The Civilian Dead: Counting the human cost of the 1916 Rising
By Hannah Smyth
The Irish rebellion of Easter week 1916 lasted for six days during which, or as a direct result of the violence, 485 people lost their lives. Over three quarters were non-rebel fatalities and just over half of those were civilians, most of whom were accidentally caught in the crossfire. With the aid of resources such as the Irish Military Archives Online, the 1911 Census Online, Irish Newspaper Archives Online, the Sinn Fein Rebellion Handbook: Easter 1916, and cemetery burial records a lot can be learned about the civilians, and indeed lesser-known rebels, who were killed during Easter week 1916, such as the age, occupation and in many cases the context in which a person fell victim to the violence of the insurrection. Thom’s Irish Almanac and Official Directory 1917, which contains a historic street directory of Dublin City, and the Ordnance Survey Ireland (OSI) Historical Maps Online (via: http://map.geohive.ie/mapviewer.html) are two resources that are useful for placing these people within the physical schematics of the Rising and making sense of their experience as it happened. Most of those killed were buried in the Dublin cemeteries Deansgrange, Grangegorman Military, and Mount Jerome. The majority of the civilian fatalities of the rebellion were interred at Glasnevin Cemetery. The fastidiously recorded burial registers of Glasnevin in particular help to shed light on an alternative interpretation of the events of Easter Week 1916.
The civilians who died during the Rising came from a cross-section of society, from the wealthy to the poor, from the very young to the very old with the youngest recorded being 22 months, the oldest 82 years old. The better off or the higher up in society inevitably leave a more visible paper trail, such as James Crawford Neil, 29, an accomplished poet and contributor to several newspapers and magazines, who worked for the National Library of Ireland (Mr. Crawford Neil was accidentally shot on his way home to Drumcondra by someone who he believed to be a looter. [Irish Independent, 11 May 1916]) Most people leave more fragmentary traces but it is possible to get a sense of the kind of people that were affected by the fighting. A not insignificant number of the civilian fatalities were women, but the majority were men holding a variety of working-class occupations. These men were overwhelmingly classed as labourers with the 20-39 age-bracket being the worst affected. Life went on in Dublin as ordinary people tried to maintain a degree of normality during the increasing chaos. Men were predominantly the bread-winners of working class Dublin families and therefore the most likely to traverse the city for work or in search of food for their families as the situation intensified – Mick O’Farrell’s anthology of civilian witness accounts of Easter week 1916 (1916: What the People Saw [Cork: Mercier Press, 2013]) illustrates how the attempts to stock up on supplies were many and dangerous. For example, John Mallon, 29, a painter living at 96 Upper Dorset Street was shot dead on his way to work at Leinster Street; John Costello, 32, a labourer living at 9 Wall Square was shot at Parnell Street while bringing food back to his family.
Although several of the younger female fatalities of the rising were in employment – e.g. Bridget Barry, 36, of 44 Dominick Street, an engine fitter; Bridget McKane, 15, of 10 Henry Place, a box maker; Margaret Nolan, 26, of 6 Lower Wellington Street, a factory worker – most were defined in burial records and census data by their spouse’s occupation e.g. Catherine Davis, 59, of 6 Stradford Row, Summerhill, a baker’s wife; Margaret Daly of 57 Queen Street (now Green Street) a bootmaker’s wife; Mary Ann Cole, 37, of 14 Upper Gloucester Street (now Sean MacDiarmada Street), a labourer’s wife. Already work and working conditions were continuing to prove volatile for the labouring class with industrial strife very much a feature of post-lockout Dublin; the fact that the majority of those killed were young men raises the question of how these wives and families coped both emotionally and, in the longer term, financially after such a loss. In an interview for the Irish Independent in late May 1916, a local merchant commented on how ‘quite a number of humble bread-winners were accidentally shot during the revolt and their families have been left in a destitute situation’(Irish Independent, 29 May 1916). This is not even to mention the damage to and loss of property suffered by tenants in areas affected by the destruction and looting. Indeed, claims of an estimated £3,000,000 (roughly £235,384,615 or €309,665,750 today) in damages would be lodged in the weeks immediately after the Rising by local businesses and property owners alone. Monetary compensation for widows, widowers and families left behind by the rebellion victims was in the region of £100-£300 (roughly £7,700-£23,300 or €10,140-€30,700 today) depending on their situation. And while the bereaved of rebels would later be able to claim a widow’s military pension from the Free State (there are many examples documented in the Irish Military Archives Online Military Service Pensions Collection), the widowed spouses of general labourers would not.
