On 24 April 1916 (Easter Monday), a group of men and women seized a number of prominent public buildings in central Dublin and proclaimed an Irish Republic. The Rising ended in defeat on 30 April when Patrick Henry Pearse (1879–1916), president of the Irish Republic, ordered an unconditional cease-fire.
The Rising marked a major setback for the dominant constitutional strand of Irish nationalism, which had been coming under threat for three or four years. With the introduction of the 1911 Parliament Act removing the veto of the House of Lords, Ireland appeared to be on course to secure Home Rule—devolved government within the United Kingdom—in 1914. However, the majority Protestant population in the northeast was determined to prevent this, and in order to do so, they formed the Ulster Unionist Volunteers in 1913; the Ulster Volunteers landed guns at Larne in the spring of 1914. These actions prompted the titfor-tat militarization of nationalist Ireland, with the formation of the Irish Volunteers (1913) and the Howth gun-running (June 1914). The Irish Volunteers were an essentially defensive body formed to defend Home Rule, however, they were infiltrated by the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB)—a militant republican group whose origins could be traced back to the 1850s. When war broke out in August 1914, the British authorities postponed the introduction of Home Rule until it ended, postponing the decision on Irish partition. While many Ulster and Irish Volunteers enlisted in the British army, a more militant minority of Irish Volunteers continued to meet and drill in Ireland. In May 1915 the IRB formed a military council, which eventually consisted of seven men, that went on to plan and to lead the 1916 Rising. The military council operated in such secrecy that the leadership of the Volunteers and the IRB were not informed about their plans for a rising. This obsession with secrecy reflected the belief that previous rebellions against Britain had failed because of informers. On this occasion, however, the secrecy resulted in such confusion that it made the Rising less effective.
In keeping with a long-standing tradition in Irish separatism, that "England's difficulty is Ireland's opportunity," efforts were made to enlist support from Germany, with Irish American leader John Devoy (1842–1928) as the major channel of communications. Germany dispatched a shipment of guns to Ireland, though not the hoped-for troops; a failure of communications, however, meant that there was nobody to meet the arms ship, the Aud, when it arrived off the southwest coast of Ireland on 20 April. When intercepted by the Royal Navy, the captain scuttled the boat rather than surrender.
The lack of communication was not confined to the rebels. British intelligence had advance knowledge of the planned uprising, having intercepted German transatlantic cables, but in order to protect the knowledge that Britain had broken German codes, they failed to pass on the information to the authorities in Dublin. The arrest of Roger Casement (1864–1916), who had landed from a German submarine in southwest Ireland on Good Friday, and the scuttling of the Aud gave Dublin Castle the first warning that a rising was imminent. The authorities in Dublin, however, assumed that the rising would not proceed after these setbacks, and they took no immediate steps to round up the probable ringleaders.
This decision had some justification because Irish Volunteers leader Eoin MacNeill (1867–1945), who was not privy to the plans for a rising, issued an order countermanding volunteer maneuvers for Easter Sunday (the cover for the planned rising), but the IRB army council determined to go ahead on the following day. Approximately 1,600 men and women took part in the rebellion: 200 of these were members of the Irish Citizen Army, which had been formed in the spring of 1914 by revolutionary socialists, in the final stages of a bitter dispute between radical trade unionists and Dublin employers. In January 1916 socialist leader James Connolly (1868–1916) became the seventh member of the IRB Military Council.
The rebel headquarters were in the General Post Office (GPO) on Sackville Street (now O'Connell Street), the city's main thoroughfare. From the steps of the GPO, Pearse, poet and schoolteacher, read the proclamation of an Irish Republic "in the name of God and of the dead generations." The proclamation reflected the influence of Connolly with its affirmation of "the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland" and commitment to "civil and religious liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens," but its greatest significance is that it revived the commitment to an Irish Republic, which was first enunciated by the United Irishmen of the 1790s.
