The British were carrying a lot of supplies and equipment on open-backed transport, stringing the column out over 500 yards. They were very suspicious of the locals and used troopers to clear each street before the convoy moved through it. At Rialto they stopped. Colonel Oates had chosen Rialto Bridge (photo below) to cross the Grand Canal. However, through his binoculars he could see the Rialto Gate, giving access to the South Dublin Union (SDU). It looked an obvious location for a rebel ambush, as the convoy would be moving at a crawl while on the bridge. As he approached it, with the Royal Engineers’ horses, a volley of shots rang out from the SDU wall. The horses panicked and went racing off. The Colonel and his staff decided on how to handle this opposition. He agreed to allow his deputy Mickey Martyn and his son, John Oates to take a company of 50 soldiers to flush out the rebels and to secure the SDU (site map below). With great enthusiasm, the soldiers charged off to engage their foe.
The 27 rebels facing Rialto had had three days preparing their defences and had all their sight lines and firing angles worked out. They could shoot and move throughout the complex, giving the British the belief that they were many times greater than their actual number. In fact, both sides totally exaggerated the strength of their enemy; the British thought there was in excess of 200 volunteers, while the rebels believed that the full convoy of 2000 soldiers were attacking them. Officially, the rebels were the 4th Battalion of the Irish Volunteer Force, under the control of Commandant Eamon Ceannt. His deputy was a short, athletic man from Fairview in North Dublin, aged 42 during the Insurrection. His calming, almost sad face hid a courage seldom equaled. He was Cathal Brugha (photo below). He was a storming foe, a tornado to his supporters and the sharpest brain in the volunteer force. He had the power of a tank, before tanks! I will move quickly over the other actions in the SDU in order to concentrate on Cathal’s story. So, let’s get the British inside the buildings and into contact with Brugha.
Captains Martyn and Oates entered the SDU by the Rialto Gate. Oates waited while Martyn raced across the rhubarb garden with a platoon, to the Auxiliary Workhouse. It was empty but they spotted another building a few hundred yards away, with a rebel flag flying over it. Puffs of black smoke from one of the windows showed were the rebels were firing from and Captain Martyn decided to assault it immediately. Thanks to Mickey Martyn’s diary, we can use his description of these events. As he reported,
“I found a bullet in Dublin every bit as dangerous as a bullet in No-Man’s-Land. In some ways the fighting was worse. In France you generally had a good idea of where the enemy was and where the bullets were going to come from. In Dublin you never knew when or from where you were going to be hit.”
Despite heavy casualties, their speed carried the British to the safety of the buildings’ walls, but they were not yet inside. Meanwhile, the carts with Colonel Oates made a mad dash for the bridge and the road to Kilmainham. This distracted the rebels, who filled the carts with multiple volleys but the horses got away. Thinking Martyn must have fallen amongst all the shooting, Captain Oates went looking for him with his party of 40 soldiers. Finding he men, but not Martyn, Oates forced them to fight their way inside, while coming under ferocious fire from the rebels. Once inside, they had to get their bearings and to adjust to the dark interior. Oates party literally fell over Captain Mickey Martin as they moved deeper inside! To wind the tale forward, the major fighting happened in the Nurse’s Home, with the British on the ground floor, and the Irish holding the upper levels. While the Irish could transverse the building blindfolded, the British were just blind. Opening a door could result in a salvo from rebels, or the screams from inmates. Too often, they opened a door and threw in a grenade, killing and terrifying the residents cowering there. However, I will wind forward again, to the height of the battle and the actions of Cathal Brugha.
Inside the main entrance to the Nurse’s Building was a reception lobby, with offices on each side and a grand staircase dominating the wall opposite the entrance door. The rebels had heavily barricaded the stairs and placed a platoon of volunteers behind it. A steadily increasing pile of British casualties were lying on the left-hand side, when looking from the entrance door. Trapped flat underneath the barricade were Mickey Martyn and Sergeant Walker, with the rebels not able to depress their rifles down on them. Oates witnessed this scene from the door that the British soldiers had used to enter the lobby. He saw Martyn toss a grenade over the barricade, but it bounced off the top and fell back on their side. There was a huge explosion that Oates thought had surely killed them, but somehow they had survived unharmed. He dived towards them and now the three of them were cowering under the barricade. The rebels had decided to evacuate the building, with the goal of leaving through James’s Street and north to the Four Courts garrison. Cathal Brugha covered their retreat and was the second last to descend the stairs from the first floor. However, at the exact moment that Brugha reached the barricade, another British grenade managed to successfully get over and explode on the rebel side. At the same time, Captain Oates emptied his revolver at the barricade. Cathal Brugha was hit by a number of bullets and lots of shrapnel from the grenade. He was severely wounded and suddenly very alone! This is the time when the British were on the brink of victory. Dismantle the barricade and put the rebels to the sword! The rebels expected the same thing, and had retreated across a small courtyard to the building containing the 16 rebels facing James’s Street.
Cathal Brugha dragged his bleeding body down four steps of the back stairs and along a little corridor towards the outdoor courtyard. Overcome by his injuries, he crawled on his stomach into a tiny kitchen, for a last stand. He had a ‘Peter-the-Painter’ revolver (photo left) and 200 rounds of ammunition. He also had a prefect line of fire back along the corridor, from where the British would have to come. He hoped to give his men enough time to escape before he was died. His men were sheltering across the courtyard with Eamon Ceannt and the platoon that had been facing James Street. They were totally demoralised and discussing their surrender. Yet no British moved onto the corridor, fearing an ambush. They threw grenades, and shot towards the kitchen, but did not charge Brugha. He certainly expected to die at any moment. He was hit a number of times by grenade fragments and ricochets, yet still they did not come; still his men discussed how to surrender. Despite his pain, he started to insult and tease his foe! His revolver was superior to anything the British had and he regularly fired down the corridor, to let them know that he was still there. He defied any British advance. That tiny corridor was the deadliest couple of yards in Dublin, that Thursday evening. Eventually, very low on ammunition and realising that no one could help him; that in minutes the British must overrun his position, he started singing ‘God Save Ireland’! He sang from deep in his soul and the song traveled across the courtyard, to where the rebels were waiting to surrender.
He sang on, until the rebels facing James Street could not ignore the ‘noise’. Ceannt sent a volunteer to see if a colleague could really still be alive in the building that they had evacuated. The singing continued until the breathless volunteer returned with the news of Cathal Brugha’s redoubt, which was holding back the British. The cheer of renewed courage and determination was quickly followed by the whole company of volunteers charging down the corridor and reclaiming their staircase barricade. The motivated volunteers quickly forced the 50 soldiers out of the building and then complex completely. Colonel Oates decided to detour his route to Kilmainham and withdrew the whole convoy from the area. They never again challenged the SDU, who surrendered on the following Sunday, under order from Padraig Pearse.
Cathal Brugha (photo right) survived his multiple wounds and was sentenced to life imprisonment, at the Frongoch Internment Camp, in North Wales. Part three of his story is how he died during the Irish Civil War fighting in O’Connell Street. As if following a Hollywood script, he died like the unfinished conflict he had with Colonel Oates at the South Dublin Union.