How did a failed rebellion against British rule in the midst of World War One set Ireland on a new course, and what were the consequences?
By Dr Fearghal McGarry
Last updated 2011-03-03
How did a failed rebellion against British rule in the midst of World War One set Ireland on a new course, and what were the consequences?
In the months leading up to World War One, violent conflict appeared more imminent in Ireland than Europe.
The Liberal government's decision to concede Home Rule (a limited measure of self-government) to Ireland provoked a stand-off between Protestant Unionists in Ulster, led by Sir Edward Carson, and Catholic Nationalist supporters of Home Rule led by John Redmond's Irish Parliamentary Party.
On the outbreak of World War One, both Redmond and Carson offered their support and that of their armed militias, the (Nationalist) Irish Volunteers and (Unionist) Ulster Volunteer Force, to the British government.
A small militant faction of the Irish Volunteers would go on to fight in the Easter Rising of April 1916.
Both men were personally loyal to the empire and sympathised with the objectives of the war, but they were also aware of the need to retain influence with the British government in order to shape the terms of the Home Rule Act which was passed but suspended for the duration of the war.
But while support for the war effort united Irish Unionists, Redmond's decision to support Britain was strongly opposed by a small militant faction of the Irish Volunteers.
It was this group which would go on to fight in the Easter Rising of April 1916.
Redmond's decision to gamble his party's popularity on the war appeared successful. As in other European countries, the conflict (which 'Redmondites' depicted as a struggle for the freedom of other small nations like 'Catholic' Belgium) initially met with widespread enthusiasm.
Over 210,000 Irishmen served with the British forces, 140,000 of them as volunteers. But by early 1916 recruitment had declined sharply as the war became increasingly unpopular.
Many nationalists resented the preferential treatment which Ulster's Unionist volunteers had received within the British army, while the growing fear of conscription undermined confidence in the Irish Party.
As the Redmondite Nationalist Volunteers faded into obscurity, the separatist Irish Volunteers began to attract more support due to the growth of anti-war sentiment.
It was against this background that plans for a rebellion took shape.
Three groups, each with their own motives, participated in the Easter Rising.
The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) was a secret revolutionary fraternity founded in the mid-19th century. They were also known as the 'Fenians', and this group planned the rebellion.
Although the IRB was divided on the merits of a rising, a radical faction led by Tom Clarke and Sean MacDermott established a secret military council to plan the rising.
They did not, as is sometimes thought, willingly seek martyrdom or a mystical 'blood sacrifice'. Rather they felt that a heroic gesture was required to reawaken the spirit of militant Irish nationalism.
The rising was partly based on the traditional Fenian dictum that England's difficulty was Ireland's opportunity.
They were motivated by frustration and pessimism rather than revolutionary optimism. They believed that the British government's resolution of the land and Home Rule questions, and the decline of Irish cultural identity, had almost extinguished true Irish nationality, rendering the Irish, like the Welsh and Scots, acquiescent subjects of the United Kingdom.
They hoped for success, but believed that even failure was preferable to inaction, as it would reassert, and possibly reinvigorate, the long tradition of violent opposition to British authority (adding another historic date to the unsuccessful risings of 1798, 1803, 1848 and 1867).
The decision to rise was also based on the traditional Fenian dictum that England's difficulty was Ireland's opportunity.
Fenians had long believed that only in time of war, with England distracted and the availability of a powerful European ally, could they hope to mount a successful challenge to the superior might of the British empire.
The second key group involved in the rising was the anti-war Irish Volunteers who had split from Redmond's Volunteers in 1914.
They were led by Eoin MacNeill, a history professor who opposed the idea of an unprovoked rebellion, but the IRB secretly exercised considerable influence within the militia, controlling many of its leaders and officers.
MacNeill and other moderate Volunteers opposed the idea of an unprovoked rebellion because they felt it had no realistic prospect of success.
MacNeill argued that they should wait until a more opportune time, such as when Britain introduced conscription or suppressed the Volunteers, so that they could fight in self-defence with mass support.
The poet Patrick Pearses would ultimately become the public face of the Easter Rising.
The IRB responded to MacNeill's opposition by planning the rising without his knowledge as the Volunteers remained essential to its hopes for a large-scale insurrection.
