‘All wars end; even this war will some day end, and the ruins will be rebuilt … and this frontier of trouble will be forgotten’ J. Masefield ‘The Old Front Line’
The main aim of the Archaeology of 1916 project is to re-visit those parts of the city that were affected by the Easter Rising, to re-assess their place in the contemporary urban landscape and also to seek out any traces of the conflict that may still exist. As our research is building momentum we are beginning to realise that the post-1916 repairs are just as important as the damage they are covering up.
Hide and Seek
“The Volunteers were scattered all over the place. It was like hide and seek…many encounters took place at point blank range … fighting actually took place in the wards where nurses and patients had a trying time escaping from the conflict”. (J.V. Joyce, An t-Óglách, IV, No. 22, 3, 1926).
On Easter Monday, 24th of April 1916 members of the 4th Battalion of Irish Volunteers under the command of Éamonn Ceannt took hold of the 53 acre South Dublin Union (SDU), today’s St. James’s Hospital, a garrison which was to become one of the focal points of the conflict that saw some of the bloodiest fighting.
For those who do not know their way around St James’s it appears to be a maze of various buildings, dead ends, endless corridors and homogeneous wards. Imagine what it was like in 1916, for the Irish Volunteer or British soldier, unable to gauge where the next sniper was firing from or who you might find around the corner? Descriptions in the witness statements given by the staff and Volunteers give some insight into the panic, terror and confusion that went on at the SDU over Easter Week 1916.
The very first building recorded on the site was a poor house which was constructed in 1667. After which a foundling hospital which was established in 1727.
In 1916, the Union was a place for Dublin’s destitute, infirm and mentally ill that housed 3,282 people including staff and patients. During its occupation on Easter Week eight volunteers were killed and a nurse, Margaret Keogh, was shot inadvertently by a British soldier. Despite the dangers, the hospital staff – distinguished by red cross arm bands, white coats and white flags – did their best to manage the patients and inmates, getting food supplies and even burying anyone who died that week including patients, soldiers and Volunteers, all of whom were exhumed and re-buried afterwards.
By Easter Tuesday, the occupation of the SDU was confined to two isolated positions, the Board Room which was located above an arch forming the main entrance on James’s Street and the Nurses’ Home which was inside the entrance to the right. This building became the headquarters for the garrison – both Ceannt and Cathal Brugha and their comrades were positioned here, while W.T. Cosgrave was in the Board Room. This section was demolished in the 1970s but had particularly advantageous vistas up and down James’s Street. After British soldiers infiltrated the SDU complex, they set up camp in the hospital wing and Dining Hall opposite the Nurses’ Home. This meant that Cosgrave and his men were cut off from the rest, his only option was to bore ‘mouse holes’ through the partition walls of the intervening rooms and buildings to gain access and maintain communications with the rest of the Volunteers.
Note the local alley names in Rocque’s Map – ‘Murdering Lane’ was later called ‘Cromwell’s Quarters’ and is now known as ‘Cromwell’s Steps’. In 1916 machine gun fire was directed against the northern elevation of the Nurses’ Home from a lodge opposite the eastern gate of the Royal Hospital. The long lane at the back of the Nurses’ Home was still called ‘Cut Throat Lane’ in 1916.
The Nurses’ Home
” … a three-storey stone structure in a commanding position.” BMH WS 0268, W.T. Cosgrave
The Nurses’ Home is the only fully intact building left on the site that was occupied by the Volunteers. Built around 1740 as the Workhouse Master’s residence. The building can be seen on Rocque’s map of 1756, it was connected to the Foundling Hospital which was located opposite and the line of one-storey buildings that still exist today and are attached to the southern wall of the Home were originally used as a linen factory, these buildings later served as accommodation for those working at the SDU. In 1916 Laurence Tallon and his family lived in the adjacent quarters and passed food to the Volunteers over the back wall. Two days later, his house was occupied by British soldiers who broke a hole in the intervening wall to access the Nurses’ Home in an effort to take the position and force a surrender; their efforts were unsuccessful.
“The Nurses’ Home was in a deplorable condition, everything broken, all the plaster of the walls and ceilings, floors ripped up, electric light shattered, and generally the place was rendered unfit for occupation.” (J.V. Joyce, An t-Óglách, IV, No. 22, 3, 1926).
