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  • James Houser

April 24, 1916 - The Easter Rising

Updated: Jun 11, 2021

April 24, 1916. The day after Easter Sunday, Dublin is still celebrating the holiday when shots ring out in the capital of Ireland. A thousand Irish Republicans pour onto the streets to fight both the Irish police and the British Army garrisons. The bloody revolt will be marked by injustice and atrocity by both the Republicans and the British occupiers - a grim portent for the long bitterness that results from the Easter Rising.


Since its final conquest by the Tudor Dynasty in the 1600s, Ireland had been a subject country to its larger British neighbor. They had chalked up a long list of grievances against Britain, from the original Anglo-Norman invasion of 1169 to Oliver Cromwell’s merciless campaign of 1649. Ireland was increasingly divided within itself, however, thanks to waves of migration from Scotland to Northern Ireland as well as the Reformation. Soon the Irish were divided between the Protestants, mainly in the northeast, and the Catholics across the rest of the island, though the communities remained very intermingled.


The Irish had supported multiple British claimants to the throne, especially those deemed friendlier to the Catholic faith. In response, the British government enforced anti-Catholic discrimination laws and a small Anglo-Irish nobility lorded it over the population. The American and French Revolutions injected new ideas into the Atlantic mainstream, however, and this caused Irish secret societies to form and agitate for independence. When Britain was distracted in a war against Revolutionary France, the Irish rebels decided to launch an uprising with French help.


This doomed Rebellion of 1798 – commonly known as “The ’98’” – was the genesis of the modern Irish independence movement. It was intended to be a secular nationalist uprising, but was badly organized and led, and quickly degenerated into massacre and counter-massacre by Catholic and Protestant mobs that only ended when the British brutally put down the movement. All your favorite sad Celtic songs came from this failed struggle that quickly went down in myth and memory as a romantic enterprise that was far more unified than it really was.


Throughout the 19th and into the 20th Century, the Irish continued to suffer under British rule, most famously during the Potato Famine of 1848-1849. It’s well-known how badly the Irish suffered, with many of their number fleeing to the United States, Australia, or Canada. It’s less well-known that only certain parts of Ireland saw these great migrations. For various reasons, it was mainly the Catholic regions that suffered under British domination. The Protestant northeast, known as Ulster, benefited greatly from British rule and the Industrial Revolution when Belfast became a major shipbuilding and economic center.


Throughout the 19th Century, various Irish nationalist movements formed and fell apart to push for an independent Ireland – or at least a *more* independent Ireland. An Irish Parliament Party formed in the British Parliament and favored limited self-government for Ireland, a movement that became known as Home Rule. Home Rule was opposed, however, by the Protestant Unionists of Ulster, who feared coming under the domination of a Catholic-dominated government. The common anti-Catholic phrase was that “Home Rule is Rome Rule.” These Ulstermen formed the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force), a militia that opposed Home Rule by force.


The more committed Irish nationalists, however, still favored the complete independence of their homeland. The most significant emigres were part of the diaspora from Ireland to the United States, including the future Irish leader Eamon de Valera, and to Australia. These groups used their foreign contacts and funding to filter back into Ireland and tried a second uprising in 1867 that utterly fizzled. This was a sign of things to come, though – the international movement had begun calling itself the Irish Republican Army, or the IRA. By the 1910s, the IRA and other militia groups were active within Ireland and repeatedly clashing with the UVF.


By 1913, the British were sitting on a powder keg over the issue of Home Rule. The violent resistance of the Ulstermen had led the government to order British troops in Ireland to crack down on Unionist violence, only to run into a brick wall when multiple officers and soldiers declared they would resign if they had to turn their guns on the Unionists. Public sentiment in Britain, especially within the Army, was very pro-Unionist and anti-Republican. The Irish Parliament Party, convinced they could not look to the Army to defend their communities, founded a force known as the National Volunteers to fight off the UVF. With Home Rule dead in the water, all-out civil war in Ireland looked halfway imminent.


In July 1914, while all of Europe was going crazy over some Archduke or another, Home Rule was the main news item of the day. Of course, World War I changed all of that. The British government made half-hearted promises to institute Home Rule after the end of the war. The Irish volunteered en masse to support Britain in the Great War, with the Nationalists hoping that after the war Home Rule could finally by implemented if they proved their worth and loyalty to the Crown. The Irish fought as hard as anyone else in the Great War, with the 10th Division suffering horrific casualties at Gallipoli.


The remnants of the Volunteers fell under the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), led by a cadre of radicals including Padraig Pearse and Eamon de Valera. They sent a British diplomat turned Irish rebel, Roger Casement, to Germany to recruit volunteers from Irish POWs and procure arms. Casement had virtually no success in finding volunteers, but did manage to score a shipment of arms from a German submarine.


Padraig Pearse was the main personality pushing for an uprising. The hardcore Irish revolutionaries of the IRB may have consumed too much of their own propaganda. They failed to understand that militant Republicanism was not all that popular with the Irish population at large (yet), and they failed to gauge how badly the British would overreact. It’s possible that they were so divorced from reality that they felt all they had to do was wave the green flag, and the whole population would rise up.


