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Account of the occupation of Jacob's

The following account of the occupation of Jacob’s is reprinted from W&R Jacob: Celebrating 150 Years of Irish Biscuit Making, by Séamas Ó Maitiú (Woodfield Press, 2001). The extract is reproduced with the kind permission of the author.

During the period from August, 1914 to October, 1918, a total of 388 men from the Dublin factory enlisted in the British army. Of these, twenty-six were killed and a large number wounded. From the Aintree factory and the English depots, 262 enlisted or received commissions and twenty-six were killed and many wounded. The firm regularly sent cakes or tins of biscuits to its employees serving overseas. In November 1914 the Dublin factory loaned a 4-ton Leyland lorry to the Red Cross for despatch to the front in France, where it served in the early months of the war when motor vehicles were in short supply.

It is doubtful if any of the Dublin men fighting in the trenches ever dreamed that war would soon come to their native city, and indeed, to their place of employment in Bishop Street. The Irish Citizen Army, led by James Connolly, which arose from the ashes of the lockout, together with the Irish Volunteers, decided that it was imperative to strike against England while that country was distracted by war in Europe. Easter 1916 was set as the time for a rebellion. The plan was to hold Dublin city centre for as long as possible against the vastly superior forces of the British army, in the hope that the rest of the country would follow the rebels' example and rise.

In order to achieve this, it was necessary to defend the main arteries into the city centre, and so prevent enemy soldiers entering it from the battery of British army barracks that surrounded Dublin, or from the port of Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire). The intention was to seize a number of easily-fortified positions commanding the main routes to the city. Jacob’s biscuit factory presented such a fortress, commanding the route from Portobello Barracks, Rathmines, along Camden Street and Aungier Street into the city.

Easter Monday, 24 April, 1916 was a Bank Holiday, and, as usually happened on such occasions, it was arranged that a small number of Jacob's workers would turn up for work to carry out maintenance of various kinds which could not otherwise be done while the machinery was in motion. These included fitters, firemen, boilermen and outside chimney sweeps who had come in to undertake a job.

Some time between twelve noon and one o'clock that afternoon, a group of 150 men, some armed, broke into the factory on the Bishop Street side. They were commanded by Thomas McDonagh and included Con Colbert and Major John McBride. The following account found in Jacob's archives of the events of that historic week is based on statements made by three employees in the factory. The rebels immediately proceeded directly up the stairs to the top of the building, as if they knew where they were going. A group of workers immediately informed the caretaker, Thomas Orr, and the watchman on duty, Henry Fitzgerald, of the invasion. They immediately phoned George N. Jacob, who was the chairman of the company at the time and one of the managers, Mr Dawson. The communication was made just in time, for moments later the telephone wires in the whole area were cut. Despite the disruption in the city, they managed to arrive at the factory after some time. While this was taking place, one of the volunteer officers collected all the workers and placed them under a guard, at the same time placing a guard at the principal entrances.

After a short time it was decided to allow all the workers to leave the factory, which they did. Thomas Orr takes up the story:

‘The watchman came to me and asked me what he was to do: I advised him to go home with the others, I taking possession of his clock and keys. During his absence for his coat and hat. I was told to leave, which I at once refused to do. I explained that I was caretaker, and no matter what was the result, I could not leave (which they afterwards admired me for) and they moreover told me that in case of an invasion by the military, we were just in as dangerous a position as they were. Well, as I remarked, the watchman had gone for his clothes: when he arrived back the hall door was barricaded and he was detained a prisoner with myself. They then took possession of my apartments and remained there until Sunday 30 April. Fortunately my family had gone for a day’s pleasure.’

The rebels had four other prisoners with them, including two detectives of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, whom they had detained at the premises of Barmack's in New Row.

The rebels went about securing the building by erecting barricades at weak points with all sorts of material, of which a plentiful supply was always on hand. Every available vessel was filled with water and left in a cool place in case the city water supply was cut off.

The watchman, Fitzgerald, was questioned by McBride as to his name, religion and address and, having answered he was asked to allow himself to 'be sworn in as a member of the Sinn Fein Volunteers'. He stated that he was never a member of any organisation, political or otherwise, and that all he wanted was to be released and allowed to go home to his wife and children. 'This answer seemed to cause disappointment' he reflected afterwards.

During their occupation, Orr made three appeals to the rebels, two were granted and one refused. He appealed to the Commandant (McDonagh) to prevent smoking in the factory as far as possible, and he immediately issued orders for smoking to cease. The second appeal concerned fourteen horses that were not being attended to. They were stabled a little distance from the factory itself and each time they needed attention the barricades had to be removed. At first McDonagh agreed to the request, however, when he saw how much potential danger this involved he became reluctant to allow the operation to take place. Orr then requested that he be allowed communicate with George Jacob to see if the horses could be removed, but this was refused. However, whenever the horses were in real danger, McDonagh always allowed them be seen to.

