the writings of Seosamh de brun
In the depths of Easter week 1916, all types of truths were revealed. The pressures of military action push men and women to their limits, drawing out the extremes of human behaviour, where ordinary folk from both sides became heroes and villains. Amidst the chaos, destruction and rubble, we often forget the men and women whose talents lay outside the battlefield. Yet in looking back over Easter 1916, we can see these varied talents shine through. One such case is that of Volunteer Seosamh de Bruin.
This is the story of a carpenter, a volunteer and writer. A writer who has captured in his words the mundane events that up the majority of war, Seosamh’s witness statement given to the Bureau of Military History in 1949 is awash with descriptive passages, as if plucked straight out of a novel on early 20th Century Dublin. A carpenter by trade, Seosamh joined the Volunteers and was a member of B Company, 2nd Battalion, which ended up occupying Jacob’s factory. He is one of the very few Irish Volunteers to have kept a diary during the Rising, in a book so tiny that it’s incredible that anything could be written at all. Moments of brilliance spark through in these tiny pages, but it is in his witness statement that Seosamh’s talent truly emerges.
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The below is the story of Seosamh’s Easter Week 1916, with a focus on excerpts of his witness statement that capture the imagery and atmosphere of the life as a Volunteer fighting in Jacob’s Factory.
the first day
Seosamh’s role in the Rising begins on Easter Sunday, when he eschewed his holiday plans in order to report to the 2nd Battalion Headquarters in Fairview Park. It soon became apparent to the men who had gathered, that after the confusion of Eoin MacNeill’s countermanding order, mobilisation would not happen that evening.
Upon rushing home and changing into his Volunteer uniform, Seosamh met Captain Weafer at Fairview Bridge and was told to go immediately to St. Stephen’s Green. By the time he had got there, a number of others had already gathered. With a mixture of companies present, they were all ordered to fall in line and “quick march”, with half splitting off to occupy Jacob’s Factory and the remaining men, including Seosamh marched down to Barmacks Distillery on Fumbally Lane.
Tensions were high as they took possession of the building and set about building its defences. Recalling the mixed emotions at the time, Seosamh recalled;
Seosamh is not only concerned with the military events of the day, much of his Witness statement concerns the struggles of daily life. The volunteers had taken up their position deep in the Liberties, an area in which there were many dependents, that is wives and families which were dependent on Irish soldiers serving in the British army at the time. Seosamh claims that maintaining their composure in the face of these angry locals was the “first real lesson in actual discipline we learned”. By the time the week was out, these “proletariat” were in full-hearted favour of the cause of the Irish Republic.
Later that evening, Seosamh and the others in Barmacks got the order to retire to Jacob’s Factory.
After they had been led to their sleeping quarters for the night (a red tiled room, underneath one of the large chimneys of the factory), the men were called to attention for a speech from Commmandant McDonagh and Major Mc Bride, who was subsequently promoted to Commmandant.
in a state of defence
Tuesday and Wednesday were spent fortifying Jacobs factory and making it a suitable headquarters for the force.
The waiting and preparation for attack laboured on the minds of the men, with discussions the probability of shelling or a ground attack, with pauses for sharpening bayonets and interruptions from superior officers to erect more barricades whenever discussion of the strategic value of the factory arose.
Throughout both the day and night there was incessant sniper fire from both sides. This lessened in the dark hours before dawn, which only led to an increase in ferocity and intensity of fire on the orders of the officers once dawn broke. The factory had been transformed by this stage into a working military headquarters, with even specific areas devoted to rest and relaxation. Even a store was set up under the supervision of Hannrai O hAnnrachain. This allowed the men to replace their worn socks and shirts.
Jacob’s Factory was actually the scene of little combat during Easter 1916. Its imposing size and suitability for defence meant that the British army took the tactic of encircling and surrounding the factory rather than launching an all-out attack on it. Volunteer snipers had the advantage from the heights of the factory roof and had a line of sight that extended quite far. It was through this sniper fire that most of the action at Jacob’s took place. On the inside, Jacob remained a quiet place for the majority of the men, which explains why “It reminded one of a school rather than a war camp.”
