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How the Rising was planned
The leaders and organisers of the Easter Rising. Photo: National Library of Ireland, EPH F339

How the Rising was planned

by Mark Duncan

On 11 May 1916, speaking in the House of Commons shortly after the Easter Rising and with the execution of its leaders still ongoing, John Dillon, a leading Irish Parliamentary Party MP voiced his admiration, if not approval, of those who took had taken part in the insurrection. To cries of 'Shame!' in the grand chamber, Dillon told his fellow MPs that he was ‘proud’ of these men, who, despite being ‘foolish’ and ‘misled’ had nevertheless 'fought a clean fight, and they fought with superb bravery and skill, and no act of savagery or act against the usual customs of war’. Dillon’s viewpoint was neither popular nor widely shared and in the days and weeks following the Dublin disturbances the rebels found themselves more pilloried and pitied than applauded and praised.

But who were these rebels and what events had led them to taking the action they had? The answer to the first part of this question is more straightforward than the second. While the principal organisers of the rebellion were the seven men who put their names to the Proclamation read by Patrick Pearse in front of the GPO on Easter Monday, the rank and file of insurgents were drawn from the memberships of several separate organisations: the Irish Volunteers, founded in November 1913 as a response to the prior formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force to defend rights of Ireland, and which, by the time war broke out, had come to function as a means of applying extra-parliamentary pressure towards the securing of Home Rule for Ireland; the Irish Citizen Army led by James Connolly founded to defend striking workers during 1913 Lockout in Dublin; the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), part of the Fenian movement, whose roots lay in the mid-19th century and whose previous efforts at uprising, in 1848 and 1867, had ended in dismal failure. These organisations acted not alone, but with the important assistance of a network of smaller organisations such as Na Fianna Éireann and Cumann na mBan, the latter a women's milita founded in parallel to the male only Volunteers.

Volunteers drilling near Mountbellew Co Galway (Image: Illustrated London News [London, England], 7 Feb 1914)

In strictly numerical terms, the Irish Volunteers were the most significant contributors to the Rising: the Volunteer movement had split following the outbreak of the First World War and the pledging of John Redmond’s support for the British war effort. Of the 10,000 men, about 8% of the movement at its full strength, who remained with the faction led by UCD Professor Eoin MacNeill (who would oppose the Rising on the grounds that it lacked any possibility of success), approximately 1,300 participated in the event of Easter week, with the James Connolly-led Irish Citizen Army contributing a few hundred more. The real orchestrators of the Rising, however, were the IRB – or at least the inner circle of that organisation that comprised its Military Council. Within this group, Thomas Clarke was undoubtedly the key operator. A committed Fenian, Clarke had spent fifteen years in British jails in the 1880s and 90s for possession of explosives before emigrating to the United States where he found work with the Gaelic American, the newspaper of the Clan na Gael leader John Devoy. He returned to Ireland in 1907, opening up a tobacconist shop on Dublin’s Parnell Street, from where he led the revitalisation of an organisation that had, for decades, been weakened by internal dissension and inactivity.

Thomas Clarke, one of the key operators in the IRB Military Council and in the planning of the Rising. (Image: National Library of Ireland)

The First World War & Ireland's Opportunity

It was the veteran Clarke, aided by the youthful Sean Mac Diarmada, who drove the planning and preparations for the insurrection. Buoyed by the enthusiasm for militaristic organisation and drilling that accompanied the Home Rule crisis of 1912-14, their opportunity to strike finally came with the outbreak of European War in August 1914. It wasn’t just that England’s wartime difficulty was, as Fenian creed had it, Ireland’s opportunity. It was also that the war precipitated a split in the Volunteer movement, the loss of the dominant Redmondite faction leaving a much smaller but much more ideologically coherent and determined group in its wake. It was over this group, still under the leadership of Professor Eoin MacNeill, that the IRB began to assert greater control: they were prominently placed on its revamped executive and, over a matter of months, they came to occupy positions of power and influence – Patrick Pearse became Director of Military Organisation, Bulmer Hobson became Quartermaster General, Joseph Plunkett became Director of Military Operations, Éamonn Ceannt, Director of Communications, while Thomas MacDonagh became Director of Training.

By mid-August 1914 the Supreme Council of the IRB had already decided, in principle, to revolt before the war was brought to a close. It was also at the instigation of the IRB’s Thomas Clarke that a meeting was held Gaelic League’s library on 9 September 1914, attended by all seven future signatories of the Proclamation. In attendance too was Seán T. O’Kelly, who, a decade later, would reveal the substance of what transpired: 'At that meeting’, he then disclosed, ‘it was decided that a Rising should take place in Ireland, if the German army invaded Ireland; secondly if England attempted to enforce conscription on Ireland; and thirdly if the war were coming to an end and the Rising had not already taken place, we should rise in revolt, declare war on England and when the conference was held to settle the terms of peace, we should claim to be represented as a belligerent nation.' 

