The Story of the Irish Rebellion
By St. John G. Ervine
[The Century Magazine, November 1916]
On Easter Sunday, after an absence of several weeks, I returned to Dublin from England, and in the evening I walked down to the Abbey Theater to obtain my letters. There was an air of festival in the town, for the rigors of Lent were at an end, and people were making ready for such merriment as is possible in time of war to those whose men are in very present danger in Flanders and France; and as I crossed O'Connell Bridge and stood for a moment or two to look at the high reaches of golden sky which are everywhere visible in Dublin it seemed to me that the "peace...which passeth all understanding" had settled on this old, distracted city. There had, indeed, been murmurs and mutterings and marches of drilled men, and now and then one met an anxious official, full of foreboding, who spoke desperately of danger; but these were disregarded. One had stood on the pavement to watch the volunteers go by, and had treated them lightly. How could that tattered collection of youths and boys and hungry-looking laborers ever hope to stand against the British army!
One saw them, on St. Patrick's day, marching up Westmoreland Street to College Green, some of them dressed in a green uniform that, except in color, was a replica of the khaki uniform of the British soldier. Most of them had no uniform, and their cheap, ready-made clothes had an extraordinarily unwarlike look that was made almost ridiculous by the bandoleers and the long, obsolete bayonets and the heavy, out-of-date rifles they carried. The mind, remembering tales of France and Flanders and the Dardanelles, of guns that fired shells a ton in weight for many miles, of an extraordinary complicity of invention whereby men may be slain by men who have never seen them—the mind, remembering these things, found something supremely comical in the spectacle of young clerks and middle-aged laborers steeling their hearts and fitting their bodies with the worn-out implements of war in the hope that they might so disturb the British race that all they desired would instantly be conceded to them.
It is easy now to pitch blame on Mr. Birrell and to say that he should have known this and that he should have known the other; but I doubt whether many men, seeing the procession of volunteers on St. Patrick's day, would have felt any alarm. At most, one imagined, there would be a brawl in the streets, quickly and easily suppressed by a little force of police.
Such was my mood on Easter Sunday when, coming away from the Abbey Theater, I encountered, on Eden Quay, a company of volunteers marching toward Liberty Hall. They had been, I think, in the mountains all day, drilling and marching, and now, tired and hungry, were nearly at the end of the day's work, in a moment or two to be disbanded for the night. They were just such a company of men and boys as I had been accustomed for months past to see parading about the streets: middle-aged, spare-looking laborers in whom the brutalities of the 1911 strike had left deep bitterness; young clerks and shop assistants and schoolteachers, full of generous ideals and emotions that were unchecked by the discipline of wide knowledge and experience; and boys, vaguely idealistic and largely thrilled by the desire for romantic enterprise and the hope of high happenings. And with them, as intent and eager as the men, were a few women and little girls.
I stood on the pavement to watch them go by. The captain of the company was a man I had known slightly, a modest, quiet, kindly man of honest desires, called Sean Connolly, unrelated, save in the comradeship of arms, to James Connolly. I nodded to him, and he waved his hand to me. The next day he was dead, killed in the street fighting for some ideal that dominated and bound his mind. I remember, too, seeing the Countess Marckevitz in the ranks that Sean Connolly commanded. I had met her twice very casually and did not recognize her in the half-light of the evening, but some one standing by said, "That's the countess," and I looked, and saw a tired woman who would never admit that she was tired, stumping heavily by in a green uniform, oblivious of the comments, many of them of mockery, that the onlookers were making. I
It is not my business here to explain the rebellion or to describe the causes of it. An adequate explanation would fill too much space, and the causes of it were varied. Some of the volunteers were men belonging to the citizen army which had been formed in 1911 by James Larkin and James Connolly and Captain White, the son of Sir George White, the defender of Ladysmith, during what was probably the most brutally conducted strike (on the part of the employers) in the history of industrial disorder. I have no knowledge of what was in these men's minds, but I do not doubt that the rebellion meant to them less of an opportunity to establish an Irish republic than an opportunity to avenge their outraged humanity. Others were men who remembered, no doubt, that the gun-running practised by their side was treated with a severity that ended in death, whereas the gun-running practised by the followers of Sir Edward Carson was treated as an admirable exploit. Others, again, and these were the majority, were men who loved Ireland and sought to set her free. If one were to set out to apportion blame for the rebellion, one would find that it must be distributed over so many people that in the end one could only say, "We are all to blame; we Irish people, old and young, are all at fault."
But while one does not set out to explore the causes of the rebellion, one may briefly say that the origin of the volunteers lay in the necessity which some Irishmen felt for an effective defense against the volunteers who had been created in Ulster by Sir Edward Carson. The extent of that necessity was made plain when what is called the Curragh Camp incident happened. On that occasion a number of officers refused to obey an order (so it is said) to proceed to Belfast and keep the Unionist volunteers in control. I do not believe that any reputable Irishmen wished to see the Ulster volunteers terrorized or put to death by British soldiers; but the incident set a number of Nationalists wondering what sort of defense they would have if the Ulster volunteers made an attack on them. The temper of the soldiers at the Curragh indicated that they could hope for little help from that quarter, and there was no other defense, apart from the police. So they set up volunteers of their own, under the leadership of John McNeill, a professor at the National University. The purpose of these volunteers was, first, to defend themselves against attack, and, secondly, to make a display of force if Home Rule was not conceded to Ireland. After the outbreak of the war this purpose was extended to prevent the imposition of conscription on the Irish people.
