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Column: Nordic Rebels – The Swede and Finn who fought in the GPO, 1916

The story of the two Nordic recruits to the cause of the Irish Republic remains one of the most remarkable of Easter Week, writes Damian Shiels.

Damian Shiels

ON EASTER MONDAY, 24th April 1916, members of the Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army occupied the GPO on O’Connell Street, proclaiming themselves the ‘Provisional Government of the Irish Republic’ and setting in motion the 1916 Rising.

The majority of the insurgents who participated lived in Ireland, but others had also come from further afield, travelling from England and Scotland to take part. There are few with stories to match the extraordinary tale of two members of the GPO garrison during those fateful days – the Swede and the Finn who decided to become Irish Rebels.

By the time Captain Liam Tannam of the Irish Volunteers arrived at the GPO on Easter Monday the building had already been taken. James Connolly gave him responsibility for defending the windows to the right of the middle window, and Tannam quickly got to work reinforcing his position with anything he could find, including heavy books and bags of coal. It was not long before the young man got his first taste of action, when the garrison opened fire on a troop of British Lancers, killing and wounding several before the cavalry retreated.

It was Monday afternoon when Tannam was called over to the GPO’s barricaded windows by one of his men, who reported that there were two strange-looking individuals outside. So began an encounter which he would remember for the rest of his life:

… I went to the window and I saw two obviously foreign men. Judging by the appearance of their faces I took them to be seamen. I asked what they wanted. The smaller of the two spoke. He said: “I am from Sweden, my friend from Finland. We want to fight. May we come in?” I asked him why a Swede and Finn would want to fight against the British. I asked him how he had arrived.

He said he had come in on a ship, they were part of a crew, that his friend, the Finn, had no English and that he would explain.

Tannam asked the Swede why they wanted to come in and fight against England. The Scandinavian explained: “Finland, a small country, Russia eat her up. Sweden, another small country, Russia eat her up too. Russia with the British, therefore, we against.” The Volunteer asked if the two men knew how to fight and if they could handle a weapon. “I can use a rifle. My friend – no. He can use what you shoot fowl with.”

He decided to let them in, and Tannam found a rifle for the Swede and shotgun for the Finn. The two unlikely recruits were placed at the window barricades he commanded. Volunteer Charles Donnelly came on the scene and was amazed to see the two men join the garrison. He asked the Swede what they were doing there and was told that “they wanted to fight for small nationalities.”

So it was that a Swede and Finn became part of the garrison of the GPO in 1916. However, the Finn’s inexperience with firearms was quickly proven. When an alarm was raised, everyone stood to at the barricades to await a potential attack. The crisis passed, but as the Finn stepped back from the window his shotgun banged off the floor and went off. The blast hit the ceiling and sent a shower of plaster down on the men manning the windows. Another of the garrison, Joe Plunkett, was unimpressed, and gave the Finn a piece of his mind. Tannam continues:

The Finn looked at him [Plunkett], looked at me, at everyone. Joe said: “Can you not talk, man?” The Swede spoke up and said: “No. He has no English.” “Who are you?” Joe said.  I intervened then and I explained to Joe. Joe looked at me and said: “Amazing, but obviously that man there is a danger,” pointing to the Finn. “We will have to get him another place out at the back of the Main Hall.

According to Charles Donnelly the shotgun blast had actually wounded a man in the foot, causing James Connolly to state that “The man who fires a shot like that will himself be shot.” It was decided that it would be best for everyone concerned if the Finn moved back from the barricade, and he was sent to help fill fruit tins with explosives and pieces of metal. The Swede, not wanting to leave his friend, went with him. The two men reportedly stayed with the GPO garrison for the entirety of Easter Week and were present at the time of the surrender.

In the Rising’s aftermath, Liam Tannam remembered that the Swedish Consul succeeded in getting the Swede home, but the Finn remained a prisoner for a number of weeks. He was initially detained in Kilmainham Gaol along with Liam Tannam and other participants in the Rising. Despite the fact that he was not Catholic, Tannam claimed that before he left the Finn was able to say the Rosary in Irish.

On 3rd May 1916 the unfortunate sailor was transferred with a group of other rebels to Knutsford Prison in England. Here Volunteer Robert Holland described how “he had endless trouble convincing them [the British] he was not an Irishman as he could not speak a word of English.”

The name of the Swede who fought in the GPO in 1916 has not been recorded, although if Tannam was right, the key to revealing his identity may rest in files associated with the Swedish Consul. Tannam called the Finn ‘Tony Makapaltis’ and he is recorded in The Irish Times Sinn Fein Rebellion Handbook variously as Antli Makapaltis and Antle Zecks Makapaltis. It seems certain that both names are highly corrupted, given that he did not speak English. His forename was most likely the common Finnish name Antii, but his correct surname remains unknown.

The story of the two Nordic recruits to the cause of the Irish Republic remains one of the most remarkable of Easter Week. We know precious little about them or what ultimately became of them. Having done their bit for “small nationalities” and striking at Russia through Britain, they departed the stage of Irish history almost as suddenly as they had first appeared at Liam Tannam’s window.

Perhaps the decade of commemorations will afford an opportunity to discover more about these unlikely, yet fascinating, Irish rebels.

This article is based on research carried out by Know Thy Place, who produce historic and archaeological charts telling the stories of different counties, towns and events in Ireland. To find out more about them visit www.knowthyplace.com

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About the author:

Damian Shiels

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