I got my name from my grandfather although I never knew him. He died in 1952 when my father was just a teenager. Christened ‘Alfred Leo’ most people knew him only as Leo Casey.
On Monday the 24th of April, 1916 he took part in the Easter Rising. He was seventeen years old.
A century later the Irish nation looks back and remembers the rising. Most people agree the rising was the pivotal story in the foundation of modern Ireland. New books, films and commemorative events mark the hundredth anniversary of those historical events.
For my part, I focus on just one story, the story of Leo Casey and the part he played in determining a future for his family, his community and his country. Inevitably it is incomplete and we will never know all the details. However, it is an important story and it should be told and retold to future generations. ‘We are the stories we tell’ and our sense of who we are comes from our shared past.
In examining our past we are challenged to see ourselves anew, from a different and often difficult perspective. Historical reflection tells us more about ourselves than the past. Our stories are told and retold and with each generation we make our own interpretation of what it means to be Irish.
So what happened and why? Why did Leo, a seventeen year old boy, assemble with other Irish Volunteers on Easter Monday 1916 and march brightly into history?
Irish people like a good centenary and in 1898, the year of Leo’s birth, it was all about the anniversary of the 1798 rebellion. Songs and stories of the United Irishmen were popular at the end of the nineteenth century as, like today, Ireland looked for inspiration in the struggles of the past. The popular Fenian poet, John Keegan Casey had composed a popular ballad at the time ‘The Rising of the Moon’ and he used the pen name ‘Leo Casey’ . Almost certainly, this was the inspiration for my grandfather’s name.
I know little about how he was raised. His father Henry, my great grandfather, was born in London and subsequently worked as a gas meter tester. This seemed steady work as he had the same job in the 1901 and 1911 census returns. In 1911 the family lived in 7 Hanover Street East, near the Grand Canal Dock. Henry married Catherine Walsh and they had five sons and a daughter Elizabeth. Leo was the youngest of the boys.
It was surely a republican household. Interestingly, although two of his older brothers Robert and Francis fought in the War of Independence (1917-22) and on either side of the Civil War (1922 -24), Leo was the only one who went out in 1916.
Leo joined the Irish Volunteers in 1914 and during his teenage years took part in drills and parades as a member of A Coy 3rd Battalion Dublin Brigade. It must have been exhilarating to be so young and so involved. But what was the context?
What did the Irish Volunteers stand for and how come they were so open and grew so fast in 1914?
The early years of the last century were marked throughout Europe by the emergence of new ideas about society and culture. Ideologies such as nationalism, republicanism, socialism and communism challenged the class system and undermined the dominance of empire and monarchy. These were especially uneasy times in Ireland as British direct rule was very unpopular.
There was also cultural upheaval. In the eighteen hundreds, Ireland was traumatised by the decline of the Irish language and the mass movement of peoples from the countryside to cities and abroad. The famine devastated entire generations. At the end of the century the old Gaelic ways were in decline and in response there was a concerted effort to salvage and revive our cultural heritage. Organisations such as the GAA (1884) and the Gaelic League (1893) emerged to reclaim Irish sports, language and literature.
In the 1910, when Leo Casey was twelve years old, the political voice of moderate Irish nationalism was the Home Rule Party led by John Redmond. The party won 74 seats in the British Parliament and as a result held the balance of power between the Conservative and Liberal parties. Redmond was able to win a significant concession with the passing of the Home Rule Bill two years later in 1912. This would have given a significant degree of autonomy to Ireland and, had it been enacted, may well have diffused the pent up frustrations and desire for an Irish nation-state.
In the North however, Ulster Unionists were staunchly against the Home Rule Bill and their leader Edward Carson established the Ulster Volunteers to oppose such changes to the governance of Ireland. The unionists were closely allied with the Conservative Party in London who gave tacit support to the Ulster Volunteers. In response, nationalists in the South established the Irish Volunteers under the leadership of Eoin McNeill. These two groups grew in numbers and became increasingly militant, each sought and obtained large quantities of guns. In 1914, between the opposing Ulster Volunteers and Irish Volunteers, some 250,000 Irishmen were enrolled in paramilitary organisations. Surprisingly, the British Government at the time seemed to tolerate these home grown militias.
