The Easter Rising

The first decade of the 20th century was marked by much labour unrest in the principal cities. In Dublin the workers had been exploited to such an extent that strikes became regular occurrences, with the workers finding a new leader in “Big” Jim Larkin, who had returned from England to Belfast. There he organised the ship-yard men into unions and now returned to his native Dublin where he founded the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. His fiery speeches inspired the workers and it was truly said that he “raised them from their knees, where they had been for far too long.”

In 1913 Larkin and the Dublin workers became involved in the ‘great lock-out’ strike of that year, but he now found a great fellow worker and helper in James Connolly, who had also returned from Scotland and helped him found the ITGWU. Connolly, born in Edinburgh of Monaghan parents, was also a committed socialist and militant who felt that armed revolution was the solution to Irelands ills, and he now organised the Irish Citizen Army, initially to protect workers against police brutality, but later to strike for an Irish Republic. Connolly also became closely associated with the IRB and attended all their meetings, and was one of those who pressed for immediate rebellion. In fact, had the IRB and the Irish Volunteers not gone ahead with their Easter Week insurrection, it was quite on the cards that Connolly would have instigated a rebellion of his own.

WW1 dragged out much longer than anyone had expected, and this actually helped the Irish Volunteers in their preparations for armed insurrection. Unknown to Eoin McNeill and some others of the thirty man Executive, many of them were also members of the IRB and these were proving to be the driving force towards rebellion. One, Roger Casement, born at Ballycastle, Co. Antrim had gained international fame when he brought to world attention the dreadful abuses and cruelty being exercised by colonial powers in Africa and South America, but particularly in the Belgium Congo. Retiring from consular service he became a convinced militant separatist, joined the Irish Volunteers and then went to America to raise funds. He was there at the outbreak of WW1 and met John Devoy who arranged for him to meet the German ambassador. He then went to Berlin and got a promise of armed support for the Rising which was now planned for 1916. Patrick Pearse, born in Dublin on November 10th 1879, joined the Gaelic League and later became editor of its weekly publication “An Claidheamh Solais” a post he held from 1903 to 1909. He developed into a brilliant writer and published several manuscripts and poems in both Irish and English. He founded St Endas College for boys in 1908 where Irish was the everyday spoken language of the pupils. In 1910 this school moved to Rathfarnham.

Pearse was also one of those who spoke at the inaugural meeting of the Irish Volunteers in the Rotunda on November 25th 1913 and was an active member of the IRB. He presided over a meeting of the various Commandants on March 13th 1915, at which September of that year was discussed as a date for the rising, and he also gave an inspiring oration at the graveside during the burial of the old Fenian, O’Donovan Rossa, in August 1915. He was rapidly emerging as the main inspiration and leader of the movement towards rebellion.

Easter Sunday 23rd April 1916 was finally fixed as the date for the Rising, but everything did not run smoothly. Two days previously, on Good Friday, the arms obtained by Casement arrived off the Kerry coast in a ship called the ‘Aud’. Casement was landed from a German submarine but was arrested shortly afterwards, and the ‘Aud’ was intercepted. Rather than let the arms fall to the English the ship was scuttled and its cargo lost. McNeill received the news with disappointment and also anger as he had been kept in the dark regarding the actual date of the Rising. The Volunteers all over the country received news to carry out military manoeuvres and parades on the Sunday, but when McNeill learned that this was actually intended to be the planned rising, he immediately inserted an advertisement in the ‘Sunday Independent’ of Easter Sunday cancelling all moblization activities for that day.

This was a shattering blow to the IRB and caused much confusion among the Volunteers. The leaders immediately went into conclave in Liberty Hall on Sunday morning and decided to go ahead with the uprising on the following day, Easter Monday. At noon on the Monday, a company of a few hundred Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army, led by James Connolly, Patrick Pearse, Joseph Plunkett, Sean MacDiarmada and the veteran Fenian from Dungannon, Tom Clarke, marched from Liberty Hall to O’Connell Street and occupied the General Post Office right in the heart of the city.

