Sixteen civilians were shot or bayoneted to death by soldiers from the South Staffordshire regiment during the Easter Rising. By John Dorney.(Updated October 2015)
Towards the end of the Easter Rising, on Friday April 28th, 1916, some of the fiercest fighting and the worst atrocity against civilians in the week-long insurrection took place.
The insurgents’ position around North King Street was one of the most hard-contested combat zones of the week. It straddled the route towards the GPO along the north side of the river Liffey, only about ten minute’s walk from the rebel headquarters at the Post Office, in a mesh of little streets and tenements behind the Four Courts. Ned Daly’s Volunteers had barricaded each of the streets and it was here that the most vicious street fighting of the week occurred. Even with the aid of an armoured car, the British troops made slow progress in taking the street.
At close range, death was waiting around every corner, from behind every chimney and behind every barricade. Starting on Thursday, the British tried to smother the enclave. Mostly they avoided direct fire by tunneling through the walls of the slum houses, but one Major Sheppard decided on a frontal assault.
The fighting at North King Street was fierce and cost the British troops over 40 casualties in two days
The platoon that made the bayonet charge on one of the barricades was blasted by heavy Mauser bullets, losing fifteen men, including Sheppard himself, who fell wounded. The Volunteers afterwards scrambled over the barricade to take arms and ammunition from the dead and wounded. One, Frank Shouldice, recalled, “one by one we knocked them all over. It was a terrible slaughter and to this day I can’t understand why they tried to rush things”. Another thought, “some officer… lost his head and sent those lads out to their deaths” .
According to a statement later issued by General John Maxwell
The casualties were very heavy during the fighting. The troops were continually fired at from the roofs and upper windows of the houses. With modern rifles it is impossible to tell by the sound from which direction a shot has come.The rebels were moving from house to house. As the troops for instance moved along the street the rebels would escape out back doors and fire again at the troops from practically every house.
Five had to be searched and occupied. Always we found that the rebels tried to cloak themselves behind their women. When we began to search a house they threw away their rifles and joined the women herding at the back, pretending they had been there all the time.
The rebels wore no uniform and the man who had been shooting at a soldier one moment might be walking quietly beside him at another. We tried hard to get the women and children to leave North King Street. They would not go, their sympathies were with the rebels.
‘Like wild animals or things possessed’
By the end of the week, the area was still not cleared. The South Staffordshire regiment under a colonel Taylor advanced, in two days, 150 yards down North King Street, losing 14 dead and 32 wounded. 
Taylor took over the Bolton Street Technical School with his men deployed on the roof of the building. When an improvised armoured car arrived it allowed the British troops to shelter behind it and finally advance up North King Street and to enter the houses.
General Lowe had ordered that no rebels were to be taken prisoner
General Lowe had ordered that, ‘no hesitation was to be shown in dealing with these rebels; that by their actions they had placed themselves outside the law and that they were not be made prisoners’. However it was the civilians on the street that took the brunt of the consequences of this order.
Infuriated with the losses they had suffered, on late Friday evening and early Saturday morning, the troops broke into the homes of the locals and shot or bayoneted 15 civilian men whom they accused of being rebels. They killed three men at 170 North Kings Street whose dead bodies were found to have bayonet wounds, then broke into number 172 and killed two men. In number 174 two more were shot dead. Two more civilian men were killed at number 177 and in 27 North King Street another four men, who all worked there at the Louth Dairy were found dead in a basement and one more man was killed at number 91. The fifteenth James Moore was shot dead on adjoining Little Britain Street by the British troops. And there may have been a 16th killed on nearby Coleraine Street, though it is not clear who killed him. 
Ellen Walsh, a resident of 172 North King Street, recalled soldiers pounding on her door until she opened, and demanding, “Are there any men in this house?” Thirty soldiers ransacked the house, “like wild animals or things possessed”. They took the two men in the house aside, one of them Walsh’s husband, and killed them.
At number 177, two men, Paddy Bealen (also spelled Bealin), a 30 year old pub foreman and James Healy a 44-year-old labourer at the Jameson Distillery were killed.
Fifteen male civilians were shot in their homes along North King street by the South Staffordshire Regiment.
