Easter 1916, part I
Easter 1916, part I

By Constantine Fitzgibbon The first part of a two-part series examining the Easter Rising, its historical context and significance.


On Easter Monday, April 24, 1916, a force of Irishmen under arms estimated at between 1,000 and 1,500 men and women attempted to seize Dublin, with the ultimate intention of destroying British rule in Ireland and creating an entirely independent Irish Republic to include all 32 counties of Leinster, Munster, Ulster and Connaught. Their leaders, Patrick Pearse, James Connolly and the others, knew that their chances of success were so slight as to be almost non-existent. Yet they fought, and died. Why?

The circumstances that led to the Irish rebellion of 1916 are of an intense complexity, historical, social, political and, perhaps above all, psychological. The Irish writer, Sean O'Faolain, has written of his country: `Most of our physical embodiments of the past are ruins, as most of our songs are songs of lament and defiance. The Easter Rising was a complete failure, which left large parts of Dublin in ruins; yet without it Ireland might never have been free of English rule. The leaders, alive, had very few supporters even among the Irish patriots; dead, they became and have remained their country's heroes. It was a great historical paradox, and one that to this day the British have perhaps never understood. Had they understood it, it is conceivable that the British might still have an empire, since the overthrow of British rule in Ireland marked the beginning of the overthrow of British imperial might in Asia, in Africa, and elsewhere.

The historical complexity, from the British point of view, can be traced to a general misunderstanding of the Irish character and of Irish desires. The English were bewildered by the fact that most Irishmen, and all educated Irishmen, spoke English, and wrote it, as well as, and often better than, most Englishmen. They were further bewildered by the fact that a very large proportion of the Irish governing class was of English or Norman ancestry. In 1916, the English had not grasped the fact that for two centuries - since the brutal smashing of the old Irish governing class and the theft of their lands-it was precisely these people, Grattan, Tone, Parnell and so on, who had led the Irish in their longing to be free of alien rule. And the reason for this gross misunderstanding was that the English in England did not realise that the Irish way of life was in many ways--at least in terms of human relationships -culturally superior to the English way. Always technologically backward, the Irish were overwhelmed in the course of 1,000 and more years by waves of conquerors. If those conquerors remained in Ireland, they became, as the English would and did say, seduced by the ease and pleasure of an Irish attitude that looks for charm, gaiety and wit as well as for profit: they became `more Irish than the Irish'.

And this the English, in England, dismissed as fecklessness. The fact that the Irish had different values from their own was regarded as funny-and the `stage Irishman' was created in London. The fact that English might had always, eventually, crushed Irish rebellion was remembered; the fact that Irishmen had fought with immense distinction in all the major armies of Europe, and not least in that of Great Britain, was sometimes ignored From the point of view of Whitehall at the turn of the century, Paddy-and-his-pig was an essentially comical, childlike figure. He should know, in English terms, his proper station in life. Perhaps, at a pinch, the Angle-Irish (an odious and meaningless term) might administer this province of Great Britain, but Paddy, never.

On the other hand, these people were politically troublesome and, furthermore, the English of the late Victorian age were a decent lot on the whole. During the Great Famine of 1846 the English liberals had let Ireland starve in the interests of their laissez-faire ideology-to have fed them would have interfered with the workings of the free market so far as corn chandlers were concerned - but later second thoughts prevailed. The Irish were to be given partial sovereignty over their own affairs, and a Home Rule Bill was passed. But then the First World War began. Home Rule was postponed until victory over the Germans should have been achieved. The Irish would not mind, why should they? Paddy would join the British Army, as he had always done and as scores of thousands of Irishmen did. The Irish would not understand-and many, perhaps most, did not.


But some Irishmen did understand. The most important of these were the members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood or IRB (which must not be confused with the Irish Republican Army, or IRA, a later creation). The IRB had been formed in 1858. It was a secret society which probably never numbered more than 2,000 including those Irishmen who belonged to it and who lived in England, America or elsewhere. The majority of its members were what might be loosely called `intellectuals' and in this, in their determination, and in their secrecy they bore a certain resemblance to their Russian contemporaries, Lenin's small Bolshevik Party. However, their aims were political rather than economic. They were patriots, dedicated to the ideal of national independence, and were prepared to use all means-including force to achieve this end. They provided, as it were, the general staff of the mass movement for Irish freedom from British rule, and their fortnightly publication, Irish Freedom (founded in 1910), advocated complete republican government for the whole of Ireland. It is significant that all the men who signed the proclamation of an Irish Republic on Easter Monday were members of the IRE.

