On Thursday the 27th of April, 1916 one of the strangest and ultimately funny events of the Dublin Rising took place. It was a real artillery duel in the south city centre which has not been widely publicised. Most Irish people know that the rebels had no artillery, which gave the British military an unchallengeable advantage and guaranteed their eventual victory on the battlefield. That was true, but the story of how two British forces with artillery attacked each other, each believing the other to be Irish rebels armed with artillery is wonderful to recite. I can talk so flippantly, as despite the carnage happening at Mount Street Bridge nearby, no one was killed in the hour-long artillery exchange and, besides breaking windows, only their pride was injured! This is an extract from my 1916 Rising book, ‘An Awfully British Affair’ and I hope that you enjoy the story. I’ll start with a quick summary of how these forces came to be in their respective positions for this fight.
Future Taoiseach and Irish President Eamon De Valera was the commander of the rebel garrison at Boland’s Mill, located close to where the Grand Canal flows into the river Liffey. Their area included Mount Street Bridge and the railway line from Kingstown (now Dún Laoghaire). The objective of the garrison was to delay a military advance from the south, giving the rebels in the city centre as much time as possible to prepare. The English forces had been moving since Tuesday. It so happened that His Majesty’s Yacht ‘Helga’ was taking on fuel at Kingstown harbour and was ordered to sail to Dublin. On Wednesday at dawn, it docked opposite the Custom House at Sir John Rogerson’s Quay. The Sherwood Foresters had arrived from England into Kingstown and were divided into two columns for the march on Dublin. The Derbyshire troops went via Stillorgan to Kilmainham and neither caused nor met any trouble. However, the other column, of Nottinghamshire troops met a whole lot more trouble than they could hope to handle; and part of their adventure was the artillery duel! So, with the rebels sandwiched between the HMY Helga to their north at the river, and the Sherwood Foresters to their south at Northumberland Street, Ballsbridge fighting the battle for Mount Street Bridge, At last we can begin the story of the artillery duel proper.
HMY Helga spent most of Wednesday shelling the north inner city. Supposing to be supporting an infantry attack on Liberty Hall, they ended up shelling much of the tenements north of the river. It was only when their inept gunners hit the Phoenix Park, close to the Vice Regal Lodge that urgent orders were communicated for them to stop immediately. The humiliated crew had to raise anchor and withdraw further from the city centre, to Britain Quay. It was from here that they would take part in the artillery duel. The Sherwood Foresters marching from Kingstown were led by Lieutenant-Colonel W. Coape Oates, an officer from the Munster Fusiliers, who set up his headquarters in Pembroke Town Hall, Ballsbridge. From here he would hear of and witness the carnage that unfolded at Mount Street Bridge. Wave after wave of assaults against the seventeen rebels holding the houses overlooking the bridge caused over 250 British casualties throughout the day and evening, without a single soldier getting into Mount Street. The officers were desperate for a plan, or they were facing total defeat and having to return to Kingstown. Lieutenant-Colonel Cecil Fane, commander in the field was first to get outside help, contacting Captain Jeffares of the Elm Park Bombing School of Instruction, who supplied grenades. The rebels were unable to force home their advantage, due to using old, single shot 1871 Mausers, which overheated in the unexpected hot weather. Otherwise the massacre would have been much higher. Fortunately for the British, a platoon of Captain Cooper’s 4th company had scouted to the east of Boland’s Mill and successfully made it to the river. Here he made contact with the crew of HMY Helga. The ship’s main gun was a 12cwt naval gun, but it also had a demountable 1 pounder cannon. The soldiers mounted this onto a lorry and safely returned to Ballsbridge with it. This was the second piece of artillery that would take part on Thursday morning.
The spark that ignited the artillery duel came from Eamon De Valera. The embarrassed crew of HMY Helga were looking for some face-saving target to shoot at and Captain Cooper’s men told them about the rebels at Boland’s Mill. The ship gladly took a ranging shot at these buildings and, being such a large complex they scored a direct hit, covering the rebels in dust and rubble. The rebels were very shaken, having never experienced shelling before. To ease their plight and give the British an alternate target, De Valera got his men to raise a green flag on top of a disused tower, away from their position. Meanwhile, Captain Cooper’s men towed their lorry and gun through the streets to the cheers of local residents, eventually locating it in Percy Place by the Grand Canal. They wanted to use it against the rebels in Clanwilliam House, at Mount Street Bridge. However, by the time that they had sorted the gun safely in the street, Clanwilliam House had fallen, and they aimed at Boland’s Mill instead. They fired at the flag, some 400 yards from their position. It missed, arching over the rebels only to fall into the river near to the Helga. Thinking that the rebels were using artillery to attack their ship, the Helga’s gun crew loosed a salvo in reply. Much to the relief of the rebels, it missed the flag by a number of yards and they heard it travel harmlessly over their heads. This salvo landed in Percy Place, scaring the bejeezous out of the troopers sheltering there, and shattering any remaining intact windows in the street! The crew of the 1 pounder determined that the shell had been fired from a position known to be under rebel control. It had a green flag flying over it and, as if following the script for an Ealing comedy, they fired at the flag. De Valera’s rebels were entertained to the shot flying wide of the flag and gave a cheer! What they failed to see was that the shell landed in the Liffey, close to the Helga. Both sides were convinced that the rebels had artillery, the ship fired again, with renewed determination. True to form, they again missed the flag and hit Percy Place. The duel was now in full swing, with the one pounder’s return shot coming so close to hitting the Helga that the resultant explosion soaked their crew!
So it continued for about an hour, each gun firing around a dozen shells. It was the 1 pounder that finished the duel. Sergeant George Norton heard his gunner remark, “If I miss again, it means tuppence off my pay!” He did not miss! The green flag was shot off the top of its tower, flying almost inverted from the remains of the shattered flagpole. Both guns still believed that they had fought an artillery duel with the rebels and the truth only surfaced in the inquiry into the Insurrection that took place after the surrender. The British military were weary of other rebel positions having access to artillery and it altered their tactics for the rest of the week! I do not believe that the green flag survived the Rising, but what a place of honour it deserves!