21 March 1916 – Irish Drill
Nationalist feeling led Irish lawyer and poet Patrick Henry Pearse to found Enda’s School in hopes of preserving the ancient Gaelic tongue in a bilingual format with English. Along with fluency, his school at Rathfarnham teaches traditional drill with kilts and bagpipes (see above) and performs plays based on Irish folktales and figures, with Pearse writing many of the scripts. His students have won awards and scholarships, earning high praise from Douglas Hyde, the President of his beloved Gaelic League. “For want of proper education, people in this country had forgotten that they had a country,” Hyde declared during a sports day in June of 1914, “but men like Patrick Pearse and schools like St. Enda’s are bringing back again the consciousness of belonging to a nation.”
That was the year in which all of Ireland seemed to teeter on the verge of mass violence — until the Great War began, putting off the question of Home Rule for the duration of hostilities without resolving the tensions which had nearly led to civil war. Today Pearse is holding a céilí, a school social that brigns the community together with folk music, singers, Irish dancing, and storytelling. Like many such gatherings he has held recently, the event masks a meeting of Irish Volunteers. Pearse is on their Military Committee and a key decision-maker in plans being laid for an Easter uprising. In the middle of the céilí, a messenger arrives from the King’s County city of Tullamore with urgent news that the first shots have already been fired.
Yesterday evening, a large crowd was attending a farewell for men of the Leinster Regiment on their way to the Western front when a group of Volunteers appeared, causing a loud scene. Leaving the train station afterwards, a portion of the irked audience gathered outside the local headquarters of Sinn Féin, which had also annoyed the community by holding a march the day before to raise money for weapons. Consisting mostly of women and men too young or old for service, the crowd now jeered and taunted the people inside, gesticulating and waving Union Jacks with patriotic fervor.
As the situation grew more testy, with stones and bricks being hurled at the windows, the male volunteers who had shown up for pistol practice began to worry for the safety of female auxiliaries in the Cumann na mBan who were present, and it was decided to escort them home. The crowd formed a gantlet, however, forcing the Republicans to dodge blows and rush away. Although just 15 men were left inside, the hostility level rose, and the crowd became a mob. When Frank Brennan was rushed in the stairwell, he drew his revolver and fired a shot over the heads of the crowd in hopes of dispersing them. Instead of being cowed, however, the people outside only grew angrier, redoubling their street barrage. At that point, Peadar Bracken also fired his pistol out of a smashed window in another failed attempt to intimidate their attackers.
Moments later, the police arrived from Barrack Street to bang on the door, which was now bolted shut. They demanded to enter, but the Republicans inside were unwilling to let anyone in to seize their guns. When the police battered down the door to the enthusiastic applause of onlookers, they rushed in to take charge of the situation. Leading the entry in person, District Inspector Fitzgerald was struck with a Hurley (Irish field hockey) stick, but his 21 officers hustled past and into the room, forming up along the opposite wall from the insurgents. In this odd, absurd moment where the two sides faced each other, a police sergeant gave orders to take everyone’s names; the Republicans refused to answer to anyone but their own officers. The police officers then demanded to search the building for weapons, but Peader Bracken and the other two officers present refused.
That was when the real trouble started. The room became a scrum, a mass of kicking and shouting and swearing and thrown or swung objects. During the melee, Peadar Bracken’s first bullet went between County Inspector Crane’s legs when a constable knocked the barrel downwards. Set upon as he tripped moving backwards, Bracken tried to shoot the Inspector again, but seriously wounded the sergeant in the arm and chest instead; taking aim a third time, he found his cylinder empty. Seamus O’Brennan, the third Volunteer officer, also tried to open fire, but his pistol jammed. Moments later, the Volunteers were spilling out of the building, fighting their way through the crowd to get home. Four are left behind in the hands of police. Bracken and O’Brennan each got away on their own to lie low at the homes of Volunteers; they will later resurface in Dublin as leaders of the Easter uprising.
Hearing the news today at Rathfarnham, Patrick Pearse is moved to speak with disregard for the consequences of his verbal treason. He tells the audience that as it took the blood of the Son of God to redeem the world, so the blood of the sons of Ireland will redeem the nation. The unscheduled intermission is followed up with nationalist songs; Patrick’s brother Willie, who may harbor some doubts about the headlong rush towards revolt, reportedly remarks that the renewed sincerity of the moment brings sudden, new depths of passion to old lyrics: “For years we have listened to these songs. Only today have we fully realized their meaning.” Frank Burke, a teacher at Enda, later says that “poor Willie Pearse looked sad and lonely as if he had a premonition of the fate that was in store for him and his beloved brother.”
The Military Council immediately spins the Tullamore violence to their advantage, polarizing the moderates in the Volunteer Executive into endorsing tougher measures, such as the vow to meet government raids with the “resistance and bloodshed” shown at Tullamore. Ironically, Dublin Castle is mired in paralysis, even complacence, as British authorities fail to foresee or appreciate the Easter uprising despite numerous escalations. On St. Patrick’s Day, as Volunteers pointedly engaged in rifle drill within sight of Dover Castle, Chief Secretary for Ireland Augustine Birrell held a meeting with his undersecretary, Major-General Sir Lovick Friend, British intelligence officer Ivon Price, the Irish attorney general, and police officials. Worried about possible blowback, they failed to agree on any strategy for suppressing the Volunteers. Like John Redmond, the Irish Party leader who nearly brought on a civil war in 1914 by pushing for Home Rule in the first place, the British government hopes that the Irish Volunteers will simply “wither away” if they are ignored. It is wishful thinking.