Using the railway line as a vital artery, Eamon de Valera and 120 men of the 3rd Battalion thinly spread themselves across various outposts in the area surrounding Grand Canal Dock and Ringsend including the gas works, a dispensary, Boland’s Mills, Boland’s Bakery, a railway workshop, the Dublin Distillery and the Guinness Granary stores opposite the bakery. The intention was to prevent the advance of any enemy force which might come from the direction of Ringsend to Sandymount or from the River Liffey. Further down the line they seized Westland Row Station, damaging tracks and signalling equipment to ensure British Troops landing at Dun Laoghaire harbour could not travel into the city, sentries were also posted on each of the railway bridges in this area.
Due to modern redevelopment, probably more so than any of the other locations around the city that were formerly occupied by the Volunteers, this part of the city has changed significantly since 1916. Using the witness statements and the railway line, we managed to peel back the contemporary city to reveal what remains of the 1916 battlefield at Grand Canal Dock and Ringsend.
One of the myths of the Rebellion is that Eamon de Valera and his men used Boland’s Mills, as their headquarters during the occupation of Ringsend. In 1916, the mill building would’ve commanded a forceful position over looking the Victoria Bridge draw-bridge on the Ringsend Road and Grand Canal Dock, towering over its contemporaries as an impressive landmark evoking images of De Valera and his men inside plotting, planning and firing from. Today, the mills are dwarfed by modern developments as the area is gradually succumbing to high rise progress.
The thing is, during Easter Week De Valera never set foot in the building. His headquarters were actually in a since demolished Dispensary on the corner of Grand Canal Street next to Boland’s Bakery (above), a complex of low buildings nestled into an embankment near the railway. Physically the bakery wasn’t as commanding in appearance, this was completely intentional as its unassuming and discreet demeanor and strategic location next to the railway made it ideal.
A make-shift green flag with a gold harp was even hoisted on a pike on the water tank of the tall nearby Irish Distillery building as a decoy to encourage the British to shell the building, thereby making it useless as a covering position for themselves. The ploy worked, and the first shell to hit the flag was from the H.M.Y. Helga gun boat in the Liffey, it was logged to have fired 14 rounds at the distillery. Lieutenant Joseph O’Byrne and a small group of volunteers from the local Ringsend Company occupying the upper loft in Boland’s Mills counted as over 75 shots were fired at the national emblem. Whether both accounts are true or not, the damage was done.
The dispensary and bakery site is now occupied by the Treasury Building, home of the National Asset Management Agency. The bakery that was there in 1916 was built in 1888 and demolished in the late 1940s, in 1951 it was replaced by a 5-storey building in 1951 which was re-clad and modernised in 1991. During a recent site inspection we found the northern boundary wall which separated the bakery from the railway yard and the western boundary wall which formed part of the stables have been retained and incorporated into a covered car park.
Referring to the 1907 Historic 25″ Ordnance Survey Map, which clearly depicts the bakery’s location in relation to the railway line. The Macken Street (formerly Great Clarence Street) entrance to the bakery was bricked up, however the gate posts can still be seen today in this boundary wall. The stables were in the gate to the left. Layers of plaster, air vents and brick work that are still evident today on the eastern face of this wall helped us identify the separate stalls for the horses.
Evidence from the Witness Statements
An engineer broke a hole into the railway wall into a horse stall in the bakery yard to serve as a line of communication between the bakery and the railway which was now occupied from Westland Row to Landsdown Road. After knocking it open a gangway had to be built from bakery level to railway level.
“…the route from the bakery to the railway was through a hole very high in a horse’s stall. You walked or crawled up a gangway through the hole and out on to the railway, which was much higher than the bakery.” BMH.WS1768
The first casualty at Boland’s was Volunteer Radigan.
“He was crossing over the wall separating the bakery from the railway when his strap caught in the trigger of his rifle and the shot wounded him in the leg. He had to be carried down a long stable roof into the bakery.” BMH.WS1768
“We put “Kaiser” and “Mack” into two of the best stalls we could find in the bakery stables and made sure they had plenty to eat.” BMH.WS0198
“Kaiser” was a donkey and “Mack” a pony. The animals were lent by the Walsh’s, a family of green grocers from Great Brunswick Street (now Pearse Street), their sons’ Thomas and James Walsh were members of the “B” Company in the 5th Battalion that occupied the bakery. The two animals helped carry all the company’s equipment on any route marches which included a trek to Pine Forest in the Dublin mountains, so they were well used to military activity.
During the lead up to the Rebellion like all the volunteers, “The Brothers Walsh” had to buy their uniforms in installments. In their witness statements they give a vivid account of the various goings on at the Bakery including a Fr McMahon from Westland Row who was using a bread van as a Confessional, after his confession was heard Thomas Walsh recalled saying his penance with his brother Jim… ” in a nook in a huge stack of flour bags” BMH.WS0198
The two brothers were then transferred to an outpost around the corner at Clanwilliam House which was heavily involved in the shooting of Sherwood Foresters crossing Mount Street Bridge.
Eamon de Valera let all the horses loose from the stables at Boland’s Bakery … his concern for animals didn’t stop there. There was a cats and dogs home north of the railway, since there was no one to feed them De Valera famously asked that they be set free, after this they were often seen wandering on the railway and streets below. One wonders what happened to all of these animals after the Rebellion.
In 1916 land marks at Grand Canal Dock such as the Gas Works, Boland’s Mills and the Distillery Building were all considered to be obvious outposts and therefore targets, they were lightly manned and used as decoys. The Gas Works were dismantled to plunge the city into darkness and confuse the enemy, then left empty due to lack of men. Boland’s mills were occupied by a skeleton of Volunteers who were rumored to have looted the flour and brought it home to their families who lived locally. The tall distillery was used as a decoy by raising a green flag on its roof which drained the enemy of ammunition and prevented them from occupying the strategic location themselves.
To the British the docklands with its many empty warehouses, dead ends and darkened bridges could have had a sniper covering every corner. But the location was an important one as regards access to the city. It was a tricky one to man, since so few volunteers turned up and De Valera famously sent home all underage (under 18) Volunteers on the Tuesday and also refused any aid from Cumann na mBan, which meant perfectly good foot soldiers had to undertake their duties including feeding the troops and attending casualties.
The continued presence of some the structures associated with the site’s occupation in 1916 helps in giving legs to the witness statements. Street names have changed, vistas blocked and others opened up. It is however, comforting to know that some of the dockland’s original fabric has been woven into the modern metropolis of Grand Canal Dock.