March 31, 2016
Fourth of four parts.
One hundred years ago, on Wed., April 26, 1916, shock and excitement gripped Boston’s Irish neighborhoods. Readers collectively gasped that day at the Boston Globe’s morning-edition headline: “Serious Revolt Rises in Dublin – Armed Sinn Fein Men Fought British Troops.”
The rebels had proclaimed “the birth of the Irish Republic.”
The dramatic story of the Easter Rising, which had been raging in Dublin since Monday, had finally reached Boston, and for the next few weeks, the city’s Irish pored over the Globe’s, the Herald’s, and other local newspapers’ front-page coverage of the valiant but ill-fated revolt led against the British by Padraig Pearse, James Connolly, and other rebels.
In Boston, people frantically tried to telegraph relatives in Dublin and elsewhere throughout the island. Few messages went through for nearly two weeks, as Dublin’s windows were shattered from the roars and rumbles of British artillery and the nights were lit up by the flashes of the fieldpieces’ muzzles and flaming sheets of small-arms fire.
Many in Boston Irish read an April 30, 1916, piece in The New York Times, which asked prominent Irish Americans to assess the rebellion even as firsthand communications from Dublin remained fragmentary at best. First and foremost, the Times reported, Irish-American leaders denied that the rebels were acting on behalf of Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany, then at war with Britain, France, Russia, and Italy. “Irish Separatists in this country [the U.S.A.] do not believe that the uprising in Dublin was the formal planned beginning of a revolution,” the report noted, “and they scout [dismiss] the idea that the capture of the British Post Office and the severing of telegraph wires in the Irish capital were financed or instituted by the Germans…”
The Times analysis added that many Irish Americans believed “that Ireland’s golden opportunity for revolution had come” and that the fighting in Dublin represented “in short, another Boston Tea Party or Battle of Lexington.”
According to the Times, supporters in Boston and elsewhere of John Redmond’s long-running and frustrating campaign for Irish Home Rule expressed “the opinion there cannot be anything but regret to follow the uprising for which Ireland and themselves must suffer.”
The rebellion had erupted on Easter Monday, April 24, when a band of 1,000-1,500 Irishmen, armed largely with obsolete German rifles, seized the sprawling General Post Office on Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street) and other key points throughout Dublin, catching the British Army by surprise. Michael Collins, Eamon de Valera, and the other rebels dug in as best they could and braced for the British onslaught to come. By the time that the news of the Rising reached Boston’s papers, the British had imposed martial law upon Dublin and were pounding the Irish positions, the gunboat Helga reducing rebel meeting-place Liberty Hall to a charred ruin. British batteries and troops took up positions at Trinity College, and soldiers surrounded the rebels’ positions and inched ever closer.
On the front page of the April 26 Boston Evening Globe appeared the following headline in giant, bold black print: “Dublin Under Martial Law.” The city’s Brahmins likely nodded their assent to a Globe story picked up from the London wire and deriding the Rising as “an act of folly by political lunatics – old disgruntled cranks and young Sinn Feiners.”
Adding to the excitement in Boston were newspaper accounts contending that documents seized from a German spy proved that “prominent Irishmen in the United States” had been working with Germany to foment and finance the revolt in Dublin. Nervously, Boston’s Irish awaited the inevitable news that the British had crushed the insurgents.
That grim reality was confirmed in the morning editions of the Globe and the Herald on Thurs., April 27. Emblazoned on page one of the Globe were the words “British Defeat Dublin Rebels.” The headline was a bit premature – in Dublin the British troops were boring in for the kill. Some soldiers were shooting male civilians on sight because many of the rebels did not wear uniforms.
“On that day [Thursday],” the Globe related, “attacks were made on Boland’s Mill, the men in the South Dublin Union were forced to give ground, and there was shelling of the General Post Office, which began to burn from the top down. [James] Connolly was wounded twice. The first wound he hid from his men, [but] the second was more serious, for one foot was shattered, and he was in great pain. With the aid of morphine he carried on directing the battle as best he could. The Dublin fires were now great conflagrations. With the streets full of small arms and the water supplies often cut, these could not be dealt with. Still, no major rebel strongpoint surrendered.”
The headline in the Evening Globe of Fri., April 28, revealed: “Parts of Dublin in Flames, Street-Fighting Continues.” Citing a report from London, the paper stated, “One dispatch received from Ireland this afternoon says that Sackville and Grafton Streets in Dublin are in flames and that artillery is being used on the houses, the inhabitants having been removed.”
Later, eyewitnesses would assail the “truth” of the latter statement. “Street-fighting continues,” the report noted, “and there is much looting…but the reinforced military is making steady progress. Most of the shops are closed, and passenger communication is still cut off.”
As any Boston Irish who had attempted to send a telegram to their old homes had learned, “normal telegraph, telephone and mail service with Ireland has not been restored, and the existing means of communication are subject to such a strict censorship that it is possible to obtain only fragmentary information.”
The Globe and the Herald ran scraps of that information, describing desperate fighting in Dublin on the 28th, when Connolly ordered a number of women rebels to leave the burning General Post Office. The end loomed for the battered insurgents.
In a last savage battle along King Street, near the Four Courts, approximately 5,000 British troops with armored cars and machine guns required 28 hours to advance just 150 yards against 200 rebels. The sight of writhing and screaming comrades amid motionless ones torn apart by Irish fire on King Street ignited a fury among many of the British soldiers pressing closer to the rebels. A Globe article noted: “It was then that the troops of the South Staffordshire Regiment bayoneted and shot civilians hiding in cellars. And now it was all over. On Saturday morning, Pearse and Connolly surrendered unconditionally.”
In Boston, as elsewhere in the United States, many Irish hardly viewed the rebels as heroes from the first news of the revolt. Boston priests denounced Pearse, Connolly, and their comrades in arms as criminals against proper authority, “traitors” against a nation at war against “the Hun.”
A large part of the Boston Irish community did not yet know how to assess the doomed Easter Rising. Newspapers carried accounts of Dublin crowds jeering and hurling invective at the ragged, bloodied rebels as they were marched through the streets to prison. Then, the reprisals by the British came – and everything changed in Dublin and across the Atlantic in Boston.
Next: “All Changed, Changed Utterly…” (“Easter 1916,” W.B. Yeats)
For further reading, see Michael P. Quinlin, “Boston and the Irish Rising,” Irish America Magazine, February-March 2016; The Easter Rising, Michael Foy and Brian Barton, Sutton Publishing, 1999; and The Rising (Centenary Edition) – Ireland: Easter 1916, Fearghal McGarry, Oxford University Press, 2016.)