The Foreign Fighters of 1916

Now that some of the Women of 1916 have been highlighted, it’s time to move on to another group that has been largely  left out of the history books when it comes to The Easter Rising. Many brave rebels are celebrated throughout the world every year at this time…but what is ignored by most is that the fighters were not exclusively Irish. There were more than a hundred foreign soldiers who assisted in the Rising and while some were 2nd or 3rd generation Irish there were others who had no Irish blood whatsoever. They came from all over Europe and the rest of the world to join forces against the English and were some of the fiercest warriors in the conflict.

It’s easy to forget that some of the highest ranking leaders and most powerful Republicans of that time were also foreign born or not first generation Irish themselves. James Connolly was Scottish. Tom Clarke, Mary MacSwiney, Constance Markievicz, Desmond Fitzgerald, Maud Gonne, Eamon De Valera, and Margaret Skinnider were all either born outside of Ireland or did not live there for long stretches of time. It did not stop them from fighting for a free nation and while some had Irish blood, it was pretty far away and murky at times.

In all cases, these people and many more chose the green, even though they were not born to it. While it is not exactly true to say that it was an international rebel force who fought in 1916, it is totally unforgivable to not acknowledge the hundreds of people who were willing to aid in the fight against the English, whether they had Irish heritage or not. Though many had hoped that the Germans would send aid, soldiers, and arms, the Germans did not follow through. Instead, help came from England, Scotland, other parts of Europe and even America, where they had created their own chapters of the Volunteers, the Citizen Army, the Gaelic League and Cumann na mBan. When they landed in Ireland a few months or weeks before the Rising, many of the male forces set up camp in Kimmage where they lived under the radar and trained for the upcoming battle.

Michael Collins referred to them as “The Refugees” – which they resented – preferring instead to be addressed as “the Kimmage Garrison”, which was the name Patrick Pearse bestowed on them. Estimates place the garrison numbers at around 80 or 90 men and many of them found themselves in the GPO during Easter week. When word of the Rising reached the camp at Kimmage, 59 men boarded a tram in Harold’s Cross, paying their fare and telling the driver not to stop until they had reached O’Connell bridge. On the tram, they sang patriotic Irish songs with proud British and Scottish accents and when they disembarked, they joined another hundred or so volunteers in time to storm the General Post Office. One of the first men inside was Johnny “Blimey” O’Connor, from London and by the time the dust settled, there were men from London, Liverpool, Manchester, and Glasgow barricading the building and rubbing shoulders with the leaders of the Irish Rising. The rest of the foreign men joined other strongholds throughout the city. W. J. Brennan-Whitmore, the Commander of rebel forces in the Imperial hotel, praised them saying there was “No better or braver body of Irishman“, even though he was perfectly aware that they were not natives of Ireland. The Kimmage Garrison lost six people throughout the week – incurring one of the highest casualty rates of the battle and they had many surreal stories about their fight. Joe Good, another man from London who spent a great deal of time in the GPO, even witnessed an English soldier he knew well from home fall during the battle.

There were also at least 10 women from other countries who came into Ireland to fight in the Rising. When Margaret Skinnider arrived from Scotland she had detonators in her coat and under her hat. All of the women began preparations for the Rising as soon as they landed and many risked their lives repeatedly in the fight. At first many of them (and the men for that matter) were denied entry to the rebel strongholds even when they had important messages, due to the suspicion caused by their accents. Eventually they were integrated into the rebel forces throughout the city. Margaret Skinnider nearly gave her life for her adopted homeland that week, as did the Nunan brothers in the GPO and many, many more.

Most of the funding for the Rising came from the United States and about a dozen men came from America as well. Throughout the week more fighters came in from other places such as Poland, Sweden, and Finland, in addition to the men and women from England and Scotland. However, even with all the extra help, by the time the Uprising ended, the rebels were outnumbered by the English 20 to 1. One man from Finland barely spoke English when he entered the post office but after spending the week fighting, he knew how to say the rosary in perfect Irish. That’s a humorous anecdote but it also shows how integrated he became and how fierce the fighting was.

When the leaders began to talk of surrender, the loudest voices of opposition came from the foreign fighters in the GPO. They threatened to mutiny and continue on despite the decision. Tom Clarke, Michael Collins, and Joseph Plunkett all failed to convince the men to give up their arms – and in the end it took the calm logic of Sean MacDiarmada to get them to obey the orders to stand down. Their sentiment was echoed throughout the city as the word spread and the men of the Kimmage Brigade were some of the last to hand over their weapons.

The Rising is remembered every year, but next year is the Centenary celebration and it is expected to draw people from all over the world, just like the actual battle did in 1916. It’s incredibly important for those of us who choose the green to remember that we come from a long line of many others who had a deep and passionate love for Ireland and that we can count some of the most powerful names in Irish history in our numbers. It’s time for everyone—Irish or not—to celebrate that loudly and proudly.

5 thoughts on “The Foreign Fighters of 1916

  1. Great post and good to bring these other Irish heroes the attention they deserve. Well done. You may be interested in similar posts on this subject @Celticthoughts.com

  2. Eileen Healy says:

    Nice to see items from another perspective. One person who took on the cause of Irish freedom ( from another country) that stands out among others for me is Ian Mc Kenzie Kennedy whom I first heard of in1986 when I purchased a pamplet on The Andrew Fletcher society

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