The conspirators gradually broadened the military council by recruiting Volunteer leaders who did support the policy of insurrection.
The most important of these was Patrick Pearse, a cultural nationalist and poet, who ran his own Gaelic-speaking school.
Pearse would ultimately become the public face of the Easter Rising - it was he who wrote much of the Proclamation and was declared president of the short-lived republic established by the revolutionaries.
For this reason, Pearse's distinctive ideas (particularly the 'blood sacrifice' ideal) came to be identified with the rebellion as a whole.
Deeply influenced by both Christianity and the pagan tradition of Irish sagas, Pearse's writings and poetry indicated an intense spiritual desire for a martyrdom which would redeem his nation and ensure his own immortality.
He was not alone in such beliefs. His fellow poets on the military council, Thomas MacDonagh and Joseph Mary Plunkett, shared his messianic zeal.
Although much criticised for his violent rhetoric - 'bloodshed is a cleansing and a sanctifying thing and a nation which regards it as the final horror has lost its manhood' - Pearse's sacrificial rhetoric was echoed by young men, intellectuals and politicians intoxicated by the militarism of wartime Europe.
The third group to participate in the rebellion was the Irish Citizen Army, a small socialist paramilitary organisation led by James Connolly.
A leading figure in Ireland's trade union and socialist movements, Connolly's participation in the rising was an attempt to reconcile his Marxism with nationalism (an ideology which he had previously criticised).
"Without the shedding of Blood there is no redemption."
He was much influenced by the response of Irish and European workers to the outbreak of the war in Europe.
Like many revolutionary socialists, he had believed that international working-class solidarity would prevent such a war, and it may have been his disillusionment which led him to join forces with 'bourgeois' Irish separatism in the hope of sparking a wider revolution throughout war-weary Europe.
By the time he was co-opted to the military council in early 1916, his rhetoric had begun to resemble that of Pearse: 'Without the shedding of Blood there is no redemption'.
An insurrection with any real prospect of challenging British military control of Ireland required two elements to fall into place.
First, the rebels needed a large supply of arms and ammunition.
Although they had successfully made contact with Germany, the steamer sent to Ireland, the 'Aud', was intercepted by the British navy on Easter Saturday, dooming the rising to failure.
The second crucial requirement was a successful mobilisation of the Irish Volunteers.
The rebels were again foiled when Eoin MacNeill discovered their plans and issued a countermanding order instructing Irish Volunteers not to turn out for the 'manoeuvres' that had been arranged throughout the country on Easter Sunday.
Although it was clear that a rising no longer had any chance of success, the military council decided to strike.
The secrecy with which the rising had been planned ensured that few Volunteers, even those who would willingly have taken part in an insurrection, knew what was really planned and remained at home.
Although it was clear by Easter Sunday (both to the rebel leaders and the British authorities who had finally uncovered the conspiracy) that a rising no longer had any chance of success, the military council decided to strike the following day.
Aware that their plans had been exposed, and that their arrest would end any prospect of a rising during the war, the rebels had little to lose by proceeding.
Their leaders considered death preferable to the ridicule that would have accompanied their failure to rise, and there remained the hope that their sacrifice, the propaganda of the deed, might revive Irish separatism.
Their strategy had, in any case, always indicated a certain degree of defeatism.
The rebels occupied a circle of prominent buildings around the city centre of Dublin, barricading themselves in to await the arrival of British forces.
Their military plan has been much criticised. The rebel headquarters in the General Post Office on Sackville Street had no strategic, administrative or symbolic value, while the poorly defended seat of British government, Dublin Castle, was not taken.
The instructions given to supporters outside Dublin were vague (Volunteers in the west were ordered 'to hold the line of the Shannon') and unrealistic (Belfast's republicans were instructed to march across Ulster to join the fight in the west of the country).
Only in north Dublin did the rebels apply the guerrilla warfare methods (exploiting the advantages of movement and local knowledge of terrain) which would prove so effective in the later War of Independence (1919-1921).
Large parts of Dublin town centre were devastated by artillery bombardment and fire.
Despite this, the rebels managed to hold the centre of Dublin for six days.
