From Dublin to Dartmoor: A 1916 journey

On the 100th anniversary of Patrick Pearse’s surrender — on the last Saturday of April 1916 — a never-published letter reveals how Irish men in different uniforms found they had a lot in common.

By Niall Murray

 

From a large family in east Cork, John O’Brien had emigrated to London in the decades before the Rising and worked as a banker in Leyton.

Despite the background of a family active in the Land League, like many Irishmen in England he signed up in 1914 to an Irish regiment.

With the Royal Dublin Fusiliers 10th Battalion, he was stationed in Dublin at the time of the Rising. While we are not sure if he was involved directly in suppressing the six-day rebellion, he was required with colleagues to escort a small group of prisoners to British jails in the weeks that followed.

 

EoinMacNeill_large.jpgAmong them were Irish Volunteers chief-of-staff Eoin MacNeill – who had tried to call off the Rising at the last minute as he feared for the inevitable consequences of military defeat.

In the six-page letter reproduced below, John gives his east Cork pal Chris Clohessy – who had earlier also lived in London – a detailed account of their journey.

The uplifting description of events that transpired between the soldiers of both sides of the short rebellion reveal also the conflict that must have torn many Irish men in British uniforms during the Great War of 1914 to 1918, but particularly in the years after the Rising.

As much a personal story of one soldier’s experience, John O’Brien’s tale is a parable that could be used to explain the complex web of political, military, personal and family stories that define this phase of the Irish revolution a century ago.

And like so many of other such stories, there are no happy endings for all the characters.

Eoin MacNeill would be remembered in history as the man who almost ended the famous Rising that inspired men and women of Ireland to join the cause of political independence from Britain.

Some of the other prisoners would go on to lead significant roles in the War of Independence, and in the early political life of the country that followed it.

But John O’Brien, despite his kindness, did not have such a successful – or a long – future.

He has nonetheless – through his letter home to Cork a few weeks short of a century ago – left a legacy for his descendants to remember him by.

And in so doing, he shines another chink of light into the lives, the thoughts and the emotions of both sides that took part in the Easter Rising

 

Letter from a guard for rising rebels

zzzJohnOBriensLetter_large.jpg25418 Private John O’Brien

B Co 10th R.D.F

Royal Barracks

Dublin

Sunday June 18th 1916

 

Dear Clohissy,

I am at present on guard at the Magazine Fort in Phoenix Park so take the opportunity of replying to your letter received a day or two ago. This is a 24- hour job.

We arrived here about 10 o’clock this morning and are to be relieved about the same hour tomorrow morning. I am writing this in one of the 4 turrets – there is a turret at each corner of the fort, you may have noticed – during the intervals of watching out for the King’s enemies, this is the grandest place in the world, the park I mean. As far as I can see there are tents, where soldiers from Wales or from God-fearing England are singing hymns.

The weather is perfect, the park is lovely, the Dublin mountains are in sight and the beer is alright, so what more can a reasonable man want. I really feel that I shall suffocate if ever I return to London.

I am glad you enjoyed your stay in Dripsey. I am sorry I could not have remained longer. I had a pleasant time during the short journey from Dripsey to Cork. Your friends being very agreeable and quite attentive. The good-natured poor old lady insisted on taking me into a restaurant on arrival in Cork, treating me to a good meal and fetching from a neighbouring public house no less than 3 bottles of stout. I would love to be shifted down to Cork or Aghada, lovely though it is here around Dublin.

I shall never forget that trip to Dartmoor, nor the ten interesting prisoners we had to escort. We met them at North Wall, forming up outside the “Black Maria” where they were huddled together.

We were the only passengers on the boat – a cargo boat. However, it contained cabins just like a North Wall L.& N.W. boat, so it must have been specially chartered for us. The prisoners were in the inner cabin, outside the door of which we in turns had to mount guard.

After getting under weigh conversation with the Sinn Feiners soon commenced, and not very long after that we all became friends and Galligan the man who commanded the rebels in Wexford suggested a concert and constituted himself master of ceremonies. He wrote all the names in a book and called them out in turn. Brosnan, a tall handsome young fellow from Castlegregory commenced with “The West’s Awake” which he sang splendidly, laying special emphasis on “let England quake”. Soon Sinn Feiners and Dublin Fusiliers were vying with one another, singing song for song and all delighted with (3) themselves. Galligan himself did not sing, but recited a masterpiece of high treason and sedition as well as of brilliant satire. It was entitled “Queen Victoria’s Jubilee”.