Mary O’Rourke, the owner of the pub where Bealin worked, had been sheltering with him in the cellar when British troops took over the house at number 177. She told an inquest into the death of Paddy Bealin, that Bealin and her 13 year old son were searched by the military. Bealin was taken away a soldier said to a guardroom and never seen alive again.
Rosanna Knowles of 173 North King St said she had conversation with soldier relating to the shooting of Bealin, ‘was there much [sic] killed?’ she asked him, The soldier replied, ‘There was a good deal of our men killed and a good deal of the others. I only felt sorry for the poor fellows at the corner (O’Rourkes)’… According to Knowles the soldier said;
I pitied him from my heart though I had to shoot him. He had made tea for me’. He said that the soldier had brought the prisoner downstairs in Mrs O’Rourke’s, the soldier said that the man had given him his pen knife and his ring. He produced the pen knife but he had lost the ring. He said that he brought him downstairs he had not the heart to shoot him straight and they told him to go up the stairs and they let bang at him [shot him] from the foot of the stairs’. 
About two weeks later, on the 10th of May, Bealin and Healy’s bodies were found buried in the cellar of number 177, when a boy in Mrs O’Rourke’s employ saw blood on the barrels in her cellar and a ‘heavy smell’. Healy, whose body was also found in the cellar appears to have been killed when going to work in Jameson’s Distillery after the ceasefire on April 29th, when his wife last saw him alive.
It was the discovery of the two bodies in the cellar of number 177 that prompted an inquest, in which the jury found that the two had, ‘died from shock and haemorrhage, resulting from bullet wounds inflicted by a soldier or soldiers’, in whose custody they were, ‘an unarmed and unoffending prisoner’.
It is possible that Paddy Bealin was a Volunteer as, alone among the 15 men killed on North King Street, he is listed in the IRA Roll of Honour, ‘The Last Post’, though Mrs O’Rourke his employer insisted he had taken no part in the fighting.
Colonel Taylor, who had been in command that day told the court, ‘no persons were attacked by the troops other than those who were assisting the rebels or who had arms in their possession’. However the Coroner’s Court refused to accept Colonel Taylor’s statement as accurate. The mothers and wives of those killed were invited to try to identify the soldiers in a line-up at Straffan barracks in Kildare, but were unable to pick them out.
The Bealin and Healy cases show that the soldier did not simply ‘see red’ but were ordered by their officers to shoot men assumed to be rebel fighters. They also tried to cover up the killing by burying the bodies. Irish MPs Alfie Byrne and John Dillon brought up similar cases in Parliament,
Dillon said; He had seen one back yard where three men had been buried for three days and then removed – buried in this yard manifestly with the object of concealing them. He saw another place where a poor boy had been shot in a small back room. He saw the boy’s mother who thought him asleep and when she went to rouse him, found him shot. He had been put up against a wall near the window and shot from the door, and it was impossible he had been shot through the window’.
This must refer to number 170, where three men, Thomas Hickey his son Christopher and Peter Connolly were killed. The ‘boy’ must have been Christopher Hickey as he was the only underage person (he was 16) among the dead.
Alfie Byrne told Parliament that in one house the soldiers entered and found four men and some women. The men were searched and nothing was found on them. They were then ordered upstairs and the women were ordered out of the house. The Commanding officer let her into house to find ‘what she required’, She went upstairs into the room and found the four men lying dead. ‘She went out screaming and remained out all night. When she came back in the morning the bodies were gone and the soldier denied all knowledge of where they were. ’
The neighbours took out shovels and dug up four bodies in the back garden. ‘On searching they found that their watches, chains and the small cash they had had in their pockets had been taken from them’. This must refer to the killings at 27 North King Street, where four men Peter lawless, James McCartney, James Finnegan and Patrick Hoey who had all worked in the Louth Dairy were killed.
‘Absolutely unavoidable in such a business as this’
At the military court of inquiry, the presiding officer Colonel Maconchy, who thought the South Staffords were, ‘a quiet and very respectable set of men’, ruled that no specific soldier could be held responsible for the killings.
The Inquiry ultimately took no action against Colonel Taylor or his troops. Officer Commanding in Ireland, General Maxwell’s conclusion was that such incidents, “are absolutely unavoidable in such a business as this” and “responsibility for their deaths rests with those resisting His Majesty’s troops in the execution of their duty”.
