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Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Trials of the 1916 Press Pack - Part Three

Wilbur Forrest decided to go over to the railway terminus hoping to find some eye witness accounts. He crossed Watling Street, now a cul de sac toward the curved front of the railway building. Rebel snipers opened fire on their quarry as he crossed the street. His trip back was negotiated faster, taking a running start from the cover of the entrance. The rebel was a second too late, the bullet hitting the street behind Forrest. It was almost a sporting event.

The rebel kept firing this time aiming at the static hotel building pot marking the outside wall. The Colonel decided to place a number of soldiers on the roof to return fire but rather than eliminating the sniper’s fire, it concentrated the rebel fire on the enemy station on the roof. But the sniper was in no way accurate with shots crashing through doors and windows sending those inside diving for cover and moving towards the back of the building.

The British military spin doctors arrived at the hotel to brief the holed up and bored pressmen but information was light and was not tallying with some of the first hand accounts they had already gleaned from locals and soldiers. The Foreign Office had continually pressed for more details of the Rising but rigid War office censorship not only prevented the rebels getting their interpretation on the Dublin troubles but also stifled much potential propaganda. There was an internal British government conflict. There was a lack of or tardiness in issuing military passes to the journalists. Colonel Warburton Davies of the War Office wrote to Hubert Montgomery
‘There appears to be a great deal of trouble as a result of the American correspondents’ trip to Dublin. We propose to put it down to the Foreign Office.’
Captain Butler also reported to the Foreign Office that the lack of proper reporting facilities such as access to telegraph or telephone was depriving the journalists of a scoop. The short briefing seemed to take to tracts, firstly the military attempted to portray the barbarity of the rebels while on the other hand they were lauding themselves at the leniency in how the rebellion was being quashed.
The battle between news giving and news withholding was raging within the British Government and press

‘Britain holds the record as the worst press agent of the allies and many things could be disclosed which could establish once and for all the predominant part she is playing in the war and go far to remove the impression also in neutral states that she is experiencing a bad time’
wrote W Orton Tewson in the San Antonio Express April 30th 1916

Phillip Gibbs of the New York Times wrote in his paper that it was a ‘splendid coincidence’ that on the night when Sinn Fein were ‘trying to besmirch the honour of Ireland on the streets of Dublin, Irish battalions at the front on France were on the fighting line and by great gallantry gave proof of the world that the heart of Ireland was loyal’ In the midst of the Rising 538 Irishmen many of them Dubliners died at Hulluch when the Germans launched a poison gas attack.  

But the street, house to house fighting in Dublin was different to the open field battles of the Western Front, this was urban warfare many of whom had never experienced this kind of close quarter combat before. From the roof they press were able to identify the green flag with the golden harp hoisted above the distillery beside the Victoria Bridge on the Ringsend Road. The men had a ringside view of the British artillery targeting the distillery that despite the flag flying from its roof was now empty with the rebels having been withdrawn to Boland’s Mills.

In Forrest’s despatch printed in the Pittsburgh Press on Sunday April 30th he reported,
“A naval destroyer landed a party of correspondents from England at 7am, Thursday at the North Wall Quay almost in the heart of the ‘war zone’ and within a stone’s throw of Liberty Hall former headquarters of the Sinn Feiners which was literally blown to bits by naval guns at 1pm.

We watched the bombardment from a window on the third floor of a hotel. Naval patrol boats swinging in close to shore sent shells screaming into the city bringing the rebel strongholds crashing down with loud roars.

One shell blew a great hole in the side of the Dublin City Distillery where a large number of Sinn Feiners had congregated. In response the rebels ran up the flag of the new Irish Republic, green and gold emblazoned with a harp. Another shell hit the distillery and the rebels burst from the doors in mad flight.

The fighting Thursday was the most desperate of the week. The rebels knowing that surrender meant the enforcement of the death penalty for treason fought like cornered rats. The Government troops in no mood for gentle handling of the rioters attacked fiercely.

Soldiers were posted in large force along the quays and in the warehouses across the street from our hotel answering with sharp volleys to the sniping rebels. Shells from the British 18 pounders were bursting accurately against the walls and roofs of several buildings held by the Sinn Feiners. Through binoculars we watched from the roof of our hotel successive infantry attacks as the Government troops charged against the rebel barricades. The fighting was so near we could pick out with ease individuals in the struggling groups.

Many of the British soldiers facing fire for the first time in their lives displayed the greatest daring in charging the rebel positions in the face of hot fire.

When dawn broke on Friday the ruins of Liberty hall and other buildings wrecked by artillery or burned to the ground were clearly visible. The general post office and custom house seemed unscathed by the flames.

Only intermittent firing was heard after breakfast and a party of correspondents accompanied by a British Officer attempted a tour of the business district near the battle zone. The sniping became too hot and the party retreated.” 

Forrest reported that it was ‘shell number thirty eight’ that eventually felled the rebel flag. Their attention was then turned to the right and the area around the rebel headquarters as nightfall fell on the Thursday smoke was giving way to flames licking the sky illuminating the city centre as nightfall set in.

It was the reflection of many of these experienced journalists that the rebellion had been well planned and under the noses of the British authorities.


