‘At the Mendicity Institution’ 1916

Extract from “The Rising” by Desmond Ryan (1949)

On Wednesday morning, April 20, 1916, two Volunteer dispatch carriers hurried from the Mendicity Institution near Usher’s Island on the Liffey’s southern quays through barricades and dangerous streets and lanes past the Four Courts and the duels of British and Republican snipers with a very urgent message from Seán Heuston, Commandant of their post, to James Connolly at headquarters, informing him that Heuston and some twenty men were still holding out after a terrific fight against some hundreds of British troops who had then nearly completely surrounded them, and were raking their fortress with machine-gun fire on all sides. Moreover, an all-out assault was expected almost immediately; food supplies were exhausted and ammunition was almost spent.

The dispatch carriers were members of Fianna Eireann and Volunteers like Heuston himself, P.J. Stephenson and Seán McLoughlin. They reached the General Post Office, and noticed at once that Connolly grew unusually animated and excited as he read Heuston’s dispatch. He strode across the ground floor of the Post Office to Pearse, and in short, terse, vivid words told him an amazing story. Pearse listened with eagerness and said that all the possible aid, and a word of encouragement must be sent at once to the fighters. Stephenson waited while Winifred Carney, Connolly’s secretary, typed the reply. But aid was already impossible. Almost immediately it was learned that the Mendicity had been captured with its Commandant and garrison, and that the lost position was invested by a powerful British cordon through which even the most daring Volunteer scouts could not penetrate.

There was an immediate and obvious reason for Connolly’s emotion: his orders to Heuston had been to hold up any troops moving towards the Four Courts for three or four hours, and by this delay give the garrisons there and in headquarters itself time to establish their defences.

Connolly then heard from Stephenson and McLoughlin that Seán Heuston had not only held his fort for the few hours specified, but was still there, a very hornets’ nest for the enemy after nearly fifty hours. There was a second reason, away back in Connolly’s memory why the tale of Heuston’s stand in that particular place moved him deeply. He knew the history of that wide quadrangular building with the obscure name in black letters across its front, not only one of the oldest charitable institutions in Dublin, but also a house with great and tragic history in its very stones. In its way the very name of the Mendicity must have stirred him nearly as much as the Citizen Army flag, the Plough and the Stars, floating over the Imperial Hotel opposite moved him. The Imperial Hotel was the property of his antagonist of 1913, William Martin Murphy, and there had been baton charges under its windows when Larkin spoke from its balcony one bloody August Sunday. So over the Imperial Hotel Connolly flew the Plough and the Stars. That the Tricolour flew over the Mendicity sent his mind back to a grim story he had written for his Workers’ Republic so long ago as another August – an August in 1899 – a description of Dublin outcasts and down-and-outs as they gathered after dawn in Island Street, once named, and always deserving in his opinion, the name of Dirty Lane, at the rear of the Institution. Curious old rules bound the lease of the house from the time of philanthropists of the Association for the Suppression of Mendicancy in Dublin, in 1826, had taken it over. Mendicants were forbidden to enter by the front door inside which there is a charming hallway to this day with cupids and busts to the philanthropists who did their best even if Connolly gave them little credit, and Sir John Gilbert before him snarled at them for turning a great mansion into “a fitting receptacle for the most wretched paupers.” Gilbert was fired by a historic fury, Connolly by a social one, though the philanthropists had good intentions, in spite of their somewhat rigid rules, running balls, having sermons preached in all the churches, and even threatening to march the poor mendicants in one great procession through the Dublin streets to shame the hard-hearted. Even to this day the Mendicity Institution’s work goes on: 9,000 people every month were aided in the year 1948. No questions are asked, no one is turned away; the hungry must be fed – such was the principle laid down by the sixty gentlemen who drew up the rules. Two meals a day are served as when Connolly wrote, a breakfast of milk, porridge and bread; a dinner of meat, vegetable and potatoes. Eighty per cent of those who come are men and women, old and past work, who live on relief.

