Cradle of the Irish Republic – A Journey through 6 Harcourt Street
By Cuan Ó Seireadáin
Located at the northern end of Harcourt Street, the headquarters of Conradh na Gaeilge are today best known for the Irish language classes and events which take place there every night.
Few realise that the story of this house stretches back over 200 years and that it was, prior to its renaissance as an mini-Gaeltacht in the 1960s, the cradle of both University College Dublin, and the Irish State.
The plot of land at 6 Harcourt Street was first leased by Hans Blackwood, the fourth son of Sir John Blackwood M.P. in the 1780s. By 1786 he had built a red brick house on the site and settled there with his Bostonian wife, Mehetable Temple. Over the following decade, four children were raised by the Blackwoods in the house. The eldest child, Robert Temple Blackwood, became a captain in the British Army and was killed at the Battle of Waterloo, and the third eldest, Price, became a captain in the Royal Navy. Price in turn became the 4th Baron Dufferin and Claneboye and was the father of Frederick Temple Blackwood, who in 1884 became Viceroy and Governor General of India.
By the 1850s, the house was in the possession of Anne Segrave, a Catholic widow, and she in turn leased it to John Henry Newman, who had arrived in Dublin to found a new university. He moved in to 6 Harcourt Street on 30 October 1854, renamed the house St Mary’s, built a small chapel, and set about designing a larger chapel which would eventually be constructed on the south side of St Stephens’s Green and not behind No. 6 and No. 5 Harcourt Street as originally intended. Several students from across Europe lived in the house during this period, one of whom, William O’Shea, who lasted only six months at the college, would later be at the centre of the divorce scandal that destroyed Charles Stewart Parnell’s political career.
A Military Academy, run by Richard Barker de Burgh to prepare boys for entrance examinations to the Royal Military School at Sandhurst and to the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich to the British Army officer corps, operated at the house during the early 1860s, when Edward Carson, who had been born in No. 4 Harcourt Street, was growing up on the street.
A sense of history was apparent on the night 6 Harcourt Street was inaugurated as the headquarters of Sinn Féin, 20 June 1910, Wolfe Tone’s birthday. Alderman Tom Kelly, who had purchased the house for the use of the party, referred to the use of the house by the military academy which “had a fine gymnasium downstairs”, and prophesised that they might “some day be training some young men for a different army”. In the middle of a thunderstorm, Kelly raised the tricolour over the house for the first time, announcing that the flag was there now, and that they would never take it down.
Arthur Griffith inaugurated a series of lectures at 6 Harcourt Street on 12 October 1910 with a lecture on “The Withdrawal of Irish Representation in the British Parliament”. Iníní na hÉireann, forerunners of Cumann na mBan, were also active in the house during this period. Initially, the Sinn Féin Bank was located on the ground floor, with Arthur Griffith and Sinn Féin’s offices on the first floor, Iníní na hÉireann on the second, and the caretakers (initially the Cuffe family, and later the family of Joe and Kathleen Clarke) occupying the third.
In advance of a Royal visit to Ireland, meetings were held in 6 Harcourt in 1911 to organise opposition. A group called the United National Societies Committee was formed which, according to Áine Ceannt:
“met at Sinn Féin Headquarters, No 6 Harcourt Street. On that Committee, to my knowledge, were The O’Rahilly, Seán McDermott, Seán Fitzgibbon, and Éamonn Ceannt. (…) To one meeting P.H. Pearse came, accompanied by Tomás McDonagh, and that was the first time that Pearse, to my knowledge, took any interest in Irish affairs outside of the Gaelic League.”
Kathleen Lynn gave first aid training to members of Cumann na mBan in 6 Harcourt Street and first met Madeleine Ffrench-Mullen there.
Other activities carried out by Cumann na mBan in 6 Harcourt included learning Morse Code, Signalling, Dispatch Memorising, and caring for the poor. In 1918 Cumann na mBan operated a depot in the house to coordinate voluntary nursing activities and distribute medical supplies during the flu epidemic.
