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Revolution in Redbrick Suburbia

In the early hours of Easter Tuesday 1916, 61 Lansdowne Road, the Ballsbridge home of Judge William Johnston, his wife Kathleen, and their only son, the future playwright Denis, was occupied, under ‘amiable circumstances’, by four armed and apologetic Irish republicans. Denis, then a 14-year-old schoolboy home for the holidays from his Scottish boarding school, was a perceptive witness of this unfolding drama in the birth of the Republic. The rebels took possession of the upper floor of the house, consigning the family, including Denis’ grandmother and a Scottish relation, to the lower floors with polite orders not to leave the building as ‘it would be dangerous anyway’. Annie, the family cook, eluded captivity by escaping through her bedroom window wearing only her nightdress. Beds and furniture were used to barricade the stairs, and the insurgents knocked holes through interior walls to allow access to adjoining rooms without using the upper landing. The rebels and captives then sat down on the displaced furniture to share tea and thinly cut bread and butter. The only note of discord was sounded by the family parrot who objected to so many lights being left on at night. A very polite and reasonable siege was underway.

The ensuing 48 hours was remarkable only for the lack of callers to the house as Denis noted ‘we have never before or since been so completely ignored by the neighbourhood’. Their captors sortied out occasionally to check on developments, returning with fantastic reports of the Germans landing in Kerry and the withdrawal of France from the war. By Wednesday morning the hiatus was broken by the arrival of British troops in Dublin. The rebels stripped off their uniforms, abandoned their rifles and ammunition and left the house dressed in plain clothes.

Denis had a tale to tell on his return to boarding school that would rescue him from the ranks of ‘new boy’ obscurity. He had even managed to deny officialdom some spoils of war -a slouch hat and a bayonet –which he treasured for his lifetime.

The papers of Denis Johnston (1901-1984), playwright, theatre director, BBC war correspondent, barrister, pioneer of television and teacher were presented to Trinity College Library by his family in 1985 and are now cited as TCD MS 10066. For further information on this collection please see the MARLOC online catalogue.

This account of the 1916 Rising, entitled ‘A schoolboy in the Rebellion, by Denis Johnston’ is contained in Johnston’s ‘Omnibus X’ diary (TCD MS 10066/179 ff. 79-81), part of the complex collection of almost 200 diaries within the archive.

Felicity O’Mahony

Manuscripts & Archives Research Library