On the Tuesday morning of Easter week 1916, Liam Ó Briain, 26 years old, and recently back from a three year scholarship in Germany, found himself in the thick of fighting. This was no longer, as he thought, an adventure. People were getting killed. Under intense machine gun fire Commandant Michael Mallin ordered his troops to abandon their Stephen’s Green trenches and barricades and retire to the College of Surgeons, and surrounding houses where Ó Briain and his men had burrowed through.
From Wednesday on British troops kept up an intense machine gun fire on the barricaded building for the remainder of the week. “The noise was terrible, and it was also increasing all over the city. Mallin asked me from which direction we were being fired at. I said “ From the Shelbourne and from the roof of the University Club, or from some roof in between.’ Mallin agreed.”
‘I was next to himself and the Countess Markievicz for a few moments as they conferred with one another. She said that she was worried because she had no bayonet or sword, no ‘stabbing instrument’ of any sort to be prepared for them if they broke in.
“You are very blood-thirsty,” said Mallin smiling.
‘I did not see much of the Countess during these days, nor did I know which spot she was mainly located...she was a great inspiration and motivation for the men to see her and to have her in their midst. They called her ‘Madame’ only and there wasn’t a person there who would not give his soul for her.’
A solemn question
However the next time Ó Briain met her she unexpectedly asked him for a nightdress. It was not for her but for Margaret Skinnider who had been brought into the college seriously wounded. Margaret had been shot three times attempting to burn down houses on Harcourt Street to try to cut off the retreat of British soldiers. She was Mallin’s message runner and sniper (regarded as a brilliant markswoman ), and was now bleeding profusely.*
Ó Briain and his men had tunneled through the adjoining houses in search of food and arms, and better positions to defend themselves. He knew exactly where to find a nightdress, and handed one over to the countess. The stress of the battle, however, was beginning to show. Ó Briain writes ‘that night with half the city in flames and heavy guns pounding ceaselessly, an element of sorrow and disapointment enveloped me. I felt somewhat frightened. Were we dragging the city and the country into a state of death and destruction, devastation and ruin? It was a solemn question.’
The College of Surgeons’ garrison held out for six days. It all ended when the British brought them a copy of Pearse’s surrender order. The officer, Captain de Courcy Wheeler, who accepted their surrender was married to Markievicz’s first cousin. His comments seeing the countess come out of the building were not recorded.
‘I’ll be shot’
Mallin and his soldiers were taken through the empty streets towards Trinity College. “A woman was standing in a doorway at the corner, opposite the college. She called out loudly to one of the officers as we passed: Shoot every bloody one of them! She said it twice and there was no trace of an English accent in her speech. We were rapidly coming out of our lovely dreamlike state.”
Taken to Richmond Baracks to be accessed and questioned by the British authorities, Ó Briain was joined by his friend Seán Mac Diarmada, whith whom he had spent a night at the Empire Theatre just weeks before the Rising.
A young British soldier came over to them. “ I say,” says he inquisitively, in a well mannered way, without a trace of opprobrium in his voice. “ I say, have you any idea what’s going to be done with you blokes?”
Seán looked at him and instead of his usual expression of gaiety, a grim expression, only very occasionally seen, showed in his eyes.
“Some of us will not be let out, and others will be shot. I’ll be shot.”
“Aoh!” said the soldier, nodding his head a little. “Yes I suppose you are right.”
But it was as if a knife went through me. “Don’t say that Seán” I told him.
“Ah do you think I care?” he answered, then changed the topic of conversation.’
NOTES: * Margaret Skinnider was one of several remarkable women in the thick of the Easter Rising. Born to Irish parents in Scotland, she trained as a mathematics teacher and joined Cumann na mBan in Glasgow. She learned to shoot in a rifle club, ironically set up so that women could defend the British Empire. She became close friends with Constance Markievicz whom she joined at St Stephen’s Green on Easter Monday. Commandant Mallin was unhappy that a woman should run such a risk at the barricades. ‘My answer to this arguement was that we had the same right to risk our lives as the men; that in the constitution of the Irish Republic, women were on an equality with men. for the first time in history, indeed, a constitution had been written that incorporated the principle of equal suffrage’. (Taken from her autobiography Doing My Bit For Ireland published in New York 1917 ).
Margaret recovered from her wounds, spent a busy life teaching in Dublin schools. She died on October 10 1971. She is buried next to the Countess Markievicz in the Republican plot in Glasnevin Cemetery.
Michael Mallin was executed by firing squad on May 8 1916. Four days later, May 12, Seán Mac Diarmada was also executed.
Released from Frangoch Camp at Christmas 1916, Liam Ó Briain was appointed professor of Romance languages at UCG the following year. He continued his active support for Irish independence, and was imprisoned on two more occasions. He served as a judge in the republican courts in Galway. He supported the treaty, but stood unsuccessfully for the Seanad.
He settled into a busy academic life until his retirement 42 years later. With his friend Dr Seamus Ó Beirn they founded An Taibhdhearc in 1927, Ireland’s only Irish language theatre. He famously offered the young Orson Wells £4 to learn Irish and join the Taibhdhearc. But Orson made his acting debut at the Gate Theatre in Dublin.
Ó Briain was a familiar figure in Irish cultural life, appearing frequently in plays at An Taibhdhearc, and on radio and later TV. He married Helen Lawlor. They had one daughter, Eileen, a journalist.
He died in Dublin August 12 1974.
He wrote about his role in the Easter Rising, Cuimhní Cinn, published in 1951; and now translated as Insurrection Memories 1916, by Eoin O Dochartaigh. On sale in all Galway bookshops €15.