The reader, remembering these purposes of the volunteers, may now wonder why the rebellion took place, seeing that an attack on the Nationalists was not made by the Ulster volunteers, that Home Rule had in law been conceded to Ireland, and that the Irish people were expressly excluded from the scope of the Military Service Act. The answer to such speculation is that the great majority of the Irish volunteers firmly believed that the Home Rule Act would be annulled after the war. They were convinced that the Liberal government would quit office on the conclusion of peace, and be succeeded by a Conservative government, which would make as little of the Home Rule Act as the Germans made of the treaty guaranteeing the neutrality of Belgium; and they were confirmed in this belief by the tone of an obstinate English newspaper. A further factor was the treatment of the Irish regiments in Gallipoli, where, although they bore the brunt of the fighting, they were disregarded by the commanders in a thoroughly incomprehensible manner. One of the strange features of the Gallipoli campaign is the fact that Admiral de Robeck forgot to mention the names of the Irish regiments which took heroic part in landing on the peninsula, although he remembered to mention the names of all the other regiments concerned in it!
The causes, then, which led up to the rebellion were many and varied, but the dominant cause was this suspicion that once again the English Government was about to betray the Irish people. I belong to a school of Irish Home-Rulers who believe that the destinies of Ireland and England in the world are as inseparable as the waters of the Liffey and the Mersey in the Irish Sea, and I do not believe that these suspicions of English perfidy were justified; but I can readily understand why men of an impatient temperament, in whose minds the wrongs of their country had made an indelible impression, were quick to suspect treachery where they should have seen only the petulance of irresponsible and impotent politicians and journalists.
When the history of the Irish rebellion is written I suppose people will notice particularly how completely it surprised every one, even the officials who had fears of its happening. I do not imagine that any of that company of volunteers whom I saw on Easter Sunday evening had the slightest idea that there was to be a rebellion on the following morning. I know that the Countess Marckevitz was not aware of the proposed outbreak until it actually began, and I know of one volunteer who did not know of what was about to take place until he heard the sound of rifle-fire. It is obvious that the strictest secrecy as to intention had to be preserved, otherwise the plan would have been betrayed. A secret which is committed to several thousand persons ceases to be a secret. The Irish secret service knew that a rising had been planned, but they did not suspect that it would take place so soon. Indeed, at the very moment when the rebellion began a council was actually being held in Dublin Castle to determine what steps should be taken to cope with the insurrection when it took place. The secret service, I understand, expected the attempt at rising to be made on Whit Monday. The result was a state of unpreparedness that is almost incredible. General Friend, who was in charge of the troops in Ireland, had left the country on Easter Saturday, and was in England when he heard the news of the outbreak. The lord lieutenant had arranged to pay a visit to Belfast on official affairs, and was making ready to start when the news came to the viceregal lodge that the Sinn Feiners had revolted. There was a race-meeting at Fairy House, and many of the officers and soldiers were there. Very few troops were stationed in Dublin, and many men were on leave. It is said in Dublin that if the rebels had known, they could have taken Trinity College and the headquarters of the Irish command with ease, there were so few persons on the premises to defend them. Easter Monday is a bank-holiday, and therefore the shops and business offices were closed.
That was the state of Dublin when suddenly a small body of armed men came out of Liberty Hall and marched along Abbey Street into O'Connell Street and thence to the general post-office. Simultaneously other men marched to strategic points such as Westland Row railway station and the road leading to Kingstown, along which troops from England would be obliged to pass. Another company of men set off to take Dublin Castle, where some harassed officials, as I have stated, were wondering what they should do to cope with the rebellion that they believed to be likely to take place on Whit Monday. The Countess Marckevitz led a company of men and boys and women and girls to St. Stephen's Green and the College of Surgeons. Considerable knowledge of strategy was displayed by the rebels, together with some strategic ineptitude. It was, for example, extremely foolish to seize St. Stephen's Green Park, which was exposed on every side to attack, and had to be abandoned on Easter Tuesday, when the soldiers arrived and began operations.
All the men were disposed at the points of vantage, and about eleven o'clock on the morning of Easter Monday the rebellion began. The post-office was seized, St. Stephen's Green Park was occupied, the College of Surgeons was entered, and private houses on roads of consequence were taken. The attempt to seize Dublin Castle failed after the policeman on guard outside it was murdered; and the rebels then took the offices of the Dublin "Daily Express," which are near the castle, and ejected the reporters and staff from it.
There was to be a matinee at the Abbey Theater on Easter Monday. We were to produce Mr. W. B. Yeats's little vision of Ireland, "Kathleen ni Houlihan," together with a new play by a new author, "The Spancel of Death" by Mr. T. H. Nally. There is something odd in that conjunction of plays, something almost anticipatory of what was about to happen; for Kathleen ni Houlihan, the poor old woman, is the figure of Ireland dispossessed and calling to her children to regain her inheritance for her.
"What is it you want?" the young man says to Kathleen, the daughter of Houlihan, when she comes to his home on the evening of his marriage.
"My four beautiful fields," she answers, "and the hope of driving the stranger out of my house."
I had gone down to the theater from my home in St. Stephen's Green about nine o'clock that morning so that I might deal with my correspondence before the matinee began, and while I was working in my office a stage-hand came to me and said that he thought we would not be able to hold a performance. I said "Why?" He replied:
"I think there's a rebellion or something on. The Sinn Feiners are out." I laughed.
"Listen!" he said, and I listened. I could hear distinctly the dull sound of rifle-firing. "Oh, that's only some one skylarking," I answered. But it wasn't skylarking.
A man came into the theater while I was wondering about the thing. He was pale and agitated. "I've just seen a man killed," he said brokenly.
