed to fortify. But, like other Commandants in other parts of the city dealing with similar problems, he did not quail. Instead the plan went ahead, just with much smaller individual garrisons taking the required positions, and a few bypassed altogether.

The Four Courts was, naturally, the most impressive, the huge Georgian building as striking then as it is today. Only 20 men marched into the building on Easter Monday to clear out its inhabitants and begin fortifications, while Daly set up his own HQ in the nearby St John’s Convent. Other vital buildings seized in the area of operations were Father Matthew Hall on the unction of Church Street and Nicholas Avenue, the Mendicity Institute on the other side of the Liffey, Moore’s Coachworks, Clarke’s Dairy, Monk’s Bakery, and two vital public houses on North King Street Langan’s and Reilly’s (Taproom 47 today). With what little time was available to them, the Volunteers went about the task of erecting numerous barricades to block the streets and strengthen their positions, using whatever material was to hand, much to the annoyance of the locals. Many of them were “separation women”, and so plenty of scorn, and some rotten fruit and vegetables, were sent the Volunteers’ way.

The first contact with the enemy did not take long in coming. Just after midday 50 cavalrymen from the 5th and 12 Lancers, escorting ammunition to the Magazine Fort, passed by the Four Courts, where they underwent a terrible ambush. Confusion reigned: taking casualties and with no way to move forward, they moved into the side streets, but with the barricades impeding their progress more were killed and wounded, before two separate groups made it to the Medical Mission on Charles Street and the Bridewell police station, both of which were locked and barricaded. The Bridewell, pitifully under-defended, would not last long and fell to a quick Volunteer assault, its previous defenders locked up in its own cells.

So far, so good for the Volunteers, who had demonstrated the strength of their defences already. The next moment of substantial combat was to come for the 12 defenders of the Mendicity Institute, a homeless refuge, now garrisoned by soldiers under Captain Sean Heuston. He was not under Daly’s command, as has sometimes been thought, but took his orders from Connolly in the GPO, and it can be wondered why Daly was not given the explicit task of taking the Institute, or a similar building near it, given the importance of disrupting British troop movements in that area.

Heuston’s task was to hinder enemy troop movements for only a short time while other garrisons got set-up. Shortly after 12.30 he came under attack from advanced elements of the 10th Royal Dublin Fusiliers, marching from the Royal Barracks to the relief of Dublin Castle. A brief firefight sent the Fusiliers back, a not inconsiderable feat given the combat experience of the British regiment, but soon they demonstrated that experience, as they diverted to the north side and set up machine gun posts to rake the Institute with fire, smartly avoided any direct assaults on the position. Having originally intended to stay there only for a few hours, Heuston now prepared for a longer defence, and would be reinforced from the GPO the following morning.

The remainder of Monday passed quietly as the Volunteers continued to fortify. In h early hours of the morning an ammunition wagon that tried to sneak past was ambushed and captured, a great boon to the Volunteers. But later the reality of what was occurring was brought home sharply. On the northern point of the 1st Battalion position, British artillery was brought into play, targeting rebel barricades close to the border of the Cabra and Phibsboro suburbs. The Volunteers withstood the sudden bombardment as well as they could, before an infantry attack from the Fusiliers gave them some additional worries. At least two attacks were beaten off before the officer in charge, James Sullivan, realised the position couldn’t be held. A small rear-guard effected a defence while the other scattered, some to be killed, others to make it to other garrisons. The rear-guard went into captivity. With that, the possibility of escaper to the north, which was fanciful enough to begin with, was closed off.

Daly, now based in the impromptu hospital at Father Matthew Hall, decided on Tuesday that a contingent must be sent to capture the nearby Broadstone railway terminus to the north, a target he had initially hoped to take on Monday, but had left off the list when his numbers became apparent. Aside from denying a transport link to the enemy (Broadstone was on the opposite end of the line going to Athlone, the British military’s artillery centre in Ireland), its elevation would be useful. When this contingent arrived though, they found Broadstone already occupied by the British, and after an exchange of fire with casualties on both sides, the Irish retreated.

Tuesday evening and night was spent on the continuing task of fortification, as Daly and his officers fully expected a major blow to land soon. North Brunswick Street now became a key defensive position on the northern point of the 1st Battalion’s operational area, with North King Street behind.