As it turned out, had the war ended as early as many expected, the opportunity to act as intended would have been missed. The IRB’s plans – and their reputation – were effectively saved by the prolongation of the war, which gave them the time they clearly required to organise and arm. For plotting revolution was not envisaged as simply a home-grown operation: it required support from abroad and Germany, Britain’s wartime enemy, was targeted as a potential ally in the revolutionary enterprise shortly after European hostilities erupted. Following contacts with German authorities in New York through Clan na Gael, a sister organisation to the IRB, and in an attempt to forge an effective alliance, Roger Casement, a former British Consul and honoured human rights campaigner turned Irish nationalist, travelled to Berlin in November 1914. Casement secured muted German support for Irish independence but little more: his plans to raise an Irish brigade from German-held Irish prisoners of war met with little enthusiasm as did efforts to win German military assistance for an armed rebellion in Ireland. Casement’s lack of success saw him joined in Berlin by Joseph Plunkett in April 1915 and together they put together a 32-page plan, known as the ‘Ireland Report’, which set out a military strategy for rebellion that included the seizure of Dublin, a German naval invasion to land 12,000 troops and 40,000 rifles in Limerick, from where they could be distributed, igniting a country-wide revolt.

Joseph Plunkett (L) and Roger Casement (R). (Image: National Library of Ireland)

For all that it may have exaggerated both the Irish Volunteers' state of preparedness and their capacity to deliver on its objectives, the plan clearly points to a revolutionary cohort that were intent on more than mere blood sacrifice. It suggests that their ambitions for a rebellion went beyond simply delivering a doomed enterprise which might serve to rouse and inspire a dormant people. Here was a military strategy that took account of the circumstances of war in the challenge it presented to Britain’s political and military hold on Ireland, albeit it was one the Germans were little inclined to support because they either had reservations over the credentials of its authors or they questioned the practicality of the naval operation upon which it was premised. The German rebuff did not amount to wholesale rejection of the principle of supporting separatist action. Plunkett returned to Ireland (leaving a dejected Casement behind) in June 1915 without any concrete pledge of German support, but with a tacit commitment to help should a credible plan be devised and a date fixed upon.

The Military Council and IRB Military Planning

This was enough to focus minds of a small, secretive group within the IRB, which set about examining possible locations for landing arms and dates for insurrection. This was the Military Council (originally called Military Committee) which, on the initiative of Thomas Clarke, had been established in May 1915 to take responsibility for planning a Rising. Initially, this Council comprised only three men who also held senior positions in the Irish Volunteers – Patrick Pearse, Joseph Plunkett and Éamonn Ceannt – but it expanded to five – with the addition of Seán Mac Diarmada and Clarke – in late 1915, and then to six when James Connolly, abandoning plans for a separate ICA revolt, joined in January 1916. A seventh member, Thomas MacDonagh, an IRB-man who commanded the 2nd Battalion of the Dublin Brigade of the Irish Volunteers, was co-opted to the Military Council at the beginning of April 1916, a mere matter of weeks before the insurrection commenced.

The work of the Military Council was shrouded in secrecy – necessarily so. This approach was not solely determined by a fear that plans might be disclosed to the authorities in Dublin Castle by leaks or through informants. This was certainly a consideration (and a reasonable one), yet the plotters were also fearful of alerting moderates within their own ranks, conscious that support for the idea of armed insurrection in any circumstance was far from universal among the Irish Volunteers or even, for that matter, within the IRB. For Eoin MacNeill, the Chief of Staff the Irish Volunteers – and for many of that movement’s members - the idea of an insurrection that was unprovoked or lacking in any prospect of success was anathema. Military force was justifiable only if the conditions demanded it – like for instance, if the British government took steps to introduce conscription to Ireland or disarm the Volunteers. Within the IRB, meanwhile, there was acceptance of the principle of rebellion, but no consensus on the circumstances that might render it justifiable. Bulmer Hobson, a senior IRB figure of longstanding, was at one with MacNeill in believing that the Volunteers needed to be readied for a fight, but they should fight only if compelled to do so – and then, Hobson believed, they should adopt a guerrilla style strategy rather than one premised on the occupation of buildings which invited an enemy assault. 

Neither MacNeill nor Hobson nor the IRB Supreme Council were kept in the loop, however. The Military Council managed to prepare the ground for rebellion unbeknownst to those around them. They did so, for the most part, by a mixture of concealment, cunning and lies. Using key IRB men within the Irish Volunteer movement, they worked on conditioning minds for the insurrection to come: instruction was delivered on practical aspects of military strategy such as street-fighting and the erection of barricades, while exercises were undertaken that simulated real-life battle situations. What’s more, notwithstanding the secrecy at the heart of it, this was being done in full view of the authorities who, throughout 1915, not only observed the improved organisation of the Irish Volunteers and its increased membership; in keeping a watching eye on the movement of the principals of the advanced nationalist movement they were also fully aware that insurrection was likely if, for instance, moves were made to introduce such unpopular measures as conscription. It is possible that the very openness of the armed displays and the military drills bred complacency on the part of the British authorities, for as one observer, the writer Katharine Tynan later reflected, ‘how could anyone believe in the seriousness of a conspiracy that so flaunted itself’. 

