The rebellion is in its fourth day and the British, with endless reserves of men and shot and shell, quickly take the balance of combat. Troops flood into the city all day as they had on Wednesday. By Thursday evening the British have Dublin in their pocket. Mary Louisa Hamilton Norway wrote:
“We now have 30,000 troops and plenty of artillery and machine-guns, so the result cannot be uncertain.”
Though she added, “there is desperate work to be done before the end is in sight,” and so the combat and shooting carries on apace as Thursday comes into being.
The Thursday of Easter Week will go down in history as ‘the Sack of Sackville Street’ – one of Britain and Europe’s finest thoroughfares will finish the day looking like the devastated towns in France and Belgium.
On this Day Sir John Maxwell is sent from London with strict instructions to suppress the Rising and restore order. He arrives early on Friday morning.
At 8am British troops advance upon the occupied distilleries and breweries around Marrowbone lane, the rebel shooters respond in kind.
Overnight the rebels at South Dublin Union have fortified their position with trenches.
That morning Thomas McDonagh, Commandant of the biscuit factory at Jacob’s biscuit factory, dispatches riders to replenish with ammunition the Volunteers of 3rd Battalion at Westland Row train station. Their journey out and back is a veritable assault course of bullets; they dodge shots from the Staffordshire Regiment fire at Merrion Square and the machine gun at the Green.
Dorothy Stopford Price, who spent Easter 1916 at the Under-Secretary’s Lodge at the Phoenix Park (home of Sir Matthew Nathan, a key figures in the British administration of Ireland), wrote a summary of her Thursday morning at Phoenix Park:
“Still no post. Soon after breakfast Sir Matthew rang up Mrs Nelson and had a long talk. Birrell arrived last night upon a torpedo boat and is now in the Castle. Things seem rather better. They have decided on their policy, which is that of Sydney St. that they will try to spare life. So far the casualties are not very heavy. It is just a matter now of blowing them out of the buildings, so a great deal of firing will be heard. All seems to be safe in the Park. He got some sleep last night as he was able to go to bed…
So stay here I must and fiddle while Rome burns. The only thing to do is play with Mrs Nathan’s children. He was more cheerful and at ease this morning. Birrell is to ring up later. There was very little firing this morning — Occasional guns but nothing to what it had been yest. Dublin must be a wreck.”
Trinity was now an improvised British garrison, as a student recorded:
“Some 4,000 troops were stationed in the college. Horses tied to the chains which enclosed the grass plots gave the place the appearance of a vast open-air stable or horse fair.”
Soldiers, possibly Foresters who had survived the battle of Mount Street Bridge on Wednesday, said to the student:
“Not a few… told me that they would prefer being at the Front. At the Front, they said, you knew which direction from which you may expect a bullet.
Here, the enemy is all around you. He lurks in the dark passages and chimney stacks, and when at last you think you have hunted him down, you find yourself in possession of a peaceful citizen who gives some plausible reason for his presence.”
At 11.30 the British recommenced their bombardment of Sackville Street with 18-pound field artillery positioned by the quay by the River Liffey. They use high explosive and shrapnel shells. They capture Capel Street Bridge and continue their offensive against the Four Courts and South Dublin Union. James Stephens wrote:
“At 11.30 there came the sound of heavy guns firing in the direction of Sackville Street. I went on the roof, and remained there for some time. From this height the sounds could be heard plainly. There was sustained firing along the whole central line of the City, from the Green down to Trinity College, and from thence to Sackville Street, and the report of the various types of arm could be easily distinguished.”
Mary Louisa Hamilton Norway wrote:
“The shells had started several fires; nearly all the shops on the quay on the side of the Custom House were burning yesterday afternoon, and later in the evening many others broke out.”
L.G. Redmond-Howard described the movement and tactics of the British military command:
“All Thursday seems to have been devoted principally to the bringing in of reinforcements, which, by this time, were pouring in from England.
Instead of using them for isolated attacks on the different strongholds, they appear to have been concentrated as an ever-narrowing cordon around the central position of the rebels at the Post Office.”
Mary Louisa Hamilton Norway wrote that general movement for the public remains deadly:
“The risks are many and great, as in this kind of street fighting, where all the firing is from windows or from house-tops, the ambulance are frequently under fire.”
