To have a relative who was ‘out’ in 1916 – that is, someone who took part in that mad assault on the British Empire known as the Easter Rising – is something to be treasured.
Of course, there were plenty of other people ‘out’ in Easter Week – all of them risking life and limb, not for Ireland, though, but for themselves and their families as they smashed in windows and took whatever plunder they could carry from city centre businesses.
There were probably more looters out and about in Dublin that week than there were rebels holed up in the GPO. My granny, Maggie, was one of them – and we still have the dishes she ‘liberated’ to prove it: Four soup bowls with a Milan stamp on the back . . . they are testament to another, less noble side to the Rising.
Maggie was a teenager at the time, and a tenacious one, given that dishes weren’t the only things she set her sights on that fateful week.
The story goes that she was looting a butcher’s shop when she spied a prize shoulder of ham. Determined to get more than that and hauling the ham along, Maggie sought out more booty from the shelves. A man nearby kindly offered to hold the ham while she went foraging. Needless to say, that was the last time she saw that lump of meat.
Maggie was just one of many who ransacked city centre premises during the Rising. The first business to fall was Noblett’s sweet shop on Sackville Street, the plate glass window of which shattered as the last words of the Proclamation were fading on Padraig Pearse’s lips.
A shower of sweetstuffs,chocolate boxes and huge slabs of toffee were taken by the crowd in double-quick time, all the while ignoring pleadings from Volunteers and from Fr Michael Flanagan, from the Pro-Cathedral,who had arrived on the scene.
Women and children were the first to start looting on Easter Monday. Businesses in Earl Street and Abbey Street were ransacked while Pearse and Connolly sipped tea and ate sandwiches inside the GPO.
Clery’s, Elvery’s and McDowell’s jewellers all fell victim to looters, with the Illustrated Sunday Herald reporting: “McDowell’s, the jewellers, was broken into and some thousands of pounds worth of jewellery taken. Taafe’s, the hosiers; Lewer’s, Dunn’s hat shop, the Cable shoe shop, all were gutted, and their contents, when not wanted, were thrown pell-mell into the street.”
One witness recalls seeing people in the Gresham Hotel with jewellery they had bought from the looters. In his memoir, On Another Man’s Wound, Ernie O’Malley recalled arriving onto Sackville Street and being pestered by looters hawking their booty: “Diamond rings and pocketsful of gold watches were selling for sixpence and a shilling, and one was cursed if one did not buy.”
Meanwhile, Volunteers with batons tried in vain to protect business, and the journalist Francis Sheehy Skeffington, who would not survive Easter week, stood atop a tram car and pleaded with people not to steal.
One Volunteer described witnessing looters carrying a stolen piano from the direction of Mary’s Lane. They ignored warnings to stop, and only did so after a volley was fired over their heads. The would-be plunderers scarpered, leaving the piano in the middle of the street.
The bizarre sights didn’t end there. Several Volunteers broke into the Waxworks Museum and were soon to be seen parading up and down in all manner of outlandish costumes.
The looting lasted for most of the week. CItizens had gone mad and no manner of threats or impeachments would disuade them from their path.
In his book, Dear, Dirty Dublin: A City in Distress, 1899-1916, Joseph O’Brien wrote that “according to police statistics for 1916, 425 persons were proceeded against for looting during the rebellion and 398 of these were either fined or imprisoned”.
The Irish Independent reported on May 11, 1916, how a mother and daughtet had been, charged with being in illegal possession of “two mattresses, one pillow, eight window curtains, one lady’s corset.. one top coat, two ladies coats, five ladies hats and four chairs.”
In the same news report, it was noted that two ladies from Camden Street had been prosecuted for being in possession of, among other things, “3lbs of tea, 12 boxes of sweet herbs…some lemonade and cornflower.” The constable told the court that the accused told him: “we were looting, like the rest. We had a bit out of it, too!” They were sentenced to a month in prison each.
The testimony of Royal Irish Regiment Sergeant Flethcher-Desborough, found in the Bureau of Military History, states that “months after the end of the Rising, flower sellers and paper vendors round the pillar, sported fur coats and bejewelled fingers, which they could never have bought with the profits from their flower selling”.
The rebellion of 1916 highlighted two sides to the Irish coin – fearless patriotism and venal greed. We celebrate the patriotism and ignore the baser motives of those who were ‘out’ that week one hundred years ago. In my own family’s case, were it not for four soup bowls from Milan, those darker deeds may have been lost to history entirely.