The impact of the 1916 Rising on the Irish political landscape
is best summed by the poet W. B. Yeats in the words; "all
changed, changed utterly, a terrible beauty was born".
Prior to the events of Easter 1916 the organisers were not
taken seriously by the British authorities, who were pre-occupied
by the Great War, or by the majority of the Irish people.
For two years the Home Rule Act was on ice, set to come
into effect when the First World War ended. For the first
time in centuries Ireland was about to have some form of
self-determination. Many Irishmen joined the British Army
and when in 1915 some were awarded the Victoria Cross it
was a cause for national celebration.
There were those who regarded Englands difficulty
as Irelands opportunity and at a time when the extreme
tradition of Irish patriotism was almost a distant memory
there were those who regarded Home Rule as a sell-out. Men
like Tom Clarke, a Dublin tobacconist who spent fifteen
years in jail for an attempted bombing campaign in Britain,
were members of the Irish Volunteers who refused to support
the British war effort.
For poet and schoolmaster Padraig Pearse, a blood sacrifice
was an obsession. Trade Union organiser and socialist James
Connolly was set on armed action and put the Irish
Citizen Army, originally formed to protect workers
from police during the labour struggles, at the disposal
of the rebels.
The would be insurgents used the funeral of the old republican
Jeremiah ODonovan Rossa in 1915 as a litmus test of
their organisational abilities and at the graveside Pearse
delivered the oration which contained the rallying cry:
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.
Connolly was impatient and doubted the Irish Republican
Brotherhoods resolve. However, a plan was hatched
to take strategic sites in Dublin during Easter 1916. The
General Post Office in OConnell was to be the headquarters
of the rebellion.
Plans to mobilise other parts of the country suffered a
severe setback when a German ship, the Aud was intercepted
by the British and Sir Roger Casement, a former British
consular figure and ardent nationalist who organised the
meagre German support was arrested.
When the official leader of the Irish Volunteers, Eoin MacNeill,
who was opposed to armed struggle except in self-defence,
was told that manoeuvres planned for Easter Sunday were
a cover for insurrection he was appalled and placed an ad
in the Sunday Independent cancelling them.
Connolly and Pearse seized the initiative and let it be
known that the rising be delayed by 24 hours until Easter
Monday, April 24, 1916. Understandably, the number of participants
was greatly diminished with less than a thousand involved
initially thought the number almost doubled in the succeeding
The main group of rebels march from Liberty Hall, the headquarters
of the Irish Transport & General Workers Union to the
GPO (General Post Office), where Pearse read aloud the Proclamation
which began: In the name of God and of the dead generations
from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood
Ireland through us summons her children to her flag and
strikes for her freedom
Rebels taking a strategic position in St. Stephens
Green were jeered by hostile locals. Others availed of the
confusion to indulge in looting Clerys department store
close to the GPO. To some extent the authorities had been
caught napping not expecting a rebellion following the capture
of the Aud , the arrest of Casement and McNeills advertisement
in the Sunday Independent.
Reinforcements were brought in with those coming from England
arriving early on Wednesday morning being showered with
chocolate and fruit by grateful locals. A cordon was methodically
drawn around the rebels and by Friday the GPO was on fire
and with the end in sight was evacuated. The slaughter of
civilians persuaded Pearse to surrender the following day.
Reluctantly, other garrisons followed suit.
Most of the activity was confined to Dublin though Thomas
Ashe led a successful ambush on the Royal Irish Constabulary
at Ashbourne Co. Meath on April 27.
Prisoners being marched to Richmond Barracks were jeered
at by locals. The rank and file, some of whom were quite
young were treated with considerable leniency. Other were
subject to internment in Britain, but the ultimate sanction
awaited the ringleaders. Meanwhile 300 civilians, 60 rebels
and 130 British troops were dead and the city centre in
Thirty-seven were sentenced to death, twenty-three had their
sentence commuted to life in prison. 14 men were executed,
including the Pearse brothers Padraig and Willie, Tom Clarke
and finally on May 12 James Connolly was shot while strapped
to a chair because he could not stand on a wounded ankle.
The executions has a profound effect on public opinion and
speaking to his wife on the eve of his execution Tom Clarke
predicted that freedom was coming but between this
moment and freedom, Ireland will go through hell.
Among those interred at the prison camp at Frongoch, in
north Wales was Michael Collins. Born in West Cork in 1890,
he emigrated to London at the age of sixteen, but returned
to participate in the rising. During his internment he established
an Irish Republican Brotherhood network and organised classes
on guerrilla warfare. Furthermore, he was able to cultivate
contacts from all parts of the country.
As a good will gesture many of those interred were released
at Christmas 1916. The released volunteers now had to work
on public opinion by capitalising on public sympathy for
the executed leaders. The Irish Parliamentary party under
the leadership of John Dillon and John Redmond still held
sway but were challenged in a series of by-elections in
In February the father of Joseph Plunkett, one of those
executed, scored a landslide victory over a Home Rule opponent
in the Roscommon by-election. Three months later a prisoner
still in jail in Britain won a by-election in Longford.
A factor in both victories was the efficiency of Collins
In another gesture of goodwill the British government released
all the remaining prisoners in June 1917 including those
who had death sentences commuted to life imprisonment. One
of them, Eamon de Valera, stood in the East Clare by-election
and with Collins machine at his disposal won easily.
The new movement was officially banded together under de
Valeras leadership and called Sinn Fein (Ourselves),
a name recalling the policy of self-determination first
put forward by Arthur Griffith in 1905.
The aim of this new party was to set up an Irish Parliament
in Dublin and ignore Westminster, but how this was going
to be achieved was unclear. Some wanted to appeal to the
International Peace Conference which would sit at the end
of World War I. But Michael Collins had other ideas.
