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Dublin: 2 °C Monday 21 October, 2019
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Extract: From the roof of the College of Surgeons, the Volunteers watched the city burn

During the Easter Rising 1916, a small force of men and women fought against British soldiers from their posts in St Stephen’s Green and City Hall. In his new book, Paul O’Brien recounts their tragic and noble struggle to protect the newly proclaimed Irish Republic.

 I.C.A on the roof of Liberty Hall
I.C.A on the roof of Liberty Hall
Image: (Sourced through the Irish Labour History Society/via New Island Books)

As the Proclamation of the Irish Republic was being read on the steps of the General Post Office on Sackville Street on Easter Monday 24 April 1916, 160 members of the Irish Citizen Army under Commandant Michael Mallin were taking up position around St Stephen’s Green. For seven days, this small force of men and women fought against British soldiers. In this extract from Shootout: The Battle For St Stephen’s Green, 1916, Paul O’Brien explores the situation facing the members of the Irish Citizens’ Army in the area around The College of Surgeons on Thursday 27 April, 1916.

AT DUSK A Company of British soldiers of the Royal Irish Regiment from Portobello Barracks moved rapidly into position on St Stephen’s Green South. Soldiers climbed onto the roof of the University Church and set up a Lewis Machine-gun post. Snipers took up firing positions in the adjacent buildings.

At dawn, rifle and machine-gun fire opened up on the Volunteers’ positions and continued throughout the day. In order to neutralise these new British posts, Commandant Mallin decided to send a sortie out that evening in order to remove the threat from this direction.

Margaret Skinnider and William Partridge were detailed to lead a section towards the Russell Hotel on the corner of the Green and Harcourt Street. Here they were ordered to gain entry, work their way down the row of buildings and set fire to the British posts. This would remove the snipers, force the withdrawal of the military and deny this position to the enemy.

York and Harcourt Street

At the York Street entrance to the College the section locked and loaded their weapons. Exiting from the side door, they ran in small rushes, keeping tight to the buildings towards the bottom of Harcourt Street.

A shop adjacent to the hotel would enable them to gain access to the roof, and from here they could launch their assault against the British position.

Leaving the cover of the buildings, they careered across the road towards the shop. In order to gain entry, Partridge smashed the glass front of the premises with the butt of his weapon. As the sound of breaking glass echoed throughout the street, a volley of rifle fire erupted from a nearby building. Margaret Skinnider turned to speak to Fred Ryan when he caught the full blast of the first volley of fire, killing him outright. Fred Ryan resided on High Street and was seventeen years old. His death left a mother, an invalid brother and a seven-year-old nephew.

Another volley hit Skinnider, and she collapsed on the roadway. The others threw themselves onto the ground or took cover in the shop doorway. Skinnider’s body was dragged into cover as the section laid down a covering fire. She was still breathing, but seriously wounded.

(Military Archives/New Island Books)

Margaret Skinnider was shot and seriously wounded outside this building at the bottom of Harcourt Street.

Realising that his position was exposed and the mission had been compromised, Partridge decided to extricate the patrol and fall back to the College of Surgeons. Carrying the body of their wounded comrade, the section fell back towards the College.

They could hear the whine of ricochets in the air as they ran. Within minutes they piled in through the door of the College. The sortie had been costly with one killed, Ryan, and one seriously wounded. The Volunteers were ordered to place the wounded Skinnider on a bed in the makeshift hospital where her bloody tunic was removed. Realising that she was badly wounded, and that he did not have qualified medics, Mallin ordered that she was to be taken to the nearest hospital.

Refusing to evacuate

However, a semi-conscious Skinnider refused to be evacuated and insisted she wanted to remain with the garrison. Margaret French-Mullen tried her best to stem the flow of blood, applying field dressings to her wounds.

Later that evening, another search of the College resulted in the discovery of the Officer Training Corps arsenal hidden in one of the many rooms that made up the internal labyrinth of the building. Sixty-four rifles with bayonets and a large quantity of ammunition were distributed amongst the garrison.

Food was still scarce, and continued to be rationed. Many of the Volunteers collapsed at their posts from lack of sustenance and had to be removed to the sick bay. Commandant Mallin detailed a unit to go through all the buildings in his perimeter and search for supplies. This resulted in some finds, but the lack of food was to remain a problem in the coming days.

Captain Elliotson ordered a number of men to prepare for a sortie into St Stephen’s Green. Weapons were checked and loaded as his men made ready. The soldiers rushed out the side door of the hotel and across the road to the park railings. They scaled the perimeter fence and waited for a moment to see if their presence in the park would draw fire from the College.

All was silent as the men moved further into the Green. They picked up an assortment of weapons and ammunition, foodstuffs and medical supplies. They released a number of prisoners who had been held under lock and key in one of the greenhouses. Having carried out a thorough reconnaissance of the park, they retraced their steps and returned to the hotel.

(RCSI/New Island Books)

Live bombs on a table in the Royal College of Surgeons 1916.

Captain Elliotson questioned the detainees in relation to the strength of Mallin’s command and how they were armed. Having been incarcerated for a number of days without food or water, the hotel staff provided a meal for the released internees.

Isolating the Volunteers

By 12.00 hours on Thursday, Brigadier General WHM Lowe had almost 16,000 troops in position to retake the city. By means of fighting patrols, General Lowe had identified all the Volunteer posts within the city. His plan consisted of raising a cordon around the city and isolating the Volunteer Headquarters at the General Post Office. By concentrating his forces there, he could destroy the control point of the Rising. Other Volunteer outposts could be bypassed and taken later. With the use of artillery, he planned to bombard Volunteer positions into submission. He immediately ordered his men to begin operations and close down the city.

Commandant Mallin asked Christine Caffrey to try and get through to the GPO with a despatch. She left the College and made her way through various side streets towards Dame Street.

She had not noticed that she had been followed by a group of unfriendly locals who, on coming upon a British patrol, denounced Caffrey as a spy. She was taken to Trinity College under guard, where she saved herself by swallowing the despatch. One of the officers noticed that she was chewing something, and wanted to know what she was eating.

She at once produced a bag of sweets and offered him one. The officer refused her offer very abruptly and informed her that she was going to be searched. She protested, and was subjected to a thorough search by the male officers. When they failed to find any incriminating evidence she was released. She made her way back to the College, where upon entering she fainted. On recovering consciousness she reported her failure to break through British lines. She explained what had happened to Mallin, who replied ‘You have done very well.’ The College of Surgeons was now completely cut off.

The sound of artillery fire through the streets of Dublin

Since early morning, the inhabitants of Dublin city could hear the unmistakable sound of artillery fire intermingled with the rattle of machine-gun fire. As the day progressed the bombardment grew in intensity. The thud of shells could clearly be heard around the quays and in the vicinity of Sackville Street. A battery of four Royal Field Artillery eighteen-pounders, from the Reserve Artillery Brigade, had been entrained from Athlone.

Having cleared small pockets of resistance on the outskirts of the city they were now concentrating on Volunteer headquarters, the General Post Office on Sackville Street. Plumes of black smoke rose into the air and blotted out the horizon. In the ensuing destruction, buildings caught fire and the smell of burning wood, metal and flesh polluted the air.

That night, from their vantage point on the roof of the College of Surgeons, the Volunteers watched the Dantean scenes of mayhem and destruction as the second city of the empire burned.

Shootout: The Battle For St Stephen’s Green, 1916, is written by Paul O’Brien and published by New Island Books.

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About the author:

Paul O'Brien

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