British reinforcements did not arrive until mid-week, and the rebels defended their well-fortified positions with resilience until British artillery forced the surrender of the GPO garrison the following Saturday.
By the end of the rising, large parts of the city centre had been devastated by artillery bombardment and fire.
Some 1,600 rebels participated in the rising in Dublin. Over 450 people were killed and another 2,600 were wounded.
Most of the fatalities, around 250, were civilians. Many had been caught up in the fighting which took place in the densely-populated slums on Dublin's north side.
One-hundred and thirty-two soldiers and policemen were killed, while the rebels accounted for only around 64 of the fatalities.
Most Irish people were appalled by the death and destruction unleashed by the rebellion.
The defeated rebels were jeered and attacked by some onlookers as they were led through the streets of Dublin.
In the general election, nationalists favoured the new Sinn Fein party which identified itself with the 1916 rebels.
But, as had occurred after earlier unsuccessful rebellions, Britain's response - including the execution of 15 of the leaders, the arrest of 3,430 men and 79 women (many of them entirely innocent) and the imposition of martial law throughout the entire country - provoked indignation and sympathy for the rebels.
Just as Pearse had fantasised, the sacrifice of the rebels converted previously unsympathetic nationalists to the republican cause.
In the general election of December 1918, nationalist Ireland decisively rejected the Irish Party in favour of the new Sinn Fein party which identified itself with the 1916 rebels.
This dramatic transformation of opinion must be set in the wider context of the turbulent period between 1912 and the end of World War One.
The mobilisation of the Ulster Volunteers and their successful defiance of a weak Liberal government radicalised Irish society, undermining the moderate and conciliatory Irish Party's hold over its electorate.
John Redmond's open-ended commitment to an increasingly unpopular war, and the British government's tactless handling of recruitment, further undermined constitutional nationalism.
The rising proved more violent and enduring than its organisers could have imagined.
Britain's response to the rising was hardly draconian. Few of the other great powers would have responded in such a measured way, but the perception of tyrannical heavy-handedness allowed separatists to depict Britain as the historic oppressor of old, as did the government's disastrous attempts to impose conscription in 1918.
The fact that the government initially responded to the rising by attempting to secure nationalist and unionist agreement for the immediate implementation of Home Rule also suggested to many nationalists that a week of violence had proved more effective than decades of constitutional struggle.
There can be little doubt that the Easter Rising was the central event in transforming Irish Nationalist opinion. Had it not occurred, southern Ireland may have remained a devolved region of the United Kingdom, or peacefully evolved into an imperial dominion like Australia.
The north almost certainly would have remained British.
Instead, Sinn Féin's victory saw the establishment of Dáil Éireann, an Irish parliament which sought to create the republic proclaimed in Easter 1916 over two years of revolutionary guerrilla warfare.
The legacy of the Rising, the 'terrible beauty' described by WB Yeats, proved more violent and enduring than its organisers could have imagined.
Having failed to achieve the republic, the treaty which brought the War of Independence (fought between the IRA and the British authorities in Ireland) to a close fatally divided the Irish republican movement, leading to the Irish Civil War (fought between the pro-treaty and anti-treaty factions of the IRA) of 1922-1923.
Future generations of republicans, whether opposed to the limitations of southern Ireland's sovereignty or the partition of the nation, would look to the Easter Rising as both an inspiration and a justification for their own unmandated acts of violence.
Easter 1916: the Irish rebellion by Charles Townshend (Allen Lane, 2005)
Ireland and the Great War by Keith Jeffery (Cambridge University Press, 2000)
The Easter Rising by Michael Foy & Brian Barton (Sutton, 1999)
The IRA at War 1916-23 by Peter Hart (Oxford University Press, 2003)
Patrick Pearse: the triumph of failure by Ruth Dudley Edwards (Gollancz, 1977)
The Irish War of Independence by Michael Hopkinson (Gill and Macmillan, 2002)
Fearghal McGarry is a senior lecturer in the School of History at Queen's University Belfast. He is author of Irish Politics and the Spanish Civil War (Cork University Press, 1998) as well as biographies of Frank Ryan (Historical Association of Ireland, 2002) and Eoin O'Duffy (Oxford University Press, 2005). He is currently completing a history of the Easter Rising.
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