Our friendly and excellent guides are available as Step On Guides for any visiting tour or coach operators who may like a unique, entertaining and educational tour of Irish History and the events of Easter Week 1916.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The 1916 Rising and The Barman

The contribution of grocer’s assistants to the Easter Rising should not be underestimated. Like so many other professions they fought, died and were imprisoned for their actions. Their places of employment were at the heart of the action unfolding on the streets of Dublin in 1916.

Today a grocer’s assistant is better known as a bartender and their places of employment the public house. In the run up to April 1916 barmen, like many other professions felt the need to be part of the Volunteer movement. Due to their unsociable hours and work commitments barmen were unable to train with regular units of the Volunteers and so D Company of the 2nd Battalion of the Volunteers was formed and became known as ‘the Grocers Company’. They trained and drilled at Father Matthew Park under the leadership of Seamus Kavanagh and his adjutant Paddy Moran an employee in Doyle’s Bar, Phibsboro. At its height their were 200-300 members but after the Remondite Split within the National Volunteers, the Irish Volunteers who would plan for the Easter Rising maintained a company of 45 men. 

Michael O’Dea from Tulla in County Clare takes up the story in his Witness Statement,
“In Dublin, where I arrived in 1912, my employer was Con McCormack who owned a public house at 26, Moore St. He ran in conjunction with this a bookmaker's business, most of the transactions in connection with which were illegal. I joined the Irish Volunteers in Dublin on their formation towards the end of 1913 and in the spring of the following year I linked up with the "Grocers" Company which had been specially formed to suit the barmen in the city. I remained a member of the "Grocers" Company until the Redmondite split in the autumn of l9l4 when the vast majority of that unit went over to the National Volunteers. I remained with the Irish Volunteers after the split.”

Barmen were crucial to the planning as not only were they able to monitor movements of the British forces but they used their premises to purchase and hide weapons. Secret meetings were held in back rooms and snugs of bars while coded messages were passed from barman to rebel. Seamus Walsh who worked in Mooney’s of Parnell Street even managed to purchase a rifle from a drinking British soldier which was later used in the GPO against the British.

When rebels under Michael Mallin seized the Stephens Green/ College of Surgeons area seventeen year old barman James Fox was killed in action on the Tuesday of the Rising. From the Thomas Street area of the city, Fox was shot dead by British forces who had taken up sniping positions on the roof of the Shelbourne Hotel.

Some of the barmen who saw action during that week included seventeen year old Thomas McEvoy. He lived at East Wall Road, in Dublin. He was employed as a grocer’s assistant when in February 1916 when he joined ‘G’ Company, 1st Battalion, Dublin Brigade, of the Irish Volunteers. During Easter Week Thomas saw active service in the G.P.O., Royal College of Surgeons and the Four Courts area of Dublin.

Jim Humphreys worked for his uncle Michael at Humphreys, 2 Moore Street. Limerick born in 1879, Jim was one of the prisoners moved from Richmond Barracks to Wandsworth on May 8th 1916. Perhaps to add insult to injury the pub where he worked was listed as being completely destroyed in the aftermath of the conflict

James Joyce was a barman in J.T. Davy’s at Portobello Bridge. Joyce joined the James Connolly led Irish Citizen’s Army but because training manoeuvres took place on Sunday’s, Davy refused to give the thirty five year old barman who worked twelve hours a day seven days a week time off to go training. Often Joyce would pretend to be ill or simply fail to turn up for work.

At noon on bank holiday Easter Monday, Joyce joined the rest of the rebels at Liberty Hall and set off with his battalion through the deserted city. Led by Sergeant John Doyle, Joyce was joined by fourteen other rebels as they marched up Grafton Street and onto St. Stephen’s Green. It was here that another detachment under Countess Markiewicz had seized the Royal College of Surgeons and began to dig trenches in the Green itself. Sergeant Doyle, Joyce and seven other rebels continued up Harcourt Street and narrowly avoiding capture when they met a group of mounted soldiers. As soon as the mounted patrol had turned a corner the Sergeant gave the order
            ‘At the double men’ as they headed for their outpost

It was because of his knowledge of the area and Davy’s Pub that Joyce was chosen to be part of this mission. The public house was to be seized because of its vantage point to pin down British troops leaving the Rathmines Barracks or troops using the Canal as other avenues into the city were sealed off by rebel forces.  Joyce entered the premises first, the handle of his gun slippery with the sweat of excitement in his shaking hands. He made his way to the dark wooden counter and confronted Davy. Davy is reported to have said
            ‘You have missed one too many Sunday’s. You can take it that you are on a weeks notice.’
To which Joyce replied
            ‘You can take it from me that you have one minute to get out. This premises is being seized in the name of the Irish Republic.’

