Easter Rising is one of the most momentous moments in Irish history, setting the stage for the Anglo-Irish War in the 1920s, and continues to shape Irish society. But what is it and why did it happen? Easter Rising was an Irish protest concentrated mostly in Dublin with a few firefights in the countryside and was crushed by the British in about a week. Many consider the Rising itself to be a failure, but its political and social aftershocks made it a success.
To understand why the Rising happened, one most first familiarize themselves with Irish’s tortuous history. This post will briefly review some of the major events in Irish history, like Daniel O’Connell and the Young Irelanders, Charles Parnell and Home Rule, and John Redmond. It will then discuss the creation of the Irish Volunteers and the merging with the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) as well as provide brief biographers on the major players of Easter Rising. It will be followed by a post that will describe the rising itself and a final post that will discuss its aftermath and legacy.
Daniel O’Connell and the Young Irelanders
At the time of WWI, Ireland was a nation struggling for an identity. Despite England’s best attempts, Ireland refused to be completely integrated into the United Kingdom with the Catholic population keeping the legends of the 1798 Uprising and Robert Emmet’s uprising in 1803 vividly alive and the Protestant Irish population preserving the horrors of the 1798 Uprising and swearing to defend their rights until their last breath. It didn’t help that England never seemed to have a stable plan on how to integrate Ireland. In my opinion, they wavered from being absolutely disgusted with carrying the ‘burden’ that was Ireland to being simply bewildered why the island was still causing problems.
A modicum of progress was achieved in the 1820s/1830s when one of Ireland’s greatest statesmen, Daniel O’Connell campaigned for Catholic Emancipation i.e. the right for Catholics to sit in Parliament. This was granted in 1829. He tried to repeal the Act of Union and asked that Ireland be allowed to govern itself independently while acknowledging the Queen as the Queen of Ireland as well as of England. However,
O’Connell’s failing health and his refusal to do anything that would lead to bloodshed weakened his support and the repeal fell apart after he died. His dedication to peaceful means and using the British system also won him many enemies and some of his opponents would create the Young Ireland Movement, who would lead the Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848.
Interestingly, one of the Young Irelanders was Thomas Meagher, who would migrate to America, volunteer for the Union Army when the Civil War broke out, and recruited for the Army of the Potomac’s Irish Brigade.
After the rebel failed, one of the Young Ireland members, James Stephens survived the aftermath and created the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), a secret organization that would be responsible for Easter Rising and fill the ranks of the IRA.
Charles Parnell and Home Rule
Although O’Connell failed to repeal the Union, he paved the way for greater independence in Ireland. He proved that the British could be engaged through their own parliamentary government and that more could be achieved through negotiations than through violence.
Charles Parnell took these lessons to heart and used his own position within England’s parliament to push for Home Rule. Parnell was a politically astute Irishmen, associating with well-known nationalist organizations such as the IRB, while also using parliamentary procedures such as obstructionism to draw England’s attention to Irish issues. Parnell was able capitalize on Irish resentment over land ownership and landlords to increase his party’s power within parliament leading to his arrest.
While in prison he made a deal with Gladstone’s government, promising to quell violent agitation if Gladstone allowed rents to appeal for fair rent before a court. This, combined with the backlash following the Phoenix Park killings broke the IRB’s power until the early 1900s. Parnell used his power to reintroduce Home Rule which combined a request for independent rule with agrarian reform. He also won the support of the Catholic Church. He reshaped his party, renaming it the Irish Parliamentary Party, and introduced a new sense of professionalism into its members. Other British parties would base their organization on Parnell’s tightly run party. He also helped passed a number of Land Acts that abolished the large Anglo-Irish tenant owned estates.
Just when Parnell was at his highest point of power and Home Rule seemed destined to become reality, a personal scandal ruined his political career. It turns out that Parnell was involved in an affair with a currently married woman. The Catholic Church who had grown to distrust Parnell, used this to break his political power and even Gladstone turned his back on him. Parnell was defiant, splitting his party into the Parnellites and anti-Parnellites. Parnell died shortly after, taking Home Rule with him.
