by ehistoryadmin on January 17, 2015

Prosperous man’s first-hand account of Easter Rising

By Liam Kenny

Recollections of personal experience of the 1916 Rising are being retrieved from archives and memoirs as the nation builds to the centenary of the Easter rebellion. Already sterling work has been done by the Defence Forces’ Military Archives unit which has published on-line the recollections of witnesses to the Rising who were interviewed in the 1940s and whose testimony was sealed for more than half a century until its publication on the internet in recent times.

This project has been given extra depth by the release – – also by the Military Archives — in digitised format of the pension claims of republican veterans which contain a high level of detail regarding the service of individuals in the rebellion. All of these accounts give valuable insights into the dynamics of the Rising, as one of the formative events in the story 20th century. Welcome as they are they largely view the conflict from the viewpoint of combatants and activists who — while central to the events — do not yield the full range of perspectives.

There were many impacted by the rising including people going about their normal jobs who found themselves caught up in the violence of the days following Easter Monday 1916. A source for some such accounts possibly overlooked by historians of the Rising is the local newspapers who in the weeks afterwards carried first-hand accounts from people from their localities who happened to be in Dublin when the shooting started and had their own testimonies of what had taken place.

One such eyewitness whose story was carried in an edition of the Kildare Observer was Prosperous native James Cribbin who had been employed as a “diet clerk” for some 30 years in the South Dublin Union complex of hospitals and workhouses off James’ Street. The South Dublin Union was one of the locations targeted by the Volunteers as a strategic zone to be commandeered and held to frustrate British attempts to feed in troops from the western approaches to the city centre.

On a visit home to Prosperous some days after the Rising, James Cribbin gave a graphic account of his experience of the rising. His perspective is fascinating because he was not a combatant but rather an impartial witness with the observant mind of a public official who was able to give a lively but truthful account of what had happened. The Observer correspondent who he spoke to teed up his readers by stressing that Mr Cribbin had been in the thick of the trouble at the South Dublin Union. He began his account by saying “I was in charge of the place on Easter Monday morning, the Master and the Assistant Master having gone to the races at Fairyhouse.” Insights of that nature have a ring of truth as they show how ordinary life had been carrying on until the unexpected action burst on the scene. He continued: “The Sinn Feiners – about a hundred in all – entered and took possession of the buildings.” He went on to say that they had fortified themselves in the boardroom, and nurses’ home and other points of vantage and helped themselves to supplies of food from the stores. The Sinn Feiners were led by Edward Kent (Eamonn Ceannt) and by William Cosgrave.

The British army came along and attacked the place on Monday afternoon. From then the situation of the staff and patients in the South Dublin Union was perilous, caught up in a war being played at their place of work. James Cribbin said that he had had several narrow escapes from the gunfire and on one occasion a soldier was shot dead by a Sinn Fein bullet within a yard or two of where he stood. In a sad coincidence one of the casualties in the fighting at the location was a Naas resident – Alfred Warmington — who in his capacity as a British army officer was shot dead while attempting to rush the rebels position from the Rialto gate to the Union property. Prosperous man James Cribbin said that he had “the melancholy duty of registering his death.”

Giving an insight into the terror of warfare Mr Cribbin spoke of how temporary graves had to be dug in the Union grounds for up to sixteen fatalities – rebels, British soldiers and – most poignantly of all – a member of the nursing staff who was shot dead in the close quarter fighting which rages through the wards and corridors. The staff casualty was Nurse Keogh – a native of Carlow – who had worked in James’ St for some twenty years. Mr Cribbin spoke of how his late colleague was a “popular, capable and conscientious officer” who had met her death in the discharge of her duties. He explained: “She opened a door to cross a passage in search of one of her patients when she dropped with a bullet through her heart.”

Not alone was James Cribbin a first-hand witness to the fighting in the hospital grounds, he was able to speak of a more intimate connection with the combatants. He told the Observer that another pathetic fact was the breaking up of one “of the happiest and most devoted families in Dublin.” This was the family of the Cosgroves of James’ Street who were cousins of his. Four of the family fought as rebels and their participation impacted on them in different ways. W.T. Cosgrove was one of the Sinn Fein commanders at the Union and was sentenced to death but the sentence was commuted (six years later he was to become the first prime minister of the Irish Free State). His brother Philip was interned by the British. More seriously, their step-brother William Burke was killed in the fighting at the Union and his brother Thomas F. Burke was interned.

Such a first-hand testimony as that related by James Cribbin, and printed in the Kildare Observer, highlights the local press as a source of information on the explosive events of Easter 1916. Leinster Leader 15 April 2014, Looking Back, Series no: 377.

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