'Dublin Docklands - An Urban Voyage’ is a work in progress, commissioned by the Dublin Docklands Development Authority, and due to be published in 2009.
When Éamon de Valera stepped down as President of Ireland on June 24th 1973, one of his first stops was at Boland's Bakery, now the Treasury Building, at the southern entrance to the Grand Canal Docks. This was where de Valera had gained his first real revolutionary experience a staggering 57 years earlier. During the Easter Rising of 1916, known locally as ‘the Poet’s Rebellion’, the young mathematician made his name as the last of the rebel Commandants to surrender to the British.
Shortly after noon on Easter Monday 1916, de Valera and approximately 100 members of the Third Battalion stormed the Boland’s premises and told all the bakers working there to take a half-day. Both the mill and bakery had been identified as vital strategic locations. Control could enable the rebels to prevent British reinforcements crossing the two bridges over the Grand Canal Docks, as well as the bridge by Lower Mount Street. They would also provide a key vantage point over the railway lines running between Sandymount and Westland Row, and the main road between the por t at Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire) and the city centre.
Having secured Boland’s, de Valera sent a sizeable detachment of Volunteers to set up an outpost in Westland Row railway station. The men quickly ripped out the railway tracks on the Kingstown line to prevent troop trains getting too close. De Valera established his own headquarters in the dispensary beside the bakery. He ordered the removal of essential par ts from the gas works and the electricity supply station in Ringsend, thus cutting off the gas supply and immobilizing the electric trams. Some men were sent to Mount Street Bridge and others to cover the entrance to the British Military Barracks at Beggars Bush. Due to a lack of manpower, de Valera was unable to organize scouting parties and he was thus unaware that the Barracks were in fact virtually empty.
Two days later, some 2,000 British troops came marching up Northumberland Road from Dún Laoghaire, en route to oust the rebel leaders from the General Post Office on O’Connell Street. They paused at the Royal Dublin Society's premises in Ballsbridge where Lord Rathdonnell was attempting to host the Spring Show. The soldiers were given lemonade and then advanced onwards. As these two battalions of Sherwood Foresters approached Mount Street Bridge, they came in for a big surprise. De Valera had surveyed the Westland Row and Grand Canal district in the weeks preceding the Rising. He had considered the military possibilities and now his planning was to pay off.
The Volunteers at Mount Street Bridge secured perfect positioning for a cross-fire ambush. The Forresters walked into a death trap. Their attempts to charge the rebels were utterly suicidal. In a battle that ultimately lasted from noon to 8pm, 234 British officers and men were killed or wounded, marking almost half of the total British Military losses for the whole week of the Rising. Only four Volunteers were killed in the same battle. During the early part of the action, Mick Malone slipped down to the battalion HQ in the Bakery and warned de Valera that they needed a fast firing weapon urgently. The bespectacled Commandant unbuckled his own Mauser, handed it over with 400 rounds of ammo and said ‘Sorry I cannot do more for you’. When the superior British firepower eventually overwhelmed the Volunteers, Malone was among the four killed in the final assault. A Memorial to the slain Volunteers stands by the bridge today. There is no such record of the unfortunate Forresters who perished, although a number of them do seem to have been buried in the military cemetery at Grangegorman.
The following day, the British gunboat Helga sailed up the Liffey and
began shelling Boland’s Bakery and Mill. A second naval gun was taken
ashore from the Helga and set up in Percy Place. De Valera deftly
neutralized the danger by flying a rebel flag from a nearby distillery,
which attracted much of the subsequent shelling. An interesting memo
survives, written by de Valera to the British intelligence officer, urging
that permission be given to provide food and water to the 90 van
horses used by the Bakery. With the British Army now firmly focused
on the rebels in the GPO and the Four Courts, there was no concerted assault on the Boland’s Bakery area. By the Friday, the rebels at Boland’s had seen little action. All week they expected a major assault by the British but it just didn’t happen. One night, de Valera and some men slipped out to a nearby railway embankment where they silently watched the city burning to the west.
The garrison held out until Sunday when Nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell
of Cumann na mBan, the women’s auxiliary of the Irish Volunteers,
brought news of the general surrender. She handed de Valera the order
signed by P.H. Pearse. At first de Valera thought this was simply a British
ploy to coax his men out. When he was finally convinced the order
came from Pearse, he ordered all arms held by the Volunteers to be
put out of action lest they be of use to the enemy. No Volunteer was
willing to carry the white flag of surrender so a Red Cross worker
was persuaded to hold it while de Valera’s vice-commandant, Joseph O’Connor, marched the men out.
Flanked by British soldiers, the rebels made their way to Grattan Street
where the order was given to ‘ground arms’. It galled de Valera to see
the local people coming out from their homes to offer cups of tea to the
British soldiers while ridiculing the Volunteers for their actions. When
the British led de Valera out from the Mills, he murmured to the crowd
outside: ‘if only you had come out, though armed with hay forks only’. As with all battalion commandants, Commandant de Valera was tried by court martial and sentenced to death. However, the shocking executions of the main ringleaders earlier in the week had such a marked effect on public opinion that de Valera’s death sentence was commuted to penal
servitude for life. Contrary to popular belief, his US citizenship was not used in his favour and he himself made no claims on that basis.
Although his garrison did not see anything like as much action as those in the city centre, de Valera’s men racked up a high tally of enemy casualties. Indeed, by dint of their defence of Mount Street Bridge, the heaviest casualties inflicted on the British Army that week were by the Irish garrison stationed in Boland’s Mills.
With thanks to Michael Purcell, Larry O'Brien, Frank Fagan and others.