As of writing it is the centenary of the start of the Easter Uprising. From April 24 to April 29 1916 in Dublin, (and a few minor skirmishes in Meath, Wexford, Louth and Galway), Irish nationals rose up. Although the leaders of the uprising knew full well that they would fail they decided to martyr themselves for the cause of Irish independence. The Easter Uprising had a massive impact on not just Irish history but the history of the British Isles. Over the last hundred years the memory of the Uprising has ingrained itself in culture; the band The Cranberries in their song Zombie make reference to the event with the line 'it's the same old team since 1916'. Today we shall look at the Easter Uprising and see why it is so important.
Since 1169 Ireland had been in some way or another a possession of England and, following 1603, Scotland. In 1800 though the Act of Union forming the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland ,(union between England and Scotland forming Britain happened in 1707), was passed. This dissolved the Irish Parliament and Irish MPs went to sit in the Westminster government. However, Ireland was a subordinate partner in the Union and, many social, economic and political grievances took years to be addressed if they were addressed at all. Starting in the 1840s movements calling for the repeal of the Union started to grow which became far more popular in 1846. A fungus named phytophthora wiped out three quarters of the potato crop which was a staple in the diet of the poor Irish. The lack of response from Britain caused one million to starve and a further 1.5 million to leave the country. It was so bad that Ireland's population has still yet to recover. Grievances over Union membership and land ownership caused various groups to become a driving force in politics. In 1848 there was even a small uprising by a nationalist group called the Young Irishmen. In the 1850s a group called the Fenians started a campaign of terror which spread to the mainland. The British government started mixing coercion and conciliation to stop the Fenians. For example, they passed in 1871 a Coercion Bill giving Irish police special powers to arrest people while in 1869 they passed the Irish Church Act which ended the dominance of the Anglican Church in Ireland, (80% of the Irish population was Roman Catholic). However, the idea of Home Rule was wanted. Home Rule in Ireland would have resurrected an Irish Parliament which would be able to decide anything bar defense and foreign affairs which would remain in Westminster's hands. In 1874 the Irish Parliamentary Party would be founded by Isaac Butt to achieve this but it would be under the tutelage of Charles Stewart Parnell it would become a major party holding the balance of power in Britain. In the 1885 elections he managed to get 86 seats in Parliament despite being imprisoned only four years prior. In 1886 Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone tried to have Home Rule passed but was defeated.
Following the Bill's defeat Parnell's image was tainted and, Home Rule was set back when the Liberal party split between those opposing and supporting it. In 1891 Parnell died and his successor John Redmond continued the cause. However, by the 1890s there was a divide in Ireland. In the largely Catholic south there was a revival in Gaelic and Irish culture with the Gaelic Athletic Association and Gaelic League becoming popular. In the province of Ulster (modern day Northern Ireland) with a largely Protestant population the Gaelic revival and Home Rule was opposed. Some opposed it as a Home Rule Parliament would be located in Dublin and they feared a 'Rome Rule' while others would only support it if the Parliament was located in Ulster as they saw themselves superior to the Catholic Irish. Those who opposed Home Rule became known as Unionists and consisted of figures including future Prime Minister Andrew Bonar Law and Joseph Chamberlain (the father of Neville Chamberlain who used Appeasement against Hitler). In 1906 the Conservatives (largely Unionist) were defeated by Asquith's Liberals (largely in favor of Home Rule) who soon allied the Liberals with Redmond's Irish Party. Irish society then became militarized. In 1912 riots broke out in Belfast opposing Home Rule and in the south a militant group named the Volunteers were formed. Northern Protestants formed the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) which clashed with the Irish Republic Brotherhood which had been around since the 1850s. Both sides started smuggling in weapons from abroad and in 1912 250,000 people in Ulster signed the Solemn League and Convent opposing Home Rule, (the Solemn League and Convent was a Puritanical group from the English Civil War so they decided to use history for their cause). In 1914 Unionists even bought guns from Germany saying 'If Protestant Georgie won't then Protestant Willie will'. This meant if King George would not intervene then the German Kaiser Wilhelm II would. In 1914 Home Rule was passed but implementation would be postponed. Through a complex alliance system the UK had been drawn into a European war against Germany and Austro-Hungary. The government expecting a short war and hoped the war would create a bond in Ireland. Redmond also thought this and called for the Volunteers to enlist. Out of the 210,000 Irish who went to war 24,000 of them were Volunteer members. In 1914 there were 190,000 members of the Volunteers and 150,000 had supported the war. As the war proved to be longer than expected the calls for Home Rule or even independence started to grow.
The Leaders of the Uprising
The Easter Rising was partially planned by seven people (left to right): Thomas MacDonagh, Joseph Mary Plunkett, Seán MacDiarmada, Thomas Clarke, James Connolly, Eamonn Ceannt and Patrick Pearse. When the rising took place there was around fifteen key figures. Countess Markievicz would also play a massive role becoming the unofficial female leader of the rising. All of these men had Irish ancestry although many were not born in Ireland. I live in Edinburgh and are quite close to where one of the leaders were actually born; James Connolly was born on the street of Cowgate in Edinburgh's Old Town. All the leaders were associated with militant organizations; mostly with the Irish Republican Brotherhood and Volunteers although Connolly was associated with the socialist Citizen Army. Each had different backgrounds as well: Patrick Pearse was a poet and barrister, Sean McDiarmada had a long association with nationalist groups, Markievicz was a suffragette and socialist, Thomas Clarke was another revolutionary leader who's father had been a sergeant in South Africa and James Connolly had been a socialist activist. They were drawn together due to their connections in nationalist groups and their wanting for an independent Irish republic. Not all nationalists had wanted Home Rule as Redmond and Parnell had wanted. Many wanted an independent, Gaelic Irish republic.
The planners wanted to this Ireland and decided to orchestrate a popular rising with a twist. This rising would not be an Irish equivalent of the Battle of Lexington and Concord or one of Toussaint L'Ouverture's spectacular battles in the Haitian Revolution. They knew that they would fail and they knew that they would die. A rising would be classed as treason and during the war they knew that they would be executed. However, they wanted to inspire the Irish people. Catholics and Protestants would fight together and be executed together to create a feeling of unity and, revitalize the campaign for independence. This appealed much to the poet Patrick Pearse who spoke often of a romanticized 'blood sacrifice'. They decided that the uprising should take place largely in Dublin, they knew that if it happened in Belfast it would descend quickly into sectarian violence, and that there should be smaller risings in surrounding areas. Thomas Clarke wanted to get international support by having feelers sent to the USA for support and to India in the hope that Indian nationalists could simultaneously rise. Both of these ideas did not work. One of the leaders, Roger Casement, in 1915 though went to Germany for support. Although he failed to get Irish POWs to support him he did managed to get the support of the German military who supplied him with guns. However, the British navy intercepted the ship and Casement was tried and executed in 1916. Finally the group planned who would rise; the Irish Republican Brotherhood, Irish Volunteers, Irish Citizen Army (Connolly's socialists) and the Cumann na mBan (a nationalist paramilitary group for women).
Initially planned for Easter Sunday it was moved to Easter Monday instead (which caused much confusion for some people who planned to join in but could not in the end). On Easter Monday, April 24 1916, 1200 members of the Volunteers, Citizen Army and Cumann na mBan seized key buildings in Dublin. The General Post Office (GPO) was seized and became the base for the leaders. Shortly after the Irish flag was raised over the GPO and, a Proclamation of the Irish Republic was read out and signed by the seven earlier mentioned. At the time it was one of the most liberal documents proclaiming equality of the sexes, promising to end social injustice, ending sectarianism, equality in the eyes of the law and securing citizen rights. In the early hours of the rising many of the 1200 learnt that this would be their only battle but fought on anyway. Some thought it was better to fight and die than not fight at all. Others saw the conviction of the leaders and became convinced. There are many accounts in the Irish Military Archives which has first hand accounts of those who met the leaders and saw their conviction. Pearse for example has been noted as being very convicted and when asked about the chances of success Connolly simply said 'none whatever'. Among those who took part in the rising included one of the architects of Ireland's independence Michael Collins and the future Irish President Eamon de Valera.
Many women took part in the rising thanks to Cumann na mBan. Pearse actually said: The Irish Republic is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman. The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally… Countess Markievicz was a suffragette and a socialist who has often been overlooked when talking about leaders of the rising. Both a Protestant and a woman she perfectly emphasized that the risers wanted a united, equal Ireland. Markievicz was responsible for setting up barricades in Dublin and, was responsible for shooting an unarmed Dublin police officer (which killed him) and a British army sniper (who survived). Rose McNamara led a battalion comprising of only women and was one of the last people to surrender. In fact the last three occupying the GPO were three women: Winnie Carney, Elizabeth O'Farrell and Julia Grenan. However, during the rising often the egalitarian Proclamation was ignored and women were forced to act as nurses or cooks while men did the fighting, this happened at the GPO. Also Eamon de Valera ignored direct orders from Pearse and Connolly to allow women fighters in his area.
