The Easter Rising.
1. The Background to the Rising.
Citizen Army on parade, Croyden Park, Fairview, Dublin, 1914.
The roots of the Rising lie in the ‘new nationalism' which emerged in Ireland from the 1890s. Its most significant outcome was the rejuvenation of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). This small, underground, revolutionary body planned and directed the insurrection in 1916. The truly dynamic element was a tiny minority within this organisation ; they were acting on the old republican principle: ‘England's difficulty is Ireland's opportunity'. In August 1915, this group formed the IRB Military Council. It was eventually composed of seven members – Thomas Clarke, Sean MacDermott, Patrick Pearse, Eamonn Ceannt, Joseph Plunkett, James Connolly and Thomas MacDonagh. All seven approved and signed the Proclamation, and together they declared themselves to be the ‘Provisional Government' of the Irish Republic when the Rising began. They were aided throughout by an Irish-American organisation, Clan na Gael, which shared their aims and provided virtually the only channel of contact between the insurgents and Germany, from whom they hoped to receive military backing.
The IRB was too small in number and covert in operation to precipitate a full-scale rising. For this purpose, it hoped to use the Irish Volunteer Force (IVF). This organisation had been formed in 1913 by moderate nationalists, impressed by the impact of the Ulster Volunteer Force and frustrated by the delay in Britain granting Ireland self-government. It had recruited 180,000 men by mid-1914, but then formally split over whether its volunteers should enlist in British Forces and fight in the European war. Its more extreme rump of 11,000 men strongly opposed this and kept the original name (IVF). The Military Council members hoped to use this body as a strike force in the planned rebellion. Of necessity, their efforts to do so involved covert infiltration and deceit as some of the IVF leaders, notably Eoin MacNeill, rejected a wartime rising on grounds of principle. However, they did form an alliance with James Connolly, the revolutionary socialist and commander of the Irish Citizen Army.
During 1915, the rebel leaders' preparations for a rising were gathering momentum. Their plan was centred on an insurrection in Dublin; to be supported by munitions, and hopefully troops from Germany, which were to be landed on the coast of County Kerry. Meanwhile, leadership positions within the IVF were successfully infiltrated, both in Dublin and elsewhere, and its rank and file members trained in street-fighting techniques. By January 1916 the Military Council had set the date for a rising – initially Good Friday, 21st April 1916, later changed to Easter Sunday, 23rd April. Their revolutionary intentions were to be masked behind publicly advertised and apparently routine manoeuvres arranged for that day.
Irish Citizen Army members on the roof of Liberty Hall Dublin, headquarters of the Transport Union.
On 19th April, IVF commandants were given details of the plan for insurrection, despite the risk of this information leaking to those members who opposed it or to the British authorities. Disaster threatened when MacNeill received confirmation of their true intentions on 21st April. After initial hesitation, he issued countermand orders cancelling the now publicised manoeuvres for Easter Sunday, by placing a note to this effect in that morning's edition of the Sunday Independent.
By then news had reached Dublin that the ship transporting German arms to Ireland had been captured (21 April). In confusion and despair, the Military Council members met in emergency session on Sunday morning, 23rd April, to consider their options. They decided to proceed with the rising next day with such forces as they could muster.
2. Sir Roger Casement and the German Connection.
Sir Roger Casement (left) and Clan na Gael leader John Devoy in America, 1914.
Traditionally, Irish revolutionary nationalists have looked to England's enemies for aid. So when a number of them met in Dublin on 9th September 1914 to discuss the circumstances arising from the outbreak of war, they agreed to appeal to Germany for its support in an insurrection. Clan na Gael, a republican organisation of Irish-Americans in the United States, was to provide the rebels with their main channel of communication with Germany. Already on 24th August 1914 its leader, John Devoy, had met the German ambassador in New York, stressed to him the opportunities for an Irish rising and requested arms and military personnel for this purpose.
Roger Casement was the central figure in developing the rebels` relations with Germany. He had been born in Sandycove, near Dublin, in 1864, the son of a British army officer, and for 20 years had served in the British consular service. He had then gained an international reputation for exposing European colonial exploitation of native peoples in Africa and South America. He had meanwhile become increasingly absorbed in militant Irish nationalist politics and attracted by the potential of an Irish-German alliance as a means of securing full Irish independence. He was in the US when the war began and at once submitted a plan to German officials there, outlining how Britain's power could be broken by exploiting unrest in its vulnerable possessions, especially Ireland. The Berlin government suggested that he travel to Germany for negotiations.
