North Street, Newry, County Down

North Street, Newry, County Down
North Street, Newry, County Down

Monday 21 March 2016

Easter 1916

What follows is a fictional account of the events of Easter 1916. It is based on the written account of Amy Biddulph. Her name has been changed to Vicky.

At the end of 1915 James and Vicky moved to Delgany with the two girls to a larger house with a garden on a quiet leafy road. The following Easter James was unwell. For days he was unable to leave the house. His inability to join up with the Territorials had left him low and unhappy. He felt himself to be useless and a burden.
“There must be something I can do,” he said when Vicky remonstrated with him. In her heart she knew he was too ill to be of use.  But on Easter Sunday he had taken the train to Dublin. That evening he failed to return and there was no word from him.
The first little whisper that reached them about anything untoward came from a neighbour who often brought them an evening paper. He called at the door about eight in the evening of Monday the 24th of April.
“Sorry I couldn’t get a paper this evening,” he said. “They say the Sinn Feiners have risen and are in Dublin Castle and the Post Office and have the railway line. No trains are coming in and they are shooting everybody.”
Vicky stood transfixed at the door.  No trains, she thought, so that’s why James didn’t return last night. For a moment she felt a surge of relief, believing him to be in hotel somewhere, safe and sound. Then the true enormity of the situation hit her. Now she was worried for his safety.
When the maid returned from an outing with friends she proceeded straight to bed. Vicky called her down again and asked her had she heard any disquieting news.
“Yes, Mrs Abbott,” she answered, her young face pale. “ The Sinn Feiners have taken all Dublin, all railway stations, shot all officers at sight and the Station Master at Westland Row. Is it true?”
What could Vicky answer to ease her anxiety? She knew no more than anyone else. And where on earth was James? Had he been so foolish as to join the Territorials in Dublin in spite of his illness? Why had she let him go? She wrote in her journal in her round firm handwriting.
Did anything this morning as we rose from our beds foretell what this day would bring forth? Did anything whisper of the awful tragedy about to be enacted so near our doors? Nothing. We slept. We rose up. We eat and nothing disturbed our peace of mind except the war news and that was all good.
She spent a restless and anxious night.
On Tuesday morning no letters or papers arrived. There was still no word from James.  In the house in Delgany the occupants were beginning to think there was some truth in the reports.
All true only worse, she wrote in her journal later. Soldiers thrown down their packs and gone over to the enemy.  And where on earth is James? she thought. She knew his ambivalence. Could he possibly have joined the insurgents?
All wires and telephones cut, she added. Twenty-five thousand troops marching up from the country. Blackrock entrenched. Also Kingstown is in the hands of the enemy.
She called on a neighbour – one they had dubbed the Know All because he seemed to know everything that was going on.
“You’ll find it’s not as bad as they say,” was all he could tell her.
She drove then to Greystones to look for the papers. There were none to be had. But the rumours persisted. There is no Mail Boat running. We are cut off from England. Five thousand Canadians have landed at Kingstown. This news was brought by a young officer from the front who had ventured up to Dublin in his motor. Later this was contradicted by the Know All who said it was “All lies.”
There was to be no end to the rumours. Several of the ancient Volunteers from Greystones are missing. All Officers seen in Dublin are shot. Vicky’s heart turned to stone when she heard this, but she could not stop herself listening to the rumours and asking for news.
Martial Law has been proclaimed. The enemy are strongly entrenched in Stephen’s Green and there is a machine gun aimed at the Shelbourne Hotel, Vicky wrote.  Later she heard that this was erected by the military who could not fire as two hundred police were in Stephen’s Green in front of the enemy who also held the Phoenix Park.
That night she heard from a messenger boy who was in Dublin through it all.
“All the shops have been looted,” he said. “I saw women sitting down in Tyler’s shop trying on boots and carrying away aprons full of things. There were Sinn Feiners in windows shooting soldiers. Three officers and seventeen men of the 5th Lancers were shot.” His eyes were wide with horror, but there was no stopping him. “One soldier I saw was surrounded. He was just going to be shot when a girl threw herself in front of him and dragged him into a house and saved his life. The laundry man has been shot.”
“Our laundry man?” asked Vicky.
“Yes,” the boy nodded and turned away.
By Wednesday the rumour mill claimed that Cork, Limerick and Belfast were as bad, and Arklow was in the hands of the insurgents. Five hundred soldiers passed for Arklow. And still there was no James. Vicky was sleepless at night with worry.
By Wednesday afternoon the rumours had increased and multiplied.
10,000 troops landed from England in the night. They have gassed the insurgents in the Post Office and took possession. They have got back all the railway lines. There are still no papers, no letters, no trains. All the Ancient Volunteers were ordered out to guard the line. Missing ones are safe in Beggars Bush Barracks.
Vicky heaved a sigh of relief at this, though she no longer knew what to believe. Perhaps James was there. If so, surely he could have sent a message to her. He must know by now how anxious she would be, how concerned for his safety. Where were the Territorials? Was any of it true?
The insurgents are still in Stephen’s Green and the Castle. The Military have the situation well in hand. All communication with England is still cut off. No mail boats. Boyne Bridge blown up. Last rumour, 1,000 Sinn Feiners are expected to rise in Bray tonight.
Later she heard it was not the Boyne Bridge but the Bridge at Malahide. None of it made any sense. She continued to write in her journal, trying to occupy her mind, documenting the rumours as she heard them
Authentic news? Sir Roger Casement caught with two Germans in Kerry and shot. No, Not shot. Taken to the Tower.
Know All had at last been correct. Two priests, Father Stafford who had been all through the Dardenells and Father Dougherty, a loyal Bray priest, shot dead. Liberty Hall blown up. How could it all be true?
Clearly it wasn’t all true when the ‘dead’ laundry man arrived on Thursday morning with the washing. There was news too, of a sort. A notice had been put up in the Police Barracks.

