Conscription came in March 1916. By Easter of that year the last of the army’s voluntary recruits were coming to the end of their training for the trenches of France. They knew, those young men, of the risks they faced in Flanders; they knew of the casualty lists. But still they volunteered, to fight, be it in France or Belgium. They were brave young men who make it difficult for us to measure our own ordinary lives.
It would be these ordinary voluntary soldiers, half trained, not yet ready for Flanders soldiers, who would be shipped to Dublin and thrown into the bitter street battles of the Irish Easter rebellion of 1916. Men of the Sherwood Foresters, the South Staffordshires, the Lincolnshire regiment and the Leicestershires, all of them well prepared to die in the trenches of Flanders, but not a single one of them, not one, would have given any thought at all to the idea of dying in Dublin.
They are rarely remembered these men, often treated, especially by Irish republican writers, with scant regard, even scorn and generally given no quarter by Irish history. But Paul O’Brien’s account of their Dublin fighting is scrupulously fair, scrupulously objective. When they gave good account of themselves, where there was courage or valour, then it is noted. And where their performance is lacking, their discipline lost or atrocities committed, it too is fairly and objectively recorded.
This latest book of Mr O’Brien’s focuses upon the fierce battles that raged in and around the Dublin Four Courts. Nowhere was the Easter fighting more intense, more dangerous or ruthless. The urban battlefield ran from ushers Island where rebels took up positions to frustrate the movement of troops along the Liffey quays towards the city centre fighting; it ran into the glorious Four Courts building itself, then north into the residential slum districts of Church Street, North King Street and Constitution Hill.
The rebels too were volunteers. They too knew the risks, the risks of rebellion. They had turned out to create a new nation and they too were prepared to die. To die in Dublin. They were well led, well armed and had an intimate knowledge of the battlefield they had chosen.
We are taken, day by day, shot by shot through the tragedy that now unfolded.
We are with the Lancers, escorting munitions down the quays when they are ambushed in front of the Four Courts; their horses wheeling and turning as they gallop for cover, taking refuge in a side street building next door to the Courts complex where they came under intense gunfire from rebels barricaded in the courts. They were under siege for three days, giving as good as they got until rescued by Sherwood Foresters who backed into the street in improvised armoured cars made of Guinness boilers no less, into which the exhausted, surviving Lancers are retrieved.
We are with the Staffordshires trying to advance along North King Street, from barricade to barricade, or tunnelling through the walls of the terraced houses, taking constant casulties, nine dead in one assault alone.
We are with the rebels on the roof of the Four Courts, firing on soldiers across the river Liffey, soldiers trying to cross the bridges, soldiers in church towers and graveyards. We are with them in their casualty station full of wounded and exhausted rebels.
We are with the army Pay Corps soldiers, arrested by the rebels, their barracks burned down and held as prisoners in a captured police station. And we are with the Staffordshires again, their discipline lost, their officers without control, committing murder on North King Street where fifteen innocents, men and boys were simply shot, some of them bayoneted.
We are back with the Rebels in Reilly’s fort, a public house stronghold from which fierce causalities are inflicted upon the advancing English. Hour by hour, shot by shot, in this brilliant analysis of street fighting, perhaps the first real British experience of street fighting, Mr O’Brien leads us through the blood wet streets of the fair city of Dublin, where half trained soldiers learnt to fight the hard way and Irish rebels threw their all into the fight against England.
A remarkable book. The Irish have never forgotten those Easter days.But what happened to the English soldiers is largely forgotten by English history. Perhaps in embarrassment at the history of the English in Ireland, perhaps because it was “small beer” in the context of the great war. It has been swept under the sandbags of the Western Front, where the casualty list were horrific enough to drown out the experience of Dublin. This, then, is a timely reminder of what we did in Ireland. A timely reminder that there are brave young men lost in Ireland, who deserve to also be remembered.
Crossfire – The battle of the Four Courts 1916 is published by New Island Press. Author is Paul O’Brien.