On 24 April 1916 the United Kingdom faced its greatest internal threat in 100 years. On a sleepy Easter bank holiday Monday, around 1,500 armed Irish nationalist rebels, allied with Germany, seized control of Dublin, then a major city of the UK, and held the centre for six days. Their leaders’ aspiration was to found an independent all-Ireland Republic – freed from the yoke of British rule – and they saw the use of violence as a legitimate, indeed romantic, means of doing so. For rebel ideologue Patrick Pearse: “The old heart of the earth needed to be warmed by the red wine of the battlefield.” The reality proved rather less bucolic: local police and soldiers were shot and killed without warning when the uprising began.
Ironically the rebels who caused such casualties – a disparate coalition of four groups – had greater social and gender justice as one of their aims. In a vividly written proclamation, issued at the start of the insurrection, they declared: “Irishmen and Irishwomen: In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.” What happened next would cause carnage on the streets of Dublin, trigger a brutal British response, transform many Irish people’s attitudes to independence and set in train a series of events that would lead to the partition of Ireland.
The Easter Rising was planned by the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), a small group active in Ireland and the US, who wished to found an Irish Republic using armed force. The IRB had been recruiting among Irish nationalists in Dublin, many of whom were disillusioned by the extent of Ireland’s support for Britain in the First World War. Youth culture proved especially receptive, particularly in middle-class intelligentsia circles where revolutionary nationalist attitudes had become popular in the decade prior to 1916.
In a 2016 episode of the History Extra podcast, historian and broadcaster Heather Jones explored the dramatic rebellion of 1916, which had far reaching ramifications for Anglo-Irish relations:
Led by Tom Clarke and Sean MacDermott, and inspired by the European model of revolution of 1848, the IRB was extremely small and had no mass organisation of its own, or political party. Instead it infiltrated moderate nationalist movements, with the aim of getting their members to act as foot-soldiers in its future rebellion.
The IRB’s main success was in gaining key leadership positions in the Irish Volunteers – a militia founded to support the imminent introduction of Home Rule – which provided the bulk of the 1916 rebel combatants.
The British had agreed to introduce Home Rule, a limited form of self-government within the United Kingdom, pending the outcome of the First World War. An Irish parliament would administer Irish domestic issues, while the British parliament at Westminster would retain control over foreign affairs, defence, taxation and overseas trade. Although controversial, it had the support of most of the population. However, Ireland’s Unionist minority opposed it, fearing an Irish parliament would be dominated by Catholics.
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By 1914, the schism over Home Rule had taken Ireland to the brink of civil war. Unionists had founded a 100,000-strong militia, the Ulster Volunteer Force, to resist its implementation, while moderate nationalists set up the Irish Volunteer Force in response.
But the outbreak of the First World War saw the two sides rally to the war effort. The majority of both militias enlisted in the British Army, making up a large component of the 210,000 Irishmen who served. Critically, though, a rump of 13,000 dissident Irish Volunteers remained in Ireland, rejecting the war. Believing that “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity”, they proved easy targets for IRB machinations.
Two other organisations also provided the rising’s fighters: Cumann na mBan, a women’s nationalist group, and the Irish Citizen Army, a socialist workers’ militia of around 339 members, led by James Connolly, formed to protect striking workers in 1913. Germany had also pledged support. However, the anticipated German consignment of weapons due to be delivered to Ireland just before the rising never materialised.
This was not the only last-minute calamity to blight the rebels’ cause. The Irish Volunteers’ chief of staff, Eoin MacNeill, tried to prevent the rising, forbidding his men from gathering on Easter Sunday, the symbolic day the IRB had chosen for the insurrection to start. MacNeill believed a rising had no chance of military success and no popular mandate: “Our country is not a poetical abstraction […] it is our duty to get our country on side,” he believed. Furious, the IRB postponed its action to Easter Monday but could only get word that the uprising was still going ahead to its supporters in Dublin. As a result the rebellion was almost entirely limited to the city.
Fortunately for the rebels, British intelligence in Ireland was a shambles due to the exigencies of wartime. Most of the rebel leaders had been under police surveillance but even well-known militants like Thomas Clarke, who had served a 15-year prison term, were able to proselytise relatively freely, and their secret insurrection planning was not picked up. Worse still, when Sir Roger Casement, the negotiator the rebels had sent to request German aid for the uprising, was captured on 21 April, landing on a Kerry beach from a German submarine, the authorities missed a golden opportunity to uncover the rebels’ plans.
