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Magazine Fort Attack

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Attack on the Magazine Fort

(extracted from The Easter Rebellion, Max Caulfield, 1963)


Garry Holohan planned to explode five bags of gelignite in the Magazine Fort in Phoenix Park to signal the start of the Rebellion. The idea was not really very spectacular, not very violent -- not in a world already inured to violence. This was the two hundred and sixty-fifth day of the second year of the First World War. It was the sixty-fifth day of the Battle of Verdun. Along the Meuse, the Germans would use flame guns against the French, explode infernal mines near Souchez and win a bloody footing in British trenches. At Loos, Arras, and Ypres a series of spectacular artillery, duels would take place while farther along the front historic French chateaux would be systematically pounded to rubble. It was not a world where there was much latitude to indulge delicate susceptibilities.

Holohan, still in bed at half past nine, was aroused by his friend Paddy Daly, who was an expert on the Magazine Fort. Six months earlier he had wangled himself a job with Sir Patrick Shortall's building firm when extensive repairs were being carried out at the fort, and he had seized the opportunity to map the interior and learn the drill of the guard. He had also found out where the keys to the high-explosive store were kept.

"Get up for God's sake!" said Daly.

"We're going out at twelve!"

"Surely the Rebellion isn't until this evening?" said Holohan.

"That's all a mistake," said Daly. "Get up!"

Having roused him, Daly left to see about mobilizing other men while Holohan dressed, thinking that his first job must be to get hold of Volunteer Tim Roche and tell him to commandeer a car and have it beside the Fort, engine running, by half past eleven. Next he would have to help Daly with the mobilization. Apparently he had misunderstood John MacDermott when he had talked to him on Sunday at Liberty Hall. MacDermott had said,

"Everything is off for twentyfour hours,"

and Holohan had taken this literally. Smarting at his blunder, he jumped on his bicycle and went off to see Roche. Having made the arrangement with him, he set out to assist in the mobilizing. By 11:05 A.M., however, he had found only three men at home and moodily made his way to Liberty Hall to report the situation to Commandant Connolly. The Commandant-General gave him a note to the commandants of the four city battalions, allocating him a man from each, so by 11:45 he had an additional four men. The last, a lad named Barney Mellowes, begged for a chance to say good-bye to his mother.

"There isn't time!" Holohan shouted in exasperation.

"For God's sake, man, get on a tram at once!"

Dispirited, he turned toward home, certain that the idea of blowing up the Fort as a signal would have to be canceled. Indeed, as he passed through St. Stephen's Green, he saw Commandant MacDonagh's men mobilizing to seize Jacob's biscuit factory. When he reached home, however, he was pleasantly surprised to find thirty lads waiting for him. Paddy Daly was there giving them final instructions. The party was to split into three detachments-the first and second going by tram to Phoenix Park, the third traveling there by bicycle. All were to meet on the playing fields beside the Fort, and to make it appear that they were assembling to play football.

At five minutes past twelve Holohan and Daly stopped at Whelan's shop near the Four Courts and bought a football. At twelve fifteen they entered Phoenix Park and approached Thomas's Hill, on the brow of which squatted the low stone Fort. Roche was waiting in the driveway -- although without the motorcar. He explained that he had managed to steal one all right, but on the way up to the Park had driven it straight into a lamppost. Unhurt, he had jumped out and hailed a passing jaunting car. Holohan, glancing at the waiting jarvey, wondered if they could really get away safely. Well, there was nothing to do now but make the best of it.

The men stood bunched together at the fence circling the Fort. Holohan punted the ball and they began scrambling for it. It was 12:17 now and down in the city -- and all over Ireland, Holohan hoped -- Rebellion would have begun. On the far side of the Liffey the spires of St. Patrick's and Christ Church glittered boldly against the Sky. The ball was kicked around the corner of the Fort within sight of the sentry on the main gate. It was kicked again and this time landed near him, skidded against the fence, and came to rest at his feet. The sentry grinned. He had no time even to stiffen his muscles before they all piled on top of him....