The political manoeuvrings must certainly have been the topic of conversation in the Casey household. Leo and his older brothers would have seen the Irish Volunteers parade in the streets of Dublin and read the accounts of the great Unionist rallies in Belfast. The Home Rule Bill was a classic stand-off with a marked blurring of the lines between parliamentary democracy and persuasion by use of force. There was also optimism among the nationalists; despite Unionist, Conservative Party and House of Lords opposition, Redmond was on the verge of accomplishing Irish home rule by democratic means.
In 1912 a reluctant House of Commons passed the Home Rule Bill, however, the Conservative dominated House of Lords was able to delay ratification. As the months passed the situation in Europe deteriorated and the onset of the First World War loomed. With the outbreak of war Home Rule was off the table and the democratic opportunity for some semblance of Irish self-government was lost.
Leo got work as a dental apprentice with S H Cunningham of 34 Westland Row. I suspect the Casey family were better off by comparison with others at the time; five men, fit and able, Joseph, Francis and Henry as sheet metal workers and Robert and Leo in dentistry.
In 1913, while waiting for Home Rule to be ratified, Dublin was also in the grip of lockouts, strikes and serious industrial unrest. Jim Larkin established the Irish Transport and General Workers Union as dockers and transport workers sought trade union rights and better working conditions. In response, employers led by William Martin Murphy brutally suppressed the union by sackings, lockout and police brutality.
Given the location of the Casey family, near Dublin docks and beside the railway, they would have been fully aware of the plight of the workers. It was a difficult time for the Irish labour movement with the Dublin Metropolitan Police and the employers stacked against them. Joseph O’Connor, who would later become Leo’s commanding officer in the rebellion, gives his own account of Dublin at the time:
“The whole atmosphere in the country was changing and worked up to the strike of the dockers, tramwaymen and others in 1913. I saw some shocking brutalities done on the people by the Police Force during that time. I saw people being batoned and beaten and I saw the start of the Citizen Army to protect them.”
BMA, WS 157 p 4
From their inception the Irish Volunteers were organised around local communities. The members of 3rd Battalion came from the same area of Dublin. Initially, the organisational structure was participative and democratic, the first officers were were elected by the members. However, there was also an inner circle of members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secretive militant organisation stretching back to the Fenians of the eighteen hundreds.
On the 14th of September 1914 John Redmond made a speech at Woodenbridge and called for the Irish Volunteers to fight for Britain “Go on drilling and make yourself efficient for the work, and then account yourselves as men, not only for Ireland itself, but wherever the fighting line extends, in defence of right, of freedom, and religion in this war”. The effect of this speech was to split the Irish Volunteers from top to bottom.
It was quite a dilemma for many of the volunteers. On the one hand, Redmond was well respected and managed to cajole the Westminster Parliament to adopt, but not yet enact, home rule for Ireland. Now however, he was asking men to fight in defence of the realm.
Remarkably, the Irish Volunteers facilitated meetings and debate so that each person could decide for themselves. Joseph O’Connor describes the process:
There was a full parade of each Company called and after both sides explained the position the men were asked to decide for themselves. In my case, although I had a full Company on parade, one hundred men, I was left with nine men who remained loyal. We were fortunate in the fact that our officers remained firm and we had sufficient enthusiasm to restart. I was very glad that when the split occurred there was so little bickering.
BMA, WS 157 p 12
It’s unclear if Leo joined the volunteers before or after the split. In his application for a Wound Pension in 1923 he states only that he joined in 1914. I suspect he joined in the aftermath, as a result of the ‘restart’ of “A” Company, following a new recruitment drive.
