Easter Rising – Day 4: City in flames

As Trinity College became a barracks, fire wiped out the east side of O’Connell Street

Archive captures the 1916 Rising and a bombed out Dublin through to the formation of the Free State. Video: Reuters


At Trinity College Dublin the morning brought the sight of the university doubling as a British army barracks.

“The quadrangles presented an extraordinary appearance,” according to an account written soon afterwards by an anonymous student, who was also a member of the officers’ training corps.

“Some 4,000 troops were stationed in the college. Horses tied to the chains which enclosed the grass plots gave the place the appearance of a vast open-air stable or horse fair.

“Men stood in ranks or sprawled on pavements or on the doorsteps – anywhere – sometimes closely packed and fast asleep in every conceivable attitude. Many of them had put in a hard night’s work.”

These included men from the Sherwood Foresters, fresh from the fight at Mount Street.

“Not a few who had been through these nocturnal and diurnal operations told me that they would prefer being at the Front. At the Front, they said, you knew which direction from which you may expect a bullet.

“Here, the enemy is all around you. He lurks in the dark passages and chimney stacks, and when at last you think you have hunted him down, you find yourself in possession of a peaceful citizen who gives some plausible reason for his presence.”

Along with dead soldiers brought into the college grounds, wounded and dying civilians were also arriving by horse-drawn ambulance.

“Then a little boy was brought in on a stretcher. He had been shot through the hand on Monday, and there was fear that the wound had become septic.

“The father accompanied him, but even in these circumstances was not admitted to the quadrangles.

“He told me that none of the family had tasted food since Monday night. The child looked very ill – too ill to cry or complain . . . Hot tea was given to the little patient.

“There was a rapid revival. He thanked us in a voice which never rose above a whisper.”

Under siege

Ned Daly

They had sent improvised armoured vehicles – Guinness lorries covered with old boilers and iron plates – into the fray, but fighting along King Street was house to house.

At the South Dublin Union Eamonn Ceannt’s small garrison was under fierce attack. His vice-commandant, Cathal Brugha, would suffer 25 wounds in all before finally being evacuated on the Friday.

For Robert Holland and the garrison at Marrowbone Lane, dawn on Thursday had brought the sight of British soldiers surrounding the distillery.

“Trenches had been dug on both sides of the Canal, also the Fair-Brothers Field, and we settled down for a ‘battle royal’.

“All rifles are brought into play and Jack Saul, my brother Dan, Mick White and myself took up positions facing four different directions.

“At the usual time the girls brought along our breakfast, tea and bread.

“The girls kept loading the rifles and we were allocated three rifles each. I occasionally used one of the Howth guns and was driven about 12ft across the floor every time I fired it.”

At about 2pm, with soldiers reaching the outer boundaries of the distillery, Holland and four other Volunteers were brought to the yard and given hand grenades.

In the main hall Con Colbert was giving lessons on how to use them and on how to use the crude pikes that were being made on the premises. Holland describes crude weapons.

“They were being made out of scrap iron picked up around the Brewery Yard and put on what looked like broken broom handles.

“They only consisted of a piece of steel with a sharp point and I began wishing that I had taken the soldiers’ bayonets as well as the ammunition.

“Frank Saul then heard some talking outside the Canal gate where he was at the time and he and someone else threw one of the grenades over the wall. We heard some screeching and shouting outside and a lot of moaning.

“As a result, the soldiers at the outside of the wall ran away from it and they were fired on by a volley from the Distillery.

“I saw Con Colbert smile as he sent us back into the building again saying, ‘that stops the attack for the present.’

“When I got up on top again, the soldiers had become scarce but I could see a lot of bodies all around outside the wall and up as far as Dolphin’s Barn Bridge.

“I could just see a pit and Red Cross men working at it, putting bodies into it, at the bridge.”

James Stephens would recall another day of wild rumour, but there was no doubting the ferocity of some of the violence.

“At 11.30am there came the sound of heavy guns firing in the direction of Sackville Street. I went on the roof, and remained there for some time. From this height the sounds could be heard plainly.

“There was sustained firing along the whole central line of the City, from the Green down to Trinity College, and from thence to Sackville Street, and the report of the various types of arm could be easily distinguished.

“There were rifles, machine guns and very heavy cannon. There was another sound which I could not put a name to, something that coughed out over all the other sounds, a short, sharp bark, or rather a short noise something like the popping of a tremendous cork.”

For Mary Louisa Hamilton Norway – husband of the secretary of the GPO in Ireland – who wrote several letters from the Royal Hibernian Hotel on Dawson Street during the week, the situation was causing particular problems.

“Yesterday, to our great indignation, the public-houses were allowed to be open from 2pm till 5pm, though every shop, bank, and public building was closed – just to inflame the mob, it could not have been on any other grounds; and yet at 8pm, after being on duty from 5am, H” – her husband, Arthur – “could not get a whiskey and soda, or even a glass of cider with his dinner, as it was out of hours. I was furious!”

