I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Easter Rising 1916 – The Trials






It was a foundling hospital and later a workhouse, the largest in Ireland. It sprawled over 50 acres in the south west of the city. The southern aspects dominated the South Circular Road and the Rialto Bridge on the Grand Canal.

Inside the complex lay a maze of alleys and buildings, including a dinner hall, a church, the nurses’ home, and a hospital with living accommodation for over 3,000 residents and staff. The hospital remained fully occupied during the Rebellion.

The Union was occupied at about midday on Monday 24 April by Eamonn Ceannt and the Fourth Battalion Volunteers, drawn from south­west Dublin. There were three outposts – at Marrowbone Lane, at Ardee Street and at Mount Brown, a three-storey grain store on the north-west boundary of the South Dublin Union. The garrison numbered over 200 men and women.

The strategic importance of the South Dublin Union lay in that it commanded the western and southern approaches to the city. It prevented the movement of troops from Richmond Barracks to the city centre and it overlooked army HQ at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, which was well within rifle range.

The main outpost was Marrowbone Lane, which was heavily defended. The defenders of this outpost had adequate arms and ammunition but they lacked provisions. Because, however, the building fronted onto the street, it was possible to step out and commandeer livestock being driven to slaughter. On the first day a messenger boy carrying three chickens to the Vice-Regal Lodge was dispossessed: ‘My compliments to the Lord Lieutenant’, he was told, as the chickens were carried off. This scenario was repeated many times. Even a passing bread van was captured.

That same afternoon the Army launched an assault on the guard at the Rialto Gate. This position was defended by Captain George Irvine, who was one of those men who had little prior notice of the Rebellion. A few days before Easter Monday he had issued invitations to a ceilidhe to take place on 30 April. With Irvine were seven men: John Downey, John Traynor, Patrick and James Morrissey, Gerald Doyle, James Burke and William Corrigan, a partner in a firm of Dublin solicitors. These men took over a wooden hut overlooking the boundary wall and barricaded the doors with beds and mattresses.

Units of the Royal Irish Regiment formed up in Richmond Barracks and set off for the South Dublin Union immediately after the alarm was sounded. There was no pause to take stock. Captain Alan Ramsey of the Royal Irish Regiment led a company of soldiers to reconnoitre the South Dublin Union. He hoisted himself up on a telegraph pole and was shot dead. Captain Ramsey was a veteran of the Western Front and a native of Ballsbridge. An unidentified soldier was also killed and another officer who forced a side door in the Union wall was shot down and lost a leg. The first attack was beaten off.

The Volunteers relocated themselves in a stone building close by. Discovering there were patients inside, they returned to a hut, which afforded little protection. A second attack was launched and Volunteer John Traynor was killed. Patrick Morrissey was severely wounded in the leg and William Corrigan received splinter wounds to the eyes and face. The hut was soon surrounded by troops from the Royal Irish Regiment who were firing freely through the thin wooden walls. Faced with the threat of grenades, Irvine and his men surrendered.

While these events were taking place, the nurses’ home, a three-storey building in the heart of the complex, was being fortified and boarded up. There were other fatalities that afternoon, including William McDowell, George Owens, Nurse Margaretta Keogh and a patient caught in cross fire. The Army casualties were heavy; Captain Alan Ramsey and Captain Warmington were killed along with five soldiers. Ten others were wounded.

On the second day there was no significant fighting save that night, a Volunteer near a window was shot by an army sniper.

The next significant engagement took place on the Thursday afternoon. The Sherwood Foresters, having overcome resistance at Mount Street canal bridge, tried to force their wagons and infantry over the Rialto Bridge towards army HQ at the Royal Hospital.

At the Rialto Bridge the Foresters came under heavy fire from the South Dublin Union. The Foresters were forced to halt and carry out a major assault on the South Dublin Union to clear the way to cross the Rialto Bridge. They were joined by Sir Francis Vane who had come up from Portobello Barracks. Sir Francis, wearing a scout uniform, led a collection of ‘Highlanders, sailors and policemen’. They too, joined the attack on the South Dublin Union.

This time the attackers fought their way to close range and began to bore holes through internal walls. Grenades were thrown by both sides. The officer leading the attack was Captain Michael Martyn of the Sherwood Foresters. A grenade thrown by one of Martyn’s men dropped short of the target and rolled back to the feet of the attackers. The grenade was snatched up by Martyn and hurled through an aperture above the door-frame.

The man on the other side of the wall was Cathal Brugha, who sustained a multiplicity of grenade wounds. The other Volunteers had evacuated the nurses’ home under the weight of fire. They were able to hear Brugha singing and on one account shouting orders to a non-existent garrison. He was delirious, one Volunteer guessed, but then the penny dropped: Brugha was playing out a charade to put off the attackers. With a rush the Volunteers returned to the Nurses home. The fight for the South Dublin Union ended in a stalemate.

But the evening light was failing and the Foresters took their chance. The wagon drivers, brandishing a revolver in one hand and reins in the other, galloped their horse-drawn transports across the Rialto Bridge towards the city centre. With their wagons safely across, the Foresters at the South Dublin Union, conducted a gradual withdrawal and followed their transports across the canal. Captain Martyn and Captain Oates were later decorated for their part in the assault.

The total number of Volunteer fatalities numbered nine. Twelve soldiers were killed and ten wounded.

On the following day, the defenders saw artillery spotters reconnoitring the South Dublin Union. That evening, General Maxwell wrote to Lord French promising that any strong points that continued to hold out would be ‘blown off the face of the earth’.

Mercifully, this prospect was overtaken by the surrender at the GPO. At the South Dublin Union, a stalemate prevailed. On the Sunday some of the outlying garrison slipped away before the surrender and went to ground. Most followed Ceannt into captivity.

At least 12 of the prisoners from the South Dublin Union were tried. Two were executed and another seven were sentenced to death but had their sentences commuted to prison terms. Three were sentenced to prison terms.

One of the men captured on the first day was hospitalised, escaped and avoided trial. The other six men captured on the first day at the Rialto gate were court martialled. At this stage the Army only had a few prisoners. Their names were logged and Lieutenant Bucknill took a summary of evidence. Their trial was inevitable. They were all convicted and sentenced to death. Most of them were tried on 5 May, after General Maxwell’s recall to London and this may help to explain why their death sentences were commuted to prison terms.