SOME times, this column includes forgotten heroes or those practically written out of Irish history. This week we are highlighting a young man who fought in the GPO during the 1916 Rising and at the age of 21 was known as ‘The Boy Commandant General’, who would be the most senior officer to survive the spate of executions which followed.
Seán McLoughlin was born on 2 June 1895, the second of six children born to Patrick ‘Ruggie’ McLoughlin and his wife Christina. His father was one of the founders of the Transport and General Workers Union and later the breakaway Workers Union of Ireland. And many of the McLoughlin family have been involved in the trade union movement in Ireland all of their lives.
Danny was the older brother of Seán by two years. He joined the British Army and fought in World War I. He was permanently blinded in the battle of Ypres and returned to Dublin. A talented clarinet player, he formed a band that became popular in Dublin dancehall circles. There was never any animosity between the brothers and they kept in touch. Danny died in 1962, many years after the two brothers had renewed acquaintances at a family wedding.
Seán had four other siblings. Mary fought in the Rising and died in 1956. Patrick, who was two years younger, joined the IRA during the War of Independence and survived the fighting. He died in 1966. Christina was eight years younger than Seán, while Christy was a member of Fianna Fáil and the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. He died in 1995.
Aged 15, Seán McLoughlin joined both the Gaelic League and Fianna Éireann and, by association, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB).
His main influence in the early years of his career was the 1913 Lockout, in which his father was heavily involved. This would also be his first acquaintance with the trade union movement, which would have a major bearing on the remainder of his life. November 1913 saw the 18-year-old join the Irish Volunteers. He was assigned as a lieutenant to G Company of the Irish Volunteers under the command of Captain Seán Heuston. Early 1916 saw both men moved to D Company, 1st battalion. On Easter Monday, 24 April, Heuston and McLoughlin, along with 12 young recruits from D Company, were ordered to occupy the Mendicity Institute. This was a charitable institution founded in 1818 to provide refuge for the homeless and poor of the city. Remember, there was no social protection in those days. From 1826, its headquarters was located at Moira House on Usher’s Island. This was the former home of Lord Moira, Francis Edward Hastings. He was born in Moira, County Down and died on 28 November 1826. Today, Mendicity’s operations continue from Island Street, just north of its old base.
When on Usher’s Quay, Mendicity was just a half-mile from the Four Courts. Heuston’s orders were to control the route between the Royal Barracks (now the National Museum, and prior to that Collins Barracks) and the Four Courts. This was done to give Commandant Daly time to set up his defences at the latter location. Staff and the homeless were evacuated.
Within an hour, British soldiers were seen advancing along the north quays. When Heuston ordered his men to open fire, the British formation broke and they fell back. Lieutenant Gerald Neilan of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers was killed – his younger brother Arthur was part of Daly’s volunteers at the Four Courts. Heuston decided he would attempt to hold the building for the rest of Monday and, if possible, Tuesday. More volunteers arrived, bringing their number to 26.
The British soon realised that this resistance posed a significant threat, but it was Wednesday morning before they mounted an attack to take the building. Backed by heavy covering fire, the attack came from all sides, while the defenders put up a tenacious fight. But the end was in sight. The British were now close enough to lob grenades, to which the volunteers’ only response was to catch them and throw them back before they exploded. Two of Heuston’s friends were injured doing this; they were short of food and practically out of ammunition.
Having been ordered to hold the position for a few hours, Heuston had held it for three days. But after consultation, it was decided to surrender, destroying most of their equipment first. One volunteer was in his 40s, while the remainder were between 18 and 25. For his part, Heuston was court-martialed and found guilty. He was executed on 8 May 1916 by firing squad.
As the surrender was taking place, Seán McLoughlin was returning to the Mendicity building, having travelled as he had each day to the GPO with information for the leaders there and taking back information and supplies on his return. Approaching Queen Street Bridge, locals pointed him out as a volunteer to the British, but he escaped up Church Street and reached the Four Courts, where he took command of the Chancery Place end prior to returning to the GPO later that night.