Connolly is believed to have visited the Institution, and filed in with the outcasts and hungry. His sketch of this experience was centred on a tale of two starving men, one a young man who had tramped from Ulster to seek his fortune: mad with hunger, he upsets a boiler of soup over himself and is scalded to death. Yet Connolly knew enough to know that the Mendicity Institution had in the past been the very seat of wit, beauty, art, and more: a mansion which in its day had sheltered Michael Dwyer’s men, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, the United Irishmen. Before a bell tolled to summon the hungry to wooden benches and plain fare the Mendicity had been Moira House, set amid handsome grounds. John Wesley, on a visit there in 1775, saw a more elegant room than any he had seen in England, the very window inlaid from floor to ceiling with mother of pearl, and asked: “Must this, too, pass away like a dream?” It passed when the Council of the Association for the Suppression of Mendicancy took it over, shore off an upper storey and dismantled the internal decorations, although even yet something of the 18th century haunts it. History was busy around Moira House. A few doors away, Francis Mangan, betrayer of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, born a year before Wesley’s visit, lived twenty years later: Mangan stayed there half a century, and watched Wesley’s dream change to a nightmare of decay, even as his own 20 Usher’s Island changed while he lived there with an eccentric sister and a haunted conscience.

Moira House in its time was the town residence of Lord Moira, opponent of the Union and later the Governor-General of India, friend and protector of the United Irishmen and a friend of Emmet. There Pamela Fitzgerald heard of her husband’s arrest and death. There had come Wolfe Tone, William Sampson, Thomas Russell, Grattan, Curran, and every famous figure of the day. There Thomas Moore had found in the library translations of Irish legends to inspire his songs, the library which was removed with haste to England when General Lake, stung by Moira’s denunciations, in the Irish and British Parliaments alike, in 1797, of political corruption and military tyranny in Ireland, breathed the most outrageous menaces of arson and violence. It was merely by a very slight chance that Francis Mangan had not staged the capture of Lord Edward in Moira House one night in May, 1798: there was a clash in the lane nearby between Lord Edward’s escort and Major Sirr’s men, and the Major himself even more narrowly escaped a too-hasty dagger thrust and some very badly aimed bullets.

Thus Seán Heuston’s fort was on the apt historic site although the marksmanship of his garrison was far better than that of Lord Edward’s escort in the same neighbourhood more than 100 years before.

Seán Heuston’s own path to leadership, in one of the most hardly fought fights in all Easter Week, had been a very short one. Three years before he had come to Dublin from Limerick. He became very busy indeed in the Fianna headquarters in Hardwicke Street with the details of training and organisation. He drilled in the Dublin halls in secret with the I.R.B. men before the Volunteers were founded. He was very active in the Volunteers as one of their first officers; very clever in obtaining armaments at Howth, and under fire as the gun-runners marched back to Clontarf with the rifles in July, 1914. He was a man of few words; in appearance, thick-set with broad forehead and fierce eyebrows above dark and thoughtful eyes. Even on his march to Usher’s Island on Easter Monday at the head of a dozen men, Seán Heuston had no words to waste. He met a Volunteer of his own company on the way who asked him what was afoot so early, and merely answered: “Fall in!” Heuston as promptly send the Volunteer on his way when informed that he had an urgent from Seán MacDermott to Major Mac Bride in his pocket.

Marching on, Heuston occupied the Mendicity at noon, and ordered the occupants out. He placed his garrison at their posts, few enough for the task in hand. After he had supervised the securing of the defences inside, he asked three Volunteers to come into the street with him and build a barricade on the quayside. Returning very quickly, he again inspected the defences and insisted that the doors and windows must be more thoroughly barricaded. Sacks were filled with clay and clothing and other useful make-shifts; heavy furniture was placed against the outside doors. Then the best marksmen were placed at the windows, which commanded a view of the quays for a considerable distance, and most significantly, of the Royal (now Collins Barracks) away on the northern quays opposite.

