A window on history

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 1 (Spring 1997), News, Volume 5

In 14 St Stephen’s Green is an unusual historical document. On one pane of a sash window in the rear hall-floor parlour are scratched the names of five soldiers: A.O. Pollock 21st Regiment, W. Rowland McKay 3rd Dragoon Guards, W.C. Forbes 92nd Highlanders, Mr M. McKay 3rd Dragoons, and Lenox MacFarlane 3rd Dragoons. Who were these men? And when did they inscribe their signatures?
Tradition and hopeful speculation suggested that most nostalgic and turbulent period of modern Irish history, the 1916 Rising. It has long been common currency among Dubliners that James Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army, misguidedly emulating the entrenchment tactics of the Great War, dug into positions in St Stephen’s Green without first taking any of the surrounding buildings. Lacking the cover of summer foliage in a landscape then only a few decades old, the insurgents were easy prey to prompt fire from British army units in the Shelbourne Hotel and other buildings, and a hasty retreat was made to the College of Surgeons on the west side of the Green. Damage to the Royal Dublin Fusiliers Arch of 1907 at the northwest corner of the Green is claimed by Dubliners to be the result of fire between the College of Surgeons and army positions around the Green.
In the early twentieth century, 14 St Stephen’s Green was occupied by J. Little, ‘physician to the king’, a man perhaps likely to facilitate the forces of the Crown in re-establishing law and order in the city. Was the window-pane in Dr Little’s house witness to a catacysmic moment in Irish history?
Sadly, no. None of the names inscribed on the glass appears in the published army lists for 1916, nor indeed for 1917, 1918, 1919, 1920 or 1921. An attractive misconception must therefore be cast aside as our focus shifts from the grand historical picture to the small. Further examination of army lists in reverse order from 1916 eventually succeeded in tracing the last of the five to retire from army ranks. A member of the Royal Scots Fusiliers, Arthur John Osborne Pollock was born in October 1846, began his military career as an ensign in February 1866, completed his officer’s training in 1879, became a lieutenant colonel in 1894 and retired from active service in August 1898.
A second signatory, William Charles Forbes, entered the Gordon Highlanders, or 92nd Infantry Regiment, as an ensign in August 1865 and rose to the rank of lieutenant by October 1867. His name does not appear in the army lists after December 1869.
The other three soldiers were closely linked with one another and with 14 St Stephen’s Green. Before discussing them some account of the house’s history of ownership is required. Built in l778 for Ambrose Leet, 14 St Stephen’s Green was occupied in 1814 by Daniel McKay, attorney, and members of his family continued in residence until 1871. Evidently a citizen of some standing, Daniel McKay is buried with his wife in a vault beneath St Ann’s church in Dawson Street. An inscription formerly on the south wall of the south porch reads:

In a vault beneath this church lie the remains of DANIEL McKAY Esqr., of St Stephen’s Green, in this city and of Moreen, Co. Dublin. Born 2nd Decr., 1778. Died 5th Decr., 1840. Also of ELIZA, his wife, daughter of EDWARD ROWLAND, Esqr., of Cathen Lodge, Ruabon, Denbighshire. Born 9th July, 1785. Died 7th May, 1858.

Daniel and Eliza McKay’s eldest son was William McKay LLD, a barrister, who was in occupation of the St Stephen’s Green house from his mother’s death until 1871. The couple had another son, also a barrister, who, immediately upon being called to the bar in 1839, joined the 3rd Dragoon Guards. Manners McKay (‘Mr M. McKay’) never rose above the rank of cornet, however, as he resigned from the army after little more than three years, in September 1842. ‘Mr’ was the form of address used for junior officers. In 1847 we find him settled back in Dublin, in the family’s country house, ‘Moreen’, in Dundrum.
William Rowland McKay, whose name also appears on the window-pane, was very probably the grandson of Daniel McKay and Eliza Rowland, William McKay’s son and Manners McKay’s nephew. He began his career as a cornet in the 3rd Dragoon Guards in May 1867 and served with the regiment in Bombay and Abyssinia. In April 1869 he rose to the rank of lieutenant in the 80th Infantry Regiment. A year later his name is on the supernumerary or seconded list, and by October 1870 it has disappeared from the army list. In I882 he reappears as a captain in the Donegal Artillery Militia, with whom he remained until 1889.
James Francis Lenox MacFarlane, the one remaining soldier, entered the 3rd Dragoon Guards at the same time as William Rowland McKay, and was promoted to lieutenant on the same date. Unlike McKay, MacFarlane remained with the 3rd Dragoon Guards as lieutenant, and later as captain. He went on to join the Cork Artillery and eventually rose to the rank of major. Born on 7 April 1845, MacFarlane was the eldest son of Henry James MacFarlane of Hunstown House, Mulhuddart, County Dublin, and Fallagh Erin, Beragh, County Tyrone. In 1871 he married Elizabeth Odette, daughter of Manners McKay, and through her he came into possession of the McKay house in Dundrum, where he lived from 1877 to 1896. When his father died in 1901, MacFarlane inherited the family properties in Dublin and Tyrone.
The matter of dating the inscriptions on the window is problematic. Manners McKay was in the army for twenty-five years before the other four soldiers. The period when these four were serving concurrently in the regiments listed on the window ran from the 8 May 1867 to the 3 April 1869 (when William Rowland McKay left the 3rd Dragoon Guards for the 80th Infantry Regiment). Yet, according to the army lists, from the beginning of this period to July or October 1868 McKay and MacFarlane were stationed in Bombay and Abyssinia. By the time they returned to these islands Forbes was in Bengal and Pollock in Madras. As they were regimental comrades it is likely that McKay and MacFarlane inscribed their names together, perhaps just before their departure for Bombay (May 1867) when Forbes was stationed in Dublin. However, the connection between Forbes, Pollock and the McKays of St Stephen’s Green remains obscure.
The young soldiers may have been inspired in this work of self-proclamatory graffiti by the discovery of Manners McKay’s signature, which was probably inscribed on the window before any of them was born. There is also the possibility, however, that Manners McKay signed his name at the same time as his nephew and future son-in-law. It is amusing at least to imagine the respectable barrister, nearing his fiftieth year, engaged in the discreet defacement of a window in his elder brother’s house.

Christine Casey and Christopher Ward lecture in the Department of the History of Art, University College Dublin.

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