On 11 May 1916, John Dillon MP declared in an impassioned speech to the British House of Commons that by the execution of the leaders of the recently suppressed rebellion, the government were ‘washing out our whole life-work in a sea of blood’. When the Easter Rising broke out on 24 April, Dillon had been the only Irish Parliamentary Party leader in Dublin, remaining confined to his home in North Great George’s Street. Caught by surprise when told that ‘the Sinn Feiners – had entrenched themselves in Stephens Green – and were marching on the Castle’, Dillon quickly began a letter to his mother-in law. Unable to post the letter that day, he decided to continue writing so she could read it ‘when this miserable business is all over.’ The resulting ‘narrative’ survives in The Manuscripts & Archives Research Library (M&ARL), TCD MS 9820.
John Dillon (1851-1927), who had first joined Isaac Butt’s Home Rule League in 1873, had qualified as a surgeon but was by 1916 a long-standing nationalist politician and accomplished parliamentarian. In 1895 he married Elizabeth Mathew, daughter of Sir James and Lady Elizabeth, and the couple had five sons and a daughter. She died after a serious illness in 1907 and Lady Elizabeth outlived her daughter by twenty-six years.
Dillon begins his narrative of Easter week 1916 by accounting for his children, who all managed safely to navigate their way around the fighting in the city. Food was a concern. On Tuesday, he was ‘amazed to see the bread cart & milk cart going round as usual’ and a servant returned ‘accompanied by two boys with large stores’. But by Thursday it became clear that they had ‘really obtained very little supplies’ and servants were again sent to find more. The distinctive sounds of war – ‘machine guns, rifle & field guns’ – are often present but are contrasted with the ‘eerie silence’ of crowds passing his house, apparently satisfied ‘looters’ discussing their haul and others ‘walking about – without slightest appearance of fear or panic’.
While bullets and food shortages could be a great leveller, Dillon’s experience of the Rising was not necessarily typical and few of his fellow citizens could send servants to hunt for food. He appeared unsurprised that ‘the inhabitants of the Slums were busy looting the shops’ but was disappointed to notice ‘some well-dressed respectable looking girls – laden with loot.’ More dramatically, Dillon was kept awake by a fear that ‘the slum people would break into the public houses and that the City at night would be in the hands of [a] howling drunken mob.’ He was more sensitive in reporting on a young boy admitted to hospital with a bullet wound to the arm received while making off with ‘several boxes of sweets at Noblett’s shop’.
Nuggets of information provided by family, servants, neighbours and the milk-man – at times first-hand but often merely gossip or hear-say – are duly recorded. When a neighbour asked a young rebel at a barricade what was happening, she was told “we asked for a Republic. They would not give it – so we took it”. Some of the intelligence was reasonably accurate: Dublin Castle ‘had not been taken – but was still occupied by the military.’ More, less so: ‘the German submarines are in Belfast Lough’.
Dillon was in the unusual position of hearing rumours about himself. He describes how his son (who presumably knew otherwise) was told
that Mr John Dillon had gone down and got between the opposing forces and made peace. – Another man standing by said there was not a word of truth in the statement – and that if Mr Dillon had gone down his brains would have been blown out.
This rare surviving eyewitness account of the Rising from a senior politician ends with a similar, but friendlier, discussion:
James informed me … that he had overheard men in several groups stating confidently that it was Mr John Dillon who had made the peace – God bless him – sure he is a grand man, he went down to the G.P.O. – and arranged for peace.
TCD MS 9820 has been digitised in its entirety and is available on the Library’s Digital Collections site.
Department of History
University of Exeter, Cornwall Campus