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24 September 2014
Wars and Conflict - 1916 Rising

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Image of James Connolly

James Connolly ©

A secret group within the Irish Republican Brotherhood planned and directed the Rising. The response of Irish political leaders to their action varied.

When imprisoned after it, James Connolly, the dominant figure in the Rising commented: "the socialists will never understand why I am here. They will forget I am an Irishman". It was in Edinburgh, where he was born, that he had first absorbed his firm commitment to Irish independence and his revolutionary socialism. After coming to Dublin in 1896, his ideas developed further. He believed that Ireland must become a free self-governing nation, but that social and economic change was equally essential – the elimination of private property and of capitalist power to exploit and repress the Irish people. As leader of the Irish Citizen Army, he demanded that members commit themselves to socialist revolution and the goal of an Irish republic. But he himself increasingly doubted the likelihood of a successful revolt by the working class; its defeat in the 1913 Dublin Lockout had exposed its weakness and the prospect of Ireland’s partition (and the loss of the industrial north-east) threatened to weaken it further. However, when World War 1 began, he at once argued and prepared for an Irish insurrection. As a nationalist, he supported the dictum: ‘England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity’. Moreover, he was convinced that even if it failed, it would ‘reawaken the soul of the nation’.

The response of Ulster unionists to the Rising was more predictable. When the war began, their leader Edward Carson, fervently supported Britain’s military effort, stating, "England’s difficulty is not Ulster’s opportunity, England’s difficulty is our difficulty". The 1916 insurrection did not directly affect the north; no fighting occurred there. The Rising was generally regarded by unionists as an act of treachery and proof that Irish nationalists were at heart disloyal. They later contrasted this with the loyalty displayed by the 36th Division (composed largely of Ulster Volunteer Force members) at the Somme. In total, 5,500 of its men were killed, wounded or went missing in the first two days of the battle on 1st - 2nd July 1916 - as one of them said "doing their duty for King and Country".

Unionists applauded the government’s imposition of martial law in Ireland during Easter week and urged that nationalists’ sedition should not be ‘rewarded’ by British concessions. However, when the trials of the rebel leaders began, Carson urged caution, saying: "it will be a matter requiring the greatest wisdom … dealing with these men. Whatever is done, let it be done, not in a moment of temporary excitement, but with due deliberation in regard to the past and to the future".

Like Carson, John Redmond the Irish Parliamentary Party leader had backed Britain’s war effort. A moderate nationalist, he also forthrightly condemned the Rising, expressing his detestation and horror at it and claiming Germany had plotted, organised and paid for it. As public attitudes towards Easter week changed, both he and his party were amongst its casualties.

Image of Michael Collins

Michael Collins ©

The Rising helped transform Irish nationalist politics. Whilst it was the climax and the end of the careers of some republican leaders, it was the making of others. Eamon de Valera was little known in Ireland until Easter week. During the Rising he served as commandant: he was the most senior figure in it to survive. His subsequent political rise was meteoric. As public adulation for the rebels grew, he was able to share in the glory of having been one of them.

Similarly, the insurrection was the launching pad for Michael Collins’ political career. Aged 16, he had gone to work in London and after joining the IRB there, became convinced that independence could only be achieved by force. Aware of plans for a Rising, he returned to Dublin in January 1916 and during Easter week served as Joseph Plunkett’s aide at the GPO; he was described as ‘the most effective and efficient officer in the place’. Subsequently he was interned at Frongoch, north Wales, where he first illustrated his leadership potential by helping organise prisoner resistance to camp regulations. He also set up a branch of the Irish Republican Brotherhood there, and after his release (December 1916) rapidly rose to prominence in this organisation as well as becoming the dominant figure in the re-formed Irish Volunteer Force. He was to go on to co-ordinate the republican campaign in the Anglo-Irish war, 1919-21. He has aptly been described as ‘the powerhouse of the revolution’.

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Image of Dr. Timothy Bowman Dr. Timothy Bowman, Research Fellow, Institute of Irish Studies, Queen's University of Belfast
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Image of Ruth Taillon Ruth Taillon, Feminist Historian
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Image of Dr. Peter Hart Dr. Peter Hart, Chair in Irish Studies, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada
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Image of Professor Alvin Jackson Alvin Jackson, Professor of Modern History, Queeen's University of Belfast
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