Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Arthur Shields and the 1916 Rising

How the Abbey actor who later played Padraig Pearse in Hollywood himself took part in the Rebels' last stand in the 1916 Rising 

Arthur Shields c.1920
With the centenary of the 1916 rising only three years away the building on Dublin’s Moore street where the leaders of the Rising decided to end the rebellion has been in the news recently amid plans to turn the building into a museum.   Amongst those present on  Hanlon’s fish shop on Moore street on the final day of the rising was Abbey Theatre actor Arthur Shields.  Shields’ daughter Christine donated his personal papers to the NUI Galway archives service in 2003. 

Arthur Shields and his brother Barry Fitzgerald (real name Will Shields) both appeared in the first production of Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars.  Shields also played Padraig Pearse in John Ford’s 1936 film adaptation of the drama.  

The ruins of the Metropole Hotel and G.P.O. - from a booklet containing photographs of 'Twelve Interesting Views Showing the Ruins of Sackville Street and Adjoining Streets After The Rising'. (Shields Family Papers, NUI Galway).
During the rising Arthur Shields was stationed in the Metropole Hotel on O’Connell Street (now the location of Penny’s). The volunteer garrison abandoned their position in the hotel on Friday 28th April, first making there way into the GPO which was already on fire, then retreating to Moore Street with the GPO garrison including Padraig Pearse and the other leaders of the rising.  While Shields himself didn’t leave a detailed account of his role in the rising his brother in law Charles Saurin who fought along side him made a detailed witness statement for the bureau of military history in 1949.  The Shields Family papers includes a copy of this statement, while the original was recently digitised and made available on line ( see: http://www.bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie/reels/bmh/BMH.WS0288.pdf).

According to Saurin he and Shields along with the rest of the volunteers made their way from house to house along Moore street trough holes knocked in the dividing walls between the houses' basements.  Saurin recalled that “there was the question, as the last bricks and plaster of the hole went crashing out under the blows of sledge-hammers and crowbars, as to whether we might not find the enemy on the other side to hurtle grenades into our midst."

Arthur Shields, Lennox Robinson and Sean O'Casey c. 1935 (Shields Family Papers,NUI Galway)

Eventually Shields and Saurin found themselves in the loft at the back of Hanlon’s fish shop (16 Moore Street) with five other men.  Word reached them that they were to be given what “used to be know as the place of honor in the coming battle” i.e. they were to be first in the firing line.  Saurin describes the plan:

It seems that an attempt was to be made to fight our way out of the Moore Street area and to get to the Williams & Woods' Jam Factory in Great Britain Street from where we were to try and link up with our own forces in the Four Courts.  Apparently the seven of us in the loft at the back of Hanlon's were on a given word to jump out through the open doorway down on to the lane below, fire a volley and charge the barricade.  This was supposed to be a diversion while the main body in full force broke out into Moore Street and stormed a big barricade at the top of the street, and no doubt carried all before it on the direction of Williams & Woods while seven corpses lay in Moore Lane. 
 In the event the break-out plan was abandoned and the decision was taken instead to surrender in order to avoid further bloodshed.  When the time came to surrender the men were advised to dispose of anything that might be regarded as loot:

Loot: Lorna Doone
I could not say that anyone carried, loot. Arthur Shields' commandeered binoculars were of course, for military use. I had used binoculars in the Hotel Metropole which were left behind by some guest there and I in turn had left them on the evacuation.  There had been very fine gold and silver watches left on dressing tables in various rooms in that hotel, as, to my mind, a watch was No. 1 in the list of traditional loot, I had not touched them trough it would have been handy to have known the time during the week.  I was completely at a loss in that respect, for while I had made use of a small clock (to my mind quite distinct from a watch and therefore definitely not to be classed as loot) it had stopped the first time an enemy shell had hit the hotel roof.... towards 4 or 5 o'clock when we were all called together and told to form up inside the buildings, that we were going out. This is all the information we at the back of Hanlons' received. However, as I went through the shop I suddenly recalled that I had indeed some loot and I carefully  hid within the pay desk a copy of Blackmore's "Lorna Doone" which I had discovered in a room in the Metropole. I was reluctant to part with it, though where and when I imagined I was going to read it in the near future I did not know, but Arthur Shields said: "Leave it there, I’ll buy you a copy afterwards". During the years that followed I have occasionally reminded him that he has never since bought me "Lorna Doone".

Clips from John Ford's 1936 adaption of The Plough and the Stars   

After surrendering to the British forces Shields and Saurin a long with other volunteers were marched to Richmond Barracks in Inchicore, on the way they at the corner of Francis Street they  passed “shrieking women from the back streets who called us filthy names and hurled curses at us. ” Later on Thomas Street  they saw “sympathy on the faces of people looking out of the dwellings over the shops. British officers marching on our flanks kept shouting to them: "Close those windows". While at Guinness’s  “shirt-sleeved officials were leaning out of the windows looking at us with superior, contemptuous smiles.”

In the barracks “notables” amongst the volunteers were separated out from the rest ; Shields apparently attracted attention because he wore glasses:

Arthur Shields who wore glasses and who, consequently, in the eyes of the 'G' men, may have looked an intellectual and, therefore, important, was asked his name by the individual who had picked out Willie Pearse, and also where he worked. The Abbey Theatre should have been suspect as one of the birthplaces of twentieth century Irish nationalism, but this did not seem to dawn on the 'G' man and Shields was left beside me, after a final question as to whether be knew Philip Guiry, another Abbey Player.

Barry Fitzgerald in Going My Way
While Willie Pearse was among those sentenced to death and executed for their part in the rising Shields and Saurin were transported to Britain and interned in Frongoch camp, Wales.  Saurin later server as an officer in the Free State Army.  While Shields went on to play lead roles in many Abbey productions during, also acting as the Abbey tour manager for a number of tours of North America.  Eventually he and his brother Barry Fitzgerald settled in California where both acted in Hollywod films.  Barry Fitzgerald one an Oscar in 1945 for his role alongside Bing Crosby in Going My Way.

An online exhibition of Material from the Shields family papers is available here: http://archives.library.nuigalway.ie/shields

Plans for 1916 Rebellion Museum - Moore Street Dublin - Narrated by John Connolly

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