Weapons tests aimed at explaining how small rebel group sustained battle in 1916
On a damp, grey Offaly morning yesterday, Ray Holohan pushed the stock of a Mauser pistol into his shoulder, squinted through the sights and concentrated hard.
His mind was focused on the target 50 metres away, which he could see down the barrel. He squeezed the trigger gently. Only the mildest force was necessary; a slow tightening of his index finger until – BAM!
Six of the shots fired by Holohan (35), a Defence Forces lieutenant with air traffic control at Casement Aerodrome in Baldonnel, were bang on target, five of them qualifying as hitting the bull. Not bad for a weapon not known to have been fired for almost a century.
The last time was on Wednesday, April 26th, 1916, by an Irish Volunteer, Lieut Michael Malone (25). Crouched behind a bathroom window of 25 Northumberland Road in Dublin, Malone looked at British soldiers through the same sights, mounted on the same barrel of the same gun.
With Malone on that day, his last, was Séamus Grace, armed with a Lee Enfield 303.
Further along the road towards the Grand Canal and, ultimately Dublin city centre and the seat of the Rising, three or four other Volunteers lay in wait in St Stephen’s Parochial Hall. A few others were in the Schoolhouse opposite.
Across Mount Street bridge in Clanwilliam House (now demolished), more Volunteers, perhaps six, were also waiting. Some of them were armed with 1871 Mauser rifles, part of the cache of 900 landed at Howth from the Asgard in July 1914.
Yesterday at the National Shooting Centre of Ireland near Tullamore, three weapons from the Rising – Malone’s Mauser pistol from the National Museum at Collins Barracks, one of the Asgard Mauser rifles held by the Defence Forces Ordnance Corps, and a privately owned 1916 Enfield – were test-fired for the fist time since the conflict.
Civilian marksmen Stephen Hogan and JP Craven fired the Enfield and Mauser respectively. The Enfield won easily, getting six out of six into the bull. The Howth Mauser was like a blunderbuss. While the bullets were all on target at 50m, none struck the bull.
Testing the weapons is the brainchild of Lieut Alan Kearney of the Army’s Ordnance Corps who, with the help of a team that includes Army and Garda ballistics experts, staff at the National History Museum and military historian David Murphy of NUI Maynooth, wants to tease out not so much what happened on Northumberland Road, as why events unfolded as they did.
He wants to know how a handful of poorly trained and armed rebels could hold off nearly two full battalions of the British army, inflicting severe casualties, for almost 12 hours.
At about midday on that Wednesday, British soldiers of the 5th and 6th battalions of the Sherwood Foresters marching into Dublin from Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire) came into the sights of Grace and Malone. The Sherwood Foresters were mainly young and inexperienced recruits.
One of the first to die was a battalion adjutant, Capt Frederick Deitrichsen, a Briton of German extraction who felt obliged to prove his allegiance to England. An hour before his death, he embraced his Irish wife and children in Blackrock to where he sent them, to be safe from German Zeppelin raids.
A history of the Foresters puts their toll that day at about 80 out of some 234 killed in the Rising as a whole. Malone died in an explosion when No 25 was eventually overrun; Grace escaped. When the time came for the 1916 executions, Gen Sir John Maxwell gave the task to the Foresters.
Kearney hopes that by examining the weapons’ capabilities, the battle scene and other records, he will be able to explain why a small rebel force inflicted such damage on a vastly numerically superior army.