If one photograph sums up the complexity of modern Irish history, it’s this one.
It was likely taken on Saturday April 29, 1916, the sixth and final day of the abortive Easter Rising in Dublin.
In frame are British Army soldiers, who’ve erected a barricade at the junction of Moore Street and Great Britain Street (the present-day Parnell Street) in the north inner city.
The soldiers are firing on a number of houses 200 metres down the street, where the leaders of the insurgency are making a last stand. Within hours of the photograph being taken a nurse and rebel, Elizabeth O’Farrell, would approach the barricade bearing a white flag, carrying terms of surrender.
Not before casualties were inflicted however – among civilians and combatants. One rebel, James Kavanagh, later recalled: “The 18th Royal Irish…shot at everything that moved in the street, and at such short-range their shooting was deadly. I saw three men attempting to cross the street killed by three shots, 1, 2, 3, like that. It’s a wonder they did not shoot [a] little girl but they would surely have shot [her] mother”.
What’s interesting about the Moore Street image is the nationality of the sniping solders.
The troops facing and firing down Moore Street are members of the 18th Royal Irish Regiment. Most of the regiment were Dubliners, many of whom came from the tenements of the north inner city, close to where this picture was taken.
So we see young Irishmen firing on young Irishmen, directed (to the right of the picture) by a British army officer.
In this instance (and many others in Easter week) the combat was carried out by Irishmen on both sides – the rebels who believed they were taking a stand for freedom and the soldiers whose army paychecks fed large families struggling to survive in the Dublin tenements of the time.
Irish history, like Oscar Wilde’s truth, is rarely pure and never simple.
In the years following the Rising such divisions would persist. After Ireland achieved independence in 1921 the status of the Irishmen who fought with the British Army, and who died in their thousands in the First World War, fell far in the public estimation.
As Ireland moves in the coming weeks to commemorate those who planned and effected the Easter Rising, should the half-dozen soldiers firing down Moore Street – and the thousands of their countrymen in similar uniforms – be remembered too, for good or for ill?