Ireland’s Wars: Sackville Street

When it came to the headquarters of the Irish Republic, the military council did not look far beyond Liberty Hall. Sackville Street was then, as now with its modern day O’Connell Street moniker, one of the main thoroughfares of Dublin City, replete with several old stone buildings, not least the imposing edifice of the General Post Office, built in the early 1800s. In strategic terms Sackville Street was as central in terms of the other garrisons, and Ned Daly’s 1st Battalion offered a screen to British advances from the west. There was also the fact that James Connolly hoped to disrupt the centre of British communications in Dublin through the seizure of the GPO and other nearby points, and to take control of those communications himself. But really the place as chosen for its symbolic strengths, providing a central area that would garner the rebels the maximum amount of attention in the quickest time, with some of the best places to (literally) plant their flags.

The GPO would house five of the seven signatories, four of which – Pearse, Connolly , Plunkett and Clarke – we have already discussed in some detail. The one we haven’t was Sean Mac Diarmada. Born into severe poverty in rural Leitrim in 1883, Mac Diarmada had direct connection to militant Irish republicanism through his father, Donald, who was a member of the IRB and his dedication to Irish nationalism was further ingrained from his education under the Christian Brothers. By the time he moved to Dublin in 1908, where he worked variously in the law and in education, he was a member of Sinn Fein, the Gaelic League the Hibernians and, of course, the IRB, where he was close with Tom Clarke. Despite suffering from a pronounced limp from a bout of polio, in 1913 he joined up with the Irish Volunteers and advanced rapidly. Together with his role as a national organiser for the IRB, Mac Diarmada was uniquely placed to be a key influence on what became the Easter Rising, joining the military council in September 1915. Like Pearse he believed fully in the idea of “blood sacrifice”; now, in Easter Week, he put himself squarely at the centre of things, even if he did not have the physical ability to contribute much.

There were, of course, others in the headquarters staff and garrison worth noting, more for what they would go onto accomplish. They included Plunkett’s dedicated Cork-born aide-de-camp Michael Collins; Pearse’s aide Sean T. O’Kelly; Pearse’s devoted younger brother Willie who was rarely to leave his side for the next week; Harry Boland of the 4th Battalion who helped guard Abbey Street; Desmond FitzGerald who was one of the first into the GPO; somewhat famous footballer Oscar Traynor; and The O’Rahilly, who had spent the days leading up to the Rising trying to stop it from happening, but who had thrown in his lot with the rebels when he realised it was going ahead anyway.

The men and women who would garrison the headquarters area were drawn from throughout the Volunteer battalions, the Citizen Army and Cumann na mBan, and numbered around 150 when they mustered at Liberty Hall on Easter Monday. It was only a short march to Sackville Street, where sections of the force broke off to seize various positions, starting with the GPO, whose occupants were either removed or, if in uniform, imprisoned, before the garrison went about the process of fortifying the building, moving sandbags into place, preparing firing positions, creating loopholes and passages between floors and setting republican flags flying from the roof. As noted, it was only a short time later that the Proclamation of the Irish Republic was being read on the street outside, to what was apparently a mostly bemused crowd.

The Volunteers then went about expanding their position, through the seizure of many other buildings to serve as outposts, and tunneling to connect them up. A new entrance for the GPO onto neighbouring Henry Street was made; the School of Telegraphy was taken, with its equipment used to broadcast the declaration of the republic to the world; the Metropole Hotel, McDowells Jewelers and Bewley’s Provisions Store around the GPO, with barricades around; the Dublin Bread Company and Hibernian Bank were occupied, and a barricade built between, to help ward against an attack from Amiens Train Station, soon to be secured by the British; the nearby Hoyte’s Oil & Spice shop became a makeshift hospital; Hopkins & Hopkins Jewelers and Kelly’s Tackle Shop overlooking the River Liffey became the southern point of the defence; the Pillar Cafe, the Imperial Hotel and a barricade against North Earl Street became the northern most point; and Liberty Hall on the quays was also still being held by a small amount of men, to give at least the illusion of it being well defended.

