As part of the College’s Decade of Commemoration activities the Library produced a very well-received year-long blog based on the 1916 Rising material in the Research Collections Division (the Manuscripts & Archives Research Library and the Department of Early Printed Books and Special Collections). Although the final blog was posted earlier this month, interested individuals continue to approach the Library with stories relating to Trinity and the Easter Rising and it seems a shame not to be able to give them wider readership. One such story is the subject of this post which concerns the only Trinity student to die during the Rebellion. This story has been contributed by a former colleague from Engineering.
John Alexander Thompson was killed on the first day of the Easter Rising, 24 April 1916. He came from a farming background in County Fermanagh and was in the first year of his engineering studies when he enlisted in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers to volunteer for service in the Great War. At the time of the Rising he was in the 10th Battalion of the RDF, stationed in the Royal (now Collins) Barracks.
Following the outbreak of the Rising one of the authorities’ first objectives was to secure Dublin Castle – the seat of British administration but which had very few defenders – and to take the City Hall, which was an outpost of the Rebellion held by the Irish Citizen Army, and from which shots could be fired into the Castle precincts and its approaches.
Private Thompson was part of a piquet of soldiers sent from the Royal Barracks to reinforce the Castle. He was in ‘B’ Company under the command of Lieutenant Charles Grant, who had been a civil servant and a recently-qualified barrister but who had previously served in the military for four years. He had been persuaded by his friend Major George Harris, the Adjutant of the Dublin University Officers Training Corps (OTC) to join the Corps, where he excelled. Following the start of the Great War Grant obtained a commission and was Gazetted to the Royal Dublin Fusiliers as a Second Lieutenant, and promoted to Lieutenant not long afterwards.
Two Companies, ‘A’ and ‘B’, totalling 100 men, were sent from the Royal Barracks to the relief of Dublin Castle. ‘B’ Company had about 50 men, including Pte. Thompson who had also been a member of the OTC before he enlisted.
It appears that the route taken to get to the Castle from the Royal Barracks was along Benburb Street, Ellis Street and onto Ellis Quay. At this point they came under fire from rebels across the Liffey on the south side stationed in the Mendicity Institute under the command of Captain Sean Heuston. The troops, who were in a column four abreast, shouldering their rifles (unloaded), were scattered by the gunfire but regrouped in the side streets off Ellis Street. The piquet then made a further attempt to reach the Castle leaving Benburb Street for Queen Street and onto Queen Street Bridge, again running the gauntlet of gunfire from the Mendicity Institute but now supported by machine-gun fire from Queen Street, to reach the south quays. They travelled westwards along Usher’s Island passing the Mendicity Institute one-by-one, onto Watling Street, James’s Street, Thomas Street, Corn Market, High Street, Christchurch Place, Castle Street, at which point they came under attack from City Hall.
In a memoir currently in the National Archives in Kew, Lieutenant Grant details the full story of what happened next: ‘I met Colonel Tighe of the Royal Irish Fusiliers making his way to the Royal barracks. He joined our party, and as senior officer took command. Passing Christchurch Cathedral a few revolver shots were fired. We entered a street running along the side walls of the approach to the entrance to the Lower Castle Yard. Here we came under heavy fire from rebels in the City Hall, which resulted in a further 20 wounded. Colonel Tighe decided that we should divide the rest of the party. He proceeded with his group down the long steps to the Ship Street entrance to the Castle. I took my group of about 10 men round by Ship Street Barracks, where we entered the Castle, having got them to open the gate for us and re-joined the rest of our original party.’
Pte. Thompson survived this arduous trek until just beside the safety of the Castle walls when his piquet came under fatal fire from City Hall. He was brought to the Adelaide Hospital in Peter Street but died, just 19 years old. His death is illustrative of the fact that over a third (41 out of 117) of the British Army fatalities in the Rising were Irishmen.
Former Administrative Officer
School of Engineering
Neil Richardson, According to their Lights: Stories of Irishmen in the British Army, Easter 1916 (The Collins Press, 2015)