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Chapter 4. – COLLINS’ OWN STORY OF ” EASTER WEEK ”

CHAPTER IV

COLLINS’ OWN STORY OF ” EASTER WEEK “

“SiR ROGER CASEMENT was absolutely opposed to the Easter Week rising. Of this I have abundant proof. I know that he made the trip from Germany to Ireland for the sole purpose of stopping the rebellion. I have his own statement to this effect.”

So Michael Collins corroborated that part of Eoin MacNeill’s story in which the Speaker of Dail Eireann told of Casement’s having advised against the use of armed force at that time. This unequivocal declaration is of peculiar significance in that it is a fiat contradiction of an official statement issued by the British Government following Casement’s execution. Part of that statement was as follows :

” . . He was convicted and punished for treachery of the worst kind to the Empire he had served, and as a willing agent of Germany. … In addition, though himself for many years a British official, he undertook the task of trying to induce soldiers of the British Army, prisoners in the hands of Germany, to forswear their oaths of allegiance and join their country’s enemies. . . . The suggestion that Casement left Germany for the purpose of trying to stop the Irish rising was not raised at the trial, and is conclusively disproved, not only by the facts there disclosed, but by further evidence which has since become available.” Obviously a matter of fact of this nature cannot be a matter of opinion. The record shows that it was Casement who was responsible for the attempted landing by a disguised German merchant man of 20,000 rifles and 1,000,000 rounds of ammunition in Tralee Bay. It is not denied by any Irish leaders that Casement did his utmost to persuade German officers to lead the rebellion. But listen to Collins’ story.

” Casement’s opposition to the rising meant nothing to the leaders in Dublin,” Collins continued. ” They looked upon it and in a sense rightly that this was simply one man’s biassed view, formed as a consequence of his experiences in Germany. His outlook on the rising, or indeed on any rising, was naturally different from the outlook of men like Sean McDermott and Tom Clarke. My own opinion is that Casement had acquired a world outlook, and his mind was consequently influenced by world conditions.

” German assistance appealed to him as vital for a successful issue of Ireland’s rebellion against the might of the British Empire. It is a fact’ to be told now without harm to anyone that his disappointment over his failure to induce Germany to send men to aid in Ireland’s fight brought on a serious illness that kept him many weeks in bed in Munich. And let it be remembered that in this opinion he was by no means alone. I can quite understand Professor MacNeill’s having shared this view. He knew as, indeed, did most of us that we were literally a corporal’s guard planning to attack the armed forces of an Empire.

” But Sean McDermott and Tom Clarke were not waiting for German aid in the shape of MEN. Lacking them meant little or nothing to these inspired leaders. Irishmen were good enough for them. They were content to rely upon the strength of the forces at home, and their calculations were based practically entirely on home considerations. Of course, they wanted German arms and ammunition, but lacking them, they still were prepared to fight.

” If Professor MacNeill’s theory that these leaders had resolved upon launching a forlorn hope to awaken the Irish people is correct, no further explanation is necessary. On the other hand, it must be obvious that to men like Casement, the adventure appeared to be sheer madness. I am convinced that Casement’s opposition would have been no less strenuous had the German arms been successfully landed at Tralee. He was under the spell of the supremacy of the German military machine, and could not imagine our under-trained, inexperienced amateur army being able to stand up for a moment against the English professional soldier. A few of us felt differently about it but I think I understate it when I say that a vast majority of the Irish people at that time would have agreed with Casement.

” It is, therefore, not at all difficult for me to accept Professor MacNeill’s explanation of his issuing the order countermanding the rising. Far from Casement and MacNeill being in a minority in this matter, it was we who were in the minority. With the German arms at the bottom of Tralee Bay, it must indeed have seemed an act of madness.

” The actual number of Irishmen employed in the fighting was very small. In only three places Dublin, Galway and Enniscorthy was there what could be called a conflict. I have always put the entire number engaged on our side at about 2,000. Of course, the countermanding order and the non-arrival of the German arms had a great deal to do with deciding the number actually engaged. It must be understood also that when I say 2,000, I refer to the number definitely under arms. There were men standing by awaiting orders in many parts of the country who would have leaped into action if the circumstances had been favourable instead of the reverse. In County Cork, for instance, if they had had arms, 2,000 men would probably have turned out.

