There must be quite a few people still living who as young men or women have witnessed or taken part in events which now form part of history. Whilst these events are still fresh in their minds, it should be the object of members of a Historical Society to research, record and if possible have their findings published so that these eye witness accounts should be preserved for posterity.
As an example, I have recorded the account of the adventures of two young Portadown men, John Dawson and Charles Montgomery, who went down to Dublin on Easter Sunday 1916 and were caught up in the opening events of the Easter Rising.
John Dawson was born at Breagh, Gilford Road. He served his time to the linen trade in the firm of Spence, Bryson & Co. Ltd., Portmore Street, Portadown and moved to Markethill in 1909 as Manager of Spence Bryson's newly acquired linen weaving factory which had been purchased from the Executors of David H. Sinton, deceased.
Charles Montgomery was born in Lower Seagoe and in 1916 was working in his father's grocery and provision shop, T. J. Montgomery, High Street, Portadown. This shop is now occupied by the Nationwide Building Society.
Approaching the Easter holidays 1916, John Dawson and Charles Montgomery decided to take a holiday down south, but their time was limited as Charles Montgomery had to be back in the shop on the Tuesday morning.
The two young men were experienced motor cyclists and both owned Triumph 350 c.c. machines which was their mode of transport on the holiday. The mechanical details of their motor cycles are interesting as compared with modern machines. The rear wheel was driven from the engine through a friction clutch by means of a reinforced rubber V belt. There was no gear box, but a certain amount of control was affected by slipping the clutch when moving off and the judicious use of the hand operated throttle mounted on the handle bars. The brakes were friction rim type similar to a push bicycle. The brakes on the front wheel were controlled by hand and the rear brakes by foot. This was before the days of the 'kick starter' and the cycles were started by pushing and then jumping on when the engine had fired. The head lamp was an acetylene gas type, the gas being produced by the action of dripping water on carbide.
The two men started from Portadown at 7.00 a.m. on Sunday morning and after an uneventful trip, arrived in Dublin around 11.00 a.m. On entering the city they made their way to the North Star Hotel, Amiens Street, and after arranging to stay the night there, left their motor cycles in the hotel yard.
During Easter Sunday they explored Dublin on foot. They did notice groups of men in various types of uniform and a military bearing around the streets. These uniformed groups would have been members of the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen. Army a trade union inspired organisation with Headquarters at Liberty Hall. These two volunteer groups belonged to the armed nationalist organisations, but although their existence was viewed with considerable disquiet by the government at that time no active steps had been taken to suppress them.
On Easter Monday morning the weather was fine and sunny and they decided to take a trip to Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) by tram which started from Nelson's Pillar in Sackville Street (now O'Connell Street) and set off about 10.00 a.m. After an early lunch and stroll along Kingstown pier they went to the station to get the train back to Amiens Street station, but found that the train service had been suspended. They switched to the electric tram and found that the tramway system was being taken over by the Army and the Police (Royal Irish Constabulary known as the R.I. C.). They did however manage to get onto a tram packed with Police and they headed for Dublin.
At Ballsbridge the tram stopped and the driver decided not to proceed further because as it turned out some form of rioting or armed insurrection had commenced between that point and Dublin city centre. They were now faced with getting back to the North Star Hotel on foot. It subsequently turned out that a detachment of the Irish Volunteers under their commandant, Eamon de Valera, had taken over the area around Mount Street with Bolands Mills one of their strong points. The object of this force was to prevent British troop reinforcements, who might land at Kingstown making their way to the central area of Dublin for a concerted attack on the Post Office and other rebel held strong points. At this time the two men did not know that armed rebellion had commenced at noon the same day by the seizure of the Post Office in Sackville Street which became the headquarters for the insurgent forces.
