Head of School Delivers Easter 1916 Address on Engineering Graduate Harry Nicholls
29th March 2016
The Head of the School of Engineering, Associate Professor Brian Foley, delivered an address yesterday in Trinity Chapel at a Service of Commemoration for the 1916 Easter Uprising on Harry Nicholls, a 1911 Engineering graduate. Harry Nicholls was the only known Trinity graduate to have taken part in the rising on the rebel side. The full text of the speech is below.
Harry Nicholls – Trinity Engineering Graduate and Protestant Rebel
I am very grateful to the Rev Steve Brunn for his kind invitation to address this service on Harry Nicholls, an engineering graduate of this University who participated in the 1916 Easter Rising, on this, the occasion of the centenary of the Rising. The year 2016 also happens to mark the 175th anniversary of the founding of the School of Engineering in Trinity.
The material for this address is drawn from the authoritative article "Harry Nicholls and Kathleen Emerson: Protestant rebels" by Martin Maguire of Dundalk Institute of Technology, first published in Studia Hibernica 2008-2009.
Harry Nicholls was born in Derry in 1889. His childhood was spent in Templemore, County Tipperary and in Dublin city. When Harry was born, his father was 52 years of age. The 1911 census shows the 21-year-old Harry was the only young man in the household along with his elderly father, his middle-aged mother and two older sisters of 32 and 30, both of whom were unmarried. One can therefore assume, perhaps, a young adulthood relatively free of parental control.
Henry, known always as Harry, matriculated from Mountjoy School in 1907 with a mathematics sizarship and junior exhibition, and he entered Trinity College Dublin as a student of civil engineering, graduating in June 1911 with a gold-medal in mathematics. He was unique in being the only graduate of Trinity College Dublin who was an active Republican rebel in 1916! There is, incidentally, no basis for RB McDowell's mischievous assertion that Nichols, whom he portrays as a sort of "trophy Protestant" for Republicans in later years, did not participate in the 1916 rising.
Nicholls’ initial introduction to politics was through his brother George who gave him a pamphlet on home rule. Harry recalled that on reading the pamphlet he was instantly convinced that home rule did not go far enough, and that he was reinforced in this opinion by John Mitchell's jail Journal.
His brother George, who changed his name to Seoirse MacNiocaill, was eight years older than Harry and introduced him to the Gaelic League. A TCD graduate in mathematics, Seoirse became a school inspector, like his father. After independence, he remained in the schools inspectorate rising to become senior inspector in the Department of Education in the Free State, and was heavily involved in attempts to revive Irish, writing textbooks and reading materials, and being instrumental in establishing An Gúm as the state Irish language publishing house.
Both George and Harry were members of the Cúig Cúigí branch of the Gaelic League - Harry joined in 1910, when he was 20 years of age. The branch, the name of which means the branch of the five provinces, was popularly known as the branch of the five Protestants, because of the number of Protestant members.
Harry's admission to the Gaelic league was the beginnings of a period of intense activism, bringing him further and further into radical separatism. Along with Sean Lester, Ernest Blythe and other Gaelic League Protestants, he formed Cumann Gaelach Eaglaise na hÉireann to demand that the Church of Ireland provide texts, hymns and services in the Irish language.
In 1912, in response to Patrick Pearse’s call for Irish speakers to work to advance Irish freedom, made in the pages of his short lived newspaper An Barr Buadh, Nicholls along with the O'Rahilly, Eamonn Ceannt and Sean MacCraith met to
found Cumann na Saoirse in Wynn’s Hotel. Its business was conducted entirely through Irish,but was mainly about getting guns.
Nicholls founded the north Dublin rifle club; his Protestantism, Rathmines address and professional status provided a cover of respectability for the importation of rifles and ammunition.
Harry Nicholls spent his holidays in the Dingle area in order to develop his Irish. He records that it was when he isolated himself for a fortnight in an entirely Irish speaking milieu on the Blaskets that he began to acquire fluency. This was in 1913, the summer when Eibhlin Nicholls (no relation), who had been romantically associated with Patrick Pearse, was drowned in a tragic accident.
It was while spending time in Dun Chaoin and the Blaskets that Harry Nicholls came under the influence of Sean Óg Kavanagh (Seán an Chóta) who swore him into the IRB. He joined the Teeling Circle which had Bulmer Hobson at its centre. Nicholls maintains that Hobson was the key influence on his own emerging republicanism. He joined the Irish volunteers when they were formed in 1913 and was appointed engineering instructor to the fourth Battalion. In the light of events in 1916, it is interesting to note that his lectures concentrated on street fighting, erecting effective barricades and the use of explosives.