Meanwhile as the Rising engulfed the city of Dublin, the police were raiding country pubs for serving afterhours. In midst of the rebellion John Sullivan of Dingle was charged with serving after hours at 1.35am and was fined £1 with the customers found on the premises fined 5s each.

One of the unforeseen consequences in the aftermath of the Easter Rising was the sudden lack of bar staff. Over 150 barmen, known also as wine porters and grocers assistants, were arrested and deported by the British to camps in England and Wales. Dublin publicans complained to British authorities but they fell on deaf ears and business continued. One newspaper advertisement for a ‘grocer’s assistant’ specified for prospectice candidates that ‘salary was no object’. Publicans were a strong lobby in Ireland, they had successfully resisted attempt to curtail trading hours which had been introduced in Britain during World War One. Unusually with the declaration of martial law in Dublin, public houses were allowed to stay open from 2pm to 5pm during the Rising.

These were difficult times for barmen as they saw their employers making ever larger profits during time of war as stocks ran low and prices wholesale and to the customer increased. Publicans were making as much profit on one barrel of porter in 1916 as they were on six before the outbreak of World War One. There was a glut of licensed premises in the country leading to complaints that in Ireland there were 17,000 pubs serving four million people, while in Scotland there were 7,000 pubs for five million of a population.

Barmen’s hours were long, often only a half day off per week. A senior man was paid between £20 and £24 depending on the length of his service and a meeting before the outbreak on April 21st 1916 in Kells there was a demand for shorter working hours. Industrial action was murmured at the meeting.

When the bulk of the barmen/prisoners were released in mid and late 1917 there was anger and ill tempered feelings as the publicans had replaced their errant staff especially in Dublin. Irish National Aid Association was launched in August 1916 to get jobs for Grocers Assistants who had not been reinstated. There was a mini riot in Dorset Street on Christmas Eve 1917 when a group of out of work barman attacked a number of pubs and their customers in that area. This can be compared with the reaction in Tralee, County Kerry when on June 20th 1917 thirty six Tralee publicans charged with displaying republican flags celebrating the release of Republican prisoners. They all got off on a technicality. 

To reinforce the notion that alcohol played a major part in one way or another in the Easter Rising, when the rebel prisoners were transferred to the Frongoch Internment camp in Wales they quickly realised the irony that the camp now being used as a prisoner of war camp was a former distillery.

Sympathetic publicans also assisted in the facilitation of Rising planning with publicans such as Sean O’Farrell who owned a bar at the corner of St Stephens Green and South King Street and thirty six year old Eamon Morkan who with his brother Michael ran a bar on Queen Street was a Captain in the Volunteers while future leader of the Free State W.T. Cosgrave was a publicans son from James Street who fought in the nearby South Dublin Union one of the last outposts to surrender.   

One of the few battles outside Dublin during Easter Week was Enniscorthy, Co Wexford which was seized by the Rebels. The Athenaeum theatre was made the Republicans’ headquarters, over which they flew the green, white and orange tricolour. All the public houses in the town were closed down and as Father Patrick Murphy, a priest who publicly blessed the rebels, recalled,
“During the four days of Republican rule, not a single person was under the influence of drink”.

Alcohol, the production, the service or the consumption thereof has played a key role in Irish affairs since the iconic and momentous events of The Easter Rising in 1916 to the end of the War of Independence and the creation of the Irish Free State.

Beer and spirits was at the heart of events in 1916. Proclamation signatory Sean McDermott once worked as a barman in Belfast before turning his attention to more pressing matters. The rebels failed to seize British Army barracks around the city or even the seat of The British Government in Ireland, Dublin Castle but they did capture The Watkins Brewery on Ardee Street, The Jameson Distillery, Roe’s Distillery, Dublin City Distillery, and the Barmack Brewery and many public houses..

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