Easter 1916 | How Dublin’s Citizens Coped with Hunger During the Rising

The Breadline, a painting by Muriel Brandt, shows nuns prominent in distributing food to civilians.
Glasnevin Cemetery has, controversially, unveiled a wall of remembrance which lists the names of all those known to have died during the 1916 Rising. Critics claimed it was wrong to include the dead from both sides of the conflict.

But many of the names are not military or rebels at all. Some of the 185 civilians who perished in the Rising were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Bullets flying in all directions did not distinguish between friend and foe. Other victims were shot deliberately by both sides. The North King Street massacre and the purposeful shooting of civilians at Stephen’s Green are testament to that harrowing fact.

The highest number of civilian deaths occurred during the last two days of the fighting. An Irish Times report on the overall numbers of deaths in the Rising states:

the number of civilians killed each day steadily increase, peaking on the final day of the rebellion, April 29th, 1916, when 45 died. This was also the most violent day during which 78 people – civilians and others – died.”[1]

The bullet-swept streets of Dublin played host to a particularly vicious battle. The smell of cordite permeated the air. Artillery and improvised incendiary bombs were raining down in all directions; firestorms raged, sweeping building after building in their paths of destruction. Yet many people stepped out from the relative safety of their homes into this maelstrom. Why? Some were seeking safety and shelter elsewhere; others were desperate for food to feed their starving families.

It has been alleged[2] that rebels commandeered whatever food they wanted and the military simply looked after themselves, ignoring the civilian population. This however, is a very simplistic explanation. When rebels commandeered food, cash or promissory notes in lieu of cash were issued with receipts on such instances. The military did not simply ignore and abandon the civilian population to their plight. Moreover, other factors in dealing with the food supply problem during the Easter Rising need to be considered.

Staples such as bread, milk and butter were purchased on a daily basis, and it was not long before shortages became acute. Fighting in the streets made it almost impossible for shops to receive food supplies. Those shops fortunate enough to procure adequate supplies were besieged by panicked customers. In any case, hoarding of provisions ensured shops soon ran out.

Boland and Jacobs’s bakeries had both been seized by rebels, although Monks bakery in the Church Street area was allowed to stay open and feed locals around the Four Courts. Kennedy’s in Great Britain Street was open and sold bread at a reduced rate to starving people. Such was the clamour for bread in Kennedys soldiers with fixed bayonets were deployed to ensure order was kept.

Johnston Mooney and O’Brien’s bakery in Ballsbridge also remained open during the fighting; the company rationed its customers to two loaves each. The bakers did, however, run into problems when they almost ran out of flour and were cut off from accessing their reserve stocks north of the Liffey.

Affluent areas of Dublin, more fortunate, received daily visits from the baker and milkman. But as the rebellion progressed, heavy fighting ensured they could not reach their customers. Miss Fleming of Northumberland Road noted on Thursday of Easter Week:

Our food supplies are getting short, the milkman cannot reach us nor yet the bakers van – neither can we venture out to seek for food.”[3]

But some people did venture out to the suburbs in search of food. Mrs Mitchell, a resident of Herbert Park, Ballsbridge, was fortunate in her quest of cycling to Ranelagh with her husband Arthur. The shops were under siege, and most were closed. Those that were open allowed women in a few at a time and rationed what they could purchase. The Mitchells were fortunate enough to come home “laden” with provisions.[4] Writing in her diary on Thursday April 27, 1916, Mrs. Henry commented:

This morning there was a great rush for provisions. By 12 o’clock many shops in Ranelagh had been cleared out and were closed. Neither loaves nor butter to be had.”[5]

Market gardens in the suburbs were also besieged by the hungry. The closures of post offices and banks ensured people relying on wages, pensions and allowances to survive had no money to purchase food. The populace were on the brink of starvation. A famine would be inevitable if the authorities did not act, it appeared.

The first action undertaken by the military was to seize provisions from warehouses and distribute them free of charge in the Aungier Street and Coombe districts. Food was distributed from military wagons. Women with babies in their arms were seen fainting in the streets, and were in danger of being trampled. Any closed shops containing provisions in areas where there was no fighting were opened under a military guard.  Military passes were sent out by despatch riders to the leading wholesale provision merchants requesting them to come in to the city and open up their premises to help with food distribution.

Soldiers and St Vincent de Paul Society joined forces

Officers from the Ministry of Munitions opened two distribution depots. Captain Downie took charge of the depot in the National Shell Factory, Kingsbridge while Edwin M. Solomons J.P., oversaw operations at the North Wall Railway Station. Each of these depots sent out supplies to 35 depots across the city under the stewardship of Sir Joseph Glynn, president of the Society of St Vincent de Paul.[6]

Kennedy's bakery,
A contemporary ad for Kennedy’s bakery, which remained open during the worst of the rebellion.

By 5pm on Saturday April 29, all the depots had been established both on both north and south sides of the city. Military wagons laden with supplies visited each and every depot, ensuring 80,000 people received food supplies. Despite the best efforts of the Society they were unable to reach Townsend Street, Westland Row, Ringsend and Sandymount. Efforts to visit Ringsend on Monday were also unsuccessful, so their residents’ suffering continued. Relief tickets were also given out to citizens. These could be presented in shops, to the value of 2s 9d (multiply by about 80 to get an idea of its contemporary value in euro – hence, approximately €26.40).

Some tickets worth 5s were also given out. By May 8, 1916, 41,020 tickets to the value of £5,618.2s.6d had been distributed to an estimated 25,000 families.[7]

 

Sources:

[1] Irish Times, 11.3.1025, http://www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/new-research-suggests-485-people-were-killed-in-the-easter-rising-1.2135511

[2] http://irishgarrisontowns.com/feeding-the-1916-rising/

[3] NLI MS 46,267 Account by Isabel Fleming of Easter 1916.

[4] NLI MS 24,553 Mrs Mitchell letter to her sister Flora April 24-27 1916

[5] NLI MS 7,894 Diary of Mrs Henry 1914-1918

[6] BMH CD 234/5 Interim Report of the Government Committee appointed to deal with the Food Supply to Dublin and its environs April-May 1916.

[7] BMH CD 234/3 Letter from Sir Joseph Glynn Society of St Vincent de Paul to Sir Henry Robinson Local Government Board.

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