In 1913, he paraded to the Wolfe Tone commemoration march in Bodenstown at which Pearse's speech signalled the revival of Republican separatism. However, his main activity as a volunteer between 1913 and 1916 was the smuggling and storage of guns and ammunition. Nicholls does not describe any specifically Protestant circle of republicanism, though he was close to George Irvine. They both attended Church of Ireland services in St Patrick's Cathedral on St Patrick's Day 1916 in their volunteer uniforms.
Of the 1916 leaders, Nicholls knew Patrick Pearse (though initially he was sceptical of Pearse’s commitment to the republican ideal), Tom Clarke, Sean MacDiarmada and Eamonn Ceannt. He was closest to MacDiarmada who engaged him for both the Howth and Kilcoole gunrunning operations. At Howth, Harry was involved in the landing and dispersal of the arms. When war broke out in September 1914, Harry was on holiday in the Dingle area, and along with Sean Kavanagh, Ernest Blythe and Desmond Fitzgerald, he organised the local volunteers to disrupt a recruitment meeting.
Nicholls and the other officers of the fourth Battalion (which included Cathal Brugha, William Cosgrave, Ffrench Mullen, Seamus Murphy, Tom McCarthy, Con Colbert and George Irvine) were brought together some weeks before the rising and made to understand that significant manoeuvres were planned for Easter. Although Nicholls understood that these manoeuvres might be cover for more serious actions, he was not aware that a rising was intended; hence his bewilderment on Easter Monday.
After the surrender, Nicholls was transferred to Knutsford prison on 1 May and from there to Frongoch towards the end of June 1916, where he was the leader in hut 11, with Dick McKee as his second.
At Frongoch, he was part of a small group of Protestant rebels that included Arthur Shields, Ellet Elmes, Sam Ruttle of Tralee and Alf Cotton of Belfast. He used his Protestantism to vex the authorities, but he did receive some consolation from reading the Bible, which he was given by the local Church of England chaplain. Nicholls’ contribution to the Frongoch autograph book was the well-known line from Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage: " hereditary Bondsmen! Know ye not,/ Who would be free themselves must strike the blow."
Nicholls was not among the early releases approved by the Sankey Commission. He had to wait until the general emptying of Frongoch at Christmas 1916 to return to Dublin and to his work in Dublin Corporation. Though he was required to sign a bond to be of good behaviour, it remained blank. The two guarantors were Harry's father and the Reverend EH Lewis Crosby of Rathmines church.
Harry's father's observation that he was embarrassed by the expressions of sympathy he received from his Protestant friends about the awful things the English are doing to the Irish prisoners, suggests that not all Irish Protestants automatically supported the post-rising reaction.
The path through the Gaelic league and the IRB to rebellion was a well trodden one and for most of the Church of Ireland rebels it was cultural separatism that initiated them to political separatism. However, there were a few for whom revolution had social and political roots and Harry Nicholls should be included among these. He himself credited his radicalism to the experience of police brutality during the 1913 lockout, specifically to blows on the head and mouth he received from Dublin Metropolitan police constables in a baton charge on Eden Quay.
As Harry put it himself, the ferocity of the assault "made a rebel of a Prod."
In the period of the First Dáil and the war of independence, he was involved in the setting up of the Irish local government officers trade union (ILGOU).
Harry Nicholls opposed the treaty and he withdrew from political activity and trade union activity after the establishment of the Irish Free State. The major project of his engineering career and a significant contribution to the improvement of the health of the city was the digging of new main drains along the quays and a tunnel under the Liffey at Ringsend. He died in 1975, and his funeral was held in Saint Anne's Dawson Street. He is buried with his sisters in the churchyard of Enniskerry Parish and his gravestone records that he was a "1916 patriot and founder of the ILGOU".
There is much more to be said about Harry Nicholls, and indeed about his wife Kathleen Emerson, an activist in the Irish Women’s Franchise League, whom he married in 1919. I would refer you to the full text of Martin Maguire's excellent article "Harry Nichols and Kathleen Emerson: Protestant rebels" which a Google search will easily throw up.
Suffice to conclude by saying that we remember him today, as a graduate of Trinity College, who made a significant contribution to the stirring events which culminated in Irish independence. It is appropriate that we remember him and the other Protestant rebels at this choral evensong Service of Commemoration of the 1916 Easter Uprising. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a n-anamacha uaisle.
Professor Brian Foley
Head, School of Engineering
Trinity College Dublin
28 March 2016
The assistance of Aonghus Dwane, Oifigeach Gael, is gratefully acknowledged.