The two men after consulting some of the bystanders made their way northward through a maze of streets to the river Liffey, then west along the quays and crossed the river from the south bank to the north by Butt bridge. From there it was only a short distance to Amiens Street and on the way they passed the Irish Labour Party's headquarters, Liberty Hall, with a board over the front entrance emblazoned with the slogan "We serve neither King nor Kaiser, but Ireland."
Having arrived back at Amiens Street, the Port-adown men decided they could not possibly set out for home without direct personal knowledge of what was going on in Dublin, so they walked up Talbot Street and North Earl Street into Sackville Street. There they were confronted with the amazing sight of armed rebellion against the established government and the break down of law and order. The background to this situation was the occupation some four hours earlier of the Post Office by a combined force of the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army under the command of James Connolly.
The Post Office is a fine classical style building designed by the out-standing Armagh architect, Francis Johnston. It is situated on west side of Sackville Street close to where Nelson's Pillar stood. On taking over this building at noon, the Volunteers had run up two flags on the left corner an emerald green with a golden harp. Underneath the harp in large letters was emblazoned 'Irish Republic' in gaelic lettering. On the right corner a flagstaff carried the tricolour in green, white and gold bars which subsequently became the official flag of the Irish Free State, later Eire and finally the Republic of Ireland. This flag raising ceremony was followed by the reading by Patrick H. Pearse of the Proclamation of the establishment of the Provisional Government of the Irish Republic. This was done from the roadway in front of the Post Office. It was received in almost complete silence by a puzzled and indifferent crowd.
At 1.15 p.m. a company of Lancers led by their Colonel, had cantered down Sackville Street from the north end. On approaching the Post Office they were fired on by the insurgents who had held their fire until the troop of Lancers was just past Nelson's Pillar. Four of the troopers toppled from their saddles, three of them dead as they hit the ground and the fourth wounded. Two horses were also killed by rifle bullets and lay at the foot of Nelson's Column until after the final surrender.
At the time the Portadown men were visiting Sackville Street, the crowd had commenced looting the shops. John Dawson clearly remembers Noblett's confectionery shop, situated at the corner of Sackville Street and North Earl Street, being cleared of its stock, mainly by crowds of women and children from the nearby side streets. At this point someone shouted "They are coming", presumably meaning the police or military and immediately the looters fled into doorways and side streets. John Dawson and Charlie Montgomery at the time quickly decided to decamp from the scene and in so doing John Dawson had to jump over the body of a woman lying in the street. However this proved a false alarm and, as no police of soldiers appeared, the crowd of looters soon returned and before long the adjacent shops, which included Dunn's hat shop, Frewen & Ryan's hosiery shop and the footwear shop of the Cable Boot Co., were quickly stripped of their stock. Charlie Montgomery remembers a woman making her way down North Earl Street holding the two bottom corners of her apron to form a container or pouch for shoes she had looted from the Cable Boot Co.'s premises. During this time there was sporadic sniper fire between the troops and the insurgents in the Post Office.
As the afternoon was wearing on, the two men somewhat reluctantly decided they would have to make tracks for home so they returned to Amiens Street and collected their motor cycles from the yard of the North Star Hotel. They were directed how to join up with the Drumcondra Road by passing through a series of side streets thus avoiding the areas affected by the rebellion. On reaching the Drumcondra Road they turned north and in a short time arrived at the village of Swords. They called at the village Post Office with the intention of sending a wire home to say they were safe and would be arriving home late in the night. However they learnt that the telephone wires had been cut and no messages could be sent. The people at the Post Office were keen to receive news of what was going on in Dublin as very little information had filtered through.
The two men then pushed on north through Balbriggan, Drogheda and Dunleer. On the edge of the village of Castlebellingham they rounded a bend and came across an assembly of horse-drawn vehicles and motor cars at the side of the road. They were ordered to stop by a man in volunteer uniform and an authoritative air, who kept them covered with a pistol. He questioned them as to who they were, where they were coming from and what was their destination.
