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Saturday 3 December 2016

Why did 400 civilians die on the streets of Dublin in 1916?

British troops on a Dublin street in April 1916
British troops on a Dublin street in April 1916

During the 1916 Rebellion in Dublin, 128 members of the Crown forces, three members of the police and 67 insurgents lost their lives.

The largest number of casualties, however, was among the civilian population, with more than 400 residents killed in the fighting.

Subsequent lists of people interred cite 254 buried in Glasnevin, 29 in Mount Jerome and 49 in Deansgrange cemeteries. Only 37 of the 49 bodies interred in Deansgrange could be identified and 20 additional unidentified bodies were interred in Glasnevin.

These figures included some combatants but, given the confusion of Easter Week, the poverty of the inner-city, and the ferocity of the fires on Sackville Street, these figures may underestimate civilian deaths.

Injuries

Injuries due to the Rebellion were far higher and over 1,700 civilians were admitted to hospital in Dublin.

Citizens of all classes lost their lives, but deaths were concentrated in the working class districts of the north inner city - the area between the environs of modern day O'Connell Street and west to Smithfield Square.

It was this area that sustained the most physical destruction of property due to the military's bombardment of the city centre. Intense fighting in the Four Courts area also resulted in high civilian casualties, and military atrocities were carried out in the district during the Friday and Saturday of Easter Week.

The 'difficulty' in distinguishing between civilians and rebels was retrospectively highlighted as justification for the deaths of civilians by officers of the Crown Forces.

To explain the high level of civilian casualties one needs to examine the background and conduct of the two British regiments sent to Ireland to subdue the Rebellion - the Sherwood Foresters and the South Staffordshire Regiment.

Captain Archibald Dickson of the Sherwood Foresters recalled that during the fighting, "we had to sort out friends from enemies as we reached the houses".

Lieutenant Colonel Taylor of the South Staffordshire Regiment was in charge of the occupation of houses in the North King Street area when 13 unarmed civilians were shot dead by the military.

He subsequently claimed: "My men were fired at and fired back, and any persons in upper rooms of houses, civilians or soldiers, might easily have been shot in that way".

There is very limited validity in the argument that the military could not distinguish civilians from fighters during the Rebellion.

Several factors need to be taken into consideration, including the poor training of conscripts fighting with the Crown Forces and their subsequent lack of discipline.

Captain Gerrard of 5th Division, South Staffordshires, subsequently highlighted the ineptitude and lack of training that characterised the Sherwood Foresters.

"One of my sentries in Beggars Bush Barracks...said to me, 'I beg your pardon, Sir, I have just shot two girls'. I said, 'What on earth did you do that for'. He said, 'I thought they were rebels. I was told they dressed in all classes of attire'."

Shock

Their posting to Ireland had come as a shock to the Crown Forces. Colonel Vale later commented: "In the early morning of the 25th the 176 Staffordshire Brigade were marching to Berhamstead anticipating a move to France.

"It was not until the town was reached that newspaper posters of a rebellion in Dublin indicated to the troops that Ireland was a possibility."

Even when they arrived in Dublin, many of the men believed that they were in France.

The facts surrounding civilian deaths remain unclear and disputed but the ill discipline of the Crown Forces, their obvious contempt for safety of the residents of the city and their limited interest in differentiating between rebel insurgents and innocent civilians lie at the heart of the issue.

Military inquiries were later conducted only in high profile cases.

For the vast majority of the civilian casualties, there was no legal recourse, no verified accounts of killings and the victims were buried in haste.

Not for the last time, the British military in Ireland were content to punish the civilian population for the actions of republican insurgents and ordinary people were treated as mere collateral.

Dr Conor McNamara is 1916 Scholar-in-Residence at NUI Galway

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