During the Easter Rising, soldiers were spotted by rebels on the roof of 6 Harcourt Street. In the early hours of the Wednesday on Easter week, the decision was made by members of the Irish Citizen Army in the Royal College of Surgeons to eject British soldiers positioned in the Hotel Russell (corner of St Stephen’s Green and Harcourt Street), by setting fire to the two houses to the rear of the hotel. During this sortie, which took place at 1.30 am, fire was opened on the rebels engaged in this operation by British Army personnel in occupation of 6 Harcourt Street. Fred Ryan was killed and Margaret Skinnider, the only woman injured while fighting in the Easter Rising, was badly wounded.
Following the Rising, 6 Harcourt Street became the focal point for revolutionary activity in Dublin.
Cumann na mBan continued to meet there, resumed their drilling and first aid classes, and began organising the distribution of the National Aid fund. Shortly before Christmas 1916, a small convention was held at 6 Harcourt Street where Countess Markievicz was chosen as President of Cumann na mBan. It remained Cumann na mBan headquarters until the autumn of 1918, when the increased activity relating to the general election campaign meant that Sinn Féin required the entire building. An employment bureau was set up to help released internees, veterans of the Rising, and dismissed civil servants who had refused to take oaths of loyalty, to find employment.
Sinn Féin began to come back to life in the early months of 1917 as some of those interned after the Rising began to return to Ireland. On 17 February 1917, Arthur Griffith restarted the newspaper Nationality and the reorganisation of Sinn Féin began in earnest. Many discussions took place about the future direction of the party, and at a meeting in 6 Harcourt Street, the Standing Committee of Sinn Féin decided that the aim of the party should be the establishment of an Irish Republic.
As Robert Brennan, later Irish Ambassador to the United States, recalled:
“The manifesto was unanimously adopted by the National Executive at a meeting held in No. 6 Harcourt Street. Most of those present were not original members of the National Executive but substitutes for such members as had been arrested for the “German Plot.” So far as I remember Alderman Tom Kelly was in the chair and others present were Seán T. Ó Ceallaigh, Harry Boland, Mrs. Wyse Power, John Belton, Henry Dixon, Father O’Flanagan, George Nesbit and myself. Paddy Sheehan was the acting-secretary. The possible military results of such a step were fully in all our minds.”
The election preparations were thorough, hectic, and frequently interrupted by raids. Robert Brennan described the 16 to 18 hour days he worked “setting up the election and writing and editing vast numbers of handbills and pamphlets” as the busiest of his life. The campaign lasted about six months, began even before the date of the election was announced, and was understood by the party to be a campaign to secure a democratic mandate for Irish independence. A system was developed for collecting and distributing election funds across Ireland, and constituency directors and candidates were regularly called to 6 Harcourt Street to report and receive instructions.
Opposition to the work in 6 Harcourt occasionally manifested itself in violence. On Armistice Night, 11 November 1918, a hostile mob attacked 6 Harcourt Street and attempted to set fire to the building. The occupants of the building were forewarned and prepared an improvised defence of the house, rescuing the injured Pádraig Ó Conaire, and inflicting serious casualties on the attackers. Seumas O’Kelly, who had become the editor of Nationality after the arrest of Arthur Griffith in May 1918, and who was present on the night of the attack, collapsed into Harry Boland’s arm in “De Valera’s room” in No. 6 Harcourt Street the following morning. He was taken to Jervis Street Hospital where he died shortly afterwards. The inhabitants of the office blamed his death on the Armistice Night violence.
The election took place on 14 December 1918.
On the night the General Election results were announced in Dublin on 28 December 1918, the street in front of 6 Harcourt Street was “thronged to get the 1918 general election results which being flashed on a screen on the window of No. 6, where the result could be seen by the crowd outside.”
The results of the 1918 General Election were decisive. Sinn Féin won 73 seats out of the 105 allocated to Irish representatives at Westminster. This victory, and their intention to use the mandate they had achieved to establish an independent Irish parliament marked a key turning point in Irish history.
In the short period between the announcement of the 1918 General Election results and the convening of the First Dáil, the arrangements for the new assembly were made in 6 Harcourt Street. Despite raids and the seizure of many documents (including a draft Constitution of Dáil Éireann), the arrangements were completed successfully, and the Dáil met for the first time on 21 January 1919. The strategy of creating the Dáil, the work to secure its mandate, the arrangements for its initial meeting, and even the name of the new Irish parliament, Dáil Éireann, all came from 6 Harcourt Street.
Cuan Ó Seireadáin is curator with Conradh na Gaeilge