” The British had an ordinary strength in Ireland at the time of some 30,000 to 40,000 regular troops, and, of course, they had 10,000 Royal Irish Constabulary scattered all over the country. It is difficult to say how many British troops came into action during Easter week.

” In Dublin, the British garrison numbered about 10,000. Probably all of these were actively engaged. So far as I know, we have never definitely ascertained the numbers on our side actually mobilised in Dublin on Easter Monday morning. It could not have exceeded 700, and at no time during the week through which the fighting continued could the number have exceeded 900.

“As for heroism I saw many instances. All of our men were full of pluck and daring. Only that breed of men would have engaged in a contest where the odds were worse than ten to one against ! But the incident that touched me most was an effort made to rescue a wounded comrade. Everything considered, I think it was the finest example of pure heroism I ever saw.

” There were two of them snipers posted under the lee of the Nelson pillar, out in the middle of O’Connell Street. The rescuer had been mortally wounded himself unable to stand on his legs but in spite of it, when his comrade was slightly wounded he managed to drag him across the cobblestones and into the safety of the Post Office. It was evident that the rescuer had but a short time to live, and he must have known it, for he waved the doctor aside and told him to look after his comrade. To everyone’s surprise, he did not die immediately, but for several days suffered the most awful agony. Never once did he complain, and at all times he was deeply grateful for any little service rendered him. He turned out to have been a waiter in a Dublin hotel. He was not an Irishman ; his nationality seemed to be Franco-Italian.

” I cannot say that I myself saw any case of specific brutality on the part of the British. I did, however, see many cases of what may be called ill-usage. For instance, a British officer abused and jostled Sean McDermott after Sean had submitted quietly to capture. Sean was a cripple. I also saw an English officer prevent one of his private soldiers from supplying water to a few of our men who had been standing some hours in the sun. But for the most part instances of physical brutality indulged in by the British were conspicuous by their absence.

” There is a form of wounding, however, that is worse than mere physical brutality. Following our surrender and being taken prisoners we made our acquaintance with English contempt. Our captors made no effort to disguisetheir feeling that we were wretched inferiors, not worthy

of being accorded treatment given a respected enemy. That was a pitiful thing. They honestly felt us to be almost beneath their contempt, and let us thoroughly understand it. In the batch of several hundred prisoners in which I found myself were some of our finest and bravest. The English officer in charge of us was especially abusive and insulting. He told us we were Irish swine whose place was in the pigsty and more of a like kind. A year of so afterwards this officer met his death in a distant part of Ireland under mysterious circumstances. The mystery was never solved.

” Not unnaturally considering how few we were, how hopeless the contest, and how pitiful our lack of equipment and experience there was much of a distinctly humorous nature in the incidents of Easter Week.

” Desmond Fitzgerald, for instance, was living out in Bray, to which the British had sent him the better to keep him under surveillance. His wife had gone to England on an urgent mission, leaving him and a young girl of the village, employed as a nurse, to take care of their two children. In due course Fitzgerald got word that the rising was to take place on Easter Sunday. He was in honour bound to do his bit. But there were his babies and a mother he had no way of communicating with. The nurse, hardly more than a child herself, was no safe person to whom to entrust his children. But just the same, he risked the forbidden journey into Dublin on the Saturday night and managed to reach The O’Rahilly and explain his predicament. He wanted to do his duty, but he found himself mother as well as father to two infants ! From his viewpoint, anyway, the time set for the rebellion was distinctly inopportune.

” To his credit, be it said, he managed to overcome the difficulty, and he was in the Post Office throughout the week.

” One of the most laughable things that happened was typical of a certain order of Irish mentality that type which through the centuries has been responsible for our world reputation as makers of ‘ bulls.’

” On the Tuesday two Irish lads who had been caught red-handed by one of our patrols in the act of looting a shop were brought into the Post Office and before Tom Clarke. The old man was furious.

” ‘ Shame on you both ! ‘ he thundered. ‘ To desecrate the name of Ireland in this fashion ! You should be shot where you stand ! Sure, shooting is too good for a looter ! ‘

” And while the two wretched prisoners trembled under his tongue-lashing, our leader seemed to be on the point of ordering their instant execution. A minute went by and then, disgustedly and scornfully, he ordered them to be led away to the kitchen to peel potatoes.