The military inquest into the killings found that the soldiers had killed civilians but its findings were kept secret,’There are many points that could be used for hostile propaganda’.
General Maxwell stated;
‘No doubt in the districts where fighting was fiercest, parties of men under the great provocation of being shot at from rear and front, seeing their comrades fall from the fire of snipers, burst into suspected houses and killed such male members as were found. It is perfectly possible that some were innocent but they could have left their houses if they so wished and the number of such incidents that have been brought to notice is happily few”…Under the circumstance the troops as a whole behaved with the greatest restraint”
In a private brief prepared for the Prime Minister, Asquith, senior civil servant Edward Troupe judged that in at least one case, that of the killing of James Moore, one Sergeant Flanders should, under normal circumstances, be charged with murder. Elsewhere, he found that soldiers whose explicit orders were not to take prisoners, ‘took [it] to mean they could shoot anyone they suspected of being an active rebel’.
‘The root of the mischief’, he concluded, ‘was the military order to take no prisoners’.
Troupe thought, ‘If the case had occurred in England, the right course would be to refer the case to the D of PP [Department of Public Prosecutions.] However, under the circumstances, he viewed taking any action against the troops as ‘undesirable’. ‘There are many points that could be used for hostile propaganda…nothing but harm could come from this’.
‘Under the circumstance the troops as a whole behaved with the greatest restraint’:General Maxwell.
The results of the Court of Inquiry were in fact buried and not brought to light until 2001.
North King Street in perspective
The killing of 15 civilians at North King Street was one of the worst acts committed by British forces in Ireland in the 20th century – on a par with the Croke Park shootings just a mile or so to the north of North King Street in 1920 in which 14 spectators at football match were gunned down.
As news seeped out of the killings it naturally caused indignation in Ireland. Michael O’Donoaghue of Waterford’s family had little sympathy for the rebels until they saw photos of Thomas Christopher Hickey, who had been killed by the British Army at 170 North King Street, along with Peter Connolly.
A photo of some of the victims in a Dublin paper startled me. I recognised the faces of father and son butchered by English soldiers in their King St. tome – William Hickey and his only son, Tommy. William Hickey had managed a meat store in Cappoquin in 1913 and 1914 for a Cork firm of butchers which traded largely in Australian frozen meat. My rather let part of his premises to this firm as the “City Meat Market”. His son Tommy cycled with me daily to the C.B.S. in Lismore where we were both in Junior Grade.’
The Hickey later moved back to Dublin and the boys lost touch.
And then the stark tragedy of the massacre of the two Hickeys in their own Dublin home, the mother alone surviving to mourn her awful lose. This brutal atrocity filled me with a sort of personal loss and aroused in me a fierce hate for English soldiery. Even my father forgot his antipathy to the rebels to such an extent that he now lauded their actions. This, I think, was more by way Of revulsion to British atrocities in Dublin than to positive national convictions. He really did not believe that British soldiers could be such savages, but the Hickey Murders and the wholesale executions shocked and shamed him’.
One Cumman na mBan activist remembered that news of the killings increased the hostility aroused among the Irish public by the executions of the Rising’s leaders, ‘next came the news of our men killed in action, of soldiers shooting down our innocent people in their homes as occurred on North King Street’.
‘In Dublin Town they murdered them, Like Dogs they shot them down’, Popular ballad in Dublin, c. 1916
However the incident is not very well remembered today and surprisingly little propaganda was made out of it, even at the time, by the republican movement.
One reason for this might be that the scale of death in the five days of fighting in Dublin- 447 people killed and 2,585 wounded (of whom 252 killed and 2,217 wounded were civilians) – was much greater than in any other single incident in the Irish revolution, dwarfing the events on North King Street.
Another reason is that there were other, more high profile cases of British misconduct for nationalists to vilify. The leaders of the Rising were executed within days of surrendering and the famous pacifist, Francis Sheehy Skeffington, who had been trying to organize “citizen police”, to stop the looting, was shot along with three others by an officer named Bowen Colthurst at Portobello barracks. A court martial was held but it found Bowen Colthurst to be insane and not liable for his actions.
What does the incident tell us about British rule in early 20th century Ireland?
