Harry Nicholls: Trinity’s ‘Prod rebel’ engineer who fought in 1916 Easter Rising
03 April 2018
Dr Patrick Prendergast, provost, TCD; Annabelle May (niece and oldest living relative of Harry Nicholls); and Martin Maguire, senior lecturer, Department of Humanities at Dundalk Institute of Technology
Harry Nicholls was born in Co Derry in 1889. His childhood was spent in Templemore, Co Tipperary, and in Dublin city. When Nicholls was born, his father was 52 years of age. The 1911 census shows the 21-year-old Harry was the only young man in the household along with his elderly father, his middle-aged mother and two older sisters of 32 and 30, both of whom were unmarried. One can therefore assume, perhaps, a young adulthood relatively free of parental control.
Mathematics sizarship and junior exhibition
Henry, known always as Harry, matriculated from Mountjoy school in 1907 with a mathematics sizarship and junior exhibition, and he entered Trinity College Dublin (TCD) as a student of civil engineering, graduating in June 1911 with a gold medal in mathematics. He was unique in being the only graduate of TCD who was an active Republican rebel in 1916. There is, incidentally, no basis for RB McDowell’s mischievous assertion that Nicholls, whom he portrays as a sort of “trophy Protestant” for Republicans in later years, did not participate in the 1916 Rising.
Nicholls’ initial introduction to politics was through his brother, George, who gave him a pamphlet on Home Rule. He recalled that on reading the pamphlet he was instantly convinced that Home Rule did not go far enough, and that he was reinforced in this opinion by John Mitchell’s ‘jail journal’.
George, who changed his name to Seoirse MacNiocaill, was eight years older than Harry and introduced him to the Gaelic League. A TCD graduate in mathematics, Seoirse became a school inspector, like his father.
After independence, he remained in the schools inspectorate rising to become senior inspector in the Department of Education in the Free State, and was heavily involved in attempts to revive Irish, writing textbooks and reading materials, and being instrumental in establishing An Gúm as the state Irish language publishing house.
Both George and Harry were members of the Cúig Cúigí branch of the Gaelic League – Harry joined in 1910, when he was 20 years of age. The branch, the name of which means the branch of the five provinces, was popularly known as the branch of the five Protestants, because of the number of Protestant members.
Further and further into radical separatism
Harry’s admission to the Gaelic League was the beginning of a period of intense activism, bringing him further and further into radical separatism. Along with Sean Lester, Ernest Blythe and other Gaelic League Protestants, he formed Cumann Gaelach Eaglaise na hÉireann to demand that the Church of Ireland provide texts, hymns and services in the Irish language.
In 1912, in response to Patrick Pearse’s call for Irish speakers to work to advance Irish freedom, made in the pages of his shortlived newspaper ‘An Barr Buadh’, Nicholls along with Michael Joseph O’Rahilly (known as The O’Rahilly), Eamonn Ceannt and Sean MacCraith met to found Cumann na Saoirse in Wynn’s hotel. Its business was conducted entirely through Irish, but was mainly about getting guns.
Nicholls founded the north Dublin rifle club; his Protestantism, Rathmines address and professional status provided a cover of respectability for the importation of rifles and ammunition.
Nicholls spent his holidays in the Dingle area in order to develop his Irish. He records that it was when he isolated himself for a fortnight in an entirely Irish speaking milieu on the Blaskets that he began to acquire fluency. This was in 1913, the summer when Eibhlin Nicholls (no relation), who had been romantically associated with Patrick Pearse, was drowned in a tragic accident.
It was while spending time in Dun Chaoin and the Blaskets that Nicholls came under the influence of Sean Óg Kavanagh (Seán an Chóta) who swore him into the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). He joined the Teeling Circle which had Bulmer Hobson at its centre. Nicholls maintains that Hobson was the key influence on his own emerging republicanism.
Appointed engineering instructor to the Fourth Battalion
He joined the Irish Volunteers when they were formed in 1913 and was appointed engineering instructor to the Fourth Battalion. In the light of events in 1916, it is interesting to note that his lectures concentrated on street fighting, erecting effective barricades and the use of explosives.
In 1913, he paraded to the Wolfe Tone commemoration march in Bodenstown at which Pearse’s speech signalled the revival of republican separatism. However, his main activity as a volunteer between 1913 and 1916 was the smuggling and storage of guns and ammunition.