When the First World War began, John Redmond, the leader of the Irish Nationalist Party and Parnell's heir, immediately proclaimed his acceptance of the postponement of Home Rule, both for himself and for his followers. These included the Irish Volunteers, perhaps then some 200,000 strong (of whom maybe 2,000 were trained and armed). This force had been created in November 1913 as a counter to the Ulster Volunteers, an organisation originally formed to fight against Home Rule. The Ulster Volunteers were also prepared to postpone a struggle that had recently seemed both inevitable and imminent, and from the North of Ireland as from the South scores of thousands of young volunteers went off to fight, and only too often to die, in Flanders. Indeed, Redmond suggested to the government in London that they could remove all British troops from Ireland: his Volunteer force and the Ulster Volunteers were quite capable of seeing that there were no disturbances in Ireland throughout the period of the war.

The IRB had other ideas. At a meeting of their supreme council, as early as August 1914, the decision was taken-in secret of course-that there must be an Irish insurrection before the end of Britain's war with Germany. Until Easter Week 1916 the active members of the IRB were fully occupied in mounting this revolution.

They had at their disposal brains, a fairly considerable amount of money-mostly from Irish Americans-and little else. They had to act through the Irish patriotic organisations, over many of which they had obtained partial control, and if the rising were to be a military success they had to acquire arms, either from British arsenals, or from abroad, which meant in effect from Germany. The balance sheet was roughly as follows: with the exception of Ulstermen and certain landlords and industrialists, a large number of the Irish wanted freedom from British rule. However, the people were temporarily agreeable to the Home Rule solution, even though the postponed bill gave Ireland less than Dominion status in fiscal and other matters. Furthermore, the farming community was doing very well out of the war. Thus the IRB could rely on considerable emotional sympathy but little, if any, practical help from the mass of the people. And since the Irish are in some measure a volatile race, there was no telling how they would react to a rising. Certainly the Roman Catholic Church would be against such a deed: and the Parish priests were very powerful spokesmen in Ireland.

So far as fighting men went, any insurrection would seem doomed to certain defeat. Redmond's huge numbers of Volunteers were mostly unarmed, or were fig;fighting for the British in France. However, some of those who remained in Ireland and were armed and trained could be relied upon. Their Chief-of-Staff was the historian Eoin MacNeill, and their commandant a schoolmaster named Patrick Pearse. Both of these men were members of the IRE, but as events will show they did not see eye to eye on tactics. The Volunteers were scattered throughout Ireland.


The other para-military force was James Connolly's Irish Citizen Army. Connolly was a socialist who in 1896 had founded the Socialist Republican Party. He was a trained soldier. In 1908 James Larkin had created the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union. When that union organised a strike in 1913, and the strike was broken by strong-arm methods. Connolly decided that a workers' defensive force was needed and created his Citizen Army. It was led by himself and by an ex-British army officer named Jack White. It has been said that this was the most efficient military force at the disposal of the Republicans. It was, however, very small. When it came to the actual fighting, it was only some 250 men who went out, as opposed to about 1,000 from the Volunteers.

Supporting these was the women's organisation. Countess Markiewicz -an Irish woman, born a Gore-Booth, and of aristocratic ancestry -- was one of the most prominent. She fought as an officer of the Citizen Army throughout the Easter Rising for she was not only a patriot but a socialist. There were also the so-called `Fianna Boys', lads who enjoyed the manoeuvring before the Rising, as most boys would, and who also showed guts and resourcefulness when the real thing happened. They were messengers, runners and so on.

Against them they had what was, on paper at least, a most formidable force.

To maintain their control over Ireland, the British relied primarily on the Royal Irish Constabulary, an armed police force, living largely in barracks, some 10,000 strong. They were almost all Irishmen, knew their districts thoroughly, and were in 1916, with a very few exceptions, entirely loyal to the Crown. They were well trained, well equipped, only moderately unpopular and well informed. The centre of British power was Dublin Castle, and `the Castle' relied on the RIC for its field Intelligence.