John Dawson related that if they said they were from Portadown and heading home they were sure to be shot, so he said "Armagh" instead. At this time and indeed to the present day, Portadown has the reputation throughout the country of being the most strongly Orange and Loyalist town in Ireland. Naturally this association would not have been of any assistance to them in getting clear with their lives. After this interrogation they were handed over to the rank and file of the group of Volunteers with instructions to shoot them if they attempted to escape.
This was perhaps the worst part of their ordeal as the Volunteers had shot guns and other miscellaneous weapons directed at them by men with little or no experience of handling firearms and there was the very real danger that one of them would let fly, perhaps accidentally. After further altercation they were allowed to proceed on their journey northward and were made to swear that they would not tell anybody in Dundalk of their adventures at Castlebellingham. They were also told that if they were stopped further north by the Volunteers, they were to give the password, Limerick, which would allow them to proceed without further molestation. Just before they moved off, the Commandant of the Volunteers ordered two British Army Officers in a sports car who had also been stopped to drive to Dundalk and make arrangements with the Stationmaster there to send out transport to pick up the stranded passengers of the cars that had been commandeered by the leader of the Volunteers.
It subsequently turned out that the Volunteer Commandant who held them at gun point was John (Sean) Francis MacEntee. It is of particular interest that he was an Ulsterman, having been born in King Street, Belfast; the son of a publican. He was educated at St Malachy's College and received technical education in Electrical Engineering at Belfast College of Technology. It was as an Electrical Engineer that he took up an appointment in the Dundalk Engineering Works, as assistant to the town's Electrical Engineer. Shortly after coming to Dundalk he came in contact with the Nationalist, Sinn Fein and was subsequently involved in the formation of the military organisation, the Dundalk Company of the Irish Volunteers. It was as an officer of this force that he took part in the 1916 Easter Rising, first in North Leinster and on the failure of the local Volunteers to make any effective con-tribution, he made his way to Dublin and on the Wednesday April 26th he joined the rebels still holding out in the Post Office, Sackville Street and fought it out with them until the final evacuation and surrender on Saturday 29th.
The object of Sean MacEntee's road block out-side Castlebellingham was to stop and commandeer motor cars, so that the Dundalk Volunteers would have transport to take them to the Hill of Tara where they had arranged to rendezvous with Volunteers from the neighbouring counties. Several of the commandeered cars belonged to Ulster people who were coming home from the Fairyhouse races, an annual Easter Monday event. As the Volunteers were about to move off in their cars a shot was fired, whether accidentally or on purpose and by whom was never clear. The one bullet killed an R.I.C. Constable called Magee and wounded a British Army Officer, Capt.. Dunville. Sean MacEntee was held responsible for this killing and was imprisoned in England for a period and released in 1917. Thereafter he was engaged in political life until his retirement in 1969. During these years he was a Sinn Fein M.P. in 1918, a member of Dail Eireann (TD) and later held ministerial positions as Minister of Industry and Commerce, Minister of Local Government and Public Health, Minister of Finance and Deputy Premier of the Republic of Ireland. He published a book of poems in 1917 and a book on his part in the Easter Rising 'Episode at Easter' in 1966. This very briefly is the background of the Belfast born electrical engineer who rose to high and distinguished ministerial position in the Republic of Ireland.
The two Portadown men, once clear of the road block at Castlebellingham, pushed on towards home by the main road through Dundalk and Newry and arrived back in Portadown around midnight (Mon-Tues)). They were amongst the first few people who managed to get through from Dublin to the North after the fighting had started. As the telephone wires had been cut early on Easter Monday and wireless was still in its infancy with a very short range, official news of the rebellion had not proceeded them and for several days people with friends and relations in Dublin came to them for news of what had taken place in Dublin on Easter Monday.
This is the first time that the adventures of John Dawson and Charles Montgomery at Easter 1916 have been recorded. These events happened fifty-eight years ago and both men are now in their eighties. John Dawson lives in Loughgall and Charles Montgomery at Gilford Road, Portadown.