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Authors: Paul O'Brien

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Uncommon Valour

BOOK: Uncommon Valour
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1916 & the Battle for the South Dublin Union



3B Oak House, Bessboro Rd

Blackrock, Cork, Ireland.

© Paul O'Brien, 2010

ISBN: 978 1 85635 704 3

This eBook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author's and publisher's rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.





Chapter 1 Easter Monday, Morning

Chapter 2 Easter Monday, Noon

Chapter 3 Easter Monday, Afternoon

Chapter 4 Easter Monday, Evening

Chapter 5 Tuesday 25 and Wednesday 26 April

Chapter 6 Thursday 27 April, Morning

Chapter 7 Thursday 27 April, Early Afternoon

Chapter 8 Thursday 27 April, The Final Hours

Chapter 9 Intermission

Chapter 10 Surrender

Chapter 11 May 1916

Chapter 12 Murder and Mayhem at the Guinness Brewery?

Chapter 13 Aftermath

Chapter 14 April 1916: Military Success and Military Failure




Map of the South Dublin Union

(1) Fcialto entrance

(2) K.C. Church

(3) Auxiliary Workhouse

(4) Ceanni's forward position

(5) Inlirmarv where Nurse Keogh was shot and where the Volunteers were chased from ward to ward

(6) Matron's House

(7) Canal entrance

(8) Convent

(9) Wards through which British soldiers travelled

(10) Nurses' Home and Headquarters of the 4th Battalion

(11) Wards occupied by British soldiers during frontal assault on the Nurse's Home

(12) Dining Hall. Ground floor occupied by British soldiers during the conflict

(13) Cul-de-sac

(14) Front of Souili Dublin Union. Boardroom with administrative offices on first floor. Occupied by volunteers 1916

(15) R.C. Church

(16) Laundry

(17) Mortuary

(18) Bakehouse

(19) Main Gate


This book would not have been possible without the help of Professor Davis Coakley of St James's Hospital, Dublin, who was so generous with his time. By walking the grounds of the hospital, Professor Coakley brought the battlefield to life, an action I hope to recreate within these pages.

Grateful thanks are once again due to the staff of the National Library, Dublin, National Archives, Military Archives at Cathal Brugha Barracks, Dublin, University College Dublin Archives, Kilmainham Gaol Archives, the Library of the Office of Public Works, The Allen Library, Carlow County Library, Guinness Ireland Archives and the staff of the Sherwood Forester Museum.

I am indebted to Elizabeth Gillis for research on the Irish Volunteers, to Sue Sutton and Roger E. Nixon for their research in the British Military Archives at Kew in London, Michael Ó Doiblín for photography, Gerry Woods for cartography and to Andrew D. Hesketh and Dr Mike Briggs for material on the Sherwood Foresters.

For supporting the idea and reading the initial drafts, a special word of thanks to Dr Mary Montaut.

I would like to thank the following for their insight, support and encouragement: Cyril Wall, Henry Fairbrother, Ray Bateson, John McGuiggan, James W. Taylor, Eoin Purcell, John Morton, Martin Lyons, Tony Checkley, William Henry, Maureen Burke, Dr Barbara Smyth, Loretto Diskin and Phil Fitzpatrick.

I would like to thank and all at Mercier Press in particular Wendy Logue, whose perceptive editing has made such a difference.

Finally I would like to thank my fiancée Marian and my parents who have had to grow used to countless recitations of military facts and figures that may have seemed boring to them but were all-important to me. They have at all times given me sound advice and encouragement when it was needed.

This book has been written using available historical records both in Ireland and in England.

There are many people who helped with this book and in naming some of them I can only apologise to those who I fear I may have indirectly forgotten and I would like to invite them to make me aware of any omissions or relevant information that may be included in any future updated edition.

My thanks are due to all those who provided help and information in the course of writing this book.


I, like many people, have found myself a patient in St James's Hospital, Dublin. Travelling through the maze of buildings and corridors one cannot help but notice the change in architectural features as modern hospital architecture becomes intertwined with pre-twentieth-century stone buildings. I was curious to find out about the history of these older buildings and in the course of my investigation discovered that one of the few urban battlefields that still exists intact may be found in the grounds of St James's.

