Updated: Oct 7, 2019
When we think of East Belfast and occurrences in 1916 we rightly think of the Battle of the Somme and the catastrophic losses sustained by the 36th (Ulster) Division in July of that year. The 8th Royal Irish Rifles were largely recruited from the ranks of the Ulster Volunteer Force in East Belfast and they have become symbolic of the East’s contribution to the Somme and to the war more generally. Less often considered is East Belfast’s involvement in another pivotal moment in Irish history, the Easter Rising. The Rising, also referred to as the Easter Rebellion, was an armed insurrection in Dublin. It began on Easter Monday 24 April and lasted for six days, resulting in 485 deaths, over half of which were civilians.
Today, both Charlie Monahan and Joseph Campbell are remembered by the nationalist and republican community in East Belfast for their role in the Rising. Despite growing up in the nearby Market district of South Belfast, Charlie Monahan’s name appears on the B Company IRA roll of honour for Ballymacarrett. Monahan and two accomplices died after the car in which they were travelling overturned on its way to meet Roger Casement near Killorglin, County Kerry on Good Friday 21 April 1916. Joseph Campbell on the other hand is an acclaimed poet, probably best known for the words of My Lagan Love. Despite being born into a home at 32 Castlereagh Road, Campbell went on to be present at the first meeting of the Irish Volunteers in November 1913 before later being on the ground as an ‘intelligence officer’ during the Rising in Dublin.
A lesser-known East Belfast character from the Rising is Thomas Wilson who resided at 248 Albertbridge Road. As a member of the Gaelic League in Belfast, Wilson was approached and asked to join the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secretive and conspiratorial group of nationalist revolutionaries. Through the IRB he then became involved with the Irish Volunteers in 1914 as a member of their Belfast executive, and when the split occurred over John Redmond’s pledge of nationalist support to the war Wilson opted to side with the anti-Redmond faction in Belfast. It was this faction of the Irish Volunteers (as well as the IRB) who were instrumental in planning the 1916 Rising; Thomas Wilson had a foot in both organisations. The Belfast contingent of Irish Volunteers were to mobilise in Coalisland for the Rising. The plan was to rise in Tyrone and then make their way to the west of Ireland and join forces with Liam Mellows and his men. In reality, what Wilson observed in Coalisland was utter confusion as news came through that the rising had been called off; the only shot that had been fired was by a volunteer who shot himself by accident and sustained a minor wound. The Belfast contingent were back home by Easter Sunday evening and Thomas Wilson was back in work on Easter Monday morning, the day the Rising began in Dublin.
Most remarkable is that the only known resident of the nationalist Short Strand who was ‘out’ in 1916 was wearing a British army uniform and was with the Royal Irish Rifles. Rifleman John Hanna of the 4th Royal Irish Rifles lived at 63 Anderson Street (Short Strand) and was killed on 28 April 1916, four days into the Rising. He is virtually unknown in the area by virtue of being on the ‘wrong side’ in the Rising and on the ‘wrong side’ of history. Rifleman John Hanna is buried at Grangegorman Cemetery, Dublin with other British soldiers who lost their lives during Easter Week.
Unionists from East Belfast played their part in the Easter Rising too. Captain J. C. McCughan of the Royal Irish Rifles, for example, quite literally ‘had a hand’ in the Rising when he was wounded in the hand at Jacob’s Biscuit Factory during the fighting. McClughan, who lived at Belmont Avenue, had been home on leave and was returning to the front via Dublin when the Rising began. Before the war he held the position of Secretary in the 6th (Strandtown) Battalion East Belfast UVF. James Mitchell, a 38 year old school teacher from The Mount, was caught up in the Rising when he went to Dublin during Easter with his brother Joe to enlist in the army. After completing his enlistment on Easter Sunday, Mitchell, who was also a UVF member, found himself marooned in his room at the Gresham Hotel on Sackville Street (now O’Connell street). Realising the importance of the situation Mitchell decided to record his experiences in diary form over the coming days, he even witnessed the surrender of 500 insurgents outside his hotel the following Saturday. (The story of James Mitchell is told more eloquently by Dr. Eamon Phoenix)
Another UVF man, John Clarke MacDermott, was on holiday in Dublin when the Rising began and, similarly to Mitchell, recorded his experiences from a critical perspective. ‘People seemed very much in holiday mood – apart from the fact that here and there we noticed several small bodies of men clad in green uniform who appeared to be on patrol. But they did not seem to attract either surprise or attention and we put them down to some Southern way of celebrating Easter. ’MacDermott went on to describe the looting at Noblett’s toffee shop, confusion at the train station, cancellation of cinema listings, and a struggle for he and his friend to find accommodation for the night. He was eventually forced to walk to Drogheda from Dublin where he boarded a train back to Belfast. ‘This had been an interesting and informative experience; but with so many from all parts of Ireland doing their best to stem the tide of German aggression, the true nature of which was in no kind of doubt, I was never able to see the least justification, from any point of view, for making that task harder than it had to be by staging a rebellion at home.’ For MacDermott, at least, the Rising was an unnecessary diversion from the primary struggle which was against Germany.