Frank Shouldice Jnr is a producer/director with RTÉ’s investigations team, and when he started to delve into his grandfather’s role as a sniper in the 1916 Rising, he discovered a fascinating story, which had lain largely secret from his family
Frank Shouldice grew up in the same house as his elderly Grandpa Frank Snr in Clontarf, and recalls him as a “quite dapper”, and “an old man with a stick” shuffling about, who didn’t take too kindly to gasun playing with cars around his feet. Amongst Frank’s fondest memories of his Grandpa is that he would bring him along to Croke Park for county matches. That his Grandpa failed to mention to young Frank that he’d played on that hallowed pitch, representing Dublin, despite his Ballaghaderreen roots on the Mayo-Roscommon border and loyalty to Mayo football, comes as little surprise since he’d maintained a silence over much more dramatic events in his past. Aged 23, in April 1916 he’d reached the height of his footballing success, playing alongside his brother and best friend Jack, ten years his senior.
“Jack had won an All Ireland medal in 1907, arguably the first Mayo man to win an All Ireland medal - but he was playing for Dublin.
“Before the Rising they were both in the final of the Croke Cup, and they won that against Roscommon, ironically, and they had to wait a couple of years for the medals because two weeks later they were down in North King Street.”
Young Frank was just 11 when his Grandpa died in 1974, so he never got the chance to discuss first hand his Grandpa’s fascinating past, but it’s unlikely he would have opened up too much. Apparently in a radio interview, the most Frank Snr revealed was: he’d done his bit.
He was underselling himself.
“He was very private, quite humble, modest man - he didn’t speak about his achievements, he didn’t speak about the Rising, he didn’t speak about his role in history.”
The Shouldice brothers were IRB volunteers who fought under Ned Daly’s command at the Four Courts, with Jack the F Company lieutenant. These volunteers’ role was to try to prevent the British military from reaching the courts by mounting a defence at North King Street. Reilly’s, a disused bar, was barricaded up by the rebels, and it became a key defensive position on North King Street. Frank was in an elevated sniper’s post on the Jameson malthouse tower on Beresford Street, covering the location which became known as Reilly’s Fort.
Frank says it’s a fair question when the Celt wonders aloud whether he was a sniper, or just a man with a Mauser and a pair of binoculars he’d borrowed?
Frank couldn’t place his grandpa in any shooting range, but given he was then living in Fairview in the Northside, he can only suspect that that’s where he practiced his skills as a marksman.
“There was football training and then there was shooting practice - they had to pay for their own bullets.
“I also discovered that there was a shooting gallery underground in Parnell Square... The idea of volunteers going in for target practice underground in the cellars of Parnell Square in the City centre, and all this was going on, and the police and the military weren’t aware of it, was quite remarkable.”
What was more remarkable was the defence the rebels mounted on North King Street. By the end of the week of conflict, head of the British troops, General John Maxwell, described it as the scene of the fiercest fighting.
The South Staffordshire regiment reportedly advanced a mere 150 yards down North King Street in two days, suffering 14 fatalities and a further 32 wounded.
“They couldn’t force their way past F Company, and other companies in surrounding streets,” explains Frank. “This all led to huge frustration with the troops there - and an untold story is the North King Street massacre, where 15 people were murdered by the South Staffordshire troops - civilians, men who weren’t connected with the Rising.
“Maxwell wrote in his own private correspondence, ‘the men saw red’. Unfortunately the civilians paid the price for that,” says Frank.
The soldiers had stormed some of the houses to vent that frustration on innocent residents were holed up in their homes, and some of the victims’ bodies were later found to have been bayoneted.
Frank Snr played his role in the North Street resistance.
“At one point the British had set up a machine gun post on the top of Jervis Street, which was the hospital at the time, and that was within the range of North King Street - it was about half a mile away. They were pinning down Reilly’s Fort.
“Grandpa was up in the malthouse tower and word was got to him to concentrate his fire there [Jervis Street] and then, as they say, the machine gun was silenced, and that was from about half a mile away using a Mauser rifle. It’s quite remarkable that he had that proficiency. But again this was something he never spoke about himself.”
Ultimately the sheer weight of numbers and fire power told in the British soldiers’ favour.
“At the end of the week, the Four Courts garrison did not want to surrender, and they knew that it was a matter of time if they kept going they would be killed, but they didn’t want to surrender and it was Ned Daly who finally said, well that’s our order and we have to follow it.
While it is understandable that Frank is deeply sympathetic to his grandpa, but is he at all conflicted by the fact that Frank Snr killed people?
“Not really, that might sound callous, but he was almost killed - he was injured, a bullet grazed his cheek. His friends were killed around him during the Rising. Those who he killed were trying to kill him, and it was shoot or be shot.