As such she was holed up in her hotel, the Royal Hibernian, an experience she described:
“[Today] was the worst day we have had, as there was desperate fighting in Grafton Street, just at our back, and the side streets; and several volleys in our street.
In the morning I was sitting on a settee near the window of the lounge, knitting and looking out and listening to the firing in Grafton Street, when shots were fired just outside our windows, and Mr. B., the manager, came in and said, “We must shut all the shutters, Mrs. N., it is getting a bit too hot, and I am taking no risks.” So all the shutters were closed, and I moved to the drawing-room above, which also overlooks the street.”
As the canons fire, troops attack Boland’s Mill and the Four Courts. The legal centre is soon fired upon by a Vickers machine gun, adding to the ongoing sniping that has been relentless.
On this day “crowds of British pressmen, with special facilities for the edification of neutral countries, began to arrive,” wrote Redmond-Howard.
Everywhere there was the noise of rifles, machine guns and heavy cannon. The cordon of troops now completely encircles the city, growing gradually tighter and tighter around the GPO and the other rebel garrisons, isolating each at turn from the other.
From every side artillery shells fall into Sackville Street. “We knew that it was the beginning of the end,” wrote Redmond-Howard.
Philip Orr and other historians write that the rebels had planned not only for the insurrection to be an act of warfare, but for the insurrection to be an act of theatre. Truly this came to be, as Redmond-Howard wrote, the end stages were full of drama:
“Never had journalists ever had such a finale to send flashing along the wires.”
That afternoon Pearse told his men in the GPO that all the country had risen and reinforcements were coming from Dundalk. This message was nothing but the fiction of theatre; but it injects morale and energy where it was haemorrhaging.
L.G. Redmond-Howard spent all of Thursday with the Red Cross at Sir Patrick Dun’s, and he described the scenes and the style of combat:
“All day long and all around there was a perfect hail of bullets from the snipers, some going right through the hospital grounds from Boland’s bakery, which, sandbagged and loopholed, was filled with Sinn Feiners. It was a terrible fight, for of course it was next to impossible for the soldiers to distinguish them, being all in civilian clothes so that they just had to doff their bandoliers and they could go about from house to house in safety. Sometimes they did this purposely, having arms in several places. Hence the order had to go out that all civilians would have to stay indoors, and after that all suspicious characters were shot at, with the terrible result that innocent civilians were killed on all sides.”
At 3 o’clock the Ulster Composite Battalion attempted an assault on the rebel command on Sackville Street, they are repulsed and take serious casualties. The Ulstermen are “decimated” in Dublin write Mollyneux and Kelly.
Half an hour after four the Sherwood Foresters and Royal Irish Regiment approach South Dublin Union, they are supported by machine gun fire, but the rebels hold firm.
At the same time another battalion of Robin Hoods assaults the Four Courts, but with tactics altogether different from those used to capture Clanwilliam House. They skip the direct “over-the-top” approach of trench warfare, and instead move house to houses, clearing in turn, and approaching from the sides. They also use improvised armoured cars, using Guinness lorries with old boilers to hold the troops, to make the initial approach over the bridge. The loss of the Mendicity Institute on Wednesday has weakened the rebel position at the Courts. Mary Louisa Hamilton Norway wrote:
“All the afternoon an awful battle raged in the neighbourhood of the river and quays, and the din of the great guns and machine-guns was tremendous.”
Redmond-Howard shared an important insight into the unsportsmanlike manner of fighting, something that happened on both sides:
“One poor fellow we brought in, shot through the breast, was apparently a civilian, but on examination we found on him a curious document, undoubtedly proving him a Sinn Feiner.”
Having captured Capel Street Bridge that morning, at 8 o’clock Capel Street is secured, driving a wedge between and isolating the Four Courts from the GPO.
A while after eight pm James Connolly is wounded on Middle Abbey Street, hit from a ricochet in the shin as he lead a sortie to reinforce the GPO after losing Capel Street. The Commandant General of the Republican forces is treated in the post office by a captured British Army doctor.
At nine o’clock, now in command of Capel Street, the Robin Hoods are able to rescue the lancers who have been holed up in the Medical Mission beside the Four Courts since Easter Monday.