"Is it true?" I interrupted.
He nodded his head.
"I was outside the castle," he went on. "The policeman went up to stop them, and one of them put up a rifle and blew his brains out. The unfortunate man!"
"But—but what 's it for?" I asked feebly. "What 's it all about?"
"God knows," he answered.
I went to the front of the theater and looked into the street. I could see little knots of men and women and children at the corners of the streets which run at right angles to O'Connell Street, and every now and then some one, suddenly alarmed, would run away. There was a heavy feel in the air, that curious physical sensation of waiting for something to occur which precedes all dreadful events, and, disturbing it ominously, the flat rattle of distant rifles.
There were no policemen anywhere. Mysteriously and swiftly, the whole of the Dublin Metropolitan Police had vanished from their beats.
"Well, this is damned funny!" I said.
There is a wide lane at the side of the Abbey Theater which runs parallel to the Liffey and ends at the side of Liberty Hall. While I was standing outside the theater, wondering whether I ought to abandon the performance or not, I heard shouting and the rumble of heavy carts, and looking up the lane, I saw a procession of wagons approaching me. Each wagon was piled high with cauliflower, and was guarded by armed youths. I began to laugh again. There was something irresistibly comical about those wagon-loads of cauliflower, the commissariat of the rebels. We had not yet realized that serious things were about to happen, and so we made jokes! There were funny descriptions of interminable meals of cauliflower—breakfasts, dinners, teas, and suppers of cauliflower. I remembered how sick the soldiers in France and Flanders became of plum and apple jam, and I wondered how long it would be before the rebels became bored with cauliflower.
People turned up at the door of the theater, unaware that anything had happened. Some of the players, unable to catch a tram, came to the stage-door bewildered.
"What 's up?" they said, and I answered jocularly:
"Oh, don't you know? There's a rebellion on, and we 're all republicans now!"
In every tragical happening there is an element of the ridiculous, and it is the business of the artist to strip the ridiculous from the tragical, and leave only the essential tragedy. The realist, such a realist as Mr. Bernard Shaw, insists on showing everything, the ridiculous and the tragical; and so it is that one is puzzled by disturbing laughter in so beautiful a play as "Androcles and the Lion." There was much that was ridiculous in the Dublin rebellion, and all who lived through it can tell many funny stories. I think now of the woman who telephoned to me at the theater to inquire about a friend.
"What's up?" she asked when I had told her that her friend had left the theater to go home, and when I told her that a rebellion was "up," she exclaimed: "Oh, dear! What a day to choose for it! Easter Monday! The people won't enjoy themselves a bit!"
I told the attendants to shut the theater, and went into O'Connell Street. Crowds of people were wandering up and down or standing about in an expectant manner. All round me I could hear men and women asking the question which was general that day in Dublin, "What 's it for?"
I looked across the street, and saw that the windows of the post-office had been broken. Furniture and sacking were piled behind every window, and stretched on top of these were boys with rifles, lying there, waiting. Some of the rebels were distributing bills, in which the heads of the provisional government announced the establishment of an Irish republic. Some one began to deliver an oration at the base of the Nelson pillar, but the crowd had no taste for oratory, and it did not listen long. There were two flags on the top of the post-office, a green one, bearing the words "Irish Republic," and a tricolor of orange, white, and green; and that was all. One saw volunteer officers, carrying loaded revolvers, passing about their duties, instructing pale boys who were acting as sentinels; and when one saw how young they were, there came again into the mind that sense of the ridiculousness of it all, and one thought, "This is all very well, this playing with rebellion and establishing a republic; but wait—just wait until the police catch you at it!" One thought of them as boys who had let their lark run away with their wits. All this joking had gone too far, and presently there would be trouble, and some sorry people would be mumbling excuses to a magistrate. It was as if boys, letting their imaginations feed too fat on penny dreadfuls, had forgotten that they were only pretending to be wild Indians attacking Buffalo Bill, and had suddenly scalped a companion or halved his skull with a tomahawk.
"I'll be over when dinner-time comes," some one said to me. We were all extraordinarily lacking in prescience. We still thought of this thing as a kids' rebellion, a school-boys' escapade. "Silly young asses!" people were saying; "they'll only get into trouble."
I got tired of hanging about O'Connell Street, and so I went home. At the top of Grafton Street I crossed over to the park, and saw that the gates were closed, and barricaded rather ineffectively. A man was standing inside the gates, holding a rifle, and looking intently down Grafton Street. Some girls were chaffing him, and asking him if he was not scared to death, and what would his mother say if she could see him, and was he not afraid that she would give him a beating. But he paid no heed to their chaff, though now and then, when some one obscured his vision of the street, he gruffly ordered them away and, if they did not move speedily, threatened to shoot them. "G' long with you!" they would say, still chaffing, but a little uncertain. After all, he might shoot.
I walked along the side of the green toward the Shelbourne Hotel. Inside the railings I could see boys digging trenches and throwing up heaps of earth for shelters. Other boys were stretched on the turf, with their fingers on the triggers of their rifles, and they, too, like the boys at the post-office, were waiting. I heard a man say to one lad who was digging into the soft earth:
"What in the name of God are you doin' there?" and the lad replied:
"I don't know, I 'm supposed to be diggin' a trench, but I think I 'm diggin' my grave."
It is said, and I believe it to be true, that none of these lads knew what was to happen that day. Some of them had come up from the country to take part, they imagined, in an ordinary demonstration, a route march. It is said of some of them who were deputed to capture Westland Row station—their task was not told to them until they had reached the station—that when they heard what was to be done, they sent for a priest, made their confessions to him, and received the host. They told the priest that they were ignorant until that moment of what was about to take place, and he advised them to drop their rifles and uniforms when dusk came and go to their homes.
