The centenary of 1916 Rising has just passed, and it was judged to be a great success, with parades, speeches and wreath-laying, and a general positive feeling about the seminal event that led to Irish independence.
But there is another aspect to the 1916 story that we don’t often see: the other side of the extraordinary battle and the graves of those who died fighting to defend Ireland and the Empire from the 1916 rebels.
Their graves lie lonely and mostly unlamented in furtive locations around Dublin, the city in which they fell. The graves pictured here are in the grounds of the old Royal Hospital in Kilmainham, a former military hospital for retired soldiers in the British forces, many of them Irish. The cemetery, behind the famous Bully’s Acre, with its topsy-turvy tombstones from previous centuries, lies just over the wall from the main motorway West out of the capital. It is not open to the public.
It is one of many other such plots around the city. British soldiers, and policemen, killed in Easter 1916 are also buried in the old British military cemetery in Grangegorman as well as in the general cemeteries of Dean’s Grange and Mount Jerome. Others are buried in the grounds of Dr. Stevens’ hospital (now the headquarters of the national health board), where, incredibly, the remains of four soldiers from the Royal Irish Regiment lie right next to two Irish Volunteers. All of them died in uniform for a greater cause.
Such was the pace and intensity of the fighting in Easter Week that the Crown often had to improvise and bury the soldiers where they could. However, the remains of many others were repatriated to Britain, where they received military funerals.
But who were they, these English soldiers, and how did they come to Ireland, regardless of what we think of their actions and motives? And how strange it is surely that they lie in these quiet places, while those who fought on the other, ‘rebellious’ side are celebrated and lauded with great gusto now in this centenary of the 1916 Rising.
Bear in mind that these soldiers, and policemen - some as young as 19 - were not only fighting to prevent an insurrection in Ireland but were fighting in solidarity with thousands of other Irishmen (and Englishmen and eventually Americans) who were struggling and dying on the Western Front and falling by the score in the trenches – in the belief of defending a greater European freedom.
Much as we respect the Easter rebels, it is worth appreciating how they were seen at the time, conspiring with the German enemy and even saluting the Germans in the 1916 Proclamation as ‘our gallant allies in Europe.’
The Berlin diaries of 1916 conspirator Roger Casement have just been published describing how Casement colluded with the Germans when the Allies were at war with them in Europe. However, such are the wheels of history and Casement was later hanged for treason.
It is ironic but surely apt that the leave-strewn graves pictured here are only a few hundred yards away from Kilmainham Jail where Casement’s co-conspirators, the 1916 Rebel leaders, were also executed. These executions, by firing squad, in the Stonebreakers Yard of Kilmainham, may even have been done by soldiers from the same British regiments as those who are buried around Dublin.
It is also apt that only a few hundred yards from these graves, in the other direction, lies the beautiful National War Memorial Gardens at Islandbridge, down by the River Liffey and designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, which commemorates the thousands of Irishmen who fell in the two World Wars. Specifically, it honors the 49,000 who died in WW1, many of them Irish nationalists, who believed that their actions would boost the cause of Home Rule, then on the UK statute books.
Little did they expect the 1916 Rising. And nor did the British, who had to rush in soldiers to deal with the revolt.
Two of the gravestones here are of soldiers from the Notts and Derby Regiment, otherwise known as the Sherwood Forresters, who encountered major resistance by Mount Street bridge on the Grand Canal, as they marched in from Dun Laoghaire (then Kingstown) into which they’d hurriedly sailed from Britain.
One them was Lance Corporal T. H. Chapman, 3493, who enlisted in Newark, Nottinghamshire and lived in nearby Southwell. Another was Private A. Warnock, 4643, the son of Arthur and Gertrude Warner, of Sanatorium Lodge, Mansfield, Nottinghamshire. He was just 19 and both were killed on Thursday, 27 April when the Forresters finally got through the rebel lines after heavy casualties.
Another grave is of Private Harry Philips, 8379, of the Royal Irish Regiment who was aged 23 years and was killed on 25th April, on the second day of the Rising. He was born and lived in Whitminister, Gloucestershire and enlisted in Stroud in that county.
Meanwhile, there is a separate rough granite tombstone to Constable Christopher Miller, a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary, who died of his wounds on Tuesday, April 25, the second day of the Rising. The inscription says that his grave was “erected by his sorrowing parents and by the subscribers of the Irish Police and Constabulary Fund.”
This is significant as the then Irish police suffered many casualties in 1916 and many more in the subsequent War of Independence of 1919-1921, when they were picked off in towns and on country roads. For generations, the RIC was part of the fabric of Irish life, especially in rural areas, and in many ways, offered a soft target. There would soon be mass resignations and many ex-RIC men would become absorbed into the State’s new unarmed police force, the Gardai Siochana.
There is also a tombstone for J. Coyle, 6427, a Quartermaster with the 3rd battalion, Royal Irish Rifles, who was killed on April 30, the very last day of the Rising. He was born in Middlesborough and the gravestone was ‘erected by his brother and comrades.’
The same tombstone commemorates Rifleman M.Cornelius Duggan, 3rd Royal Irish Rifles, who died on 29 April at the age of 23. An Irishman, he was born in Templecrone, County Tipperary, enlisted in Glasgow, and then lived in Letterkenny, Co Donegal. Also commemorated here is Private Leen, 5th Royal Irish Lancers, a cavalry regiment heavily involved on the Western Front and which was involved in clashes with the 1916 rebels at the Four Courts and on Sackville (now O’Connell) Street.
The epitaph on this tombstone reads, ‘Death Divides but Memory Binds’, and in this context, it is a fitting one.
Indeed, it is an epitaph that is truly prescient and ahead of its time. If anything, the lesson of recent conflict in Europe, and Ireland, is that the memory of such differences and of such respective sacrifice, truly binds us as human beings and is a salvation for the living. In this corner of old Dublin, the fallen are connected by a higher fate, and noble idealism and sacrifice, however opposed they may have been to each other.
This should be the inspiration we take from these graves – and from 1916.