The addresses and place of injury/death of victims, studied in tandem, most strikingly reveal that many, particularly women and children, were in fact shot inside or at close proximity to their own homes. There was a high concentration of civilian deaths in the Moore Street area given the close proximity to the General Post Office, a focal point of the fighting. More specifically, there are examples such as Harriet McCabe of 34 Marlborough Street who was shot dead at 45 Marlborough Street while out searching for food; Margaret Daly, 60, a bootmaker’s wife, was shot in her own bedroom at 57 Queen Street; Christina Caffrey, just under 2 years old, was killed in her home at 27 Corporation Buildings, shot while being held in the arms of her mother Sarah Caffrey who worked as a charwoman in four Dublin houses. Children in particular are the most silent demographic in historical conflicts. Thinking about Ireland’s insurrection and civil war years, we should be reminded of today’s wave of 21st century political revolutions and civil unrest on a much greater scale in the Middle East, which the Western world has come to know by the faces of their civilian victims and refugees. Just as children are the most vulnerable victims of political violence in, for example, the Gaza strip today, 40 children were killed in the crossfire of the 1916 Rising. Joe Duffy’s work on the children of the Rising has done a great deal to address this; the success of his book, Children of the Rising, reflects the potency of present concerns about the status of the child and childhood, which has become so central an issue in Irish society today especially in light of continuing revelations about historical institutional neglect.
A more silent group still, some of the Rising dead were never formally identified. Two of these ‘Unknowns’ died at or were taken for interment from the City Morgue at Store Street; the dates of death, cause of death and gender are also recorded in the burial records as ‘Unknown’. The fact that the victims must have been unrecognisable due to their injuries, and the area they were taken from, suggests that they may have fallen victim to the targeted shelling of Liberty Hall by the HMY Helga, which anchored at the nearby Customs House on 26 April, the Wednesday of Easter Week 1916. At least one of these ‘Unknowns’ is known to be interred in the poor plot at St Paul’s in Glasnevin Cemetery. Living in the area around Liberty Hall there was, according to the Sinn Fein Rebellion Handbook ‘a large population of the poorer class of residents’. The social and cultural characteristics of the city landscape, from the perspective of the average Dublin resident, are less often developed when piecing together the world of Easter week in 1916. The episode also inevitably begs the uncomfortable question of whether or not the position of Liberty Hall, indeed several other outposts, beside a densely populated area factored ethically in the strategic planning of the Rising.
One of the earliest non-state sponsored memorials to the dead of the Rising was erected to honour those other rebels of Easter week. In 1929 a memorial headstone was erected at the rear of the St. Paul’s burial ground at Glasnevin Cemetery where c. 13 rank and file rebels, Irish Volunteer and Citizen Army, are buried in a mass unmarked poor-grave plot. Neither the inscription on the original memorial, nor the new memorial dedicated for the golden jubilee of the Rising, manifestly acknowledge the non-combatant dead. The original read:
‘To perpetuate the memory of members of the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army who fell fighting for the freedom of Ireland Easter 1916 whose remains are interred in this plot.’ (National Graves Association)
Today, the memorial reads the dates of the five attempted rebellions from 1798 to 1916 and the W.B. Yeats quote: ‘We know their dream, enough to know they dreamed and are dead.’ One of the National Graves Association’s stated objectives is ‘[T]o commemorate those who died in the cause of Irish Freedom’. What is little known to the wider public is that much of this stretch of earth is occupied by a greater number of the civilian dead of the Rising. Individual resting places remain unmarked in the poor plot at St Paul’s and frequently the same grave reference number is attributed to more than one individual in the Register of Poor Graves. For example, Edward Byrne and John Hoey occupy the same grave J a/38; James Cunningham, Francis Curley, and John Doyle all occupy grave number N a/38. These people perhaps existed at the margins of society, in poverty, or their families had not the means to purchase an individual grave plot. Such instances illustrate how Glasnevin Cemetery was inundated due to the Rising and the curious ways in which such moments in history create chaos, but they also throw into relief the relationship between poverty, social status and economy of burial practices in the not so distant past. The circumstances of these burials were in any case exceptional. With the city in lockdown and restrictions on the movement of people and vehicles, normal funerary proceedings could not keep up with the Rising death toll and many people were not laid to rest for several days. The experience of the funerals was also a solitary and stressful one, as only one mourner, usually a woman, was permitted to follow the hearse of the deceased, and coffins were reportedly opened by police or military authorities and inspected for possible rebel arms and ammunition. The Anglo Celt describes the pathos of the road to Glasnevin Cemetery:
‘On Sunday there were few dry eyes along the cemetery road when a solitary mourner followed the remains of some relative to the cemetery. She was an old lady, white-haired and weak-looking…Every now and then she broke into a little run to keep up with the hearse. In her hand she clasped a crucifix, which she held before her when she quickened her pace as if she found in it some power to draw forward her tired and weakened body…Thus all the way to the cemetery gates while the residents along the route expressed their helpless sympathy in moistening eyes.’ (Anglo Celt, 13 May 1916)
The making of history and memory is a shared experience. There is inherent holistic value in checking grand historical narratives against the individual experiences of those who lived or died through them and adding a new dimension to the historicisation of important moments in Irish history, particularly in this decade of centenaries. David Fitzpatrick says that whatever form commemoration takes it should be accompanied by the details of conflict that remind us of its banal and abhorrent reality. According to the 1916 Necrology: 485 researched by Glasnevin Trust, 26% of all fatalities of the Rising were rebel forces and the remaining 84% were civilian, crown forces and police combined. Lingering among these figures is the number of British Army fatalities who were in fact Irish – 41 (or 35%) out of all the military deaths were Irishmen enlisted in the service of the Crown to fight in the Great War, who were either home on leave or stationed in Dublin barracks. The reality of the Rising was that it was a military failure that resulted in the death of over 300 civilians, soldiers and policemen combined. Furthermore, prior to the executions of the seven signatories, public opinion was entirely hostile towards the episode that also left much of the city centre in ruins. As one Irish Times reporter comments during the 50th anniversary of the rising in 1966: ‘...to most people of the time, without hindsight to illuminate them, the revolutionaries probably seemed unremarkable men.’ (‘1916 History in the National Gallery’, The Irish Times, 8 April 1966.) The rebels endorsed physical force as a legitimate political methodology at a time when constitutional nationalism had the overwhelming majority support of the people.
However, the purpose of writing civilians into the 1916 narrative is not just to right a historical wrong, one which was entirely un-unique in international histories and cultures of commemorating conflict. The fate of these civilians was tied to that of the Rising and its leaders, and vice versa – it was their deaths that drove Pearse to surrender when he did, but they would also complicate post-Rising public opinion. Several courts-martial emerge in the weeks and months after the Rising that show the darker side of that Easter week. The case of the pacifist Francis Sheehy-Skeffington is the most famous – he, along with Thomas Dickson and Patrick McIntyre, both newspaper editors, were wrongly shot dead at Portobello Barracks (now Cathal Brugha Barracks) at the command of Captain Bowen-Colthurst. Colthurst was later found guilty but ‘insane’ and remanded to an asylum, but the shockwaves continued to be felt months after the incident, with ‘The Portobello Shootings’ littering newspaper columns even after the trial and inquest were well concluded.
There were other cases that dominated the national headlines in the aftermath that are less well known; a case of mistaken identity where an employee of the Guinness Brewery, William Rice, and Second Lieutenant A. Lucas (British Army), thought to be rebels, were shot dead at the command of a Company Quartermaster Sergeant of the 5th Royal Dublin Fusiliers; the mysterious case of two men whose bodies were found buried in the cellar of a North King Street public house several days after the Rising ended, and who were two of the 13 civilians killed on the morning of 29 April in what became known as the North King Street Massacre; the case against a Private of the 5th Irish Lancers accused of murdering Robert Glaister, an engine room artificer for the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve, at the Northern Hotel on Amiens Street. We know about these cases because the military held courts-martial and internal investigations, albeit of questionable integrity, and they sometimes strikingly reveal the complexity of the exchanges – Irishman against Irishman, soldier against soldier, as in the cases above – and of ultimate responsibility.
In most cases we will never know exactly the origin of the bullets that fatally caught so many passers-by in the crossfire. We do know however that it is often the most vulnerable in society who suffer the most at such moments of conflict. It is important to our understanding of the Rising and historical political conflict in Ireland to encompass the often random and tragic vagaries of human experience. The way in which we comprehend our national past is necessarily altered by a degree of humanity, by remembering the lives not willingly given in the cause of Irish freedom.
Hannah Smyth is a researcher at Century Ireland.