Analysis: from destroyed buildings to lost ladders, the British government paid out €200 million in compensation claims after the 1916 Rising.

Architects and builders were hard to find. The cost of building materials had increased sharply. The centre of Dublin hummed with new construction for which skilled labour was in scarce supply. Clery’s department store stood idle. Ireland slowly emerged from a period of austerity.  

One might be forgiven for thinking that this refers to Dublin today, but, in fact, it describes the restoration of Sackville (now O’Connell) Street and adjoining thoroughfares in 1918. During the 1916 Rising, they had been devastated by fire and military bombardment and many contemporaries had likened the smouldering ruins to a scene from the First World War. As a result, thousands of Dublin’s citizens suffered material losses ranging from bicycles to entire buildings.

From RTÉ Radio One's Drivetime. a report on "first radio broadcast in the world" when Joseph Mary Plunkett sent men from the GPO to take over the Dublin Wireless School of Telegraphy

Compensation culture is by no means a recent Irish phenomenon. As the sense of shock at the insurrection subsided, attention swung quickly to the issue of restitution. A compensation campaign was initiated even as the executions were taking place. In early May 1916, traders and property owners came together to form the Dublin Fire and Property Losses Association to deal with insurance companies and the government. The driving force behind this was William Martin Murphy, one of the most prominent businessmen of his day, whose interests in Clerys department store, the Imperial Hotel and Dublin United Transport Company were all significantly affected by the insurrection. 

A consensus swiftly emerged that the state had failed to protect the community, despite numerous warnings of a possible outbreak, and therefore the Imperial Treasury should make good the loss to private citizens, as the Irish Times put it, of those rights that the government exists to protect. The British government quickly conceded that it would have to pay for the damage caused by the military and, in particular, by the use of artillery. But this was on an ex gratia (out of goodwill) basis and not in recognition of any right to compensation. Politically, a generous measure of compensation was a means of conciliating the Dublin business community, citizens, and municipality. Given British anxiety for the US to enter the First World War, a demonstration of statesmanship in Ireland might sooth inflamed Irish-American opinion. 

From RTÉ Radio One's History Show, tour guide Pat Liddy talks about what O'Connell Street/Sackville Street) was like in 1915

The outcome was the establishment of the Property Losses (Ireland) Committee in mid-June 1916 to deal with compensation claims. The committee was impressively efficient and completed its work in less than 10 months. Three rubrics were adopted: property claims would be dealt with on the basis of insurance; looting, which has been widespread during Easter week. would be deemed the same as burning for settlement purposes; and claims for consequential losses, such as loss of profits or customers, would not be entertained despite loud protest.

Fortunately, the committee’s interpretation was sympathetic in that it recognised that buildings were allowed to burn out as the fire brigade could not intervene, the police were withdrawn and owners were prevented by the military from approaching their premises. Consequently, nothing could be done to save property from fire or looting. In each case, where loss could be proven, the committee recommended payment of the sum which an insurance company would have allowed had the loss been fully covered by insurance.

From RTÉ Archives, Maura O'Neill on being in the GPO during the 1916 Rising, what it was like during the bombardment and her arrest by the British military. From Ireland A Television History

The claims themselves are fascinating and were divided into two categories: damage to buildings and damage to contents. Some 7,001 claims were received of which 90 percent were admitted. Unsurprisingly, the largest awards were for the 210 cases in which property had to be completely rebuilt. The largest of these awards was Clery’s which was granted £77,292 for the destruction of 21-27 Sackville Street. On the instruction of the lord lieutenant, claims in respect of government property destroyed or damaged were not considered. In this way, the GPO was excluded.

Of course, the business community were not the only claimants. The committee recognised the importance of promptly settling the claims of workmen and employees who were in many cases unable to obtain work due to the loss of tools or clothing. A total of 3,200 small claims for personal effects or minor damage to property were processed (the claims have recently been digitised by the National Archives of Ireland).

The amounts involved were generally modest. Margaret Kiernan received £1 7s. 5d. for the loss of an apron and shoes. George Whiteacre of Drumcondra was awarded £1 10s. for the loss of his ladder at 6 Eden Quay. His neighbour Nora Dickson was awarded 15s. for the destruction of ostrich feathers! Predictably, no grant was made in respect of the property of anyone complicit in the outbreak and each list of claims was subjected to police inspection.

Sackville Street in ruins after the 1916 Rising. Photo: RTÉ Murtagh Collection

The Property Losses Committee did not actually disburse awards. Its purpose was to investigate claims and recommend a sum for the Treasury to approve and, after a delay, pay out. From January 1917, owners could inspect the notes of award at Dublin Castle. Funds for actual expenditure on rebuilding were released on a phased basis on the production of a certificate from the architect or builder. For example, William McDowell was paid £2,070 in six instalments between May and December 1917 for the restoration of 3 Upper Sackville Street. 

While the Treasury was one source of delay, another was the Dublin Reconstruction (Emergency Provisions) Act without which rebuilding could not commence. Led by the lord mayor James Gallagher, Dublin Corporation petitioned the government for workable town planning regulations to ensure that buildings were restored in a manner not worse than before.

The compensation from the British government could not arrest the steady transformation of Irish public opinion in the aftermath of the 1916 Rising

The  corporation also sought additional financial assistance to cover loss of rates, to purchase ground areas for street widening and to provide financial aid to private owners over and above the ex gratia grant where the compensation did not allow rebuilding in an improving architectural style or meet elevated building costs. This put the corporation on a collision course with the business community which fiercely resisted any regulations that might impinge on rebuilding or add to its cost. After protracted debate, the Act was passed in December 1916. The end of the First World War greatly accelerated the pace of reinstatement and the restoration of Sackville Street, so important for the commercial life of Dublin, was almost complete by mid-1920.

So what did the 1916 Rising cost the British government? The scale of compensation – £1,844,390 in ex gratia grants and a £700,000 loan to Dublin Corporation – was staggering given wartime austerity. In simple purchasing terms, the relative value of the combined compensation sum and loan is about €200 million. Ultimately, however, the British government received little gratitude for its investment. For mollified property owners, avoiding financial disaster was not really cause for celebration. Moreover, the compensation gesture could not arrest the steady transformation of Irish public opinion in the aftermath of the 1916 Rising.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