‘They missed uncle Charlie by an inch’
An Irishman’s Diary: An Ailesbury Road view of the 1916 Rising
The opening page of Sir Alfred Irwin’s 43-page letter from his home in Ailesbury Road to his daughter Dorothy in colonial Burma in which he describes the 1916 Rising in Dublin.
Ailesbury Road in Dublin 4 was quiet that Easter bank holiday Monday. The occupant of No 49, a retired judge, took advantage of the warm weather and noted in his diary that he had “mowed the lawn & dug a lot of daisies”. But his tranquillity was disrupted when the telephone rang in the late afternoon. That evening, he added a further brief paragraph to his diary entry for the day: “4.20: Emily Daly telephoned that the Sinn Feiners are up in town. Seized the Post Office & nearly shot Charlie”.
The date? April 24th, 1916.
Alfred Irwin was 63 at the time. Born in Co Roscommon, the son of a Protestant clergyman, he had, after an education at Kingstown (now Dún Laoghaire) Grammar School, passed the notoriously difficult entrance exams to join the Indian civil service – the crème de la crème of Britain’s imperial administration. Dispatched to the Punjab, he was later transferred to Burma and eventually became that country’s most senior judge. A Roscommon man dispensing Pax Brittanica to the natives on the banks of the Irrawaddy.
He retired, at the rather young age of 56, and returned to Dublin in 1909 – having been knighted for his services.
Like many Victorians, Irwin kept a diary and was a great letter-writer – habits he maintained after returning to Ireland.
His diaries for the years 1878 to 1920, and various letters, have now come to light and will be sold as a single lot at Whyte’s auction of historical memorabilia in Dublin’s Molesworth Street on March 9th. What a find!
The diaries and letters have never been published and his commentary on the events of 1916, especially, provides a thrilling first draft of history.
On Tuesday, April 25th, 1916, the morning after that fateful telephone call, Irwin sat down to write a letter to his daughter, Dorothy, who had stayed on in Burma where she had married an Anglican missionary clergyman. But, luckily for us, he didn’t send it that evening.
Instead, he added to the letter – which eventually grew to 43 pages – over the course of the next momentous fortnight, adding updates and observations about the events unfolding in Dublin.
He eventually posted the letter on Tuesday, May 9th – after the Rising had ended. How Dorothy must have gasped over tiffin in the Parsonage Cantonment at Meiktila, central Burma, as she read her father’s letter which began: “There is no newspaper this morning, so while waiting for breakfast I take up my foolscap & goosequill to begin an account of the insurrection”.
His eye-witness account of the Rising, including the destruction of Lower Sackville (now O’Connell) Street, which he had bicycled in to see, is peppered with personal anecdote: “Aunt Emily telephoned that the Sinn Feiners had risen & were shooting in Dublin. They missed uncle Charlie by an inch, & she was not sure whether that particular shot was fired by Countess Marckievitch [sic], but at any rate the Countess was in the thick of it . . . Little Andrew Armstrong in his Khaki suit was fired at, at Haddington Road . . . the bread man says the rebels commandeered Boland’s . . . it is lucky we are dealing with Johnston Mooney, whose bakery is fairly outside the area of war at present . . .all the shops in Sandymount are shut . . . the milk boy informed me this morning that ‘they have Jacob’s blew up’ . . . the postman said letters to Cork would be sent round by Fishguard . . . squad of soldiers all about & I was stopped at Merrion Road & not allowed to go to Park Avenue . . . Miss Jessop’s maid was killed by a bullet . . . On this side of the river I saw hardly any damage except 4 or 5 shops smashed and looted in Grafton Street . . . Kelly’s the gunpowder & fishing tackle shop at the corner of Bachelor’s Walk is like a plum pudding with bullets from the roof of Trinity College”.
The 38th page of the letter, updated on May 2nd, begins: “2pm. McCaffrey delivered the Irish Times at 11 o’clock today, the first since Easter Monday. Policemen are out in the streets again & all is over except searches for individual rebels”.
That afternoon he “potted young chrysanthemums [and] finished mowing tennis lawn & mowed putting green”. For Sir Alfred Irwin, the old order was being restored. Life was getting back to normal on Ailesbury Road.