Tuesday 25 October 2016

Innocent children of 1916 died with first taste of chocolate in their mouths


Children scavenging for firewood during Easter week
Children scavenging for firewood during Easter week

It takes less than a minute to recite the names of the 40 children killed in the six-day Easter Rising - but this is the first time in 100 years that it has been possible to do so.

It is hard to believe that in Dublin city centre as we now know it almost 500 people lost their lives in that seminal week. Even today there is still not a full and accurate list of all those who died.

The majority of casualties were civilian, which is not surprising given that some 20,000 rifle-carrying combatants were present in the warren of streets, lanes and alleyways of the busting city centre - where more than 75pc of Dublin's population lived at the time.

Where the ILAC Centre now stands there were, in 1916, some 20 narrow, teeming streets. It was a bazaar of abattoirs, pubs, second-hand clothes shops, third-hand furniture stores, vegetable stalls, bakeries and butcher shops.

The children used the streets as their playground. School was out that Easter week, so children poured onto the streets on Easter Monday morning as 300 rebels marched from Liberty Hall to the GPO.

The subsequent sounds of breaking glass, shouting, screaming, roaring and confusion were a magnet to the youngsters. By the week's end six of them would lie dead within 500 yards of the GPO, and 34 within a few miles of it.


The British Lancers from the Linenhall barracks in nearby Bolton Street, who charged headlong towards the GPO that Monday, were followed closely by barefooted waifs, who careered towards the excitement. After all, a few scraps of wood, paper, coal or stale bread was a treasure trove for poverty-stricken families.

Imagine the excitement as the confusion and fighting was breached by the crashing collapse of the front window of Nobletts sweet shop in North Earl Street. The lifetime of longing for an Easter egg or the taste of sweet chocolate was within reach.

In the children poured for the sole gorge of their lives - grabbing bon bons, jellies and liquorices as the bewildered shopkeeper could only look on in shock.

I have no doubt that some of the children shot and killed that week fell with the first sweet taste of chocolate in their young mouths.

Not all the child victims that week were from the tenements of Dublin. At least ten of the 40 who died violently were from well-off backgrounds. The family of William Lionel Sweny in Lincoln Place no doubt used their valuable and rare telephone - Dublin 1199 - to search for their missing 14-year-old, to no avail.

From nearby North Cumberland Street John Kirwan went missing on Easter Monday. His distraught mother Annie pleaded on the front page of the Evening Herald nearly a month later (on May 20) under the heading, 'This boy is lost', for information about her 15-year-old son, last seen on Easter Monday afternoon 100 yards from the GPO.

He had lain unrecognisable on a mortuary slab in Jervis Street Hospital for a month. His mother identified him by the lucky coin in his pocket that he had got for his Confirmation.

Each child has a story, a family and an unfulfilled life. They deserve to be remembered. They are part of our history.

One of the surprising results of the project to reclaim and remember the children of 1916, that I have been engaged in for the past three years, is being able to bring together relatives of the same child who had never met before.

The project is ongoing, but it is driven by the poetic words of songwriter Declan O'Rourke who has proclaimed in his moving song on the children: "Nor Pearse, nor Clarke, MacDonagh or the Connolly we knew would rest were they remembered on a pedestal alone, Are they not the fathers of our nation proud and free? And our sister and our brothers then, the Children of '16".

Joe Duffy is the author of the Children of the Rising: The Untold Story of the Young Lives lost during Easter 1916, published by Hachette. Anyone with information for the project can contact Freepost PO Box 1916, Dublin 3 or joed1916@gmail.com

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