Until the afternoon there had been a gun battle around Grafton Street; when it was over the looters descended on the area, targeting a nearby fruit shop.

“From the windows we watched the proceedings, and I never saw anything so brazen! The mob were chiefly women and children with a sprinkling of men.

“They swarmed in and out of the side door bearing huge consignments of bananas, the great bunches on the stalk, to which children attached a cord and ran away dragging it along.

“It was an amazing sight and nothing daunted these people. Higher up at another shop we were told a woman was hanging out of a window and dropping down loot to a friend, when she was shot through the head by a sniper . . . The body dropped into the street and the mob cleared.

“In a few minutes, a handcart appeared and gathered up the body, and instantly all the mob swarmed back to continue the joyful proceedings!”

At the GPO Pearse spoke to the men, telling them, among other things, that the country had risen, that a large band of insurgents was making its way from Dundalk to Dublin and that large numbers of police had been captured after a battle in the north Co Dublin village of Lusk.

His words were greeted with cheers.

In the afternoon, however, James Connolly, who had been a calm and ubiquitous figure at the GPO and around O’Connell Street all week,– was wounded when a ricochet caught him, causing a compound fracture of his left shinbone.

He was crippled and confined to a stretcher on the floor.

Flames engulf the street

Oscar Traynor

“Some time on Thursday a barricade which stretched from the Royal Hibernian Academy to a cycle shop – I think the name of it was Keating’s – on the opposite side of the street, took fire as a result of a direct shell hit.

“It was the firing of this barricade that caused the fire that wiped out the east side of O’Connell Street. I saw that happen myself.

“I saw the barricade being hit; I saw the fire consuming it and I saw Keating’s going up. Then Hoyt’s caught fire, and when Hoyt’s caught fire the whole block up to Earl Street became involved.

“Hoyt’s had a lot of turpentine and other inflammable stuff, and I saw the fire spread from there to Clerys. Clerys and the Imperial Hotel were one and the same building . . .

“Before that happened, those of us in the Metropole made tremendous efforts to warn the garrison in the Imperial Hotel of the grave danger which menaced them.

“If our messages, which were sent by semaphore, were understood they do not appear to have been acted on, as the eventual evacuation of the Imperial Hotel appears to have been a rather hurried one.

“I had the extraordinary experience of seeing the huge plate-glass windows of Clerys stores run molten into the channel from the terrific heat.”

Oil from sardine cans

Without any suitable oil to cool them down, they improvised and used oil from sardine cans.

Things became so confused that when some horses bolted from a burning building the rebels began shooting and throwing home-made bombs at them, believing it to be a British cavalry charge.

“One of our men was swinging a home-made bomb, which was, in fact, a billy-can packed with bolts, nuts and, I believe, gelignite as the explosive,” recounted Traynor.

“He was swinging this bomb around his head in order to gain impetus for his throw, when to our horror the handle parted company with the can and the can flew into the room instead of being thrown at the horses.

“Luckily for us it did not explode. I think three bombs, none of which exploded, were thrown.”

Things were far quieter out of the city. Ernest Jordison, head of British Petroleum in Ireland, had spent the day taking his children to the safety of Drogheda, Co Louth, where he left three of his children with a cousin of his wife.

They had cycled from Clontarf, on Dublin’s northside.

“I returned home from Drogheda after leaving my children there, and took my children’s bicycle along with me, pushing it along while riding my own.

“I had a few minutes’ stay in Balbriggan for refreshment, and continued my journey to Clontarf without incident.

“After leaving the main road at Santry, along the lanes, cycling through Coolock and Killester, everything was still and quiet except for the corncrakes craking, the weather was very beautiful and fine, and the country was lighted up from the reflection in the skies of the fires in Dublin city.

“I hardly met a soul the whole way home from Balbriggan. I could hear the guns being fired in the city, and the flames and reflections were very vivid over the city.”

As night fell the planet Venus shone brilliantly, but the sky glowed red. Dubliners could see their city burning.

“This night also was calm and beautiful, but this night was the most sinister and woeful of those that have passed,” wrote James Stephens.

“The sound of artillery, of rifles, machine guns, grenades, did not cease even for a moment.

“From my window I saw a red flare that crept to the sky, and stole over it and remained there glaring; the smoke reached from the ground to the clouds, and I could see great red sparks go soaring to enormous heights; while always, in the calm air, hour after hour there was the buzzing and rattling and thudding of guns, and, but for the guns, silence.”

Mary Louisa Hamilton Norway watched the fires from her window on Dawson Street.

“It was the most awe-inspiring sight I have ever seen. It seemed as if the whole city was on fire, the glow extending right above the heavens and the red glare hundreds of feet high, while above the roar of the fires the whole air seemed to be vibrating with the noise of the great guns and machine-guns.

“It was an inferno!”

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