O'Malley, Ernie  

On Another Man’s Wound


The one classic work to have emerged from the violence that led to the foundation of the state. – John McGahern

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On Another Man's Wound, its title taken from an old Ulster proverb, 'it's easy to sleep on another mans wound', was first published in 1936 and has become the classic account of the years 1916-21. It captures the essence of Ireland at the time, the way people lived, their attitudes, their beliefs, the songs they sang, the legends they knew. O'Malley pictures the Irish landscape magnificently, and his cameo sketches of the great personalities of the Rising and the war that followed bring them into instant focus.


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Easter Monday, a holiday, was warm, and many people went to the races, to the Hill of Howth, Killiney, or to the mountains. I walked across the city over the Liffey to the south side, intending to visit the older portions of Dublin.

I passed by Trinity College; the heavy oaken doors were closed. In O’Connell Street large groups of people were gathered together. From the flagstaff on top of the General Post Office, the GPO, floated a new flag, a tricoloured one of green, white and orange, the colours running out from the mast.
‘What’s it all about?’ I asked a man who stood near me, a scowl on his face.
‘Those boyhoes, the Volunteers, have seized the post office. They want nothing less than a Republic,’ he laughed, scornfully. ‘They’ve killed some Lancers; but they’ll soon run away when the soldiers come.’
Thin strands of barbed wire ran out in front of the GPO. Two sentries in green uniforms and slouched hats stood on guard with fixed bayonets. They seemed cool enough. Behind them the windows had been smashed. Heavy mailbags half filled the spaces, rifle barrels projected, officers in uniform with yellow tabs could be seen hurrying through the rooms. Outside, men were carrying in heavy bundles. ‘Explosives, I bet, or ammunition,’ said a man beside me. Others unloaded provisions and vegetables and carried the food inside. On the flat roof sentries patrolled to and fro. Men on motor bicycles, uniformed and in civilian clothes, arrived frequently and the sentries made a lane for them through the crowd.

I was walking home when I met three boys I knew from Trinity College. Trinity had been founded by Queen Elizabeth and had been built and maintained mainly on confiscated Irish lands. Its tone had always been anti-Irish, arrogantly pro-British, and it had always linked itself to Dublin Castle. The students all wore their college ties, black and red, carried themselves with a swagger and seemed very pleased with life in general.
‘What do you think of those damn Sinn Féiners?’ said one. One night not long before, when both of us were tight, I had helped him to climb the college wall and railings. He had no trace of brogue, but a polished ‘garrison accent’.
‘I don’t know,’ I said, ‘but they will soon be chased out by the military.’
‘We are collecting our people, as we want to defend Trinity. It may be attacked. Will you come along? We’ll give you a rifle. There are plenty there belonging to the OTC.’
‘I’m going home now, but I will be back to see you later,’ I said.
‘You better hurry or you may not be able to get through. Cheerio!’ and they walked away.
As I continued on my way I met another boy whom I knew. He was jubilant. ‘There will be fighting,’ he said. ‘We have expected it for a long time past. There’s going to be dirty work at the crossroads.’
So he was in favour of the rebels. He was a student at the School of Art. We had never discussed politics; I had not any to discuss, save to laugh at other people’s opinions.
‘Well, I am going back to Trinity in the evening. I was offered a rifle,’ and I chuckled. Was it not pleasant to have a rifle and to feel that there was going to be excitement? This was a lark. He stopped suddenly and looked at me hard.
‘Why? What is Trinity to you?’
‘I said I would go back there to defend it.’
‘But it’s not your university. Remember you’ll have to shoot down Irishmen, your own countrymen. You bear them no hatred. If you go in there you cannot leave; and, mark my words, you’ll be sorry ever afterward. Think it over.’
I parted from him and went home thinking of what he had said.

Rumours circulated and recirculated, changing as they were passed on. The Four Courts had been seized and Stephen’s Green; Dublin Castle had been captured. The country had risen, men from outlying districts were marching on Dublin. Other positions in the city had been occupied.

I walked round in a detached manner. I had no feeling for or against, save irritation at those fellows for doing the unexpected, seizing the Post Office and the other buildings.

