John Doyle was born in Dun Laoghaire in 1881. A founding member of a branch of the Catholic Boy’s Brigade, which soon joined with the Boy’s Brigade (Protestant) to form the voluntary medic organisation of St. John’s Ambulance. John became heavily involved with the St. John’s Ambulance and soon became an instructor. In 1910 he travelled to Blackpool for one of the first Airshows in England and acted as a medic for St. John’s Ambulance.
In 1912, St. John’s Ambulance became linked with the British Naval Auxiliary Medical Service. The aim was that the volunteers would be called for service in the event of emergencies or the outbreak of war. However, it could not be enforced as it was a declaration rather than an oath. The benefit of this link was that the members received vastly superior training from the Navy and received pay based on their rank during the training stages.
John joined the Irish Volunteers around 1914, and was put in 'C Company' 2nd Battalion, under the command of Thomas McDonagh. After a month with ‘C Company’, Mc Donagh had learnt who John was and what his training was. Mc Donagh appointed him to Captain as Medical Officer for the 2nd Battalion. John brought about 12 men from St. John’s with him into the organisation. However, within a few months the split occurred between the Volunteers and John Redmond, who supported the British in their war effort. The majority of the volunteers joined Redmond, but John remained with the Irish Volunteers and Thomas Mc Donagh.
Soon after the outbreak of war on the continent, John was called for service by the British Admiralty. John had made the decision, he was going to go, but he personally went and told Thomas Mc Donagh that he would return. John was sent along with his medics to Chatham Naval Barracks, where they were confined for a week and pressure put upon them to enlist. While the rest of the men accepted and decided to sign up for the money, John waited it out. He was eventually brought up to the Surgeon General over the issue of serving for 6 months as opposed to a year. John was taken on board the hospital ship Copenhagen.
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John’s time was spent treating the wounded soldiers on board as they were being transported back to England from the battlefields in France and Belgium. After completing his duties on board, John was sent back to shore where he attempted to get stationed in the Hospital at Dublin Castle. He was instead offered his discharge papers which he accepted and returned to Dublin.
Upon his return, John sought out Thomas Mc Donagh who demanded to see his discharge papers to prove he was officially released from service. Once Mc Donagh was satisfied, John was still in charge of Medical Services and a member of the Battalion Headquarters. The next week John was ordered to Brigade Headquarters on Dawson Street, there he was appointed Brigade Medical Officer and tasked with training and equipping the medics in the companies.
He was short staffed due to the Redmondite split and with limited time and resources, the only training John could provide was basic emergency treatment. He had also agreed to training the 14 branches of Cumann na mBan. His request for volunteers from each company was usually treated with disgruntled mumbles from the Captains. John had to convince them that these men were not being ‘wasted’ or ‘given away’, as owing to small numbers, the trained medics would still be regular armed soldiers. In addition to his personnel training, John wrote and distributed a medical pamphlet entitled “A Rough Idea of What a Volunteer should know and what he should do and what he should not do” to all Volunteers.
John’s organisational work which was taking up the majority of his time was in conjunction with Eamon De Valera who was Brigade Adjutant and Commandant of the 3rd Battalion at the time. On Good Friday, 1916, John received the order to clear out Headquarters of all medical supplies and get all of the Battalions to take their own supplies. All did except for the Fingal Battalion, the supplies of which John had stored in Fairview Park.
Easter Sunday brought disappointment and confusion with the publishing of the countermanding order. John gathered with the 2nd Battalion HQ Staff in Fairview park for a parade, which was subsequently dismissed. The men were ordered to ‘stand to’ at home, that is, to be ready for further orders.
The following morning, John was awoken by a despatch ordering him to mobilise at 10:30am at Stephen’s Green. John primary responsibility at first was to ensure the medical supplies reached the green, however, to do this needed a lorry. He asked his orderly, Tom Mason to go find one who could deliver the goods. He returned with the news that there was a man with a lorry on North Circular Road, but he was refusing to transport the supplies. John’s solution was to travel to Stephen’s Green, get four men and commander, or steal, this lorry. The supplies were collected and distributed to the different garrisons across the city.
They were returning the truck, passing over Summerhill Bridge when there was a sudden burst of machine gun fire. It was coming from the wasteland beside Fairview Park. The fire was coming from soldiers who were making their way into the city. They had been training on Dollymount strand, which the British Army had taken over at the outbreak of war in 1914 and used it for trench warfare training. John ordered his men into the corner house on Portland Row and instructed them to barricade it. Meanwhile, other Volunteer men attacked the machine gun position, putting it out of order.