On Tuesday of Easter Week, very early in the morning, several rebels were sent out to obtain provisions. At about eight o'clock they arrived back with the contents of two bread vans, which had just left their bakery, and a large quantity of milk, beef, mutton, bacon and many kinds of tinned food. They also had a quantity of boots and the contents of McEvoy's stores on Redmond's Hill and Larkin's tobacco and chandlery stores, Wexford Street. On the same day, clergymen were admitted to hear confessions and absolve every man, as the rebels expected an attack any moment.

Spirits among the rebels were high and they were sure of victory. However, on Wednesday the mood began to change. That evening a rumour spread that the staff in the Adelaide Hospital were removing all the patients to the back of the hospital to allow the military to occupy the front. Orr stated that if the rumor were true, the rebels would have destroyed the hospital by fire using the large supply of bombs that they had.

On Wednesday, the rebels asked to be shown where the printing plant was, as they wished to snipe at Dublin Castle. At 11 p.m. the occupation of the factory set off the fire alarm which operated a sprinkler. Fitzgerald was aware of the vast quantity of flour that would be destroyed. When he pointed this out to the rebels, they had the water turned off by a plumber they had with them in case repairs were needed.

Orr stated that 'the watchman and myself were sick of listening to their boasts of victory', such as that British money was of no value anymore as their military had been defeated in all directions: or that Holland had proclaimed war on England and France had quit the war, and that was why Russian troops were brought over to France and all such nonsense as this'.

Fitzgerald and Orr were asked to peel potatoes, but they refused, and the two D.M.P. detectives were forced to do so. Fitzgerald and Orr got ill during the week due to inhaling gases and sulphur and ‘the bad sleeping arrangements’. There was no doctor available, only a chemist, and the two prisoners refused to take medicine from him as they feared that it might not be the correct one.

By Thursday it was clear to Orr, by the demeanour of the officers, that things were not proceeding satisfactorily outside, but that the men in general were full of hope, for they were, he claimed, kept in the dark as to what was happening. The rebel headquarters in the factory were in the clerks' cloakroom. On Friday, two clergymen from Church Street came to the factory and were brought to the cloakroom on what appeared to Orr to be some sort of peace mission, for shortly afterwards McDonagh left the factory and held consultations somewhere outside.

On Saturday morning, a cycle company went out on some mission, but returned after twenty minutes very frightened, and one of them, a man by the name of O'Grady, was severely wounded. He was brought to headquarters and examined by a man who was supposed to be a doctor, ‘but whom I think was only a chemist' repeated Orr. After examining him he ordered him to be seen at once by a priest, and to be brought over to the Adelaide Hospital, where he died about 4 o'clock in the evening.

As a result of negotiations, an unconditional surrender was signed by McDonagh and others and read aloud to all the men on Sunday at 2.30 p.m. They were told that they had only an hour to leave the premises. This came as a great surprise to many. Orr saw some of them burst into tears and others break their rifles and revolvers on the ground in rage, saying that they had been duped and sacrificed themselves for nothing. In the end, however, they saw that there was nothing for it but to retire, which they did in four different sections.

Orr went on to say in his statement that during the whole time of occupation he never saw anyone under the influence of drink or using bad language. He stated:

‘Let me now conclude by saying that but for the sudden collapse, and the influence brought to bear on them by the clergy, it would have been a difficult matter to remove them from the factory. I was afraid they would have destroyed some of the machinery, but Providence altered their plans. Things could have been much worse, and I am quite certain that the majority of the employees are thankful today for the turn events took.’

When leaving, Con Colbert shook hands with Orr, who asked him where he should go. Colbert told him that he could go to hell!

Another employee, Peter Cushen, takes up the story from the time of the rebels' surrender on Sunday 30 April. Having heard of the surrender, Cushen hurried down to the factory to observe what was happening. He saw about ninety rebels emerging from the factory windows and 'the rabble' getting up the rope that was hanging from the office window, and tumbling out sacks of flour. He ran round to the caretaker's door in Peter Street and got into the bakehouse, where he was surprised to see what he estimated was between 90 and 100 of the rebels standing and sitting about.