At about 1 o’clock, Heuston’s snipers noticed a regiment leave the barracks and march along the quays and across the river. They were four deep, the head of the column rested on Blackhall Place and stretched along the northern quayside back to Watling Street, and around the corner into the Royal barracks itself. This body of troops had almost passed the Mendicity, quite unsuspecting that the grim building on the southern bank beyond held such a menace, when the Volunteers opened fire, and followed with such effective volleys that there was a panic and immediate dash for the nearest refuge. The soldiers scattered wildly and sheltered themselves anywhere cover was available: in deserted tramcars standing emptied of passengers on the tracks; behind quay walls; in side streets. Others took cover in houses and streets facing the Mendicity and fired across the river before Heuston’s attack slackened. This was not retreat after the first shock of surprise but the opening of one of the hardest-fought and most persistent sieges of Easter Week. Soon the entire immediate area was overrun by the British, intent on overcoming and investing the danger to their operations against the Four Courts and General Post Office alike. Benburb Street, Blackhall Street, Blackhall Place, both sides of Queen Street, Watling Street – where a barricade was erected – were thick with khaki besiegers, sitting and lying close, all in such numbers that the contemporary estimate of some 300 to 400 British troops cannot be exaggerated: a force powerful enough, at all events, to strain Heuston’s small force to the limit of endurance from the outset. And very small for the task that force was: fifteen in all at the first volley, as two of the seventeen had been sent out on dispatch and other missions, were caught up in the Church Street area fighting, and could not return.

As evening advanced the firing slackened and died away. Heuston sent a dispatch to Connolly asking for reinforcements, and on Tuesday afternoon – or late on Monday night, according to other versions – a force of from thirteen to seventeen Volunteers from the Swords Company arrived in charge of Richard Coleman. They had survived some brisk and dangerous skirmishing on their way. There was sporadic firing all through Monday night. On Tuesday afternoon the British intensified their attack, and the fight grew hotter and fiercer as they closed in. Machine-gun fire from Queen’s Street Bridge was opened as soon as the British swept over Queen’s Street corner and Arran Quay, a sea of soldiery, a hurricane of bullets. From this point, fortunately for the defenders, an adjoining house projected into the roadway directly in the line of fire and hampered accuracy of aim very much as the Loop Line Bridge had diverted the Helga’s shells from direct hits on Liberty Hall. It was at this point that the British headquarters were finally established. Tuesday night – with the exception of occasional outbursts of sniping and the sounds of the Four Courts and Church Areas near at hand – was in general peaceful for the Mendicity garrison; some, indeed, managed to snatch a few hours of sleep. The quiet was merely a surface one, which kept Heuston and his guards all the more on the alert, as it was only too clear that the British were slowly surrounding the Mendicity for final isolation and an all-out attack. Busy as they were with their own defences, the Volunteers outside this cordon made some attempt to relieve Heuston by preventing the extension of the attack towards Church Street: to effect this four houses on the southern quays at Lower Bridge Street corner were set on fire and burned down. The end, however, was near.

By Tuesday night, Heuston had indeed abandoned all hope, if he ever had much after the almost immediate investment of his position by such strong British forces, of falling back and joining the Volunteers in the Four Courts and Church Street areas. Almost up to the last hours, however, he managed to send through some of his men with dispatches to the G.P.O. His state was very critical. Food was practically exhausted, ammunition was running low, his men were tired, and there had been several casualties.

Early on Wednesday morning, the British ordered the occupants of the houses on both sides of the Mendicity to leave. Soldiers took up sniping posts on the roofs of several houses in Thomas Street, which is on a height overlooking the quays and the back of the building. A lane at the rear was also occupied. The Mendicity, in fact, was by then completely encircled. Heavy machine-gun fire and continuous rifle volleys were concentrated on the position, and the garrison felt trapped indeed as every street corner became alive with the singing bullets and the rattle-rattle-rattle of the barking, hammering, persistent machine-guns. Heuston constantly visited the posts and cheered everyone with brief and genial words.

