The Easter Rising, 1916: An overview
By John Dorney
This year, 2016, Ireland is commemorating the centenary of the Easter Rising, a rebellion against British rule that paved the way for the independence of Ireland.
What was the Easter Rising of 1916?
The Easter Rising was a week-long insurrection in Dublin, against British rule, in April 1916. The English, later British presence in Ireland can be traced back to the twelfth century, but the island was not fully conquered until 1603 and was not absorbed into the United Kingdom until the Act of Union in 1801.
Irish nationalists had long been seeking self-government or ‘Home Rule’. In 1914, Home Rule was passed in the British Parliament but postponed due to the outbreak of the First World War. As a result of the armed opposition to Home Rule by ‘Unionists’ (those favoured the ‘Union’ with Britain), mostly in the north, Home Rule would only apply to the southern 26 counties of Ireland.
It looked as if Ireland was headed to Civil War over Home Rule. Irish nationalists organised their own militia, the Irish Volunteers to ensure it passed. However a greater war intervened. Home Rule was postponed upon the outbreak of the Great War in August 1914, temporarily averting the crisis in Ireland.
Irish Republicans – those who argued for the complete independence of all of Ireland – resolved to launch an armed rebellion, if possible with German help, before the war was over. They were organised in the militia groups the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army and behind the scenes, the secret group the Irish Republican Brotherhood. The rebellion itself was planned by a secret ‘Military Council’.
The Germans did send weapons but they were sunk off Ireland’s southern coast before the Rising began.
The rebel forces seized the centre of Dublin city on Easter Monday 1916 and held parts of it for six days against British assault. At their headquarters at the General Post Office (GPO), they proclaimed an Irish Republic, independent from Britain, with the poet and educator Patrick Pearse as their president.
The British military after being initially caught off guard, drafted thousands of troops into the city and bombarded the insurgent positions with artillery. After five days of fighting, the rebel headquarters surrendered to the British General Maxwell, in the words of Pearse, ‘to prevent the further slaughter of unarmed people [of Dublin] and to save the lives of our followers, now surrounded and hopelessly outnumbered’.
Around 500 people died during the week’s fighting and over 2,500 were injured. Over half of the casualties were civilians. About 2,500 men and women took part in the rebellion, but over 3,500 were arrested in its aftermath.
The leaders of the rebellion, including Pearse, James Connolly, the leader of the Citizen Army, the other five signatories to the Proclamation of the Republic and others, in total 16 men, were executed by firing squad within weeks of their surrender.
How did the Irish public react at the time?
Republicans were a minority in Ireland in 1916. Most Irish nationalists supported Home Rule and the more moderate policy of John Redmond and the Irish Parliamentary Party. Redmond not only endorsed partial self-government over independence, but had called on his supporters to join the British Army during the First World War.
So when the rebellion broke out in Dublin, most residents of the city were shocked, some were angry their city had been turned into a war zone, others even saw the rebels as traitors while thousands of Irishmen were serving in British uniform in the Great War.
It was only afterwards, when the British executed the Rising’s leaders after summary trials and conducted wholesale arrests across the country that public opinion began to view the Rising more favourably. The perception that the insurgents had fought ‘honourably’ and willingly given their lives for ‘Irish Freedom’ became more widespread. Stories of the executions of the leaders had a particularly powerful emotional impact.
So if the rebellion failed, why is it so important to the Irish?
For one thing, the Easter Rising provided the spark that led to independence. The British government released most of the rebel prisoners within a year and they re-organized in Ireland in the political party Sinn Fein.
Sinn Fein successfully organised Irish resistance to conscription into the British Army in 1918 and subsequently won a sweeping victory in the first post-war General Election in 1918. They again declared an Irish Republic, but this time with mass support. After three years of guerrilla warfare, an agreement known as the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921 created the Irish Free State –ancestor of today’s Republic of Ireland – though it also confirmed the partition of Ireland between north and south.
In hindsight, the Easter Rising of 1916 is taken to be the start of this process and the symbolic driver of the independence struggle.
More than that though, the Easter Rising in retrospect has come to represent an ideal form of Irish patriotism – brave, self-sacrificing, egalitarian. The Proclamation of the Republic, which the rebels declared in 1916 is often cited today as an example of what Ireland should be – for instance its appeal equally to ‘Irish men and Irish women’ and its pledge to ‘treat all the children of the nation equally’.
But the memory of the Rising is also contested. Some in Ireland argue that the use of revolutionary violence in 1916 paved the way for conflicts that would rage on-and-off in Ireland, north and south for the rest of the 20th century. They argue that peaceful political methods would have produced the same results without loss of life. Others, particularly the heirs to the militant Republican tradition, argue that not only should the Rising be celebrated but that it should inspire the re-unification of Ireland and as they see it, fulfill the goals of the 1916 rebels.
Ireland in 1916; Who’s Who?
The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB): a secret revolutionary organisation founded in 1858, dedicated to the independence of Ireland and an Irish Republic.
The Irish Volunteers: a nationalist militia set up in 1913, infiltrated by the IRB and the main rebel military force in the Rising of 1916. It later evolved into the Irish Republican Army or IRA.
Cumann na mBan (‘The League of Women’), a militant women’s movement set up at the same time as the Irish Volunteers, which also took part in the 1916 rebellion.
Irish Citizen Army: A trade union based militia that was set up to protect striking workers but which took part in the Easter Rising.
Sinn Fein: (‘We Ourselves’): A political party founded in 1905 dedicated to Irish independence. The party was not directly involved in the Easter Rising but subsequently became the main political vehicle of Irish Republicanism.
Irish Parliamentary Party: The moderate Irish nationalist party, favouring the compromise, ‘Home Rule’.
Patrick Pearse: Poet, romantic nationalist and ‘President’ of the short-lived Irish Republic proclaimed in 1916. Executed by firing squad.
James Connolly: Scottish-born Socialist, leader of the Irish Citizen Army and commander of the rebel military forces in 1916. Executed by firing squad.
Tom Clarke: A veteran IRB member, though to have masterminded the rising. Executed by firing squad.
Eamon de Valera: A rebel Commandant in 1916, but later the first President of the Irish Republic declared in 1919.
Constance Markievicz: (Nee Constance Gore Booth) A British aristocrat and wife of a Polish nobleman, who became a radical socialist and Irish Republican and fought in the 1916 Rising. Later the first female government minister in Europe.
John Redmond: Leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party. Eventually discredited for his support of Britain in the First World War.
General John Maxwell: British military commander in Ireland, declared martial law and executed the Rising’s leaders after they had surrendered.
Herbert Asquith: British Prime Minister in 1916. Intervened to stop further executions by Maxwell.
John Dorney is the author of Peace After the Final Battle, the Story of the Irish Revolution 1912-24 and is the editor of the website The Irish Story.