HISTORY: DERMOT BOLGERreviews A City in Wartime: Dublin 1914-18Pádraig Yeates Gill & Macmillan, 304pp. €24.99
ON EASTER MONDAY 1916 a party of Irish Volunteers approached the Magazine Fort in Phoenix Park, in the guise of being a soccer team. One of them, Gary Holohan, wounded the startled sentry, who fell, crying, according to Holohan, “Oh please, sir, don’t shoot me. I’m an Irishman and the father of seven children.” Holohan then chased 14-year-old Gerald Playfair to Islandbridge, where he drew his pistol again to shoot the boy and prevent him raising the alarm.
It could be argued that Holohan was not just drawing his pistol to murder an unarmed child but also drawing a line in the sand of history to divide a relatively homogenous southern Ireland into two distinct camps, them and us, with little middle ground. Soon, anyone in the uniform of the British army, Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) or Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) was considered an imperialistic traitor. As Dan Breen emphasised in 1919 by deliberately executing two unarmed Irish RIC men, Peter McDonnell and James O’Connell, they were now seen as legitimate targets.
Pádraig Yeates’s A City in Wartime: Dublin 1914-18charts that process of polarisation from a different starting point. He opens by vividly describing the Howth gunrunning of 1914, when the Irish Volunteers took Dublin Castle by complete surprise by marching to Howth, seizing the pier and landing hundreds of German Mauser rifles. The first DMP officers sent to intercept the armed Volunteers at Kilbarrack wisely reboarded their tram. At Raheny the Volunteers encountered a larger force of police, but, rather than confiscate the guns, the pro-home rule DMP men broke into cheers.
The Volunteers ended up examining their new rifles alongside their equally enthusiastic fellow Dubliners in DMP uniforms, who joined in singing A Nation Once Again.
Although the undersecretary to Ireland wanted no confrontation, the DMP assistant commissioner, William Harrell, a vehement unionist, summoned reinforcements from the King’s Own Scottish Borderers to join the police at Fairview. Even with military backup and their furious assistant commissioner present, the DMP made only half-hearted attempts to disarm the Volunteers. The Scottish soldiers beat a humiliating retreat, jeered by crowds, until, in a foretaste of the future heavy-handed British military responses that turned public opinion, the soldiers opened fire on Bachelors Walk, murdering three onlookers and wounding 87.
The outbreak of the first World War was overshadowed in Dublin by the resultant funerals. Apart from Easter week in 1916, Dublin was never bombed during this war, but by 1918 its public mood was as much transformed as that of any European city.
Yeates’s book looks at Dublin from the bitter aftermath of the 1913 lockout to Sinn Féin’s election victory in 1918, which swept away the redundant Irish Party. The Easter Rising is central to the book, but its real areas of interest are its portrayal of the city prior to the Rising and of the changing political dynamics in its aftermath.
In Ireland 1913 was a year of turmoil politically, in terms of the struggle for home rule, and socially, as Dubliners endured terrible hunger after the employers, led by William Martin Murphy, locked out the city’s unionised workers.
Yeates explores why such large numbers of working-class Dubliners joined the British army, but, in addition to propaganda about “Catholic Belgium” and Redmond’s controversial rallying call, many were simply unable to get back their jobs after the lockout and therefore enlisted for economic reasons. This is why three cheers were raised for Jim Larkin in the trenches before the Second Battle of Ypres.
The book traces the uneasy relationship between the middle-class Irish Volunteers leadership, who offered to assist the police in “maintaining order” if home rule resulted in civic unrest, and the radical Citizen Army, whose Seán O’Casey accused Pearse of being a scab for using trams during the lockout.
Yeates’s use of Dublin Corporation minutes is informative about the way conservatives, such as the unionist alderman for Glasnevin, William Dinnage, tried to hold back the clock. But the heavy-handed, incompetent reaction of the authorities to events such as the hunger strike of Thomas Ashe (who died from horrific force-feeding in Mountjoy) meant that British rule was undermined before the War of Independence had properly begun.
Yeates is good on how military recruitment dried up after the Rising, on the world of Dublin’s 92,000 Protestants, and on the uneasy relationship between Labour and Sinn Féin. Labour were weakened by the defections of Citizen Army veterans, such as Constance Markievicz and Dr Kathleen Lynn, to Sinn Féin, despite their reservations about Sinn Féin’s social policy, especially in relation to women. De Valera’s ban on women from his 1916 garrison should have given a clue to the mockery the new State would make of the proclamation’s promise to treat men and women equally.
Yeates is also good on how the Catholic Church abandoned the Irish Party for Sinn Féin. This ecclesiastical positioning ensured the dropping of any radical ideas in the proclamation, which was hammered out by Pearse and Connolly, based on the Irish Citizen Army constitution written by Seán O’Casey.
By the end of this fascinating study of the shifting political forces shaping Dublin, change is coming, but it is definitely the conservative revolution of WT Cosgrave rather than anything envisaged by Connolly.
Dermot Bolger’s latest novels are New Town Soul(for young adults) and A Second Life: A Renewed Novel