A WALK IN THE PARK 1916
By Paul O’Brien.
On Easter Monday, 24th April 1916 an independent Irish republic was declared from the steps of the General Post Office in Sackville Street (now O’ Connell St.), Dublin, Ireland. As this event was unfolding, one hundred and sixty members of the Irish Citizen Army under Commandant Michael Mallin were taking up position within the public park of St. Stephen’s Green, located in the heart of the south inner city.
Michael Mallin was a Dubliner, a silk weaver by trade and a musician. Like many working class Dubliners he had joined the ranks of the Citizen Army on its formation during the turbulent and violent months of the 1913 Lockout.
Second in command of Mallin’s unit was Captain Christopher (Kit) Poole. Born in Dublin into a strong nationalist family, Poole had served in the British Army during the Boer War. Both were later to be joined by Countess Markievicz, a radical nationalist, who held the rank of lieutenant but was later to receive a field commission to the rank of Vice Commandant.
Their colleagues within the Irish Volunteers were also occupying strategically located positions throughout Dublin city in order to defend that newly declared republic. The 1916 Easter Rising had commenced.
The military plan involved seizing a number of strategic buildings throughout Dublin city in the expectation that the rest of the country would also rise in rebellion. Many of the Irish battalions were seriously under strength due to the countermanding order issued by Eoin MacNeill the previous day. He was a member of the supreme council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (I.R.B), and he withdrew his support for the Rising when he heard that Roger Casement had been arrested and that the Aud, a ship laden with arms and ammunition, had been intercepted by the Royal Navy. Not only was the rescinding order published in the national press but it was also distributed by courier throughout the rest of the country. The Rising originally planned for Easter Sunday was postponed but other members of the military council of the I.R.B decided to go ahead and ordered a mobilisation for Easter Monday.
On that Easter Monday, 24th April 1916, the Irish Citizen Army’s primary objective was to occupy and hold the public park of St. Stephen’s Green. Located on the South Side of Dublin city, this twenty-two acre site was to be used as a depot area. It had been envisaged that as news of the insurrection spread throughout the country, men, weapons and transport would converge on the city. From the Green, strategic deployments of men and materials could be made. This position was also considered a central location with a fresh water supply. James Connolly, Commander and Chief of the Irish Citizen Army, knew that in urban combat, essential services would be disrupted and any reserves he could hold would place him on a better footing in the coming battles.
A number of roads intersected in this area and by securing these points, Volunteer forces could control traffic in and out of the area of operations. Securing the Green and its surrounds would also act as a link between the 2nd Battalion of the Irish Volunteers in Jacob’s Biscuit Factory on Aungier Street and the 3rd Battalion, Irish Volunteers located in Boland’s Bakery in Ringsend.
As commandant in the Irish Citizen Army, Michael Mallin had one of the most difficult areas to secure and defend. St Stephen’s Green is a wide open expanse surrounded on all sides by buildings. Mallin had to deploy his meagre force with tactical precision.
The stillness of the beautiful spring afternoon was shattered with shouts of ‘Move, move, move’ as the men and women of the I.C.A. moved at the double towards St Stephen’s Green Park. Volunteer Peter Jackson produced a key that opened the large gate at the Fusiliers Arch. A section covered the main gate of the park while others fanned out and began ordering people out of the Green. The park was crowded with a cross section of Irish society enjoying the spring sunshine on the Bank holiday Monday. While many people looked on in disbelief, a number of shots were discharged revealing the seriousness of the situation. Mallin’s men quickly had the Green secured and his force began to dig in. The nearby College of Surgeons was searched for weapons and Mallin decided to hold this building as a fall back position.
To the north of the Green, the Shelbourne Hotel dominated the skyline. On Easter Monday 1916 the hotel bar was full of off duty British officers, equestrian types and landed gentry who had travelled to Dublin for the Spring Show and the Fairyhouse Races. Though the occupation of this building was part of the original plan, it had to be abandoned due to Commandant Mallin’s meagre force.