‘The Viceroy wished it to be widely known, the military have the situation well in hand. 10.000 troops have landed with ambulances, engineers and so on. We have retaken the Post Office.’

She later heard that it was no such thing; the insurgents were still in the Post Office but had been gassed out of Stephens Green and were still in all houses down to Booterstown but the Castle had been retaken. The story now is that a German ship has sunk off Kerry trying to land, and all are rescued including Roger Casement. Other ships have been driven off. There are guns on Kingsbridge. Also Trinity College.
The rumour spread like wildfire that Enniscorthy was in the hands of the enemy. Also Galway. The Cable has been cut by a German submarine off Kerry.
Somehow there was a copy of the Daily Mail going the round of Greystones which she managed to read. There was very little in it about the war in Ireland. Still there were no letters. Still there was no news from James. The latest rumour says that Father Stafford has been shot.
On Friday the sound of gunfire woke Vicky at daybreak. She went again to Greystones in search of news. The village was quiet in the morning sunshine. Nothing was reported at the Police Barracks. Rumour is the DBC has been blown up and half Sackville Street is in a blaze. The Welsh Fusiliers have suffered badly.
In the afternoon she called on a Mrs Thompson who had received a letter by hand from her mother saying she was alive but that there was firing going on over her house all the time. She was anxious as to what was happening in Delgany and Greystones.
“I’ve heard it ‘on good authority,’ “  said Mrs Thompson with certainty to Vicky. “That the Countess Markievicz has shot two officers and was there and then riddled with bullets by the soldiers.” She had also heard that all provisions were running out so had laid in a store.
Apparently hundreds of motorcars have passed the glen for nights before carrying arms and men to Dublin. A Mr. Walker has not been heard of but a man who was with him has been shot dead. All Ireland is under martial law.
A neighbour coming home met a doubtful looking girl with a parcel who said she had escaped from Dublin. Nice Sinn Feiner said she had met a priest who had come over from England and that London is in flames and the people are going mad. The neighbour was sorry he did not mention the matter to police but his legs were tired.
Young Dobbs says Enniscorthy is very bad and the doctor and a District Inspector have been shot.  He added that we had asked for soldiers down the line but that they had not arrived yet. An officer and a soldier were fired on here. Mrs Walker’s aunt, an old lady of 75, has been turned out of her house in the night in her nightdress and taken in by some neighbours. There is a man missing, and also the milk boy.
Vicky could feel panic rising in her throat and tasting bitter in her mouth. Why didn’t James contact her? Surely it was not impossible to get a message through somehow, or even come home himself?
At 9 pm the maid brought news. “An officer is just down from Dublin, saying all is going well,” she said reassuringly.” and Dublin will be clear in 24 hours.”
Saturday the 29th of April was a glorious day.
An old soldier arrived and reported all starving in Bray. Arrangements are being made to charter McCormack’s boat to go to England for food. He also reported that five hundred Sinn Feiners are dead in Stephen’s Green and a hospital has been burnt down. One of the G.R.  men who has escaped from Dublin arrived at a Mrs Laws. He said the streets of Dublin were running with blood. He got away by hiding his armlet and walking all the way.
Vicky heard later that Carlisle Bridge had been half blown away and half Sackville Street was down.