The first engagement with the enemy for the Sackville Street garrison would come in the form of a Lancer patrol. A composite force of the 5th and 12th Lancers, coming from Marlborough Barracks on Blackhorse Avenue, advanced onto Sackville Street in order to reconnoiter what was happening, and were fired upon from the GPO. Several were killed and wounded in the brief exchange, before the Lancers fled. Connolly, now firmly in military command, was unhappy that the Volunteers fired before he gave the order, but the success certainly contributed to rebel morale. Given the lack of such engagements later, this ambush would go down in popular republican memory as a major event.

What damaged morale was the breakdown in law and order that overtook the city centre late on Monday. Many Dubliners decided to take advantage of the rebellion, and sudden lack of DMP or British military, to begin looting shops and stores on Sackville Street and the surrounding area. The Volunteers fired warning shots and sent out patrols to dissuade the looters, and in a few isolated instances opened fire, but the disorder only came to an end after Monday, when the fighting in the areas intensified.

If Pearse, Connolly and the others were expecting the GPO to become the centre of British attentions they were only partially right. The transmissions from the Wireless school soon alerted British leaders to the location of the rebel HQ, but General Lowe was not so reckless as to order the troops he had massing to the west and north to make a dangerous assault so quickly. Instead, it was decided to isolate the HQ as much as possible, while the other rebel garrisons were dealt with.

To that end, the British set up as close as they could to Sackville Street without moving against it in force. To the south this meant Trinity College, whose Officer Training Corps held the grounds until reinforced. It has frequently been wondered why no attempt was made at taking the College, but as with other garrisons the simple lack of men would have necessitated such a decision. It became cause for regret, when its buildings and rooftops became sniper and machine gun emplacements. To the north, the advance of the British past the Phibsborough/Cabra position of the 1st Battalion allowed elements of the 6th Cavalry Reserve to advance as far as Rutland Square not far north of Sackville Street, while units coming from Ulster took Amiens Street Station and then looped around to send artillery to Trinity.

While Tuesday was quiet around Sackville Street from a military perspective, the rebels were not idle, continuing to fortify and loophole, an exhausting task given the work required to break through some of the thick walls: indeed, the exertion required may have left the rebels engaged overly-tired when the crisis came later in the week. Sackville Street was also welcoming additional Volunteers who had not mobilised on Monday (the Sackville Street garrison may have ended up as the largest of Easter week, but its exact size will never be accurately known). At that time there was still a level of communication between the garrisons, but this would not last much longer.

British snipers and machine guns began a steady relentless fire on Sackville Street and the outposts that were in view. That street became almost immediately perilous to be on or to cross. Then came the worse blow. Artillery pieces were placed on Tara Street, shortly before the Helga made its way up the Liffey. Their first target was Liberty Hall, which was shelled for a short period before the remains were stormed by soldiers based near the Custom’s House: they were presumably a mixture of surprised and relieved to find the building almost entirely deserted. Rebel snipers on nearby rooftops were mostly powerless to interfere thanks to British suppressing fire.

Connolly and the others now expected an attack from the south over O’Connell Bridge and in an effort to lure the British into a killing zone, attempted to create the impression that the Dublin Bread Company was being evacuated: because of confusion it actually was evacuated, but luckily no attack came, or would come, from that direction. The Bread Company would later be re-occupied, but at a cost in men forced to cross the street under machine gun fire.

Shortly after the British were able to move an artillery piece to D’Oliers Street, directly opposite the river from Sackville Street. Kelly’s Tackle Shop was the first to be targeted, and was shelled into oblivion, its small garrison – many of which were armed only with shotguns, and thus powerless to fire back at distant targets – obliged to evacuate. It was a sign of things to come for Sackville Street.

To the north the British came as well, using an armoured truck for transport and cover, while new machine gun posts opened fire from that direction also. A well aimed shot killed the driver and stopped the movement dead, with the truck towed away under fire later that night; but it was a further sign of how pressed the rebel HQ garrison was now. The Hibernian Bank, strafed by fire from Westmoreland Street, was the next to be evacuated. By the end of the day the British had been able to move another big gun to Rutland Square.