It was the Easter holidays after all. The Dublin elite duly departed for the races at Fairyhouse, leaving a city with few police on duty. Early on 24 April, Matthew Nathan, the under-secretary for Ireland, met with the head of intelligence at Dublin Castle to discuss whether Casement’s arrest indicated any increased security risk. It was too late. Gunfire interrupted their deliberations – as the castle gate came under attack and an unarmed police sentry was gunned down. The Easter Rising had begun.
Surprise was the rebels’ only real advantage. They had little grasp of strategy or tactics. A unit under Countess Markievicz dug trenches in St Stephen’s Green, all overlooked by tall buildings. Patrick Pearse carried a sword.
The rebels tried to seize key communication sites – their headquarters was the General Post Office – and threw up street barricades. Yet they failed to capture the seat of British administration in Ireland at Dublin Castle, or, crucially the ports and stations – through which British reinforcements, including Irish troops diverted from going to the war, poured.
Struggling on the western front, the British were unprepared for dealing with an urban insurgency at home. Unfortunately for the rebels, however, it wasn’t long before the authorities regained their composure – and, once they’d done so, their response was ruthless. Prime Minister Asquith sent in troop reinforcements, and a gunboat on the river Liffey shelled the rebel positions. The city centre was left in ruins. Onlookers likened O’Connell Street, the central boulevard, to Ypres.
The bitter fighting that engulfed central Dublin as British forces battled to regain control claimed 450 lives: 62 of the dead were rebels; 132 soldiers and police. As he marched into the city, one British officer in the Sherwood Foresters, Friedrich Dietrichsen, by chance met his Irish wife and children, who had been sent to Dublin to escape Zeppelin raids. The reunion was short-lived: within hours Dietrichsen was killed in a rebel ambush at Mount Street Bridge.
The majority of the dead, however, were innocent civilians caught in the crossfire – the youngest of all was 22-month-old Christina Caffrey, who was shot in her mother’s arms.
Most of the rebel strongholds – increasingly isolated from one another – could not hold out long against trained soldiers. With the military situation hopeless, the rebels decided to bow to the inevitable and surrender.
Yet, once they had laid down their arms, the rebels found that the British were in no mood for clemency. Mass internment, curfews and house-to-house searches followed the arbitrary shootings that had occurred during the rising. Then, infamously, the authorities began executing the rising’s leaders after closed court martials. James Connolly, already dying from wounds and unable to stand, was shot strapped to a chair. The Irish public was appalled. Journalist Warren Wells described it as watching “blood dripping from under a closed door”, while the MP John Dillon, a moderate Irish nationalist who had promoted Ireland staying in the UK, declared in parliament: “You are washing out our whole life-work in a sea of blood.”
Dillon was right. Britain’s bludgeoning response only served to radicalise the Irish public. Soon, increasing numbers were demanding independence – and a tidal wave of nationalism was unleashed that would lead to the secession of 26 of the 32 counties of Ireland from the UK to form the Irish Free State in 1922, the antecedent of today’s Republic of Ireland. This wave would wash up on foreign shores, as nationalists, emboldened by Ireland’s example, began to challenge British imperial authorities across the globe.
Even as the British clamped down on the rebels, they had no idea who was behind the violent insurrection. The press coined it the ‘Sinn Féin rebellion’ after a fringe nationalist political group that was not involved in the uprising. Despite this, the misattribution stuck. Sinn Féin was happy to take the electoral credit, becoming the party of choice for the surviving rebels.
The Easter Rising caused a great deal of soul-searching. Irish nationalists who had volunteered for the British Army in the First World War recognised that the rebel leaders’ executions would trump their experiences. “These men will go down in history as heroes and martyrs,” wrote Tom Kettle, a nationalist MP, “and I will go down – if I go down at all – as a bloody British officer.” Sadly, Kettle would indeed go down, dying on the Somme.
A great irony
It wasn’t just nationalists who saw the landscape transform around them. The radicalisation of the Irish public in the wake of the rising left no room for compromise with Ulster’s unionists – who, when the Government of Ireland Act came into force in 1920, were granted their own home rule parliament. It was one of the great ironies of Irish history that, having opposed Home Rule for decades, unionists now saw its establishment in six northern counties as a shield from the republican insurrection that erupted in 1919.
The 1916 rebels embarked upon their uprising with the goal of transforming Ireland for good – as rebel Éamonn Ceannt wrote to his wife before his execution, “I die a noble death for Ireland’s freedom. Men and women will vie with one another to shake your dear hand.” This they undoubtedly achieved. But at a cost: the decades of violence that attended the dream of establishing a 32-county independent republic.
Heather Jones is a professor in modern and contemporary European history at University College London (UCL). At the time of writing in 2016 she was associate professor in history at the London School of Economics.
This article was first published in the March 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine