Turtle Bunbury on the Easter Rising: almost taking sides against my ancestors

The magnetism of the Rising is that it has all the ingredients of an epic spaghetti western, a band of poets and revolutionaries bonded by a desire to shake off empire’s shackles

Easter Dawn author Turtle Bunbury: My father’s great-grandfather was “out” in the Rising. Well, sort of. Given that his name was Baron Rathdonnell, you’ll appreciate that he wasn’t poking Mauser rifles out the GPO or Jacob’s Biscuit Factory

Easter Dawn author Turtle Bunbury: My father’s great-grandfather was “out” in the Rising. Well, sort of. Given that his name was Baron Rathdonnell, you’ll appreciate that he wasn’t poking Mauser rifles out the GPO or Jacob’s Biscuit Factory

 

At time of writing, there are just 23 weekends to go until Easter 2016 and every pavement slab in Dublin City has by now been forensically analysed for any hint of a connection to the Rising. It has long been apparent that the centenary will be a massive event on the Irish calendar, despite the government’s forlorn attempts to make it go away.

I had initially baulked at the idea of writing a book on the Rising, knowing that our many fine bookshops would be straining at the seams to contain all the new tomes coming out on the subject. However, when I beheld the fine collection of photographs that Mercier Press had asked me to caption for the book, I was quickly sucked in. From there I went at it hammer and tongs and got so carried away that Easter Dawn is rather more than a book of captioned photographs.

I was at school in Scotland where the Easter Rising was a very small footnote on the first World War curriculum, but I became entranced by it as a teenager, reading Walter Macken novels and Max Caulfield’s account of it all.

The magnetism of the Rising is that it has all the ingredients of an epic spaghetti western. A band of poets and revolutionaries, men and women, posh folk and paupers, are bonded by a desire to shake off the shackles of empire.

They rise up and hold out for nearly a week against impossible odds before they are defeated by a combination of superior artillery fire, armoured cars and their own moral qualms in the face of excessive civilian deaths.

And then, when the Empire overreacts and executes the leaders, the people of Ireland finally come on side in a sort of messianic second coming.

It’s certainly an attractive saga upon which to frame the birth of a state.

Easter Dawn tries to make sense of the events that inspired the Rising, as well as offering an insight into the personalities of its key players.

I’m fascinated, for instance, that so many of the Irish leaders were poets, writers, actors and musicians, that Joe Plunkett was reputedly an Algerian roller-skating champion; that Bulmer Hobson was a Quaker, that the president of the Irish Republican Brotherhood at the time of the Rising went on to co-found the McCullough Pigott musical shop on Suffolk Street, Dublin.

The book has an American twist because Mercier has partnered with an American publisher, Rowman & Littlefield, who sought a book that would help explain the Rising to an American audience.

As such, Easter Dawn considers the American, or more accurately American-Irish, influence, particularly in the lead up to the Rising, as exemplified by the funeral of the “unrepentant Fenian” Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa in 1915, arguably the most seminal moment for Irish nationalism prior to the Rising, following the shipment of his body from New York for burial in Glasnevin.

Many of the ringleaders had strong connections to the US – Tom Clarke was well known in New York; de Valera was half-American; the O’Rahilly was a household name in Philadelphia; Tom Kent spent half a decade in Boston.

The sponsors of the Rising were also strongly au fait with America. From their power bases in New York and Philadelphia, Kildare’s John Devoy and Dungannon’s Joe McGarrity ensured the republican Clan na Gael coffers were weighty enough to finance the rebellion.

The Volunteers would have been weapon-less without the assistance of well-to-do gun-runners like Erskine Childers, whose wife was from one of Boston’s pre-eminent families, and Mary Spring-Rice, whose first cousin was the British ambassador to Washington. Sir Roger Casement and IRB Supreme Council member Pat MacCartan (father-in-law of the late Ronnie Drew) were likewise intimate with the Irish-American elite.

Aside from the American connection and the people stories, I was also drawn to write about the Rising because of my own family connections.

My father’s great-grandfather was “out” in the Rising. Well, sort of. Given that his name was Baron Rathdonnell, you’ll appreciate that he wasn’t poking Mauser rifles out the GPO or Jacob’s Biscuit Factory.

He had arrived into Ballsbridge in his capacity as president of the Royal Dublin Society with a view to opening the Spring Show on Easter Tuesday. There was much excitement about an impending parade of North American mules and horses scheduled for Wednesday afternoon.

However, as events unfurled, Wednesday instead became the day on which 2,000 untested soldiers and officers from the Sherwood Foresters marched through Ballsbridge en route to the city centre. With the hot sun beating down upon them, the doyens of the RDS organised fresh lemonade to quench their thirst.

Among these parched souls was Frederick Dietrichsen, a barrister from Nottingham, who was married to a Mitchell from the Dublin family of wine merchants. Like most Foresters, he had assumed their troopship was bound for France until it veered towards Dún Laoghaire.

Shortly after the ship docked, Dietrichsen was briefly and joyfully reunited with his two small daughters who were in Blackrock, waving flags on the pavement, when the Foresters marched through. The girls had been sent to Dublin for safety following growing fears of German Zeppelin raids in England. When he saw his daughters, Dietrichsen dropped out of the column and flung his arms around them before resuming his place with his men.

Most of the Foresters who drank lemonade at the RDS that morning were miners, farmers and factory workers. They had signed up to fight Germans, little imagining they would be dispatched to tackle a rebellion in Ireland.

Lemonade down the hatch, the Foresters advanced up Northumberland Road and straight into a crossfire ambush at Mount Street Bridge, ingeniously laid by men from de Valera’s battalion. Stubborn and successive attempts to charge the Volunteers’ positions proved utterly suicidal, leaving four Forester officers and 216 soldiers dead or maimed, marking almost half the total British military losses during the entire Rising.

Capt FC Dietrichsen was among the first to die.

Astonishingly the Spring Show continued as scheduled, albeit without a large number of patrons from the north or from across the Irish Sea. Furthermore, the RDS’s cattle stalls were destined to be reused that Sunday night when, following their surrender at Boland’s Mill, de Valera and the 3rd Battalion were marched into the RDS for their first two nights in captivity.

The fact that de Valera was held in Ballsbridge for 48 hours saved his life. By the time he was transferred to Richmond Barracks and sentenced to death, most of the other leaders had already been executed. Anxious about the mounting negative public opinion, the authorities opted to commute his sentence to penal servitude for life.

My family had other connections. Rathdonnell’s sister-in-law had an apartment on St Stephen’s Green that two members of the Irish Citizen Army used as a reconnaissance base during Easter week. He also presumably knew Abraham Watchorn, a young soldier with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers who grew up on the Rathdonnell estate in Carlow and who was fated to die of gunshot wounds near Dublin Castle on Easter Wednesday.

A hundred years on, the events and consequences of that week can still bring tempers to boiling point in nano-seconds.

I’m never quite sure where I stand on the subject. My ancestors were probably wholly opposed to everything the Rising stood for, especially given that its ultimate outcome was to relieve them of the last traces of the political power they had held since the collapse of James II’s army at the Boyne.

And yet I would have disagreed with those same ancestors on many fronts. Moreover, since boyhood I have had an instinctive tendency to clench a fist in support of what the rebels were trying to achieve.

Perspective is everything. A couple of years ago I walked through the graveyards of the Western Front and heard the story of the 570 men from the 16th (Irish) Division who died when the Germans gassed their trench at Hulluch on April 27th, the fourth day of the Rising.

Or consider the British surrender of the fortress of Kut Al Amara in Mesopotamia, which took place on the very same day Pearse surrendered in Dublin. Of the 2,700 British and 6,500 Indian soldiers taken prisoner by the Ottoman Turks that day, approximately 40 per cent died from disease, exposure, fatigue, mistreatment and starvation before the end of the war.

At least 485 people were killed during the Easter Rising, the majority of them civilians hit by snipers, machine gun or indirect artillery fire. At least 40 of the slain were children aged 16 or under.

And yet it is surely a sign of a strong society that, 100 years on, we know the names of just about every one of those luckless souls who died. It is hard to imagine that those dying in their droves in the troubled zones of the modern age will be so well remembered a century from now. Perhaps that is something we should reflect upon amid all the pageantry and ruminations of the centenary commemorations.

A colleague of Rathdonnell called Evelyn Wrench managed to slip out of the RDS during the week of the Rising and climb to the top of Killiney Hill from where, aided by a pair of binoculars, he could see the GPO being “shelled with wonderful accuracy’. Many years later, reflecting upon where he stood in respect to the Irish drive for independence, Wrench remarked: “I could see ‘the other fellow’s standpoint’ so wholeheartedly that sometimes I find that I am almost taking sides against myself. It is an uncomfortable state of affairs!”

I know precisely what he means.

Turtle Bunbury, Easter Dawn - The 1916 Rising (Mercier Press, €29.99)

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