The real conflagration began on Thursday, as the situation for the Volunteers now began to deteriorate. British artillery from land and sea began to mercilessly target buildings in the Sackville Street area, with the Irish Times printing office soon going up in flames. The barricade bordering it followed, then the Hibernian Bank and then the Bread Company which had to be evacuated, again, under fire. The remainder of the battle around the GPO would now be wreathed in smoke. The British moved other pieces near the Rotunda Hospital that was the subject of vicious rebel fire, but there was only so much the Volunteers could do. Connolly had mused that the British would be reluctant to shell one of the biggest cities in their empire: he was now rudely disabused. But the act of firing in such a manner was a long-term defeat for the British, as they could not realistically dismiss the rebels as a rabble they simply mopped up with ease.

After a few hours a break in the bombardment allowed troops of the Ulster Composite Battalion to attempt an advance from Amiens Station down Abbey Street, in the hope that the area had been cowed by the shells. Those hopes were misplaced. Volunteers and Citizen Army personnel ensconced in nearby buildings sent the Ulster Battalion scurrying back, with loss. If it had ever seriously been considered, an infantry assault on Sackville Street was now discarded as a possibility. The artillery soon resumed. The fires on Sackville Street continued to spread, to the extent that the opposing sides arranged a temporary ceasefire to allow civilians still cowering in the area to evacuate. When the ceasefire was over, the piece on D’Olier Street took aim at the GPO, while British gunners elsewhere were given carte blanche to level whatever buildings were in the way of the Volunteer HQ.

The Metropole Hotel was the next to go up in flames, with a handful of Volunteers left in its lower floors as the fire spread from top to bottom, before the Imperial Hotel got its own drubbing. By then the British had taken Capel Street, cutting any line of defence and communication between the HQ and the 1st Battalion: a concerned Connolly ordered buildings further down Henry Street to be secured to make sure they were not entirely cut off from a possible withdrawal route. In the process of directing the construction of a new barricade, Connolly was hit in the arm, and then later in the ankle, and was forced to spend the next part of the Rising on a mattress inside the GPO.

British artillery fire now began to hit the GPO consistently, causing confusion and a degree of panic inside its walls, though things were soon brought to a semblance of control: for those inside the old Georgian building, the remainder of their Rising would be spent fighting fires rather than the British. Worried about attacks from multiple directions, Connolly gave a field promotion to a Volunteer runner, Sean McLoughlin, who has distinguished himself carrying messages between the GPO and the Mendicity Institute earlier in the fighting: now a Captain, he was put in command of 30 men and told to hold the Irish Independent offices to secure the Abbey Street approach.

As night fell the oil drums in Hoyte’s Oil & Spice store went up in flames and exploded, spectacularly spreading the growing firestorm in Sackville Street; the Imperial Hotel and Pillar Cafe became untenable as a result. Battling through the smoke and flames, and the constant British artillery strikes, the rebels were forced to evacuate to the rear, onto Marlborough Street, where a confused and desperate skirmish took place with the Ulster Battalion. Some were killed, others captured while still others escaped to take shelter wherever they could: the fire engulfing Sackville Street meant any attempt to cross to the GPO would be suicide. In the early hours of the Friday morning, what was left of the Imperial Hotel collapsed.

Just about every first-hand account of the Rising, and especially those from the headquarters battalion, mentions the terrible immensity of the fires, and how they carried with them an almost hypnotic quality. The flames that burned throughout Sackville Street naturally drew many eyes from across the city, be they British soldiers preparing for the final moves to end the rebellion, or the Volunteer/Citizen Army garrisons that found themselves cut off from headquarters. But the soldiers fighting in the middle of that terrible heat were not done just yet. As Friday began surrender was not yet thought of, and there would be more fighting and dying to do before the Rising was brought to a conclusion.

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

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