"Oh, no," they answered; "we joined this thing, and we ought to go on with it." There was much of that kind of young chivalry that week In Dublin. I doubt whether many of the volunteers funked when the moment came, although they must have felt that they had been led into something like a trap.
At the Shelbourne Hotel there was a barricade across the street, composed of motor-cars and vans that had been taken from their owners by the volunteers. Inside the green there was much movement and hurrying to and fro. At each gate there was a small group of armed sentries, who challenged every vehicle that passed. If the vehicle was found to be above suspicion, it was allowed to pass on. If the driver of It failed to halt when challenged several times, he was fired on.
I went into the house where I was living. It overlooks the green, and from my bedroom I had as clear a view as was possible to any one. I saw women walking about Inside the green, and I saw three little girls who could not have been more than fifteen years of age running busily about. They were members of the Countess Marckevitz's corps of Girl Guides and they were acting as messengers. On the opposite side of the green I could see the tricolor of the republic floating over the College of Surgeons.
A man came to see me.
"Will there be a performance at the Abbey to-night?" he said, and I answered:
"I don't know. You 'd better turn up, anyhow. Perhaps it will be all over by eight o'clock." I was told later that the D'Oyley Carte Opera Company, who were to begin a fortnight's engagement at the Gaiety Theater that day, did not abandon their intention until a few minutes before the hour at which the performance was due to begin.
After tea I walked round the park. On one side of the green, near the Unitarian church, there was a pool of congealed blood. I almost sickened at the sight of it. On this spot a second policeman had been murdered. I use the word "murdered" intentionally. It is, I think, true to say that the rebellion was conducted by its leaders as cleanly as it is possible to conduct any rebellion, and many high and chivalrous things were done by them and their followers. They strove to fight, as closely as they could, in accordance with the laws of civilized warfare. But the killing of these policemen at the castle and the Unitarian church were acts of murder, for these civil servant were unarmed, defenseless, while their opponents carried loaded rifles. I believe, indeed, that much of what we call atrocity in warfare, civil or international. Is largely the result of fright and nervous strain, the panic act of men who are "rattled;" and it is very probable that the murder of the policemen was due to an attack of nerves. But whatever the cause of it may have been, it stained a singularly clean record. The behavior of the rebels to their prisoners was exemplary. An old colonel who was In their hands for the better part of a week subsequently stated that he had been treated with exceptional kindness, and a subaltern who was interned in the post-office asserted that his captors were very considerate to him.
It was while I was looking at the pool of congealed blood that I saw Francis Sheehy Skeffington. I had known him fairly well for some time. He was a man of immense energy and vitality. Once he walked from Dublin into Wicklow and back, covering fifty miles in one day. His honesty was superlative, and his courage was leonine. I think of him as a man overruled by intellect. He was governed by logic, and he seemed incapable of understanding that life is a wayward thing, that men are moody, that humanity cannot be scheduled or set out in terms of an equation; and this submission of his to intellect robbed him of any capacity to act practically in affairs. Had he been a witty man, he would have resembled Bernard Shaw. But he was not a witty man; he was almost totally devoid of a sense of humor. I think, too, he was completely devoid of any feeling for tradition, any sense of reverence. Once when I was living in a Welsh village I met him. I went with him one day to see a cromlech outside the village, and when we reached it, he looked at it for a few moments, and then, to my disgust, took a bill out of his pocket and stuck it into a crack in the stones. "I may as well do a little propaganda," he said. The bill had "Votes for Women" on it. But when all the small irritations one had in his presence were accounted for, there remained this, that he was a man of great integrity and courage, and men of integrity and courage are so rare in the world that it is a calamity to have lost this man in the miserable way in which he was lost.
He came up to me, and we talked about the rebellion. I was full of anger, because I saw In it the wreck of the slowly maturing plans for the better ordering of Irish life; but his emotion was different.
"I 'm against all this fighting," he said. "More and more I am inclining toward the Tolstoian position." He spoke of the rebellion as "folly, but it's noble folly," and declared that it was a hopeless enterprise. He went off, walking in that habitual quick, nervous way of his, which seemed to indicate that he could never walk with sufficient swiftness. I went home, and sat In the window, looking out on the park and the passing people. The dusk gathered about the trees in the green, and a film of blue mist enveloped us. Behind the College of Surgeons, which faced my side of the green, the setting sun sent shafts of golden light shimmering up the heavens. There was hardly any wind, and the tricolor on the college fluttered listlessly. The evening became quiet. The crowds which had moved about the city all day in a holiday mood, treating the rebellion as a jolly entertainment provided by benevolent persons for their amusement, had dispersed to their homes, carrying with them not the mood of merriment, but the mood of alarm, of anxious anticipation.
One could hardly have felt otherwise then. All day the rebels had been In possession of the city. The Government seemed to have thrown up the sponge. There was not a policeman to be seen, or a soldier or any person in authority. At ten o'clock that morning there had been a Government and policemen and soldiers; at eleven o'clock all these had disappeared. There was looting in O'Connell Street, some of it extraordinarily ludicrous. There was one looter who had stolen a dress-suit from a shop near O'Connell Bridge. He went into an abandoned tram-car, stripped his rags off, and then put on the dress-suit. When he reappeared, swaggering up and down the street, he was wearing brown boots, a dress-suit, a Panama hat, and he was carrying a lady's sunshade. The rebels tried to prevent looting. I saw them making the attempts; but their efforts were ineffectual, and all that day (Monday) and all Tuesday the looting went on ridiculously.
