By Lydia Monin
On April 24, 1916, a group of armed rebels seized key buildings across the city of Dublin. They turned the General Post Office (GPO) into their headquarters and declared Ireland an independent republic. In one of those great ‘What If’ moments, a New Zealand soldier in the crowd outside the GPO found himself with a clear shot of unarmed rebel leader James Connolly.
Yet the story of the New Zealander who could have changed the course of Irish history only emerged because of a school jumble sale in Morrinsville. A silver cup awarded to a Corporal Alexander Don from Dunedin for helping to defend Trinity College, Dublin, eventually made its way to Hamilton-based historian Hugh Keane - and it became the key to unlocking a long-buried story.
“As soon as I saw the cup I realised it was a significant piece of history,” says Keane, who discovered that not one, but five New Zealand soldiers on leave in Dublin were involved in the Rising - Corporal Don, Sergeant Frederick Nevin from Christchurch, Lance Corporal Finlay McLeod from Wellington, and Corporal John Garland and Private Edward Waring from Auckland.
Corporal Don was walking past Dublin Castle, the headquarters of the British administration, on the first day of the Rising, when two British soldiers in front of him were shot dead. He escaped, and joined the crowd outside the GPO, where he saw Connolly. He wrote home that he could have taken a shot at the rebel leader but there were rifles in every window of the post office. Turning to leave, he saw two other New Zealanders, Corporal Garland and Sergeant Nevin. As rebels started firing at the pair, Don helped them escape.
As they passed Trinity College Dublin, the porters unlocked the gates for them. Trinity College was the headquarters of the Dublin University Officer Training Corps and it had 300 rifles in its armoury. When the shooting started British and Dominion soldiers on leave gathered at the university to help the cadets defend the building. The five New Zealand soldiers and an Australian soldier formed a sharp-shooting squad on the roof of the university, firing on rebel positions.
“People were being shot, unarmed civilians were being caught in the crossfire. Clearly they felt it was their duty to assist - I mean they had taken an allegiance to the King. They were sworn New Zealand soldiers,” says Hugh Keane.
When British troops arrived in Ireland to put down the six-day rebellion, they were cheered. The insurgents were seen as traitors - after all thousands of their countrymen were fighting in the trenches for the King. But the brutal treatment of the rebels, including the swift execution of the leaders, caused a massive shift in public opinion. Moderate nationalists became revolutionary republicans. The rebels were no longer traitors, but heroes and martyrs.
Officially, 2016 is a year of commemoration and celebration in Ireland. The Rising is seen as the event that led to the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922. Yet the legacy of the rebellion is still divisive. Newspaper columnist Kevin Myers thinks the Rising set the tone for the violence that has plagued the island of Ireland for much of the past century.
“If you depart from the rules of God and the rules of the state chaos will result and chaos did result. Thousands of people died in the ensuing years, thousands and thousands.”
Although first-hand accounts of the Rising from the New Zealand soldiers were published in local newspapers, their story was forgotten for the best part of a century. Hugh Keane says they were mistaken for Australians.
“In various books I’ve read they’re referred to as Anzac troops or Australian troops so I don’t think the Irish or the British could distinguish, whether it was because of the accents or the slouch hats. And because it wasn’t active service it’s not recorded on their military records.”
Had Corporal Don taken that shot at James Connolly, who knows what the fate of the British Empire might have been. For the Easter Rising rebels inspired revolutionaries in other British colonies.
When Britain lost Ireland, it was the beginning of the end of the Empire.