Of all the battlefield sites of the rebellion, North King Street is perhaps the most difficult to interpret in the contemporary landscape. Air Corps photographs taken in 1950 depict an area completely alien to modern eyes, one which still retains many of the buildings evident on the Ordnance Survey 25 inch mapping undertaken in 1907. According to the Bureau of Military History (BMH) website, the photographs were annotated by Commandant R. Feely who fought in the area in 1916 and when taken along with the other images obtained by the Air Corps they provide a fascinating glimpse of a city which has virtually vanished in the intervening years.
Our task as archaeologists is to treat this area as an archaeological site and to collect the evidence as we would were we excavating trenches in the ground. This may appear an unusual endeavour; however the theory of using archaeological techniques in contemporary landscapes is one which has gained currency elsewhere and where traditional archaeological approaches usually involve the destruction of the evidence through excavation, our approach is to interpret what’s in front of us, to identify what survives today and hopefully to redefine ideas of what actually happened over the period of the Rising.
In addition to the photographs, the BMH has over 20 witness statements from participants and observers of the fighting in the area, which provide details of the location of barricades and premises occupied by the Volunteers from the Monday through to the eventual surrender of the final outpost the following Sunday. The witness statements were collected between 1947 and 1957, some thirty to forty years after the events took place, and a certain degree of imprecision is to be expected. Where historians treat these texts as (often contradictory) primary sources, the team initially interrogated the documents for references to the buildings occupied and attempted to annotate them on the 1907 mapping before examining the evidence in the field.
It’s striking that anyone under the age of 60 will have no memory of the general area around Church Street and North King Street as it would have appeared in 1916 and in this respect, this brings the area closer to a traditional archaeological site. Of all the sites to be covered in the project, this landscape is perhaps the most denuded in terms of its built heritage and historic vistas, where the widening of the principal road junction makes it very difficult to appreciate the intimacy of the fighting over the final hours as Reilly’s Fort was being attacked from the east.
Reading through the witness statements certain buildings achieve a deserved prominence and in the case of one building in particular, something of the difficulty in reimagining the landscape with the historical sources can be appreciated. Clarke’s Dairy is annotated on all the maps of the fighting as being located on the southwestern corner of Church Street and North Brunswick Street. More recently published accounts of the Rising persist in locating the dairy to the west of Church Street and the secondary accounts of what took place here are obviously influenced by this perception of its location.
The witness statements are admittedly ambiguous as to the exact location of the dairy, where its strategic significance is accepted in all primary accounts. The witness statement of Captain Nicholas Laffan (BMH WS201) for example states that he established his HQ in Moore’s (coachbuilders) Factory, which occupied the northwestern corner of the junction, and that he also occupied Clarke’s Dairy ‘diagonally opposite’. Eamon Morkan’s witness statement (BMH WS411) agrees with Laffan and states that ‘we manned a house, Clarke’s, at the junction of Church Street and New Lisburn Street’.
The positions on North Brunswick Street have an added significance in the narrative of the Rising, being the last to surrender on the Sunday morning. The British, having taken Reilly’s Fort the previous day, had effectively cut off communications with the new HQ established in the Four Courts and the surrender of Clarke’s Dairy was negotiated by Paddy Holahan, who had taken over the position after Laffan was wounded.
An examination of the 1915 edition of Thom’s Directory does not list Clarke’s Dairy and indicates that the southeastern corner of New Lisburn Street and Church Street was occupied by Monk’s Bakery, where several of the witness statements state that Monk’s was on the northeastern corner of Church Street and North King Street. The files of the Property Losses (Ireland) Committee were also examined and they indicate that Thomas Clarke of 80 Church Street Upper claimed for £53 for damage to stock and furniture, where he was eventually granted £20 (NAI PLIC/1/3575).
The four Air Corps photographs taken of the building known as Clarke’s Dairy in 1950 undoubtedly depict the structure identified by Laffan and Morkan. The building has long been demolished and its foundations, which presumably survive underneath the carriageway on Church Street, have now become an archaeological site in their own right. When the photographs are examined with the 1907 mapping, the strategic importance of the building becomes obvious. The three windows in its north-facing elevation provided an excellent field of fire against any British advance being made down Constitution Hill from their position at Broadstone, where the angle of fire from the windows in the west-facing façade dominated any attempted advance from the west along North Brunswick Street. The witness statements also specify that ‘loopholes’ were broken through on the north- and south-facing elevations, which explains how fire could be directed on Reilly’s Fort after its capture by the British.
How is it possible that a site of such significance continues to be incorrectly mapped? The landscape of the Rising was certainly extant when the witness statements were being collected in the 1950s. As late as 1964 local TD Richard Gogan asked a parliamentary question regarding the clearance ‘of that part of the scheme consisting of Lisburn Street, Coleraine Street and Upper Church Street, which consists mainly of derelict houses’ (Dáil Éireann Debates, Vol. 181 No. 1). The road widening eventually came to pass by the end of the ‘60s, resulting in the construction of Kevin Barry House and urban landscape we see today.
The first account of the fighting in the North King Street area was published as three instalments in the journal of the National Army, An tÓglágh in May 1926. It was written by John J. Reynolds, Curator of the Municipal Art Gallery ‘from statements made to the writer shortly after 1916, by actual participants in the fighting’. Reynolds refers to the occupation of ‘Moore’s Coach Factory, a long low building at the comer of North Brunswick Street’ and states that ‘at Monks’ Bakery the high three storey house, Clarke’s Dairy, opposite the coach factory was taken’. Where Laffan thirty years later specified that the buildings were diagonally opposite one another, the map published in the third instalment of Reynolds’ account places Clarke’s Dairy directly opposite Moore’s on the southern side of North Brunswick Street. All of the maps of the battlefield published since have perpetuated this mistake where the accompanying narratives have followed suit.
Our investigations of this landscape continue. Over the next few posts we’ll be looking at what remains of the Linenhall Barracks, what the files of the Property Losses (Ireland) Committee can tell us about the location of Volunteer positions and the conflicting evidence for the conflict around the Four Courts.