Defending Trinity College, Easter 1916

Reassessing Trinity’s role in the Easter Rising and how a small group of colonial soldiers prevented its rebel capture

“Was this indeed to be, perhaps, the last night of our ancient university?” Professor John Joly had anxiously speculated, as night fell over Trinity College. It was Monday, the 24th of April, 1916. A surprise ‘Sinn Féin rebellion’ had shocked the Crown’s forces and rebels of the Irish Citizen Army had begun to infiltrate key strategic locations throughout the city centre. 

By the Wednesday of Easter week 1916, Trinity College had become a fortress for the British troops, with over 16,000 soldiers using it as a base to attack the rebels. It is not Trinity’s role as an attacking force, once fully co-opted by the Crown’s troops, that has recently been brought into contention. It is the nature of the defence of Trinity that occured in the initial stages of rebellion that has proven to be a piece of history still up for debate. How close was Trinity to being captured by the rebel forces? What would have happened if it had? How founded were Joly’s fears that Monday night? 

100 years on from the Rising, Dr Rory Sweetman has readdressed these neglected questions. Dr Rory Sweetman is a Kildare born New Zealander, currently a visiting fellow at the Trinity Centre for Contemporary Irish History. In his book, ‘Defending Trinity College, Easter 1916: Anzacs and the Rising,’ which was launched in the Long Room Hub last week, Sweetman targets what he perceives as blatantly neglected aspects of this pivotal event in Irish history.

Sweetman unveils new narratives that present a “radically different twist to a story that most Irish people believe they already know.” 

His research sheds light on key actors of the rebellion that have been largely omitted from the textbooks and thus erased from the prevailing narrative of the Easter Rising. He highlights how a group of fourteen colonials, colloquially known as the Anzacs, had deterred a rebel sniping force from advancing on Trinity. Sweetman claims that if it wasn’t for the military experience of a group of six South Africans, two Canadians, one Australian and five New Zealanders, who were sniping from the parapets of Trinity’s West Front building, Trinity’s 324th year “may well have been it’s last.” 

By examining the experiences of Trinity in the initial throes of the rebellion through the eyes of these colonial troops, (namely that of the five New Zealanders) Sweetman unveils new narratives that present a “radically different twist to a story that most Irish people believe they already know.” He challenges the prevailing notion that Trinity was never attacked by the rebels, and was not under serious threat. He depicts a new precarious chapter in Trinity’s history where Joly’s fears were “not unrealistic,” but “unrealised.”  

As Joly relates in his memoirs of the Rising, ‘Reminiscences and anticipations’, Trinity lay in “the most central and commanding position in the city.” With most students home for the Easter holidays, Trinity’s campus was practically empty in the early stages of rebellion. “Impending disaster, unknown disasters, seemed to fill the gloom,” that first night of the Easter Rising, for Joly, as he, along with approximately thirty others, defended Trinity’s vast and vulnerable campus from potential rebel attack. 

According to Sweetman, Trinity was “ripe for the taking” for the rebels.  Even after the alarm was raised, the gates were secured, Trinity was still not safe from invasion. “Merely waving an academic gown at the porter was sufficient to secure admission to College on Tuesday,” claims Sweetman. 

The Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, otherwise known as Anzacs, were Australian and New Zealand soldiers who formed part of the allied expedition that set out to capture the Gallipoli peninsula during World War One. Because these men were militarily experienced, they knew “one end of the rifle from the other.” This was to prove crucial, Sweetman claims, when a group of twenty rebels attacked Trinity’s dangerously thin line of defence on Monday night. 

The New Zealanders were Sergeant Frederick Nevin NZMC from Christchurch, Corporal Alexander Don NZFA from Dunedin, Corporal John Garland NZMC from Auckland, Lance Corporal Finlay McLeod NZE from Milton and Private Edward Waring NZR from Northland. “By great good fortune, four of the five Kiwis left detailed accounts of their Easter Week experiences, which give fresh insight into important aspects of the insurrection,” says Sweetman.