There is no doubt that British crown forces were taken by surprise in relation to the events that took place on Easter Monday. However, they managed to regain a number of key positions by the end of the first day and reinforcements began arriving into the capital from a number of barracks outside the city. Having secured and reinforced a number of positions in Dublin city such as Dublin Castle and Trinity College, Brigadier W.H.M. Lowe then established a number of “jumping off points” throughout the capital. An outer cordon was thrown around the city and an inner cordon was placed around each Volunteer position.
A number of minor skirmishes with British forces took place during the first day of the insurrection, but acting on intelligence received, British High Command decided to contain Mallin’s forces in the area and concentrate on the Volunteer headquarters in Sackville Street.
A force of British troops took up position within the Shelbourne Hotel and the United Services Club, both positions overlooking the Green.
At dawn on Tuesday morning, British machine gun fire was directed into the ranks of the Citizen Army in the Green. Some were killed and many were wounded as the order to evacuate the park was sent down the line. Units fell back towards the College of Surgeons, the Volunteers running the gauntlet of bullets that was directed at them from British positions.
Many civilians were caught in the deadly crossfire and men , women and young children were killed and wounded. Hospitals in the area overflowed and temporary casualty clearing stations had to be set up in nearby buildings.
Within the College of Surgeons, Commandant Mallin assessed the situation. He consolidated his position by tunnelling through adjacent buildings, securing his perimeter, enabling him to return fire on enemy posts. Food remained scarce throughout the week and the rationing of the force’s meagre supplies was detailed to the many women of the Cumann na mBan. The men and women that occupied the College of Surgeons that Easter week, found themselves in an alien environment. The building smelt of formaldehyde and as they walked through the corridors and classrooms of the college, specimen jars lined the shelves and hundreds of anatomy drawings adorned the walls.
On Thursday of that week, a foray from the College resulted in disaster for Mallin’s unit. British troops had manoeuvred themselves into position on the south side of the Green, threatening Mallin’s position. It was decided to deploy a squad in order to remove this threat. Margaret Skinneder, a schoolteacher and Citizen Army member, was part of this unit. She had taken holidays from her teaching position in Scotland in order to take part in the Rising. As the unit reached their target, gunfire erupted and one Volunteer was killed and Skinneder was badly wounded. She was carried back to the College where her wounds were treated.
The remainder of the week passed with violent exchanges of gunfire, broken only by one of the most bizarre incidents of that week, which was the twice-daily truce that was observed by both sides as Mr. James Kearney, the park keeper, entered the Green to feed the ducks.
By mid week the British army were in a position to begin the retaking of the city and the sound of artillery fire and smoke filled the air.
The Rising of 1916 came to an abrupt end a week after it started. The 1500 Irish Volunteers and Citizen Army faced a force of 20,000 British soldiers by the end of Easter week. Many of the Volunteer positions throughout the city had withstood attacks by the crown forces and it was the use of heavy artillery and machine guns that forced them from their posts. Faced by overwhelming odds and ever-increasing civilian casualties, the Volunteers were forced to surrender.
The surrender order was issued by Patrick Pearse, Volunteer commander and countersigned by James Connolly, commander of the Irish Citizen Army. The garrison within the College of Surgeons surrendered and were led away into captivity. Their Commandant was tried by court martial and executed in the grounds of Kilmainham Gaol on the 8th May 1916.
The 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland was a pivotal point in Irish history and it was one of the first conflicts of the 20th century that saw the use of urban combat. The battlefield of St. Stephen’s Green remains today as it did in 1916. The scars of battle may still be seen on the facade of the buildings, witness to a weeklong shootout between Volunteers and British crown forces. The Green remains a major focal point in the city, bustling with people, wildlife and greenery. The Shelbourne Hotel still stands as it did in 1916 and still caters for thousands of visitors. To the west of the Green, the College of Surgeons with its hundreds of students overlooks the Georgian square as it did that spring Easter week. If one looks closely, the battle scars of that week remain on many of the buildings, a lasting testament to those who lived and died that Easter week.
To learn more read,
Shootout 1916 & the Battle for St. Stephen’s Green printed by New Island Press
Paul O’ Brien 2013-03-31