Remembering the Irish Easter Rising a Century On

Stratfor Global Intelligence, 24.04.2016
British soldiers sniping from behind a barricade of empty beer casks near the quays in Dublin during the 1916 Easter Rising. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

British soldiers sniping from behind a barricade of empty beer casks near the quays in Dublin during the 1916 Easter Rising. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)



A century ago in Dublin, the spark of a revolution that would end with Irish independence from London was lit. Curious bystanders listened to an impassioned speech by erstwhile schoolteacher, lawyer, poet and political activist Patrick Henry Pearse from the steps of the General Post Office on Sackville Street (now O'Connell Street) declaring Ireland's emancipation from English rule. Most people nodded in agreement, then went about their business, unaware that what was about to transpire that Easter Monday would shape the future of the nation.

Pearse was a logical choice to make the proclamation of independence, having previously given a rousing graveside speech at the funeral of Fenian supremo and Irish Republican Brotherhood leader Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa. Pearse's words expressed the discontent felt by many in Ireland at the time, effectively galvanizing public support for a militant struggle.

"They think that they have pacified Ireland. They think that they have purchased half of us and intimidated the other half. They think that they have foreseen everything, think that they have provided against everything; but, the fools, the fools, the fools! — They have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace."

The "purchased half" referred to the Irish unionists in the north, who harbored equally strong feelings about freedom and coexistence. Yet in the south, the republican movement had the fervor, the opportunity and the means to take drastic action, at a time when the British Parliament was distracted by World War I.

The Proclamation of the Republic on April 24, 1916, was the starting pistol for a six-day uprising, which began later that day when around 1,200 irregulars from the Irish Citizen Army and the Irish Volunteers took up arms in protest of centuries of unyielding British governance. In practical military terms, the action was a tactical disaster. Planning deficiencies and poor organization combined with a shortage of manpower and weaponry hamstrung the revolutionaries. Even a British military distracted and depleted by global conflict soon overmatched the Irish fighters. Dublin paid the price: Good portions of the capital were blasted into rubble. Of the 485 or so who died in the uprising, around half were civilians, and a quarter were British soldiers. It was a tolerable loss from London's perspective, given the requirement to rapidly crush any domestic unrest in its colonies. But the heavy-handed approach that secured victory for the British ultimately became a rallying cry that contributed to the partition of Ireland.

The remains of the Dublin Bread Company at Lower Sackville Street (now O'Connell Street) after the Easter Rising in April 1916. (Wikimedia)

The remains of the Dublin Bread Company at Lower Sackville Street (now O'Connell Street) after the Easter Rising in April 1916. (Wikimedia)


The Origins of the Struggle

To trace the origins of Irish discontent is to go back a thousand years or more, well before its foundation as England's oldest colony. Ireland escaped the unifying conquest of the Romans that swept the British mainland circa A.D. 43, maintaining instead a series of tribal-dynastic fiefdoms divided among pagan warlords. St. Patrick succeeded in planting a religious seed in Ireland in 430,setting the conditions for later conflict.

Around 800, as in England and France, raiding Viking parties landed in Ireland, searching for fertile agricultural lands. Successive waves of Viking invasion and settlement inadvertently paved the way for the Anglo Norman conquest of Ireland: Norse invaders entered into alliances with Ireland's warrior kings, tipping the balance of power among the chieftains. It was not until Dermot MacMurrough called upon outside powers to help regain his seat of Leinster, though, that Norman knights were introduced to Ireland. MacMurrough had been deposed by his countrymen and fled to England, where he plotted his return. At his behest, a composite Norman force landed in Wexford in 1169 and regained Leinster for MacMurrough, forcing the surrender of the Ostmen-held city of Dublin in the process. MacMurrough was so overjoyed he made Norman Lord Richard de Clare, Second Earl of Pembroke, an heir to the kingdom.

This attracted the interest of King Henry II of England who decided in 1171 to take a look for himself. King Henry feared that Ireland could become a separate kingdom so he established dominion by papal edict, installing power structures that were loyal to the monarchy. Thus began almost eight centuries of English rule.

