What was it like to fight in the 1916 Easter Rising? If you want a glimpse of the experience from a first-hand perspective, look no further than the diary of Volunteer Seosamh de Brún.
A dedicated if succinct diary keeper, Brún did not stop recording his thoughts and impressions even while fighting in the Rising. His full diary was published in 2014 by Mercier Press in “The 1916 Diaries of an Irish Rebel and a British Soldier,” by Mick O’Farrell.
We previously excerpted the diary of the British soldier, Sergeant Samuel Henry Lomas, and now bring you Seosamh de Brún’s account.
As O’Farrell writes in the introduction, “Volunteer Seosamh de Brún’s diary is unique among accounts of the Easter Rising – it’s the only known diary kept by an ordinary Volunteer under fire. Naturally it contains the fascinating and the humdrum, but along the way it reveals what an ‘ordinary’ rebel was experiencing during Easter Week – not only do we get a first-hand, unadulterated version of the events and the history he was part of, but we also get a glimpse into the mindset of a Volunteer who ‘did not expect to be involved in Revolution at least so suddenly.’ And because he kept the diary from late 1915, we even come to know something of de Brún’s circumstances in the months before the Rising – not just the hard times he was going through, with a drastic shortage of work and wages, but also the problems he was having within his company of Volunteers: ‘B. Coy. Coldness. The limit reached. Left early.’
“Despite his personal difficulties and an apparent disillusionment with the Volunteer organization, de Brún responded immediately and enthusiastically to the rebel mobilization on Monday, April 24: ‘We believe we are going to make a sacrifice. We offer it to god & our country.’ Later in the week he was one of just fourteen Volunteers who left Jacob’s on bicycle to try to relieve the pressure on Éamon de Valera’s position near Mount Street – one man was fatally wounded, and de Brún, on his return, opened his diary and wrote: ‘I did not think I would return.’"
Explore his notes from the Rising here, complete with footnotes:
Strike still on.
Cabinet crisis settled secret session of parliament, something wrong with the Empire(^1). ‘Nerves’ perhaps!
Sunday 23 Easter Sunday
Mobilisation of Volunteers called off by Eoin MacNeill(^2).
Excitement intense. The crisis is near
Monday 24 Easter Monday
Going to Scalp with Mattie (^3)
Mobilisation unlikely, perhps.
Return to buy pamphlet. Meet Vols hurrying. Emergency mobilisation Excited & hurried movements
Barmacks, New Street, Jacobs occupied.(^4)
‘We are in action, boys’ Commandant Hunter says.
We know fight & die is necessary [sic] for a free Irish Republic.
Excitement, fear, nervousness amongst us at unexpected development. But action was inevitable.
Barricades in Blackpitts(^5)
Intercept military.(^6) Populace don’t understand, execration & jeers. Free fights between themselves.(^7)
Imperial ___. Are these the people we are trying to free? Are they worth fighting for? The dregs of the population. They don’t understand. Patience! They are the product of misrule. If fighting for them improves their condition that alone consoles. Maintenance money has changed them.(^8)
Tomorrow they will cheer us.
Thank Heaven, ordered to ‘fall back to Jacobs’, inside, relief, darkness & nervousness.
Jacobs is a vast place
A big place for a small number of men to hold. Sleep in snatches.
Location. Preparation. Barricading. Strengthening our position. Volunteers brave & hopeful. Manly fellows.
P. Callan nervous.(^9) Can’t sleep & bad digestion. He was calm yesterday. Reaction I suppose today. I review my life. I believe I was fated to be here today. I could not have escaped it. It seems I was irresistibly drawn.
I was annoyed at mobilisation yesterday. It spoiled my anticipated day’s outing. But ‘man proposes’ etc.(^10)
Tuesday passes. Better sleep
No night attack. Men settling down, news favourable. Coming in often – keeps up our spirits.(^11)
We now thoroughly realise our position and are becoming reconciled to it. We believe we are going to make a sacrifice. We offer it to god & our country.
