Horror and humour found in crossfire

By Jude Collins

P aul O’Brien, Crossfire: The Battle of the Four Courts, 1916.  Dublin: New Island, 2012.

All politics is local and all war is as well.  It may look international when the wise-eyed historians have stitched together a big map of events, but war as it happens is a myriad of confusing individual experiences. None of us can live life outside of our own skull.

That’s what makes this one of the most interesting books you’ll find on the 1916 Rising. It’s really a mini-military history and it describes, close-up,  the battles fought around the Four Courts area of Dublin during Easter week.

It’s just over a hundred pages long and it’s broken into short, absorbing chapters: ‘Easter Monday 24 April 1916: First Blood’; ‘Tuesday 25 April 1916’ –a day-by-day account.’ First blood? That was a fourteen-year-old boy, Gerald Playfair. He was the son of the commander of the Magazine Fort in the Phoenix Park, which had been taken by the rebels. The boy ran out of the Park, headed full pelt for the residence of the barrack commander. A Volunteer chased after him on a bicycle and caught up with him just as the boy reached the door of the house. As the door opened, the Volunteer stopped, dropped his bike and opened fire with an automatic pistol, killing the boy.

Under the command of Captain Seán Heuston, a small group of Volunteers held the Mendicity Institute until they ran out of food and ammunition, at which point Heuston ordered them to destroy their weapons and emerge under a white flag. They did so, “carrying their wounded comrades. As they cross the yard towards the back gate at Island Street, a single shot rang out, killing Volunteer Peter Wilson.”

Horror mingles with humour. The Magazine Fort was taken by a group of Volunteers playing football, kicking the ball over the wall and asking “Would you mind returning the ball, please?” then overpowering those inside. A Dublin policeman  – “his big mouth wide open with astonishment” shouts in a broad country accent: “Eh, you fellows are going too far with this play at soldiers. Don’t you know you can be arrested for what yez are doing?” When British soldiers arrived in Ballsbridge via Blackrock, the Dublin suburbanites greeted them with oranges, bananas, sandwiches and chocolate. “Women walked beside the columns holding saucers as the soldiers drank cups of tea.”

And there’s shame as well. In the aftermath of the Rising, one Captain Percival Lea-Wilson stripped Thomas Clarke, the first of the Proclamation’s seven signatories, and made him stand naked on the steps of the Rotunda Hospital in view of other prisoners and the nursing staff. Lea-Wilson then shouted: “That old bastard is Commander-in-Chief. He keeps a tobacco shop across the Street. Nice general for your f***ing army.” Among the 300 prisoners watching were Volunteers Michael Collins and Liam Tobin. Four years later,  on the morning of June 15, 1920, Lea-Wilson, by this time a District Inspector of the Royal Irish Constabulary in Gorey, Co Wexford, was on his way home with his morning paper when he was shot and killed. “Newspapers reported that ‘the police officer’s body had been riddled with bullets’.” The belief was that the killing was retribution for the ill-treatment of Clarke “and had been planned by Michael Collins and Liam Tobin, by then senior members of the Irish Republican Army”.

With such details the book lays bare conflict  and shows how it brings out the best and the worst in people. It also shows how, although the GPO was a poor choice as the rebels’ headquarters, the Four Courts, then a warren of poor housing, was a highly effective position for the rebels, who fought shrewdly and with astonishing courage.

The book’s short, it brings the camera close-up on one area of Easter Week fighting, and it’s the first of a series. Anyone interested in 1916 should read it.

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