” When Friday came, and our surrender was only a matter of hours, Clarke suddenly remembered the two looters and ordered them to be brought before him. By this time high explosive shells had smashed our stronghold into a shapeless ruin. Outside, from every quarter, machine-guns were sweeping the streets with a constant rain of fire. The looters were in a pitiable state.

” ‘ Now then, you two Clarke began. ‘ Tomorrow, maybe sooner, we’re going to surrender. We’re going out and give ourselves up. Every one of us may be shot. You can wait and go out with us or you can go now. Choose !’ ” Both of them spoke at the same instant. They would go then and there ! And so we swung open a door and let them go. We watched them as they ran across O’Connell Street, the bullets striking all about them. To our amazement, they escaped without being hit, finally reaching the comparative safety of Abbey Street. It seemed to us that we had been witnessing a double miracle. And then one of them turned round and came dashing straight towards us ! Again a thousand guns were trained on him, and again he managed to come through unscathed. We opened the door for him and he dived through it. ” ‘ Don’t you know your own mind ? ‘ demanded Clarke. ‘ Is it inside or outside you want to be ? ‘

” ‘ Oh, sir,’ came the deadly serious reply, ‘ I had to come back, sir. I left my insurance card in the kitchen ! ‘

” Important as the rising finally proved and history will certainly give it place as being the determining factor in Ireland’s fight for freedom its importance was not immediately recognised even by those of us to whom it meant most. In many ways the experiences of that week, as well as of the preceding years of preparation, were invaluable. As a testing measure of men, it could not have been more conclusive.

” Among other lessons that I learned during this period was one it would be well if more Irishmen would take to heart. I discovered that personal bravery alone is of hardly any more use than its opposite. I hesitate to inflict hurt on any man, especially one whose only fault is one for which he cannot properly be blamed. Lack of judgement is not a thing to blame a man for. And yet it must be said that one man’s lack of judgement was responsible for the hanging of Sir Roger Casement, the execution of the seven signers of the declaration of the Irish Republic, and the ingloriously speedy termination of the rebellion. The whole story must be told, but I must not tell it now. Perhaps, later on, the facts can be made known without undue emphasis on their consequences.”

There was only one man in Ireland that I knew of who might merit this description. I had long had my doubts about him, and, thus prejudiced, leaped to the conclusion that it must be to him that Collins was referring. I asked Collins if this were the man. He assured me he was not.

Several months later Collins named the man and told me the whole story. The man was Austin Stack. The story in which he figured as a stupid blunderer will be told in a later chapter. But at the interview with Collins which I have just described he made it plain that he did not wish to pursue the subject then, and patently by way of changing the subject, he suggested that I next interview Arthur Griffith, at that time the newly elected President of Dail Eireann.

” There are a few men you must know, if you are to write the whole story of Ireland’s fight for freedom,” said Collins. ” And Griffith is one of these. I know you have talked with him, and I know you think you have sized him up but I can assure you that you don’t know him nor his measure. He is the kind that takes a lot of knowing. And if he will talk you will learn things about Ireland that no other man could tell you. It may be that Irish people and the world in general may never appreciate Arthur Griffith until he is dead and gone, but mark my words, it will come.”

An odd prediction, surely. For as I write from notes made months ago all Ireland is paying respectful homage to Griffith lying in state in Dublin’s City Hall, and a world Press is extolling his greatness in eulogistic editorials. It took his death to earn Irish appreciation and a world’s encomiums. He was not the kind of man who wins applause. A thickest, grave, monosyllabic, unapproachable type he was not of the stuff of which popular heroes are made. But his tenacity of purpose, his indomitable will, his absolute honesty, and his love of the land to which he had dedicated himself heart and soul these qualities at the same time enabled him to do more for Ireland than any other one man ever accomplished ; they also killed him.

There was nothing to suggest, however, that he was not in the very pink of condition the night I came upon him in a private dining-room in Bailey’s chophouse in Dublin, just before the new rebellion against the Free State Government began.

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