The key to Leo’s story lies in understanding why he joined the volunteers at the age of fifteen; everything follows from that. From the lens of today, it’s difficult to appreciate the role and status of the volunteers in Ireland at the time. On the one hand they were a paramilitary force intent on achieving self-governance for Ireland, a threat to the state. However, in the immediate aftermath of Redmond’s speech, they were a useful supply of willing young men to contribute to the British war effort. Clearly, once the majority enlisted in the British army, the remnants of the volunteer membership were hard core nationalists who no longer trusted the promises of the British state. Ireland, they believed, should determine its own future and the war in Europe was not our affair.
There were further, practical considerations for both sides of the Redmond argument. The families of those men who enlisted in the British Army where paid an allowance. This money was much needed and for many, the practical challenges of survival and looking after family, were of primary concern.
Leo was young, he had no family and was infused in the nationalist ideals of the time. When you think about it, staying with the Irish Volunteers, parading around Dublin with mock weapons and self-styled militarism, was a great deal safer than joining British forces to march to the front lines of the Somme. I say this not because I believe he chose the safer option but to emphasise the consequences of the alternative. Choosing the volunteers was not as radical as we might first assume. At least that is, up until Easter 1916.
The volunteers had their own weekly publication the Irish Volunteer and this gave details of assembly times and classes as well as articles on military awareness and nationalist ideology.
So we get a picture of the life of a volunteer in the 3rd Battalion, with local meetings in Camden Row, practical courses on first aid, stretcher drill, orienteering and the like, and marches at the weekend. There was a firing range and volunteers had to pay a contribution for bullets and rent. The Irish Volunteer cost one penny had practical instructions, stories of valour and ads for military uniforms, guns and local services.
As a teenage volunteer Leo was part of something, he would have had a sense of belonging and common purpose. At all times young people think deeply about what they wish to achieve, what they should be part of and what interests them; Leo was no different. Today we have state funded schools, colleges and universities and good workplace opportunities. Our sense of Irish identity is openly expressed through our games, our music, our sporting teams, literature and festivals. Tourists flock to Dublin and beyond to experience the ‘real Ireland’. Leo, and the Casey family of Hanover Street, were not so lucky.
Given all these factors, Leo’s decision to join the volunteers is understandable in the context of the time.
And then there was Easter Week.
As today, there was a broad spectrum of opinion among Irish nationalists in 1916. Supporters of Redmond believed that participation in the Great War would lead eventually to Irish Home Rule. The remaining Irish Volunteers did not trust the record of the British government in its dealings with Ireland and also wanted to counteract the armed militarism of the pro-British Ulster Volunteers in the North. Within the Irish Volunteers there was the more radical Irish Republican Brotherhood who wanted insurrection and saw the Irish Volunteers as the army to bring this about. Most of the senior officers were IRB. A notable exception however, was Professor Eoin MacNeill, the Chief of Staff of the Irish Volunteers. There was also the Irish Citizens Army, lead by James Connolly, who wanted to defend workers against oppression and sought to bring about a socialist Ireland.
Over many months there had been plans and schemes to make a bold move. MacNeill was reluctant to start a rebellion without a trigger such as British actions to suppress the volunteers. He argued that the greatest chance of success would come when public opinion was squarely behind the rebels. Others, such as Thomas Clarke, Seán McDermott, Patrick Pearse, Eamonn Ceannt, Joseph Plunkett and Thomas MacDonagh, all IRB, argued for more decisive action and planned the Easter Rising.
Leo and other rank and file would not have known about the rising in advance. They expected something to happen sometime; after all, what was all the training for if there wasn’t going to be action. There were rumours of something big on Easter weekend.
“A Company 3rd Battalion” prided itself on its ability to mobilise at short notice. Word would go out to gather at a particular point and time with, for example, two days rations and full equipment. This was a regular exercise.
So there was nothing unusual about the mobilisation order for Easter Sunday 23rd of April 1916. Leo with the other members of “A” Company were mobilised for 4pm at Earlsfort Terrace.