After adjusting to the social change demanded by Daniel O’Connell in the 1820s/1830s and the trauma of Parnell’s scandalous fall from grace, Ireland’s future seemed bright. The mystical and ever elusive Home Rule seemed to be within the grasp of John Redmond, Parnell’s political and spiritual successor. This bill promised a bicameral Irish Parliament to be set up in Dublin, the abolition of Dublin Castle (the center and reviled symbol of hated British colonialism and authority within Ireland), and a distinctive Irish representation in the Parliament of the U.K. This bill was passed in the House of Commons three times and was defeated in the House of Lords three times and was postponed indefinitely when WWI broke out.
While Home Rule’s fate was up in the air, Ireland itself was undergoing a social transformation. R. F. Foster’s book Vivid Faces does a fantastic job capturing the social experiences of the members of Irish Volunteers and IRA that I cannot recapture in this short post. However, it is sufficient to say that the members that crowded the language revival leagues and sports leagues wanted more than Home Rule. They wanted a revitalized and progressive Gaelic culture and identity.
The Irish in, what is now, Northern Ireland were alarmed by the very idea of Home Rule and this renewed interest in Gaelic culture. They responded by creating the militaristic organization called the Ulster Volunteers in 1912. Their goal was to pressure the British government to nix Home Rule and to defend themselves from the Catholic onslaught should Home Rule be passed. The Irish nationalists in the rest of the Ireland responded by creating their own military organization: the Irish Volunteers in 1913. It was created by Eoin MacNeil and included the Gaelic League, Sinn Fein, and members of the Irish Republic Brotherhood. The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) was a secret organization dedicated to Irish independence. It was Bulmer Hobson (who co-founded the Fianna Eireann with Constance Markievicz) who combined the two organizations.
Redmond knew about the frustration of the Irish people and he promised the English that he would rally the Irish about the British cause and enlist in its armies, if England promised to pass Home Rule. During a speech, Redmond-eager to prove that he was a man of his word-passionately encouraged Irish to enlist in the army and fight in France. This was the final straw for many nationalists and Redmond lost what little power he had over events. Redmond would try to regain control by co-opting the Irish Volunteers with assistance from Bulmer Hobson, but this only angered the nationalists. Tom Clarke, who was great friends with Hobson, considered it an act of treason and never spoke to his friend again.
The Irish Volunteers
The Irish Volunteers were never completely united and the battle for Home Rule drove a split within the organization between those who trusted Redmond and those who decided that Home Rule wasn’t enough anymore and that a bloody uprising was needed. Of the men who wanted to wait, Eoin MacNeill and Bulmer Hobson are the most famous. They believed that it was better to wait for British provocation before leading the people to the slaughter. They were also doubtful of their chances of success and did not believe in the glorious sacrifices that Patrick Pearse praised in his speeches and writing.
The more militant group kept the name Irish Volunteers, even though many of them were also IRB members, and consisted of men such as Patrick Pearse, Tom Clarke, Sean MacDermott, Joseph Plunkett, and Eamonn Ceannt. They believed that England’s difficulties meant Irish opportunity and they wanted to enlist German help in pulling off an uprising. These men their kept their plans to themselves. These men were idealistic and, perhaps a bit naïve, but they were dedicated to their cause and to their country.
This committee knew they would not be able to win without arms and support, so they sent Roger Casement and Plunkett to Germany to present their plans for a German invasion that would coincide with an Irish rising. The Germans rejected this plan (maybe remembering what happened in 1798, when the French made a similar landing, weeks after a massive Irish uprising), but promised to send arms. Plunkett returned to Ireland while Casement remained in Germany to recruit Irish prisoners of war to the Volunteer’s cause.
The situation in Ireland, specifically Dublin, became even more complicated when James Connelly, head of the Irish Citizen Army-a group of socialist trade unionists-threatened to start his own uprising. A meeting between Connelly and Pearse occurred and Connelly joined the military committee. Thomas MacDonagh joined shortly after, becoming the seventh and last member of the committee.
The Irish Volunteers were often seen drilling and practicing for some vague rebellion, so it wasn’t suspicious to the authorities or to MacNeil and Hobson so see units marching around. When Pearse issued orders for parade practice on Easter Sunday, MacNeil and Hobson took it at face value while those in the know, knew what it really meant. This surreal arrangement would not last for long and the committee’s secrecy nearly destroyed the very rising it was trying to inspire.