Groups of people stood and talked. Everyone had something to say and something to add. ‘Only for Eoin MacNeill’s countermanding order there would be more of those men in there. It’s a shame to rush young boys into trouble,’ said a neatly dressed woman. On Sunday I had read an order in the morning papers from Eoin MacNeill, president of the Irish Volunteers, and their Chief of Staff, countermanding the manoeuvres which were to be held all over the country on Easter Sunday.

During the night stray shooting, then spells of silence. Next day troops from the Curragh shelled positions near the Phoenix Park from the abattoir, and drove the defenders towards the city. The George Royals, who had been out for a route march the day before, had not returned to their homes. The anxious loyalists heard that some of them had been killed. ‘The cowards, to fire on old men!’ Perhaps the trouble, the rebellion, was going to last. People thought of food and tried to buy extra supplies. Prices had risen; only small amounts were sold. The anger was loosed on the rebels. ‘Why don’t the military act?’ An element of doubt now. The mobile column from the Curragh, with another unit, had reinforced the Dublin garrison. Close on 5,000 troops in the city. Perhaps the rebels had received help.

The troops were slowly surrounding the city, hemming in the rebels and trying to isolate their posts.
All Ireland was under martial law, we learned, so there must have been trouble in the country. Rumours and more rumours. The Germans had landed in the south and were marching inland. German submarines had come up the Liffey. The rebels in the country had surrendered. The rebels were nearing Dublin.
Rifle-fire began slowly, increasing in scale, then the deliberateness of volley firing and the sharp, quick continuous sound of machine-guns. The fighting had begun in earnest. The troops had advanced beyond the canals which almost ring the city; the bridges were held by different regiments.

‘How’s the fight going?’ I asked.
‘We hold Boland’s Mill, the College of Surgeons and posts on the south side. The English have landed and are trying to fight their way through, but they have been held up.’
‘And when they get through?’
‘Oh, well, when they do it will be hot here.’ He said goodbye in Irish and walked towards the GPO.
I went back home in the early morning and got into bed, unnoticed save by my brothers. I felt faint stirrings of sympathy as I wrote in my diary. I did not feel indifferent now to the men holding Dublin.
The shelling and noise increased. The people seemed a little cowed, as if they did not understand what it was all about. Civilians fell wounded here and there, the presence of death was close. Military posts pushed on slowly down the city. Spent bullets fell around and the whirring noise of live ones could be heard. I tried to get down to the centre of the city, but I could not get through the cordons. In the evening I was in a whirl; my mind jumped from a snatch of song to a remembered page of economic history. I walked up and down the garden at the back of our house. Distant sounds of firing had new sounds that echoed in my head. They meant something personal; they made me angry. The men down there were right, that I felt sure of. They had a purpose which I did not share. But no one had a right to Ireland except the Irish. In the city Irishmen were fighting British troops against long odds. I was going to help them in some way.
The note of resentment softened a little among the people. I heard expressions of sympathy ‘for those poor devils in their rat-traps’. ‘Damn it, anyhow,’ said a man, as if discovering it for the first time, ‘they’re Irish – they’re our own.’ I felt the same, but I did not know how to help.

In the morning smoke could be seen, and flames. It was terrible to watch. Why had I not known about the fight earlier? I thought of all the chances I had had of joining the Irish Volunteers; instead I had laughed and scoffed. Now when I wanted to help I could not. A Dublin Fusilier, a friend, came to visit us during the day. He drank his large glasses of whiskey and was eagerly listened to. He was an authority. His officers had told him: ‘Every man you see in green uniform, regard him as a German soldier, as an invader, and shoot him down.’
‘We examine all suspects,’ he said, ‘and a bruise on anyone’s shoulder means that he has been using a long-barrelled Mauser. I’d like to stick them up against a wall instead of taking them prisoners.’ He was hailed by many, who were anxious to shake hands, as he walked away.
Rumour said the headquarters in the GPO had been burnt out, that the men had surrendered, that they had escaped by boring their way through the walls of houses down to the side streets.
The prisoners were transferred to the different Dublin barracks; raids and arrests took place and prisoners came to Dublin from all parts of Ireland. The bitterness of the people against the Volunteers was tinged with a little admiration. They had fought well against the regular troops. Many hoped they would all be hanged or shot, and said so to everyone they met. Stories of the fighting circulated and of the murders of civilians in the North King Street area, where the troops had been unable to break through. The number of men holding Dublin was found to be less than 1,100, whilst the British had from 12,000–15,000.
Four days after the surrender a brief announcement: three men had been shot at dawn – Pádraig Pearse, Tom Clarke, Thomas MacDonagh. Next day four were executed and the following day one, Major John MacBride. I had felt resentment at the death of the others; now a strange rage replaced it. I had known MacBride. He had been to our house a week before the Rising and had laughed when I told him I would soon join the British Army. He had patted my shoulder and said, ‘No you won’t.’ I wandered around all day wondering what I could do to help, cursing under my breath, meeting few I could feel any sympathy with, for my friends were all hostile to the spirit of the Rising.