I am well in advance of my diary.(^12) But now time our time [sic]does not trouble us. Our time is Ireland’s and Ireland’s only. Paddy Callan is quite calm today. Poor Pat. Like me he did not expect to be engaged in Revolution at least so suddenly. We expected the offensive would be forced on us. Eoin MacNeill we hear is fighting as a private. Hobson and MacNeill did not favour revolt it appears.(^13) Jas Connolly & Citizen Army doing splendid work.(^14) MacDonagh, Hunter, McKee, All our fellows working wonderfully.(^15) We are becoming ‘soldiers’ now. The Volunteer ‘feeling’ is past, we are now campaigners & we will make good ones. Some of our fellows quite young but magnificent courage. We are beginning to know each other ___ talk, fun & good spirits. Tea ‘Hurry up up’ [sic] Provisioning here is perfect tons of flour, sugar, & biscuits and those girls working so hard. Only in great moments like these does one get a true glimpse of Womanhood, patient, self-sacrificing & cheerfully brave.
I have been to confession.(^16) First time for years. I feel better for it. I do believe that the Catholic Religion and Irish nationality are better in meaning than synonymous they are so interwoven. The spirit of Christ & Irish Nationality. The spirit of progress & sacrifice.
After tea. Inspection of position. Withdrawal to ___ do. Attack expected.(^17) Men of our section nervous. Officers also apprehensive. This is the culminating point of our first experience. Over tonight & we will face anything.
1 A.M. new barricades finished jaded tired. Sleep in equipment. No soft bed now.
No attack. A few hours improved rest good wash & shave. A general inspection of factory by myself. It is well to know our whereabouts.
1st watch. Untill [sic] 1 P.M.
Heavy firing on my post, not certain if in Building. Suspense, tension. Darkness & silence save for the rattle of rifles & machine guns. Machine guns seem to be distinctive.(^18)
Plug. Plug. Plug …….
Myriad soft sultry sounds of bullets perforating walls.
Expect to be riddled though inside building.
Guard ended, not fearsome but highly strung, can’t sleep expecting attack, which does not come.
Com. Hunter always optimistic. Officers cheery men resigned. Sent to base for rest. Inside arrangements very perfect.(^19) Food supplies perfectly regular. Red Cross section ready.
Girls singing national songs dressed in green.
Men dress in all sorts of costumes, dungarees look more like mechanics at work than soldiers. Plenty of new clothes, boots + Tobacco.(^20)
If it was not for occassional [sic] sniping the Factory would remind one of a huge entertainment, everybody merry & cheerful.(^21)
In the Civilian mind, it is a most intensely realistic change in which every element and [?] phase of life is apparent as the mind dwells on the actual situation the spirit of comradeship dominating all.(^22)
Approaching 12 o’clock.
Resting at base on luxurious improvised settees. It suggests an hospital
The boys discussing the the [sic] chances the rumours & the probabilities of the revolution. Politics municipal local. National & International. People personalities & figures.
May the Republic endure, Ireland will endure.
Freedom has been asserted.
Ireland has advanced to a higher & I believe a holier phase of her Destiny.(^23)
Afternoon passes quietly.
Refreshed after rest.
Reading. Smoking(^24) & playing cards to music of gramophone & piano.(^25) Great temptation to smoke but then I would break my resolution the terms of which now are on the __ of the gods & in the breeches of our rifles.
Called early & selected to form ‘Diverting party’. De Valera at Westland Row hard pressed. 14 cyclists are ready.(^26) we proceed to the places named, York St, St Gn(^27) south, Leeson St towards Merrion Sq past Red Cross hospitals.(^28)
Soldiers at end of Sqr. Dismount opened fire remount return. Our fellows awful cool, back same direction, gauntlet of shots. Via York St.
Snipers at top Grafton St.
O’Grady shot here, helped along down York St past Col. of Surgeons held by our fellows & back to factory.
I did not think I would return.(^29)
Easy day. read portion of ‘Julius Caesar’ Shakespeare following the advice of Irish Times.(^30) ‘Cassius & Brutus’ interesting study. This is the 1st Shakespearean play I saw & it is my favourite.
The Friendship, Quarrel & Reconciliation
B & C is a beautiful expression of manly love, an ideal conception of the idea of the Brotherhood of man and free from cant or cheap political platitude.
(1) The Irish Times reported on 21 April that the cabinet crisis had ended, and the recruiting policy had been decided. The cabinet had agreed a set of proposals on recruiting which were to be ‘submitted to a secret session in each House of Parliament’, where facts and figures would be presented, ‘of which publication must obviously be undesirable’.