Barricades were set up, a tricolour was raised above the building and Patrick Pearse, now commander-in-chief of the insurgent forces and first President of the Irish Republic, read the “Proclamation of the Irish Republic’ on the street at the front of the building. It was signed by the seven leaders , PH Pearse, James Connolly, Thomas Clarke, Thomas McDonagh, Sean MacDiarmada, Eamonn Ceannt and Joseph M Plunkett.

Several other buildings of strategical importance were also occupied, forming a circle to defend the inner city against expected attack. The British were taken completely by surprise, especially following the publication of McNeills countermanding order on the Sunday. However, their forces were soon mobilised and all out attacks on the buildings held by the insurgents ensued. A week of bitter fighting followed and the GPO and city centre were bombarded by British artillery and from the gun boat “Helga” moored in the Liffey. British reinforcements were landed at Dun Laoghaire on the Wednesday, but these received a severe hammering as they approached Mount Street Bridge on their way to the city centre. In a bitter nine hour battle the British suffered severe casualties, some 234 officers and men of the Sherwood Foresters being killed or injured while there were only four deaths among the defending Volunteers.

Meanwhile, the GPO was receiving a dreadful bombardment and, with fires breaking out everywhere, it was obvious that it would soon have to be evacuated. James Connolly was severely injured but continued issuing orders to his men from a stretcher. All O’Connell Street was now ablaze and the cordon of British forces was gradually tightening on the insurgent positions, with the result that on the Saturday, realising that further resistance was impossible, Pearse ordered his men to surrender. They had fought a gallant fight against vastly overwhelming odds. The countermanding order had meant that many of the Volunteers had failed to turn up, and it was estimated that only a fifth of the numbers available actually took part in the Rising.

Following the Rising the majority of the insurgents were rounded up and lodged in several jails, but principally in Kilmainham. Courtmartials were set up and many were sentenced to death and several hundreds to imprisonment. Then began the executions which turned out to be a prolonged affair and which suddenly transformed the general population, who had been against the rebellion, into supporters of those who had risen out in defence of an ideal.

Fifteen prisoners were executed in Kilmainham jail over the following weeks: PH Pearse, Thomas McDonagh and Thomas Clarke on Wednesday 3rd May; Joseph Plunkett, Edward Daly, Michael O’Hanrahan and Willie Pearse on Thursday 4th May; John McBride on Friday 5th May; Con Colbert, Eamonn Ceannt, Michael Mallin and Sean Heuston on Monday 8th May; Thomas Kent in Cork on Tuesday 9th May; James Connolly and Sean MacDiarmada on Friday 12th May and finally a sixteenth, Roger Casement on 3rd August. The badly injured James Connolly had to be propped up in a chair to face the firing squad; Joseph Plunkett was married to his sweetheart Grace Gifford on the eve of his execution; and Roger Casement was executed after a prolonged trial.

The 1916 Rising had been mainly a Dublin affair, but minor actions also took place in counties Dublin, Louth, Meath, Galway, Wexford, Clare, Kerry and Cork. The sympathy of the nation was now gradually transforming into support for the uprising, leading to a noticeable sympathetic swing towards Sinn Fein. Pearse’s oft-stated belief that the freedom of Ireland could only be won through a sacrificial insurrection was beginning to prove dramatically prophetic.

Hundreds of prisoners were sent to prisons in Britain but following organised strikes by the prisoners in various camps and the many protests from Ireland, the majority were released in June 1917. They returned home to a hero’s welcome. Several bye-elections had also been held and Sinn Fein candidates imprisoned in England were nominated as candidates - they were all successful.

When the British tried to impose conscription on Ireland in 1918 it was vehemently opposed, particularly by the bishops, and when the decision was rescinded, support for Sinn Fein increased even further. When the World War ended in November a General Election was called for December and Sinn Fein put forward candidates in every constituency in the country. Their success was absolutely phenomenal, as they won practically every seat which had previously been held by Redmond and the old Irish Party. A new Ireland had dawned.