The halls of the Irish General Post Office in Dublin, An Post, were quiet at noon on April 24th, 1916. The day, Easter Monday, was a holiday in Ireland, leaving the gigantic Georgian building practically empty save perhaps for a few support staff who weren’t taking Easter Week off.
As such, there was no resistance as 400 armed men stormed past the An Post‘s pillars and burst through the front doors. The men, members of the armed Socialist trade union the Irish Citizen Army (ICA), raised two Irish Republican flags and began reading from the prepared pamphlets they had printed in secret – a proclamation of an Irish Republic.
Across Dublin, 1,200 Irish volunteers representing a cross-section of the various rebellious groups constituting the Irish Resistance spread out, occupying most of the significant buildings of the city. Despite ample intelligence forewarning of Irish intentions, the British were taken completely by surprise. For the next week, one of the hottest battlefields in the Great War would be in the heart of the Entente.
“Ireland is too great to be unconnected with us, and too near us to be dependent on a foreign state, and too little to be independent.” Future Prime Minister William Grenville to the Duke of Rutland, December 3, 1784
If one is to talk of the seeds of the Irish Easter Rising of 1916, there are no shortage of dates that can be chosen from which to start. Did it begin with the Norman Invasion of the 12th Century? The Tudor conquest in the 16th? The overthrow of the Catholic parliamentary majority in 1614? The Acts of Union of 1800, which ended semi-Irish independence as the country was politically absorbed into the British Parliament?
In the spring of 1916, the driving force behind the Easter Rising lay with the failures of the Home Rule Act of 1914. Following the closely contested British parliamentary elections of 1910, the seats held by the Irish Parliamentary Party constituted the swing votes for a governing majority. Promised a Home Rule bill after decades of failure to pass one, the Irish signed aboard with H.H. Asquith to give the Liberals parliamentary control.
True to his word, Asquith introduced the Third Home Rule Bill, narrowly passing the House of Commons before being resoundingly defeated in the House of Lords. But the veto power of the Lords can already been trimmed in 1911, allowing the Commons to overrule them to pass legislation on to Royal Assent. Despite the Lords defeating the measure by 302 votes to 64, the Home Rule Act was passed in September of 1914.
Passage did not equal implementation. Between the pressing needs of the Western Front, and Ulster Unionists forming militias in response to Home Rule, Asquith and his allies introduced the Suspensory Act, in essence delaying the effects of Irish autonomy until the end of the war. Britons and Irish Unionists breathed a sigh of relief; Irish supporters of independence fumed with indignation. Irish leaders who had preached cooperation found themselves undermined by the Act, as rebel groups began to chose active – not passive – resistance.
Irish opposition in the 1800s had taken many forms, running the spectrum from constitutional republicanism with the Repeal Association and Home Rule League, to social groups like the Land League, and even revolutionary organizations such as the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). Now after 28 years of failure to achieve Home Rule by democratic means or social pressure, only groups like the Brotherhood seemingly had any credibility left.
The Suspensory Act managed to attract members to the Brotherhood who had previously supported less violent means of resistance. The Brotherhood established a provisional leadership committee, staffed with many non-Brotherhood members, including the committee’s chair, Eoin MacNeill. MacNeill, like many of the Brotherhood’s newest converts, opposed bloodshed as a means to achieve Home Rule, both as a matter of principle and practicality. For the new leaders of the IRB, unless the British provoked the situation by conscription or arresting the group’s leadership, the IRB would resist by non-violent means.
The Brotherhood had expanded their political reach with their newest additions, but alienated much of the group’s previous leadership in the process. The Brotherhood’s paramilitary arm, the Irish Volunteers, began to plan an uprising – whether the leadership approved or not.
From the fall of 1914 until the Easter Rising in 1916, members of the Irish Volunteers began courting German support for Irish independence. Meeting with Germany’s Ambassador to the United States, Count von Bernstorff, throughout 1915, the Irish Volunteers believed they had formed a plan for a successful rebellion. Given arms and other supplies by Germany, the Volunteers would rise up in Dublin to distract local British forces. At the same time, Germany would launch an invasion on Ireland’s west coast, and together the combined forces would drive John Bull out of Éire once and for all.
The plan was absurdly overconfident from the beginning. Germany had no intention of launching an invasion fleet when they couldn’t even break the British blockade that was slowly starving them to death. The number of arms the Germans were prepared to part with were a fraction of what the Volunteers had asked for, and even then, the shipment was captured just days before the scheduled uprising, tipping off the British as to the rebellion. Even some of the most active supporters of the uprising were now opposed to the plan, and officially MacNeill (who had been kept in the dark of what the Volunteers had been planning) called off the attack, schedule to start on Easter itself.
It was too late. The most radicalized members of the IRB were dead-set on pressing forward, with the more revolutionary groups like the Irish Citizens Army going ahead with or without the IRB’s support. A badly conceived plan to liberate Ireland, made worse by circumstances, was underway.