(2) Eoin MacNeill, founder member and chief of staff of the Irish Volunteers, having discovered that he had been deceived by members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood within his organisation, issued a general order to the Volunteers calling off manoeuvres on Easter Sunday, the original date set for the Rising to begin. It’s clear from de Brún’s note that expectations, and tensions, were high – his remark on the crisis being near was correct, and the rebellion went ahead the next day, albeit with a much-reduced turnout of Volunteers.
(3) Mattie (Martha) Maguire – see p. 33.
(4) ‘Barmack (limited), hop food specialists’, 12 Fumbally’s Lane – Thom’s Official Directory, 1917. In statements to the Bureau of Military History, other Volunteers refer to it as Barmac’s, and as a distillery or brewery.
(5) Blackpitts is the name of a road parallel to Clanbrassil Street in Dublin.
(6) Outposts were established around Jacob’s with the intention of intercepting any troops that may have been sent from Portobello (now Cathal Brugha) Barracks.
(7) Volunteer Michael Walker recalled that ‘The inhabitants of Blackpitts were very hostile, singing and dancing to English songs of a quasi-patriotic type – pelted stones at us and generally showed great opposition which eventually culminated in an attack on a Volunteer by a man who formed one of the crowd with the object of disarming the Volunteer. This man was shot and bayonetted, I believe, fatally’ (BMH WS 139, p. 4). Volunteer Vincent Byrne was possibly describing the same incident when he wrote that ‘a lot of soldiers’ wives and, I expect, imperialistic people – men and women – came around us. They jeered and shouted at us. One man in the crowd was very aggressive. He tried to take the rifle off one of our party. Lieutenant Billy Byrne told him to keep off or he would be sorry. The man, however, made a grab at the rifle. I heard a shot ring out and saw him falling at the wall’ (BMH WS 423, p. 2). The women ‘were like French revolution furies’ according to Volunteer Thomas Pugh (BMH WS 397, p. 5).
(8) This probably refers to the ‘separation money’ that wives of soldiers in the British Army received during the war while their husbands served.
(9) The lists of rebel prisoners given in the Sinn Féin Rebellion Handbook show a P. Callan, carpenter, of 59 Millmount Avenue, Dublin. In the census of 1911, he gives his name as Pádraig Ua Cathaláin, so it’s possible that Callan was both a union and a Gaelic League colleague of de Brún’s.
(10) The full proverb is: ‘Man proposes, God disposes’.
(11) Several of the statements given to the BMH by members of the Jacob’s garrison recall that dispatches arrived often. Volunteer Seamus Pounch stated that they ‘received couriers hour by hour with details of the fighting which was now in full fury’ (BMH WS 267, p. 11). However, not all of the men felt as well informed – Volunteer Pádraig Ó Ceallaigh recalled that ‘Despatch riders had kept the Volunteer leaders in touch with the position in other parts of the city but we of the rank and file had only a dim idea as to what was happening elsewhere in Dublin and none at all of the position outside it’ (BMH WS 376, p. 4). Nevertheless, at the time, de Brún was happy with the regular reports he was hearing.
(12) This refers to the fact that this entry starts under the printed date of Sunday 30 May.
(13) Despite being general secretary of the Irish Volunteers in 1916 and a member of the Supreme Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, Bulmer Hobson opposed the Rising and tried to prevent it.
(14) James Connolly was commander of the Irish Citizen Army, but having been appointed Commandant-General of the combined rebel forces in Dublin, he was based in the GPO during the Rising.
(15) Volunteer officer Dick McKee.
(16) See p. 36.
(17) With rumours circulating, and the sights and sounds of machine guns, artillery and infernos apparently getting closer as the week went on, the tension was high, and de Brún constantly refers to attacks that were expected, but never came. Volunteer Pádraig Ó Ceallaigh wrote that when the garrison surrendered, some were disappointed, but ‘For some others there was, I think, a feeling of relief that the strain of the week was over; the strain on us was probably more intense because of our comparative inactivity. There was also the uncertainty.’