Some of the people resented the executions. The men had fought well, their prisoners had been well cared for, they had held the capital for six days. Something strange stirred in the people, some feeling long since buried, a sense of communion with the fighting dead generations, for the dead walked around again. Even the soldiers who wished to make further examples felt the anger of the people. Tricolour badges were worn on coats, caps and hats; songs were whistled and sung. ‘The Soldier’s Song’ began to be known; soon one could hear it in the streets. ‘Who Fears to Speak of Easter Week?’ replaced ‘Who Fears to Speak of ’98?’

Songs were copied by hand, or typewritten, and handed around. Poems were learned by heart. The surge of a rebirth of feeling, of a national spring in the air. The fierce exultance of song expressing a buried national feeling.
General John Maxwell, the British Commander-in-Chief, was known as ‘Bloody Maxwell’. Photographs of the executed leaders were in every small shop. Names of men who had been practically unknown two weeks before were now on the lips and in the hearts of many. P. H. Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh and Joseph Mary Plunkett were poets. …

The university was changed now for me – new associations, new affiliations. Some of the boys had been ‘out’, and had escaped arrest; others who had been in the country had not received orders. I reconstructed my world slowly. We were being hammered red-hot in the furnace of the spirit and a spark was bound to fly and disclose us to each other, with a word, a look, a chance remark.

A medical of my year asked me to join his company. ‘It’s on the north side, in the first battalion area, and it will begin to meet in a few days’ time. I’ll bring you along with me.’ In the days that passed we smiled knowingly at each other, for we kept a secret that nobody else was aware of.
I met him near Parnell Square and he brought me to the Gaelic League rooms. The front door was half open. Inside seated on a table was a man idly swinging his legs, with an evening paper in his hand. He eyed us sharply, recognised my companion and grasped his hand warmly, then he nodded his head towards a room at the end of the hall. We entered; the room was a large one, the blinds were drawn and gas mantles without globes lit up the space. Over the mantelpiece was a blackboard; seated on chairs were eight or ten men, some well dressed, others in shabby clothes. At a table between the windows two men were writing on a wooden, unpainted table. We walked towards them, my companion saluted and shook hands with one of the men. He had a ruddy face and huge shoulders.
‘Your name has been submitted and approved of,’ he said, turning towards me. ‘You know the objects of the Irish Volunteers?’
‘Yes, I do.’
‘Well, read this first, and then sign your name.’ He shoved forward a printed leaflet which stated the objects of the organisation:
1. To secure and maintain the rights and liberties common to all the people of Ireland.
2. To train, discipline and equip for this purpose an Irish Volunteer Force.
3. To unite in the service of Ireland, Irishmen of every creed and of every party and class.
I, the undersigned, desire to be enrolled for service in Ireland as a member of the Irish Volunteer Force. I subscribe to the Constitution of the Irish Volunteers, and pledge my willing obedience to my superior officers. I declare that in joining the Irish Volunteer Force I set before myself the stated objects of the Irish Volunteers and no others.
I read down the sheet and signed my name.


ISBN 9781901737363

About the Author

Ernie O'Malley was born in Castlebar, Co. Mayo, in 1897 and was prominent in the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War. He was for a time editor of The Bell, and was a close friend and supporter of Jack B. Yeats. Ernie O'Malley was given a State funeral with full military honors when he died in Dublin in March 1957.


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