Over the first several centuries of English rule, a wealthy minority came to hold the vast majority of power in Ireland and oversaw trade, land rights and governance. The rise of Protestantism in the 17th century created additional friction, which came to a head in the 1641 Irish Rebellion. By that time, around 60 percent of land was owned by English and Scottish Protestant settlers. A technical union with England, Scotland and Wales in 1800 brought Ireland fully under the banner of the United Kingdom. But despite the promise of reform, essential freedoms failed to materialize for the fractured Irish population, split as it was along religious, economic and territorial lines. True, Ireland had representation in Westminster, but that was for wealthy Protestant landowners, not the Catholic majority. Throughout the 19th century Westminster toyed with the idea of a self-governing Ireland. Two previous bills supporting that proposition were put forth to parliament but failed to pass. By the emergence of the successful Third Home Rule Bill — implementation of which was postponed with outbreak of war in 1914 — caveats were installed, granting Westminster a permanent say over Ireland's international relations.

London worried that any move toward Irish independence would inspire its other colonial holdings to demand similar concessions. Ireland's proximity to the British mainland and the fiery Irish propensity for rebellion also factored into British policy. The rulers of the British Empire understood that the key to maintaining order in its overseas colonies, other than instilling bureaucratic practices, was to quickly and ruthlessly stamp out insurrection. In the case of Ireland, the Crown did so with aplomb. The 1798 Irish rebellion, supported by France, did little to engender trust between London and Dublin. Already stung by the success of the American Revolution, Westminster was determined not to make the same mistake in Ireland. Uprisings in 1803, the 1830s, 1848 and 1867 proved that the English were unable to inspire loyalty. They instead sought to break the rebellious Irish spirit by action or even by inaction, as in the case of the potato famine.

Potato blight had been rife in Europe through the 1840s, but the effect of the ruinous disease on Ireland was disproportionate. Not only were potatoes a staple crop, but years of land acquisition and abuse of tenant farmers by absentee landlords also undermined the ability of the common Irish to sustain themselves through farming. Ambivalence from Westminster and the Darwinian nature of free trade effectively condemned the Irish to their lot. Deaths caused by the Great Famine of 1845-1852 and the resulting diaspora reduced Ireland's population by around 25 percent. Relations between Dublin and London were irreparably damaged. The failed Young Irelander Rebellion three years into the famine contributed to the already popular Fenian movement, itself evolving from the Fenian Brotherhood and the Irish Republican Brotherhood. The Fenians had a single goal: Irish self-rule, free from British tyranny.

Yet, as Irish nationalism solidified among the largely Catholic population in the south, a staunch band of unionists, centered on the Protestant portion of the Irish population in the north, felt just as passionately about remaining in the United Kingdom. Both camps held intractable positions, and each demonstrated a willingness to take up arms in support of their cause.

Ruins of Dublin's General Post Office, which was central to the action of the Easter Rising, circa May 3, 1916. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Ruins of Dublin's General Post Office, which was central to the action of the Easter Rising, circa May 3, 1916. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)


Planning a Successful Rebellion

At the outbreak of World War I, popular support for the role of the United Kingdom and the Allies was high in Ireland and around 215,000 Irishmen signed up to fight, driven in large part to support Catholic Belgium. But the war also supplied the burgeoning Irish independence movement with an opportunity to incite a revolution.

A little over a month after the war began in 1914, the Irish Republican Brotherhood's supreme council sought support for an armed uprising from the Central Power-aligned Germany. Berlin balked at a plan to land German troops on Ireland's west coast but agreed to tacitly support Irish independence, and even supplied the rebels with weapons and ammunition. In the meantime, work began to unify, organize, train and equip the factions that would take part in the action, intended to start on April 21, 1916, which was Good Friday (although it was later postponed to Easter Sunday).

Unfortunately for the rebels, the Royal Navy intercepted the German ship carrying arms for the uprising. (In an early success of signals intelligence, the admiralty intercepted and decoded a German transmission revealing the location and intention of the ship.) The loss shook the confidence of Irish Volunteers leader Eoin MacNeill, who already had been vacillating about the group's role in the uprising, and he called off his forces. Despite the confusion this caused, the Irish Republican Brotherhood opted to continue with the uprising, postponing it by another day. But MacNeill's change of heart had done its damage, and many fighters failed to turn up.