He then made his way through them to the office, and caught up a rifle from the floor, where there were many of them lying around. With this he attempted to drive the looters out, but more were getting in through other windows and he was unable to keep them all out. Just then help arrived:

‘Young Johnston, Pat Barry, Tom Doyle, Bill Kelly, McGrath, P. McEvoy and others came and took up old rifles, and we stopped the looting for the time being. Then one of the officers of the rebels came into the office, and asked me if there was anyone to take charge of the place, and they told him that I would. He said there was a lot of bombs stored away that would blow up the whole place, and as they had done no damage, they did not want the blame to be left on them if any careless person handled them. He brought me round and pointed them out to me, and we came back again and he showed me where there were some hand grenades stored in the little ovens in the King's Own Room (King's Own was a variety of biscuit): he left me on guard of them and told me on peril of my life not to let anyone lay a hand on them until the military came in who knew what they were. He then went away after making himself known to me, and to my surprise, I found myself introduced to Major McBride for the first and last time, as we all know he paid for his mad acts with his life.

‘Well, he was not well done when a volley of shots rang out all round about where I was standing, and the 2" Sprinkler Main over my head was pierced through with a bullet, and the hat was knocked off my head by a bomb fired through the open window. Luckily for me it passed through a window and exploded over the refrigerator outside. Well, I thought my last hour had come. Just then the soldiers came in and shouted hands up, and up they went in haste; then they came over and searched me, asked who I was and what had me there. I told them I was an employee of the firm and that I came in to stop the looting. They said 'If you are a member of the works, you know where the rebel flag is hanging out, and get on to it at the point of the bayonet'. I said 'you are not one bit more eager to get it down than I myself, but before I go I want to show you these weapons of danger - the bombs'. Then we started on our way to the flag-staff, and went to three or four doors but could not get in the way they were barricaded. At last we got in through the cake room and away to the tower; I would not let him get out for fear of the snipers, but I got the rope and lowered the flag and no sooner than it began to come down than 5 or 6 shots rang out - I do not think that man could have been prouder if he was after taking the Empire of Germany!’

On their way back, Cushen was told by the soldier that he was a lucky man that he had nothing in his hands when he came in or he would have shot him where he was standing. When they got back, Fr. Aloysius of Church Street and Fr. Monaghan of Francis Street arrived and went to the British officer in charge and told him his troops were not to stay about the place as orders from the Castle stated that no soldiers were to appear on the scene until six o'clock, when the volunteers had departed.

However, when the military left, the looting began again. This time the looters managed to break the panels in the office door and there were so many involved that Cushen and his men were powerless to stop them.

Cushen sent for Fr. Aloysius, who came up and waded through eight inches of water to the window, and made a speech to the crowd outside, telling them they were a disgrace to the city. This had the desired effect and caused a lull for a while. Cushen then got all the hands to barricade the windows with all the tables and sheet iron that they could lay their hands on. They then went down to No. 9 oven and neutralised eighteen hand-made bombs by placing them in the water tank in the wash-house.

As soon as they had this done, they saw nine or ten lads at the end of No. 9 hoist. They were pursued and ran through 'Clan O'Malley's workshop' where another group of about nine looters were manhandling bags of sugar out through the window. The looters were put to flight and this window barricaded also. When they had everywhere secured and the factory ready for occupation by the military, they departed through the Peter's Row Gate and down Peter Street. However, Tom Doyle went up Peter's Row and was shot at the corner of Digges' Street. Cushen concluded his account 'so ended the siege of Jacob's Fort!’

In 1961, at an exhibition night held by the Old Dublin Society, two burnt biscuits were displayed. It was said that they were made in Jacob's factory by some young volunteers who could not resist making them during Easter week despite being told not to touch machinery. They were burnt to a cinder, but the company name was still legible. An interesting survivor of the occupation of Jacob's was John McDonagh, brother of Thomas, who had fought under his brother in the factory, and was sentenced to life imprisonment. He had been a well-known opera singer in the United States and around the world when the call to arms came. He was a captain in the volunteers. After his release from jail, he went back to America and wrote a Broadway play, The Irish Jew, about the election of a Jew as Lord Mayor of Dublin. With so many Jews and Irish in New York, it was a big success and ran for years. He returned to Ireland and became director of productions in Radio Éireann. He wrote many more plays, composed songs and was a pioneer in the making of Irish films.

Another noteworthy volunteer in Jacob's was Michael J. Molloy, the printer of the proclamation of the Irish Republic. He had mobilised outside the College of Surgeons at 11 a.m. on Easter Monday morning and marched to Jacob's under McDonagh. He was later a compositor for many years with Independent Newspapers.

The company's annual report of 1917 states that production resumed in the factory after four or five days' clearing up. About 100 bombs were left behind by the rebels in various parts of the factory, but no damage was done by them. Compensation for looting was paid by the government. With the ending of the Great War, full working capacity returned to the factory in 1919, when supplies of raw material such as sugar were reported to be back to the 1915 level.