When Leo turned up there was no one around, he had not seen the countermanding order issued by Eoin MacNeill in newspapers that all Irish Volunteer operations were cancelled for the weekend. Behind the scenes there was confusion and disappointment that MacNeill had cancelled a planed rising by the IRB and Citizen Army leaders.
The next morning Monday 24th of April, a Bank Holiday, there was another order to mobilise the 3rd Battalion at Earlsfort Terrace, this time at 10am. The confusion of the previous day meant fewer than expected showed. Joseph O’Connor reports about eighteen from “A” Company, among them Leo Casey. They waited around until almost midday before proceeding. The area of operations of the 3rd Battalion included Boland’s Bakery and a number of outposts in the immediate vicinity. The commanding officer of the battalion was Eamon DeValera, later to become Taoiseach and President of Ireland.
“A” Company had specific instructions, they were to take over the railway line that connected the city with Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire). It was expected, correctly as it turned out, that any British reinforcements would land at Kingstown and make their way toward Dublin; cutting off the railway was an important strategic action.
It took about fifteen minutes to march from Earlsfort Terrace to the railway bridge at Macken Street. Dublin city was quiet because of the bank holiday. Passers by were bemused by the small marching band of men and boys. They were used to seeing the ‘Sinn Feiners’ out and about.
Macken Street railway bridge is very low and, even today it would not take much of an effort to climb up onto the railway line. As they reached the bridge there was an interesting exchange that tells us a lot about the attitude of the volunteers and the mindset of the people involved. Joseph O’Connor paints the picture:
When “A” Company reached Great Clarendon Street [Macken Street], the position from which we were to enter the railway, we had as already stated, eighteen men. I halted the men and addressed them. I told them we were going into action for the freedom of Ireland or rather, as I said, for the Glory of God and the honour of Ireland. I told the men that any man who was unable to take the final step was at liberty to leave. One man did hand over his rifle and equipment, but just at that moment another member of the company, unarmed, arrived on the scene. He took over the rifle and we entered the railway from Clarence Street using a disused cart as a means of scaling the wall.
BMA, WS 157
As they climbed unto the railway track one of the volunteers was injured when his gun went off. A bit comical maybe but it must have been a reminder that what they were doing was deadly serious and fraught with danger. Leo was aware of his options and he choose to continue. That was his decision. He choose to fight for a better Ireland.
Peadar O’Meara, a fellow volunteer, describes what happened next:
“A” Company was ordered to force a gate leading into the DSE Railway line and to proceed to the railway bridge at Bath Avenue and construct a trench, destroying the railway lines up to Lansdowne Road level crossing and to establish an outpost there.
A detachment in charge of Lieutenant S. Guilfoyle were detailed to effect an entrance into a terrace of houses on South Lotts Road from the railway line and to tunnel through the walls until they reached Horan’s Provision Shop and place it in a state of defence. The shop commanded the gate of Beggars Bush Barracks and the buildings within; it also supplied a lot of necessities to the Volunteers.
The remainder of the Company was withdrawn to a railway fitting shed close to Barrow Street bridge where Company Headquarters was established. This shed and the yard in front which had an exit onto Grand Canal Street was put into a state of defence, an outpost being established on the roof. This outpost commanded the canal banks and Mount Street bridge.
BMA, WS377 p14
They spent the first few hours digging trenches and destroying the railway line. They received little information about what was happening elsewhere and rumours abounded. The Battalion Commander, Eamon DeValera inspected the positions frequently and looked for improvements where necessary. In those first few days they could hear the firing elsewhere but little happened on their watch. From the information to hand it is likely that Leo spent that time on the railway line or in the shed opposite the headquarters.
The first shots were fired on the Monday late afternoon. George’s Rex, a group of British Army reservists, mainly elderly professionals, were returning to Beggars Bush barracks from a route march. The Volunteers opened fire on them and they scattered into Beggars Bush Barracks.
