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2 September 2014
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Wars and Conflict - 1916 Rising

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The Easter Rising Hear audio clips Audio Clips
Image of O'Connell Street in ruins after 1916 insurrection

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.

Image of battle between British soldiers and Republican army

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.

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Image of Dr. Michael Laffan Dr. Michael Laffan, Modern Irish History, University College, Dublin
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Image of Dr. Margaret Ward Dr. Margaret Ward, Historian
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Image of Ruth Taillon Ruth Taillon, Feminist Historian
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Image of Professor Mary E. Daly Mary E. Daly, Professor of Modern History, University College, Dublin
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