Book review: According to their Lights

A Corkman serving in the British army committed some of the worst atrocities of the Easter Rising. Ryle Dwyer salutes a book that tells the little-known tale of the Irish who fought on the ‘other’ side during the events of 1916.
Book review: According to their Lights

IN THE past century there has been extensive, if not exhaustive coverage of the 1916 Rising, but this book makes a bold assertion.

“The story of the Easter Rising has never been fully told,” the author Neil Richardson asserts. “The story of one Irish aspect of the Rising has always been forgotten.” That is, of course, until now.

The book breaks considerable new ground in dealing what might have been considered a British side of the story, but was actually a forgotten Irish aspect.

“Perhaps the great unknown fact of modern Irish history is that thousands of Irishmen served in the British uniform during the Easter Rising and fought against the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army,” Mr Richardson contends. He is already written highly acclaimed books on the Irishmen who fought in the Great War and in World War II.

The first elements of the British Army to respond to the Easter Rebellion on April 24, 1916, were the 3rd Royal Irish Regiment, the 3rd Royal Irish Rifles, and the 10th Royal Dublin Fusiliers. Those British Army battalions stationed around Dublin consisted of 1,541 men, of which approximately 1,000 were Irishmen.

The Crown forces suffered 134 fatalities in the rebellion. Seventeen of those were policemen serving in either the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP), or the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). Of the 117 Crown soldiers killed, 41 were Irishmen, which meant that 35% of the British fatalities were actually Irishmen, as were 106 of the 357 military wounded. This is the story of those Irishmen.

Private Patrick Conway, who was stationed in Cork with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, happened to be in Dublin for the holiday weekend when the rebellion erupted. A rebel apparently took exception to his Army uniform and shot him in the back, even though Patrick Pearse had ordered unarmed soldiers should not be targeted. Conway survived his wounds.

A welcome feature of the book is the manner in which the author traces what subsequently happened to those who survived, as well as the prior combat experience of those involved. Major Philip Holmes, who was in charge of the first group of the 3rd Royal Irish Regiment to take on the rebels, was a native of Cork. He had already been gassed at Messines and wounded near Ypres on the continent. One of 32 RIC inspectors seconded to the British Army, he later served as a Divisional Commissioner of the RIC in Cork and Kerry. He was the highest-ranking British officer killed during the War of Independence. He was mortally wounded in an ambush at Tooreengarriv, Co Kerry, in January 1921.

The first Crown casualty of the rising was probably Constable James O’Brien from Kilfergus, near Glin, Co Limerick. A 21-year veteran of the DMP, he was on guard duty at Dublin Castle. He was unarmed and killed instantly when shot in the head at close range.

Lieutenant Gerald Neilan, 34, from Ballygalda, Co Roscommon, was probably the first soldier killed in the rebellion. At the time he was on Ellis Quay. Ironically his younger brother Arthur was serving with the Irish Volunteers nearby in the Four Courts.

They were not the only brothers fighting on opposite sides. Private Thomas Saurin, 22, was serving with the British Army while his younger brother Charles was with the 2nd Battalion of the IRA in the GPO. Their 16-year-old younger brother Frank tried to join the Irish Volunteers during the rising, but he was sent home because of his age. He later made a name for himself during the War of Independence as a member of Michael Collins’s famous Squad.

Sergeant Major Patrick Brosnan from Dunmanway was killed in Dublin Castle. He was visiting his family, living in the family quarters of Dublin Castle. He had joined the Royal Irish Fusiliers from the RIC and was a victim of so-called ‘friendly fire’ while disar

ming insurgents outside Dublin Castle. A British soldier shot him, mistaking him for a rebel.

Captain John Bowen-Colthurst, a Corkman, committed some of the worst atrocities of the week. His competence for command was obviously impaired by mental instability. His commanding officer, Lt Col Wilkinson Bird, had earlier recognised this at the front in France.

“Capt Bowen-Colthurst displayed military capacity and judgment of so low a standard, with lack of mental balance, as to induce the belief that he was not fitted to command a company in the field,” Bird reported.

“I was an Irishman first last and all the time and told Lt Col Bird that he did not understand the Irish and never would,” Bowen-Colthurst responded. His conduct during the Easter Rebellion must have confirmed Bird’s worst fears.

After martial law was proclaimed in Dublin James Coade, a teenage mechanic from Ranelagh — was stopped coming out of Rathmines Catholic Church, along with a friend after curfew.

“Don’t you know martial law has been proclaimed, and I could shoot you like dogs?” Bowen- Colthust told them. When Coade tried to walk off, Bowen-Colthurst ordered one of his men to “bash him”. The soldier hit Coade in the face with a rifle butt, knocking him to the ground. Bowen-Colthurst then shot him on the ground with his pistol, killing him instantly.

He later stopped a 15-year-old boy for questioning. He ordered the boy to get on his knees, and shot him in the back of head as the boy began making the sign of the cross.

British authorities were slow to act against Bowen-Colthurst, but Sir Francis Fletcher-Vane pressed the issue, going so far as to protest to Lord Kitchener, the Kerry-born secretary for war.

“ This officer must be shot,” Kitchener said.

“Sir, you would not shoot a madman — for he must be mad,” Fletcher-Vane replied.

The author clearly shares the conclusion that Bowen-Colthurst was crazy.

Murderous activities were not confined to one side. Some rebels engaged in comparatively similar behaviour.

On the first day the rebels killed eight unarmed civilians. One was killed “for not getting off the street”, and another “for refusing to assist in erecting a barricade”.

“The Irish Independent and Irish Times demanded the execution of the leaders,” according to the author, but some readers will no doubt be surprised to learn that Edward Carson was one of the voices of reason at that juncture.

“No true Irishman calls for vengeance,” Carson reportedly warned the House of Commons. “Whatever is done, let it be done not in a moment of temporary excitement but in a moment of deliberation.”

The British had won the battle of Dublin, but they eventually lost the war, because of the ham-fisted way in which they retaliated and executed the leaders of the Rising.

Sinn Féin became the big winner, even though it had very little to do with the Rebellion. “Sinn Féin did not make the Rising,” Arthur Griffith noted, “but the Rising made Sinn Féin.”

The book breaks new ground and provides a great service but unfortunately one has to take the story on face value.

Sources are not provided, and the book sorely lacks a map of Dublin, showing the streets and locations of buildings named.

According to their Lights

Stories of Irishmen in the British Army, Easter 1916

Neil Richardson The Collins Press, €15.99

More in this section

Your digital cookbook

Puzzles logo

Puzzles hub

Visit our brain gym where you will find simple and cryptic crosswords, sudoku puzzles and much more. Updated at midnight every day. PS ... We would love to hear your feedback on the section right HERE.


The best food, health, entertainment and lifestyle content from the Irish Examiner, direct to your inbox.

Sign up