On reaching Holyhead we made ourselves comfortable in the train and fraternised as before. I was so busy in arguing and discoursing and telling yarns with MacNeill, Galligan and Slattery – the Garryowen footballer and Cambridge University man sentenced to death but reprieved owing to severe wounds and the outcry in America against any further executions – that I did not do much duty between Holyhead and Dartmoor. However the duty was not of much consequence, merely consisting of standing in the corridor outside the carriage where the prisoners were. Slattery was a member, or probably a frequent visitor to, the union of the Four Provinces. Galligan gave me a religious medal as a souvenir, John MacNeill his last farthing which he had received from his little son before he left. I still have both.

Dealing with the rebellion, they say they had information leading them to believe that their arms were to be seized, that the arms were their own and that they were determined to resist disarmament (is this spelling correct) that is in the letter, not my question to the death. At any rate, there was no sign of repentance among our 10 prisoners. Poor MacNeill seemed sad at first, having only just parted from his wife and 8 children, but soon cheered up when he found that the members of the escort were Irish – as Irish as himself.(4)

 

 

Early in the journey from Holyhead, MacNeill and Brosnan asked me to write to their people, but I succeeded in procuring a supply of notepaper, envelopes and pencils at Weston-Super-Mare, so I was saved the necessity of doing so. At Plymouth, they gave me 11 letters to post.

At Princetown, the station for Dartmoor they shook hands with the soldiers and Galligan made a speech in which, on behalf of himself and his nine comrades, he thanked us from the bottom of his heart, said that we were all genuine Irishmen, that it was the happiest day they had spent for a long time, and that all they had to offer us was their prayers that we may come back safe and sound from the front, letter is underlined there if we go there, which he hoped would not come to pass.

The tears came into my eyes I may confess at the evidence of greatheartedness and generosity on the part of Galligan, the most vigorous and determined rebel of the whole ten. He is a man of about 30, of fine physique, and a staunch total abstainer, like Pearse and many of the other leaders. One of the prisoners was a Galway boy of 16 1/2 who was to undergo penal servitude for three years. Galligan insisted on my accepting 5/- [five shillings], to treat the Fusiliers and to drink to his health.

I wish I could find you a job in Dublin but what chance have I? Since the rising, I hardly see anybody, what with being on guard and standing to (which means confined to barracks). As you may know, the pubs now close at 8 o’clock, also the price of stout and porter is to be again raised. A meeting will be held tomorrow to decide upon the new prices. Hayes is about the only man I know who might be able to secure you a situation.

The first batch of 100 Fusiliers went away yesterday to Kilbride to fire their course, usually regarded as the last stage of training. Were it not for the rising we should all probably be now at the front, whereas we haven’t improved a bit or learnt a bit since Easter Monday.

Has Lar Daly gone back yet? Ask him to call and see me if passing through Dublin. I should like to have a few words with poor old Daly. I have made a note of Con Shea’s address. I wonder if he was in B’gham when we passed through on route for Plymouth. I, too, by the way am sleeping under canvas.

I don’t suppose there will be a settlement of the Home Rule problem. The bigotry of the Orangemen seems to be the great insuperable obstacle, the English appearing to be anxious to see the thing cleared up, owing to the forthcoming election in America and the temper and numerical strength of the Irish there, a great number of whom have seceded from the Redmondite party, and given their support to the irreconcilables.

8.pm – I have just come on for another 2 hours.

There was a big meeting at 1 o’clock today on Sackville St. some thousands of people having gathered together to express their sympathy with the insurgents. They were dispersed by the police, I hear, several arrests being made. We expect to hear full particulars to-morrow morning. (6)

I don’t know if you know John Hurley, the boy to whom Kathleen was to have been married. He was killed during Easter Week during the fighting in the neighbourhood of the Four Courts. He died of terrible wounds in the head – on the Friday following the outbreak of the rebellion.

There must have been a good deal of excitement over Joe Regan’s arrest. I suppose you know that Maurice Ahern of Dungourney was deported a week or two ago.

I was glad to have an opportunity of visiting London, although I had but 19 hours there – from 3.30am till 10.15pm. I, with 2 pals, first went to Leyton, where we remained until after dinner, they asleep in bed, I visiting friends in the neighbourhood. After dinner, we started off to see the sights and you bet we travelled some. They didn’t know London so I had to act as guide. In Mooney’s Strand I saw Dan Sullivan, Jack O’Reilly and one or two other fellows I know. One of the fellows on guard with me here to-day is a Munster and Leinster bank clerk who was for 6 months in Midleton. I didn’t know his name. In fact, out of the 17 here, 5 are Corkmen, and 1 a Kerryman.

I must now conclude now as I have a few more letters to write.

Hoping you are quite well.

Your old pal,

John O’Brien

P.S. I saw Jim Green when in London; also Alice and Tess. All three were at Euston to see us off. John

 

 


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