So, on Easter Monday, Pearse delivered the proclamation of independence, and Irish Citizen Army chief James Connolly — in overall command of the operation — ordered attacks to commence. Despite advance word of the rebels' intent, the British were caught off guard, and the Irish Citizen Army troops, and those Irish Volunteers who showed up, made initial gains throughout Dublin. Their plan was to seize and fortify the city center after taking a number of key locations, including Dublin City Hall, Magazine Fort, Jacob's Biscuit Factory and the General Post Office, where their command battalion was headquartered. As well as taking and holding key bridges, the rebels captured a wireless telegraph station, which they used to further spread their message. They failed, however, to take the lightly defended Dublin Castle, laying siege to it instead. The rebel forces carried out acts of sabotage too, cutting telephone lines and demolishing railway tracks to stop British reinforcements from reaching Dublin. Sporadic fighting that first day resulted in comparatively few casualties.

Irish Volunteers barricade Townsend Street in Dublin, to slow down the advance of British troops in April 1916. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Irish Volunteers barricade Townsend Street in Dublin, to slow down the advance of British troops in April 1916. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The British response quickly shifted from incredulity to anger. Martial law was immediately declared as the lord lieutenant of Ireland ceded civil power to the military, which was already flooding in reinforcements from Britain. The approach was methodical at first, with British and rebel forces equally matched and cautious. Within days, though, the British army outnumbered the rebels 16-to-1 and brought in the weapons that had already changed the face of warfare on the Western Front. Under weight of artillery and machine gun fire and repeated frontal assaults, the pockets of resistance in Dublin were isolated and worn down. Seeing no other choice, on April 29, Pearse — who had taken command from an incapacitated Connolly — ordered a general surrender.

The heavy-handed manner the British used to quell the rebellion and handle the subsequent aftermath did more to shape the perceptions of Dubliners than did the uprising itself. The British rounded up 3,500 people after the fact, sending around 1,500 to internment camps in England and Wales. This not only hardened the disgruntlement and resentment among the population, but it also concentrated the revolutionary fervor among those imprisoned. They could share ideas and methodologies, and their incarceration only stoked the fire of their spirit for independence.

Sinn Fein leaders in an internment camp in May 1916, somewhere in Ireland, following the Easter Rising. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Sinn Fein leaders in an internment camp in May 1916, somewhere in Ireland, following the Easter Rising. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)


Losing the Aftermath

Of the 90 key instigators identified and sentenced to death by courts martial, 15 were executed, including Pearse, Connolly and the other plotters. Rather than crushing the revolution, however, London's post-uprising conduct directly fed public support for a breakaway Ireland, popularizing the pursuit of republicanism by physical force, a dramatic shift in Irish politics. A refashioned Sinn Fein won elections at the end of 1918 and promptly declared an independent Irish Republic. It ushered in a three-year guerrilla conflict and the emergence of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). A war-weary British parliament, still coming to terms with the death of a generation, saw no benefit in sustaining the bloodshed. And on May 3, 1921, Ireland was effectively split into two: Northern Ireland, which remained part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, a sovereign state.

For many, however, the trouble was simply beginning. A number of themes from the 1916 Easter Rising would play out over the remainder of the century. Namely, the fractious nature of Irish political groups and their militant wings; the violent divide between Catholic republicans and Protestant unionists; the employment of British military intelligence and clandestine operations against an underground revolutionary force; the role of martyrs in galvanizing public support; and the changing role of foreign patronage, specifically support provided for the IRA by Irish Americans.

Beyond romantic notions of a unified Irish people, it is important to remember that the island remains irrevocably divided to this day. A century later, the ardor of the Northern Irish unionists is just as potent as that of the republicans. The situation is quietly unresolved for many. As well as heralding a period of 20th century turbulence and bloodshed — the allusive "troubles" — the move toward Irish independence foreshadowed the breakup of the British Empire and resulted in the strained internal dynamics of the United Kingdom that concern Westminster today.

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