On Thursday morning, the GPO came under heavy attack and it was here that McLoughlin came to the forefront. At this stage, James Connolly, who had been impressed by the young McLoughlin all week, arranged to have 30 men placed under his command to stop the British crossing the quays and coming up Liffey Street. McLoughlin’s orders were to take over the Independent Newspaper offices and from there stem any British movement from across the Liffey. The offices were quickly commandeered and a watch set up for the night. Climbing to the top of the building, McLoughlin was shocked to see Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street) in flames, with much of it reduced to rubble. Next morning, McLoughlin returned to hear of Connolly’s injuries, which occurred as he stood outside observing McLoughlin taking the Independent offices, his leg shattered by shrapnel. While Connolly was now confined to a stretcher, the evacuation of the GPO was being planned. It was learned that The O’Rahilly and his men had already left and were making their way to Great Britain Street (now Parnell Street) with the intention of setting up a new HQ in the Williams and Woods soap factory. Knowing this factory had already been destroyed, McLoughlin set out to warn The O’Rahilly but was too late and found him and 21 others cut down by the Sherwood Foresters in Moore Lane.
Turning back from Henry Street towards the GPO, he could only watch as the garrison began the evacuation, running in his direction. There was a lot of panic and someone was shouting that they were being fired on from the roof of the mineral water factory. McLoughlin ordered some of his men to break the door down. As they did, another party entered from the opposite door and both groups started firing at each other. One man was killed and several injured. Incensed, McLoughlin rushed forward shouting, “Have you all gone mad?” as he pushed them against a wall.
Order was breaking down and several volunteers were mown down as they entered Moore Street. At the other end, McLoughlin directed the masses, including the surviving leaders, up Henry Place, where some order was restored. McDermott spoke to McLoughlin as he passed, stating: “All is lost … we are all going to be caught and killed like rats without a chance to fight.”
McLoughlin responded: “Don’t panic, I will get you out of here but there will be only one man giving the orders and I will give them.”
With Connolly’s approval, this was agreed and control passed to McLoughlin, who sent volunteers to find a barricade to place across Moore Lane. This was achieved when a motor van was taken from a nearby factory yard and parked across the lane entrance, screening the fleeing volunteers partially from the British and into the Moore Street tenements.
More than 300 volunteers made the journey and set up HQ in a corner shop with the British at the other end of the street. They were surprised by the numbers making no attempt to attack. McLoughlin later mused that it was the large number of men and their immunity which stalled the British for the time being.
On Friday, a meeting of HQ staff took place. Those present included Pearse, Connolly, McDermott (or McDiarmada, as he preferred), Clarke, Plunkett and Boland. McDiarmada’s proposal (seconded by Connolly) that McLoughlin be given the military command was agreed. It was also decided that he hold his rank of commandant-general and that his task was to plan an escape from Moore Street.
Knowing the British confusion would not last and that an attack was inevitable, McLoughlin ordered his men to bore through the connecting walls of the tenements towards the other end of Moore Street. His plan was to have what he called a ‘death or glory’ force of up to 30 men carry out a diversionary attack on the British barricades via Sackville Lane, with the main force to make a run for a large warehouse in Henry Street. From there, they could make their way and join Daly in the Four Courts for one last battle with the British.
The attack was planned for noon on Saturday but Pearse was unhappy at the prospect of more civilian deaths. He informed McLoughlin that to save more bloodshed he was going to surrender. Despite McLoughlin’s protests, this was done. Pearse was arrested and a message was sent back by General Lowe to the volunteers to lay down their arms and march behind an advance party carrying white flags to Findlater’s on Sackville Street. Instead, McLoughlin marched with his men carrying their unloaded weapons and, despite Lowe’s seething contempt, the surrender was effected.
Next day they were marched to Richmond Barracks, Inchicore, where the prisoners were interrogated. And for some reason, a British officer removed McLoughlin’s rank markings, which saw him imprisoned firstly in Knutsford, England and then Frongoch in Wales instead of being executed. The 21-year-old, who was more senior than de Valera, was released in December 1916. He remained an activist in the republican movement and joined the Irish and British Communist parties, becoming a trade union activist.
Seán McLoughlin died from heart failure on 13 February 1960 at Sheffield Royal Infirmary. There was no mention of his death in any Irish newspaper, nor did any member of any republican party attend his funeral or cremation.
So the boy commandant, a leader for most of the 1916 Rising, was a forgotten man, despite his fellow leaders becoming national heroes.