‘Public Notice’ from 13 May 1922, concerning Belfast refugees.

It is hardly surprising that the revolutionary period witnessed a heightening of sectarian tensions in the north east of Ireland. Sectarianism had become a sad part of life in Ulster, not least in its industrial centres, long before the partition of Ireland. Writing in 1922, G.B Kenna lamented the fact that at one point there had been signs of working class unity in Belfast, but by 1922 it seemed distant history:

Relations between the workers of various creeds had become quite friendly. The shipyard strike of 1919 revealed a wonderful thing in the political history of the city. There had been growing up steadily and unobtrusively a feeling of the solidarity of Labour and a tendency to forget the differences of Orange and Green in attempts to achieve objects of common interest to the workers in Belfast irrespective of creed or politics.

Pearse Lawlor, writing in the pages of History Ireland, has detailed the spiral of sectarian violence in Belfast from July 1920, noting that “From the expulsion of Catholic workers from the Belfast shipyards and engineering works in July 1920, when men had their shirts ripped open to see whether they were wearing scapulars, so identifying them as Catholics, there was a litany of attacks on the Catholic population in Belfast.” Places of work and worship were attacked,  and there were outbreaks of arson against the homes and businesses of Catholics. The situation escalated, with republican units in Belfast attacking tramcars loaded with shipyard workers, who tended to be drawn from the Protestant working class.  While the vast majority of sectarian outrages committed in the city were against its Catholic populace, innocent Protestants endured suffering too, with rogue ‘Hibernian’ elements as willing to engage in squalid retaliation.  By 1922, Belfast was a tinderbox.

The mistreatment of the Catholic minority  in Belfast was enough to lead the Daily Herald newspaper to state in the summer of 1921 that what was being witnessed amounted to the “the bloody harvest of Carsonism”, highlighting the great irony that “the gangs who have organised the reign of terror are the very people who protest they are afraid that they would, under even partial Home Rule, be persecuted and denied religious liberty.” By February 1922,the Freeman’s Journal proclaimed Belfast “a city of death”,  and it was reported that in the previous three weeks forty people had been killed and at least 100 wounded. Kieran Glennon, in his study From Pogrom to Civil: Tom Glennon and the Belfast IRA, does a great job of chronicling the rising tensions of the northern city. One key event was the murder of the McMahon family. Owen McMahon was a publican who lived at Kinnaird Terrace in north Belfast; with McMahon recognised as a prominent Catholic businessman, the eight men living in his home were lined up and shot on 23 March 1922. As Glennon has noted “the viciousness with which the attack was carried out caused widespread shock in both Ireland and Britain. That it was an act of naked sectarian frenzy was demonstrated by the fact  that religious pictures in the house were torn and shot at.” Those who murdered members of the McMahon family were not part of a disorganised mob – they wore the uniforms of policemen.

Line of Displaced Families

Fleeing sectarianism, Belfast refugees at the Kildare Street Club, 1922. (Image: NLI)

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Image by Pól Ó Duibhir.

Against the backdrop of the centenary of the Easter Rising in March, it would be easy to forget that the 8th of March will mark the Golden Jubilee of the bombing of the Doric column to the memory of Horatio Nelson. That the anniversary hasn’t received much attention is a little ironic; for many people, the defining memory of the fiftieth anniversary of the Rising in 1966 is the bombing of the Pillar.

Every five years Dublin City Library and Archive on Pearse Street host a lecture on the theme of the Nelson Pillar. This is more than fitting, as Horatio Nelson’s head is on display today in the Reading Room of Pearse Street (looking a little jaded, and  perhaps still in shock). I am delighted to have been asked to give the lecture for 2016.

It will take place in the DCLA at 11am on the 8th March and is free to attend. The library is currently hosting an excellent exhibition, Citizens in Conflict: Dublin 1916, so this offers a chance to check that out too if you haven’t. My book, The Pillar: The Life and Afterlife of the Nelson Pillar, is available from here at a special price including free P+P. It includes many excellent photographs by Pól Ó Duibhir, who had the good sense to get down to O’Connell Street and capture an important piece of social history.


An tArdmhéara Críona Ní Dhálaigh and the banner of Na Fianna Éireann, Imperial War Museum. (Image Credit: An Phoblacht, http://www.anphoblacht.com/contents/25620)

The Imperial War Museum in London is one of my favourite museums to visit anywhere in the world, and I’ve been fortunate enough to pass through its doors on several occasions. Rather than being a jingoistic celebration of war and conflict – which such a museum could easily be – I’ve always found it does a great job in bringing the horrible realities of conflict home. There is an entire section of the museum given over to telling the story of the Holocaust through personal stories of those who suffered at the hands of fascist terror. It is the most moving exhibition of its kind I have ever encountered, and I’ve seen it reduce people to tears.

