The polite rebels who visited Dublin suburbia

Felicity O’Mahony looks back at a time in 1916 when four armed and apologetic Irish republicans visited a Dublin suburb.
The polite rebels who visited Dublin suburbia
The undated radio script in which Denis Johnson recalled his time as a 'schoolboy in the rebellion': Picture: Board of Trinity College Dublin

In the early hours of Easter Tuesday 1916, 61 Lansdowne Road, the Ballsbridge home of Judge William Johnston, his wife Kathleen and their only son was occupied, under “amiable circumstances”, by four armed and apologetic Irish republicans.

Denis — a future playwright — was then a 14-year old schoolboy home for the holidays from his Scottish boarding school.

He was a perceptive witness of this unfolding drama in the birth of the Republic, recounting it later in a radio broadcast during his career that included work as a BBC war correspondent.

Pages from Johnston’s diary on the week of the 1916 Rising. Picture: Board of Trinity College Dublin
Pages from Johnston’s diary on the week of the 1916 Rising. Picture: Board of Trinity College Dublin

Lansdowne Road gave proximity to the railway line, a key artery into the city, with a view along the tracks to Bath Avenue Bridge, a hotspot of rebel activity.

The rebels took possession of the upper floor of the house, consigning the family to the lower floors with polite orders not to leave the building.

Beds and furniture were used to barricade the stairs and the insurgents knocked holes through interior walls to allow access to adjoining rooms without using the upper landing. The rebels and captives then sat down on the displaced furniture to share tea.

The only note of discord was sounded by the family parrot who objected to so many lights being left on at night.

The ensuing 48 hours were remarkable only for a lack of callers to the house . Their captors sortied out occasionally to check developments, returning with fantastic reports of Germans landing in Kerry and the withdrawal of France from the war.

By Wednesday morning, the hiatus was broken by the arrival of British troops in Dublin.

The rebels stripped off their uniforms, abandoned their rifles and ammunition and left the house dressed in plain clothes.

Denis had a tale to tell on his return to boarding school that would rescue him from the ranks of ‘new boy’ obscurity.

He had even managed to deny officialdom some spoils of war — a slouch hat and a bayonet —which he treasured for his lifetime.

The undated radio script in which Denis Johnson recalled his time as a 'schoolboy in the rebellion': Picture: Board of Trinity College Dublin
The undated radio script in which Denis Johnson recalled his time as a 'schoolboy in the rebellion': Picture: Board of Trinity College Dublin

The undated script of a 14-minute radio broadcast by Denis Johnston recounts the experience of looking over the stair rail at a uniformed Irish Volunteer in the hall below of his family’s home in Ballsbridge.

"To a regular reader of "Chums" as I was at the time, it was an exciting thing to be happening, although I remember a slight feeling of disappointment when he looked up, and I saw an honest round face, and an embarrassed smile, instead of the lean and hungry look of an armed revolutionary."

Later, he mentioned how apologetic the four men were after turning house into a fortress "from which to fight the British Empire".

"That is [the] thing that remains most firmly in my memory - how polite and reasonable it all seemed.

"They were sorry to disturb us, and would do no more damage than was absolutely necessary. And any damage that they were forced to do would all be repaid by the Irish Republic.

"So we weren't to worry. They would take over the upper part, and we could have the rest. And would we please not leave, because those were their orders, and it would be dangerous anyway.

"Meanwhile, if we required any food from the shops on the following day, they would be glad to go and get it for us."

* Denis Johnston’s account of the 1916 Rising is part of the archive of the playwright, theatre director, BBC war correspondent, barrister, pioneer of television and teacher, presented to the Trinity College Dublin (TCD) library by his family in 1985.

It is the subject of one of the entries in TCD Library’s weekly-updated 1916 blog, Changed Utterly: https://www.tcd.ie/Library/1916/ (Twitter: @TCDLib1916) 

* Felicity O’Mahony is assistant librarian in the TCD manuscripts and archives research library.

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