Just before ten o’clock the Oil Works explodes, burning down several buildings, including Clerys and the Imperial Hotel which are adjourned. Had it not been for the burning of the bazarre on Tuesday the flames would have taken the North side of the city.
Rebels evacuate from the Imperial hotel, taking cover in the GPO which was being attacked. Rebels in the supporting forts (the fishing tackle and jewellery shop on each end of Sackville Street) overlooking O’Connell Bridge return to the GPO. The rebels in Henry Street do the same.
Clerys and the Imperial Hotel soon crash to the ground as Dublin centre burns.
In the GPO the Volunteers rush to the huge basement with home-made explosives lying everywhere. The wind favours the rebels that night, otherwise they could have been engulfed.
As noted, Thursday was named the “Sack of Sackville Street”, and the account of Private Peter Richardson of the Connaught Rangers explains why. Private Richardson was taken prisoner by the insurgents, and he recorded his experience in the GPO that Thursday:
“I have done my bit at Loos with the Irish Brigade but the like of the bombardment we were under at the GPO I never witnessed. On Thursday the whole front was ablaze and Mr. Tom Clarke said to us ‘Boys, we want to look after you; that is more than the British would do for us. We want to get you in safety as far as we can’… On Friday morning the whole place was ablaze and bullets were whizzing everywhere.”
Private Richardson finished by describing the constitutions of central Dublin on Thursday night- smothered and enveloped by the hellish noise of shot, fire and shell:
“This night also was calm and beautiful, but this night was the most sinister and woeful of those that have passed. The sound of artillery, of rifles, machine guns, grenades, did not cease even for a moment. From my window I saw a red flare that crept to the sky, and stole over it and remained there glaring; the smoke reached from the ground to the clouds, and I could see great red sparks go soaring to enormous heights; while always, in the calm air, hour after hour there was the buzzing and rattling and thudding of guns, and, but for the guns, silence.”
Dorothy Stopford Price, writing from the Under-Secretary’s Lodge at the Phoenix Park, logged in her diary a description of Thursday night (10.30pm):
“The Night is very still but there is a tremendous angry red sky, a great blaze on the quays somewhere. A wonderful and awful sight, I have never seen such a blaze. What can it be.”
L.G. Redmond-Howard further described the high drama of the last stages of the rebellion:
“That end was in every way as dramatic as the beginning—a melodrama worthy of the Lyceum at its best—and for thirty hours, as the artillery thundered, the sky was one huge blaze of flame, which, at one time, threatened to engulf the whole northern centre of the city in a sea of fire.”
As high-explosive shells and incendiary bombs rained upon Sackville Street, Howard-Redmond continued his description of the scene:
“The whole place became a mass of blazing ruins, the flames leaping across Lower Abbey Street like a prairie fire. Whether this was intentional or inevitable, one thing was certain, and that was that nothing could stand up against it—it meant utter annihilation as far as human lives were concerned, absolute ruination as far as material property.”
By Thursday night the tables had categorically and completely turned, the rebels no longer dominated the city but were hemmed in on every side. The main rebel garrisons – The GPO, the Four Courts, the Royal College of Surgeons, Jacobs’s biscuit factory and Boland’s Mill bakery – though well fortified and well stocked with food and ammunition, were isolated one from the other. Thus weakening their hold mortally. It was only a matter of time until they were annihilated or arrested.
The rebels at the bakery forced the bakers, at gunpoint, to continue making bread.
Mrs Hamilton Norway and the manager’s wife watched Dublin centre from the her window of the Royal Hibernian Hotel that night, burning like Rome:
“I cannot give you any idea of what it was like when I went to bed. I sent for the manager’s wife, such a splendid little woman, and together we watched it from my window, which is high up and looked in the right direction.
It was the most awe-inspiring sight I have ever seen. It seemed as if the whole city was on fire, the glow extending right across the heavens, and the red glare hundreds of feet high, while above the roar of the fires the whole air seemed vibrating with the noise of the great guns and machine-guns. It was an inferno! We remained spell-bound, and I can’t tell you how I longed for you to see it. We had only just come down from the window — we had been standing on the window ledge leaning out — when H. came and told us no one was to look out of the windows as there was cross-firing from the United Service Club and another building, and Mr. O’B., who was watching the fires from his window, had a bullet a few inches from his head!!”