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24 September 2014
Wars and Conflict - 1916 Rising

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Image of handbill announcing the Irish Volunteers’ first public meeting

A Handbill announcing the formation of the Irish Volunteers at the Rotunda on 25th November 1913 ©

The growth of new forms of cultural nationalism from the 1890s was one expression of the emergence of a ‘new’, more radical, nationalism in Ireland at this time. So also were a number of political initiatives which took place then. These included the birth of Sinn Féin, the rejuvenation of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), and developments in the labour movement. The reasons for these occurring when they did are complex. One factor was disillusionment with the Irish Parliament Party (IPP) with its continuing failure to achieve home rule and its factional divisions after the fall of Parnell. Some came to regard its leaders as a remote, privileged elite, out of touch with Irish life, devoid of new ideas, and with apparently little interest in Ireland’s culture, its economy or the deprived state of its working class. Also, the centenary of the Wolfe Tone rebellion in 1898 reminded a new generation of alternative means to achieving independence – the use of physical force - whilst the Boer War (1899-1902), helped dispel the assumption that British troops were invincible. In addition, the establishment of the Gaelic League and the Gaelic Athletic Association gave a stimulus to the formation of more extreme political organisations. Membership of these cultural bodies often affected the outlook of those who joined them, and they were drawn towards enrolment in more militant nationalist movements.

The Sinn Féin movement was established by Arthur Griffith. He was a Dublin printer, born in 1871, who had a keen interest in Irish history and culture. He had been an enthusiastic supporter of Parnell but after his fall came to feel a growing contempt for the home rule party. He thereafter focussed his energies on trying to find an alternative way forward for Ireland. Drawing lessons from the experience of Hungary, he argued in 1902, that Irish MPs should simply withdraw from Westminster and set up an assembly of their own in Dublin. This, he believed, Irish citizens would recognise and the British government in time be compelled to accept. Ireland would therefore emerge as a self-governing partner with Britain, with both sharing the English Crown as head of state. He was also convinced that Ireland could develop a strong, self-sufficient economy by erecting tariffs to exclude competing industrial imports from Britain. In 1905, he launched the Sinn Féin (‘ourselves’) Party, its programme based on these ideas. Until 1916, it remained a small, Dublin-centred organisation. But owing to his immense gifts as a writer, Griffith became the best-known nationalist journalist in the capital and his movement was therefore widely held to be responsible for having caused the Rising.

In fact, the ‘dynamic force’ behind the Rising was the IRB – an underground, separatist, revolutionary movement, established in 1858. Until 1910, its leadership was elderly, ineffective, inactive and corrupt. It was then revitalised by a new generation of energetic members dedicated to precipitating a revolution to achieve Ireland’s independence. The process was begun in Ulster, where younger elements, influenced by the passion and militancy of the unionists, transformed the local republican movement. Subsequently, they focussed their energies on purging the national leadership in Dublin. By 1911, they had succeeded. Thomas Clarke and Sean MacDermott were then in control; they were talented, effective and ready to exploit any favourable opportunity which might arise.

Image of Irish volunteers

Irish volunteers on parade in Cork ©

This was not long in coming. By 1913, even moderate nationalists were convinced that they should form a paramilitary organisation to reinforce their demands for self-government and exert additional pressure on the British government in the same way that Ulster unionists had done by establishing the Ulster Volunteer Force. When, in November, a respected academic, Eoin MacNeill, suggested such an initiative in a newspaper article, the IRB leaders immediately seized on this opportunity. They helped organise the public launch of the new force, the Irish Volunteers, on 25th November 1913. They hoped to infiltrate it and use it in a future rising. It was not, however, the first to be formed in the capital that year; two weeks earlier Dublin workers had begun to set up the Irish Citizen Army.

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