The original plan was for simultaneous risings in Dublin and throughout Ireland, with a concentration on the west and the southwest, taking advantage of the expected landing of German troops and arms. There were no plans to fight in Ulster; Irish Volunteers from Ulster would have moved to northwest Connaught to hold the "line of the [river] Shannon." If the rebels had to retreat from Dublin, they planned to regroup in the west of Ireland. Because of MacNeill's countermanding order, however, the Rising was almost wholly confined to Dublin, with minor engagements in Wexford, north County Dublin, Galway, and Cork. In Dublin the rebels seized major public buildings dotted around the city, but they made no effort to break out from these positions in order to link up, and they failed to prevent British reinforcements from entering the city. The decision not to seize Dublin Castle—the headquarters of British administration in Ireland—and the failure to occupy the grounds of Trinity College or the city's telephone exchange were major strategic errors. The British authorities could call on 6,000 effective troops, plus a greater number who were on leave or convalescent. They also made extensive use of artillery to flatten buildings in central Dublin, including Liberty Hall, headquarters of Connolly's Irish Transport Workers' Union—contrary to Connolly's belief that capitalists would not destroy property.
It is unlikely that the rebellion would have succeeded, even if all had gone to plan, but many of the leaders saw it as an opportunity to move Irish nationalism from the compromise of Home Rule toward militant republicanism. Like many of the 1914–1918 generation, Pearse was convinced that a "blood sacrifice" could bring about a spiritual transformation; he claimed that "bloodshed is a cleansing and a sanctifying thing, and the nation which regards it as the final horror has lost its manhood."
The majority of the Irish population disapproved of the Rising, but the mood changed rapidly in subsequent weeks as 3,430 men and 79 women were arrested (more than double the number of participants), and 89 men and 1 woman, Constance Markievicz (1868–1927), were sentenced to death. Fifteen men were executed in Ireland, including all seven signatories of the proclamation, but the remaining death sentences were commuted in response to growing public outrage; the majority of the 1,836 men and 5 women who were interned in Britain were released by Christmas. Whether this upsurge of sympathy would have had a long-term effect on Irish opinion is debatable, but Britain's failed attempt to settle the Home Rule/Ulster Question in the summer of 1916, and the threat of conscription (which had not been introduced to Ireland in 1914), added fuel to the militant fire. When the final 1916 prisoners were released in the summer of 1917, they were greeted as national heroes.
In April 1916 the British authorities had described the Rising as the Sinn Féin rebellion, although this political party played no part in the event. In the autumn of 1917, however, Sinn Féin—a nonviolent party campaigning for greater autonomy than Home Rule—was taken over by 1916 veterans, and its mission was changed to securing an Irish Republic. A Sinn Féin landslide in the 1918 general election was interpreted as giving retrospective sanction for the 1916 Rising, and a mandate for the Anglo-Irish war of 1919–1921. The determining factor for those who rejected the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, which granted a partitioned Ireland dominion status, was the belief that they were betraying the Republic proclaimed in 1916; this was the primary cause of civil war in 1922–1923.
Despite these violent beginnings, democracy triumphed in independent Ireland. The young men who fought in the 1916 Rising dominated Irish politics until the 1960s: Eamon de Valera (1882–1975), the most senior surviving commander, retired as president in 1973. The fiftieth anniversary of the Rising in 1966 was marked by lavish official ceremonies of what was regarded as a historical event. By the early 1970s, however, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) was invoking Pearse's rhetoric of blood sacrifice and the fact that the 1916 Rising had been waged contrary to the wishes of the people as justification for their actions, prompting a lively debate over the legacy of 1916, and the respective importance of democratic and revolutionary traditions for contemporary Ireland. The seventy-fifth anniversary passed almost unnoticed, but the IRA cease-fire and the 1998 Belfast Agreement (also called the Good Friday Agreement) have made it more acceptable to acknowledge the Rising.
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Mary E. Daly