Frank McNally: Confection insurrection
An Irishman’s Diary about the liberation of sweet shops in 1916
“Isn’t it a great shame that Clerys is not broke!” said a would-be looter in the chaos on Sackville Street in 1916.
One of the most cost-effective things the Government could do during next year’s Rising commemorations, I suggest, is hand out free sweets to children. It would be bad for their teeth, of course, but it would certainly be popular, and would also have impeccable historic credentials.
I’m reminded of this by one of the many fascinating vignettes in the Handbook of the Irish Revival: an anthology of cultural and political writings from 1891 to 1922, edited by Declan Kiberd and PJ Mathews.
The relevant extract is from the eye-witness account of James Stephens as he describes the atmosphere in Dublin during Easter Week, and in particular the excitement caused by opportunities for looting. The main objects of desire, Stephens noted were haberdashery, footwear and sweets, but not in that order: “Very many sweet shops were raided, and until the end of the Rising, sweet shops were the favourite mark of the looters. There is something comical in this . . . something almost innocent and child-like. Possibly most of the looters are children who are having the sole gorge of their lives. They have tasted sweet stuffs [they] will never taste again . . . and until they die the insurrection of 1916 will have a sweet savour for them.”
Stephens’s recollection reminded me of one of the more unconventional weapons deployed during Easter Week, now in the National Museum archives. It was a seven-inch long “toffee axe”, thrown at a “Mr Daly” by a Sackville Street looter, hitting him on the hat.
When I first read about it, I assumed the axe was a novelty sweet item – that it was made of toffee. But no. In the good old days, when toffee came in industrial-sized blocks, it required cutting equipment. Hence the axe, which comprised something even harder to chew than toffee: cast-iron.
In any case, the axe’s story features on a fine blog called “The Cricket Bat that Died for Ireland” (thecricketbatthatdiedforireland.com), which takes its unusual name from a bullet-pierced bat, now also in the National Museum, that had been minding its own business during Easter Week, in the window of Elvery’s, when hit.
Both were popular targets for looters. So, although he was using poetic licence at the time, and meant adults, there may have been more meaning than he suspected in Padraig Pearse’s words when he summoned Ireland’s “children” to the flag.
But the Easter Week looting wasn’t all about sweets, as Stephens conceded. Clothes and shoes were also eagerly commandeered by Dublin’s poor, a fact that gave rise to many colourful stories.
The Cricket Bat blog quotes from the London Evening News about a man who had already helped himself to clothes from a shop and was then seen to return for more. Someone remonstrated with him for being greedy, whereupon he explained, in apology, that he was only back to change one of the shirts: “I want that one over there with the blue spots.”
The Cable Shoe Company on Sackville Street was also cleaned out, and there were reports of the calmer looters trying on different sizes until they had the right fit. But the larger, luxury shops seem to have bee more intimidating, at least initially.
I was writing here some weeks ago about another witness to Easter Week, Mrs Hamilton Norway, wife of the English head of the GPO (and mother of novelist Nevil Shute), who wrote regular dispatches to her family during the crisis and later published them as The Sinn Féin rebellion as I saw it.
Among other things, she described in vivid detail the looting scenes, often as comic interludes. And it was in this sense she made mention of the initial impregnability of one famous department store, and the angst this caused would-be looters.
Here’s what she wrote: “In Sackville Street there was a very large shop called Clerys; for some reason the looters were afraid to start on it, and old women passed up and down gazing longingly at fur coats and silk raiment and saying sorrowfully, ‘Isn’t Clerys broke yet?’ and ‘Isn’t it a great shame that Clerys is not broke!’”
I’m not sure why she was referring to the store in the past tense even then – this was Wednesday of Easter Week. But read more than 99 years later, her words seem poignantly prophetic. Alas, poor Clerys: it’s broke now.