Towards noon a new and decisive terror came. A party of soldiers crept under cover along a wall in front of the Mendicity and hurled in grenade after grenade. The Volunteers defied the new weapon as best they could by catching the bombs and hurling them back. Sometimes the catch was a good one; sometimes a bomb burst. This deadly game seemed to the men inside to last for hours although few of the bombs burst inside the house. Two Volunteers were killed and two badly wounded, Liam Staines and Dick Balfe, both close friends of Seán Heuston. This was almost the last incident of the fight. The bomb burst in Staines’s hand as he rushed towards a window to hurl it back. He collapsed on the floor. Dick Balfe, who was behind him, was also severely injured by the explosion. The two men lay in agony on the floor, half-dying, and their companions know that within the Mendicity there was no hope of saving their lives. Apart from this, the garrison were spent with hunger and fatigue, surrounded without chance of retreat, so hopelessly trapped that they could not even fight their way out so dominated was every exit and point by the British snipers and machine-gunners, badly shattered in nerve by the din of bomb, rifle and machine-gun together. Heuston knew that the one hope of saving wounded and uninjured alike was to surrender. Nor was even this a clear alternative. It had been impossible for the last few hours for even a single dispatch carrier to leave. Human endurance and courage had reached their limit. After a brief consultation with his men, Heuston ordered the white flag to be hoisted from the windows, and marched out, with little more than a score of Volunteers – twenty to twenty-six in all, according to the reckoning of contemporary accounts and the memories of the survivors.

It was indeed a pygmy troop. The British were angered and amazed that so small a force had made such a resistance and inflicted such heavy casualties. Raging and panicky officers, red in the face and nerves a-tingle, screamed at Heuston and his men, and hustled them roughly. As the Mendicity garrison lined up in the yard, a shot came from the direction of Roe’s Distillery in Thomas Street, where a party of British soldiers overlooked the back of the Mendicity building. Peter Wilson of Swords was hit and dropped dead. The Thomas Street party of British soldiers were not in close touch with the investing party, and at that moment had not realised that the garrison had in fact laid down their arms. The precise facts of the shooting remain dark: it was probably an accident common in street fighting, and helped by the extreme inexperience of the young British soldiers, who impressed the Volunteers, and less hostile observers, there as elsewhere, as raw recruits who hardly knew how to load a rifle; in the Church Street area in particular their tendency to loose their heads became a by-word, and a grim menace to the civilian population. As the flag of truce was visible, some present believed that the shooting was wanton and deliberate, and not due to panic or misunderstanding.

It was estimated at the time, certainly with inevitable exaggeration, that the British losses during the siege of the Mendicity amounted to 180; they certainly were very heavy. With the exception of one Volunteer aged about forty, the ages of Heuston’s garrison ranged from eighteen to twenty-three. All received sentences of imprisonment running from one year to penal servitude for life. Heuston was both a company leader of D. Company, First Battalion, and a Captain of Fianna Eireann. Seán Heuston – then about nineteen years of age – was courtmartialled, condemned to death, and executed in Kilmainham on May 8, 1916.

On the day before his execution a friend asked him if he had heard the result of his courtmartial, and he replied quite calmly that he had not, adding: “there is no hope for me. I expect to be shot.” As soon as he heard the sentence, he wrote from his prison cell: “Whatever I have done, I have done as a soldier of Ireland, and I have no vain regrets.” It was in the spirit of the other fighters from Fianna Eireann in Easter Week, one of whom led his party from behind a Church Street barricade, and shouted to his companions to the great astonishment of the British officer who took their surrender: “We have fired our last shot. We obey our leaders’ orders to hand in our arms, and we expect only the treatment of the men of Ninety-Eight!”

When Seán Heuston fell to the last volley in Kilmainham, the Franciscan, Father Albert, who attended him, looked down on the dead man’s face, and found it “transformed, and lit with a grandeur and brightness I had never before noticed.”