One of the most important events in recent Irish history is the Easter Rising of 1916. You may be hearing lots about it in the media at the moment since next year will be the 100th anniversary of the Rising, and huge events are being planned all around Dublin (where the vast majority of the fighting occurred) to mark the occasion. The background and story of the 1916 Rising has long been an essential part of the history curriculum in Irish schools, but to everyone else it can seem like a complicated and somewhat perplexing series of events. If you’re wondering what all the fuss is about, we’ve laid out the most important aspects of the story so that when next Easter comes around, you’ll know exactly what you’re talking about.
Background to the Rising
Simply put, the 1916 Rising was the event that kick-started the Irish War of Independence, leading to several years of fighting, tense political negotiations, civil war, and eventually the establishment of an internationally recognised Irish Republic. The Rising wasn’t just a spontaneous decision by the Irish people, however. It involved years of planning and before that, years of raising awareness and gaining the support of the public.
The idea of an Independent Ireland had been discussed and desired by the Irish people long before the early 20th century. The beginning of British rule in Ireland stretches all the way back to the 12th century, when the first Norman invasions began from across the Irish Sea. After a time the Normans settled in various parts of the country and lived peacefully among the Irish, swapping trade skills and so on. It wasn’t until 1541 that trouble began, when an uprising by the Earl of Kildare led to King Henry VIII receiving the title of King of Ireland from the Irish Parliament. Subsequently thousands of Protestant settlers from England and Scotland crossed the water to Ireland, displacing equally as many Irish Catholics and causing resentment and hostility among them. Over the next few centuries several wars broke out between the two groups, the most important of which was the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 (resulting in a Protestant victory by William of Orange). A partially successful rebellion in 1798 sent the British government into a panic, resulting in them passing the Act of Union in 1801 bringing Ireland entirely under British rule.
For the next 100 years Irish nationalism became increasingly more relevant and important to the Irish people, who gained a distinct distaste for any British presence in Ireland. This was only exacerbated by the Great Famine of the 1840s which saw millions emigrate and millions more die of starvation, as well as the almost exclusively Protestant upper class and the various legal restrictions on Catholics such as running for political office, owning a business, and many more. The struggle for Independence gained momentum with Irish politician Charles Stewart Parnell’s almost successful campaign for Home Rule, and after his death a number of fresh young faces entered the political scene with a strong determination to give Ireland back to the people.
The 1916 Leaders
The 1916 Rising was about much more than just fighting – while the military aspect of it was obviously very important, there were other strands to it too; most significantly, cultural and political ones. The Irish Republican Brotherhood, a nationalist organisation founded in 1858, created an armed force to rise up against British rule known as the Irish Volunteers. Simultaneously another armed force called the Irish Citizen Army was formed by trade unionists who had taken part in the Dublin Lockout of 1913. As well that, hugely successful attempts had been made to bring nationalism to the forefront of Irish media and culture. The theme was constantly being explored by poets, journalists and playwrights in new works that captured the mood of the country. Music and stories from the Celtic era were revitalised, the Gaelic Athletic Association was thriving with hurling and Gaelic football fast becoming the most popular sports in the country, and the Irish language was also enjoying a renaissance with people clamouring to learn it. In political circles the Home Rule campaign was still going strong and gaining momentum, with the third Home Rule Bill introduced in 1914 only to be interrupted by the outbreak of World War I. British government elections were often won and lost by public opinion of Ireland, and more and more Irish politicians were being elected to Westminster.
Some of the main figures in each of these arenas were:
Michael Collins: Collins was born in Cork and spent time in both New York and London, where he first joined the IRB. A natural born leader and organiser, he swiftly rose up the ranks to become one of the IRB’s most important figures, preparing arms and drilling troops for the Rising. He was an aide-de-camp at the Rising headquarters in the General Post Office.
Eamon De Valera: Born in New York but raised by relatives in Ireland, De Valera showed remarkable intelligence as a young boy and was passionate about nationalism from the outset. He joined the Irish Volunteers and was running one of their companies soon after. During the Rising he commanded the troops at Boland’s Mills, preventing access to the city from the south.
Padraig Pearse: Pearse was the most passionate advocate of the Irish language that Ireland has ever seen. He devised a new curriculum for schools and set up a school of his own where pupils were taught in both Irish and English. He was known for his writings and was seen as the spokesperson of the Rising, as well as the hero figure of the entire Independence movement.
