The Cockneys and Scousers who fought for Ireland in 1916

 

Up to half those involved in the initial attack on the GPO in Easter 1916 were from England and Scotland, writes Brian Dooley.

The usual commemorations marking the 1916 Rising are happening throughout the country this weekend. In dozens of towns and villages local heroes who fought in Easter Week will be eulogised, a piece of the legacy claimed for the parish. Small communities and neighbourhoods everywhere in Ireland will celebrate the memories of those who risked their lives for the nation.

But a close look at the historical record suggests that many of those in the GPO that Easter Monday were not born anywhere in Ireland at all. By piecing together first-hand accounts of the initial attack on the GPO, it appears that up to half of those involved were from England and Scotland.

Apart from the famous second generation Irish figures such as James Connolly (from Edinburgh) and Tom Clarke (Isle of Wight), there were scores of ordinary Volunteers from units in London, Glasgow, Manchester and elsewhere who had slipped across to Ireland from Christmas 1915 to take part in the coming insurrection.

Some of these, like Michael Collins, were Irish-born exiles who happened to have been living in England or Scotland and returned for the fight, but there were many Cockneys and Scousers who had never before set foot in Ireland and only arrived in the spring of 1916 to take part in the Rising.

The number of those who were actually in the GPO during the first hour of the Rising was around 160, although many more would later claim to have been there at the very start.

Many more joined as the day wore on and word spread of the action, but the nucleus that made the initial assault included 60 or so men who had been preparing at a secret camp in Kimmage.

These were volunteers from units in England and Scotland, and included characters such as Londoner Johnny O'Connor, known as "Blimey" because of his thick Cockney accent. "Blimey" had drilled with other second and third generation Irish volunteers like Joe Good, Liam Daley and the teenage brothers from Brixton, Sean and Ernie Nunan. At Kimmage he met the King brothers and Art Agnew from Liverpool, Paddy Moran and Seamus Reader from Glasgow, and many others.

These men ran an additional risk to their Irish-based comrades. If arrested, they could be prosecuted under the 1915 Military Service Act.

Having lived in England and Scotland in 1915, they were liable for conscription and could be press-ganged into the British army.

In the GPO they were joined by Cockney volunteers Desmond Ryan and Desmond Fitzgerald, and John Neale of the Irish Citizen Army, while Glaswegian Margaret Skinnider shuttled to St Stephen's Green on her bike, carrying message to the London-born Constance Markievicz.

When "Blimey" O'Connor and Liam Daley, both London electricians, rushed across O'Connell Street to try and set up a radio antenna in the wireless school opposite the GPO, their Irish-born comrades would not let them in.

"When the volunteer on duty heard our Cockney accents he refused to admit us," recounted O'Connor, and for a while the two men from London were left banging on the door, dangerously exposed outside on the pavement.

The discovery that these second and third generation figures - the original "Plastic Paddies" - were key to Easter Week comes as a surprise to many Irish people, and the English-accented volunteers rarely feature in accounts of the Rising or the following war for independence.

Remember the famous scene in the film Michael Collins, when Collins daringly breaks into police headquarters, locks himself in and spends the whole night on his own reading the intelligence files? Truth is, young Sean Nunan was with him all the time, but there is no room for the Londoner in the film version.

Nunan and the others have been largely airbrushed out of the Rising. There will be no commemoration at the Nunan homestead in Brixton this weekend, no colour party parade outside O'Connor's birthplace to keep his memory alive in south London. Their story is a secret history, hidden by simplistic accounts of Easter Week, where the good guys spoke with Irish accents and the baddies didn't.

Brian Dooley is author of Choosing the Green? Second Generation Irish and the Cause of Ireland (Beyond the Pale, www.btpale.com)