On first arrival, Casement met with some success. On 20th November 1914, the German government declared its support for Irish independence, and soon after agreed to him raising an Irish Brigade from among Irish prisoners captured on the western front; its members were to be transported to Ireland to help in the fight for freedom. However, despite his efforts, recruitment to it was poor. Most of the prisoners were politically moderate and regarded Casement as a traitor.
German government hesitation ended when it received confirmation in mid-February 1916 that the date for an Irish rising had been set for the coming Easter. It agreed to ship 25,000 captured Russian rifles and one million rounds, hoping thereby to divert some British troops from the western front. The consignment was despatched aboard the ‘ Aud ' on 9th April. Casement considered its size to be wholly inadequate, and that any rising was therefore doomed. He persuaded the German authorities to transport him to Ireland by submarine. His purpose was ostensibly to rendezvous with the ‘ Aud ' and supervise the landing of the arms. His actual intention was to prevent an insurrection.
Sir Roger Casement's 'Irish Brigade' drawn from prisoners-of-war in Germany, 1915.
The whole enterprise ended in fiasco. Casement was arrested on 21st April, hours after landing on the Kerry coast. The Royal Navy captured the arms ship on the same day. Owing to navigational error, it failed to appear at its agreed rendezvous point. Due to inept planning by the rebel leadership, local volunteers had not been expecting it to arrive when it did. In any case, British intelligence had intercepted messages between the insurrectionists and the German Embassy in New York and was anticipating its arrival. Fearing leaks, full knowledge of such sensitive information was not communicated to the authorities in Dublin, who remained in ignorance of the plans for a rising.
The rebels' failure to receive the arms had a major impact on the Rising. Had they arrived safely, MacNeill would probably have supported the outbreak, and its scale, especially in the provinces, would have been infinitely greater.
3. The Rising.
O'Connell Street in ruins after 1916 insurrection.
The Easter Rising was virtually confined to Dublin. The British capture of a shipment of German arms on 21st April 1916 greatly reduced its scale outside the capital. Moreover, confusion was caused by a rash of conflicting orders sent out to the Irish Volunteers – the main strike force - from their headquarters and the decision taken by the rebel leaders to postpone their action arranged for Easter Sunday 23rd April, until the next day.
At about 11.00 am on Easter Monday the Volunteers, along with the Irish Citizen Army, assembled at various prearranged meeting points in Dublin, and before noon set out to occupy a number of imposing buildings in the inner city area. These had been selected to command the main routes into the capital, and also because of their strategic position in relation to the major military barracks. They included the General Post Office, the Four Courts, Jacob's Factory, Boland's Bakery, the South Dublin Union, St. Stephen's Green and later the College of Surgeons. Given the advantage of surprise – British intelligence had failed hopelessly – the properties targeted were taken virtually without resistance and immediately the rebels set about making them defensible. The GPO was the nerve centre of the rebellion. It served as the rebels' headquarters and the seat of the provisional government which they declared. Five of its members served there – Pearse, Clarke, Connolly, MacDermott and Plunkett.
The British military onslaught, which the rebels had anticipated, did not at first materialise. When the Rising began the authorities had just 400 troops to confront roughly 1,000 insurgents. Their immediate priorities were therefore to amass reinforcements, gather information on volunteer strength and locations and protect strategic positions, including the seat of government, Dublin Castle, which had initially been virtually undefended.
As the week progressed, the fighting in some areas did become intense, characterised by prolonged, fiercely contested street battles. Military casualties were highest at Mount Street Bridge. There, newly arrived troops made successive, tactically inept, frontal attacks on determined and disciplined volunteers occupying several strongly fortified outposts. They lost 234 men, dead or wounded while just 5 rebels died. In some instances, lapses in military discipline occurred. Soldiers were alleged to have killed 15 unarmed men in North King Street near the Four Courts during intense gun battles there on 28th and 29th April. The pacifist Francis Sheehy-Skeffington was the best-known civilian victim of the insurrection. He was arrested in Dublin on 25th April, taken to Portobello Barracks and shot by firing squad next morning without trial.
Artists impression of a battle between British soldiers and the Republican army on O'Connell Bridge.