“The idea that there were people killed and seriously injured and that Grandpa committed these things, it just brings home the grim reality of what they were doing and he was prepared to take the consequences for it.”
Frank doesn’t feel his Grandpa’s silence in later years, was motivated by his actions during the Rising.
“He wasn’t hiding from it, but he didn’t want any kind of honour or glory out of it because it was something basically repugnant to him about killing people, especially young soldiers.
“It was so impersonal, Grandpa and a lot of the other volunteers held the officers in pure disdain for sending these fellas coming running at them with guns - so the young fellas were sent running to try to kill Grandpa, Jack and anyone else who was out, while the officers were safely in the background.”
In his one interview with historian Max Caulfield, Frank Snr described a futile advance by the British soldiers as resulting in “a terrible slaughter”.
Frank Jnr elaborates: “Slaughter specifically on the Friday night when the South Staffordshire regiment undertook a massive attack on Reilly’s fort to try to oust them, and when the troops were rebuffed by the first volley, they ran down another road and they ran right towards Grandpa, and as he said himself, he knocked them over - that’s what he thought was ‘a terrible slaughter’, and I think was something he had to deal with after - but again if he didn’t shoot them, then they would have taken him without any second thought at all - that’s what they were sent for.”
After he was arrested Frank was incarcerated in Stafford Prison and Frongoch internment camp. During the War of Independence, he was in and out of prison for five years, and it was here he amassed a stockpile of personal letters, which gave a contemporaneous insight into his life.
Another vital source were military records, where he unearthed an extensive surveillance file compiled on the “most disloyal” Shouldice family compiled by MI5, military and ‘G’ Division detectives at Dublin Castle.
These surveillance records provided Frank with yet another surprising insight into his family. Frank’s younger sister Ena worked as a telegraphist in the GPO and was “very republican minded”. Surprisingly, at the time of the Rising she returned home to Ballaghaderreen on a family visit for the Easter holidays, her absence from the conflict, Frank concedes remains “a bit of a mystery”.
However, it did little to help her cause with the authorities in the paranoia of post-Rising Dublin. She was put under surveillance, and Dublin Castle mounted a campaign to get her removed from the GPO.
“They said this woman is a spy and we need to get her out of there. Amazingly the GPO stood up for her, said she’s a really good worker.”
Intelligence gatherers were intercepting Ena’s mail, and they found details of senior Republican figure, Harry Boland, who of course went on to become a TD in the first Dáil Éireann, and will be recalled by those who saw the movie Michael Collins. In 1917 the pair were engaged to be married.
“Harry was mad about her, this was all before Kitty Kiernan,” Frank clarifies.
“She was having doubts about the engagement so she wrote to her brother in New York, Jim, who was an attorney.”
Frank describes it as a “deeply personal troubled letter looking for help”.
“She wasn’t convinced she loved him and she had met an English man the previous year, and it was just plaguing her - was he the man for her? Given her sentiments she felt she couldn’t marry and English man and yet it troubled her.”
However the letter never reached her brother in the States MI5 intercepted and kept it in the family file.
“I found it very affecting because she wasn’t involved in it but she got dragged into it,” said Frank.
The authorities also got their wish in terms of Ena’s professional life.
“They eventually got her out but it took about two and a half years - that was after she had a break down, the stress finally got to her.”
She did manage to pull herself together, apparently after her brothers were arrested during the War of Independence. She got work with Sinn Féin where she retained her lifelong friendship with Boland, but she was destined to remain single.
The War of Independence gave way to the civil war, but Frank and Jack refused to dust down their rifles.
“They just refused to take up against the fellas they fought with, and that was something I was very proud of,” says Frank.
He suspects this may have contributed to his Grandpa’s reticence in discussing his rebel history. “The whole thing was skewed by what happened in the civil war, because it overtook what had preceded it.”
According to Frank’s diaries, the scale of the national the commemorations in 1966 for the 50th anniversary of the Rising came as a pleasant surprise to the surviving volunteers. “Leading up to it they were used to the whole thing being treated with some level of indifference, even some mild hostility, but then there was a huge show on in ’66 and they were actually delighted that there was some form of recognition, which pleased them, but obviously by that stage they had lost a lot of their comrades and Jack had died the year before. But then when they got into ‘67, ‘68 it was back to as you were - it was a small commemoration, largely ignored, and they just fell back to relying on each other.”
“They were temperate, modest, even humble people who didn’t want to promote themselves as if they were the saviours, it was just that this was something they did.”
Frank Jnr enjoyed the recent national celebrations over the Easter weekend, but adds wistfully: “How wonderful it would have been if they had got some of that gratitude when they were alive.”