Although the Government had mysteriously vanished, and there were no policemen to arrest looters, one did not feel that victory was with the rebels, nor did they themselves think victory was with them. That anxious, waiting look had marked the rebels' faces all day, and now something of dread came to the larking crowd; and as the night fell, the jokes ceased, the laughter died out, and silence came. At seven o'clock the streets were nearly empty. I looked out of my window and saw shadow-shapes moving swiftly homeward, huddling close to the houses. The rebel sentries still guarded the gate of the green which faced toward Merrion Street, and through the gloaming I could detect the figures of boys and women hurrying about their business in the camp. A cab came down the east side of the green, and the sentries challenged the driver; but he would not stop, though they called "Halt!" a dozen times. Then they fired on him. The horse went down instantly, and the driver, abandoning it, leaped from the box of his cab and flew down Merrion Street. The poor beast, sprawling on its haunches, tried to struggle to its feet, but fell back as often as it rose. While it lay there, struggling and kicking, a motor-car came down that side of the green, and the driver of it, too, was challenged, and he, also, refused to halt, and again the sentries fired. I was leaning out of the window to see what happened, and I laughed, for the man who was in the car with the driver yelled out the moment he was hit: "Oh, I 'm dead! I 'm dead!"
The car stopped suddenly, grating harshly on the roadway, so that one's blood curdled for a few seconds. Then the wounded man was taken out. The sentries gathered round him. "Why did 't you stop when you were told?" they said reproachfully, and added, "Take him to Vincents'," the hospital a little way up the street. While they were supporting him toward the hospital, the man went on moaning: "Oh, I 'm dead! I 'm dead!" It was the worst imitation of death I had ever witnessed. They did not take him to Vincents'. They changed their minds, and took him into the green and treated him there. His wound was obviously slight; he could not have yelled so lustily or have walked so well as he did if it had been serious. There was no dignity in him, only a foolish bravado that speedily turned to squealing; and so one laughed at him.
After that there was a queer silence in the green. In the distance one heard occasional rifle-firing, but here there was this ominous quietness. It became difficult to see, and so I closed the shutters; but before I did so, I looked toward the wounded horse. It was lying in the middle of the street and was not making any movement. "Thank God, it's dead!" I said to myself, and then I drew the shutters to.
There was a dreadful feeling of strain in the house, and I moved about restlessly. I got out the manuscript of a play on which I am working and began to revise it, but I could not continue at it long. I tried to read a book by H. G. Wells, called "An Englishman Looks at the World." I had opened it at the chapter entitled "The Common Sense of Warfare," but I found that the war outside proved conclusively that there is no common sense in warfare, so I put the book down and tried to play a game of patience. I played three games, and then I went to bed.
I slept in short dozes that were more exhausting than if I had not slept at all. The desultory rifle-fire had increased during the night, and it seemed to me that shooting was proceeding from the Shelbourne Hotel. At four o'clock I got up and looked out of the window, I was sleeping in the front of the house, and I had left the shutters of my bedroom open. It was not quite light enough for me, who have poor sight, to distinguish things clearly, but I could see a huddled heap lying in front of the gate where the sentries had been a few hours before. And the horse was not dead. While I looked, it made a feeble struggle to rise, and then fell back again. "Why don't they kill it?" I said to myself, and I went back to bed. But I did not sleep. There were people moving about in the next room, fidgeting and fidgeting. I got up and began to dress, and while I was doing so I heard the sound of heavy boots on the pavement below, echoing oddly in that silence; and then I heard shots, followed by a low moan.
One's mind works in a queer way in moments of unusual happening. I knew that some one had been shot in the street outside my home, and if I had been asked before the thing happened what I should be likely to do, I think I should never have guessed correctly. I stood there counting the dying man's moans. He said, "Oh!" four times, and then he died. I went to the window and looked out. It was now about six o'clock, and I could see plainly. The huddled heap outside the gates of the green was the body of a dead Sinn Feiner. The horse in the roadway was now quite still. Just off the pavement, in front of the door of my home, lay the body of an old man, a laborer, evidently, who had been stumping to his work. I suppose he had not realized that the rebellion was a serious one, and had started off on the usual routine of his life; and then Death had caught him suddenly and stretched him in the road in a strangely easy attitude.
I came down-stairs, and the maids gave me breakfast, apologizing because there was no milk. It seemed to them that one could not drink tea without milk. These minds of ours are amazing instruments. Outside the door lay the body of an old man; a little farther off, wearing a fawn-colored overcoat, lay the body of a dead Sinn Feiner; at the corner of the street a horse had died in pain; and we were wondering about milk. Had the milkman funked?
I think it was between eight and nine o'clock that the ambulance came and took away the two dead men. The horse was dragged, I do not know how, to the pavement, and it lay there, offensive to eye and nostril, for a week. People came to one and said, "Have you seen the dead horse?" In whatever way conversation began, always it seemed to end with that question, "Have you seen the dead horse?"
I remember now standing with a friend on the stairs, so that my eyes were on a level with the fanlight over the hall-door, and looking into the bushes just inside the green railings. I could see a young Sinn Feiner, rifle in hand, crawling on the ground; and then the soldiers in the Shelbourne saw him and let a volley at him, and he rose and ran, and we saw him no more.
Later on people came out of their houses and began to walk about. No one. was allowed to cross the road to look into the green, and it was impossible to say whether any Sinn Feiners remained in it. The foliage obscured the view. There were rumors that many of the Sinn Feiners had been killed in the night, and that those who remained had fled from the green and taken refuge with their comrades in the College of Surgeons; but there was no confirmation of these rumors, and it is doubtful whether they were true.