The death of Thomas Ashe in September 1917 helped generate
further support for this new movement . Ashe, who participated
in the Easter Rising, was arrested on a charge of sedition
and died during forced feeding while on hunger strike. Collins
used his funeral, during which 30, 000 lined the streets
of Dublin, as a show of strength for the Volunteers.
The English Daily Express noted the funeral had made 100,000
Sinn Feiners out of 100,000 constitutional nationalists.
Still the imprecise nature of the new partys policies
persuaded many to remain loyal to Redmond and after his
death in March 1918 his son William, a captain in the British
Army easily defeated the Sinn Fein candidate in the Waterford
With the war going badly the British proposed extending
conscription (which had been in the rest of the UK since
1916) to Ireland. With tens of thousands of men from all
parts of Ireland already fighting side-by-side as volunteers,
Sinn Fein exploited the widespread opposition to the move
and the proposal was dropped.
A new military viceroy, General French acting on mistaken
information that Sinn Fein was implicated in a pro-German
plot had most of the leaders arrested. Collins tipped by
his network of friendly police evaded capture.
A General Election took place shortly after the Armistice
in November 1918. The national feeling had been transformed
since the previous election eight years earlier and the
election register had changed too with women over thirty
included for the first time.
Sinn Fein stormed to victory, boosted by key by-election
victories and defections from the Irish Parliamentary Party,
who were unable to field candidates in a number of seats.
Other factors favoured Sinn Fein including the failure of
Irish soldiers serving the British Army, most of whom were
likely to support the Irish Parliamentary Party, to receive
their postal votes.
The rigging of the vote by Sinn Fein supporters was crucial
to their success. The electoral register was studied carefully
for the names of people who were dead,ill or away resulting
in some people voting several times for Sinn Fein candidates.
Sinn Fein won three quarters of the seats and the Parliamentary
Party was annihilated. Many of the successful candidates
were still in jail after the German plot arrests
earlier in the year. But in January 1919 the rest of the
elected Sinn Fein members met in the Mansion House, Dublin
and declared a sovereign Republic and called their parliament
After escaping from Limerick jail, Eamon de Valera was elected
President of Dáil Eireann and headed to the US hoping
to secure recognition for the fledgling state. He was well
received by Irish Americans and raised much needed funds
for the republican cause but failed the get the hoped for
recognition from the US Government.
On the same day as Dáil Eireann first met, January
21, 1919, two members of the RIC (Royal Irish Constabulary)
escorting a load of gelignite to a quarry in County Tipperary
were gunned down by masked Volunteers Dan Breen and Sean
Treacy who were acting on their own initiative.
It was the first act in a guerrilla campaign that lasted
over two years and became known as the War of Independence.
A few weeks later Collins speaking at a meeting of the Sinn
Fein executive expressed the view that fighting was the
only course of action open to the new state. He set about
organising a terror campaign against the forces of the crown
with single-mindedness and efficiency. While co-ordinating
military action Collins was also Minister of Finance and
organised a vast loan for the Irish Republic administered
through secret bank accounts which the British authorities
could not trace.
The campaign against members of the RIC considered dangerous
on the basis of intelligence information gathered through
Collins efficient network continued into 1920. The
stakes were upped when on March 15 1920 The Lord Mayor of
Cork an ardent nationalist was gunned down by RIC men in
Reinforcements were now being recruited in England and because
of the shortage of traditional bottle green uniforms new
members of a special British task force were given khaki
trousers or tunics where required and acquired the nickname
Black and Tans. A short time later a highly paid Auxiliary
force was pressed into RIC service. These were an aggressive
and formidable opposition to the IRA (Irish Republican Army,
as the Volunteers were now called).
The war continued throughout 1920. Collins located the Dublin
hideouts of British intelligence officers and on November
21 had fourteen of them shot. In an act of reprisal 12 people
were shot during a Gaelic football match between Dublin
and Tipperary at Croke Park. One of the dead was Michael
Hogan, whose memory is immortalised in the Hogan Stand at
the ground. Later that night two IRA men and a Sinn Fein
supporter were murdered in Dublin Castle. The day became
known as Bloody Sunday.
Seven days later Tom Barrys West Cork brigade wiped
out an 18-man Auxiliary patrol at Kilmichael Co. Cork. The
Auxiliaries suffered further casualties in Cork city on
December 11 and the same day the Black and Tans set fire
parts of that city. In the same month the Government of
Ireland Act led to the partition of Ireland into the political
division which remain in force.
There was widespread international revulsion at the British
tactics but war continued into 1921. In May the IRA launched
an ambitious attack on the Custom House in Dublin, the centre
of British administration in Ireland. The Dublin Brigade
surrounded the building, ordered the civil servants out
and set it on fire. They were then surrounded by forces
of the crown and their most audacious operation ended in
Collins was fighting a losing battle in Dublin, but elsewhere
morale was good. Stalemate prevailed and on June 11 a truce
was agreed between the IRA and the British. The quest for
a political solution was not going to be easy. De Valera
wanted a sovereign Irish Republic but it was Michael Collins
who headed the Irish delegation that went to London to hammer
out a treaty.
After six months of tough negotiations the Anglo-Irish treaty
was signed on December 6 1921, which provided for some level
of self-determination with its own army and control of internal
affairs, but still subject to the king. It was not the Irish
Republic De Valera wanted. Swearing an oath of allegiance
to the King of England was anathema to many Irish Republicans.
Soon after signing the treaty Collins was reported as saying
prophetically; I have signed my death warrant.
A bloody chapter in Irish history closed, but another one
that resulted in greater hurt and division was about to