Nicholls does not describe any specifically Protestant circle of republicanism, though he was close to George Irvine. They both attended Church of Ireland services in St Patrick’s Cathedral on St Patrick’s Day 1916 in their volunteer uniforms.
Nicholls knew Patrick Pearse, Tom Clarke, Sean MacDiarmada and Eamonn Ceannt
Of the 1916 leaders, Nicholls knew Patrick Pearse (though initially he was sceptical of Pearse’s commitment to the republican ideal), Tom Clarke, Sean MacDiarmada and Eamonn Ceannt. He was closest to MacDiarmada who engaged him for both the Howth and Kilcoole gunrunning operations. At Howth, Nicholls was involved in the landing and dispersal of the arms.
When war broke out in September 1914, he was on holiday in the Dingle area, and along with Sean Kavanagh, Ernest Blythe and Desmond Fitzgerald, he organised the local volunteers to disrupt a recruitment meeting.
Nicholls and the other officers of the Fourth Battalion (which included Cathal Brugha, William Cosgrave, Ffrench Mullen, Seamus Murphy, Tom McCarthy, Con Colbert and George Irvine) were brought together some weeks before the Rising and made to understand that significant manoeuvres were planned for Easter. Although Nicholls understood that these manoeuvres might be cover for more serious actions, he was not aware that a rising was intended; hence his bewilderment on Easter Monday.
According to Martin Maguire, “Nicholls abandoned the search for his own battalion (which at that moment was seizing control of the South Dublin Union) and joined in with the Citizen Army. Initially positioned in the garden of the park-keeper’s house facing the junction of Cuffe Street and Harcourt Street, Nicholls moved with the Citizen Army into the College of Surgeons. With Mallin and Countess Markievicz he patrolled the Harcourt Street and Camden Street area as far as the Jacob’s garrison”.
Later in the week, after the surrender, Nicholls was transferred to Knutsford prison on May 1 and from there to Frongoch towards the end of June 1916, where he was the leader in hut 11, with Dick McKee as his second.
Part of a small group of Protestant rebels at Frongoch
At Frongoch, he was part of a small group of Protestant rebels that included Arthur Shields, Ellet Elmes, Sam Ruttle of Tralee and Alf Cotton of Belfast. He used his Protestantism to vex the authorities, but he did receive some consolation from reading the Bible, which he was given by the local Church of England chaplain. Nicholls’ contribution to the Frongoch autograph book was the well-known line from Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage: ” hereditary Bondsmen! Know ye not,/ Who would be free themselves must strike the blow”.
Return to work in Dublin Corporation
Nicholls was not among the early releases approved by the Sankey Commission. He had to wait until the general emptying of Frongoch at Christmas 1916 to return to Dublin and to his work at Dublin Corporation. Though he was required to sign a bond to be of good behaviour, it remained blank. The two guarantors were Harry’s father and the Reverend EH Lewis Crosby of Rathmines church.
His father’s observation that he was embarrassed by the expressions of sympathy he received from his Protestant friends about the awful things the English were doing to the Irish prisoners, suggests that not all Irish Protestants automatically supported the post-Rising reaction.
The path through the Gaelic League and the IRB to rebellion was a well-trodden one and for most of the Church of Ireland rebels it was cultural separatism that initiated them to political separatism. However, there were a few for whom revolution had social and political roots and Nicholls should be included among these.
He himself credited his radicalism to the experience of police brutality during the 1913 lockout, specifically to blows on the head and mouth he received from Dublin Metropolitan police constables in a baton charge on Eden Quay.
As he put it himself, the ferocity of the assault “made a rebel of a Prod”.
Involved in setting-up of Irish local government officers trade union (ILGOU)
In the period of the First Dáil and the War of Independence, he was involved in the setting up of the Irish local government officers trade union (ILGOU), which is, today, Ireland’s second-largest trade union, IMPACT (and whose general secretary Shay Cody attended the unveiling of a bench commemorating Harry Nicholls at TCD in November 2017).
Nicholls opposed the Treaty and he withdrew from political activity and trade union activity after the establishment of the Irish Free State. The major project of his engineering career and a significant contribution to the improvement of the health of the city was the digging of new main drains along the quays and a tunnel under the Liffey at Ringsend.
He was elected president of the Institution of Civil Engineers of Ireland in 1953/54 and 1954/55.
He died in 1975, and his funeral was held in St Ann’s, Dawson Street. He is buried with his sisters in the churchyard of Enniskerry parish and his gravestone records that he was a “1916 patriot and founder of the ILGOU”.