Toward ten o'clock the streets filled. A few soldiers had been smuggled by back ways into the Shelbourne Hotel, and these commanded St. Stephen's green. Other soldiers, few in number, were stationed in various parts of the city; but to all intents and purposes Dublin was as completely in the hands of the rebels on Easter Tuesday as it was on Easter Monday. I went down to O'Connell Street and found that during the night the Sinn Feiners had been busy. Each of the streets running at right angles to O'Connell Street was barricaded, in most instances ineffectively. Barbed wire was stretched across O'Connell Street in such a way as to form a barrier on each side of the general post-office. And on Tuesday, as on Monday, one saw the pale, "rattled," and very tired-looking young rebels preparing for attack. On the other side of the barbed wire, beyond the Nelson pillar, were some dead horses that had been killed while being ridden by soldiers. One heard rumors of desperate fighting in other parts of Dublin. Some of the veterans' corps, who had been drilling in the mountains on Monday, had been shot dead by Sinn Feiners when returning home in the evening. The lord lieutenant, the rumor fan, had been taken prisoner, and was now immured in Liberty Hall. The wildest talk was being uttered. It was said that the pope had committed suicide on hearing of the rebellion. It was said that Archbishop Walsh, the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, had killed himself. It was said that the Orangemen were marching on Dublin in support of the Sinn Feiners.
It was on Easter Tuesday that the worst looting took place. Men and women and children surged up from the foulest slums in Europe and rifled the shops, stripping them almost bare. Some harsh things have been said about the looting, perhaps no harsher than ought to have been said, but I doubt whether in similar circumstances in any city in the world there would have been so little looting as there was in Dublin on those two days. One tries to imagine what London would have been like if it had suddenly been completely abandoned for two days to the mercy of the mob. I think a Whitechapel mob would have sacked London in that time.
While I was standing in O'Connell Street, Francis Sheehy Skeffington came up to me. He had half a dozen walking-sticks under his arm, and he said to me: "I 'm trying to form a special constabulary to prevent looting. You'll do for one," and he offered a walking-stick to me. I looked at the stick and I looked at the looters, and I said, "No." It was characteristic of "Skeffy," as he was called in Dublin, that he should behave like that. The pacifist in him would not permit him to use force to restrain the looters, though one might have thought that the logician in him would have regarded a walking-stick as a weapon; but the hero in him compelled him, for the honor of his country, to do something to restrain them. On the previous day he had harangued them from the top of a tram-car, reminding them that they were Irish, and bidding them not to loot for the sake of Ireland's honor; and they had stopped looting—until he had gone away. To-day his proposal was to overawe them with walking-sticks. Here indeed, I could not but think, was Don Quixote charging the windmills yet another time!
I imagine that he was unsuccessful in his efforts, for later on in the afternoon I saw him pasting slips of paper on the walls of O'Connell Bridge. The slips bore an appeal to men and women of all parties to attend the offices of the Irish Suffrage Society in Westmoreland Street and enroll themselves as special constables to maintain order. I never saw Francis Sheehy Skeffington again. That evening he was taken by a lunatic officer and shot in Portobello Barracks.
By this time the soldiers in Dublin had been reinforced, and troops were already hurrying from England. All that evening, as far as I could see, there was no stir in the green; but the firing was heavier than on the previous day, and all over the city there was a persistent banging of bullets. The windows on the ground floor of the Shelbourne were full of bullet-holes, and the wall of the Alexandra Club on the west side of the green was covered with the marks of bullets. That afternoon I had seen a dead Sinn Feiner lying inside the gate of the green that looks down Grafton Street, lying face downward in a hole in the earth, and I wondered whether he was the man I had seen the day before, intently watching, while the girls chaffed him.
And while I was peering through the railings at the dead man, some one came up and said to all of us who were there:
'Poor chap! Let's get him out and bury him!" There were three women from the slums standing by, and one of them, when she heard what he said, rushed at him and beat him with her fists and swore at him horribly.
"No, you'll not get him out," she yelled. "Let him lie there and rot, like the poor soldiers!"
That speech was typical of the general attitude of the Dublin people toward the Sinn Feiners. Popular feeling was dead against them. Here was a singular rebellion, indeed! Men had risen against a power which they could not possibly beat in behalf of people who did not wish for their championship! Wherever I went in Dublin in the first days of the rebellion I heard the strongest expressions of hatred for the Sinn Fein movement. There was a feeling of remarkable fury against the Countess Marckevitz, remarkable because this lady had spent herself in feeding and succoring poor people during the 1911 strike, and one would have imagined that some feeling of gratitude would have saved her from the insults that were uttered against her. A strange, incalculable woman, born of an old Irish family, she had thrown herself into all kinds of forlorn hopes. It was said of her that her most ardent desire was to be the Joan of Arc of Ireland, that she might die for her country.
On Easter Tuesday night, about ten o'clock, the soldiers on the top floor of the Shelbourne began to use machine-guns, and the fire from them went on, I think, for an hour. Up to then we had heard only the sound of rifles, and it was a very unimpressive sound. If this was war, we thought to ourselves, then war is an uncommonly dull business. We became bored by bullets. When the surprise of the rebellion was over, most of us became irritable. We could not get about our ordinary affairs, we could not take our customary pleasures, and the rebellion itself had become flat.
