What does a war hero mean? Often the word is a fleeting adjective, fading quickly with the passing of time. In wartime, soldiers that sacrifice their personal safety to help their group to achieve victory against the odds are often called heroes, especially by their loved ones. They might even be non-combatants, like medics, that bring great relief to innocent civilians caught up in the terrifying ordeal. Just once in a blue moon however, a hero is identified who surpasses all the clichés, standing for something more than any given time or place. One such Irish hero was present during the 1916 Rising. Surpassing any Blue Max or Victoria Cross awarded that day, our man was not a garrison commander. He was not in the glamorous locations to go eye to eye with Britain’s finest fighters. Always for me, the greatest Irishman is James Connolly, but that is my political bias as much as for the leadership he gave.
This instead, is the story of a few hours in the life of Cathal Brugha (pictured left). He single-handedly changed certain defeat at the South Dublin Union into the rebel’s greatest victory of the Insurrection. Everyone can have their own stories from the Dublin Rising, but I feel sure that this hero can top anything else offered.
The South Dublin Union was the worst place in Dublin for anyone to find themselves, in the early years of the 20th Century. People have forgotten that convicts had to pay to be in prison a hundred years ago! If you did not, or could not pay up, the ‘Union’ beckoned. It was made deliberately as unwelcoming as possible to dissuade applicants! These Dickensian workhouses were funded by very unforgiving taxpayers and people admitted knew that they had reached their last home before the cemetery, or more likely a common pauper’s grave. If the man of the family got into debt, he and his family could end up in the Poorhouse, or ‘Union’, until the debt was cleared. There was very little chance of clearing a debt from inside the workhouse and no other way out of it. They had also to mix with the ‘Lunatics’; unwanted people lost of all hope and support. They were often committed by a family member trying to grab their property or not willing to pay for their upkeep or medicine. If they were sane going in, they quickly lost their reason in the horrendous conditions.
(The SDU entrance pictured right, in the 1950s) Yet even here, some charities worked, nursing nuns and even a couple of doctors did what little they could to relieve the worst of their hardships and there was even a large maternity ward! In the 1911 Irish Census, the South Dublin Union was listed as catering for 1600 families. There was supposed to be accommodation for 2000 debtors and 200 ‘lunatics’. Yet, when Eamon Ceannt led the Irish Volunteers on Easter Monday, 1916, the number of residents had swollen to over 6000. The rebels could not hope to defend the huge complex of buildings, which included today’s St James Hospital grounds. The SDU site was huge, extending from the Guinness Brewery, to the Grand Canal Basin; and from the South Circular Road to Rialto Bridge. The rebels headquartered at the Nurses’ Block in the centre of the site and formed picquets facing Rialto Gate and James’s Street. They tunnelled through the internal walls, creating rat-runs to be able to circulate safely. They had to feed and calm the civilians living there, who were terrified by a potential battle being fought in their midst. The British arrived on Thursday morning April 27, 1916.
(The SDU site map, above) These soldiers, from England’s mining Black Country had suffered the battle for Mount Street Bridge the day before and had been ordered, from their temporary base at the RDS showground in Ballsbridge to the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham to await new orders. Led again by Lieutenant-Colonel W. Coape Oates, who had been joined by his deputy Captain ‘Mickey’ Martyn and his own son, Captain John Oates. While Colonel Oates never entered the SDU, the latter two were in the thick of the action, through Thursday evening and night. There troops were the 2/7th and 2/8th Sherwood Forester Regiments. They would fight hand-to-hand with the Volunteers surrounded by the civilian inmates, who would suffer the majority of the fatalities in the fighting and quickly go insane in the dark terror of it all. Part Two will tell the story of the actual fight, and Cathal’s heroism and victory. Part Three will detour away from the Rising for once, to finish out Cathal Burgha’s life and his violent death, that Hollywood could not have scripted any better. He truly had the hero gene!