Nicholls was married to Kathleen Emerson, an activist in the Irish Women’s Franchise League, whom he married in 1919. For further information, see Martin Maguire’s excellent article, ‘Harry Nicholls and Kathleen Emerson: Protestant rebels’.
Bench unveiling at TCD and speech by provost, Patrick Prendergast
At the Trinity bench unveiling in November 2017, Dr Patrick Prendergast, the provost, made the following remarks:
“Harry Nicholls has the distinction of being the only Trinity graduate to take part in the Easter Rising on the rebel side. Well, having said that, I would like to qualify it – he is the only known Trinity graduate to take part in the Rising. I wonder were there not a few others who took part so covertly that their role was never known?
“In any case, it was clearly a rare Trinity graduate that threw in his lot in with the IRB, and Nicholls subsequently served time in Knutsforth prison and six months in Frongoch for his part in the fighting.
A typical Trinity graduate of the time
“Nicholls is particularly interesting because in all other respects he was a typical Trinity graduate of the time, which is to say that he was Church of Ireland and who was brought up in Templemore, Co Tipperary. His father was an Englishman from Shrewsbury who described himself as an ardent imperialist.
“Harry came to Trinity on a mathematics sizarship and junior exhibition and studied civil engineering. He graduated in 1911 with a gold medal in mathematics. I do not know that there was anything in his time at college to suggest that he differed strongly politically from the other students.
“He himself said that his radicalisation came in 1913 during the time of the Lockout when the brutal measures, in his own words “made a rebel out of a Prod”. He was also strongly influenced by his older brother, George, who was very active in the Gaelic League, to the extent that he rechristened himself Seoirse Mac Niocaill. I am reminded of Robert Emmet’s older brother, the United Irishman Thomas Addis Emmet, who was also such an influence on the younger brother.
Tradition of Protestant republicanism goes back very far in Trinity
“George Nicholls or Seoirse Mac Niocaill was also a Trinity graduate. He did not take part in the Rising but he was certainly a thorough-going nationalist and this, again, suggests that the popular view of Trinity graduates of the time needs to be qualified somewhat, and indeed of Protestants more generally. Most of the Irish Volunteers and IRB were Catholic but by no means all, and of course the tradition of Protestant republicanism goes back very far in Trinity – I’ve already mention Robert and Thomas Addis Emmet; there was also Wolfe Tone and Thomas Davis, and it is to this tradition that Harry Nicholls belongs.
“In Trinity we want to celebrate all traditions that have graced this college. It is not a question of elevating one over the other. Our aim is to celebrate all our graduates in their rich diversity and by doing this to show that Trinity has never been a monolithic place. No great university which educates inspiring young minds is fixed or uniform.
“Last year during the 1916 celebrations was the natural time for us to remember Harry Nicholls and that was an occasion for the head of the School of Engineering, Professor Brian Foley, to deliver an address on Nicholls, which was hugely interesting. Particularly, as an engineer, I was greatly interested in how Harry used his engineering skills when he joined the Volunteers: he was appointed engineering instructor to the Fourth Battalion. I guess his engineering professor in Trinity was not expecting that!
Preserving in perpetuity our regard for this graduate
“From our focus last year came the decision to name this bench for Harry Nicholls, thus preserving in perpetuity our regard for this graduate who was clearly a person of great individuality and strength of mind with a willingness to fight for his beliefs – these included his beliefs in socialism and the trade union movement, as well as in Irish nationalism.
“We are delighted to welcome here today Martin Maguire, Dundalk Institute of Technology, and Shay Cody, from the union IMPACT, which was formerly known as ILGOU when it was co-founded by Harry Nicholls. And we’re delighted also that Harry’s niece, Annabelle May, is joining us.
“I congratulate and thank the School of Engineering for organising this bench. Many in the years to come will sit here, enjoying the lovely view over the pitches and asking who was Harry Nicholls. It is a beautiful and simple way to commemorate a man who did not elevate himself, who dedicated his life to improving the life of ordinary people.”
The ‘Engineers Journal’ would like to thank Martin Maguire, Colm Holmes and Trinity College Dublin for contributing to this articlehttps://www.engineersjournal.ie/2018/04/03/harry-nicholls-trinitys-prod-rebel-engineer-fought-1916-easter-rising/https://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/a-harry1a-1024x683.jpghttps://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/a-harry1a-300x300.jpgCivilDublin,Engineers Ireland,TCD