A most amazing family, living in Dublin’s city centre during the Easter Rising of 1916 were the Hamilton Norways. Father, mother and two sons were a civil service family, moving from Cornwall to Dublin in 1912.
Head of the household was Arthur (photo left), who was Manager of the General Post Office and Secretary of the Irish Postal Service. Since its construction finished in 1818, the G.P.O. had dominated the main street of Dublin, Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street). He supervised the intensive restoration of the building in preparation for its centenary, and had proudly observed its reopening to the public less than a month before the Rising. While most of the British civil servants tended to leave Dublin for a Bank Holiday, the Hamilton Norways stayed, as Arthur intended to catch up with his post office paperwork.
Again, like most British civil servants based in Dublin, the Hamilton Norways had a house in England, but leased a hotel suite for the duration of their time in Ireland. They had a suite in the Royal Hibernian Hotel on Dawson Street (photo right), where Arthur’s wife [Mary] Louisa, manned the only telephone link between Dublin and London still working throughout Easter Week. She also witnessed the fighting and looting in the area from Trinity College to St Stephen’s Green. Lucky for prosperity, she kept a diary which, co-authored by Arthur was turned into a book later in 1916 called, “The Sinn Fein Rebellion as they saw it” (reprinted by Academic Press in 1999), (Photo below).
They had two sons, Frederick and Nevil. Their eldest son, Frederick joined the army and fought as a second Lieutenant in the Great War. He was killed in France in 1915. The younger son, Nevil attended the Military Academy, but a stammer prevented him from graduating as a pilot in the Royal Air Force, his desired goal. He enlisted as a private in the Suffolk Regiment and with his parents in Dublin during the Rising. He took part as an army stretcher bearer during Easter week. His endeavours were marked out for special notice in the report on the Rising. His adult life was crowned by the books he wrote, under the pen-name of Nevil Shute, including ‘A town like Alice’ and ‘On the Beach’ which also became hit films (photo below).
On Easter Monday, 1916, while James Connolly was falling in the men at Liberty Hall, Arthur received a telephone call from Dublin Castle. His assistance was required to help plan the arrest of the Nationalist leaders on Easter Tuesday. He left the G.P.O. at 11.50am, strolling across O’Connell Bridge to the Castle, as the Irish Volunteers were marching on Lower Abbey Street. He ended up in a meeting with the Under-Secretary, Sir Matthew Nathan and the RIC Intelligence Officer, Major Ivor Price. He was ordered to cut all public access to the telegraph service throughout Munster, in preparation for the transport of the prisoner Roger Casement from Kerry, through Dublin to London. What he had failed to do, however, was to cancel his luncheon appointment with Louisa and Nevil.
Expecting to meet him in his G.P.O. office, Louisa and Nevil were walking up Sackville Street just after James Connolly had ordered the volunteers to occupy the Post Office. They had no idea that Arthur was not there. With the composure of an important Victorian wife, she went to the door of the G.P.O. demanding that the guard there take her to her husband, immediately! The innocent guard reported it to Padraig Pearse, who was just re-entering after reading the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. Assuring her that her husband was not in the building, Louisa accompanied Pearse to Arthur’s office on the first floor, so that she could confirm that the volunteers had not touched his papers. Pearse told her that the room was designated as a first aid post and that a guard would ensure that Arthur’s safe would be left untouched. It was to be discovered, unopened in the smoldering ruins of the building a week later. Its contents were unharmed in the fire-proof container. Louisa retired to Dawson Street to await Arthur’s return. Nevil returned at about 4pm, having toured the area unchallenged. He reported that all was quiet. He walked back to Sackville Street with his mother.
She noticed that the ‘rebels’ had raised a new flag over the G.P.O. It was green, with “Irish Republic” in white letters (photo left). They were taking it in from the opposite footpath, when suddenly two shots rang out. Fearing an imminent battle they rushed back to the Hibernian Hotel, where Arthur eventually joined them.
On Tuesday, Nevil reported in at Trinity College, to the Officer Training Corp. They put him to work as a stretcher bearer. British soldiers were being brought in with an assortment of gunshot wounds, along with civilians caught in the crossfire. He was not assigned to an ambulance, so it was very physical work. Arthur and Louisa set up the phone link with London. It was a terrible failure that the rebels failed to occupy the Telephone Exchange in Temple Bar. This allowed the Castle to talk with the rest of the country, and a line to London remained open, in the Hamilton Norway Suite in Dawson Street! Unfortunately, the demands from London were overwhelming and none ending, putting enormous pressure on Arthur and Louisa to deliver the impossible. Tempers got very tested over the week.
They witnessed, on Wednesday morning while dressing, the terrific bombardment from the 18 pounder artillery pieces that had arrived from Athlone, giving them cold shivers. It was heard for a quarter of an hour. Following a quiet pause, they heard the more distant assault by HMY Helga’s naval gun and machineguns on Liberty Hall which they, like most British, thought was the Sinn Féin headquarters. Louisa recorded that the assumed carnage made her “feel quite sick.” Nevil did the journey to his parents every morning, before going on duty. Mrs Hamilton Norway became furious on Wednesday, for reasons not immediately sympathetic. Showing her knowledge and support of the British Class system, she could not believe that public-houses were allowed to be open from 2pm till 5pm, yet Arthur could not get a whiskey with his dinner, as it was out of hours! More potent to the fighting at hand, she commented that, “today at about lunchtime a horrid machine-gun suddenly gave voice near us. We thought it was in Dawson Street, but it may have been in Kildare Street; also the sniper reappeared on the roofs, and this afternoon was opposite my bedroom window judging from the sound. I pulled down my blinds. A man might hide for weeks on the roofs of these houses among the chimney stacks and never be found as long as he had access to some house for food. When we were working in my room this afternoon he fired some shots that could have not been more than twenty yards away.”
On Thursday, until the afternoon, there had been a gun battle around Grafton Street, and when it was over the looters descended on the area, targeting a nearby fruit shop. Louisa watched the proceedings, and she had never seen anything so brazen. She wrote that, “The mob was chiefly women and children with a sprinkling of men. They swarmed in and out of the side door bearing huge consignments of bananas, the great bunches on the stalk, to which children attached a cord and ran away dragging it along. It was an amazing sight and nothing daunted these people. Higher up at another shop we were told a woman was hanging out of a window and dropping down loot to a friend, when she was shot through the head by a sniper. . . the body dropped into the street and the mob cleared. In a few minutes, a hand-cart appeared and gathered up the body, and instantly all the mob swarmed back to continue the joyful proceedings!”
That night, she also watched the fires across Dublin from her window (photo right). It seemed as if the whole city was on fire, the glow extending right above the heavens and the red glare hundreds of feet high, while above the roar of the fires the whole air seemed to be vibrating with the noise of the great guns and machine-guns. As she remembered, it was an inferno! Louisa complained bitterly that both she and Arthur were mentally and physically exhausted by the end of the week, from the lack of sleep and no apparent understanding from either the Castle or London of their plight. Louisa’s last entry written during the Rising came on Saturday morning; surrender day. At 10am, Mary Louisa Hamilton Norway wrote, “If the main walls of the G.P.O. remain standing it may be we shall find the safe in Arthur’s room still intact. It was built into the wall, and my jewel-case was in it. But all our silver, old engravings and other valuables were stored in the great mahogany cupboards, when we gave up our house in the Autumn. Arthur assured me that it was the safest place in Dublin.” She got her jewels back!
“Quotes taken from ‘The Sinn Fein Rebellion as they saw it’ by Louisa Hamilton Norway”.