Crowds gather at the graveside of veteran Fenian Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa in Glasnevin cemetery. (Image: National Library of Ireland, KE 234)

There was no more obvious flaunting of Fenian intent than the demonstration that took place in the wake of the death of the Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, who died in New York in June 1915. His body was returned to Ireland for burial in a ceremony that was orchestrated by Thomas Clarke to showcase the strength of the Irish Volunteers while at the same time identifying it with the Fenian tradition. This it did in spectacular fashion. Contingents of Irish Volunteers were brought to Dublin from across the country where they were joined by representatives of a broad swathe of nationalist organisations – the Irish Citizen Army, Sinn Féin, Cumann na mBan, the GAA and even, indeed, the unarmed National Volunteers. The huge crowds which lined the route to Glasnevin Cemetery made for an impressive spectacle which culminated in a famous oration by Patrick Pearse in which he paid homage to the ‘dead generations’ of men who fought for Irish freedom and trumpeted a vision of Ireland that would be ‘not free merely, but Gaelic as well; not Gaelic merely, but free as well’. The spoken words of Pearse found an echo in the written word of Thomas MacDonagh. In an article entitled ‘The Irish Volunteers in 1915’, published in a souvenir brochure produced for the funeral, MacDonagh, a dramatist and academic, offered more than mere intimations of the rebellion to come. The Irish Volunteer knew only ‘one duty – to Ireland’, he declared, adding that the ‘ideal of his country free... leads him now to battle, to sacrifice and to victory'. 

READ: Full text of Pearse's speech at the graveside of Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa

The battle that MacDonagh both anticipated and encouraged would require guns, of course. But by January 1916 the Irish Volunteers only possessed a measly 3,730 rifles, shotguns and revolvers. The IRB Military Council, using John Devoy and the German contacts of the New York-based Clan na Gael, organised to land thousands more in a plan that was effectively a scaled down version of that prepared by Casement and Plunkett the previous year. In the revised plan, as with the original, Dublin would provide the operational focus: as the historian Charles Townsend has observed, the ‘minds of the little committee were plainly mezmerised by the physical and symbolic weight of their city’, even if strategically and symbolically significant sites such as Dublin Castle and Trinity College Dublin were to be left untouched. Nevertheless, a mobilisation in Dublin was intended to inspire the provinces to rise in support, aided by the landing of large cargo of arms from Germany on Ireland’s west coast.

Irish Volunteers marching in the 1916 St Patrick's Day parade. (Image: Manchester Guardian History of War)

The date the conspirators fixed upon for the rebellion was Easter Sunday 1916, when, on Pearse’s command, all Irish Volunteers were ordered to gather at assembly points throughout the country for three days of field manoeuvres. The decision on timing was a straightforward one: as similar large-scale mobilisations had occurred in Easter 1915 and again on St. Patrick’s Day 1916, it was felt that a similar-sized mobilisation, particularly one so publicly advertised, would do nothing to arouse the suspicions of either the authorities or their less revolutionary-minded comrades. Secrecy were therefore maintained and right up until to the final days neither Eoin MacNeill as head of the Irish Volunteer nor Denis McCullough as head of the Supreme Council of the IRB was aware that the scheduled manoeuvres for Easter were designed as cover for staging an armed insurrection.

As it happened, of course, the insurrection that took place in Ireland in April 1916 was not that originally planned. It was a much scaled down version of that which had been originally envisaged. That’s because, as historian Joe Lee has put it, the Rising ‘went off half-cock’. The unravelling of the insurgents' plans occurred as the countdown to the insurrection entered its final days. When, on the Thursday of Easter week, Bulmer Hobson caught wind of the impending insurrection, he informed MacNeill who confronted Patrick Pearse. On being told that plans were set and irreversible, MacNeill was convinced to stand back and not obstruct the Rising, his position further swayed by a forged ‘Castle document’ which purported to detail plans by the authorities to suppress the Volunteers and arrest nationalist leaders. But having been swayed one way, MacNeill soon swayed back again. His reversal was a response to the news of Roger Casement’s arrest in Kerry and the British interception of the Aud, the German ship carrying 20,000 rifles off the Kerry coast – it was enough to convince him that the planned enterprise would be an act of ‘madness’ and doomed to failure. He articulated his opposition at a highly charged meeting on Easter Saturday night and the following morning his countermanding order cancelling the scheduled Easter Sunday manoeuvres was published in the Sunday Independent. MacNeill’s countermand threw the envisaged insurgency into chaos. In the confusion of the conflicting orders and in knowledge of the news of Casement's arrest and the Aud’s interception in from Kerry, the conspirators met at Liberty Hall and decided to salvage something from the wreckage of their plans. The Rising would go ahead – but on the following day. However, the insurrection of Easter Monday was not that planned for Easter Sunday. It was not the same Rising deferred by a day. It was different in scale and geography and its likely outcome was more pre-determined.


Century Ireland

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