All five of these men were in Dublin on Easter Monday, on holiday or convalescent leave, when they were “caught up almost accidentally in the violence.” They were directed to Trinity College and welcomed inside by the porters to where the university staff, Professor Joly among them, and OTC cadets were defending the buildings against the rebels. 

 “Twenty men was more than enough to waltz through the unguarded gates of empty Trinity College,” says Sweetman. 

Sweetman examines a witness statement from James Thornton of the Irish Citizen Army which proved that there were rebels plans to invade Trinity. Thornton was told by James Connolly to occupy buildings in Fleet Street overlooking Trinity to provide a covering party for men from the GPO garrison who intended to capture the university.  

Sweetman claims that when you start looking for signs of the gun battle, it is impossible to miss. Joly recalls hearing a “violent fusillade” that night from the Front of College and Elsie Mahaffy, the Provost’s daughter, found it impossible to sleep due to the noise. “At 11pm, they woke us up and took the colonials up to the roof, where we were to snipe,” recalls Bugler JC Garland, a New Zealander part of the Anzac defence. “We remained on that roof from midnight Easter Monday till midnight on Thursday without a wink of sleep – exactly 72 hours.” 

A three hour gun battle had ensued. The rebels retreat. Due to the experience of these Anzacs, Sweetman believes they had “bluffed” the rebels into thinking that Trinity was an armed fortress – what it was to become on Wednesday, but on midnight, Easter Monday, it was certainly not.  “Twenty men was more than enough to waltz through the unguarded gates of empty Trinity College,” says Sweetman.

However, it was unbeknownst to the Anzacs on the roofs of Trinity that they had just prevented the college from a rebel attack. They saw a “whole lot of looting,” that day, relates Sweetman, and had assumed that the rebels were attempting to rob the Bank of Ireland, from behind which they were shooting. 

The Bank of Ireland had no strategic value for the rebels. It had no windows. The Bank of Ireland also used to serve the seat of old Irish parliament, and was of symbolic significance to the rebels. Furthermore, no witnesses reporting an attack have been found from the people in the Bank that night. It was never a target of the rebels, Sweetman believes. 

If it weren’t for this group of experienced colonials defending Trinity that night, Sweetman attests that Trinity would have certainly been captured by the rebels. In a feat of counterfactual history, or as Sweetman likes to call ‘what-iffery,’ the “significance of this place would have rapidly changed.” Trinity would have become a vital location for the rebels. Sweetman believes that this is where the rebels would have had their final stand. Trinity would have become a “funeral pyre for the rebels, then quickly a shrine.”   

Arriving in Dublin, General Maxwell made a public statement, declaring that “if necessary, I shall not hesitate to destroy all buildings within any area occupied by rebels”. Trinity would have been no different. “War is no respecter of culture,” says Sweetman. 

Five years on there is a new Irish state. Sweetman observes that if Trinity had indeed been destroyed, the new State would not have rushed to rebuild it, or even rebuild it at all. Trinity was the bastion of Unionism, British culture and Protestantism in Ireland. In the wake of the Rising, had a “new image of the dead rebel leaders,” been associated with the institution, the Free State might not have ensured Trinity’s survival. 

Sweetman believes that previous accounts of Trinity’s experience of the Rising “doesn’t respect enough the evidence from Trinity sources of how lively the fear was that this could be the end of this institution.” 

“I would say that Trinity needs to examine its own history a little more carefully and acknowledge the fact that you can’t rewrite history,” says Sweetman. He observes that there has always been “an uncomfortable dimension to Trinity relationship with not just the Rising but with the Irish State,” but “to pretend that Trinity wasn’t in the British camp is unhistorical.”  

History is written by the victors and although the “rebels lost the battle, they won the war.” By paying as much attention to the fourteen colonials that defended Trinity, “as most historians pay to the fourteen rebel leaders that were executed in the immediate aftermath of the Rising,” Sweetman has placed these men firmly in the scope of Irish history. 

Milena Barnes

Milena Barnes is a former Features Editor of Trinity News.