Seán Heuston is yet another young man who is scarcely known as one of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising. He does not share the historical iconic status that is accorded to James Connolly or Patrick Pearse, for example. He was and still remains one of many leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising who is "a shadowy figure" about whom little is known.
Heuston was born in Dublin along with his three siblings. It has been said that his mother lived with her two sisters in Jervis Street, a slum area of Dublin, during this time. She continued to live there with her four children with all three women sharing the care of these four Heuston children.
Seán Heuston was enrolled at the very highly regarded Christian Brothers School. He was an excellent student and became a fluent speaker in the Irish language -- truly a master of the oral and written language. He excelled at other subjects as well and achieved excellent results in various state examinations. From there, he went to work for the Great Southern and Western Railways working as a clerk where he was highly respected.
His father has been recorded in the censuses of 1901 and 1911 as not being a member of this household. He did not, however, disappear from the Heustons' lives. Records exist to show that Seán Heuston’s himself wrote to his father some days before he was executed. His mother, Marie, wrote to her husband after the execution to inform him of the death of their eldest son. As members of the "urban poor of Victorian Dublin," it is impossible to trace or penetrate the inner workings of the Heuston social traditions. They left few, if any, traces behind them. This is, of course, typical of the poor in this era. Most would just move on leaving behind no traces.
Culturally, however, there is evidence that education and religion played an important part in the Heuston family. Seán's eldest sister, Mary, became a school teacher, and then went on to join a religious order. Micheál, his younger brother, became a Dominican Priest.
Being a young man who had been noted by his employer’s as having "an upwardly socially mobile trajectory," he was promoted and transferred to Limerick. This is where he then joined and became an active member of Na Fianna Éireann, which had been founded by Bulner Hobson and Countess Markievicz in 1909 as a youth organization. Openly militaristic but not considered to be political, it was hierarchical in nature. Heuston rose rapidly through the ranks (unknown to his employers, however, as they were staunchly pro-establishment). It was in Limerick that he, too, became a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). Along with his excellent memory and knowledge of Irish History, his administration skills were soon noticed and put to good use by both Na Fianna Éireann and the Irish Republican Brotherhood. He used his own native language whenever possible. His charm and drive were such that he began recruiting young men into both Na Fianna Éireann and the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Heuston became synonymous with the rapid and successful establishment of Na Fianna in Limerick.
By 1913, Heuston had transferred back to Dublin where he was based at Kingsbridge Station. His arrival back in the city of his birth coincided with the formation of the Irish Volunteers. His skills already well known in the hierarchical establishment of the IRB, he received a commission within the new organisation and was given the task of doing what he did best -- recruiting and military training of the rank-and-file members.
Records note that he must have led a double life. By day he was, as ever, the diligent and trusted employee of the Great Southern and Western Railways; by night and at weekends, he was spending his time training the rank-and-file on quasi- military marches in the surrounding Dublin Hills. His rise through the ranks of the Na Fianna Éireann and the Volunteers was considered to be phenomenal, and he was soon promoted to Director of Training and a member of the Central Council in 1915.
By 1916, Heuston was a full and accepted member of the inner circle of the IRB, and a successful and established leader in the Volunteers. He held down several roles while continuing to a trusted member of the Great Southern and Western Railways. Prior to the Easter Rising, he was promoted to be the leader of "D Company" of the First Battalion of the Volunteers in Dublin. It is not clear if he was on familiar terms with the other leaders of the Easter Rising. However, what is clear is that he was obviously a trusted Lieutenant of both Pearse and Connolly. The documents that he was carrying had both Patrick Pearse's and James Connolly's names and signatures at the time of his arrest. This would most probably have contributed to his ultimate fate.
Heuston was the officer commanding the Volunteers in the Mendacity Institution (now renamed Heuston's Fort) on the south side of Dublin. He was acting under orders from his commanding officer, James Connolly. He was told to hold this position with the Volunteers for three to four hours in order to delay the advance of the British Troops. His job was to disrupt and inhibit any British troop movements toward the city centre General Post Office (GPO) for as long as possible. This is where the main body of the fighting was taking place, and by inhibiting the British Forces it would give the advantage to the Irish Republican Brotherhood.
Heuston did, in fact, inspire his heavily besieged cohort of Volunteers to continue to hold out for almost three days. This in spite of the fact that he was hopelessly undermanned. He had totally inadequate supplies of arms, food and, not least, military experience in live action. Sending a dispatch to his commanding officer, James Connelly, Heuston wrote that it was impossible to hold out any longer. Connolly was amazed at their resilience and insisted on sending back a congratulatory note to Heuston, not knowing at that time that Patrick Pearse had ordered a surrender.
Caught by the British troops who spat upon and violated them in the most vicious of ways (because there had only been 26 Volunteers holding off a battalion of 300 British troops), the Volunteers were made to pay dearly for their defiance. Heuston was taken prisoner and transferred to Richmond Barracks. He was tried by court martial on the 7th of May, 1916, and sentenced to be executed the next morning.
On the morning of his execution, Father Albert, O.F.M Cap. was sent for in order that he might pray with Heuston. This is how he spent his final hours. Father Albert wrote an account of those hours up to and including the execution (too long and emotional to be printed here). The following is just a brief snapshot:
“Never did I realise that men could fight so bravely, and die so beautifully, and so fearlessly as did the Heroes of Easter Week. On the morning of Sean Heuston's death I would have given the world to have been in his place, he died in such a noble and sacred cause, and went forth to meet his Divine Saviour with such grand Christian sentiments of trust, confidence and love!"
Seán Heuston was 25 years of age when he died. Father Albert was literally a few feet away from his body, having walked all the way with him to the spot where he was to be executed. He was on-hand to administer the last rights of the Catholic Church by anointing him.
Heuston Station in Dublin (pictured at right) is named in his honour.
More from this series:
Mary Thorpe is the author of "That's Just How it Was," available on Amazon, Kindle, Gardner's Wholesale Books UK, Bertems, and Inghams.
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