The Easter Rising in 1916 - Ninety Eight Years Ago

The Easter Rising of Ireland in April 1916 was the second last attempt of the Irish to throw off the yoke of their British masters. Just recently we passed its 98th anniversary and Ireland is preparing for its centenary with the novel idea of inviting historians to advise their government on its commemorations. It's almost like we're especially skilled to discuss history's role in society and government. It's always worthwhile to refresh ourselves about the facts of the Easter Rising, one of the most significant events in Irish history.

An important piece context for the Irish situation entering into the First World War was legislation called Home Rule. Its goal was to allow the Irish to have their own parliament within the United Kingdom and wed the unquenchable Irish nationalism to the British political system. There were four Home Rule Bills, the first was presented in 1886 the second in 1893, both of which failed due to the House of Lords (the British “senate”). The third was introduced in 1912, a year after the House of Commons asserted its dominance to pass legislation over the House of Lords with the Parliament Act in 1911, and this time it was given royal assent.

One of its most prominent supporters was John Redmond, the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party. His party held the balance of power in Westminster after the 1910 Election. British Prime Minister and Liberal leader Herbert Asquith only had 272 seats in the 670-seat legislature. Redmond's 74 seats were enough to tip the balance and part of the deal he struck with Asquith was for Britain to once again consider Home Rule. This time the Bill passed, much to the chagrin of Irish Protestants. Largely concentrated in protestant Ulster (northern Ireland), they did not believe Home Rule would be beneficial to Ireland. Calling it “Rome Rule,” they feared a Catholic-dominated Parliament ruling over them. They began organizing small militias and formed the Ulster Volunteers. By 1913, the Ulster Volunteer Force could marshal 100,000 men. In turn, Irish Catholics mobilized their own militia, called the Irish Volunteers. As a result of this clear tension, the Act was amended to include a clause that partitioned Ulster from the rest of Ireland.

Before it could officially pass into law however, the First World War broke out in August 1914. The Home Rule Bill received Royal Assent in 1914, but was not enforced due to the exigencies of wartime. Asquith told Redmond that it would be revisited after the war (which might be over as soon as Christmas, of course!) when they would resolve the Ulster issue and settle the matter. The war also once more divided the Irish, as some thought it was worthwhile to fight for Britain while others would never wear a British uniform. Some Irish stayed home to wait the war out, while over 200,000 fought alongside Britain and their Dominions. Many Irish died on battlefields familiar to Canadians and Newfoundlanders: St. Julien (1915), Gallipoli (1916), Battle of the Somme (1916), Passchendaele (July 1917), as well as many others.

In September 1914, the Irish Republican Brotherhood decided to stage an uprising during the war. Canadians might be more familiar with the IRB as the Fenians, who once tried to invade Canada from the United States in the 1860s. Though many members overlapped, different figures were in charge of the Irish Volunteers, who formed the majority of manpower for a potential uprising, than those in charge of the IRB. Notably, the Volunteers' Chief of Staff Eoin MacNeill refused to endorse an uprising unless the British tried to disarm the Volunteers. The IRB continued to plan an uprising regardless.

They reached out to Sir Roger Casement to organize the shipment of arms from Germany. They invited Germany to invade Ireland, but this seemed an unlikely prospect given the British rule of the sea had trapped the German navy at the port of Kiel for the entirety of the war. At the same time, in order to convince MacNeill to support the rising, a document from Dublin Castle was smuggled out showing that the British were planning to disarm the volunteers. The document was likely a forgery, or at least drafted in case Germany actually invaded Ireland, rather than a sign of immediate action. MacNeill was also told that arms would be arriving from Casement and Germany, and ordered the Irish Volunteers be peacefully mustered on Easter as a show of force in case the British discovered the shipment. Unbeknownst to him, the IRB planned an uprising the same day.

Unfortunately for the conspirators, when Casement and the shipment of arms landed on 21 April, the British were waiting and Casement was arrested and thrown in prison. MacNeill, discovering the arms weren't coming and learning that an armed uprising was planned, countermanded the order to muster. It was too late, though it did stop the rising from spreading other counties. The result was that only Dublin rose up against the British in strength that Easter. Around 1,500 IRB men seized key points around Dublin.

On Monday, April 24 1916, posters were placed around Dublin announcing a Proclamation of the provisional government of the Irish Republic. “We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland,” it said, “Standing on that fundamental right and again asserting it in arms in the face of the world, we hereby proclaim the Irish Republic as a Sovereign Independent State.” They claimed the allegiance of all Irish and guaranteed their “religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens” and “its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts.” With that high purpose, the newly born Irish Republic fought for its national life.

The actual fighting of the Easter Uprising was short-lived. The rebels took control of Dublin, though failed to seize some key points. Armed students defended Trinity College Dublin against the rebels, while Dublin Castle, the centre of British rule in Ireland, was also successfully defended. The rebels couldn't take Dublin's train stations and the British were able to funnel in troops and easily outnumbered the rebels within a few days and, with machine guns and artillery, slowly pinned the rebels down. Soon the Irish Republic headquarters at the Post Office was shelled and it was clear that they had been defeated. On 29 April, after realising that further resistance would only waste civilian lives, they surrendered to the British authorities.

The response of the British was swift and brutal. After all, the Irish had rebelled in wartime and they had little patience for any sideshow from the life-and-death struggle against Germany.  They arrested 3,430 men and 79 women. Everyone who had signed the Proclamation announcing the republic, including Pearse and eight other leaders, were executed in May. Sir Roger Casement was tried and executed for treason in August. Most of those the British arrested were freed, but some 1,480 men were imprisoned. Eoin MacNeill, though he had to tried stop the rising, was sentenced to life imprisonment. Before and during the uprising, many of the Irish did not support it and were as surprised as the British by its outbreak. Only after did their ambivalence turn to resistance after the perception that the British were unjustly and harshly punishing those who had done little or nothing with the Uprising. Many who had supported Home Rule now believed that the British must not continue to govern Ireland.

In the aftermath of the rising, a small republican movement called Sinn Féin became the primary vehicle for republicans seeking independence. In the Spring of 1918, after the Allies were nearly defeated by the last great German offensive, they enacted Home Rule in tandem with enforcing conscription on Ireland (which had previously been exempt). The majority of Irish still had no interest in fighting the British war, and support swung even more in favour of Sinn Féin. After the war, Sinn Féin secured 73 seats in the 1918 election. In January 1919, they unilaterally declared themselves an independent Parliament, starting the Irish War of Independence. Ireland was subsequently divided between the Republic of Ireland and the protestant Northern Ireland, which remains a part of Great Britain to this day.

One of Ireland's most well known poets, W.B. Yeats, wrote about the Easter Rising. Titled simply, “Easter, 1916,” it is a haunting dirge he wrote in September 1916. “Too long a sacrifice / Can make a stone of the heart. / O when may it suffice? / That is heaven's part,” he wrote, referring to the long history of armed Irish attempts to free itself. Only God knew when all of their loss would be enough to secure their freedom. For his fellow Irish, he had these words: “our part / To murmur name upon name, /As a mother names her child,” where he evoked the necessity of continuing the fight, and affirming their freedom and remembering those who had fallen for it. Today, the Rising has a conflicted but scared memory. Decades of violence in Ireland has meant that history easily becomes a tool of contemporary concerns, and the Rising and the subsequent war for independence remain difficult events for the Irish and historians alike to discuss without some bias. It will be interesting to see what commemorative events occur in two years time, and perhaps we will return to the subject then!