Book review: Grandpa the Sniper: The Remarkable Story of a 1916 Volunteer

Armed with a rusty rifle and a pair of binoculars, 1916 volunteer Frank Shouldice was a crack-shot who harassed British troops during the Easter Rising from the Jameson malthouse, as his grandson tells Richard Fitzpatrick.            
Book review: Grandpa the Sniper: The Remarkable Story of a 1916 Volunteer

IN APRIL 1916, Frank and Jack Shouldice played in the final of the Croke Cup.

The two brothers grew up in Ballaghaderreen, Co Mayo (which now lies within the county bounds of Roscommon), but played their Gaelic football for Dublin, who were victorious that afternoon.

Jack, who organised the Bloody Sunday match between Dublin and Tipperary in November 1920 as a fundraiser for dependents of the Irish Volunteers, became the first Mayo man to win an All-Ireland medal, albeit for Dublin in 1907.

Two weeks after that Croke Cup final, the 1916 Rising kicked off on Easter Monday. Jack, 33, led a garrison of about 20 rebels on Dublin’s North King St, which is just off Smithfield. His men, who holed up in O’Reilly’s pub — which is called The Tap these days — had only 16 rifles, four revolvers and six bayonets.

They also had a crack shot in Jack’s younger brother, Frank, aged 23, who took up position on the granary tower of the nearby Jameson malthouse. He was shooting with a cumbersome rifle and getting his focus from a borrowed pair of binoculars.

He took out a machine-gunner from half a mile away, and escaped death by millimetres — a bullet grazed his cheekbone, causing his face to balloon from swelling.

The fighting on North King St, according to British Army General Maxwell, was the fiercest in the whole of Dublin, and witness to the most heinous war crime of the week. Two South Staffordshire battalions inched their way up the street, tunnelling through the walls of residents’ houses.

They killed 14 male civilians en route, their bodies buried in yards and basements. Some of his men “saw red”, admitted the general, and tried to explain away their behaviour because “the house-to-house fighting & sniping etc. gave many the jumps”. No British soldiers or commanders were ever brought to book for the murders.

“What happened there has been buried in the telling of Easter Week,” says Frank Shouldice, a dramatist and producer for RTÉ’s Investigations Unit, and author of Grandpa the Sniper: The Remarkable Story of a 1916 Volunteer. He grew up in the same house as his grandfather and namesake, Frank Shouldice, who died in 1974 when he was 11 years old.

“Everyone is familiar with Bowen-Colthurst. Everyone’s familiar with Tomás MacCurtain. What happened with the 14 people murdered on North King St escaped all scrutiny. When the records came out it was revealed that [the British Establishment] knew it was wanton murder and they had to cover it up. The relatives never got any satisfaction.”

After dawn on Saturday morning of the Easter Rising, the South Staffs launched a fixed-bayonet charge on the barricades set up at O’Reilly’s. Frank, stationed in his eyrie, picked them off, according to testimony from one of his comrades, Captain Fionnán Lynch.

“Some of the soldiers, who appeared to be either very stupidly led, or if they were led at all … turned into Cuckoo Lane on the double, about a dozen of them and this was completely under our fire. Frank Shouldice, Lieutenant Shouldice’s brother, was in the malthouse just covering the place — absolutely. The lads were wiped out in no time. It was of course a tragic thing in many ways. One had to be sorry for them.

“They were young boys. In fact Lieut Shouldice told me when he went up to collect the rifles with the others he heard one lad saying, ‘Oh Mammy, Mammy…’ which was terrible.”

By this time, there were only seven or eight of Jack’s men left holding out. They’d been without sleep pretty much since Wednesday, and under fire for 15 to 16 hours a day. Their commander-in-chief, Pádraig Pearse, surrendered that afternoon.

Jack, as an officer, was taken to Kilmainham prison. His cell, which was beside Éamon de Valera’s, had been vacated by Eamonn Ceannt and Michael Mallin. He passed them on the passageway, as they were led

away for execution in the prison yard. His own death sentence was commuted to five years’ penal servitude.

As Frank was marched through the streets for deportation, he endured the scorn of Dublin’s public who spat at the rebels and threw rubbish and urine at them. Women, anxious they’d lose the pensions and salaries of their menfolk fighting in British Army trenches in Flanders and France, were the most vitriolic. The public’s mood changed, however, to one of sympathy after the rebel leaders’ executions.

“When the first rebels were marched away, the idea of them having to be protected by the British Army from the people that they were trying to free, but who were calling for their heads, that marked them. By the time the last men were rounded up and shipped out to jail, the mood had changed and they were being feted, they were seen off by cheering crowds.

“Subsequent to that I don’t think they trusted public humours. Public sentiment is very volatile. You wouldn’t bank on it.”

There are several strands to Shouldice’s memorable family memoir. His grandfather spent the bulk of Ireland’s revolutionary years in British prisons, which included a notorious prison break from Usk prison, which is close to Cardiff, Wales, in January 1919, using a rope ladder made from kitchen towels and kindling wood to abseil down the prison’s huge perimeter wall.

Frank and Jack’s younger sister, Ena, was engaged to Harry Boland. The relationship petered out (she found him a “bluff hearty fellow … and isn’t quite as refined as I would like. He’s a wee bit rough”) although they remained friends.

Her plight is poignant. The love of her life was an Englishman she couldn’t allow herself to marry because of her Irish nationalist beliefs. She was the victim, too, of Stasi-like state espionage.

Shouldice pored over the records compiled at Kew Military Archives on his family during the period. They ran to 83 pages. “I thought it would be evenly divided between grandpa and Jack,” he says.

“They were the obvious suspects, but actually [the majority] were about grandpa and Ena. Even though she had strong Republican credentials — her sympathies were unmistakable — she had no idea what was going on behind the scenes to get her out of her job. It was quite moving that [her employers at] the post office stood up for her when the heave was on to get her out. They said: ‘we have no problem with her. She does a good job. We don’t see any reason to move against her.’

“Eventually it got to her in the end. How people can get crushed when the powers of state move against them. The single moment that stood out from the whole writing of the book was sitting in Kew, opening the letter that she had written 99 years ago to their brother in America, divulging her most personal details, almost a confessional letter, and to think that the letter never got there.

“Here I was opening it 99 years later. Afterwards, I found I had to go outside for a while to gather myself. I had to catch my breath really and digest it all. It was quite upsetting, the way it panned out. Things didn’t really work out for her in the end, which compounded the whole sense of loss.”

Grandpa the Sniper: The Remarkable Story of a 1916 Volunteer

Frank Shouldice

The Liffey Press, €19.95

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