Granny, the Easter Rising looter

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.

Granny's bowl

One of the bowls  my granny Maggie looted during the Rising

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 daughter 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.


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About historywithatwist

I am an Associate Editor with a national newspaper. I have a keen interest in history and in writing. I have published one novel, Tan, and am currently working on a sequel
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23 Responses to Granny, the Easter Rising looter

  1. Bill Kasal says:

    And I wonder what history of your family those four bowls have seen in the last century…

    • Do you know, I didn’t realise we still had them until last week. My dad mentioned them to me when I told him I was going to write about granny looting the ham. I now prize them most highly. Treasured booty indeed…

  2. I covet your soup bowl! Thank you for gifting us with your specialty as a writer: history with a twist ( which means to me to be your knack for humanizing history!)

    • Thank you again, Claire, for the kind words

      • I understand your sentiments. My own grandfather also fought in the War of Independence, was arrested and tortured by the British. He was just a teenager, too. I have read quite a few witness testimonies about those days from those who risked their lives and fought. There is concern that the ideals which inspired those men and women to fight for Ireland might be lost amidst some cynical opinion pieces in our newspapers, but I think, on the whole, the coverage we are seeing in Irish newspapers about this subject has been hugely informative for a generation that is increasingly out of touch with its historical heritage.

        There are many ways to remember the Rising. I feel that the more angles we get on the subject the better, just so long as we don’t lose sight of those who put their lives on the line for their nation when it really mattered. Thanks for stopping by.

  3. pdmullarkey says:

    There are always those who take advantage of political and/or social upheaval. My father was in the war of independence in Ireland as a teenager. He was captured and jailed by the British. Almost died from starvation. What was he doing to be arrested? Being a decoy for his brother who was a messenger for those fighting for freedom. There was much more going on than some breaking of windows and taking goods. When I was in college in 1970 we were out protesting the Vietnam War. National Guardsmen were called in to rough us up. There were always a minority who took advantage of the situation and broke windows and looted. But the majority were sincere and honest, and we finally got ourselves out of Vietnam. I read about opinions in the news: “Monday-morning quarterbacking” on the Easter Rising. I suggest you read the witness statements, available online in Trinity College’s archives, of those who were there. One in particular, Father Aloysius, who provided comfort to the men who were executed. He writes about their feelings and beliefs. Or the letters to their families, etc. I always wonder about when an historic event loses its heart and morphs into public musings. Sorry if I sound intense, but I understand first-hand from my Father what was at stake and what was sacrificed. (And if you wonder about his date of birth, Jan. 20, 1902. He was 50 when I was born.)

  4. How kind of pdmullarkey to tell you what you should read, David. I’m sure it never occurred to you to do so. For those of your followers who are Irish and who had some ancestors who fought the British and also others who threw stones at the looters and the rebels, it is refreshing and informative to read your own personalised and rant-free history of a little recounted aspect of the times. Many thanks.

  5. Thanks for sharing this story. It always amazes me to learn what part our grandmothers played in the history we read about. For many it’s hard to even think of their grandmother as being anything but old, but many have led fascinating lives before we were ever thought of.

    • Thanks Evelyn. You’re right. I remember in 1994, there was the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day. One aspect of the celebrations involved old soldiers doing parachute jumps over Normandy. I thought it was so special, not just because of that particular event but because it showed ‘old people’ in a whole new light to a younger audience. It showed them as vibrant, worthwhile and valuable members of society. Any article that can show the potential behind the withered skin and stooped frame of an elderly person, should be promoted and shouted about, is my opinion. Thanks for dropping by.

  6. sdf says:

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  7. Great yarn, well told, Dave.

  8. Love it. And may I say your granny was a woman of great taste.

  9. jazzfeathers says:

    Ah, I think those two sides belongs to any heroic deed 😉

  10. I suppose, otherwise they wouldn’t be human

  11. jjtoner says:

    Another great article, Paul. The thing is, the ordinary people of Ireland, and Dublin in particular, lived in poverty, oppressed by a brutal British-run police force and by the British army. Ireland was subjugated by an occupying force and had been for 800 years. The people of Ireland were downtrodden, disenfranchised, and poverty-stricken. It’s hardly surprising that they turned to looting when the opportunity presented itself.

  12. jjtoner says:

    Who’s Paul? Sorry, I mean David, of course.

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