But the rattle of machine-guns made us all sit up. The marrow in our spines seemed to be crawling about in search of a hiding-place. I do not know to what to compare the sound that a discharging machine-gun makes. Some one said to me that it resembles the noise of a lawnmower which has been turned upside down; but to me it sounded like the noise made by a stick which is drawn rapidly along railings. One sat there, frankly afraid, and imagined a perpetual flow of bullets pouring across the green, killing and wounding and terrifying. One wondered, too, whether the wooden shutters were stout enough to keep out ricochetting bullets. The sensible thing to do, of course, was to keep to the back of the house, or, at all events, as far from the front windows as possible; but one does not do the sensible thing in such times. Instinctively, one rushed to the window to look out when a shot was fired, as instinctively as the crowds in London, despite official warnings, rush into the streets to look at the Zeppelins. The overmastering desire to see what is happening will draw the most craven to the scene of disaster, and that accounts, no doubt, for the fact that people went every day to "see the fighting" in Dublin, and could not be persuaded to keep indoors until the rebellion had been suppressed.
That night, that Easter Tuesday night, was, I think, the worst of all the nights. It was the first time we had heard the noise of machine-guns, and it was the only night that a lengthy spell of firing took place in that part of the city. If rebels remained inside the green, their terror must have been akin to madness. I wondered vaguely what had happened to the three little girls whom I had seen busy there on Monday. I suppose they had been sent away on Monday, but if they had endured the rake of that fire—
I cannot remember now on what day the great fire of Dublin began. I think it was on Thursday. There were rumors that the Helga had come up the Liffey and shelled Liberty Hall, and I was told that the Abbey Theater was lying in ruins; but it was impossible to get near O'Connell Street or obtain any reliable information as to what had happened. There were soldiers on the roof of Trinity College, commanding the general post-office and also the rebel strongholds in Dame Street, and the fire from their rifles and machine-guns made the approach to O'Connell Bridge a no-man's-land. One went down to the firing-line every day, and repeated all the rumors that one had gathered on the way.
And then the fire began. I stood at the window of my bedroom and looked at a sky that was scarlet with flame. The whole of O'Connell Street and many of the contiguous streets were like a furnace, roaring and rattling as roofs fell in a whirlpool of sparks that splashed high in the air. The finest street in Europe was consumed in a night.
All this was in the center of the city. In outlying places fierce fighting continued, and many men on both sides were killed and wounded; but of these things I knew nothing beyond what I subsequently read in the newspapers. I was bound inside the city, just beyond the zone of flames, and here there was little firing left. I could still see the republican flag floating over the College of Surgeons, but those who were inside the college were keeping very still. Now and then the soldiers in the Shelbourne fired spasmodically, and we could hear the sound of heavier and more regular firing farther off; but for us, there was chiefly the flames flowing skyward from O'Connell Street. Almost one was glad that the looters had secured some of the stuff that would otherwise have been fuel in that terrible fire. No one can tell what caused the fire. Some say that it was started by looters, either intentionally or accidentally, and some say that it was caused by the explosion of shells or ammunition. It is, I think, more likely that a careless looter began it.
In a few days Dublin became a city of nurses and doctors and ambulances. Wherever one went, one saw men with Red Cross badges on their sleeves, hurrying continually. Motor-cars, with large Red Cross flags flying at their sides, rushed about the town, laden with nurses and doctors and medical students, and every now and then an ambulance came swiftly to a hospital door, and some wounded man or woman or child was carried from it.
On the Saturday following the beginning of the rebellion I walked out of Dublin to see a friend, and when I was returning in the evening I heard that some of the rebels had surrendered. A man came along the road, riding a bicycle furiously, and as he passed he leaned forward a little and shouted, "They've surrendered!" and then went on. We had been heavy in our minds until then. The rebellion was getting on our nerves, and we were pessimistic about the future of Ireland. News had come to us, too, that a friend, a man of unique value to Ireland, had narrowly escaped death by accidental shooting. He had miraculously escaped all injury, but the shock of his danger hurt our spirits. And then came the news of the surrender, and suddenly the heaviness lifted. We doubted the truth of the news, but even in that state of dubiety there was relief. It seemed to us that the air became clearer, that there was a noticeable look of recovered happiness everywhere. When we came to the outer suburbs of the city we saw groups of people standing at corners, talking animatedly. "It must be true," we said, and hurried to join one of the groups; but as we hurried we heard the dull noise of rifles being fired, and the joy went out of us, and our pace slackened.
But the news was true. Some of the rebels had surrendered. Thomas MacDonagh and P. H. Pearse, finding themselves in an impossible plight, decided to surrender, and thus prevent the loss of more lives. A friend of mine, a member of the viceregal court, who witnessed the surrender told me afterward that Thomas MacDonagh came to the surrendering place as coolly as if he were going for a stroll of a summer evening. P. H. Pearse was rather "rattled," and his head rolled from side to side. He was perhaps, a more emotional man than Thomas MacDonagh, and he was frightfully tired.