James Connolly: Connolly started his life in poverty in the Irish community of Cowsgate in Edinburgh. He left school aged 11 and began working to provide for his family, sowing the seeds for his early adult life as a trade unionist. He contributed to forming the ITGWU (and subsequently the ICA) along with James Larkin, and was effectively commander-in-chief of the Rising due to his wealth of experience.
Arthur Griffith: Griffith was the political mastermind behind the Rising and founder of the Sinn Fein political party. He was an astute writer and politician, and was deliberately distanced from the events of the Rising by the other leaders to ensure he would survive and continue with their work in the event of their deaths, which they knew would almost certainly occur.
WB Yeats: At the time of the Rising Yeats was an up and coming poet, who wrote many works on the state of the Irish country and the economic, cultural and social changes that were happening around him. Although not involved in the Rising itself, his work went a long way to shaping public opinion and promoting the nationalist movement in Ireland.
When World War I broke out, the IRB immediately decided to stage a Rising before it ended. It was the perfect opportunity; Ireland’s affairs would be lower down on the British government’s list of priorities, Germany would most likely be willing to lend arms and support, and they would be able to capitalise on the nationalist movement which was rapidly gaining momentum. A Military Committee was formed to plan the Rising; their original idea was to land a German expeditionary force on Ireland’s west coast to secure the Shannon, while a ‘fake’ rebellion was staged in Dublin to distract British forces. Unaware that these plans were afoot, James Connolly became increasingly agitated that nobody was taking advantage of this perfect opportunity and threatened to stage a rebellion of his own with the ICA. Luckily the IRB managed to convince him to join forces with them just in time.
All was going to plan; a shipment of arms was on its way from Germany, set to land in Kerry, and Padraig Pearse had announced a day of ‘maneuvers and processions’ to celebrate Easter. The volunteers instantly knew that this meant a rising, but the distracted authority figures took it at face value. However from that point on, almost everything that could have gone wrong did thanks to a series of miscommunications. The German ship landed safely but the volunteers went to meet it in the wrong location. Messages from the ship were intercepted by the US, who alerted the British authorities, and when the ship attempted another landing, it was scrambled by the navy. On hearing this, the leaders sent a message to cancel any actions planned for Sunday, which resulted in a much smaller turnout the following day. One thing that did work in their favour however was a delay in communications from the other side too; the Lord Lieutenant requested permission to raid the ICA headquarters after getting wind of the planned rising, but a delay in the reply from the Chief Secretary meant the Rising had already begun by the time they received approval.
On Easter Monday (April 24th, 1916) 1,600 volunteers took to the streets of Dublin. Although intended as a national rising, the turnout in other parts of the country was minimal due to delayed communications. They claimed the GPO on O’Connell Street as their headquarters, raised republican flags outside, and Padraig Pearse read the Proclamation of Independence on the steps. The volunteers took over various strategic points of the city, taking the un-organised police force completely by surprise. It took them until the 26th April to ship in reinforcements and launch a successful counter-attack. When launched, it was brutal, completely destroying sections of the city centre and causing multiple civilian casualties. Despite fiercely fighting back and causing plenty of damage themselves, the volunteers officially surrendered on the 6th day of fighting.
At first public opinion was largely against the rebels, with most people appalled at the damage the fighting had caused to Dublin city. There was little protest when the leaders were rounded up and sent to Kilmainham Gaol. However, on May 2nd they were court martialled and sentenced to death; and then public opinion changed rapidly. Most of the prominent leaders were lined up in the yard of Kilmainham and shot by a firing squad (James Connolly was tied to a chair and shot as he had been wounded during the battle, despite doctors telling the authorities that he had mere days to live anyway). The swift and cold-hearted execution was received with intense hostility; people thought the punishment was far too heavy-handed and immediately lent support to the rebellion movement, which was the exact opposite to what the British wanted. The few surviving leaders – Michael Collins, Eamon De Valera, and Arthur Griffith among them – continued to fight in the political sphere after their release from prison, forming the Sinn Fein party. They were elected en masse to the British parliament, but instead formed their own Irish government, Dail Eireann. This eventually led to discussions on a Treaty of Independence, which in turn led to the Irish Civil War. Nonetheless, the end result (after much further turbulence and drama), was an Independent Ireland.