Remarks of John McGuiggan BL at the Launch of Paul O’Brien’s new book – Distillery Building – Wed 26th March 2012
What dull and ordinary lives we lead when we measure ourselves against those men and women who fought here, in the fourcourts and the streets and buildings nearby, in April of 1916.
This is their story told hour by hour of those Easter days, street by street and shot by shot, a brilliant military and historical analysis of one of the very first urban warfare battlefields upon which raged the Rising.
The fighting hereabouts was much fiercer that that which occurred in the GPO, or even of that at Mount Street Bridge where rebels under the command of De Valera inflicted such savage casualties upon the Sherwood Forester regiment.
Here, around the fourcourts, the action of the Rising was at its most intense – and it’s most vicious.
Mr. O’Brien tells not only the stories of the Irish volunteers who turned out to create a new nation, but also the stories of the English soldiers against whom they fought. He reminds us that they too were young men, working class men, they too were prepared to die; that they had enlisted into a war where expectation of death, in France or in Belgium, was exceptionally high. Battalions of their own regiments were taking, in some cases 50% casualty’s rates. Yes they too were prepared to die. But in France. Not in bloody Dublin.
Mr. O’Brien treats them fairly and with respect, more so than many Irish writers have done in the past. So when acts of valour, bravery or courage occur, as they always do whenever men fight, then it recounted and recorded here. And when the Irish volunteers show courage valour or bravery, as they did in abundance, then it too is recounted and recorded here.
It is a sweeping battlefield, centered on the fourcourts, it runs from Ushers Island on the south quays, where Sean Heuston held the Medicity Institute to prevent soldiery moving down the quays to the fourcourts, it runs to the fourcourts itself, up church street to North King street, constitution hill, down to the Richmond hospital and all the side streets and alleys in which barricades were erected to impede the English. The fourcourts became the head quarters of the first battalion of the Dublin Brigade of volunteers and it was principally from there that the rebel actions were directed. Commandant Edward Daly was in command- god rest his soul = for he went to the firing squad at Kilmainham for his troubles. We know the name of the armed volunteer who relieved the fourcourts gateman of his keys and who led the rebel force into the courts. He was Charles Bevan. A portrait of him hangs in the Irish bay of the law library – probably the only memento in the whole place to its role in the Rising. Maybe we should rename the Irish bay to the Bevan Bay.
They closed the Chancery gates behind them and set about barricading the building using law books and old ledger as makeshift sandbags. The fighting here was almost constant with gun battles raging with soldiers over on the south quays, soldiers in Smithfield soldiers on Capel Bridge and soldiers on Church street Bridge.
If you were to stand today outside the Chancery gates and look across to the red faced building known as the Medical Mission you will observe the brickwork splattered with gunfire damage. The worst of the damage has been patched up with smears of off white cement filler, making it look as if the Mission is wounded and wearing plasters. But almost every brick in the building bears the scars of battle and stands as evidence of how fierce was the gun fight that erupted there between the rebels in the fourcourts and a group of English lancers who, ambushed on the quays, had galloped into Chancery Place and taken refuge in the Mission, their horses set loose to run wild around the barricades.
You can see from the windows of that small corridor running to courts 27 and 28, the room with the spiral staircase within it, that that must have been one of the principal vantage points for the rebels to pour rifle fire into the mission. It is part of the law library now, although it was not so in 1916. Patrick Keane SC sits by the window there where rebels once sought to change the law. A college has suggested to me that the window is still held by rebels!
The lancers in the Mission held out for three days under constant fire, giving as good as they got and were only rescued by Sherwood Foresters, soldiers from my home town, who backed into chancery Place in one of those improvised armoured cars made up of Guinness boilers mounted on the back of wagons.
But the most intense of the fighting was not at the fourcourts but up here, on Church street and North King Street. The Staffordshire regiment, which faced the brunt of it all, were losing men almost constantly in the barricaded streets and houses. 9 dead in one assault alone. They lost their discipline under the ferocious defensive gunfire of the rebels. Atrocities were committed. Within walking distance of where we now stand, 15 young men, some of them boys, entirely innocent, with no role whatsoever in the Rising where shot and killed, some bayoneted. Murdered is the appropriate word. That too is recorded here for as I said, Mr. O’Brien is very fair in his treatment of the English soldiery. He always has been. It is one of his qualities as a writer. He constantly pauses in the heat and smoke of battle to record a detail of those who fell; thus, on a machine gun assault from Smithfield on the western end of the fourcourts, you can still see some of the damage to the stonework there, a volunteer in the Record office is killed and Mr. O’Brien pauses to tell us “”Thomas Allen was 30 years old, attached to ‘C’ Company of the 1st Battalion and was a native of County Meath. His death left a widow and four children”
He does that whenever he can. For the English too. For this is not a gung ho all action writing. It a poignant history, a respectful history, a thrilling history a history of the streets that we, of the fourcourts walk everyday of our lives.
This is Mr. O’Brien’s third book examining in detail, the battles of the Rising. His first, BLOOD ON THE STREETS, looks at the Sherwood Foresters at Mount Street Bridge, his second, UNCOMMON VALOUR, at the fighting at James’s Hospital or as it was known then, the Dublin Union, A forth is in production that examines the battles in Ashbourne, County Meath. His growing reputation as a military historian is already evident and surely we will see him in years to come as the principal historian of the military battles of the Rising.
The irony is not lost, at least not upon me, that Mr. O’Brien has invited an Englishman to launch a book on the Irish Rebellion. I take it as a compliment although it occurs to me that maybe he has forgotten that I am an Englishman. I have been here 28 years now and I cannot pretend that I understand the Irish any better now than when I did 28 years ago when I married one, even though I work here in the fourcourts, the very cockpit of Irish life. But I know this about the Irish and about Mr. O’Brien; He toils by day in the OPW and devotes every spare moment to research and to writing and has by his own sheer energy earned a considerable reputation making a real contribution to our history. Or should I say your history. I know this of him. I know this of the Irish. He is amongst the best of you. I commend his book to you all.