Letter from Margaret Ruth Leslie to her cousin Cecil George Leslie, 29 April 1916

Margaret Leslie’s letter to her cousin Cecil George Leslie on 29 April 1916 provides a brilliant insight into the events of the Easter Rising as experienced by civilians in Dublin. Leslie was also from a wealthy Unionist family, and supported the efforts of the British forces to stop the Rising in Dublin. Her perspective is unique, as much of the focus has been placed on combatants of the Rising and to a lesser degree on Nationalist leaning civilians. Very little has been written about the Rising from a Unionist, civilian, viewpoint. Therefore, Leslie’s letter is truly valuable to gain a well-rounded perspective of the events as they were seen and interpreted by all who were present in Dublin during Easter week. The full text of the letter is below. This is followed by a brief analysis of the contents that will help place the letter in proper context with the events of Easter week.

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1 Wilton Place

Dublin

29 – IV- 16

Dear Choppy,

I don’t know if you will ever get this but

Bergy Tombe has motored up from Wicklow

today & says he’ll get some letters posted

on his way home. There’s no post in Dublin

& we haven’t seen a paper since Monday

except a Daily Sketch which we saw

yesterday. It was going the round of

Dublin and we got “a read of it”.

It’s extremely hard to know where to

begin especially as we know practically

nothing though we hear hundreds of

rumours. We can hear fierce battling

going on constantly. I see fearful

fires down in the city. We can hear machine

guns, bombs, some kind of bigger gun

and of course incessant rifle-fire. There

are snipers everywhere & it’s next to im-

possible to locate them. To begin with we

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were much cooped up & only allowed out

into the square etc. except that some of

us had to go & see Dina Hensworth twice

a day. She is all by herself in a house in

Pembroke Road just across Baggot

St Bridge & has just perpetrated an infant

& as the fighting was very hot in

that district someone has to call constantly

& distract her maid with prattle. As a

matter of fact she is merely pleasureably

excited – in fact, dreadful to relate we

are all enjoying it enormously. There

must be masses of troops in Dublin now

They hold all the bridges this side of

the town now, which the Sinn Feiners

did on Monday & Tuesday of course they had odious

fighting to get them back & the hospitals

are crammed. I believe two trains of

wounded have gone to Belfast & a lot to

England. Of course the S. F.’s tried to cut

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the railway to the north but I believe they

half blew up a bridge & there is a single

line still. Of course all this information

is quite unreliable. It’s a loathsome job

for the troops as they haven’t even decent

maps & of course they can’t trust anyone

& have no guides & being English know

nothing, & except at rare intervals they

never see the enemy. It’s house to house

fighting & they are sniped from everywhere.

Thank goodness Jane & Ira are getting

so used to it all that they have ceased

to fuss about us & we were allowed

down to Ballsbridge this morning to

see the troops coming in. It’s perfectly

safe as we hold the whole road from

Baggot St out to Kingstown now &

the snipers don’t want to shoot us in

the least. I can hear them going all round

now. Half the time I don’t think they

can be firing at anything in particular

The police are all cooped up somewhere. They

can’t let them out as they aren’t armed

& in open in plain clothes, directing the troops

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would be quite unmistakable & a plain

mark for snipers there is very likely nothing

going on in Merrion Square now & I hear

they fired on the Red + nurses there

yesterday but on the whole they seem to have

behaved very decently. We have heard of

several people whose houses they occupied

& they were quite civil & didn’t even loot

if they were not resisted. There strikes one

as being curiously little popular sympathy

with the movement & it seems Redmond’s

lot – the National Volunteers (who he said

were to keep the peace at home!) are lying

very low & are not in with the S. F’s at

all. Of course they must be feeling sick

as at any rate this must do for Home Rule.

We were allowed down to Nassau St one

day to pack parcels for the Dublin Fusilier

Prisoners as they depend on the food that is

sent them & it would be dreadful if they

didn’t get it. So the (UKNOWN WORD) were to get a pass

for a motor to take this week’s consignment

down to Kingstown & dump it on one of the

returning transports. We strolled down in

great hopes of seeing strange sights & per –

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haps being shot at but saw very

little except a dead horse in Stephens Green

(where we weren’t supposed to go) & a lot of motors

& trams across the road & bullet holes

in the windows, of course this was after

the S F’s had evacuated Stephen’s Green

which they did on Tuesday night. I don’t know

why they were let as they could simply

have been starved out there. However I

believe we were desperately short of troops

& everything else till Wed. One of the great

difficulties is to bury the dead as of course

they can’t always get them to the cemeteries.

They are going to use the field at the back

here I think. You should see us foraging

in the morning – Jane, Nelly, Margery, & me

I don’t know what will happen if it goes on

much longer & the food begins to give out.

I believe a lot of Sackville St is burnt out

& we have blown up Jacob’s factory & burnt

a lot of S F’s in it. I don’t know if we have

got the GPO back yet but I doubt

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it. The Sinn Feiners seized that & Stephen’s

Green first thing & report says they bagged

some young officers & a parson or so & several

other people & kept them with them so

those poor devils will have to be blown up

with the S F ‘s We have just heard a

report that the Sinn Feiners are at Slane

which we must keep carefully from Dina.

It’s possible I’m afraid as otherwise I

think Lady Connyham would have got to

her somehow.

