A sensational eye witness account of the Easter Rising, written by a Belfast Unionist, has been brought to light after spending over half a century locked within a bank deposit box in Cookstown, Co. Tyrone. The almost 50-page account was only discovered when the bank closed 20 years ago.
It was political historian Dr. Éamon Phoenix who realized the importance of the account and for the last number of years has told the story of James Mitchell, a 38-year old elementary school teacher from Belfast, who found himself in Dublin as the Rising broke out on Easter Monday, 1916. Later this year, he will publish a book based on Mitchell’s account of rebellion.
Hailing from a Presbyterian family, and a signatory of the Ulster Covenant in September 1912 – a petition signed by just under half a million people as a protest against the Third Home Rule Bill that was to be introduced by the British government that year – Mitchell shows no sympathy for the rebels in his account, but nonetheless gives us a vital insight into the action as it unfolded.
As it happened, Mitchell and his friends found themselves in Dublin that Easter as they traveled to enlist in the British army.
Listed in the 1911 census as a teacher from The Mount in east Belfast, Mitchell and his brother Joe traveled to Dublin on Good Friday to visit Portobello barracks. They stayed in the famous Gresham Hotel on the capital’s Sackville St (now O’Connell St) just across the road from what would be rebel headquarters in the General Post Office (GPO).
After taking in some of what the city had to offer, visiting the Theatre Royal and spending an evening in the Officers mess in Portobello, on Easter Sunday Mitchell became a British soldier.
"Result – I became soldier of the King on Easter Sunday," he wrote.
The following day, the Mitchell brothers joined many of the soldiers stationed in Dublin as they traveled to Fairyhouse racecourse to enjoy the annual Irish Grand National. The exodus of soldiers to enjoy the race was just one of the reasons why the British Army were caught unawares when 1,250 rebels descended on Dublin that very morning.
While enjoying the festivities, the newly-recruited British soldier heard the rumors of "trouble with the Sinn Feiners in the city." Although Sinn Féin had no part in the planning of the Easter Rising, it was wrongly publicized that the group of rebels were from the political party. The inaccuracy was to spell success for Sinn Féin in the aftermath of the rebellion, however. As a sense of nationalism rose among the Irish public due the actions of the British Army in quelling the rebels’ military action and the execution of its leaders, they turned to Sinn Féin in the 1918 general election instead of the moderate nationalist Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP). The more radical Sinn Féin had never before achieved significant electoral success in this manner. The party is still considered the inheritor of the ideals of the Rising and its leaders to this day.
Returning to Dublin after the race, Mitchell found himself marooned in his lodgings at the Gresham and it was from here that he wrote his 49-page eyewitness account on hotel notepaper.
Meeting with an acquaintance who told him of his vehicle being commandeered by rebel forces digging trenches at Stephens Green (these forces would have been led by Michael Mallin with Countess Markievicz second in command), Mitchell realized how serious the impact the rebels were having on the city.
Eager to see for himself, he ventured from the safety of the Gresham, where residents were nervously awaiting the end of the rebellion from the hotel’s bar and restaurant, and wrote an entry about "some ghastly sights" he witnessed.
"Two horses lay dead opposite the Hamman Hotel, their soldier riders having been shot dead... Human blood covered the footway," he wrote.
He also noted that "all police and military were confined to barracks and the mob had complete possession of the principal thoroughfares," referencing the looting that was rampant on Sackville Street.
On the first day of the Rising three unarmed members of the Dublin Metropolitan Police were shot dead causing their Commissioner to pull the police off the streets. The lack of police presence is blamed for the level of looting that took place throughout the city. In total, 425 people were arrested for looting after the Rising
That evening, he wrote, "every building was barricaded and loop-holed by the Sinn Feiners, but all was peaceful within".
Mitchell was in a prime position to witness the events unfolding on Sackville St and at 8am on Wednesday morning, the third day of the Rising, he was awoken by the British bombardment of Liberty Hall, where socialist leader and founder of the Irish Citizen Army James Connolly was stationed.
In Mitchell’s opinion, it was Liberty Hall that was "the headquarters of all the disaffection".
He was also in a position to see the British gunboat the “Helga” as she was brought up the River Liffey to O’Connell Bridge to fire at the GPO.
"Sackville Street enveloped in bluish smoke and guns rattling away... A boat of some kind is at O’Connell Bridge and is evidently the cause of the loud reverberations," he said.
"The GPO was still solidly square and flying on top of the portico was the flag of the Irish Republic."
As the fighting continued, Mitchell’s pro-British sentiment began to shine through in his account, especially as the rebels’ chances of success, already low, sank even further: "I felt relief and secretly exulted at the inglorious end of the creatures with such mean and selfish minds."
On Saturday April 29, 1916, Jim Mitchell was present when 500 insurgents decommissioned their rifles outside of the Gresham Hotel following the surrender of Pádraig Pearse on nearby Moore St.
His diary ends on his return to Belfast: “All of our experiences seem now to be those of a dream. Everything that has past within the last 12 days has the impression of unreality.
“And now to bed, and sweet repose.”
Mitchell would go on to serve as a Lieutenant in the Royal Army Service Corps in a non-fighting unit. He was sent to Mesopotamia and received three medals, surviving the war and returning to live in The Mount.
You can hear Dr. Éamon Phoenix, author of “An Ulster Unionist at the 1916 Rising,” a book based on Mitchell’s Rising diary, speak on the subject here:
His book is due for publication later this year.
You can find more of IrishCentral's coverage on the centenary of the Easter Rising, along with a day-by-day account of the rebellion, here.
H/T: Irish News