Easter Rising Leaders
Not only were the members of the committee the men most responsible for the rising, they were also the signatories to the Irish Republic Proclamation. This important document was the foundation for the IRA’s fight for freedom and was the death warrant for all who signed it. Below are short biographies of the seven members.
Patrick Pearse (10 November 1879-3 May 1916) was a school teacher and poet. He was a firm believer in reviving the Gaelic language and founded St. Enda’s College as a bilingual institution, focusing on Irish tradition and culture. Pearse is the man who represents the Rising best as he truly believed that the blood of martyrs would liberate Ireland. He was the spiritual leader of the rising and one of its most powerful martyrs.
Tom Clarke (11 March 1858-3 May 1916) was an old hat at rebellions. He was a firm believer in violent uprisings and spent fifteen years in an English prison before joining the committee. He had joined the IRB in 1878 and had been arrested for attempting to blow up London Bridge as part of the Fenian dynamite campaign in 1883. He was only released because of public pressure in Ireland and an endorsement from John Redmond, himself. Following his feud with Hobson over Redmond’s acceptance into the Irish Volunteers, Clarke became firm friends with McDermott. Together they ran the IRB and helped plan Easter Rising.
Sean MacDermott (Mac Diarmada) (27 January 1883-12 May 1916) was born in Corranmore, where he was surrounded by Irish history and reminders of British oppression. By the time he moved to Dublin in 1908, he was already a member of the IRB, Sinn Fein, the Gaelic League, and the Ancient Order of Hibernians. He was also manager of the newspaper Irish Freedom which he founded with Hobson and Denis McCullough. He became close to Clarke and helped run the IRB. He was arrested briefly in 1914 for a speech against joining the British army but was released in 1915. Like Pearse, MacDermott believed in the power of a bloody sacrifice and, besides Clarke, was the man most responsible for planning the rising.
Thomas MacDonagh (1 February 1878-3 May 1916) was assistant headmaster at St. Enda’s School and lecturer at University College Dublin. He was also a playwright and poet. He met Pearse and MacNeill through the Gaelic League and joined the IRB in 1915. He married Muriel Gifford whose sister, Grace, would marry Joseph Plunkett. He was also responsible for planning the funeral of Irish Fenian leader Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa where Pearse would give one of his greatest speeches.
Joseph Plunkett (21 November 1887-4 May 1916) came from a wealthy Dublin family. He contracted tuberculosis when he was young and spent considerable time in the Mediterranean and North Africa. When he returned, he joined the Gaelic League where he befriended MacDonagh. He joined the IRB in 1915 and was sent to German with Casement to negotiate for arms and military support.
Eamonn Ceannt (21 September 1881-8 May 1916) was a very religious and committed member of the Irish Volunteers. Like most Volunteers, he joined the Gaelic League when he moved to Dublin and became involved in nationalistic affairs after meeting Pearse and MacNeill. In 1907 he joined Sinn Fein and in 1915 he became a member of the IRB.
James Connolly (5 June 1868-12 May 1916) was born in the Irish slums of Edinburgh and joined the British Army when he was fourteen. While serving in the army, he was involved in the Land Wars, sparking an interest in land issues and a deep hatred of the British. He soon after deserted and became involved in the socialist movement in Scotland. He moved the Dublin when he heard that the Dublin Socialist Club was looking for a secretary and quickly transformed it into the Irish Socialist Republican Party. He, along with Arthur Griffith, protested the Boer War and he wrote a book about labor in Irish history that was very critical of Daniel O’Connell. In 1913, he co-founded the Irish Citizen Army whose aim was to defend workers and strikers from the police. Connolly was initially disgusted with the Irish Volunteers, believing that they were too bourgeoise and didn’t have the guts to rebel against the British. It was only after meeting with Pearse and Clarke did he change his mind and support the Volunteers and the rising.
To learn about how Easter Rising nearly didn’t happen, check out my second post Easter Rising: Sunday
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Townshend, Charles. Easter Rising: the Irish Rebellion
Townshend, Charles. the Republic
Foster R.F. Vivid Faces
Morris, Jan. Heaven’s Command
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Coogan, Tim Pat. Eamon de Valera: the Man Who was Ireland
Fanning, Ronan. Eamon de Valera: a Will to Power
Valiulis, Maryann Gialanella. Portrait of a Revolutionary: General Richard Mulcahy and the Irish Free State