Fota and the Rising, April 24 1916

That no rising happened in Cork on the 23rd-24th April 1916 might said to be down to Edwardian communications technology. It was impossible to communicate in secret at speed. The rising in Cork ran as follows:

“On Easter Sunday morning ‘two or three hundred’ Cork city Irish Volunteers had boarded a train for Crookstown to meet other volunteer groups from West Cork. The plan was to seal off all roads to Kerry so that guns could be landed safely from the German ship, the Aud.”

Tomás MacCurtain received countermanding orders from Eoin McNeill calling off the manoeuvres some time on Saturday night-Sunday morning, these had arrived by car, delivered in person by The O’Rahilly. MacCurtain “drove to Kilmurray with Terence McSwiney, where all the volunteers had joined up, to send them home. The whole company marched to Macroom and the city volunteers got the train to Cork that evening”. They could not have known that the IRB military council meet on Sunday in Liberty Hall, where they decided the Rising would go ahead on Easter Monday. Indeed, The O’Rahilly only realised the insurrection had gone ahead when, from his home in the Dublin suburbs, he heard the sound of gunfire from Dublin city centre.

Back in Cork, Irish Volunteers were guarding Volunteer Hall on Sheares’ Street, refusing to stand down. This led to an increasing ring of steel being thrown around the building by the British Forces. A six day stand-off ensued.

If there was confusion in the Irish ranks there was shock in the British ones. Dublin Castle’s intelligence officials were taken by surprise, despite their knowledge that the Irish Volunteers were an armed force who regularly drilled in public. On Easter Monday, when the combined force of Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army personnel took over various Dublin buildings, British forces in Ireland were rapidly scrambled. Here we see the difference between the Irish Volunteers and the British army in terms of communications. Urgent messages were sent out to barracks all over Ireland, soldiers were rapidly entrained, and they headed for areas of crisis.

Captain Charles Brett

Captain Charles Brett in 1914

One such message reached the Connaught Rangers stationed in Kinsale. They were there preparing for being sent into action on the Western Front. Amongst them was Lieutenant Charles Brett from Belfast, who had arrived in Kinsale in October 1914. He gives an account of being called into action on the 24th April 1916:

“At Easter 1916 the Irish Rebellion took place in Dublin and there were manifest fears that it would spread to the South. We were ordered to produce a flying column of about four hundred men (of whom I was one) and on the first night we marched to Crosshaven (on Queenstown Harbour – twelve miles from Kinsale) where we arrived at dawn. We were all given breakfast and then loaded on board two tugs (which were most dangerously overloaded and terrifyingly unstable) and ferried across the harbour to Queenstown where we marched to Fota, a large estate on an island off the River Lee between Queeenstown and Cork. There we were obviously well placed, had there been any trouble in Cork City.”

The owner of Fota House, Arthur Hugh Smith Barry, Lord Barrymore, was a committed Unionist and Conservative MP. He was deeply opposed to Home Rule, fearing that once the Home Rule Bill was enacted in 1914 the rights of southern Unionists would be completely compromised. After war was declared, however, Lord Barrymore shared a stage with the Home Rule M.P. William O’Brien at a military recruitment rally in Cork on the 5th September 1914. He declared that “this was a time when they should all stand together in defence, not merely of the Empire, but of the island which they themselves lived; it was a time when they should follow the saying of the ancient Roman where “None were for party but all were for state”. He then related the story of his nephew, the only one who bore his name who went out in the Aviation Corps. He had returned to England with both legs broken, but, thank God, he was getting on well towards recovery. You can read about his nephew, Robert Raymond Smith Barry, here.

We do not know if Arthur Hugh Smith Barry was at home in Fota in March 1916. Various ‘Fashionable Intelligence’ and ‘Social and Personal’ columns tell us that Lord and Lady Barrymore came to Fota from their English residence in September 1915. The papers also tell us that on the 30th March, 1916, at the Munster Agricultural Society Spring Show, that Lord Barrymore’s calf ‘Fota Minstrel’ won first prize in the pure bred short horn bull category. But we do not know if Lord Barrymore was there to witness this victory. One thing is almost certain. He would have been most supportive of Charles Brett and his men encamping on the Fota Estate in defence of British rule in Ireland.

But what about the stand-off at the Volunteer HQ at Sheares’ Street? Here there was no trouble. During this stand off the British demanded the surrender of all weapons but the Volunteers refused. Not a shot was fired on either side. Eventually, a compromise brokered by the Lord Mayor and the Auxiliary Bishop. And Charles Brett? He and his men, not needed in Cork, went via train to Dungarvan, thence to Enniscorthy, but the rebels had fled. They saw no action in Ireland, but soon Charles Brett was deployed to France where he saw a lifetime’s worth of action in a few short years.

John Dorney, ‘‘Glorious Madness’, The Life and Death of Michael O’Rahilly’
Sir Charles Brett, An Irish Soldier with the Connaught Rangers in World War I, published by the Somme Association, 2007

The Skibbereen Eagle, 5 September 1914, Page 8, Accessed via the Irish Newspaper Archive Online