St James's Hospital started life as a poorhouse constructed in 1667, becoming a foundling hospital in 1727. In the early nineteenth century the hospital was closed and the structure then became a workhouse called the South Dublin Union, a place for Dublin's destitute, infirm and the insane. The complex was spread over fifty acres and consisted of an array of buildings that in April 1916 housed 3,282 people, including patients, doctors, nurses and ancillary staff. The area, enclosed within a high stone wall, consisted of living quarters, churches, an infirmary, a bakery, a morgue, acres of green space and many stone hospital buildings connected by a labyrinth of streets, alleyways and courtyards.

After the Irish Civil War in 1923, the complex continued to develop as a municipal hospital and the name was changed to St Kevin's Hospital. In the late 1960s plans were made to amalgamate many of the voluntary infirmaries in Dublin and St Kevin's became known as St James's Hospital in 1971.

It was during the 1916 Easter Rising that this compound was to become one of the landmarks of the fight for Irish independence. After the implementation of the Act of Union in 1801, which abolished the Irish Parliament, Ireland was directly ruled from Westminster. In the years that followed, Home Rule became the main objective of Irish nationalists, but it wasn't until a century later, in 1914, after decades of violence and political agitation, that the third Home Rule Bill was finally enacted for all but the north-east of the country. However, the bill's implementation was postponed by the outbreak of the First World War. For many Irish nationalists this delay was unacceptable and their aim soon became full independence from Britain.

On Easter Monday 1916, the everyday existence of the South Dublin Union was shattered. Members of the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army, consisting of 1,500 men, women and teenage boys and girls, mobilised to declare an Irish republic independent from the British Empire. At this time the British Empire was the largest in the world, comprising a quarter of the world's land surface as well as a quarter of its population, making it a massive opponent for the small band of Irish Volunteers. However, the majority of the Empire's military might was focused on the First World War, thus providing the Irish insurgents with their best chance of success.

On Easter Monday, 24 April 1916, members of the 4th Battalion of the Irish Volunteers under the command of Commandant Éamonn Ceannt occupied the site of the South Dublin Union. During the week that followed, Dublin, like Stalingrad, Berlin and more recently Sarajevo, became an urban battlefield. The South Dublin Union was one of the main focal points of the fighting in the city, until its forces finally surrendered on Patrick Pearse's orders on Sunday 30 April.

The battle for the South Dublin Union was complicated and poses a number of questions to the student of military history. Questions arise in relation to the military strategy and tactics deployed by the British army, and whether the South Dublin Union could have been overrun and taken by the British at the beginning of the week. The failure to consolidate early gains meant that later in the week traumatised and inexperienced troops of the Nottingham and Derbyshire regiments, having suffered heavy casualties at the hands of the Irish Volunteers during the battle for Mount Street Bridge, found themselves once again in action against a determined foe, resulting in further casualties on both sides.

With regard to the Irish side, questions arise in relation to Eoin MacNeill's countermanding order, an action that left the ranks of the Volunteers seriously under strength, as well as why a controversial order was issued that resulted in the evacuation of their headquarters during Thursday's battle, leaving one man to single-handedly repulse a British attack and save the day. By examining the problems experienced by both the defenders and the attackers, it becomes clear that both sides faced significant obstacles which are as relevant in modern warfare as they were in 1916. The method of urban warfare that was employed during the battle of the South Dublin Union is instructive to modern armies and is often adapted in twenty-first-century conflicts such as Afghanistan and Iraq.

In recent years the regeneration of Dublin city has eroded many of the remnants of Easter 1916. There have been attempts by various organisations to try to conserve those buildings linked with the conflict because they represent a wealth of the nation's history. The architectural heritage within St James's Hospital is an irreplaceable expression of the sacrifice and diversity of our past. Personal histories and events of that week have left their mark on these places and they should be preserved for posterity.

BOOK: Uncommon Valour
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