Sunday Read: Liberty Hall’s courageous caretaker
“YOU are quite at liberty…” With these words, caretaker Peter Ennis greeted the early morning raiding party at Liberty Hall on Friday 22nd August 1919.
September 2019 marks the 100th anniversary of Wicklow-born Ennis’ resulting court martial.
On the Wednesday prior to the raid, Christopher Quigley, a news vendor, had induced Private S Morrison, of the 3rd Battalion, Wiltshire Regiment, to procure a rifle for sale. A deal was struck for £2 and the rifle was passed through a window at the Hall. Quigley’s and Morrison’s subsequent arrests led to the raid.
A detailed account of the 4am raid and Ennis’ trial is documented in the British National Archives at Kew.
Having greeted the raiding party with the words, “You are quite at liberty”, Ennis continued his good humoured banter by asking, “Are you going to pay me overtime for this, sir?” The search uncovered firearms and Ennis, as the only resident, was arrested.
He was registered as prisoner 499 at Mountjoy Prison, where he was also listed as a ‘hunger striker’. An approval by the Chief Secretary of Ireland allowed Ennis to sign union papers while at Mountjoy.
Ennis’ court martial took place on 24th September 1919. He was successfully defended by the eminent republican barrister Patrick Lynch KC, who would later serve as Attorney General. Ennis co-accused Quigley, on the other hand, was sentenced to a year in prison.
In what seemingly was a reprisal for his acquittal, late one evening the Black and Tans ‘lifted’ Ennis from the Hall, brought him to the Custom House railings and beat him mercilessly on the head with revolvers.
Years later, Ennis’ obituary stated that he had “given himself up for dead” at the time. Suffering terribly, he dragged himself back over the cobbles at Beresford Place to the Hall and was able to close the door. According to the obituary, he then “swooned from loss of blood and lay almost unconscious until discovered the next morning”.
His obituary recalled that this was one of “many occasions” that Ennis had “exciting and almost fatal encounters with the armed forces of Dublin Castle”. During the Easter Rising, and under James Connolly’s orders to leave “as the union needed him”, he had staged a dramatic escape from the GPO under machine gun fire to return to Liberty Hall.
As a resident at Liberty Hall during the War of Independence, he found himself at the centre of several incursions into the building by Crown Forces. Ennis was often alone during these raids and his apartment was frequently ransacked.
On one occasion he saved Liberty Hall from certain destruction when men in ‘plain clothes’ broke in and poured petrol over the woodwork. Another time, Ennis and William O’Brien were bringing “documents” out when they were confronted by “as murderous a gang of Tans that ever shot a civilian”.
Ennis later remarked that “only for the old bolshie, I was gone that time”.
Ennis is remembered as a trade union activist and a prominent socialist.
He joined the newly-formed Socialist Party of Ireland (SPI) in April 1904 and would remain a staunch member, serving on committees, presiding at meetings and speaking on public platforms, before taking a central role in James Connolly’s Independent Labour Party of Ireland (ILP) from 1912 to 1914.
He was a trade unionist with the National Union of Dock Labourers before becoming a founding member of Irish Transport and General Workers Union in January 1909.
Ennis co-signed the first Rules of the ITGWU. At Liberty Hall, he served three giants of Irish labour history – Jim Larkin, James Connolly and William O’Brien.
Sadly, his wife Mary Kate who shared his life at the Hall died on 15th April 1914, aged only 31. Peter Ennis died on the 2nd January 1927, aged 51.
Rosie Hackett cared for him in his failing health. More than 3,000 mourners attended his removal, described by the Irish Independent as “an exceptionally large cortege”.
A plaque honouring Peter Ennis was erected in 1927 in Liberty Hall and can be seen today in the Irish Labour History Society Museum.