The rest of Monday and Tuesday passed off without much incident. On Wednesday news came that the British had landed in Kingstown and were on their way to the city. That afternoon the Sherwood Forresters attempted to proceed up Northumberland Road and were met with fierce resistance from Volunteer units in the houses nearby.
The British also entered the railway line and attempted to overtake the positions occupied by “A” Company. They were stopped at a trench near South Lotts Road and, after a close exchange of fire, the initial sortie was beaten back.
Peadar O’Meara and Joeseph O’ Connor provide description of the subsequent attack in which Leo Casey was wounded.
O’Meara: On Thursday the British attacked the fitting shop effecting an entrance into the yard in front. This attack was beaten off, Volunteer Casey being wounded. The British left three rifles behind. Heavy firing was concentrated on our positions resulting in the wounding of Volunteer O’Reilly (Irish Citizen Army) who was on duty on the outpost on the roof of the fitting shop. He died later in Sir Patrick Dun’s Hospital.
O’Connor: The yard I have spoken of at the railway workshops was entered by the British and after seizing the position they proceeded to entrench themselves. I saw the danger and I collected some men with fixed bayonets, one of whom I can remember was Tom Traynor, afterwards executed in Mountjoy.
Lieutenant Guilfoyle was in charge of the upper floor of the railway workshops. He had his men posted on the windows commanding the railway yard. One of his men was seriously wounded, I think it was Leo Casey.
I warned Lieutenant Guilfoyle that on the blast of a whistle he was to cease fire and from the bottom of the building we charged with the bayonets to clear the enemy. Immediately before we started a bullet scorched a line across Tom Traynor’s cheek extending at least six inches long. I asked him if he was badly hurt. He said “Oh No! carry on” and he went into that attack shouting as only Irishmen can shout under such conditions.
We succeeded in clearing the post and got two or three rifles that they left behind when they retreated.
It is clear from these accounts that Leo was in the upper floor of the railway shed when he was wounded. It is likely that a bullet shattered the window glass and damaged his eye. Others on both sides were not so lucky and there were many fatalities especially in the bloody Battle of Mount Street Bridge just a few hundred yards away.
That evening it rained and there was a relative lull in the fighting. There are further accounts of what happened to Leo subsequent to his injury. Sean Byrne a medic was sent up to the railway sheds to treat injured men. Among those he treated he reports “I attended Leo Casey for injury to his eyes where broken glass got into them. He was taken afterwards to Sir Patrick Dun’s Hospital” He also reports an intriguing account of the position later that night.
Some time during the week, I remember packing material supplies on a stretcher to be carried on to the railway line, as we were told that a bayonet charge would take place from Beggars Bush Barracks I do not know whether I got the information myself from a civilian, or whether we got orders from the Commandant’s headquarters. I remember that Leo Casey had a white bandage on his eyes when we went up the line. It was dark at the time and somebody put something black over the white bandage.
BMA, WS422 p11
Later, Sean O”Keefe reports Leo Casey among a group of five wounded volunteers in Patrick Dun’s Hospital at about five in the morning. By these accounts one can infer that Leo stayed at his post subsequent to his injury. This is understandable as they were expecting a bayonet charge from the British. He was moved to hospital very late that night.
Leo stayed in hospital until after the surrender on the Saturday. The following Tuesday he was arrested and moved to Richmond Barracks and subsequently transferred to Wakefield Prison in England and later to Frangoch.
When returned to Dublin in late summer of 1916 he had lost his job as a dental apprentice. They were hard times financially but the spirit of the nation had awakened. Leo fought in the War of Independence and on the anti-treaty side in the Civil War. He died on the 15th of February 1952.
Leo’s son Harry was my father. I remember vaguely the 50th commemorations 1966 and being told about my grandfather and name sake who fought in 1916. My father was a very peaceful man and he never encouraged violence of any kind. But he was also proud of his father and what he accomplished during six faithful days in Easter 1916.
I too am proud and grateful for what Leo Casey did.