As time has passed, as eyewitnesses to history have long since left us, and as new generations of historians have come and gone, the layers of interpretation of the 1916 Rising and its effects on Ireland have only grown more complex.
But this we know. From Easter Monday, April 24 through April 29, 1916, an Irish uprising occurred throughout the country but mostly in Dublin, where roughly 400 to 500 were left dead, most of them civilians, and another 2,000 to 2,500 were wounded, again most of them civilians.
- Proclamation of Independence
Credit: Dublin City Library & Archive
The rebellion was a joint insurrection that was conceived by the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and waged against the British army by the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army (ICA). Other groups that played an active role were Cumann na mBan, the Hibernian Rifles and the Fianna hEireann.
The roots of the uprising were primarily a growing nationalist movement that sought to free Ireland from British rule and secure the independence of a new Irish Republic. Exactly how that independence would take shape is where it began to get complex and become the subject of much discussion over many years.
The initial leaders and planners of the Rising were Patrick Pearse, Joseph Plunkett, Eamonn Ceannt, along with Thomas Clarke and Sean MacDiarmada. Clarke, returning from exile in America, and MacDiarmada, were the prime movers. Another American exile, John Devoy funded the movement.
The group recognized the need to augment their forces and came to agreement to pursue a joint rebellion with the socialist ICA, under the command of James Connolly. A seventh member of the leadership team was added in Thomas MacDonagh.
In 1914 after the start of World War I, as Britain became increasingly entangled in its war with Germany, some in Ireland sensed opportunity. By 1916, those in favor of a non-peaceful revolution for Irish independence saw a general reduction of British occupation forces in Ireland as an invitation to rise up.
Against this backdrop and with much support, the seven members of the IRB Military Council, created the Provisional Government of the Irish Republic and put in place plans for a rebellion timed for the Easter holiday in 1916.
Using history from other nations, such as the French Revolution and America’s successful war for independence against the British as their guides, they drafted the Proclamation of Independence. The seven members of the IRB Military Council and the Provisional Government served as the document’s seven signatories. Each man knew that with a very good possibility of failure he had signed his own death warrant.
Mobilizing for Action
The earliest stages of the Rising started as three days of “field maneuvers” training for Irish Volunteers. These military operations were slated for assembly points located throughout the country. To ensure secrecy, only the closest to the inner circle knew the full extent of the plans.
More to the point, it would be safe to assume that the majority of the participants did not know that the field maneuvers were intended to serve as cover for the start of a violent rebellion.
Eoinn MacNeill, a separatist who served as Chief of Staff of the Irish Volunteers, had significant reservations about sending a fighting force to war against the British army without proper arms and training. He was only told of the plans for the Rising in the days before maneuvers were scheduled. He confronted Patrick Pearse on Holy Thursday and was told that a cargo ship with arms from Germany was on its way to County Kerry. This appeased him but only for two days.
On Saturday, when MacNeill learned that the ship had been scuttled and the arms would not come, he countermanded Pearse’s orders. No maneuvers. This led to a sharply decreased nationalist force when the Rising erupted, limiting the bulk of the conflict to the City of Dublin.
On Easter Monday, April 24, 1916, the seven members of the Provisional Government met in front of the General Post Office in Dublin on Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street), the largest building in the city, and read the Proclamation of Independence. At that time, Ireland was part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
- GPO burns during battle.
Credit: Dublin City Library & Archive
Patrick Pearse was flanked by his fellow leaders and the Irish Volunteers. In all, the nationalists numbered roughly 1,600 in several locations that included: the GPO, the South Dublin Union, The Four Courts, St. Stephens Green, Boland’s Flour Mill, and Jacob’s Biscuit Factory. The Irish Volunteers and the ICA were not adequately armed.
The reading of the proclamation signaled the start of hostilities from what would be rebel headquarters.
The first problem the Volunteers encountered was that their military strategy was not designed for all out urban warfare. Historians state that Connolly’s strategy of occupation of key buildings would help, presuming that the British would not shell key infrastructure of its own empire. That was a fatal miscalculation. The rebel forces dug in, creating trenches in some places, occupying buildings and key locations in others, waiting for the enemy to attack. The concentrated nature of the buildings enabled British forces to obtain the high ground simply by climbing to neighboring rooftops and shooting down on the rebels. At the same time, the British army was able to establish supply lines for reinforcements in unoccupied, strategically located streets nearby.
While the Volunteers were able to make adjustments, they could only delay the inevitable.
Over the course of a week of fighting, close to 2,500 – mostly civilians – had been killed or wounded. The center of the city was a smoldering ruin. The rebels had surrendered and were arrested.
After the Rising, 15 would be executed by firing squad for their roles in the rebellion, including the seven proclamation signatories. A 16th, Roger Casement, responsible for arms procurement and other activities, was tried and hanged in August of 1916.
Public opinion shifted after the Rising. In April 1916, the Irish Volunteers were said to have been disappointed at the lack of support they had from the general population for instigating a fight. While it was understood that the majority of the population had nationalist sentiments and favored self-rule, there was much disagreement on how that could be achieved.
Some characterized an insurrection as too extreme, and possibly criminal. However, once the Rising happened and the people saw how the British treated the rebels, their families and the citizenry affected by the fighting, public opinion changed.
Within two years, the nationalist majority pledged allegiance to the Irish Free State and ultimately the Republic of Ireland and began to view the Proclamation of Independence as a national constitution.
While some historians still contend that violence was not necessary to achieve the same ends, others have maintained that it took the Easter Rising to trigger a process that would eventually lead to progress.
That process would include the War of Independence, and then the Irish Civil War.
They saw the 1916 Rising as the catalyst that enabled Ireland to strive for more complete independence from Britain.
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