Easter Rising is one of the most momentous Irish rebellions in its long, tortuous and bloody history. It caught the British by surprise (despite the Castle knowing all there was to know about the planned exertion) and lasted from April 24th to April 29th, before being defeated by the British Army under General Maxwell. It was concentrated mostly in Dublin, with a few engages in the countryside. While the rebellion itself was a failure, the execution of its leaders and the determination of its survivors, turned it into a spiritual and political victory that set the stage for the Anglo-Irish War and the Irish Civil War.
It nearly didn’t happen.
MacNeill and Hobson
As we discussed in the last post, Easter Rising was a surprise
for the British and for the leaders of the Irish Volunteers-Eoin MacNeill and Bulmer Hobson. Historian, Townshend argues that Hobson and MacNeill were subsequently written out of Irish history because of their resistance to any violent rebelling in 1916 and it is only recently that they’ve returned to their proper place in history. While it is true that they were hesitant to lead a general uprising, it was for good reasons. The Irish Volunteers weren’t soldiers, despite all their training, and they didn’t have the weapons needed to fight a protracted rebellion. Additionally, it was doubtful that the general population would support their efforts. These concerns combined, made the Rising’s chances for success minimal.
This didn’t dissuade men like Pearse and Clarke, who planned the Rising right under MacNeill’s nose. To ensure full support of their efforts, the seven leaders of the Rising had the ‘Castle Document’ read during a meeting. This document was a plan to arrest the leaders of the Irish Volunteers should the English implement conscription. While it was a real document, it seems that the leaders may have played fast and loose with some of the wording and when it was going to be implemented. Either way, this was the type of repressive efforts that MacNeill believed were needed to ensure the people would support a rising of any kind. MacNeill gave orders to the men to resist any attempts to arrest Irish Volunteer members (resist, not initiate a rebellion) and the seven leaders decided amongst themselves that the rising would take place on 23rd April 1916. They didn’t tell anyone else though and wouldn’t until the last minute.
Then things began to unravel.
The Die is Cast
First, Roger Casement was arrested. If you remember from the first post, Roger Casement had gone to Germany to recruit arms and assistance from the German government and to recruit Irishmen from the captured British soldiers. The Germans were less than supportive, and it seems Casement boarded the ship Aud to return to Ireland to either stop or postpone the rising. However, when he arrived in Ireland either April 21st or 22nd, he was pick up by British police and placed in jail.
Then MacNeill and Hobson had their worst suspicions confirmed-Pearse and his comrades were secretly planning a rebellion without their support. There was a confrontation between MacNeill and Pearse on the 21st and MacNeill vowed to do everything possible-save warning the authorities-to stop the rebellion. However, the next
day MacNeill was informed that the Germans had sent a boat full of supplies to Ireland. This seemed to convince him that things were firmly out of his control and he remained mostly mute about his feelings of the rising. His opinions changed again when found out that Casement had been arrested and the arms had been picked up by the British. Feeling that this ruined what little chance the rebellion had to succeed, he spoke to Pearse once more. One can only imagine his disorientation when he found out that Hobson had been arrested by the IRB Leinster Executive out of fear that he would try to stop the rebellion. Why Pearse and his comrades never arrested MacNeill is unknown, but it speaks volumes about which man they were more threatened by.
Failing to convince Pearse that it was necessary to cancel the rebellion to avoid disaster, MacNeill wrote a counter-order, canceling the drills scheduled for Sunday. This counter-order took an already confused situation and turned it into a bewildering disaster. Units formed as ordered by Pearse and dispersed with great puzzlement and some anger and frustration. Pearse and his comrades met to discuss their next steps and decided the die had been cast. There was no other choice except to try again tomorrow, Monday, 24th, April 1916.
Affect of the Counter-Orders
As can be imagined, the counter-orders have been a source of much anguish and gnashing of teeth. From the rebellion’s perceptive, it did more to ruin the Rising then the British. There is some belief that if the rebellion had occurred on Sunday as planned, with all the Irish Volunteers mobilizing, then it may have been successful. Some of this is definitely wishful thinking, as the plan for the rebellion was far from perfect to begin with. Have a larger showing of Irish Volunteers may have only meant more Irish dead.
The more important question is: how did the decision by Pearse and his comrades to form a shadow chain of command within the Irish Volunteers affect operations? MacNeill would not have needed to issue the counter-orders if he had been in on the planning to begin with and there would have been no confusion on part of the Volunteers if commands were issued as they should have been. They may have actually been able to plan, organize, and gather arms better if Pearse and the others had been able to work in the open, instead of secretively. While it is true that Hobson and MacNeill did not want to rebel until conditions were more favorable for the Volunteers, the Rising leader’s decision to create a shadow chain of command was far more detrimental to their rebellion than anything else.
To learn about what happened next, read our post: Easter Monday
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Foster, R. F. Modern Ireland 1600-1972
Townshend, Charles. Easter Rising: the Irish Rebellion
Townshend, Charles. the Republic
Foster R.F. Vivid Faces
Morris, Jan. Heaven’s Command
Coogan, Tim Pat. Michael Collins: the Man Who Made Ireland
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
Bulmer Hobson-https:// commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bulmer_Hobson.jpg
Eoin MacNeill: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Eoin_MacNeill.jpg
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