Or maybe, in the vein of Sam Adams in the Revolution, they hoped that the British overreaction would gain sympathy and advance the cause of Irish independence. If they believed this, they were correct.


The rising was planned for Easter Monday, 1916. Casement was supposed to deliver arms to the IRB in mid-April, and on April 24 the rising would take place in Dublin. Things went wrong almost from the outset; Casement was arrested within hours of landing and the guns were confiscated. Pearse decided the uprising had to go ahead anyway – he had gotten wind that the police and British officials were about to crack down on their movement, and it was now or never.


On April 24, 1916, the Easter Rising began. At 10:00 AM, 1,000 men of the Irish Volunteers, along with 200 women of Cumann na mBan, poured onto the streets. Some were armed with military-grade weapons, most with civilian firearms and even a few with pikes and swords – better for 1789 than 1916, but not great weapons even then. They dispersed along the streets of Dublin, seizing government buildings and factories. Pearse, calling himself the Commandant-General of the Irish Republican Army and wearing a slouch hat, led the party that occupied the post office. There, he stood on the steps in front of the crowd and declared that Ireland was now and independent republic. The crowd looked on in faint confusion as he declared that the rebels had the support of the Germans, even as there were thousands of Irishmen fighting and dying at the hands of the Germans on the Western Front.


Pearse hoped that his speech and call-to-arms would be a “movie moment” that would galvanize all of Ireland into an uprising. It did not. The over-optimistic revolutionaries expected ordinary people to flock to their aid, but it was all for naught. Many other IRB cells read the room and failed to turn out in other cities in Ireland. While the Dublin rising had gone off, similar movements in Limerick and Cork quietly went home when they realized Ireland was not rising. Other attacks in Belfast and Castlebellingham were dismal failures. Only in Dublin did the Rising really catch. Of 13,000 men in Ireland who were supposed to turn out, only 2,000 showed up.


As barricades went up across Dublin, the rebels met failure elsewhere in the city. Eamon de Valera seized Boland’s Flourmill, and the courthouse and some other factories were taken, but the rebels critically failed to storm Dublin Castle, the headquarters and arsenal of British forces in Ireland. At the Castle, the rebels inflicted the first casualty of the uprising when they mortally wounded Constable James O’Brien. They failed to appreciate, however, that the six soldiers they had captured were the Castle’s only garrison, and withdrew to some outbuildings after their shock from shooting O’Brien. Soon Royal Irish troops arrived to occupy the Castle, and the moment was lost.


Ironically, the first troops that arrived to contain the Easter Rising were Irish, and within an hour of the first shots the British Army had arrived. They used artillery and bombardment from gunboats to respond to rebel attacks, a grossly disproportionate use of ordnance that did terrible damage to the center of Dublin. The IRB had gunned down some innocent bystanders on April 24, but the British overuse of firepower only made things worse. As Dublin exploded in rifle and cannonfire, the British began extending their targets. British officer Captain John Bowen-Colthurst shot and killed the socialist journalist Francis Sheehy-Skiffington, later a martyr of the revolution, and was never punished.


De Valera’s men were the only ones to win a significant victory during the Rising by mauling a British battalion in an ambush, but after several days it was clear the Easter Rising was doomed. The center of Dublin was in ruins from the artillery and explosions, 16,000 British troops were surrounding his final positions, and 800 civilians had become casualties in the crossfire. Pearse was finally forced to admit that his plan had been a colossal failure, and at 3:30pm on April 29, ordered his men to stand down and surrendered.


The Easter Rising had been its own worst enemy, but the British overreaction turned their victory pyrrhic. The rebels were put on trial for treason and collaboration with the King’s enemies, a charge that had always carried a sentence of death. The trials were military tribunals, held in secret and with no appeal process, greatly angering many Irish. The military courts tried 160 rebels and sentenced 15 to death, including Pearse and Casement. The only rebel leader to escape execution was Eamon De Valera due to his American citizenship. Irish Members of Parliament protested the executions, and even the Prime Minister tried to stop them but no one in the civilian government seemed to have any control over the Army.

Many of the other rebels were placed into prison camps in Britain, including such figures as Michael Collins, who would be the future leaders of the Irish War of Independence.


The Easter Rising failed – dramatically. It killed 260 Irish civilians, with around 143 British and Royal Irish deaths and 66 rebel deaths, along with the 16 executed if you count the journalist Sheehy-Skiffington. While the rebels won no sympathy during the Rising itself – catching civilians in the crossfire will do that to you – the British overreaction and secret trials invoked a vast amount of sympathy. The Rising quickly turned into a national symbol; William Butler Yeats, James Joyce and Francis Ledwidge all wrote elegiac poems and odes to the revolutionaries of Easter.


The aftermath of the Easter Rising changed the outlook of many Irishmen away from Home Rule. After Easter, Home Rule would no longer be enough; independence would become the new cause. After Easter, protest and parliamentary procedure would no longer be enough; the Irish would take their freedom by force. With the dreamy revolutionaries like Pearse and Casement gone, the future Irish rebels would resort to terrorism and guerrilla warfare. The bloodshed of the Easter Rising set events in Ireland on a course that could no longer be diverted.


The storm was coming, and it had only been delayed.


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