With the union of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801, calls for Irish political representation in Ireland grew during the 19th century. Although the British Parliament passed a bill for Irish Home Rule in 1914, this was postponed because of the outbreak of the First World War. With the British focused on defeating the Germans, divergent forces within Ireland took matters into their own hands for fear that the promised Home Rule would be indefinitely postponed. The Easter Rising became a turning point in Irish history.
The 19th Century: Seeds Are Planted Early For the Easter Rising
A milestone in Irish history, the Acts of Union 1800 united the Kingdom of Great Britain and the Kingdom of Ireland to become the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland on 1 January 1801. Before this, the British monarch was also the monarch of Ireland. The Irish had their own Parliament; however, it was subject to restrictions that made it subordinate to the British Parliament. These earlier Irish parliaments supported Irish nationalism, but they were overwhelmingly made up of the Protestant Ascendancy – the minority Irish Protestant elite who had benefitted from the exclusion of the Catholic elite from property and power after England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688.
As of 1801, Irish Members of Parliament were elected to seats in Westminster, London – not Dublin. Many Irish nationalists, virtually all Catholics, and a significant number of landed Protestants opposed this new Union and the lack of political representation in Ireland that it signified. (The situation was markedly different in the northern province of Ulster.) Throughout the 19th century, calls for Irish self-government grew. The Great Famine, also known as the Irish Potato Famine, was just one of many events during that century that led to increasing demands for what was called Home Rule.
Three Home Rule bills came before the British Parliament in the late 19th century and early 20th century. The first, in 1886, was introduced to Parliament by British Prime Minister William Gladstone. This bill split his party and was defeated in the House of Commons. The second Home Rule bill passed through the House of Commons in 1893 but was defeated in the House of Lords. In 1912, a third Home Rule bill was passed in the House of Commons. A former Lord Lieutenant of Ireland opened the debate on the bill in the House of Lords in early 1913, but two years earlier, British parliamentary law had changed, and unelected lords could no longer veto legislation, only delay it. The third Irish Home Rule bill passed the House of Commons in 1914 but never came into force because it was suspended for the duration of the First World War. An important event in Irish history never materialized.
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Ireland On the Brink of Civil War
Prior to the First World War, Ireland seemed to be on the brink of civil war. Several Irish and Gaelic groups sprang up, including Sinn Fein, which was initially conservative and monarchist and only sought an Irish national legislature. (The British would later confuse Sinn Fein with the Fenians, comprised of the secretive Irish Republican Brotherhood [IRB] and its American affiliates. The IRB believed that independence could only be reached with an armed revolution. Sinn Fein never joined the Easter Rising at all.)
The Irish Volunteers was a military group formed in 1913, presumably in response to the Ulster Volunteers, who were established in 1912. The Ulster Volunteers were Ulster Protestants and Irish Unionists who were afraid of a nationalistic Catholic-majority parliament in Dublin after the third Home Rule bill was passed in the House of Commons for the first time in 1912. In 1914, the Ulster Volunteer Force smuggled 25,000 rifles from Germany into Ulster, but the suspension of the Home Rule Act due to the outbreak of war quelled the Ulster Volunteers’ fear of becoming dominated by their republican, mainly Catholic fellow countrymen.
The Irish Volunteers was an Irish nationalist military organization that took its members from many groups, including the Gaelic League, a social and cultural organization that supported the Gaelic language, to the revolutionary IRB. Shortly after their formation, the British banned the importation of weapons into Ireland. The Irish Volunteers split in September 1914 because of John Redmond’s commitment to the British War effort. John Redmond was the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party in the British government. While he fully backed Irish Home Rule, he wanted the Irish Parliamentary Party to influence, if not control, the Irish Volunteers. The IRB was vehemently opposed to this or any kind of collaboration with the British.
When the Irish Volunteers split, about 13,500 of those who still wanted to fight for Irish freedom and remain neutral during the war kept the name. A further 175,000 became the National Volunteers who sided with Redmond and were willing to support the British war effort to ensure that the British would grant them Home Rule when the war was over. Redmond believed that the war would be short and that the National Volunteers would be a large enough force to prevent Ulster from being excluded from the Government of Ireland Act. By 1916, the National Volunteers had fallen into decline. This was partly due to a fear that the British government would introduce conscription if they practiced their military drills too openly. The split of the Irish Volunteers into the smaller Irish Volunteers group and the larger National Volunteers group played into the hands of the IRB, who were able to take control of the new, smaller Irish Volunteers group.