Overall the British authorities responded competently to the Rising. Reinforcements were speedily drafted into the capital and by Friday 28th April, the 1,600 rebels (more had joined during the week) were facing 18-20,000 soldiers. From Thursday the GPO was entirely cut off from other rebel garrisons. Next day it came under a ferocious artillery attack which also devastated much of central Dublin. Having learnt the lessons of Mount Street Bridge, the troops did not attempt a mass infantry attack. Their strategy was effective. It compelled the insurgent leaders, based at the Post Office, first to evacuate the building and later to accept the only terms on offer – unconditional surrender. Their decision was then made known to and accepted sometimes reluctantly, by all the rebel garrisons still fighting both in the capital and in the provinces.
In total, the Rising cost 450 persons killed, 2,614 injured, and 9 missing, almost all in Dublin. The only significant action elsewhere was at Ashbourne, 10 miles north of Dublin. Military casualties were 116 dead, 368 wounded and 9 missing, and the Irish and Dublin police forces had 16 killed and 29 wounded. A total of 254 civilians died; the high figures were largely because much of the fighting had occurred in or near densely populated areas. It is widely accepted that 64 rebels lost their lives. Their casualties were low because in the capital they were the defending force. Moreover, they fought with discipline and skill until, acting under instruction from their leaders, they surrendered their strongholds rather than fight to the last volunteer.
4. The Proclamation.
The Proclamation of the Irish Republic. The seven signatories were among those executed.
The drafting of the Proclamation was one of the final steps taken by the Irish Republican Brotherhood Military Council who planned the Rising. Its flowing phrases suggest that it was composed mainly by Patrick Pearse, probably aided by the others, particularly James Connolly. Certainly all seven Council members approved it on 17th April 1916 and later signed it; in doing so, they were virtually guaranteeing that they would face the firing squad should the insurrection fail.
On 23rd April, the Council agreed to proceed with the Rising next day, Easter Monday. It also decided that the Proclamation should be read to the public outside Dublin's General Post Office (after it had been occupied by the rebels), by the President of the Provisional Government of the Irish Republic. At the meeting this post was offered to Thomas Clarke in recognition of his services to the republican cause. He declined but as a tribute to his past sacrifices, his signature was given pride of place at the head of the list of seven names who had signed the document. It was then agreed that Pearse should act as president. He had the presence and the requisite oratorical gifts. As arranged, at 12:45 on Easter Monday, Pearse accompanied by an armed guard stood on the step outside the GPO and read the Proclamation. Though the occasion was momentous, the crowd who gathered there was sparse and uncomprehending. There were a few perfunctory cheers but no enthusiasm.
The Proclamation expressed the hopes and plans of the revolutionaries. Its primary purpose was to declare that an independent Irish Republic had been established and that a provisional government had been appointed - i.e., the seven members of the Council - to administer temporarily its affairs. Ireland's ‘national right to freedom and sovereignty' was powerfully asserted. Though a tiny minority, the rebels claimed: ‘Ireland through us summons her children to her flag' and could thus ‘prove itself worthy of [its] august destiny'. This appeal for support sprang from their conviction that they were acting in the country's best interests.
The Proclamation stated explicitly who had organised and planned the Rising and also referred to the help provided by ‘gallant allies in Europe'. In fact, German aid failed to reach the rebels. Nonetheless the claim damned their leaders in the eyes of the British government. It had been included in order to increase the likelihood of Ireland being granted independence at a post-war peace conference, when it was assumed a victorious Germany would dictate the terms.
An artist's impression of Pearse reading the proclamation outside the GPO, Dublin 1916.
In part, the text was concerned to justify the Rising; it did so by linking it to previous Irish history. It stated that: ‘the Irish people have asserted their right to national freedom … in arms … six times during the past 300 years'. This implied that the present action was not a sudden, opportunist outbreak but part of a long-established nationalist tradition. The historical tradition the rebels identified with was the republican one. The document uses the term ‘republic' on five occasions. Its signatories would have had difficulty agreeing on a definition of the term, nonetheless it is what the leaders declared in 1916 and what they fought and died for. Their actions and sacrifice helped implant this as a future national aspiration of the Irish people.
The Proclamation suggested that the Rising was not just a political event but also foreshadowed social and economic change. It provided a vision of a free Irish state which would oversee the welfare of all its citizens. The republic would guarantee ‘religious and civil liberty, equal rights and opportunities' and would ‘pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation … cherishing all the children of the nation equally'. This section shows the influence of Connolly's socialist principles. It held the brightest hope for the future but also the seeds of the deepest disappointment. In the years that followed, national energies focussed on the struggle for political independence; questions of social, civil and economic reform received scant and secondary attention.