UP TO half a million people are expected in Dublin on Easter Day for a national commemoration on the centenary of the Easter Rising. The Rising is the founding myth of independent Ireland, lauded in popular memory as an act of quixotic but noble heroism, met by a bloodthirsty response that proved the British were not to be trusted.
Yet the Rising was a fiasco, suppressed within days, with grandiose ambitions undermined by wrongheaded and naïve planning. The rebels, having taken the extraordinary risk of procuring arms from Germany in wartime, failed to be on time to meet the boat smuggling them, which led to the boat’s being scuttled. The decision was made to press ahead with the plans anyway. On Easter Monday, 24 April 1916, 1200 armed men took over strongpoints in Dublin city centre and proclaimed an Irish Republic.
Locally, support for the Rising was thin, with the rebels sometimes verbally abused in the streets, particularly by the wives of soldiers at war overseas. Failure to secure railway stations or ports enabled government reinforcements to pour in to the city, reaching an overwhelming 16,000 by the time the leaders of the Rising surrendered unconditionally on the fifth day of confused fighting. Half of the 466 people killed were civilian bystanders.
Rebel internal communications were so poor that it took two days for the order to surrender to reach detachments in other parts of Dublin. A battalion-sized rebel-contingent in Cork, poised to secure territory in the strongly Nationalist south-west, dispersed without firing a shot after receiving nine contradictory orders from Dublin.
THE British response was by turns inept and excessive. The rebellion could have been stopped before it started: the authorities knew about the arms shipment, and the rebel leader, Roger Casement, was captured attempting to land in Kerry from a U-boat. Yet they dawdled for days, only finally giving the order to seize the rebel leadership an hour or so after the proclamation of the Republic.
When the response did come, it was ruthless. Artillery was freely used on rebel positions, with predictable civilian casualties in a densely populated city. Military discipline broke down on two occasions: 21 uninvolved civilians were shot or bayoneted in their own homes.
These incidents began to change public opinion even as the Rising was being crushed; the change was copper-fastened by the British handling of the aftermath. Under martial law, suspects were tried in camera, without defence counsel. Within a fortnight, 90 death sentences were passed; 15 of these were carried out before an Asquith government, worried about growing Irish anger, intervened.
That extreme military response was hardly surprising. Not only was the Rising, from a British perspective, an act of gross treason in wartime, but the army was staunchly pro-Unionist. In the Curragh Mutiny of March 1914, a large number of officers had publicly threatened to resign if ordered to suppress an Ulster insurrection against Home Rule.
IT IS largely forgotten that the Irish question bitterly divided late Victorian and Edwardian Britain. Irish Home Rule split the Liberal Party, with a substantial contingent of opponents following Joseph Chamberlain into the Conservative fold. Popular opposition in Britain was strong enough to devastate the Liberals at the 1886 General Election after Gladstone’s first, failed, Home Rule Bill.
Over time, however, the balance of opinion shifted somewhat, and in 1912 a Home Rule Bill was passed by the Commons after the 1910 Parliament Act had nullified the power of the House of Lords to block the measure (as had occurred in 1893).
Most Irish Protestants, especially in Ulster, remained bitterly opposed to Home Rule, and significant elements of British society, particularly in army circles, supported them. Rudyard Kipling spoke for them in his forceful 1912 poem “Ulster”, depicting the Home Rule Bill as government treachery towards some of the Crown’s most loyal subjects:
Before an Empire’s eyes
The traitor claims his price.
What need of further lies?
We are the sacrifice.
By 1914, Ireland stood on the brink of civil war. In May, the Commons amended the Home Rule Bill at final reading to exclude from its provisions, for an unspecified period, the six counties that would become Northern Ireland; the details were still unresolved. This outraged the Irish Parliamentary Party, and militias supporting both Nationalism and Ulster Loyalism began drilling and arming.
