The forgotten foot soldiers of the Easter Rising, imprisoned in England

Hundreds of arrested Irish rebels were transported to Wandsworth Prison in London

O’Connell Street between Abbey Street and North Earl Street in Dublin, 1916 (source unknown)

O’Connell Street between Abbey Street and North Earl Street in Dublin, 1916 (source unknown)

 

In the months following the Easter Rising in 1916, hundreds of arrested Irish rebels were transported from Dublin to Wandsworth Prison in south London.

They were there to appear before the Sankey Committee, a hastily created body designed to process the many prisoners from the short-lived Dublin rebellion. The underlying ambition of the committee soon became clear to the prisoners.

The leaders of the Rising had been shot after the failed coup. It was an act that had disastrous consequences for the British. The Rising had been overwhelmingly unpopular with ordinary Irish people but overnight the executions of the men in Kilmainham Gaol had turned them into martyrs and created a groundswell of support for their cause.

Judge John Sankey and his committee were eager to hear the arrested fighters say they had been duped into the conflict that Easter Monday morning; that they had no idea their leaders were leading them into such a foolhardy endeavour.

But Sankey’s committee was unlucky. Most of the men were on no mood to sell out their dead leaders.

When I started researching this period for a play I was writing, the first thing that struck me was how much of the history of the Rising concerned itself with the leaders executed in Kilmainham, or with Eamonn De Valera and the handful of rebels who would go on to become the statesmen of the new Irish Free State and dominate its government for decades.

There is markedly less written about the foot soldiers. The hundreds of men and women who willingly left their homes and families to take part in a wild and desperate attempt to uproot what was then the most powerful empire on earth.

I believe the past is more interesting, and potentially more revealing, if seen from the perspective of the people who didn’t get their faces on postage stamps or have streets or railway stations named after them. I wanted to write a play that would bring their stories to life.

In this regard I had a piece of good fortune. A friend of a friend, historian Geoff Bell, was researching his book Hesitant Comrades: The Irish Revolution and the British Labour Movement. Geoff found a cache of testimonies from volunteers in the Easter Rising and the subsequent Civil War in the archives of the Irish Bureau of Military History.

He generously shared these with me. Scores of these men had been brought over in the holds of the cattle boats and trains to Wandsworth for questioning by Sankey. Their experiences and their words helped craft this drama.

During the first World War, several wings of Wandsworth Prison had been given over to military prisoners. By 1916 the prison’s wings would have been particularly busy. There were soldiers charged with criminal activities or desertion. Many of them would have been traumatised veterans of the trenches of Belgium and France.

1916 was also the year of the introduction of conscription in Britain. Wandsworth now had to find cell space for conscientious objectors who refused the call up and were court martialled.

Traitors, Cads and Cowards tells the story of Liam McEnroe, an Irish rebel arrested after the Easter Rising. He is bunked in with Alfred Wold, a shell-shocked veteran of the trenches up on desertion charges. Their other cell mate is Henry Boyes, a conscientious objector, court martialled for resolutely refusing to serve.

Through the action, which takes place over one day, we find out whether these three very different ‘Traitors to the King’ can find any common cause.

The play played to full houses when Green Curtain produced it at London theatres in 2016, marking the 100th anniversary of the Rising. The then acting governor of Wandsworth came to see it and immediately invited us to bring it into the prison.

As part of the play’s performances in the jail, I have been running writing classes with prisoners in Wandsworth. It has been fascinating to walk through the Victorian-built prison that has changed little since the men from the Rising would have been crowded into its cells.

Our actors, Aonghus Weber, Ben Waring and Aidan Casey will be performing short monologues written by the inmates ahead of the production of Traitors, Cads and Cowards in the prison chapel on May 15th. This is for prisoners only, but a performance on the afternoon of May 14th is open to the public.

I hope our play has something to say about the savagery of conflict and its effects on the often-forgotten foot soldiers. But also hopefully about the nature of patriotism, and about how the ones labelled cowards or traitors can sometimes be the bravest and noblest of us because they fight only for what they truly believe.

Traitors, Cads and Cowards is being performed as part of the annual Wandsworth Arts Fringe (WAF). Tickets for the May 14th performance can be purchased at www.wandsworthfringe.com/whats-on-2018/traitors-cads-and-cowards. The play is produced by Green Curtain Theatre and directed by Anne Curtis. It is supported by WAF through Wandsworth Grant Fund.

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