The capture of the German supply ship loaded with arms for the Irish rebels might have tipped off British intelligence as to what was happening, but that didn’t mean British authorities were planning on doing anything about it until after the holiday.
Thanks to the efforts of Britain’s Room 40 – the Bletchley Park of World War I – the British had intercepted Germany’s communications with Irish rebels from nearly the beginning. Dublin Castle, the center of British power in Ireland, had a lengthy list of the leaders of the IRB and other groups and was prepared to start rounding up members on Easter Monday. Despite this, the actual rising still managed to take British authorities completely by surprise. By the end of the first day, the Irish Volunteers and their allies controlled most of Dublin, with the number of rebels equaling or surpassing available British troops.
But the rebels didn’t control Dublin Castle, nor the ports or rail stations. Unsure of the size of the forces around them, British authorities reacted cautiously, positioning the heart of their available army – 4,500 men – at Dublin Castle, while clearing the roadblocks between the Castle and the ports. Reinforcements poured in for both sides and by Friday, the British were clearly prepared to take the offensive with 16,000 troops having entered the city. The Volunteers had hoped for a nationwide uprising – instead, what few men who were willing to fight flocked to Dublin. As 1,600 rebels took up defensive positions in the city, outside of a few minor uprisings that quickly fizzled, the rest of Ireland remained quiet.
Despite light skirmishing throughout the week, not including a steady shelling of the General Post Office by the British, the heaviest fighting of the Rising would occur on it’s last two days. The urban environment was a perfect setting for a defensive force, and if not for the inexperience of the Irish Volunteers, British losses might have been more significant. The fighting took on a trench warfare atmosphere at locations like North King’s Street where the British advanced only 150 yards in a week due to heavy fire and casualties.
By the weekend, the die had been cast. The General Post Office had been cut off from the rest of the Rising and the resistance inside was buckling after days of intense shelling. The inhabitants of the GPO had resorted to tunneling through the building’s walls to try and escape. Despite not a single significant rebel post having been overrun, the Volunteers knew it was likely only a matter of time before they were defeated. Issuing an order to their men for an unconditional surrender, the guns fell silent on the night of Saturday, April 29th.
The casualty figures read as 450 dead and 2,614 wounded Britons and Irishmen (both rebel and civilian). But the greatest casualty – any hope of Irish political moderation – was yet to come.
Over 3,500 Irish men and women were rounded up as potential rebel sympathizers in the aftermath of what would become known to the locals as “Éirí Amach na Cásca” or the “Easter Rising.” And initially, the general Irish public was more than happy to have those who supported the violence off the streets.
From the standpoint of the average Dublin citizen, the Irish Volunteers had brought nothing but bloodshed. As the first rebels took up their positions on Easter Monday, local residents had fought back, causing the Volunteers to often turn their guns on their fellow Irishmen. Some of the official British casualties were in fact Dublin policemen, just trying to do their job. The mood in Dublin was so anti-Volunteer by the 29th that the surviving prisoners of the Rising would later tell stories of their British captors needing to protect them from the fury of the gathering crowds.
Worst of all, the plot had been partially the result of German intrigue. John Redmond, the leader of the Irish Party in the House of Commons, initially spoke for many of his countrymen when he said “this attempted deadly blow at Home Rule is made more wicked and more insolent by the fact that Germany plotted it, Germany organized it and Germany paid for it”; an overly simplistic view of the Rising, to be sure, but not an entirely inaccurate assessment.
But whatever condemnations fell upon the Irish Volunteers, they were quickly undone by the actions that followed of the British.
90 men were sentenced to death and another nearly 1,500 were imprisoned. While only 15 would be eventually executed, the dead included the guilty and innocent, with even IRB members who had opposed the rising finding themselves on the receiving end of a firing squad. Few among the prominent leadership of the rebellion were spared, as those that were, like Éamon de Valera (the future president of the Irish Republic), owed their salvation through overseas political pressure (de Valera was an American citizen by birth and Britain was worried about American public opinion if de Valera were shot).
The executions and crackdown provoked a blacklash. The average Irishmen hadn’t supported an open rebellion against the Crown, but the speed of the executions and the range of the arrests appeared vindictive at best. Gen. John Maxwell, the military governor of Ireland, admitted to H.H. Asquith that the speed of the military tribunals had led to the impression of show trials among the Irish populace. Maxwell himself would acquire the moniker of “Bloody Maxwell” before Asquith’s government could intervene, commuting the rest of the executions.
But the damage to anyone linked to London had already been done. By the time of the next parliamentary elections in December of 1918, the Irish rebel group Sinn Féin (“we ourselves”) won 73 of Ireland’s 105 seats in Britain’s parliament. While Sinn Féin’s supporters divided themselves into a political wing and a paramilitary wing (the Irish Republican Army), the momentum for democratic cooperation had vanished. Even the taint of negotiation with the British over the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, which provided for the establishment of an Irish Free State, was enough to plunge the new nation into civil war.
Ireland’s troubles had only just begun.