The Supreme Council of the secretive IRB group met just a month after the British had declared war on Germany and decided to stage an uprising before the war ended, along with asking for help from Germany. In May 1915, a Military Council was formed within the IRB. Although the Irish Volunteers and the main IRB leaders were not against the idea of a rising, they didn’t think it was the right time. The IRB’s Military Council kept its plans private to stop the British from finding out about their plans and prevent less revolutionary members of the IRB from trying to stop the uprising. The Chief-of-Staff of the Irish Volunteers, Eoin MacNeill, didn’t want to take action unless the British authorities at Dublin Castle attempted to disarm them, arrest their leaders or introduce conscription to Ireland. However, IRB members were officers in the Irish Volunteers and took their orders from the Military Council, not the Chief-of-Staff.
Will Germans Support the Irish Cause?
Shortly after the outbreak of the First World War, Sir Roger Casement and the leader of an American branch of an Irish republican organization met with the German ambassador to the United States to sound out German backing for an uprising. Casement, who had worked for the British Foreign Service for twenty years and was a known humanitarian, had become interested in Irish nationalist causes before his retirement. This meeting with the German ambassador occurred when Casement was raising funds for the Irish Volunteers in the US.
Casement and others later went to Germany to see if the Germans would support a revolution in Ireland. They wanted to land a force of 12,000 German soldiers on the west coast of Ireland which would start a rebellion. Their ambitious plan included a joint Irish and German effort to defeat the British in Ireland, the establishment of German naval bases in Ireland, and German U-boats to cut off British supply routes in the Atlantic. The German government rejected the plan but agreed to send a consignment of weapons to Ireland instead.
While in Germany, Casement heard that Easter Rising had been planned for Easter Sunday 1916. Casement was against the idea; he didn’t want to go ahead with the rising without German backing, but he decided to return to Ireland to join the rebellion. In fact, it was January 1916 when the head of the Irish Citizen Army (which was not an army at all but an armed socialist trade union for men and women) threatened to start the rebellion if no one else would. The IRB discovered the plans of the Irish Citizen Army’s leader, James Connolly, and convinced him to join forces with them. They even added him to the IRB’s Military Council.
Events Quicken Pace: At a Turning Point In Irish History
Events started to quicken the pace. In early April, plans were made for the Irish Volunteers to carry out parades and maneuvers for three days beginning on Easter Sunday. This was to be the signal for the IRB to start the Easter Rising, although the British and the Chief-of-Staff of the Irish Volunteers were to believe that these were activities similar to previous parades and maneuvers.
On 9 April, a German ship, the SS Libau disguised as the Norwegian SS Aud, was sent to County Kerry carrying 20,000 rifles, one million rounds of ammunition, and explosives. Casement left Germany for Ireland a few days later aboard the U19, a German U-boat submarine. However, disappointed with the level of support from the Germans, Casement intended to stop or at least postpone the rising.
On 19 April, a document purported to be from the British authorities was leaked. This document detailed plans to arrest the leaders of various Irish nationalist groups. In fact, this document had been faked by the IRB’s Military Council, but it was enough for Eoin MacNeill to order the Volunteers to prepare to resist. Preparation to resist was not what the IRB Military Council wanted, and it went ahead and informed senior Irish Volunteer officers that the rising would definitely begin on Easter Sunday.
On Good Friday, 21 April, both the Aud and the U-19 reached the coast of Kerry. There were no Irish Volunteers to meet the vessels; they had arrived too early. Furthermore, British Naval Intelligence had been aware of the arms shipment. The Aud was intercepted, forcing the captain to scuttle the ship along with all of its ammunition and weapons. When Casement’s U-19 landed, he was arrested, taken to jail, and later executed for treason.
When MacNeill found out that the arms shipment had been lost, he issued orders to all Volunteers to cancel all planned actions for Easter Sunday. This order was published in Ireland’s Sunday morning newspapers too. This countermand may have changed the course of Irish history. Slow to act, when the British found out about the thwarted arms shipment, they wanted to raid nationalist headquarters and arrest the leaders of various republican groups but decided not to do so until after Easter Monday. By the time telegraphed approval of raids and arrests came from London at noon on Easter Monday, it was too late to stop the rising.
The Easter Rising Begins In Earnest
The Easter Rising finally began on Monday, 24 April 1916. MacNeill’s orders to cancel all planned activities only delayed the rising by one day. The hardcore Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army were not to be deterred. However, due to MacNeill’s countermanding order, only around 1,200 members of the Volunteers, the Citizen Army, and the all-female Cumann na mBan arrived at strategic positions in central Dublin. Liberty Hall was the headquarters of the Irish Citizen Army, and the General Post Office became the rebels’ main headquarters throughout the Easter Rising. Other strategic positions included the Four Courts, Jacob’s Biscuit Factory, Boland’s Mill, and the South Dublin Union. About 400 others soon joined them. At 12:45 pm, the “Proclamation of the Irish Republic” was read outside the General Post Office by Patrick Pearse, a member of the IRB’s Military Council.
Due to MacNeill’s public orders to cancel all marches, there were no large-scale uprisings outside of Dublin, and even within Dublin, most residents were taken by surprise. The rebels tried to cut transport and communication links, erect roadblocks, control bridges, and capture the Magazine Fort in Phoenix Park. At the Magazine Fort, the rebels planted explosives and seized weapons, but the resulting explosion was not loud enough to be heard across the city. It wasn’t effective as the intended signal to the start of the Easter Rising.
The rebels occupied Dublin City Hall, and they tried to seize Dublin Castle, the center of British rule in Ireland. British reinforcements arrived, and by Tuesday morning, the British had recaptured City Hall and taken the rebels prisoner. Even though the British were able to retake City Hall, they were largely unprepared that Monday. The British commander, Brigadier-General William Lowe, only had around 1300 troops with him when he arrived in Dublin in the early hours of Tuesday. 120 British soldiers with machine guns occupied two buildings overlooking St. Stephen’s Green, opening fire on the Citizen Army stationed on the green. The rebels retreated to the Royal College of Surgeons building, where they stayed for the rest of the week, exchanging fire with British forces.
Fighting continued on Tuesday, with the British forced to retreat after a two-hour battle; some of their soldiers were captured. While the rebels occupied other buildings further out of the city center, the British brought in 18-pounder field artillery to shell the rebel positions. This destroyed the barricades, and after a fierce firefight, the rebels had to withdraw.
On Tuesday, Pearse stood in front of Nelson’s Pillar on O’Connell Street and read out a manifesto to the citizens of Dublin, summoning their support for the Easter Rising. However, because the rebels had failed to take Dublin’s two main railway stations or its two ports, the British were able to bring in thousands of troops from the Curragh in County Kildare, Belfast, and Britain. The British had 16,000 troops in Ireland by the end of the week. The British began firing at rebel positions at Liberty Hall, Boland’s Mill, and O’Connell Street on Wednesday. There was surprisingly little fighting at the General Post Office, the Four Courts, Jacob’s Biscuit Factory, and Boland’s Mill.
The first rebel position to surrender was on Wednesday at the Mendicity Institution. Heavy fighting took place near the Grand Canal, and the British were able to take the position on Thursday, but with a loss of two-thirds of all their casualties for the entire week compared to just four Irish Volunteers. On Thursday, there was heavy hand-to-hand fighting in and around the South Dublin Union, which also inflicted heavy casualties on the British. British forces spent Thursday to Saturday trying to capture the area north of the Four Courts. The rebels continued to open fire from behind barricades, chimneys, and open windows. During street fighting, the British forces shot or bayoneted not just rebels but also Irish civilians.
By Friday evening, constant artillery fire on the General Post Office caused extensive damage. The building had to be evacuated after a fire started, although there were numerous fires in several locations outside too. By 9:50 pm on Friday evening, Commandant Patrick Pearse was the last to leave the General Post Office. Although Pearse had relocated to new headquarters, he realized that further fighting would lead to more loss of civilian life. At 3:30 pm on Saturday, 29 April, Commandant Pearse offered the unconditional surrender of the Provisional Government to the British. This was a sobering moment in Irish history. This included an order for commandants in other city and county districts to also lay down their arms.
The Aftermath of the Easter Rising
In total, almost 500 people died during the six days of fighting. Approximately 55% were civilians, 29% were British forces, and 16% were Irish rebel forces. In the aftermath, the British arrested more than 3,500 people. Ninety were sentenced to death, although only 16 were actually killed. Many of those imprisoned were released after a year.
When the Easter Rising started, many Dubliners were bewildered by what had occurred, and in some parts of the city, there was hostility towards the Irish Volunteers. People whose relatives were fighting for the British Army were dependent on the Army allowances, and the Easter Rising caused much death, destruction, and disruption of food supplies. Some civilians were also innocent victims of the Irish Volunteers. However, the British reaction in the aftermath of the Rising swayed the opinions of many who had been hostile or ambivalent. They became convinced that parliamentary methods would not be sufficient to expel the British from Ireland.
At the war’s end, general elections to the British Parliament in 1918 saw Sinn Fein win 73 out of 105 Irish seats. The Irish Parliamentary Party, which had held 74 seats in 1910, was down to just seven seats in 1918. The Sinn Fein MPs refused to take their seats in the British Parliament – another momentous moment in Irish history – and instead declared their own Parliament in Dublin in January 1919. Civil war continued in Ireland, resulting in the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 and the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922. The Government of Ireland Act of 1920, also known as the fourth Home Rule bill, had made provision for the six northeastern counties of Ireland to remain British, and they were given their own devolved government.