The part the Fianna took in the Easter Week Rebellion is now generally recognized. They had been doing all they could in their own way to prepare for the great event their lives were devoted to. To this event the system of organization underwent many changes; it was put on a regular military basis. The Executive Council was dispensed with and a Headquarters Staff formed, making one person responsible for a particular branch of work. Padraic O’Riain became Chief Scout; Bulmer Hobson Chief of Staff; Eamonn Martin Director of Organization and Recruiting; Barney Mellows Director of Finance; Sean Heuston Director of Training. Volunteer companies throughout the country began organizing branches of the Fianna and the Volunteer organizers lent a helping hand. The Dublin Fianna were officially recognized as a unit of the Dublin Volunteer Brigade and the same with the Fianna in Belfast, Cork and Limerick, as regards the Volunteer Brigades there. They accompanied the Volunteers on all route-marches as reconnoitring sections and were used as signallers and despatch bearers. Rifle ranges were erected and rifles purchased by the Volunteer Executive for the Fianna. ‘Specializing’ classes were conducted for technical instruction in mechanics, engineering, wireless telegraphy, the making of hand grenades, cartridges, etc.
The Fianna all over the country were prepared to actively participate in the Rising planned for Easter Sunday night. As it was, owing to the circumstances that prevailed, only the Dublin boys got the opportunity of fighting, and well they lived up to and died for the principles they imbibed and cherished.
The part the Fianna took in the Revolution of Easter Week would fill volumes. Acts of heroism, daring and self-sacrifice there were that are on a par with the most chivalrous deeds of any country in any age. It is not within the scope of the present writer to write the history of the Fianna in relation to the revolution. That must be left to an abler and more gifted pen. The present short sketch will deal with only the outstanding features.
The capture of the Magazine Fort in the Phoenix Park and its partial destruction by fire is looked upon as one of the most clever and daring incidents of the revolt. Many accounts have been written of it, ascribing it to one section or another of the Volunteers, some of them fanciful, some of them garbled, none of them accurate. The actual facts are presented here for the first time, by one who took an active part in the affair, whose name cannot be given at present for obvious reasons. Those who carried out this brilliant coup were all members of the Fianna, some of them mere boys.
The Magazine Fort is situated in the Phoenix Park, on rising ground commanding a splendid view of the city and county of Dublin and about two miles west from the center of the city. Here, the leaders of the insurrection determined, must be struck one of the first blows, coincident with the attack on the General Post Office, the Four Courts, the Castle, and other points. Much depended on the success of this undertaking. Failure was to be guarded against at all hazards. Were there men ready to risk their lives in this endeavor? Their own lives would very probably be the price of success. There was no need to look for long. The courage and willingness was found in the hero-souled boys of the Fianna.
So it happened that, on Easter Monday morning a small party, twenty in all, some on bicycles, others on cars, wended their way towards the Phoenix Park. The football team, for such to all appearances was this party, met at the main gate entrance, and proceeded leisurely to the recreation grounds, a large portion of the park set aside for games and athletics. In close proximity to and in full view of the Magazine Fort, they divested themselves of their coats and started practising with the ball as if waiting for the opposing team. The ball was kicked from one to the other and the practice maintained until the players drew close to the sentry at the gate. As if by accident the ball was kicked towards the gate and three of the strongest of the party, previously detailed, ran to follow it. The sentry was standing at ease and looked at all this with mild indifference. Suddenly his rifle was seized and in a trice he was overpowered and covered with two pistols. Then the whole party rushed in and in less than two minutes every one of the fifteen soldiers guarding the place was a prisoner. They were put in the guard-room and carefully watched by a few of the lads with loaded revolvers. There was one other soldier left to deal with. He was on sentry duty on the balustrade. Four of the boys mounted and went towards him. He offered no resistance, but instead started an abject, cringing, crying appeal for mercy. He was assured of his life and ordered to march to the guard-room. Seemingly complying with this, he made as if to descend the steps preceded by one of the boys. Suddenly this soldier made a cowardly attack on the boy, making a thrust at him with his fixed bayonet. The boy quickly turned and without a moment’s hesitation shot him. He was not killed, but died soon after through the neglect and cowardice of his comrades. His wound was superficial and need not have been fatal. His fellow-soldiers in the guardroom were informed of what had happened and advised to see to it, but they did nothing for him, and when released later by the boys, fled in a panic from the place leaving the wounded man to bleed slowly to death.
Three of the boys took charge of the residence of the officer in charge, a private residence within the enclosure of the Fort, from whence there was telephonic communication with Island Bridge Barracks, which is only a few hundred yards distant. In the house were the Commandant’s wife, her two daughters, and two sons. They were treated with every consideration and before any damage was done to the place were released and allowed to leave the fort. This leniency was ill-repaid as will be seen later on.
Preparations were then hurried forward for the destruction of the fort. Explosives and ammunition were heaped together and the fuses (four) were sparked. The soldiers were warned that if they attempted to leave the place until ordered, they would be shot. The boys then left the fort taking the garrison’s rifles with them. The four last to leave mounted a side car, gave the orders to the soldiers to quit and drove off.
One of the boys, coming out of the park by the Island Bridge Gate, observed of one of the Commandant’s sons, referred to above, running to apprise the troops garrisoned at Island Bridge Barracks, of what had happened. He immediately gave chase, and catching up on him, shot him dead. This incident has attracted a good deal of comment, the newspaper accounts describing it as a most cold-blooded murder and referring sympathetically to the victim ‘as a young boy’. This young man, for such he was, was old enough to be out fighting with his countrymen in the trenches of Flanders, and should have been there if there was such a thing as consistency in the English character. He was engaged in an act, which if it had succeeded, would have brought the Island Bridge garrison down on top of the little band of Rebels. It was their lives or his. To ensure his safety the boys had endangered their own by letting him leave unmolested the Magazine Fort. He repaid their kindness with treachery. His death was an act of war which the boys deplored, but looked on as a necessity. War is not a parlor game, and when England is involved, it certainly is Hell.
Before the party of Fianna reached the Main Gate, the explosion occurred. There were four successive reports followed by a thunderous rumble that shook the earth. A dense cloud of black smoke rose in the air that obscured the scene for a few moments, followed by spurts of fire that licked up round the building, and in a few minutes the Magazine Fort, with its quantities of ammunition and explosives was a mass of roaring flames. All sections of the Fire Brigade from different parts of the city were called out, but were intercepted by the Volunteers and forced to return. Great damage was done to the Fort, but it was not entirely gutted as the military, who arrived hot-foot on the scene, managed after long and desperate efforts to bring the fire under control.
When the boys reached Kingsbridge, the soldiers were already occupying the streets, but no direct attack was made by them on the boys. The latter had to pass by the Royal Barracks, but escaped through unscathed and succeeded in reaching the Four Courts with little difficulty. Here a despatch from the Republican Headquarters reached them commending them in the highest terms for their daring action.
It is remarkable, but characteristic of the whole Rebellion, that the members of this expedition did not suffer the slightest casualty. Everyone of this heroic band went creditably through the following week’s fighting side by side with their comrades of the Fianna and the men of the Volunteers and Citizen Army.
AUGUST 4, 1917.