Sunday, March 19, 2017
Ireland 1916: 40 under-16s were shot in a single week
One of the 40 children shot during the 1916 Rising was peeling an orange on Grafton Street. A baby was killed in her mother’s arms. Dublin was a dangerous place that week
Poor children of Dublin collecting firewood from the ruined buildings damaged in the Easter Rising. Photograph: Getty Images
At the time of the Easter Rising, Dublin was a packed city, even more so than today. Many of the suburbs had yet to be built, and most of the families were crammed into filthy, overcrowded, disease-ridden slum tenement houses, overflowing with malnourished children. For example, there were 107 people in one house at No 7 Henrietta Street.
Into this teeming mass 1,500 Irish nationalists and 20,000 British soldiers (many of them Irish), all armed with shotguns, revolvers, rifles and even artillery, fought each other in battles across Dublin city centre.
Around 300 civilians got caught up in the crossfire and died, including 40 children aged 16 and under.
“It was very intense,” says broadcaster Joe Duffy, who has written a book on the children who died. “It was pouring bullets, and there were lots of children about.
“About 25 of those children who were killed lived in tenements. You don’t sit in a tenement because there’s literally no room to sit.
“There’s no fridges, so you have to get your food twice or three times a day – your bread, your tea, scraps of vegetables. By Wednesday and Thursday the food situation was critical.
“The kids were sent around to get some food. I know looting is the popular word, but they were scavenging for stuff. It wasn’t the London riots, they weren’t grabbing PlayStations – they were going for fairly basic stuff.”
One of the 40 children killed, John McNamara (12) of York Street, Dublin2, had his head blown off while peeling an orange on Grafton Street.
“Both sides said they were going to shoot looters. Because there were no inquests, we don’t know who shot them, but it’s not a blame game, it’s about remembering these kids.”
Some were in agonising pain for weeks.
Eight-year-old Walter Scott received a gunshot wound to the head, and made it to Mercer’s hospital near Stephen’s Green. He died five weeks later. His father was dredging master in Dublin Bay, quite a good job at the time.“There were children who took a bullet in the leg and died before they even got to the hospital,” says Duffy.
“You’re talking a different world. There were no antibiotics back then. All the hospitals were in the war zone. A lot of the doctors couldn’t get in.”
Two two-year-olds were killed on Easter Monday morning when the Rising began.
Sean Francis Foster was shot through the head as he lay in his pram during a firefight between rebels and British soldiers at North King Street.
“Sean’s mother, Kate Foster, was going to help out with the Feis Maitiu at Father Matthew Hall, and her brother was setting up a barricade by the Four Courts with the rebels.
“She told him to go home, then he told her to go home, then a gun battle broke out. She runs to Father Matthew Hall, and her two-year-old is shot in the head in the crossfire.”
There was another child in the pram. Sean Foster’s father had been in the trenches in Europe and it was discovered this father had been killed two months previously.
Sean Francis Foster wasn’t the youngest child to die. Christina Caffrey, who was eight months younger, died from a bullet wound outside her home at Corporation Buildings on Foley Street in the north inner city. “She was shot in her mother’s arms. They were heading back to the tenement by Amiens Street and a gun battle broke out, a bullet went through her hand and into the back of her child, who died.”
The total number of children killed was not known, even among historians, until Duffy started his research.
“It’s taken 100 years. It’s unbelievable. This book is the first time that the life and death stories of the children, and their aftermath, who were killed in the Rising will be told. They were all killed between the two canals and between the Custom House and Heuston station as it is now. That was the killing zone.
“People will be gobsmacked at the picture of children’s lives that day. Fifteen of those who died were from middle-class lives, some of them very well-off.”
Dublin may have been the most violent place in the world for a child in Easter Week 1916.
“The first World War was on at the time in Europe, but the child casualties for the whole war are relatively low because it was mainly fought in the trenches in the countryside. I can’t find anywhere else that week that even comes close.”