Thursday night arrived and Forrest was sharing a third floor room with Berry at the front of the hotel. They had eventually got some copy away out of Dublin, how long it would take to get to London was another matter. A military tug had arrived in port to deliver military despatches and it returned the typewritten reports across the Irish Sea. The electricity in the hotel had been cut and light was now provided by candle. There was a single candle in each room. Forrest and Berry had just turned in as it had been a long forty eight hours since they met at Paddington Station. Tiredness had enveloped the two reporters. Just as Forrest was about to snuff out the candle a bullet
‘buzzed through the window in the manner of a bumble bee in a hurry’ striking the back wall of the bedroom. Another quickly followed and the two men tumbled from their beds to the relative safety of the carpeted floor. As they waiting for the next shot they noticed one of the fired bullets on the floor having failed to penetrate the wall.

They pulled their mattresses from the beds and lay beneath the window sill. Forrest decided to test the rebel sniper’s accuracy. Using the light from the candle, he placed his brimmed hat on his cane which he famously took everywhere and waved it in front of the window drawing fire from the rebel sniper located a couple of hundred yards away. His firing was not accurate whether it was a lack of experience or poor weaponry the men could only speculate. Only one more bullet penetrated their room, the rest cannoning off the brickwork outside. They were baiting the rebel into wasting ammunition and he eventually tired and the shooting stopped. Berry blew out the candle and the two men slept the night on the floor.

When the men made their way down to breakfast early on the Friday morning they complained sarcastically to the Irish born Colonel that it was an outrage to allow a sniper to interrupt their nights sleep but another new problem was to face the journalists that morning, one that faced the entire city, a food shortage. The only food available in the hotel was some cod fish that had been landed further down the quay. To wash it down there was a small supply of port wine from the cellar. There was no milk and the water supply had been interrupted. The British reporter from the Manchester Guardian stated
            ‘as evidence of food shortages, it is only necessary to state we were served roast beef and potatoes for luncheon and dinner and this for four days running’.

Arthur Draper reported that when the fish had been landed the evening before a number of women draped in their shawls gathered around the trawler when they were fired upon by rebel forces in Boland’s Mills. A British soldier with the women waited for a second volley of shots to identify the origin of the mussel flashes and he immediately returned fire silencing the sniper and allowing the women to collect their much needed yet meagre food supply.

The reporters watched as a local bakery was cleared by British soldiers and the ovens fired up to begin producing bread again. Once the bakery was producing bread local women and children who had now struggled for food for four days and ravenous with the hunger queued outside in an orderly fashion desperate for a small ration. There was constant fire from the rebels with Forrest reporting that two children were hit, killing one of them.

More U.S. correspondents arrived on the Friday of the rebellion landing at Rosslare, County Wexford. Among them was Vermont born Dewitt McKenzie and the Canadian war correspondent Frederick McKenzie (no relation to Dewitt). The Quebec born reporter writing for The Star in Toronto, he was definitely not a friend of the rebel cause. He suggested that support for the rebels came from three classes of people, the old irreconcilables, the young intellectuals and Dublin’s Labour movement. He reported that ‘The Irish Volunteer’ newspaper edited by Irish Volunteer leader Eoin McNeill in its April 22nd edition before the rebellion dealt with how insurgents could hold a crossroads during guerrilla warfare. It contained he said ‘full practical instructions in Civil War’. He found his way to the hotel with the rest of the correspondents.

He ventured out onto the North Wall Quay where a troop of Crown soldiers were behind a row of wooden beer barrels returning fire towards the gas works and Boland’s Mills on the southside of the Liffey. He reported from behind the barricade with enemy fire passing overhead
            ‘our boys had machine guns’.

He later visited Sackville Street ruined by flames and looting.
            ‘The heart of one of our great cities wrecked by the work of our own people’.
Back in the hotel someone had a copy of the Proclamation, one of the few not in military hands and already the holder was asking for £250 for the sale of this historical document.

He also reported some hearsay accounts from St Stephens Green where Countess Markievicz, he told his readers was in a green military man’s uniform. He reported on what happened to British prisoners of war in the Royal College of Surgeons.
‘‘They’re going to shoot us old man whatever we do’ a young NCO said to a fellow prisoner. ‘We might as well have a good time while we can’
He started chatting to the rebel women cooking the meals. Chatting led to kissing. The Countess was horrified when she saw the young soldiers arm around the girls waist. The girls were banished to another part of the building by Markievicz but they crept back to enjoy the company of the POW’s’

McKenzie believed that the right place for a war correspondent is where he can see what he is supposed to describe. What many of the correspondents did manage to see was a copy of the new Republic’s own newspaper The Irish War News. The four page publication first hit the streets on the Tuesday of Easter Week. Two journalist and printers were in the GPO when it was seized and Patrick Pearse knowing their backgrounds detailed the two men to seize a printing press and publish the new states’ first newspaper. Waterford born James Upton, an editor at the Kilkenny Journal and Joseph Stanley who was the man behind the printing of The Spark at Liberty Hall left the rebel headquarters and seized James O’Keefe’s printing press at Halston Street. There with the assistance of Mathew Walker and his son Charlie, Tom Ryan and James O’Sullivan, 12,000 copies rolled off the presses. The front page article written by Patrick Pearse was titled ‘If The Germans Conquered England’. The back page contained a ‘Stop Press’ column that announced that a new Republic had been declared and the provisional Government members were named.   

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