From India to the Boer War, and from the trenches of the Somme and to the Battle of Berlin, if an Englishman was there with a rifle you will find any conflict you care to learn more about represented in the museum through contemporary artefacts. On my first visit then, I wondered what mention events on the streets of Dublin at April 1916 would warrant.

In a small display cabinet, I stumbled upon republican propaganda from the revolutionary period, along with weaponry and a curious banner. Reading ‘Na Fianna Eireann’, and showing a sunburst background on green, this flag belonged to the republican boy scout organisation established in 1909 by Countess Markievicz, Bulmer Hobson and others. The flag will soon be on display in Dublin’s City Hall, on loan from London, but the question remains – how did it end up there in the first place?

In war, flags are captured. One of the most iconic images of the Easter Rising shows the ‘Irish Republic’ flag that flew over the GPO hanging upside down from the end of a rifle, as British forces pose under the statue of Charles Stewart Parnell. There is huge symbolic power in capturing the flags or other important symbols of your opponent – walk into any war museum from Hanoi to Edinburgh and this quickly becomes apparent. The ‘Irish Republic’ flag was returned to Dublin in the 1960s in a gesture of goodwill, and it is today in the possession of the National Museum of Ireland, displayed at Collins Barracks.


The Irish Ambassador in London receiving the ‘Irish Republic’ flag in 1966. (Irish Press)

Flags may be destroyed in the flames of war, or seized by an opponent during combat or after surrender. Yet, the flag that reads ‘Na Fianna Eireann’ was not captured on the streets of Dublin in 1916. Rather, it was taken after the insurrection from the home of Markievicz as a war trophy. Surrey House at Leinster Road in Rathmines was a well-known meeting places for Na Fianna. As Eamon Murphy (who maintains the excellent blog ‘Fianna Eireann History’) has noted:

It was at ‘Surrey House’ that the Countess built up a small ‘clique’ around her that consisted of her most loyal boys in the Fianna. Some of these had even taken to ‘moving in’. They took over part of the house and used it as a regular meeting place. Some of the older Fianna officers, particularly the IRB members, advised her not to encourage this new elite group and said it would bring unwanted attention to the organisation. However this did not deter the Countess and she used ‘Surrey House’ as a 2nd home for her close Fianna circle.


Surrey House, from which the flag was taken as a war trophy. (Image Credit: http://www.fiannaeireannhistory.wordpress.com )

A brief history of Na Fianna:

 Undoubtedly, the central figure behind the birth of the republican boyscouts was Bulmer Hobson. A northern Quaker, and later a founding member of the Irish Volunteers and a member of the Supreme Council of the secret oath-bound Irish Republican Brotherhood, he had operating a sporting and cultural club for young boys for a number of years previously under the title Na Fianna Eireann, but in 1909 he merged his efforts with Markievicz and others in Dublin. Bulmer Hobson was once regarded by British intelligence as “the most dangerous man in Ireland”, but his role in the revolutionary period has been largely overlooked until recent times.

The organisation listed its purpose at the time of its foundation as being “the training of the youth of Ireland, mentally and physically, to achieve this object by teaching scouting and military exercises, Irish history, and the Irish language.” It was implied from the beginning that while young, those within the organisation could have an important role to play, as “though one may be too young to be the possessor of that powerful weapon called a vote, nobody is too young to serve his country, and, if necessary, fight for his country.”


Baden Powell and his boyscouts. Republicans regarded the Baden Powell scouts as being sympathetic to British imperialism (image credit: http://www.scout.org)

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Delaney's, Aungier Street from c. 2015. Credit - Jar.ie.

Click to expand. (Image Credit: NYPL)

Thanks to Liam Hogan for bringing this excellent map to my attention, from the collections of the New York Public Library. This is Dublin 1915, with the red lines showing the extent of the city tram system. With Dublin currently a construction site for the Luas Cross City project, it seems worth posting.

The Dublin United Tramways Company closed their last tram route, the No. 8 to Dalkey, in July 1949. Huge crowds of people came out to catch a glimpse of it on its journey. In the Sunday Independent, one writer made it clear that:

I am sorry for the demise of the trams, but as a motorist I just cannot weep for them. They had become an incorrigible block to modern traffic, holding always, as they did, the middle of the road…Yet, the trams are dead, and it is time for them to lie down.

