First victim of the Rising

The first man to die in the Easter rebellion was an unarmed RIC Limerickman – James O’Brien

The first person killed in the 1916 Rising was an unarmed policeman on duty at the Cork Hill entrance to the upper yard of Dublin Castle.

Constable James O’Brien, born in Kilfergus, Co Limerick, in 1868, had 21 years’ service at the time.

He was killed by a public servant, Abbey actor and member of the Irish Citizen Army, Seán Connolly, who was himself shot about an hour later by a British army sniper. Connolly is believed to be the first of the rebels to have died.

According to police records cited by Jim Herlihy in his 2001 book, The Dublin Metropolitan Police, A Short History , O'Brien was shot between 11am and midday on Easter Monday, April 24th, by a volunteer who rode up to the castle gate on a bicycle.


Connolly was heading a group of Irish Citizen Army men and women who had come from Liberty Hall to seize Dublin Castle. It seems that when O'Brien tried to prevent them getting into the castle, Connolly shot him in the head.

Seize the castle
Helena Molony [see also page 5], a republican, feminist and labour activist, was among the rebels who went out to seize the castle. She later recalled that O'Brien seemed to believe the rebels were part of a parade and they would be going up Ship Street. "When Connolly went to get past him, the Sergeant (sic) put out his arm and Connolly shot him dead." Connolly "was excited because he had shot the policeman dead" and started to shout at his detachment to go into the castle. But they hesitated and the gates were closed against them.

Another member of the contingent was a medical doctor, Kathleen Lynn. She said that when she got to City Hall at about midday, it was occupied by Connolly and his colleagues. “As I arrived I saw the dead body of a big policeman lying on the ground – it seemed to be in front of the castle gate. Just then [prominent Home Ruler] Sir Thomas Myles came up, evidently going into the castle, and I still remember the look of horror on his face when he saw the body. I don’t think he noticed me.” Lynn said the rebels were advised by Connolly to go up on the roof in case of attack. “It was a beautiful day, the sun was hot and we were not long there when we noticed Seán Connolly coming towards us, walking upright, although we had been advised to crouch and take cover as much as possible. We suddenly saw him fall mortally wounded by a sniper’s bullet from the castle. First aid was useless. He died almost immediately.”

The archives of The Irish Times show that O'Brien and Molony's paths had crossed just five years earlier, when the policeman gave evidence to a court hearing held on the day after disturbances near the Mansion House in Dublin linked to the then impending visit of the British king and queen. The Tuesday, July 4th, 1911, disturbances led to a James Pike, of 45 Connaught Street, Phibsborough, being brought before the court for acting in a disorderly manner. O'Brien told the court that he saw a large crowd outside the Mansion House and that Pike was cheering and hooting and calling upon the people. At St Stephen's Green, he said, Pike headed a few ugly rushes at the police, and was shouting at the top of his voice and using profane language when he was arrested.

He said “Helen Moloney” and Countess Markievicz were with Pike at the time. They both gave evidence to the court that they were with Pike and had not seen any of the behaviour described by O’Brien. However, the judge, a Mr Drury, said he had no doubt that O’Brien’s evidence was correct. This did not mean the “ladies” were not telling the truth to the court, he added, before fining Pike 40 shillings. At the same hearing Moloney was told she would have to pay a fine or go to jail for her part in throwing a stone during the disturbances. “You’ll get no money from me,” she told the court, to much cheering. She was then led away.

O'Brien was temporarily buried along with 13 others in the castle gardens. On Friday, April 28th, 1916, his body was exhumed and removed to Mount Argus Church.

Remains were removed
The next day, after Requiem Mass, his remains were removed by train to Foynes, Co Limerick, and transferred from there by hearse with a large contingent of DMP men for burial in Kilfergus. His gravestone refers to his "sorrowing brothers and sisters". There is no mention of family. Connolly, who was 32 when he died, left behind a wife and three young children. A native of Straffan, Co Kildare, he was living on Philipsburgh Avenue, Marino, in 1916. He was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.

Colm Keena

Colm Keena

Colm Keena is an Irish Times journalist. He was previously legal-affairs correspondent and public-affairs correspondent