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Opinion: From aristocrats to revolutionaries - No 6 Harcourt Street was at the centre of Irish history

Cuan Ó Seireadáin discusses 6 Harcourt Street, which is the subject of a TG4 documentary tonight.

Cuan Ó Seireadáin

HANS BLACKWOOD, BORN in Co. Down, the fourth son of Sir. John Blackwood M.P. in 1758, was not a man renowned for his imagination, except perhaps when it came to cooking the books of his wine business.

Two of his older brothers, Robert and James, seemed more interested in politics, and another brother, Henry, embarked on a naval career which took him all the way to Trafalgar, where he witnessed Admiral Nelson’s last will and testament.

Hans’ choice of bride, Boston-born Mehetable Temple, a loyalist refugee from the newly established United States of America, may have reinforced his conservative tendencies.

But even the most imaginative couple in Dublin could never have foreseen what role the house they built would go on to play in Irish history.

Significant location

Newly-wedded, Hans and Mehetable took out a lease on a plot of land on Harcourt Street to develop their family home, in 1784. The house Hans built at 6 Harcourt Street, a house he left to vote for the Act of Union in 1800, went on to play a central role in the demise of that Union, and in the creation of an independent Irish state.

The establishment of the Irish Free State triggered the dissolution of the empire Hans’ grandson, Frederick Temple Blackwood had done so much to build as Governor General of Canada and Viceroy of India.

6 Harcourt Street parallels the changes in Irish history in an extraordinary way, and its story is the subject of a new documentary that will premiere on TG4 tonight at 9.30 pm.

Produced by New Departures media, Uimhir 6 draws on rich archival sources to bring life to the occupants of the house, and to detail the decisive role the house played in the emergence of modern Ireland.

While its use as a wine shop, as a home by John Henry Newman during the establishment of UCD, and as a feeder school for the British Army’s officer training academies were significant, Sinn Féin’s use of 6 Harcourt Street as its Headquarters between 1910 and 1923 changed Irish history decisively.

Initially, Sinn Féin used the house for social events, educational activities, and administrative work. The party’s founder, Arthur Griffith, inaugurated a series of lectures in the Autumn of 1910, beginning with a talk outlining his belief that elected Irish MPs should abstain from taking their seats in Westminster, and instead use their mandate to establish an Irish parliament in Dublin.

Other nationalist organisations, such as Iníní na hÉireann, precursors to Cumann na mBan, were given rooms. Protests against the 1911 Royal visit were coordinated from rooms at Number 6 at meetings that were attended by Patrick Pearse, his first step into politics outside of the Irish language movement.

In the months before the Easter Rising in 1916, Kathleen Lynn taught First Aid at the house, and Cumann na mBan members assembled frequently at Number 6 before marching out to training operations in the south of Dublin.

During the Rising, the house was occupied by British troops, and they shot Margaret Skinnider, the only woman shot while fighting in the Easter Rising from there.

Revolutionary base

Following the Rising, with most of the male participants incarcerated, Cumann na mBan used 6 Harcourt Street to regroup. Shortly before Christmas 1916, they held a small convention there and elected Constance Markiewicz as their president.

As the veterans of the Rising began to drift back to Ireland in early 1917, the Sinn Féin Headquarters seemed like an obvious place to meet. Pádraig Ó Caoimh recounted to the Bureau of Military History: “none of us, that is the prisoners released from prisons and internment camps, had any money and very few jobs…

Some of us used to meet a few times a week in No. 6 Harcourt St. One night somebody suggested that we should reorganise Sinn Féin and carry on the policy. This was agreed on at our next meeting.”

The reorganisation happened very quickly. 6 Harcourt Street became busier and busier as the recruits poured in and the Irish Volunteer influence on Sinn Féin increased. In the summer of 1917, it organised its first successful byelection campaigns, and at Ardchomhairle meetings, the policies and strategies of the party were developed.

By the autumn of 1917, it had become a republican party, brimming with confidence, and in the spring of 1918, it began preparing for the General Election that everyone expected would follow the end of the First World War.

Robert Brennan recounted the decision to seek a mandate for independence in the election:

I had drawn up the Manifesto by direction of the Sinn Féin National Executive and my draft was accepted with a few slight amendments. In this, it was stated that Sinn Féin aimed at setting up the Republic…By the establishment of a Constituent Assembly comprising persons chosen by Irish Constituencies as the Supreme National authority to speak and act in the name of the Irish people…..These words could only mean the setting up of some such institution as Dáil Éireann, though these words were not used. The manifesto was unanimously adopted by the National Executive at a meeting held in No. 6 Harcourt Street.

The date of the election was announced almost immediately after the end of the First World War, and celebrating crowds attacked the Sinn Féin headquarters in an attempt to torch the building.

They failed, the campaign continued, and following their election victory, the Sinn Féin Ardchomhairle met at 6 Harcourt Street on 19 December 1918 and made the decision to establish Dáil Éireann.

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Collins’ bolthole

Throughout 1919, the house remained a centre of Sinn Féin and Dáil Éireann activity. Many of the new government departments began as “part of a table” at 6 Harcourt Street.

During a massive raid on 12 September 1919, Michael Collins was caught red-handed in his office on the second floor, working as Minister for Finance.

Despite an altercation with the Dublin Metropolitan Police Inspector Niall McFeely, he evaded arrest.

Frequent raids and seizures of documents at 6 Harcourt Street eventually made the house unviable as the centre of Republican activity during the War of Independence, and the movement went underground, only returning to the house in the period immediately before the outbreak of the Civil War, in 1922.

Following the Civil War, Number 6 was bought by The Office of Public Works (OPW) and was made available to various government departments, Comisiún na Gaeltachta, Coláiste Mhuire, and even for the counting of votes for the 1938 Seanad election.

Since 1966, 6 Harcourt Street has been the home of Conradh na Gaeilge, of An Siopa Leabhar, and Club Chonradh na Gaeilge, and the centre of Irish language and culture in Dublin.

What would Hans Blackwood have made of that?

Cuan Ó Seireadáin is the Curator at Conradh na Gaeilge. 

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Cuan Ó Seireadáin

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