With no officer in charge, John Doyle assumed command. He soon had about 50 or 60 men under his control as they trickled in from areas that had been demobilised. Orders came through to hold tight until further notice. They waited for an hour but avoiding any other fighting. New orders from the GPO came through, and John led his men away, marching them down Summerhill road and up Gardiner and Abbey Street to the GPO.
At the GPO, John was met by Pearse. Afterexplaining the Fairview incident to him, Pearse informed him that he was needed in the GPO and must stay, despite being under the command of Thomas McDonagh who was fighting in Jacob’s Biscuit Factory. It was 5 o’clock on the first day of the Rising and one man inside the GPO was already suffering from wounds from a grenade blast.
The disorder and inexperience of the Volunteers soon became apparent. Just after John Doyle and his men arrived another party came up O’Connell Street. The Volunteers who had occupied Clery’s saw this group and opened fire. Luckily all but one escaped injury. Most of the injuries during the week inside the GPO were actually as a result of the Volunteers’ own actions rather than by the enemy fire.
Connolly was wounded on the Thursday while inspecting the barricades, hit by a round in the upper arm. John treated him and Connolly requested the men not be told about it. After the wound was dressed, Connolly once again left the inner confines of the GPO. Again he was shot, this time he was not as lucky as to need a mere bandaging. The bullet was a dum dum round, which exploded on impact, causing intense damage to his leg. He needed an operation to stop the bleeding and was put under general anaesthetic. He was put on the only bed in the GPO to recover. However once the anaesthetic had worn off Connolly’s bed was moved to the front of the GPO, where his position had been previously.
Around this time, shells started reign down on the GPO garrison, and the machine gun fire increase . John Doyle returned to Connolly to give a report on the increasing number of wounded. He was then instructed to make a retreat through the Colosseum with the wounded and the Cumann na mBan personnel. This was the first group to evacuate the GPO, but already the building was on fire.
John ran up to the roof in order to treat as many of the wounded Volunteers as he could, most suffering from shrapnel wounds. He ordered his deputies to carry as many dressings and materials as possible and orders others to go get food to bring with them on the escape. Connolly refused to come with them into the Colosseum and was instead was carried out down Henry Street.
The fire from the GPO soon spread and the Colosseum was no longer a usable base. The decision was made to evacuate the wounded to Jervis Street Hospital. This party was led by Father O’Flanagan who waved a Red Cross flag. The women and wounded were kept at the hospital while the healthy men were told to fall in by a British sodier. John Doyle was handed the Red Cross flag and instructed to go back through the barricades with his men. The British officer shouted an order to his men that no of the returning Volunteers were to be shot at until they have gone out of sight. None of the soldiers fired.
John Doyle Went into Arnotts and decided to evacuate the men there, assembling them in a on laneway and waiting for an opportunity to cross the road. The men were let into houses in twos and threes in an attempt to escape the Army forces. This did not last long as the following day all the men were picked up and brought to Trinity College for interrogation, before a further interrogation in Dublin Castle.
Under interrogation, John Doyle had prove that he was a medical officer in an exam and explain some of the equipment that he had on him. A day passed and most of the 50 or so Volunteers held there were taken from the cells for transfer. When there were only five men left, they were brought up to the guardroom and told to get out. With that they were released back onto the streets.
In the weeks after 1916, the remaining men in Dublin attempted to reorganise their battalions, but struggled to due to the numbers in jail or interred in England. When the prisoners arrived home proper reorganisation occurred along with many promotions, given the number of leaders executed. In 1917, John Doyle resumed duty as officer in charge of Brigade Medical Services. A job which he continued through 1917-1919.
When the Free State was formed, John Doyle was asked to join the Army full time but refused to do so. Instead he aided the Anti-treaty side until his arrest and internment in 1923 in Mountjoy. This lasted only 6 weeks but ruled him out of working with the Free State Army in the future.
John Doyle’s experience is an unusual one, from the different perspective of a medical officer as well as one who had served with the British during the Great War. It provides a clear example of history being shades of grey rather than black and white. Often to understand someone’s actions, it must be read in their own words rather than just a mere reading of the facts.
- Written by Daire Collins