Unfortunately we have been unable to source any images of the building immediately after the Rising. Today, it would appear to have survived relatively unscathed, however the witness statements paint a very different picture. After a number of visits and detailed inspections it has become apparent that the building saw significant modifications to its fabric and structure as the physical evidence of 1916 was gradually erased, only to survive in the oral and historical record.
“…a sustained attack was made on the Nurses’ Home. During the engagement the plaster was shot off the walls and ceilings. Holes were breached in the walls from one room to the next to permit more freedom of movement when the attack increased in severity. Explosions went on repeatedly and every now and then a shower of bricks would fall from the Nurses’ Home.” BMH WS 0268, W.T. Cosgrave
Cosgrave’s description of the building is interesting as it may confirm the fact that the external walls were not rendered in 1916. Today its austere rubble calp limestone walls show little sign of the conflict. Dublin calp was cheap and not particularly durable. Workhouses tended to use inexpensive local stone so as not to draw attention to themselves, and decoration was kept to a minimum, including details like render or plaster. The only real decorative feature is the carved granite Gibbsian doorcase.
On closer inspection the granite has been repaired with Roman cement and covered with multiple layers of paint (see above image), currently it is decorated with a splattered paint effect replicating granite. If the parts that are chipped away clearly show the base material is granite, could the layers of paint and touches of cement be an attempt to cover up the damage inflicted in 1916? The granite string coursing that runs below the ground floor windows is not painted and displays chipping to its underside. This may constitute evidence of a frontal attack. The key points in the building that would have been targeted were the windows and doorcase. The only Volunteer fatality at the Nurses’ Home was Frank Burke, who was shot in the neck as he leaned across a window to light his cigarette from a comrade’s lit match. This window was above the main door, directly opposite the hospital wing that was occupied by the British soldiers.
The Volunteers were well aware that any openings weakened the buildings’ security and so anytime a building was taken over, the first task undertaken was to block barricade any embrasures. In 1916 a porch stood inside the hall door of the Nurses’ Home. This was quickly secured.
The Condition of Nurses’ Home after the attack
to undermine the building by boring. On Friday there was a lull in the operations.” BMH WS155, P.S. Doyle
In his witness statement Liam O’Flaherty was positioned on the upper floors at the back of the house:
“The Nurses’ Home was under fire from the Old Men’s House (the Royal Hospital Kilmainham), during the whole week and the back windows on the stairs were cut away by bullets.” BMWS0248
In the photograph above of the rear elevation of the building we can see two of the five brick structural arches, the windows are surrounded with the same buff yellow brick and no trace of any machine gun rounds can be found on the upper storeys. This has led us to believe that the back of the Nurses’ Home could have been completely rebuilt – there can be no doubt the roof must have suffered enormous damage but would have been costly to replace. So an alternative would have been the insertion of these structural brick arches and the use of the same to reconstruct the windows indicated the work was carried out at the same time.
An extension is recorded in 1931 for “toilets” which may be the return extension we see today (see above image). Clad in concrete, this extension blocks any light that may enter the stairwell, except on the top floor. In Liam O’Flaherty’s witness statement he mentions ” … the back windows of the stairs …”. Could this confirm the whole rear elevation and extension was rebuilt after 1916? If the windows on the stairs were all ” … cut away by bullets …” then it is a logical place to position an extension – to the area most damaged that can be accessed by the stairwell.
James Coughlan’s witness statement confirms this:
“… the staircase was particularly vulnerable, being exposed for most of its length to the view of very large windows.” BMH.WS0304
A photograph taken by the Air Corps in the 1940s shows this extension existed then, along with an early kitchen wing which was used during the building’s occupation in 1916 and demolished afterwards. We are hoping to get more information from the Insurance claims that were made by the South Dublin Union for the reconstruction and repairs of the building these will be released this Wednesday.
“After the volunteers vacated the South Dublin Union the gates were thrown open and crowds went in all through the Nurses’ Home looking for momentos; and a lot of articles were taken which were not momentos but were things belonging to the nurses. The nurses got compensation afterwards.” BMH WS 0297, Annie Mannion, Assistant Matron