On this day 24/4/1916: The Easter Rising

Categories: Analysis Features

As part of the 'On This Day' series, Finn Meehan writes a controversial article on what he sees as the strategic folly of the 1916 Easter Rising.

In the early hours of Easter Monday, 1916, a thousand armed members of the Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army (ICA), as well as two hundred members of the Cumann na mBan women’s organisation, occupied strategic locations around central Dublin. Establishing their headquarters in the General Post Office, they declared an “Irish Republic”, encompassing all thirty-two counties of Ireland, and a provisional government under the charismatic young Volunteer leader Pádraig Pearse. The Union Flag over the GPO was replaced with the green banner and an Irish tricolour, and a “Proclamation to the People of Ireland” was issued asserting Ireland’s right to independent sovereignty, a commitment to religious and civil liberty and support for universal suffrage.

The uprising came against a backdrop of increasing war-weariness. As the First World War entered its twenty-second month and with the Irish death-toll alone exceeding ten thousand, the naïve enthusiasm of 1914 was irrevocably lost. The combined weight of rationing, curfews and censorship took its toll on public enthusiasm, and while parliamentary objections ensured that the Military Service Bill passed earlier that year excepted Ireland from military conscription, the increasingly desperate situation of the Allied position in Europe meant that the issue was far from settled. The Irish public, who had initially been largely supportive of the British war-effort, either through genuine patriotic sentiment or a pragmatic desire to “prove” themselves as reliable candidates for Dominion status within the Empire, was becomingly deeply ambivalent to the war.

Radical republicans, particularly those in the clandestine Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), hoped that this discontent could be translated into a general insurrection, provided that a spark of sufficient heat could be applied to the tinder. With the British army deeply embroiled in the war it was hoped that they would not be able to muster the forces needed to put down the revolt if it gained widespread support. Mobilising their supporters among the Irish Volunteers, and enlisting sympathisers in Cumann na mBan and among the trade unionists of the ICA, they organised an uprising for Easter Sunday, later postponed to the following day, with ICA leader and former British soldier James Connolly as overall military commander. Their optimism proved to be deeply misplaced, however, and the reactions of Dublin civilians ranged from bafflement to outright hostility; to many Dubliners the rebels appeared no more a force of liberation than if a German battalion had marched down Sackville Street in their place. The rebels were further hampered by the contradictory orders emanating from the Dublin section and from the national leadership under Eoin MacNeill; few provincial units responded in any strength, and although significant contingents gathered in Cork and Belfast, they soon dissolved without seeing combat.

Isolated nationally, and having failed to secure the railway stations or the ports, the rebels found themselves in a precarious situation. Although initial British reactions were panicked and defensive, the Dublin Metropolitan Police withdrew to the outskirts and the Army garrison was unwilling to confront the rebels, they were soon able to draw reinforcements from across Central Ireland and Western England, and by the end of the week more than sixteen thousand British troops had been deployed in and around Dublin. With access to artillery and machine guns to which the rebels had no effective response, the Army were able to wear down their opponents without direct engagement. Although the majority of rebel positions remained secure prospects for the rebellion were grim. Indiscriminate bombardment produced a swiftly-mounting civilian death toll. On Saturday the 26th of April, Pearse offered an unconditional surrender and ordered all other rebel positions to stand down.

Considered militarily and tactically, the Easter Rising was an abject failure. The rebellion was entirely crushed, with sixty-four rebels killed in the fighting and a further sixteen executed in the aftermath, including Pearse and Connolly. The only senior rebels to survive were Éamon de Valera, who possessed US citizenship, and Constance Markievicz, spared by the dubious chivalry of the military court; witnesses report a sardonic retort of “I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me”. However, the response of the military authorities during and after the rising helped galvanise a growing resistance to the presence of the British state in Ireland. The civilian death toll reached two-hundred and fifty four with more than two thousand wounded. The majority of the causalities were incurred during the Rising, mainly as a result of artillery bombardment, but there were also significant extra-legal reprisals in the days following the surrender of rebel forces. The brutality of the anti-republican repression, combined with the growing burden of war, created a swell of support for the radical republicans, consolidated after the Rising by Sinn Féin and the Irish Republican Army, which provided the popular basis for the 1919-1921 War of Independence.
However, it is precisely the popularity of this later conflict which stands in such stark contrast to the Easter Rising, whose participants failed to gain the full support of their own organisations, let alone a broad and coherent social base.

Particularly noteworthy, considering the involvement of a militant trade unionist faction around Connolly and the ICA, was the isolation of the Rising from the trade union movement, the cooperation of which in disrupting British military infrastructure was vital to republican success during the War of Independence. The failure of the Rising, at best a glorious tragedy and at worst a needless farce, demonstrates the profound limitations of adventurist forms of revolt, which substitute the presumed effectiveness of their own mythological resonance for concrete organisation and genuine popular involvement.

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