In Dublin itself the police were not armed, though of course, there were arms available. They numbered about 1,000 and were organised on the model of the London police. The Special Branch was concerned with politics. Through its investigations, and general infiltration of Irish republican politics, the Castle was supposed to know what the IRB was planning. The Special Branch did not seem, however, to have been particularly good at this job, nor to have infiltrated the IRB to any great extent. On the other hand the blame may rest with those in the Castle to whom they sent their reports. The evaluation of Intelligence is infinitely more important than its accumulation.

And behind those `occupation' forces there was a large British army in Ireland and what, in wartime and in Irish terms, were almost infinite reserves in Great Britain. If it were a mere question of manpower, the Irish had not a hope.

As for firearms, the David and Goliath ratio was even more vivid. Before the outbreak of the First World War the Ulster Volunteers had bought some 35,000 German rifles, the Irish Volunteers about 1,000. And, of course, the British army had everything, including artillery of all sorts. The Irish made an attempt to rectify this by getting rifles from Germany. Sir Rodger Casement, an Irishman with a distinguished past, went to Germany from neutral America. He was to bring the weapons for the Easter Rising that the IRB had agreed on. His mission was a failure. British Naval Intelligence had broken some German cyphers. The British navy was thus able to intercept the German ship carrying the guns. Casement himself was immediately arrested when he came ashore from a U-Boat near Tralee, in County Kerry, on Good Friday. The guns on which the Irish had been relying, even for this forlorn hope, had not arrived. Were they still to go on?

It is here that the different personalities and attitudes become important. We must pause to look at the men, English and Irish, involved; and also at the whole meaning of Sinn Féin.


Sinn Féin is usually translated as `ourselves alone', and this is perhaps the best rendering in English of a complicated Irish concept. It means above all, independence from British rule. But since Irish history was in those days so much bound up with contemporary Irish politics, it had a secondary meaning. For many centuries the Irish had hoped for the help of England's enemies to get rid of the English. The Spaniards and the French had let them down as the Germans were to do in 1916. This was not so much because Britain's enemies lacked the anxiety to defeat Britain in Ireland but because of geographical-military complications (tides, prevailing winds and so on). Thus Sinn Féin also meant that the Irish must rely upon themselves alone in order to rid themselves of their British rulers. For the British, in the years to come, the `Shinners' were to be the epitome of violent republicanism in Ireland. In fact, the party, which only had its first annual convention as late as 1905, was essentially democratic. It had run a parliamentary candidate (who was defeated) in the Leitrim election of 1908. But as time went on it gained an increasing number of the extremists from Redmond's Nationalist Party. Arthur Griffith, its leader and also the editor of the United Irishmen, was never a fanatic. He believed in constitutional tactics - and was thus far less of an extremist than many of the IRB leaders - but, unlike Redmond's and Parnell's old party, he no longer trusted the alliance with the Liberal Party in Great Britain.`Ourselves alone'-to many young men it was a most attractive idea.

The British rulers were, on the whole, a shadowy lot. The Liberal government in London was inevitably devoting almost all its attention to the gigantic struggle on the Continent. Since Ireland appeared so placid in 1916, neither the best politicians nor by any means the best British soldiers were in the country. Augustine Birrell was Chief Secretary. Possessed, it was said, of extreme personal charm, he was a belle lettrist whose books, now forgotten, enjoyed in their time considerable esteem. He appears to have regarded his job in Dublin - which might be described as active head of the administration-as something of a sideline to his career as a litterateur, and spent a very large proportion of his time being charming in London. His principal Assistant Secretary, responsible for political affairs, was a civil servant experienced in colonial administration, Sir Matthew Nathan. He seems to have had little comprehension of the Irish temperament and to have been happiest behind his desk, dealing with routine paperwork. The general officer commanding the British army in Ireland was a Major-General Field. He, even more, seems to have had no idea of what was going on in Ireland at all. And finally there was Lord Wimborne, the Lord Lieutenant and the King's representative, who presided over the British administration as a sort of constitutional monarch with all the powers, and most of the limitations, that that implies. However, he knew Ireland well. He had sponsored the Land Act of 1903, which had pacified the Irish countrymen by further advantageous changes of the tenant-landlord relationship. He was popular with the Irish govern Governing class, as was Birrell; but, unlike his Chief Secretary, he did not at all care for the situation that was developing.

  • Continued next issue
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