1916: The Rising and its impact
For many Irish people the Easter Rising was a bolt from the blue but its roots can be traced back over the previous 20 years of Irish history, writes Dr Éamon Phoenix
WHILE Dubliners enjoyed the Spring sunshine on Easter Sunday 1916 and the British military repaired to the Fairyhouse races, one man felt uneasy. In his home in central Dublin, John Dillon, deputy leader of the Home Rule Party, wrote: "Dublin is full of most extraordinary rumours and I have no doubt that the Clan men [ie the Irish Republican Brotherhood] are planning some devilish business."
To most Irish people the Easter Rising came as a ‘bolt from the blue’. Many saw it as ‘a wicked German plot’. Yet its complex strands can be traced back over the previous 20 years of Irish history.
Perhaps the most important single factor in the making of ‘1916’ was the steady growth of a new, advanced form of nationalism in the years after Parnell’s death in 1891. In many ways a reaction to ‘the death of Ireland’s hopes’, this ‘Irish-Ireland’ movement revealed itself in a rash of small dynamic groups ranging from cultural societies through the Gaelic League and the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) to Sinn Fein and the ‘Phoenix flame’ of the secret Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). Together, they were to act as a ferment in the mind of a generation.
Of all these disparate strands, by far the most influential was the Gaelic League, founded in 1893 by the Protestant nationalist, Douglas Hyde and Eoin MacNeill, a historian from the Antrim Glens. Its dream was of a Gaelic-speaking independent Ireland, and it soon became – in the words of the 1916 Proclamation signatory Patrick Pearse – a ‘school for separatists’, creating the atmosphere for the Easter Rising.
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Two other groups shaped by the Gaelic League’s philosophy were Arthur Griffith’s tiny but vital Sinn Fein movement and the revolutionary IRB. Sinn Fein (‘We Ourselves’), formed in 1905, argued that an independent Ireland could unite Orange and Green by retaining the Crown as a ‘personal link’ between Britain and Ireland.
Such a Hungarian-style ‘dual monarchy’ could only be achieved by a policy of passive resistance, Griffith argued in his influential press.
Official nationalism mocked Griffith’s ‘green Hungarian band’ but it inspired Republican ‘Dungannon Clubs’ in 1904, founded by two IRB men, Denis McCullough, a Falls Road Catholic, and Bulmer Hobson, a Holywood Quaker. Indeed, much of the background planning for 1916 took place in Belfast after 1905. It was there that Hobson and McCullough revitalised the IRB, then almost moribund, and recommitted it to Wolfe Tone’s slogan, ‘England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity’.
The Belfast ‘young Turks’ wer soon joined by Sean MacDermott from Co Leitrim who worked as a Belfast tram-driver, and the old Tyrone Fenian, Tom Clarke.
Yet these revolutionary stirrings seemed insignificant at a time when the Home Rule Party not only dominated Nationalism but , thanks to its alliance with the British Liberal Government , seemed set to achieve all-Ireland Home Rule. But the two years before the First World War were to see the emergence of determined Ulster Unionist resistance to Home Rule in the shape of Sir Edward Carson and an armed Ulster Volunteer Force.
Ironically, ‘Carson’s Army’ was to ‘reignite the Fenian flame’, presenting the IRB with a heaven-sent opportunity. When MacNeill welcomed Carson’s defiance of British authority in a striking article, ‘The North Began’ in 1913, the IRB urged him to form an Irish Volunteer Force on UVF lines. As the IVF swelled to 180,000 members, the countdown to the Rising had begun.
By 1914, Redmond’s achievement of ‘Home Rule on the statute book’ had been undermined by the threat of partition. Finally, in September 1914 the Irish Volunteers split over Redmond’s support for recruitment. In protest, a small but active section under MacNeill broke away and passed into the hands of the IRB which was to use it as the strike-force for the Rising it was planning to coincide with the war.
Sir Roger Casement, a former British diplomat, was despatched to Germany to seek arms and men; a Military Council was established which, by January 1916, had been expanded to include the Belfast-based Socialist, James Connolly. The plot remained ‘the conspiracy of a minority’ centred on Clarke, Mac Dermott and Pearse.
The insurgent leaders could now rely on the support of the IRB, the breakaway Volunteers (about 11,000 men) and Connolly’s 200-strong Irish Citizen Army.
The Rising was originally intended as a successful national revolt involving all Ireland. It was only when the best-laid plans began to go wrong over the Easter weekend, with the capture of Casement and MacNeill’s last-minute attempt to prevent a Rising, that the element of ‘blood sacrifice’ became paramount.
The revolutionary inner circle fell back on the ‘Dublin Plan’ for a symbolic stand in the capital and, on Easter Monday, around 1,000 insurgents seized defensive positions. With the struggle effectively narrowed to Dublin, Pearse and his comrades realised that they had no prospect of military success. But they shrewdly calculated that their armed uprising would provoke the British into ‘harsh reprisals’ and give their cause its elixir of life.
The insurgents judged accurately. The Rising at first engendered strong feelings of hostility among Irish nationalists, many of whose relatives were fighting on the Western Front. But its aftermath and, in particular, the execution of 15 of the leaders, followed by Casement, rapidly transformed public opinion. As one observer wrote: "A few unknown men, shot in a barrack yard, had embittered a whole nation."
Nothing would ever be the same again.
- Dr Éamon Phoenix is a political historian, an Irish News columnist and a member of the Taoiseach’s Expert Advisory Group on Centenaries.