Daly led the way inside. Once in the long passageway, which ran through the length of the building, he turned right, into the guardroom. Holohan continued straight on until he emerged into a bright quadrangle with a raised platform four feet high, running around the walls. There were short flights of steps at each corner. On one side stood a soldier, his back toward Holohan, a small hut partially screening him. Holohan yanked out his automatic and shouted, "Surrender!"

The soldier swiveled. But for the hut, he could probably have picked Holohan off easily. He shifted right to get in a better shot, then suddenly changed his mind and pulled out his bayonet. Holohan, running toward him, squeezed the automatic twice and watched him go down, clutching at his thigh. As Mellowes raced in, the wounded man cried out, "Sirs, sirs, don't shoot me! I'm an Irishman myself and the father of five children!"

"You'll be all right," Mellowes said. They lifted him to his feet, but he collapsed immediately, blood welling from his thigh.

"We'll just have to leave him," said Holohan. Then, turning to the wounded man, he said,

"Don't worry -- we'll let your pals know."

And with that he leaped down off the platform and retreated across the quadrangle. Inside the guardroom he found ten military prisoners, all young, all frightened, one weeping.

"One of your chaps is hurt," he said, jerking a thumb toward the quadrangle. Then he asked where Daly was.

"In the small-arms store," said a young rebel.

In a little room off the main passageway, he found Daly. With him were two Volunteers -- Holohan's brother Pat and a friend, Edward Martin. Daly had had wretched luck. He had easily overpowered the guard, had rounded up Mrs. Isabel Playfair, wife of the Fort's Commander (on active service in France) and her two boys and a girl, and had warned her that he was going to blow the place up. He had allowed her exactly six minutes to get out. Then, with success apparently in his grasp, he had reached for the key to the high-explosives store, only to find the hook empty. The key had been taken by the officer in charge, who had gone off to Fairyhouse. Thoroughly chagrined, Daly took, instead, the key to the small arms, and by the time Holohan arrived had placed bags of gelignite next to the wall of the high-explosives store and piled belts of ammunition on top of them. With luck, the explosion would blast through the wall and send the whole lot up.

Daly ordered Holohan to set the fuses. This done, they all returned to the guardroom where Daly warned the prisoners, "When we let you out, don't try to follow us or raise the alarm!" The rifles which had been captured from them lay neatly stacked in a long rack and he had these taken outside. Then together he and Holohan shepherded the disarmed soldiers through the door, where Daly ordered, "Now clear off!"

The soldiers showed no desire to stop and argue, and left rapidly, while the young insurgents, waving the captured rifles and bawling out "The Soldier's Song," streamed down the hill. At the foot, the rifles were dumped into the jaunting car. Then six or seven rebels climbed aboard while the rest scattered through the Park.

"Off you go now!" yelled Daly, and the terrified jarvey whipped up his nag and drove toward the gate. Holohan, following on his bicycle, suddenly noticed a young fellow running some distance ahead of them.

"That's young Playfair; we'd better stop him," shouted Daly.

The boy ran toward the park gate, darted outside, and crossed to the middle of the road, where he spoke to a policeman on traffic duty. Holohan, leaving the rest to make their way into the city, pushed hard on the pedals: there were two military barracks close by -- Islandbridge and the Royal Barracks -- and either could intercept them. He swerved left at the gate past the policeman, following Playfair, who by this time had reached the corner of the Islandbridge road. When Holohan himself reached the corner, Playfair was running across the road at an angle, making for a row of large houses. He glanced around, saw Holohan, and immediately put on a spurt. He reached the first house, fumbled at the gate for a moment, then burst up the path and battered on the door.

Holohan leaped from his bicycle, letting it crash to the ground. From the doorway, a desperate face glanced back at him. As the door opened and a woman stood framed in it, Holohan squeezed his automatic three times, and young Playfair, barely fourteen years old, crumpled on the doorstep, dying.

Even as Daly and his party trotted along the Quays in their jaunting car, behind Holohan somewhere, back toward the Park, there was a dull explosion. It was not very loud; not loud enough, certainly, to be heard any great distance away.

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