THE TERRORS OF 1916

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This story was inspired by my Nan, who sadly passed away last week and the great men and women who lost their lives in the 1916 Rising. My Nan was a great woman for storytelling and the tales of my Great-grandmother’s role in Cumann na mBan in Cork have always impressed upon me. My great-Grandmother Sarah Scanlan used to pawn her Cumann na mBan uniform to hide her involvement.  My Nan’s uncle fought in the Irish Civil War on the side of his fellow Cork man Michael Collins and was killed in the fighting. On the day that Michael Collins was killed at Béal na Bláth (22 August 1922) he first paid a visit to my Nan’s family home in Froe to sympathise with the McDonald family. My Nan was a staunch Republican and was very proud that her family were noted in many biographies of Michael Collins. On the day of her passing she attended a Commemoration march for Tomás Mac Curtain, she was a Republican till the end.

I can still remember Mr. Pearse’s speech on 1 August 1915 at Glasnevin Cemetery at the graveside of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa like it was yesterday. My brother and I were living in Dublin already and our whole family travelled up from our homestead in Froe in West Cork. The O’Donovan family were well-known to us as they owned a shop in the nearby village of Skibereen. My family were huge supporters of O’Donovan Rossa and the Republican movement. I was headstrong and since I’d moved to Dublin I had joined Cumann na mBan and found many other like-minded women, all who wanted to be treated as equals. In a new free Ireland, we would be equals and I was prepared to do whatever I could to help the Republican movement. I was proud of my Irish heritage and I loved the Irish language so Padraig Pearse had steadfastly become one of my idols.

I pawned my uniform every evening in the musty pawn shop on Queen St. and was able to hide my membership from the woman I boarded with and most of my family. I was working as a Secretary in a solicitor’s office where my brother practiced. I think my Mother was secretly happy that I’d moved to Dublin, I was loud and voiced my opinions whenever I got the choice, she said I was trouble and despite my looks no man would want to take me on, despite my handsome face! My brother was part of the Irish Republican Brotherhood so he was the only one who knew about my involvement in Cumann na mBan. We went marching and practising shooting at weekends, I was already a good shot from going hunting with my brothers back at home.

 

In the weeks approaching Easter in the solicitor’s office where I worked I heard whispers of an organised movement which was going to take place on Easter Sunday. There were no confirmations of this made to our movement but we all had different contacts who seemed confident that revolution was on its way. We organised a meeting on Easter Sunday one of the women who had a contact in the Citizen’s Army told her that there would be a rising Easter Monday. We made our way to the GPO on Easter Monday, despite not being invited as an organisation. It looked like the volunteers and Citizen Army had indeed stormed the GPO and secured it. Two Republican flags were hoisted outside and I saw my idol Mr. Pearse come to the front of the GPO where he read a Proclamation of the Republic.

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He addressed Irishmen and Irishwomen and guaranteed equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens and a government elected by the suffrages of all her men and women! This is what I had always dreamed of! I was determined I would play a part in achieving this. The other women and I looked at each other and nodded in agreement that we should try to get inside. The men looked at us in disbelief, “Sure aren’t we doing the fighting so that you ladies don’t have to?” one of them piped out and they all cheered! I was indignant! We had heard that in the Citizen’s army there was women fighting with the men! I was indignant and furious. I was sure that I was a better shot than most of the yobbos in there!

We marched away and decided we would return and try to enter later on again. The GPO seemed to be the Headquarters so some of us would try there and some of us would try to gain access to the other Garrison’s. Surely if Mr. Pearse knew that we were trying to help he would leave us in. The proclamation he read promised equality after all! We went to our homes where we had stashed bandages and other medical supplies and our small supply of rifles and a group of us returned to the GPO once again. We went to a window at the side and smashed it, immediately a volunteer ran over, he helped us in and said he would take us to Commandant Pearse. I was so nervous that my teeth were chattering slightly but I tried to compose myself. This is the moment I had dreamed of. “Well, I suppose you can stay, we need someone to feed the men and tend to the wounded, whose number will surely increase. Hand over your arms to us.”

We did as were instructed but deep down my temper was boiling. Surely there was something more we could be doing? As we made our way to the kitchen we heard roaring from the front of the building, the British had launched an attack! There were sure to be men who would need our aid so I forgot my own selfish needs for a while and went to the area where there were some stretchers set up. There was a young man carried over towards me. He had been shot in the shoulder and neck and was bleeding profusely. I could smell the rusty smell of blood mingled with the scent of burning gun powder and I took the task in hand and tried to bandage the wounds as best I could. He held my hand and as I looked into his eyes I knew he didn’t have long left. He was just a boy really, no more than 17 years of age, he was just a normal young fella. He weakly asked me to pray with him and I said a decade of the rosary with him. When it was over I felt his hand slip out of mine and a tear streaked down my face. I wiped it away and closed his eyes with my hand.

I made my way to another man who’d now been shot as well, despite that his spirits were high. “I got one of them!!” he yelped. “Miss, you have the same hair colour as my mother, it’s just like a sunset over Clonea Strand. You’re very pretty, what are you even doing here?” I sniped back “We are all equal now Sir” and bandaged his arm and moved on to help someone else. I was told by one of the higher ranking women to go to the kitchen to help out with the food. As I made my way there I passed a room that looked like where the leaders of this revolution were gathered. I stood by the door hoping to overhear some news. One of the men spotted me and stormed outside.

