What was the Easter Rising?
The Easter Rising took place in Dublin, and a few outposts across the country, between Monday 24 April and Sunday 29 April, 1916. It was a rebellion against British rule in Ireland and was defeated after a swift British military response. As a military campaign the Rising was ultimately a failure but it had an important legacy in that the British response to the event turned the majority of the Irish public away from the idea of Home Rule and towards the concept of a fully independent Irish Republic.
Why a Rising?
The dominant force in Irish politics through to 1916 was the Irish Parliamentary Party led by John Redmond. The Party fully endorsed the idea of Irish Home Rule, and had successfully managed to get a Home Rule Bill passed by the House of Commons and made law in 1914. Its enactment was postponed because of the outbreak of the First World War. Redmond backed Irish participation in the War, and the vast majority supported that decision. A small group of nationalists opposed the idea of Home Rule, as well as Irish participation in the War. The planning of the Rising was done by a small, radical group in the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and they looked to the Irish Volunteers (a movement that opposed Irish entry into the War and instead dedicated itself to the defence of Ireland) to undertake the military action.
There has been much historical debate about why the Rising was planned. In essence it seems that factors such as the rise of the Ulster Volunteer Force and the strength of Unionism on the island, the existence of the Irish Volunteers as an insurrectionary force, and the fact that the War was a distraction for the British authorities combined to make the Rising a possibility. Also, leaders such as Thomas Clarke, Seán Mac Diarmada and Patrick Pearse were, at their heart, Republicans who fervently believed in the ideal of an Irish Republic and believed that the use of violence to achieve that goal was acceptable.
The Rising was planned by the Military Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood which featured, among others, Thomas Clarke, Seán Mac Diarmada, Patrick Pearse and James Connolly. The force that would come together and fight during the Easter Rising comprised the Irish Volunteers (under the leadership of Pearse), the Irish Citizen Army (led by James Connolly) and the women’s organisation Cumann na mBan. In total these three groups had approximately 1,200 active participants in the fighting during Easter week. The combined ideologies of the three groups are best encapsulated in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic that was read out at the GPO on Easter Monday. The document brings together the Republicanism of the Irish Volunteers with the socialism of the Irish Citizen Army and the feminism of Cumann na mBan.
Initially the Rising was to have taken place on Easter Sunday. However, the failure of the Germans to land a shipment of weapons on the Kerry coast on Good Friday called into question whether the Rising could take place. Eoin MacNeill thought not, and issued a countermanding order that was published in the Irish Sunday Independent on Easter Sunday. The more radical voices insisted that the Rising go ahead, even without the German arms, and fresh orders were issued by Pearse that the planned military plan be activated on Easter Monday.
On Monday 24 April, members of the Irish Volunteers, Irish Citizen Army and Cumann na mBan took control of several key buildings across Dublin city centre. While some of these buildings such as the GPO or Boland’s Mills, would become iconic in the memory of the Rising, there were other key strategic sites that the rebels did not take control of. The failure to control railway stations or the Dublin and Kingstown docks meant that once the British needed to move troops into the city in large numbers to quell the Rising they could do so relatively unimpeded. Equally the failure to take the HQ of the British administration, Dublin Castle, or a significant central building that was stocked with arms, Trinity College, hampered the rebels and both those buildings would be important bases for British forces during the week.
The British began pouring troops from across Ireland into the city from Monday afternoon, and from England by the dawn of Wednesday. With thousands of troops in the city the question for the rebels was how long they could hold out for. Some buildings held by the rebels fell quickly, such as City Hall, while others resisted until they formally surrendered on Sunday 29 April. The fighting was fierce, particularly around Mount Street Bridge and North King Street, where the death rate on both sides, and amongst civilians, was highest. Essentially, the rebel positions spent the week under siege while they were shot at and had heavy artillery rained down on them. Given their resources the rebels had to largely rely on defending their position with rifle and sniper fire as well as with improvised explosives.
The high levels of artillery used by the British led to a huge number of fires around the Sackville Street area. This not only destroyed the buildings of the street, but ultimately forced the rebels holding the GPO to evacuate the building on Friday evening. Once they had left the GPO the Rising was effectively over. Pearse surrendered on Saturday afternoon to avoid any further loss of civilian life.
It was civilians who paid the highest price during Easter week. Recent research by the Glasnevin Trust has shown that while 485 people died during Easter week, 54% of the total were civilians. Of the remainder 26% were British troops, 16% rebels and 4% police.
The legacy of the Easter Rising is complex and, at times, deeply contested. There is no doubt that British actions during Easter week, such as the killings of civilians on North King Street, turned public opinion against Britain. The executions of the rebel leadership and the arrest of over 3,000 people in the wake of the Rising also served to radicalise public opinion. However, the ongoing losses in World War One, and the debates over the introduction of conscription in 1918 also led Irish people to question their ongoing relationship with Britain. Generally the British response to the Rising and the wider impact of World War One served to turn the public away from Redmond’s ideal of Home Rule and towards the more radical Republican rhetoric of Sinn Féin.
The spirit of 1916, and the military lessons learned from it, are central in understanding the Irish insurgency against Britain between 1919 and 1921 and the creation of an independent Irish Free State. The complexity over the legacy of 1916 begins in earnest at this point. The split over the Treaty, which had led to the creation of the Irish Free State, would not only lead to Civil War, but also to claims, from both sides of the Treaty divide, that they were the true inheritors and custodians of the spirit of 1916. The problematic legacy of 1916, in effect the question of who is the political caretaker of the Proclamation, was also seen to feed the flames of the Northern troubles from 1968 and the resurgent IRA and has been to the fore of debates about how this centenary of the Rising be celebrated. In effect, is the Ireland of today the one that the men and women of 1916 dreamt of?
Michael Foy and Brian Barton, The Easter Rising (Dublin, 2011).
Charles Townshend, Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion (London, 2006).
The National Library of Ireland, The 1916 Rising: Personalities and Perspectives