There are supposed to be a big Body of S F ‘s

marching up from Wexford but Bergy Tombe

says he doesn’t believe it as he has seen no

sign of them & anyhow there are troops

lying in wait for them

From the paper yesterday Asquith seems

to be minimizing the affair as much

as he can but it’s bound to come out. I

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hope all’s quiet in the country but there

are rumours of trouble in the west.

Gen Friend was away when the

outbreak occurred (1pm on Monday) Of course

the government has been warned over &

over again that this was imminent

They say Friend had gone over to hand

in his resignation as they wouldn’t give

him men. Must stop as this has

got to go. I’m afraid it’s a very

garbled account, but my information

is profuse but scanty if you know

what that means. I wish we could

get some war news. Best love.

Yours ever

M.R.L.

I don’t know if they have heard anything

of me at home

 

Readers can gather from Margaret Leslie’s letter that she was stuck in Dublin during Easter week with little verified news. She was relying on rumor and word from others that passed through her neighborhood during the week. Her letter is dated 29 April, which is the date that Patrick Pearse and the GPO garrison surrendered. It’s interesting to note in the opening sentence that Leslie mentions Bergy Tombe motoring up from Wicklow. Civilians at the time would certainly have been curious as to what was going on in Dublin, yet also wary of entering a war zone. Tombe was certainly brave to risk his life entering Dublin while fighting was still going on in the city. Leslie also mentioned that lack of newspapers and the halting of the postal system in Dublin due to the fighting had reduced their knowledge of the week simply to rumors, of which there were many. This seems to confirm a later belief that few within the city on any side truly knew exactly what was going on outside of their immediate area during the week. The reference to fierce fighting and “Fearful Fires” confirms that Leslie was able to hear and see some of the battle taking place around the GPO. She also confirms that the city had been shelled when she references hearing a “bigger gun,” although she may not have known that at the time.

On the second page of her letter Leslie provides insight into how life continued for the citizens of Dublin despite the fighting in the city. She mentions that despite being cooped up for most of the week, that some of the women had to venture to Dina Hensworth’s house in Pembroke Road to check on her as she had recently given birth. Leslie mentions that the fighting around the area was “very hot.” Pembroke road is in the same neighborhood that the Battle of Mount Street Bridge took place in. It is likely Henworth would have heard the battle raging on close by. Among the many wounded filling the hospitals would have been men who fought in the Battle of Mount Street.

As she moves into page three of her letter, Leslie describes the tough conditions that the British troops were fighting in during the Rising. The men often did not have any knowledge of the city and were left to try and navigate based on the limited maps that were available to them. The house to house fighting and lack of knowledge about the Irish Volunteers meant that the British committed many atrocities throughout the week. While some of these were certainly intentional, such as the murder of Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, there were other civilians that were shot accidentally due to the soldiers operating under tense conditions that resulted in many of them suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder by the end of the week. The Dublin police were also rendered virtually useless, because as Leslie mentions, they were unarmed and would be easy targets for Irish Volunteer snipers.

Page four of Leslie’s letter is interesting in that she gives credit to the Irish Volunteers for fighting fairly and being respectful of those whose homes they occupied. This confirms another claim that the citizens of Dublin, and even many of the British Army did respect the Volunteers for waging war in a “civilized manner” and fighting a fair fight. Leslie also mentions that there seems to be “little popular sympathy with the movement,” which as this stage was true. Within days of Leslie writing this letter the British began executing the leaders of the Rising and popular sympathy began to turn in favor of the Irish Volunteers.

Transitioning from page four to five, Leslie mentions venturing out into the city, most likely during the later half of the week, and worrying about being shot while exploring the damage. She mentions seeing a dead horse at St. Stephens Green, a sight that other witnesses to the Rising have also mentioned, along with trams blocking the roads and bullet holes in the windows. Leslie mentions that she believes that much of Sackville Street has been burned out and Jacobs Biscuit Factory has been blown up. While Sackville Street was extensively damaged during the fighting, Jacobs Biscuit Factory was not blown up and escaped the fighting virtually unscathed. This is an example of a rumor that was spreading throughout Dublin during Easter Week while news sources were cut off.

Leslie concludes her letter by stating on page six that the GPO may still be occupied and that bodies of Irish Volunteers may be holding Slane and marching from Wicklow. By 29 April the GPO had been evacuated; however, Leslie probably would not have heard the news of the evacuation and surrender yet as she does not mention it in her letter. Thomas Ashe and the Fingal Battalion held the road to Slane, so that likely has fueled the rumor that Slane was controlled by the Irish Volunteers. There was no large body of Volunteers marching from Wicklow, but the rumor that men throughout the country had risen and were marching on Dublin circulated throughout the city during Easter Week. Many of the Volunteers even believed that their comrades in the country were marching to their aide.

Leslie also mentions on page seven that General Friend was away from Ireland when the Rebellion broke out. Friend was replaced by General Lowe after the Rising broke out, as he was viewed as being partially responsible for allowing the Irish Volunteers to carry out the uprising without initial military intervention. As Leslie states, the government had been warned many times that a rebellion was imminent; however, they simply chose to delay any preventative actions until after the Easter holiday.

Letters like Leslie’s are important resources for historians in that they help to provide first hand insight into the events of the period and the public opinion that surrounds them. While official accounts of active combatants have achieved notoriety in the years following the Irish Revolution, accounts of civilians and personal letters have largely been ignored. These letters are important for providing a well-balanced historical account of the period and therefore must be brought back to equal status with the accounts of combatants.

 

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