In the end the rising was crushed, as they had expected. The risers had little public support as they had disrupted life in Dublin. Many mothers got money from the government to live off of when their husbands were at war. They got the money from the GPO which was unavailable to them now. Also the risers would shoot looters earning them fewer friends. John Maxwell, the person sent by the British army to stop the rising, was extremely brutal. He viewed the risers as dishonorable by rising up during a war and, he believed many rumors of the risers using human shields (possibly untrue). His brutal repression was at the time, and today, was compared to the repression that the British army had done in the colonies. This caused many in Ireland to question their place in the UK: how could they be British citizens if this level of brutality was enacted on them by Westminster? When the fighting had stopped on April 29 66 risers were killed and 143 police and soldiers were killed. However, around 260 civilians had been killed over five days.
|Dublin's Four Courts bombed in the Civil War: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Dublin|
The seven signers of the Proclamation and nine other key figures were executed. These included Connolly and Pearse. Countess Markievicz was almost sentenced to death but was let off because she was a woman. Eamon de Valera was also going to be sentenced to death but was instead incarcerated due to his American citizenship. Ninety others were sentenced but soon were incarcerated instead when the government was fearful of creating martyrs. There is little evidence that the rising directly created martyrs but it did create much sympathy for those in the south. The Unionist, British press and politicians accused a republican party, Sinn Fein, of causing the rising and arrested many members including its leader Arthur Griffith. This alongside 3500 men and 80 women being sent to Fron-goch Camp in Wales and arbitrary arrests drew more support to republicanism. The arrest of Sinn Fein's leaders caused the party to adopt a support for armed militancy. In 1917 the passing of the Conscription Act in Ireland caused outrage. This, the treatment of the risers and the arbitrary arrests caused a shift in the south from supporting Home Rule to supporting republicanism. In 1917 Michael Collins helped form the Irish Republican Army and when the arrested were released Eamon de Valera was elected as Sinn Fein's leader. In the 1918 election Sinn Fein won 73 out of 105 Irish seats but instead of sitting in Westminster on January 21 1919 they formed their own Parliament, the Dail, in Dublin. Thus started the Irish War of Independence.
Westminster sent armed veterans called the Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries in 1920 who started committing various atrocities. In 1920 they basically burnt down Cork city and following the IRA executing fourteen spies while they slept the Auxiliaries shot at a crowd watching a football match associated with the Gaelic Athletic Association. In 1921 various Irish politicians and the British government realized tit-for-tat killings by the IRA and Black and Tans/Auxiliaries were making matters worse. They decided to create an Irish Free State in the southern Catholic provinces while leaving the largely Protestant Ulster in British hands. De Valera opposed this and the Irish Civil War broke out between Pro-Treaty forces (who accepted the split) and Anti-Treaty forces (who opposed the split). After almost a year of fighting the Pro-Treaty forces won. Ulster instead would get Home Rule and a parliament was established in Stormont. However, what the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland governments were like was nothing similar to what the Proclamation of the Irish Republic had claimed. In 1937 the Free State became a Republic while the north saw years of sectarian violence and a removal of a parliament in 1972. Today the Republic is one of the most egalitarian and democratic countries in the world while Northern Ireland has a power-sharing Assembly slowly working to end sectarianism.
The legacy of the Rising has shifted, as with many historical events, over the years. In 1926 with the ten year anniversary in the Free State celebrated the Rising as the birth of Ireland. The Rising was seen as their equivalent of the Battle of Bunker Hill where Irish blood forged an Irish nation. In 1946 this image changed again. The world had just gone through the trauma of the Second World War and democracies (for western Europe and Japan that is) had triumphed over dictatorships and fascism. The Rising was then seen as a battle for democracy and equality. With the Proclamation this was easy to claim. The Risers were fighting to end sectarianism and bring equality for all of Ireland. During the Troubles in Northern Ireland the Rising changed from being seen in a positive light to being something to be ashamed of. With sectarian violence in the north the violence during the Rising was linked to it. In the north at the time the Rising was seen by the more vocal nationalists as being something that should be celebrated and had to be continued whereas unionists saw it as something bad. The Cranberries song Zombie perfectly shows this view. The band came from the Republic and their song was about the IRA killing some children in a bomb blast. In 2016 the rising's legacy is not clear. Both Ireland and the UK have worked together to create events commemorating the Rising. In Ireland several documentaries and docu-dramas have been released to mark the centenary. Some have faced criticism because the audience disagreed with what was said in the programs. One hundred years on the Easter Rising still means very different things for different people. It is really up to the individual to decide what the Rising means to them.
The sources I have used are as follows:
-Ireland 1798-1998 by Alvin Jackson
-The Two Irelands 1912-1939 by David Fitzpatrick
-Modern Ireland 1600-1972 by Robert Foster
- The lectures of Doctor Jeremy Crang and Doctor Niall Whelehan of the University of Edinburgh