(18) John J. (Seán) Murphy recalled, ‘A series of windows overlooked the Adelaide Hospital and were in view of the Tower in the Castle from where we were under fire … by machine guns’ (BMH WS 204, p. 7).
(19) The base de Brún refers to was probably the area mentioned by Volunteer Thomas Pugh ‘on the top floor of Jacobs, where they had a rest-room and library, with a glass roof and glass windows’ (BMH WS 397, p. 5).
(20) Help from outside the factory came in various forms. Two sisters, Mary and Anne Reynolds, who had a clothing business nearby, supplied many of the men with clothes during Easter Week (see p. 150, n. 11). In other instances, the rebels left the factory to get supplies. Volunteer Seamus Pounch recalled that he ‘was detailed to lead a second patrol to obtain supplies of potatoes, bread, etc. I was handed a warrant signed by Thomas McDonagh [sic], headed – I, as an officer of the Irish Republican Army, is duly authorised, etc. … I commandeered lard from Cavey’s, Wexford St., and potatoes from Quinlisk’s Stores, Cuffe St., and several trays of loaf bread. … I conscripted civilian help [to carry these] and marched the convoy to Jacob’s … I got permission to reward the conscripts with two loaves apiece for their services’ (BMH WS 267, p. 12). According to Séamas Ó Maitiú, in his history of Jacob’s (p. 43), the rebels obtained plenty of provisions from the surrounding area, and ‘they also had a quantity of boots and the contents of McEvoy’s stores on Redmond’s Hill, and Larkin’s tobacco and chandlery stores, Wexford Street.’ Towards the end of the week, it seems the garrison were preparing to provide their own food. Thomas J. Meldon remembered that ‘the ovens were being got ready for baking when the order to surrender came’ (BMH WS 134, p. 14). In fact some may have already been experimenting, because, according to Ó Maitiú (p. 48): ‘In 1961, at an exhibition night held by the Old Dublin Society, two burnt biscuits were displayed. It was said that they were made in Jacob’s factory by some young volunteers who could not resist making them during Easter Week despite being told not to touch machinery. They were burnt to a cinder, but the company name was still legible.’
(21) Things were evidently quiet within the factory – so much so that according to Pounch, ‘During a lull in the fighting in Jacob’s we held a miniature ceilidh – Volunteers and Fianna, Cumann na mBan, Clan na Gael Girl Scouts … and [it] was a real welcome break in the serious business we had on hands’ (BMH WS 267, pp. 12–13).
(22) It’s unclear what de Brún is referring to here, and this sentence may simply illustrate the mental strain the men of the garrison were under.
(23) De Brún’s pencil changes here, from black to almost purple.
(24) Ó Maitiú’s history of Jacob’s quotes an account of the Rising found in Jacob’s archives which tells that caretaker Thomas Orr asked rebel Commandant MacDonagh to prevent smoking in the factory as far as possible. According to the account, orders were immediately issued for smoking to cease – however, it’s clear that at least in the base (or rest room) that de Brún refers to, smoking continued.
(25) Volunteer Lieutenant John MacDonagh (brother of Comdt Thomas MacDonagh) recalled later: ‘Some of the Volunteers discovered an old-fashioned gramophone, in a corner downstairs in Jacob’s, that played God save the King and one day when Tom and MacBride were making their tour of inspection it was put on to take a rise out of them’ (BMH WS 219, p. 2).
(26) See A Sortie from Jacob’s, p. 134.
(27) St Stephen’s Green.
(28) In 1916 there was a War Hospital Supply Depot in 40 Merrion Square.
(29) De Brún appears to have initially written ‘should’ here, but crossed out the ‘sh’ and replaced it with ‘w’.
(30) This casual reference is particularly interesting. When martial law was declared on Thursday 27, The Irish Times editorial asked: ‘What is the fire-side citizen to do with those hours?’ Among other suggestions, it recommended: ‘Best of all, perhaps, he can acquire, or re-acquire, the art of reading … How many citizens of Dublin have any real knowledge of the works of Shakespeare? Could any better occasion for reading them be afforded than [this] enforced domesticity …?’ This, then, is the ‘advice of Irish Times’ that de Brún is referring to just two days after it was printed, showing that within the Jacob’s garrison, there was access to a daily newspaper, if not on the day of publication, then very soon after.
* Originally published in April 2015.