The departure of the last tram was supposed to be marked with a little pomp and ceremony, but with the huge numbers that came onto the streets, the crowds proved quite uncontrollable. One journalist wrote the following day that:

All plans to give the trams a suitable send-off had to be abandoned. The Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union band was to have played them part of their way. It had to disperse when the crowds got out of hand. Radio Eireann had made arrangements to record the passing, but the scenes were so wild that the project was abandoned.

Anything that wasn’t nailed down was made off with by souvenir hunters. It was said that one conductor had his “driving lights removed (…) he lost his hand-brake as well.  This meant driving the tram backwards, with the conductor up in front giving directions. He was an hour and a half late delivering up the shattered remains of the charge.”


Irish Press, 11July 1949.

Moore Street.


Image Credit:Save More Street 2016 Facebook.

I passed this earlier on today on Moore Street and was unable to get a decent image of it with the lighting, but this comes from the Save Moore Street 2016 social media account. The stencil is a clever take on one of the most iconic images of the 1916 Rising, showing the surrender of P.H Pearse to General Lowe:


Pearse surrenders to General Lowe, Easter 1916.

At the time of surrender, Pearse was joined by Elizabeth O’Farrell, whose feet can just about be made out in the image above. In time, she would quite literally be airbrushed from history, and the image has been widely reproduced without any trace of her. O’Farrell bravely delivered news of the rebel surrender to General Lowe, Commander of the British Forces in Dublin during the insurrection. She recalled years later that:

I waved the small white flag which I carried and the military ceased firing and called me up to the barrier, which was across the top of Moore Street into Great Britain Street. As I passed up Moore Street I saw, at the corner of Sackville Lane, the O’Rahilly’s hat and a revolver lying on the ground – I   thought he had got into some house.  I gave my message to the officer in charge, and he asked me how many girls were down there. I said three.  He said: “Take my advice and go down again and bring the other two girls out of it.”

There is a demonstration this Saturday at 1pm marching from Liberty Hall to Moore Street, more information is available from here.

Don’t Mention The War.


Survivors of the German SS Libau (known as the Aud) and the U19 submarine mission to Ireland at Dublin Airport, Easter 1966.

Commemoration of history, ironically enough, tends to have very little to do with the past. It is generally much more concerned with contemporary political circumstances and agendas. Talk around inviting members of the British royal family to Dublin for the centenary of the Easter Rising sparked considerable controversy last year. UCD Professor Diarmaid Ferriter questioned the wisdom of such a move, correctly stating that “reconciliation is very important but do we have to share everything.” Just last week, it emerged that Enda Kenny has invited David Cameron to visit Ireland to participate in the centenary commemorations.

In the face of it all, and with talk of parity between the events on the streets of Dublin and the involvement of Irishmen in the First World War, one would almost forget the involvement of the German state in the Easter Rising. Will the German Ambassador be present on the podium of O’Connell Street come Easter Sunday? It would seem more than a little logical, given that an invite has been handed to a British Prime Minister. Both states, after all, were protagonists in the events of Easter Week.

I would maintain that James Connolly was right on a lot of things, but he certainly wasn’t right on Germany’s role in the First World War in the months directly leading up to the Easter Rising.* While the defiant slogan ‘We Serve Neither King Nor Kaiser but Ireland’ hung over Liberty Hall shortly after the breakout of the war, Connolly’s newspaper, The Workers’ Republic, became increasingly sympathetic to the German state as the war progressed. Germany, like Britain, was directly responsible for the unprecedented slaughter of working class men. In retrospect, it was the great misfortune of the European left that right across the continent progressive movements rallied behind their respective national war efforts, in a war that had nothing to offer them. Socialists, trade unionists and even vote-seeking British suffragettes banged the recruitment drum and played their part in the farce and tragedy. The Socialist leader Rosa Luxemburg correctly condemned those on the left who had become “the shield-bearers of imperialism in the present war.” Perhaps the greatest words of condemnation of the barbarism in the early stages of the conflict though came from Connolly, who wrote that:

Should the working class of Europe, rather than slaughter each other for the benefit of kings and financiers, proceed tomorrow to erect barricades all over Europe…we should be perfectly justified in following such a glorious example and contributing our aid to the final dethronement of the vulture classes that rule and rob the world.