On Wednesday morning rebels troops smashed their way into the understaffed Linenhall Barracks on Coleraine Street, where the defenders, consisting of a few dozen clerks and one DMP officer, soon surrendered. The barracks couldn’t be occupied and so was set alight: the ensuring fire spread rapidly and lasted for some time, its smoke being a constant companion for rebel and British alike in the following days. To the north, the British closed in, and began exchanging fire with the more advanced outposts of the rebels.

To the south, the rebels were under pressure also. Two days after he was supposed to have abandoned the Mendicity Institute Heuston was still there, despite the lack of food. The Dublin Fusiliers had set themselves up all around the position, and at noon on Wednesday launched their attack, coming at the Institute from multiple directions. Heuston and his now 26 men held for a time, hurling their own bombs and British grenades back at their attackers, but the result was inevitable; when the possibility of escape was cut off, Heuston ordered his men to ground their arms and surrendered.

It was a bad loss for the 1st Battalion, as the British were now free to take up positions throughout the southern quays, and used the opportunity to place an artillery piece at Wood Quay, opposite the Four Courts, which fired off a few rounds that rattled the defenders, before it had to be abandoned owing to the Volunteers’ small-arms fire. It was only one problem; as the day wore on, snipers and machine-gun crews throughout the area were able to get into better and better positions, offering harassing fire at any of the Volunteers who showed too much of his body from behind cover. So frustrated were Volunteers Peadar Clancy and Thomas Smart with what was occurring that they made the near-suicidal decision to cross the Liffey themselves with cans of petrol, dodging British fire as they went, in order to light a fire on the southern quays. This fire did drive the British from their positions as it spread, and may have prevented an attack over the Liffey that day. Clancy and Smart survived the incredible feat.

On the other side of the Four Courts, the rebels considered an attack on the Medical Mission, a building that had been held against them since Monday, and which they had, from the Courts, a size advantage over. The Lancers inside, though short on food, still had guns, and were proving a dangerous irritant. The Volunteers, including some who had taken part in the raid on the Magazine Fort, improvised a large bomb to place at its gate while men in the Four Courts provided covering fire. But the bomb didn’t go off, and though the senior British officer in the Mission was killed in the exchange of fire, the stand-off continued.

That night the British changed their focus to Capel Street to the east. General Lowe ordered it to be occupied, reckoning that its capture would separate the 1st Battalion from the Volunteer HQ in the GPO, and provide another avenue of attack on either. The 2/6th Sherwood Foresters in the Royal Hospital were dispatched to Dublin Castle to prepare for an attack across Grattan Bridge.

The British spent the later part of Wednesday and much of Thursday preparing this attack, moving troops and machine gun posts into position through an area crowded with cowering civilians, trying not to tip off the Volunteers for what was about to happen. When the attack did come, it involved some degree of ingenuity from the British, who used makeshift armoured trucks, loaned to them by the Guinness Brewery. Boiler housings had been riveted to their sides, allowing nearly 20 men to travel inside without fear of bullets. The trucks crossed Grattan’s Bridge despite intense fire from the Four Courts, and the troops deposited began to seize buildings on the quays and on up Capel Street. When darkness fell, others followed on foot, and the Volunteers were able to inflict some casualties. However, they were not able to ward the British off, and though their solidification of the position was delayed as the occupied buildings were painstakingly searched for rebels, the Foresters were not to be dislodged. The armoured trucks played another part that evening, in a double trip to the beleaguered Medical Mission, where the Lancers were successfully evacuated, despite the attentions of the Volunteers. All the while, the smoke and flames from the Linenhall fire continued, with the light coming from that blaze possibly deterring Daly from ordering a counter-attack on Capel Street.

For the remainder of the fighting, the attention now turned to the defences on North King and North Brunswick Streets, which had seen relatively little action thus far. That was about to change. On Friday morning the 2/6th South Staffordshire’s, newly thrown into the Dublin fighting, made their way around the growing inferno in Sackville Street to Bolton Street, aiming directly at North King Street to the west. The positions at Reilly’s pub – known as Reilly’s Fort in popular remembrance – and Langan’s immediately opened fire at the sight of the advancing British. The first attack turned into a bloody fracas for the Staffordshire’s, as they received fire from multiple directions. The pub’s had been well fortified, and there was little to aim back at. A second attack a short time later met a similar fate, despite more supressing fire from machine guns being brought to bear and divisionary attacks towards the Four Courts launched down the quays by the Sherwood Foresters.

