Easter Sunday 2015: An expectant crowd has gathered in the centre of Dublin. The President and Taoiseach (The Irish Prime Minister) prepare to lead the commemorations, four air force pilots are distantly circling preparing for their flyby, the armed forces stand in solemn respect, the foreign dignitaries of Britain and France heap praise on the rebels as do crowds in squares and cemeteries across Ireland. The time for remembering the 1916 Easter Rising has come around again.
By 1914 the tempestuous waters of Ireland were again reaching boiling point. The failures of rebellions in the past had led to a new political and peaceful demand – Home Rule. A parliament in Dublin would represent the island of Ireland but not assuming full control as the country would remain within the British Empire. What seemed quite a reasonable suggestion, as after all the dominions of Canada and South Africa had control of their affairs, was anything but. The overwhelmingly protestant Unionists feared that Home Rule would mean Rome Rule and their inevitable sectarian subjugation while their overwhelmingly Catholic nationalist counterparts saw Home Rule as a step towards full independence. Civil War appeared to be on the horizon as the armed groups of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) in the north and Irish Volunteer Force (IVF) in the south prepared for conflict. The British Parliament were on the verge of passing the Home Rule Bill until the European Crisis of 1914 rapidly descended into war.
Both sides clamoured to support the war effort. A stunning 200,000 Irish men joined up in the fervour of 1914. Whether to show that they were loyal to the British war effort, to protect Belgian neutrality, for adventure or simply for a steady wage and pension, Ireland had now greatly contributed to the Great War. Of 188,000 members of the IVF, only 13,500 decided not to support the war effort. The men of Ireland had appeared to make up their minds – the popular movements of Home Rule and independence were on the back burner for now.
At this point it should be noted that Ireland had a long tradition of serving in the British armed forces. In the 1830s 40% of their soldiers were Irish. 60,000 served before the war, half of them reservists. But it was not just the rank and file but 12 generals were Irish too.
So in this context, how did a major rebellion occur? As the war progressed there was increasing resentment towards British rule. As Ireland was largely an agrarian society, there was resentment towards government regulation of wartime agriculture coupled with the grave threat of conscription. Never far from Irish minds was the horrific experiences of famine and subsequent mass emigration, blame for which was placed in the hands of the British government. From the late 1880s onwards there had developed a cultural nationalism which took the form of plays, books, songs and sport, mainly the hugely popular Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) created in 1888. This naturally led to a desire for Irish self determination be it in the form of Home Rule or indeoendence.
Though despite this patriotic surge, in 1916 the numbers in the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), a key group of the IVF committed to armed insurrection, were only 2000. As the noted historian R.F. Foster noted, “1916 was made by the minority of a minority.”
The rebellion not only took the people of Dublin and Ireland by surprise, but most of the Irish Volunteers as well. Mixed messages and coded cancellations followed by vague retractions led to an underwhelming turnout. On Easter Monday a group of 100 armed volunteers seized the General Post Office on Sackville Street (Now called O’Connell Street) and quickly read the proclamation declaring Ireland a republic. Bank holiday shoppers were initially disinterested until a mob formed and began to loot shops in the absence of police. A rebel force of 1,300 quickly took over key strategic buildings across the city. However within the hour the Irishmen of 3rd Royal Irish Rifles and 10th Royal Dublin Fusiliers recently recruited for the war took up positions against their fellow countrymen. But what was meant to be a national revolution was largely confined to Dublin as in Kerry 20,000 promised rifles from the Germans had failed to materialise and support for the rebellion faded away.
During a week of one sided fighting in the capital, ambivalence and pragmatism across the country turned to patriotic support from students and republicans alike. However this was by no means on the scale of the great European and American revolutions of the past. By the end of the week 450 people (Mostly citizens) had been killed and 2614 wounded. The centre of the capital city was reduced to rubble after the gunship SS Helga had sailed up the Liffey to shell rebel positions. As the defeated volunteers were marched through the streets to prison, they were verbally and physically abused by the people of Dublin. The rebellion was over and hope was lost.
The British authorities were faced with a choice – kill the rebellion with kindness or crush any remaining support. They chose the latter and as a result placed those involved in the rebellion into Irish folklore. Within weeks 75 of the leaders were executed as traitors save for Countess Markievicz on account of being female and Eamon de Valera on account of being American. A further 1400 rebels were interned in Wales. Draconian measures such as martial law were instituted across the country and the paranoid British army abused the previously ambivalent people of Ireland. These actions played into the hands of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) as the British lived up to their reputation of fierce oppressors. The lone spark of the rising had lit what was becoming a roaring flame. A small force of 2000 rebels had convinced the majority of their country to dance to their tune. The gamble had worked. In the 1918 General Election Sinn Fein won a landslide victory with their representation rising from 6 seats to 73. Within months an Irish Republic was declared and the War of Independence began.
From the start though, the Easter Rising was not a popular movement. The revolutions of 1848 with huge crowds demanding reform in the streets of Paris and Vienna show the Easter Rising to be comparatively weak and under supported. The monster meetings of Daniel O’Connell 70 years prior had hundreds of thousands from all over the country demanding reform. The Easter Monday of 1916 however started in quite a similar vein to your average Bank Holiday. Indeed the reaction of shoppers to loot instead of joining the rebels gives us quite an insight into the concerns of Dubliners at the time. It was the ill-advised reaction of the preoccupied British government which created a mass republican movement out of a slow burning desire for an Irish parliament within the British Empire. By adding martyrs and a common enemy, the national struggle for independence began when the Irish leaders were executed and martial law introduced. In less than a decade 26 out of 32 counties had gained a form of independence as the Irish Free State and in 1949 Ireland officially left the Commonwealth and became a republic.
Although now wadding into murky waters, let us address what would have happened if the Rising never actually took place? After all this was a great possibility until the morning of 24th April 1916. Home Rule had been passed in August 1914 but was postponed until the end of the war. So once all of the 200,000 recruits returned to Ireland, their land fit for heroes would have taken the form of an Irish Parliament for an Irish people. And with Woodrow Wilson’s desire for self-determination of smaller states then full independence for Ireland was only a matter of time. But this view fails to take into consideration the ardent views of Ulster Unionists. Before the Great War the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) had signalled their desire for armed resistance to Home Rule backed up with 250,000 people signing a pledge against it in Belfast. It is foolish to think that four years later those same men now hardened with front line battle experience against a formidable foe would have quietly accepted their fate at home. Unfortunately for Ireland war was an inevitability regardless of whether the Easter Rising occurred or not. It just so happened that conflict was firstly between Irish Republicans and the British before the Civil War which started when the victorious Michael Collins fell for the cunning political trap set by Winston Churchill.
A key legacy of the Easter Rising, on top of the Civil War and eventual independence of 26 put of 32 counties, was the belief that a small group of patriots can dictate the beliefs of the Irish people. As it was not representative of a popular movement, violent groups since have used it as a precedent to justify their actions. However with the centenary of the Rising one year away and the debate regarding the events very much alive in all aspects of Irish society, perhaps it is too early to say what it’s legacy will be.