With the outbreak of European war, militias on both sides were inducted into the British Army at the government’s request. To secure their services, supporters of Unionism were assured that fidelity to King and country would be remembered; Nationalists — with particular reference to the German invasion of Roman Catholic Belgium — were promised rewards for service in the international struggle for “the rights of small nations”. This amounted to a different undated political cheque being written to each faction, only one of which could ultimately be cashed.
IT IS arguable, therefore, that the Rising had little real impact on the passage of events, and that an Irish conflict immediately after the Great War was inevitable. The political impasse of 1914 would have been difficult to resolve under any circumstances.
Even before the Rising, support for the war was waning among Nationalists. A letter to The Times of 6 May 1916, from the Anglican Archbishop of Armagh, lamented that “voluntary recruiting in Ireland has come to an absolute standstill.”
The Archbishop’s letter was in support of conscription being extended to Ireland. That eventually happened in April 1918, after the Ludendorff Offensive left the army dangerously short of troops for the Western Front. But it was an abject failure: after a campaign of strikes and rallies, not a single conscript soldier left the country. At the same time, it united the entire spectrum of Nationalist opinion (including those who otherwise supported the war effort), and brought out the usually politically cautious Roman Catholic hierarchy in a rare display of public opposition to Britain.
D. D. Sheehan, an ultra-moderate, pro-War, Cork MP warned the Commons, “You are purchasing a legacy of hate, and pouring out for yourselves seas of trouble.”
That was no overstatement. Conscription enabled radicals to make the political running in Ireland. Sinn Féin sat out the Rising but absorbed many of its surviving leaders afterwards. It took a leading part in the anti-conscription campaign; a British decision to intern its leaders without trial only increased its appeal.
For Ulster Unionism, the campaign was another Nationalist stab in the Empire’s back and, in the words of its leader James Craig, “the final confirmation that the aspirations of Nationalists and Unionists were unrecompatible [sic]”.
A General Election followed the War’s end, on 14 December 1918. Sinn Féin, arguing that only independence could protect Irishmen from conscription into British wars, won 73 of the 105 Irish seats. Its MPs refused to sit in what they claimed was a foreign parliament. By late January, the Irish War of Independence had begun — a longer and bloodier campaign than the Rising, notable for cruelty and excesses on all sides.
IRONICALLY, the Conscription Crisis is barely better remembered in Ireland than in Britain. Failure, accompanied by the whiff of cordite, has lingered longer in the memory than successful peaceful protest. The idea of “blood sacrifice” for the nation resonated deeply across early 20th century Europe, including Britain, and chimed with the macho, nationalistic Catholicism that predominated in Ireland after independence, deeply committed to a belief in the power of redemptive suffering. Yeats, Protestant Nationalist and cultural totem, captured in verse the already shifting mood in the summer of 1916, when the Irishmen fighting and dying at the Somme began to be eclipsed by the heroes of the coming order:
I write it out in a verse —
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
From the 1970s, the Rising became more contentious within Nationalism. This was partly because a transformed Irish Catholicism after Vatican II was uncomfortable with mixing the celebration of Christ’s resurrection with political bloodshed. More importantly, though, was the emergence of the Provisional IRA.
The Rising, where a small group rejected elections in favour of physical force and were ultimately vindicated, was a key plank of the IRA’s self-justification for violence. The Irish government ceased support for national celebrations in 1976. The Provisionals’ emblem was the phoenix rising from the ashes, displayed prominently in its own Easter processions; it linked the mythological symbol with the Christian festival of Resurrection. The Provos claimed to follow the rebels of 1916 in reincarnating an Irish Republican cause presumed dead by others.
Official support for Easter commemorations was only restored in the late 1990s after the IRA ceasefire and, especially, after another Holy Week watershed in Ireland: the Good Friday Agreement.
This year’s event will be the largest for 50 years, yet the extent to which the commemorations can be described as celebrations has been contentious across Ireland —. in the Republic, because the events of 1916 now seem extraordinarily remote; in the North, because they remain so close.
Gerry Lynch is director of communications for the diocese of Salisbury. He writes in a freelance capacity.