Let’s start with what it was not. It was not, like the Nazi suppression of the Polish uprising in Warsaw in 1944 in which tens of thousands of civilians were executed, a semi-genocidal regime in action. There were no wholesale massacres of men, women and children in Ireland in 1916 or afterwards. At North King Street, the men, accused of being irregular fighters, were shot out of hand by troops in the field. As such it had something in common with the German atrocities in Belgium against so-called franc tireurs in 1914. But again, in five months the Germans killed some 6,000 civilians in such reprisals. The British total in Ireland from 1916-21 does not even come close to matching that figure.
By comparison with German atrocities in Belgium in 1914 or the Nazi suppression of the Warsaw uprising in 1944, the North King Street shootings are unremarkable, but the immunity of the troops shows the coercive side of British rule in early 20th century Ireland.
And yet, there is something in the North King Street massacre that sums up how British rule in Ireland was never truly democratic. First of all the incident was not unique, even before 1916. In 1914, the Scottish Borderers’ Regiment fired on a riotous crowd at Bachelor’s Walk, in Dublin, killing three people and injuring 85. A Court Martial was duly held, but as in 1916, no punitive action was taken.
The civil servant Troupe noted that had the North King Street shootings taken place in England, the soldiers would certainly have been charged with murder. But Ireland was different. In the end, it was ruled without genuine consent and the authorities could not afford to publicise, let alone punish, the excesses of its soldiers.
The great achievement, in a sense of the Easter insurgents was to provoke the state into actions which under normal circumstances it would never have conceived of and thus pushing the nationalist public away from passive acceptance of British rule and towards opposition. Cold comfort this, though, to the families of the men shot, mostly in their own homes, in a northside Dublin slum street in April 1916.
 Caulfield, Max, The Easter Rebellion,Four Square Books,London 1963 p342,  Coogan, Tim Pat, 1916, The Easter Rising,Phoenix, London 2005, p152-155, Irish Times May 17, 1916  Coogan p 154  Edward Daly, Executed 1916. Paul O’Brien, Crossfire, The Battle of the Four Courts,1916, New Island, 2012, p 94-96  Caulfield p338-340  Irish Times May 17 1916  http://irishmedals.org/gpage47.html  Coogan p152-153  Irish Times August 5 1916.  Townshend Charles, Easter 1916 – The Irish Rebellion, Penguin, London 2006 p 293-294  Townshend p293  Coogan, p156  Coogan p155-156, Townshend p 294-5  Coogan p151  Michael O’Donoghue BMH Statement. McGarry, Fearghal, The Rising,Ireland, Easter 1916,Oxford University Press, 2010. p284  Townshend p 293  Dino Buenviaje and James Willis , Laws of Warfare, in World War I, p679
Appendix: The civilians killed on North King Street, April 28-29 1916.
1 Thomas Hickey (38) 170 North King Street
2 Christopher Hickey (16) 170 North King Street (Father and son)
3 Peter Connolly (39) 170 North King Street
(These three bodies had bayonet marks indicating they were killed with the bayonet)
4 Patrick Bealin (30) 177 North King Street
5 James Healy (44) 177 North King Street
(Bealen was seen being taken away to be shot by the military by Mary O’Rourke, Haley was found buried with him in the cellar.
6 , Michael Nunan (34), 174 North King Street
7 George Ennis (51) 174 North King Street.
(Anne Fennel of 174 testified that soldiers broke in took away Ennis and that he crawled back mortally wounded)
8 Dunne, Edward (39), 91 North King Street
9 Walsh, John (34). 172 North King Street
10 Michael Hughes (50) 172 North King St
(Killings seen by Eileen Walsh, wife of John.)
11 Lawless, Peter J. (21), 27 North King Street.
12 James McCartney, (36), 27 North King Street
13 James Finnegan (40), 27 North King St
14 Patrick Hoey, (25) 27 North King Street
(All worked at Louth Dairy in that house, found dead in basement with wounds to the head and throat areas)
15 In addition Jon Biernes (50) was shot dead by Crown forces on nearby Coleraine Street.
16. James Moore was killed on nearby Little Britain Street.
(Sources: O’Brien, Crossfire, p93-96, Michael Foy Brian Barton, The Easter Rising p248-249)