A third attack was launched and was again stopped in its tracks. In desperation the British sent men along the roof-tops, but these were felled by sharpshooters in other positions. The Staffordshire’s colonel called upon one of the armoured trucks in an effort to break Volunteer resistance, but they could only drive soldiers to the door; once they got out, they were vulnerable, though this way they were able to get inside nearby houses and lay down suppressing fire. Troops attempting to outflank Langan’s by going past the remains of Linenhall were cut down also. The British then tried to put on the pressure onto the westward side of North King Street by advancing from Queen Street with another battalion of the Staffordshire’s, even while other Staffordshire’s and Foresters attacked towards the west wing of the Four Courts, with partial success; they still couldn’t affect any great movement onto North King Street itself.

Langan’s and Reilly’s survived Thursday, with the bloodied British choosing not to attack once darkness fell. With its defenders running low on ammunition, and with the position itself crumbling from the sheer weight of small-arms fire directed towards it, the decision was made to evacuate Langan’s in the early hours of Friday morning, with the Volunteers having lost just one man in its defence; when the Volunteers left, the British rapidly occupied the pub. The remainder of the night was spent by the British boring through buildings to get better positions, along with well-noted harassment of the local civilian population, many of whom were killed in this section of the fighting, either by accidental fire or at the hands of angry soldiers unable or unwilling to distinguish who the enemy was.

15 tired, hungry Volunteers now held Reilly’s against the Staffordshire’s, but were supported by other rebel garrisons in the Bridewell and nearby Malthouse; when the Staffordshire’s attacked at daybreak, they were mown down and the attack faltered. But, just as with Langan’s, Reilly’s couldn’t be held forever, owing as much to the exhaustion of the men inside as to their lack of ammunition. A few hours after this last attack, Reilly’s was evacuated, and the British moved in.

The battle for North King Street was thus largely over, and the Staffordshire’s turned to the parallel North Brunswick Street, which was attacked from the east around 1pm, while other attacks were made on rebel barricades on Church Street. The situation was chaotic for both sides, as barricades fell and were re-captured; eventually the Volunteers just about managed to beat off this attack, aided significantly by sharpshooters placed on top of the Bridewell. By that time Father Matthew Hall was awash with casualties.

A brief respite followed as both sides took stock. Sometime around 1pm, a local priest and British officer arrived outside the Four Courts under a white flag, and informed Daly of Pearse’s surrender.

In some ways the fighting of the 1st Battalion’s operational area was impressive, and in other ways it was not. Daly’s men inflicted a lot of casualties on the British and demonstrated a keen understanding of the practicalities of street fighting, not to mention significant amounts of bravery and daring. Daly had obvious tactical acumen, and some of the other leaders of the fighting in this part of Dublin, men like Heuston, were clearly among the best that the Volunteers had. But on a larger level, Daly’s deployment was full of holes: the northern defences were barely held, Broadstone was not tackled as quickly as it should have been, positions in the centre of the 1st Battalions area were held by the British for days and areas south of the Liffey, like the Guinness Storehouse for example, were apparently never considered as possible targets to be occupied until it was too late. (the last one, given the importance that the nearby Mendicity Institute ended up having, is particularly egregious).

On that critical symbolic front however, the 1st Battalion’s fight was as successful as anywhere else. A substantial part of Dublin had been held by them for a week, and the mauling of the Staffordshire’s was further proof that militant element of Irish nationalism could inflict serious damage on their enemies if given the proper opportunity. Some British units had been embarrassed – famously, one of the Lancers titular weapons was used as a pole for a tricolour outside Reilly’s – and the sight of this section of Dublin going up in flames told its own story.

We have covered all of the major Dublin garrisons but one, and so next week we must turn to the most iconic garrison of the Easter Rising. In Sackville Street, five of the seven signatories had set up the Volunteer HQ in the General Post Office, and it was there that the greatest conflagration of the battle would take place.

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

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