Another man cycled out from Dublin at his own risk. He said firing had been going on all night. The battle at Elgin Road has been awful lasting two days and two nights. He had been at a funeral of three officers, friends of his own. Nineteen officers were killed altogether they thought. Sinn Feiners are being taken out of the houses as the soldiers got in, put up against the wall and shot in batches of four or five. The hunger in the City is awful.
There was still no news of Mr Walker, or of James. Vicky was by now terrified. He must be dead, she thought. There could be no other explanation for his absence... She no longer knew how to answer Ellen’s constant demands as to the whereabouts of James.
The last report of the day came at 8.30 that evening. There was great excitement.
The German fleet has been beaten. And thirty ships sunk. Also a rumour of peace in Dublin. The latest rumour from Enniscorthy was of all police killed. In Wexford the ‘National Volunteers’, drove all Sinn Feiners out of the City.
The next day, Sunday, was the seventh day of battle. Vicky, though reluctant, took herself and Ellen to church where they heard the announcement that all Sinn Feiners in Dublin had surrendered unconditionally. They also heard afterwards that 24,000 Germans trying to land were now at the bottom of the seas. There had been a great naval battle. 37 German ships had been sunk and 14 of the British. Great rejoicing, though Vicky warned her daughter not to believe everything she heard.
And so she was not surprised when she heard at 9 pm that night that there was fighting once more in Dublin. It wasn’t over after all. Somehow she managed to get a loan of a copy of Lloyd’s Weekly which continued a good account of Dublin’s battle up to Friday. So much of what they had heard had been true. But there was no more about the naval battle and the 24,000 Germans.
When the news came that James’ body lay in a Dublin hospital Vicky was not totally unprepared. The silence from him had gone on too long. She knew something untoward must have happened. He had been identified by the pass in his breast pocket which allowed him to cross the City during the fighting, a pass that she did not know he had obtained from the local police station. He had been hit in the chest by a stray bullet.. How long he had been dead, and why she had not been notified sooner she could not ascertain. Something in the story did not hold up, but she knew she would never find out.
His funeral took place on a calm spring day. After the ceremony in the little church the funeral cortege wound its way up the hill to Redford Cemetery in Greystones. Vicky followed with Arthur and Rose and a little girl with a white and tearstained face. She never spoke. She did not grieve. Indeed she felt after fifteen years of marriage that she hardly knew this man she buried.
The grave was dug at the farthest end of the cemetery, the freshly turned earth ready for its occupant, the wreaths of flowers laid aside. Soon the flowers would lie on top of the grave and James would be gone forever.  His sisters stood side by side at the graveside while the clergyman intoned a prayer. Ellen Abbott had assured Vicky that she would see that her namesake would be provided for.  For this small comfort Vicky had to be grateful.
From here she could see out over the wide panorama of the Irish Sea. And it was here that she made up her mind. All week she had agonised about what she should do next.  Now, seeing the clear blue sea in front of her, she knew.
One week later she stood on the deck of the Leinster as it left the Port of Dublin and turning, revealed the whole of Dublin Bay from Bray head and the Sugar Loaf to Howth, Ireland’s Eye and Lambay Island. Beneath her she could feel the engines vibrating the decks. Little white caps topped the waves. Dalkey Island and Bray Head stood out clear in the sunshine. Young Ellen held her hand as, both of them dressed in deepest black, Ellen with black ribbons in her long straight hair, they watched the Dublin Mountains drift away and vanish over the horizon.