The relative calm within Jacobs gave plenty of time for the men to think. While the swagger of a military insurrection continued to pervade the conversations of men together, when they sat alone, their minds turned to more morbid thoughts. Throughout the week at Jacob’s, the rank and file were never really aware of how the Rising was going elsewhere in the city. On Wednesday night as Seosamh stood watch, he reflected over the methods of men to seek self-determination.
Thursday passed without major incident at Jacob’s, except for Seosamh cutting his finger.
the bike sortie
Fighting was raging around the city, with the Mount Street Bridge area creating heavy losses for the British. At Boland’s mills, where De Valera was in command, the British were steadily advancing and the position was in danger of collapse. Commandant McDonagh called out men from numerous companies and told them to prepare for a sortie. The aim was to create a diversion for De Valera’s unit at Westland Row and Boland’s Mills and then reinforce them. This sortie was to be performed by bicycle, with rifles attached.
For many of the men, Seosamh included, this was the first time that they had left the confines of Jacob’s Factory since the Monday. The good weather of the Bank Holiday weekend had continued throughout the week, and despite the danger many of the Volunteers were glad to be out of the Factory.
The men cycled past Stephen’s Green and up to the Shebourne Hotel without any interference. It was only on Merrion Street that they came under fire from British soldiers, who had emerged from Mount Street. Exposed on their bikes, the men fled for cover, Seosamh sheltering behind a Tram which had been abandoned on Merrion Street. After exchanging fire with the British troops, the men were ordered to fall back as it was clear that they would be unable to reach Westland Row without being surrounded.
As the men grabbed their bicycles and pedalled back in the direction they had come, the streets opened up with gunfire. Fire came from the British at the top of Grafton Street, followed by responding shots from the Royal College of Surgeons, which led to the British troops in The Shelbourne engaging in the battle.
Seosamh served and zig-zagged his bike along the road in desperate attempts to avoid the incoming sniper fire from rooftops nearby. In the intensity of action, a volunteer goes down just as they swerved around the corner onto York Street. Seosamh stayed with the rear-guard as some of the men went back to pick up O’Grady, the volunteer who had been shot. Seosamh believed that if it was for the covering fire from the College of Surgeons, none of the men would have made it alive. As it was, O’Grady didn’t make it and died from his wounds in Jacob’s Factory.
After the intensity of a hasty battle, the men from the sortie were put on fatigue duty and the day passed without any further battle for them. All around them however, battles were raging with the booms of artillery shells increasingly reverberating around the factory.
Saturday morning only brought further miscommunication and confusion to the rank and file within Jacob’s. By this stage, the intensity of the battle elsewhere was clear. Rumours were coming in from all directions, and providing a huge range of stories. The men chatted amongst themselves wondering where they would be retreating to, or whether the fighting would continue. Word had come through that the GPO had been burnt out and that the volunteers there were fighting their way elsewhere. Worries about whether they had sufficient ammunition for a retreat to Wicklow emerged amongst the men, for only the Headquarters Staff knew how bleak the actual situation was at the time.
y Saturday evening, the men in Jacobs were awaiting an attack. The Adelaide Hospital was preparing for evacuation and there were rumours flying that Archbishop Walsh was trying to arrange a truce for the men. Despite that the British guns had fallen silent, the men still stood with their arms at the ready and the atmosphere only got tenser.
On Sunday morning, all in Jacob’s were called to order. Commandant McDonagh addressed them, informing of them that the decision had been taken by the General Officers that the further sacrifice of life would be futile. The orders were given to a contingent of men to head out and surrender under a white flag, while others remained inside the factory.
Seosamh himself, though it is not alluded to in his BMH Statement, escapes into the crowd, who have gathered to see the Royal Dublin Fusiliers retake the factory. The following years of Seosamh de Brun’s life are murky at best, but with his personal recollections in his diary and these extracts from his statement, it is clear that the men and women of 1916, were far more than diehard revolutionaries, but were mothers, fathers, sportsmen and carpenters, with the odd poet and writer thrown in.
- Written by Daire Collins