I never saw P. H. Pearse, but I met Thomas MacDonagh once. He was interested in the Independent Theater of Ireland, and one evening I went to the tiny theater in Hardwicke Street to see some performances he and his friends were giving there. I had only lately come to Dublin, and I knew none of the people connected with the Independent Theater. A friend introduced me to Thomas MacDonagh. I remember him chiefly as a man who smiled very pleasantly. There was a look of great gentleness about him. He sat beside my friend for a while, and I was so placed that I saw his face easily. He was a man of middle height and slender build. His high, broad brow was covered with heavy, rough, tufty hair that was brushed cleanly from his forehead and cut tidily about the neck, so that he did not look unkempt. His long, straight nose was as large as the nose of a successful entrepreneur, but it was not bulbous, nor were the nostrils wide and distended, as are the nostrils of many business men. It was a delicately shaped and pointed nose, with narrow nostrils that were as sensitive as those of a race-horse: an adventurous, pointing nose that would lead its owner to valiant lengths, but would never lead him into low enterprises. His eyes had a quick, perceptive look, so that he probably understood things speedily, and the kindly, forbearing look in them promised that his understanding would not be stiffened by harshness, that it would be accompanied by sympathy so keen that, were it not for the hint of humor they also had, he might almost have been mawkish, a sentimentalist too easily dissolved in tears. His thick eyebrows clung closely over his eyes and gave him a look of introspection that mitigated the shrewdness of his pointing nose. There was some weakness, but not much, in the full, projecting lower lip and the slightly receding chin that caused his short, tightened upper lip to look indrawn and strained; and the big, ungainly, jutting ears consorted oddly with the serious look of high purpose that marked his face in repose. It was as though Puck had turned poet and then had turned preacher. One looked at the fleshy lower lip and the jutting ears, and thought of a careless, impish creature; one looked at the shapely, pointing nose and the kindly, unflinching eyes, and thought of a man reckless of himself in the pursuit of some fine purpose.
When the news of his execution was proclaimed, a woman wept in the street.
"Ah, poor Tom MacDonagh," she said. "And he wouldn't have hurt a fly!"
I do not know what dream these men had in their minds, but this much is certain, there was nothing unclean or mean about their motives. I think they were foolish men, and I think they did incalculable harm to their country; but whatever was their belief, they were prepared to suffer the hardest test for it— the test of death.
"We did not come here to surrender," some of the rebels said to an envoy, carrying a white flag, who came to demand their surrender; "we came here to die." And when their stronghold was subsequently taken, only one man out of twenty-three was still alive, and he died soon afterward.
The rebellion was virtually over on the Saturday following Easter Monday, but for the best part of the succeeding week there was still some difficult work to be done in rounding up the snipers who had taken to the roofs of houses. In places like Merrion Square they were virtually immune from discovery. They could run along the roofs, hidden by parapets, and fire on the troops with the minimum chance of detection ; but their position was a hopeless one. Death or discovery was inevitable, and in a few days the last of the snipers was taken.
About the middle of the second week I was able to get across O'Connell Bridge into O'Connell Street. The official name of O'Connell Street is Sackville Street. A soldier told me that Ypres was not much worse than O'Connell Street was. An American lady who had seen Louvain said that that town was not more battered and broken than the heart of Dublin. One saw a huddle of torn walls and twisted girders and rusty rails and stones and ashes. I went hurriedly to Marlborough Street, and found that the Abbey Theater had marvelously been untouched, though the houses immediately facing it were in ruins. The Royal Hibernian Academy, where an exhibition of pictures was being held, was a heap of cinders. One had to walk warily because the ground was covered with hot ashes, and if one was not careful, one sank into them and was burned.
One wall of a house near the theater still stood, and it contained the fireplace. There was a kettle sitting on the hob, and on the mantelpiece were two delft ornaments, uninjured, and a clock; and by the side of the fireplace a photograph frame was hanging, a little askew. The post-office was gutted; the Imperial Hotel and the offices of the "Freeman's Journal" were level with the street. One looked around that pitiful pile of broken shops and houses, at the broken wires and burned-out tram-cars and shattered walls, and wondered what was to be the end of it all. High-minded men had led romantic boys to a futile enterprise, and the end of their work was a smashed city and a ruined population.
Thomas MacDonagh, they say, was urgent against the rebellion, and so was The O'Rahilly, but the voting went against them, and they submitted to that overruling and joined their friends. The O'Rahilly was killed in the fighting at the post-office. Thomas MacDonagh died, as he had lived, with a high heart. So did they all.
One thinks of three big rebellions in Ireland and of their failures. The first failed because there were no leaders good enough for the followers they had; the second failed because the followers were not good enough for the leaders they had. In this third rebellion leaders and followers were worthy of one another, matchless in spirit and devotion; but they had not the people behind them, and they had to fight an immeasurably superior force. And the third rebellion is, we pray, the last rebellion. MacDonagh and Pearse and all who followed them had found their highest aspiration in the desire to die for Ireland. There are other Irishmen who turn away from that ambition and look hopefully to a harder fight in which they shall spend themselves not in the hope of dying for Ireland, but in the hope of living for her.
That fortnight of ruin and rebellion was passed in sunshine and sweet mountain airs. One looked at the trees in St. Stephen's Green, and saw them spreading out their fresh foliage, and wondered how men could be content to lurk in their shade with loaded rifles in their hands. Now and then the wild fowl in the lake cluttered in fright; but mostly they flew about their domain, untroubled by the hatreds of humans. The warmth of spring was everywhere except in human things; and when the rebellion was over, suddenly the skies slackened, and there was heavy rain for three days. The end of all that misery has not yet come. A man said to me that MacDonagh had no hope of a military success, but that he had every hope of a spiritual success. One wonders, and, wondering, thinks that so much devotion and generosity of ideal and high purpose might more worthily have been used. There is an old ignoble phrase which has often been bandied about by Irish politicians: England's necessity is Ireland's opportunity. It is hardly an exalted sentiment even when one allows for the circumstances of Irish history, and it is the tragedy of this rebellion that noble-minded men sought to prove the truth of a mean phrase. Perhaps in a different way than that for which they hoped their ideal may be achieved, and Ireland yet come to unity, joined in honorable friendship with England.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
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THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald