An tOglach Summer, 1971
CAPTAIN SEÁN CONNOLLY
THE FIRST IRISH FATAL CASUALTY ON EASTER MONDAY 1916
BY MATT CONNOLLY (His Brother. Who was also in the City Hall in 1916)
Seán Connolly was born in Sandymount, Dublin in 1883. His great grandmother, Ellen Connolly, had been evicted from her cottage home situated at a place called Connolly’s Cross near Straffan, Co. Kildare. She had subscribed to the funds of the Land League and the Landlord, Major Hugh Barton, could not tolerate such ideas so he had her and her family evicted by bailiffs on to the roadside. Her eldest son Richard took a small farm on Killakee mountain about four miles from Rathfarmham, Co. Dublin. It was a hard struggle to rear a large family of four boys and five girls on poor mountainy land so, after a few years he purchased a small dairy business at Sandymount, then a good middle-class suburb of Dublin.
Shortly after this his eldest son Michael, fascinated by living near the sea and watching the boats coming and going from Ringsend, decided to go to sea and see the world. He was reputed to have sailed around Cape Horn on two occasions on a four-masted sailing ship. Later, he was on a steamer trading between Dublin and Glasgow. At this time he met and married Mary Ellis at Star of the Sea Church, Sandymount, on July 1st, 1878, and of this marriage there were sixteen children, eight boys and eight girls.
When Sean, the first son, but the third child, was still an infant, the family moved to the Pro-Cathedral parish of St. Thomas on the North side. His father had taken up employment with the Dublin Port and Docks Board as a Lock Keeper at the Customs House Docks. He had very irregular hours, was on duty according to the tides, and as it was necessary for him to turn out at all times of the day and night, it was essential that he should live near his place of employment, hence the family move to the North side of the river.
When it was time, Sean started school at North William Street under the care of the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul where he learned to read and write. In 1894 he entered the Christian Brothers’ School, Saint Joseph’s, at Marino. Here he took a keen interest in the Irish language and soon became a fluent speaker. From his study of the language he learned that Ireland had a history and culture of her own. No Irish history worthy of the name was taught in the schools at that period but Sean found time to read and learn something of Deirdre, Cuchulainn, Brian Boru, O’Neill, O’Donnell, Sarsfield, Tone and Emmet, and the more he learned about these names the stronger became his loyalty to Ireland.
When he had passed through the Intermediate Secondary course, Sean went to work at Eason’s in Middle Abbey St. as a despatch clerk, but after a year or so took an examination for Junior Clerk in the Dublin Corporation where he remained and progressed to Senior Officer in the Motor Licence Department.
Sean became closely associated with the great poet and Patriot, Willie Rooney, in the Gaelic League, when that organisation was hardly in its teens. Here he also became acquainted with Dr. Douglas Hyde, Eoin Mac Neill, Paidraig Pearse, Thomas McDonagh and other Gaelic scholars of that period, all of whom he numbered among his friends. He taught Irish classes at the Colmchille Branch, the McHale Branch, the Keating Branch or anywhere teachers were scarce, or where his services were requested.
Through his connection with the Gaelic League Sean became interested in the G.A.A. He was a founder member of the Fianna Hurling and Football Club with which he played both games for some years. Later he played for St. Kevin’s, and with them won the Co. Dublin Championship in 1910 and went on the following year to win the Junior All-Ireland Final. As recently as August 20th 1950, a Mr. Joseph Dalton writing in the “Sunday Press” of that date under the heading – “Great Names, Great Men who built the G.A.A.” says: – “Sean Connolly was a stonewall goalkeeper, although he had only a brief period in senior ranks before he died . . . I say him down in Kilkenny defeat an hour’s combined attack of Kilkenny’s great scoring stars, Carrigan and Doyle, and over in Limerick, on a Whit Sunday long ago. I partnered him in Defence during an hour’s hard siege of the Dublin goal after which he left me to play a football match.”
Sean was always a strong advocate of support for home industry. He insisted on asking for Irish-made articles in the shops. At home he would insist on having in the house ordinary things like matches, candles, soap or shoe polish of Irish manufacture and often members of the family were compelled to walk long distances in search of an Irish-made cap or a pair of shoes maybe, in order to avoid Sean’s strong words of reproof.
Before the foundation of the Abbey Theatre Company, Sean had already made a name for himself with an amateur group called Irish National Players taking part in Gaelic and Anglo-Irish plays of National character in concert halls throughout the city and country. He was an elocutionist of outstanding merit, is still remembered by may for his dramatic rendering of such soul-stirring recitations as: – “Paud O’Donoghue”, “Anne Devlin”, “She Our Mother”, “The Man from God Knows Where” and many others and was an all-round entertainer at Feiseanna and Aeriochtai. Invitations came to him from all parts of Ireland and there are few if any counties in which he did not appear as a concert artist travelling at his own expense, often cycling many miles on lonely roads to little out-of-the-way village halls helping in every way to revive the National spirit among the people. He disliked anything bordering on “Stage Irishism” and had no use for the “Shoneen”. At Castlebellingham, Co. Louth he won a bronze medal for “lilting” the music for an eight-hand reel at the local Feis.
On one occasion when on his annual leave Sean travelled to Liverpool with a group of Irish Players and on the second night of the show an American Producer called to the stage-door of the theatre where they were playing and made a tempting offer to Sean of a five-year contract in the United States. Sean refused, without hesitation, saying that “his country would probably need him before the five years were up and he wanted to be available when the time came.”
One of my earlier recollections of Sean was in 1906 when taken by parents to see him play the part of Robert Emmet at the Abbey Theatre. The whole drama was so real to me, as a very young boy, that I cried when the “Red Coats” dashed in to arrest him. He had great respect for the memory of Emmet and could recite the “Speech from the Dock” without difficulty.
He took a leading part in “The Memory of the Dead”, a play written and produced by Count Markievicz, at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin. “Madame,” the wife of the Count also took a leading part in the play which was based on the ’98 Rising of the United Irishmen. This splendid company of amateur actors played to packed houses in 1910 and received favourable comment from the national newspapers of the period.
The late Gearoid O Lochlainn writing in “Feasta”, a few years ago, tells how he and Sean visited Bray on a summer afternoon in 1906 or 1907 and were disgusted to see an English music-hall Troupe entertaining people on the Promenade with their foreign songs and dances and “unhealthy” cross-talk and jokes. They decided to do something about it, so they made up a group of Irish entertainers and went to Bray in opposition. They put on a real Irish show of Gaelic and Anglo-Irish songs, recitations and step-dancing which won over the support of the local people so successfully that it revived the old Gaelic spirit which was nearly lost.
Besides being an actor and elocutionist Sean was also a singer. He was a member of the Emmet Choir, which was composed of about 30 to 40 mixed voices, which was well known on Irish Concert platforms. It was formed from the members of the McHale Branch of the Gaelic League and it was there that Sean met and married Christina Swanzy in 1910. They had three children, Kevin, Aiden and Mairead.
When the great lock-out and strike of the Dublin working classes took place in 1913 Sean’s father was a victim of the disturbances for his sympathy was with the down-trodden. The lower-paid workers of the docker and labourer types had an existence little better than that of slavery. The Irish Transport and General Workers Union under the leadership of Jim Larkin and James Connolly had for its motto “An Injury to One is the Concern of All” and sympathetic strikes were called among a large section of industrial workers. Processions, demonstrations and public meetings were being proclaimed and broken up by the D.M.P. and the R.I.C. Baton charges were frequent, large numbers of strikers were becoming hospital cases with serious injuries and some were even beaten to death on the streets. Larkin decided that the only way to meet force was with force. He advised the workers when coming to their meetings to carry sticks for self defence, hurleys for preference. The police became less inclined to use their batons now. Each meeting had a guard of picked men, armed with hurleys, surrounding the platforms. They became more disciplined at each gathering and soon Larkin had the nucleus of a citizen’s police force. From this small beginning sprang what was a few years later to become a very important section of the fighting force which brought about the insurrection of 1916, The Irish Citizen Army.
Sean recognised its importance. He could see in James Connolly, who had been appointed Commandant, a born leader of men and he enrolled for training.
The training ground was a field at Croydon Park near Fairview where the men gathered two or three evenings a week for company drill. Some of them had been in the British Army and these were appointed instructors. Rifles and revolvers gradually found their way into the hands of the men and target practice became popular. Here, too, Sean excelled, for he soon became a crack shot. As time went on the numbers increased. As the numbers increased new officers were appointed and Sean’s keenness soon won recognition and early promotion followed.
When Great Britain declared war on Germany in 1914, James Connolly, who had watched the formation and growth of the Irish Volunteers under the leadership of Redmond, McNeill, Hobson and others, realised the necessity for strong opposition to any attempt at conscription by the British Government of Irishmen to fight against the Germans, and when Redmond offered the services of the Irish Volunteers to aid Britain in her trouble, James Connolly showed his resentment in no uncertain manner.
Much could be written about the rise of the physical force movement and preparations for the Rising between 1914 and 1916 but April 23rd 1916 – Easter Sunday – found the Citizen Army mobilised at Liberty Hall, its Headquarters, at 3.30 p.m., each man carrying his equipment-belt, bandolier, haversack, a firearm of some sort, service rifle, German (Howth) Mauser, shot-gun or revolver ad an issue of ammunition, together with three days rations – all incidentally paid for out of his own pocket.
Events of previous weeks, such as the making of bombs, the adapting of bayonets to fit certain types of rifles or shot-guns, the altering of ammunition to fit guns for which it was never meant, had made each man aware that now, at last, the time was at hand for which all had been waiting.
About 4 o’clock they set out, James Connolly in command, and each man prepared for action, on company formation, marched through the principal streets of the city returning to Liberty Hall at about six o’clock. Lined up in front of the Hall the whole body addressed by Connolly who told then that from then on there was no longer a Citizen Army and no longer an Irish Volunteer but only the Army of the Irish Republic. He also told them that from then on each man was to be confined to Barracks and no one was to leave the Hall without special permission. The order to dismiss was given, the men moved into the Hall, set about making tea and an impromptu concert was held with Sean, of course, as one of the artists.
The night was spent in the Hall, men lying around on the floor, in various rooms, sleeping among heaps of home-made grenades, made up in condensed milk or cocoa tins, having fuses coated with match-head material requiring only a spark, or a careless knock, to cause a conflagration.
Morning found men alert and mustering early. An armed guard had been mounted on the Hall and on the secret printing press for some weeks. Nobody was allowed out without permission and those entering were subject to close scrutiny.
When the fall-in sounded sometime around 11.30 a.m. there was a stir of excitement. Men poured out from various rooms and formed up in the open space in front of the Hall, under their company officers. The second group to move off was composed of about thirty men and about ten women. Led by Sean, their company captain they marched smartly across Butt Bridge and along Tara Street. On passing the Fire Brigade Station Sean’s brother Joseph, who at the time was a Fireman, was standing at the gate in civilian clothes. He crossed the road, spoke to Sean for a moment, and then went off towards Liberty Hall. He was one of the very few motor drivers in the Citizen Army and was needed urgently there at that time. Sean sent him back to report to James Connolly.
As they marched through College St. and Dame St. Sean moved along the side of the ranks dividing his men up into small sections. The section leaders had already received instructions and each man was being detailed to follow his particular section leader. It had been whispered along the ranks that they were heading for Dublin Castle.
The first section leader left the ranks and followed by three others went down Exchange Court, entered City Hall by a side door which led into the basement and from there made their way to the roof just as the Angelus bell rang out from the nearby church of SS. Michael and John.
Another group of seven men under a section leader left the ranks, made a forcible entry into Henry and James, a men’s outfitters, at the corner of Parliament St. (now Tarlo’s) and made their way to the roof.
Another group of four men crossed the road, entered the building on the other corner of Parliament St., the offices of the “Evening Mail” (now Sloan’s) and took up its position on the roof.
A section of six men wheeled to the left towards the upper Castle Yard gate where a British Army sentry stood guard and a Dublin Metropolitan Policeman looked on nearby. The policeman moved to close the gate, succeeded in closing one half, was ordered to get back, attempted to close the second half and was shot. The soldier on guard fired a shot to warn his comrades, ran to the guardroom and was followed by the six Citizen Army men who overpowered the military in the guardroom and tied them up with their own putties.
Another section of Citizen Army proceeded up Lord Edward Street to take positions in the Synod House adjacent to Christ Church and in Werburgh Street.
Meanwhile Sean, having seen his men take over the guardroom of the Castle entered the City Hall with what remained of his company. The women members, who had proceeded up Lord Edward St. returned when they heard the shooting and also entered the City Hall. Doctor Kathleen Lynn, the official Medical Officer of the Citizen Army with Helena Maloney arrived shortly afterwards. They had come by car driven by Countess Markievicz. The women folk set about preparing rooms for first aid and arranging for food and water supplies.
Sean had been employed in the Motor Licence Offices in the City Hall for a number of years, so it can well be assumed that he was selected to command this area because of his knowledge of the district. The fact that he divided his company into small sections occupying the buildings overlooking the Upper Castle Yard gate is proof that it was never intended to make a concerted attack on the Castle with a view to its capture or its occupation. Part of the Castle buildings were in use as a hospital where there were some dozens at least of wounded soldiers home from the war fronts for treatment. Some of these were given rifles and put at the windows of the buildings for defence purposes and sniping.
Orders had been given to the men on the roof by Sean that individual unarmed soldiers in khaki were not to be fired on, and that the work in hand was to prevent troop movements into, or out of, the Castle.
A company of British Lancers moved along the North Quays towards the Pheonix Park but the orders were to hold fire. Shortly afterwards the sound of heavy rifle fire could be heard coming from the direction of the Four Courts and some half-dozen of the Lancers came galloping in retreat back along the Quays. By now rifle fire could be heard in various parts of the city and Sean had received a wound in his forearm. He joked lightly about the blood being shed for Ireland.
A couple of hours after the occupation of the buildings an improvised armoured car made its way up Parliament St. from the Quays. It was allowed to proceed slowly but when going towards the Castle gate, rapid fire was opened on it and it stopped outside. A soldier got out and dropped apparently badly wounded.
Small groups of armed men in khaki had come up from Ship St. Barracks by way of the narrow laneway to Castle Street and attempted to move towards the Castle gate. They were beaten back several times. Other groups of khaki-clad men gathered at the corner of Werburgh St. British snipers had taken up position of advantage in the Bedford Tower of the Castle which made things very unpleasant for the men on the roofs of the surrounding buildings but for the men on the City Hall roof in particular. Sean moved about amongst his men giving words of encouragement and using his Lee Enfield to good effect each time the soldiers tried to advance. On one occasion, as Sean moved along behind the parapet overlooking Castle St., he came into the line of fire from the sniper in the Bedford Tower and fell mortally injured. Within minutes Dr. Lynn and Helena Maloney were at his side. The bullet had pierced the heart and he was beyond human aid.
Sean’s loss was keenly felt by his comrades. The enemy had found the range and other casualties soon followed. A young man named Darcy was hit shortly afterwards on Henry & James’s roof and died almost immediately. He had been shouting to young people on the street, advising them to go home. Six men under section leader Norgrove than arrived from the G.P.O. to help those in the City Hall who had been under heavy pressure for several hours.
As darkness fell the sound of rifle fire eased off. The streets were deserted. Some of the men had come in off the roof for a rest having been relieved by those who came from the G.P.O. All was quiet sometime late in the night when suddenly a loud explosion shook the building to its foundations. A hole was blasted in the back wall, bursts of machine gun and rifle fire raked the ground floor and a crowd of British troops stormed in with fixed bayonets some of them charging up the main stairs.
The place was in darkness. The officer in charge called out for surrender and Dr. Lynn, who, at the time, was tending the wounded, stepped forward and surrendered on behalf of those in the building. She was of course the Senior Officer of the garrison. As dawn broke on the morning of Easter Tuesday British troops were in occupation of the City Hall.
Of the original ten men who occupied it, three were killed in addition to Sean, and three were badly wounded. Sean had three brothers and one sister in his company and another brother fought under Michael Mallin at St. Stephen’s Green. His father too was arrested during the Rising and was deported to Stafford gaol.
Some fantastic stories have been published from time to time by reputable authors about the so-called attack on Dublin Castle. Amongst them was one that the policeman was shot “out of hand.” Another that the Citizen Army men having marched in through the Castle gate fell back when fired upon and entered the City Hall for cover. Still another was that Sean Connolly, immediately on coming to the roof was shot down by a British soldier while attempting to hoist the “Sinn Féin” flag! These stories are all fiction.
After the general surrender and the execution of the Leaders of the Rising Sean’s wife and mother, through a working colleague of his in the Dublin Corporation, made contact with the British Officer commanding the Dublin Castle area, and after several disappointments, were allowed to take away the body which had been buried temporarily in the Castle gardens, for burial in the family grave at Glasnevin.
Had Sean survived the fighting and surrendered with the rest of the Leaders he would surely have been sentenced to death. But anyone who knew Sean and understood his character would say that if he had the choice he would prefer to die fighting.
There is a bronze plaque on the front of City Hall, erected by the National Graves Association, to the memory of Sean and his comrades who, died there at Easter, 1916. Beannacht Dé le na n-anama. The same Association has erected a headstone over Sean’s grave in Glasnevin.
Re-typed by Jennifer Connolly