While historical re-enactments are all the rage in this ‘Decade of Centenaries’, and we have seen everything from Ulster Volunteer Forces rallies to Fenian funerals re-enacted by enthusiastic historical societies, it’s unlikely we’ll see anyone recreate the looting of Noblett’s sweet shop come 24 April 2016. Donal Fallon has this tale of proletarian shopping in the rare auld times.
Somewhat at odds with the popular narrative of the Easter Rising, widespread looting in the city was one outcome of the breakdown of law and order that came with the outbreak of the insurrection.
John Pitts, an academic who studies criminology and youth culture, was quoted in the aftermath of the 2011 London riots stating that “many of the people involved are likely to have been from low-income, high-unemployment estates, and many, if not most, do not have much of a legitimate future.”
If social isolation and a sense of alienation from society is what motivated people to loot during the London riots, the evidence would suggest it was much the same on the streets of Dublin during the Easter Rising. For the authorities, the media and even some of the rebels, the language used to describe looters was simple; these were the “rabble” – or, in the words of one Irish Volunteer – the “denizens of the slums.”
The looting of shops on O’Connell Street, or Sackville Street as it was known in the Dublin of 1916, was almost instantaneous. The decision of Colonel R. Johnstone of the Dublin Metropolitan Police to withdraw the 1,100 DMP officers from the streets of the city no doubt facilitated the widespread looting.
Perhaps Johnstone was weary of retaliation for the role of the police in the violence of the 1913 Lockout, when locked-out workers and generally curious spectators were battered and bloodied by baton charges on the very same street where the Rising began only three years previously. With no police on the street, and the rebels preoccupied, the task of emptying the shops began. Ernie O’Malley, a young medical student from a middle class Mayo background, later to become a leading IRA figure, recalled arriving on the street and witnessing the scenes:
“Diamond rings and pocketsful of gold watches were selling for sixpence and a shilling, and one was cursed if one did not buy…. Ragged boys wearing old boots, brown and black, tramped up and down with air rifles on their shoulders or played cowboys and Indians, armed with black pistols supplied with long rows of paper caps. Little girls hugged teddy bears and dolls as if they could hardly believe their good fortune.”
This was a city where a third of its inhabitants lived in tenement squalor. A housing enquiry in 1914 had found that “existing conditions of tenement life are both morally and physically bad.”
According to it, about 45% of the working population of the Irish capital lived in tenement houses, and over 22,000 of these people were living in “houses unfit for human habitation and incapable of being rendered fit for human habitation.” While newspapers wondered just what had led people to loot in the weeks that followed the Rising, the answer was all around them, in the shocking poverty of the city.
There are vivid accounts of the looting in the statements made by participants in the Rising to the Bureau of Military History. One Volunteer described the scene at Noblett’s sweet shop after the windows came crashing in. He remembered the sight of “a gay shower of sweet stuffs, chocolate boxes and huge slabs of toffee” being tossed about by the young crowd. Desmond Ryan of the GPO Garrison also recalled that Seán MacDiarmada made his way across the street and protested “vehemently, his hands raised passionately above his head.”
In most instances, the looting was blamed on the poor and the poor alone. Trinity College Dublin student Thomas Rentol Brown complained in the Dublin Evening Mail of 13 May of “the rabble…breaking plate-glass windows and seizing articles in the shops.” Yet, some wealthier inhabitants of the city got in on the act too, to the disgust of the press.
The Irish Life ‘Record of the Rebellion’, published soon afterwards, claimed that “the looters were by no means confined to the submerged slum population. A remarkable proportion were well dressed and belonged to the wage-earning working class, or perhaps to classes still more respectable.”
Las Fallon, a historian and firefighter, has examined the spread of the flames in Dublin during the Rising, noting that apart from the Magazine Fort in the Phoenix Park, which the rebels had attempted to destroy, the first two major fires fought in Dublin by the Dublin Fire Brigade during the Rising were in shoe shops on O’Connell Street, which were looted and then burned.
To him, it’s clear that “Dublin’s barefoot poor were taking advantage of the rebellion.”
Yet if people of all social classes were getting in on the act, those who were prosecuted came only from one class. In the weeks that followed the Rising, plenty of column inches went on reporting on tenement inhabitants who had taken part in the act. The Irish Independent reported on 11 May 1916 of a mother and daughter, charged with being in illegal possession of “two mattresses, one pillow, eight window curtains, one lady’s corset.. one top coat, two ladies coats, five ladies hats and four chairs.”
In the same news report, it was noted that two ladies from a Camden Street tenement had been prosecuted for being in possession of among other things, “3lbs of tea, 12 boxes of sweet herbs…some lemonade and cornflower.” The constable told the court that the accused told him “we were looting, like the rest. We had a bit out of it, too!” They were sentenced to a month in prison each.
Given that men had quite literally got away with murder on the streets a few weeks previously, for example at North King Street where numerous innocent civilians were shot and bayoneted by members of the South Staffordshire Regiment, a month in prison for robbing lemonade must have seemed particularly harsh.
Illustration by Luke Fallon.