The removal of the ‘We Serve Neither King Nor Kaiser’ banner reported in the nationalist newspaper Scissors and Paste (Image Credit: South Dublin Libraries Local Studies Blog, http://www.localstudies.wordpress.com)

Yet the old dictum that ‘England’s Difficulty is Ireland’s Opportunity’ no doubt influenced Irish separatists of all stripes to seek what assistance they could get from Germany. Connolly’s softening on the German question owed more to what he viewed as tactical necessity than anything else, and as has been noted elsewhere by Brian Hanley, he “became convinced that a blow had to be struck militarily against the British Empire. This involved an alliance with the Irish Republican Brotherhood and tacitly with Germany as well.” Still, articles favorably comparing one Empire to another in the pages of The Workers’ Republic were a far-cry from the earlier unequivocal condemnation of the “vulture classes” that knew no nationality.

The German state did provide assistance of sorts, with the sending of the SS Libau to Ireland. If the name means nothing to you, it’s perhaps because it has become better known in Ireland today as the Aud. In 1916, the steamship masqueraded under the name of a Norwegian vessel, in the hope it could succeed in landing thousands upon thousands of rounds of ammunition, captured Russian rifles from the Eastern Front, machine guns, grenades and more besides of the southern coast to assist the Irish Volunteers. The<emSS Libau, and the U19 submarine which brought Roger Casement to Ireland, are a core part of the story of Easter Week. Ultimately, the crew of Captain Karl Spindler made the decision to scuttle the SS Libau rather than surrender her load to British forces. The final act of Spindler’s men was to take down the decoy Norwegian flag the ship had been flying, and to hoist the Imperial German flag in its place.


A commemorative medal from 1931 in honour of Captain Karl Spindler of the Aud. (Image Credit: http://www.dnw.org)

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Dublin Re-Imagined

The recent occupation of Moore Street brought to memory past struggles to save buildings and locations of historic interest in Dublin. The ghosts of Wood Quay and Fitzwilliam Street’s Georgian Mile sit on the minds of those involved in the campaign to save the terrace and rightly so; a blatant disregard for history and public interest has often been a feature of redevelopment in Dublin with countless significant sites permitted to intentionally fall into disrepair and dereliction and many more to disappear from our streetscape forever.

Mindful of this over the last couple of weeks, and in reading Frederick O’Dwyer’s excellent “Lost Dublin” I started to think about not only what we’ve lost architecturally and historically but what might have been in this city had history played out a little differently. We’ve already covered the rather ambitious original plans to build Hugh Lane Gallery across the Liffey and the stunning landscape of Abercrombie’s “Dublin of the Future” but what of other plans that for whatever reason fell by the wayside? Think the U2 Tower and the Liffey Cable Car but step back a few decades/ centuries…


The Merrion Square Citadel, taken from The Irish Press

Prior to the construction of the North Wall, the East Wall and the Great South Wall, the Liffey meandered as it liked from source to sea. The construction of these walls and the reclamation of land they afforded, along with the construction of quay walls changed the landscape of Dublin to resemble much what we see today. 17th Century Dublin, as a result looked very different to the Dublin of today with the Liffey’s muddy banks allowed to find their natural course. Consequently, Merrion Square sat considerably closer to the banks of the Liffey than it does now, and in 1685 was the site for an audacious plan to replicate the Tilbury ‘Citadel’ Fort located on the Thames. The fort was originally planned in 1672 by ‘His Majesty’s Chief Engineer’ Sir Bernard de Gomme to sit closer to Ringsend, but on his death, a man named ‘Honest Tom’ Phillips proposed the location covering large parts of Merrion Square, Mount Street and Fitzwilliam Sqaure.

According to Frank Hopkins’ ‘Deadbeats, Dossers and Decent Skins’, “had it been built, the fort would have covered an area of thirty acres and would have been capable of accomodating seven hundred officers and soldiers.” The fort was to be brick built, faced with stone and encompass ramparts, ravelins, a curtain wall and overhanging bastions. The prohibitive cost of over £130, 000 along with a cessation of hostilities between the English and the Dutch caused the idea to be shelved.


A 1934 drawing by L.F. Dowling showing the proposed Merrion Square Cathedral. From http://churcharchives.ie

Merrion Square was also the site for a proposed Cathedral in the nineteen thirties. As late as 1934 the then Archbishop Byrne is quoted as saying “Merrion Square has been acquired as a site for the Cathedral and on Merrion Square, please God, the Cathedral will be built.” The park had been purchased from the Pembroke Estate four years earlier for the sum of £100, 000. Of course the Cathedral was never built on the site and in 1974 the land was transferred to Dublin Corporation for use as a public park. The Pro Cathedral on Marlborough Street which had been altered and extended in preparation for the Eucharistic Congress remained the main Catholic cathedral in the city. Continue Reading »


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