He looked quite angry and he demanded my name. I informed him that I was Bridie McDonald looking him straight in the eye. In those days, I was hard to intimidate! He smiled slightly and told me he wanted me to be a messenger for him. It would be risky and dangerous he told me. I agreed immediately, feeling a swell of pride and happiness in my chest mixed with anxious nerves. I was given a piece of paper and helped out of a window at the side. This was the first of many dangerous runs I was to make. He advised me to try to pick up some pretty clothing to avoid suspicion. As I made my way along the streets towards Stephen’s Green I was shocked to see people looting all the shops. People ran from shops with their arms full of food, clothing, just about anything they could get their hands on. Is this what we were fighting for? One of the women spotted my uniform and spat at me. I wiped the warm saliva from my face and walked onwards. The regular people of Dublin didn’t seem to be in favour of this at all. I spotted a women’s clothing shop and ran inside. I was drawing too much attention in my uniform. I managed to find a suitable dress and ran in the back to put it on. I bundled my uniform into a bag and ran out of the shop towards Stephen’s Green. There was a lot more casualties here I noted as I requested the Lieutenant to relay my message. In the distance I spotted another one of my idols Constance Markievicz. I was given a message back and swiftly I navigated my way back to the GPO.

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A spike of adrenalin pulsed through me when I reached the GPO again, I was praised for my speedy relay of the message. That was the first of over 50 messages I would bring between the different garrisons for the next four days. I was barely eating as rations of food had begun to run out after a couple of days. That was a grave error on organising this. Some of the garrisons were now barely holding off the British attack and the numbers of dead volunteers and people on the streets grew daily. Injured men lay on stretchers with the life visibly leaking out of their starving weak bodies. I was feeling very weak as I left the GPO on Friday morning again to relay a message.

I knew that each time I left the dangers increased. I could be recognised and by this stage pretty lady or not I would be treated harshly by the British army. As I tried to go on my way I noticed two British soldiers having an altercation with a volunteer. It was the young man who’d told me I had hair like his mother’s! I hid behind a wall watching with my heart in my throat and hoping they wouldn’t spot me. He left off a shot from his hand pistol but missed one of the Soldiers by a mile. Immediately the solder retaliated and with just one clean shot to the head he dropped down dead. I faced the wall sobbing with my hand clamped over my mouth.  

After a minute the soldiers moved further down the street and out of sight. I crept from my hiding place looking around to see if there were any other soldiers around. With trembling hands, I picked up the hand pistol and bundled it in my skirts. I blessed myself over the man and continued towards Jacob’s factory. I successfully dropped off my message and got a message back and headed back towards the GPO feeling very faint and light-headed. As I passed along Henry Street I saw a British soldier on the street. He’d seen me!

I took a deep breath as he approached me. In a deep Dublin accent, he told me to get out of there or he’d have no choice but to shoot me. I waivered at hearing an Irish accent but he was still a soldier of the British army and I had to get back to the headquarters in the GPO with my message. I took a deep breath and with hands shaking I clicked the safety catch and pointed it towards his chest and pulled the trigger. I closed my eyes for a second and muttered to God to forgive me. I opened my eyes again to see a flower of blood blooming on his chest.  Bile rose in my throat. There was a look of confusion and surprise on his face. I will never forget that look. It haunts me even now. With an open mouth and an ashen complexion, he dropped to the ground and the life ebbed from his eyes. I stood there shocked for a minute, bundled the gun back into my skirts and ran for my life with tears streaming down my face.

As I neared the GPO I could see through the blur of tears that the men were streaming out with their hands with their hands in the air. The air was thick with smoke from shelling and I could barely catch my breath. They were surrendering, my heart sank. I collapsed to the floor on my knees with my head in my hands. I’d needlessly shot and killed a man. I let the gun drop to the ground and I ran as fast as I could away. I was sure I hear someone shouting after me but I didn’t turn around. I finally reached the boarding house where I lived and as I soon I was in the hall I fainted on the floor. I came to and found myself in my bed with my landlady sitting with a worried look on her face at my bedside. She shook her head in disappointment. She told me not to speak and handed me some water to sip. She brought food to me for the next couple of days.

Eventually I felt strong enough to get out of bed and dress myself. I looked in the mirror and my haggard face stared back, I looked more like a woman of forty years of age then my twenty-four years. I touched a small grey streak which had appeared in my strawberry-blonde hair and smiled wistfully in the mirror. As I did, before me in the mirror flashed the face of the man I’d killed. I pulled back and screamed but the image was gone.

I was tormented by images of the man for the rest of my life. I woke up every night drenched in sweat, some nights unable to return to sleep. In some images it was a replay of the moment I’d shot him. In others he would chase me, his decomposing rotting body stank as he chased me towards the GPO with maggots spilling out of his mouth. My life had lost all its colour, food was tasteless and I was disillusioned with the Republican movement. I wasn’t sure any that they did mean us women to be equals. I shut myself off from all my Cumann na mBan friends and my life in Dublin. I handed in my notice to the office where I worked and returned home to West Cork.

The rolling green fields and the smell of salty sea air revived me slightly but I was still haunted in my waking and sleeping hours by the British soldier. My mother was glad that I’d arrived home, a quiet version of my old self. I got a job in a shop in Rosscarbery where I met my now husband. He was a good man and love grew from liking him. He knew that I was somehow damaged and comforted me from my night terrors. He grew accustomed to my times where I would just stop doing whatever I was doing to pause. I never told him the cause of my terrors, not able to speak the words aloud. I was never able to bear children, it was God’s way for punishing me for what I’d done.

That was 60 years ago and I still have the nightmares and waking terrors. I lived a half-life because of my actions and I know that when my maker decides it’s my time he’ll be there to meet me and relive the terrors of 1916 for all eternity.

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