Thursday and Friday were some of the bloodiest days during Easter Rising. Cathal Brugha made a brilliant stand on Thursday, during the famous battle for South Dublin Union and Daly held the British forces at the Four Courts from Wednesday to Friday. Most importantly, Commander-in-chief General Sir John Maxwell arrived in Ireland on Friday. General Maxwell, perhaps, did more to ensure the spiritual and political success of the Rising than anyone else.
South Dublin Union
Eamon Ceannt and his Vice-Commandant Cathal Brugha were leading the men at South Dublin Union. After a furious fight on Monday, their front had been mysteriously silent. Then, Thursday morning, reinforcements from Kingstown port attacked. The fighting here was vicious. The British soldiers had to fight the Irish out of the hospital buildings with small arms and grenades. Brugha, who insisted on fighting in the front line, was wounded twenty-five times and had to be sent to the medical staff on Friday. Still, they held throughout the week and even thought they had destroyed the entire British force that had attacked them.
The most famous fight of the Rising occurred in the Four Courts. This position was vital for the rebels as it protected headquarters and was near the center of town. The Volunteers were commanded by Edward Daly. On Wednesday, he sent troops out to take Linenhall Barracks, but didn’t have the men, so they set it on fire. The fire raged for most of the night. Meanwhile the British had taken Capel street, which meant Daly was cut off from the GPO.
The British attacked Thursday morning. Men in armed trucks rolled down Bolton street and attempted to throw a cordon on King Street. However, the rebels had heavily fortified King street and every inch was fiercely fought over. Eventually, the British had to drill through the inside walls and travel from house to house, wounding and killing many civilians. Daly had to pull his exhausted men back to the Four Court proper on Friday night.
General John Maxwell
General John Maxwell arrive in Ireland from London on Friday. His arrival signaled that London was no longer going to be nice and understanding with their difficult Irish citizens. He was a traditional army man, had served in Sudan, the Boer War, and the First World War. He was to be a formal commander-in-chief for Ireland, eclipsing the civil government that had been put in place, and he, more than anyone, helped create the rebel’s legacies. His first major contribution was to refuse any negotiations short of unconditional surrender. This was to have an important effect on the now tired, starving, and rattled rebels.
The artillery barrage had kept up since Wednesday and, despite their leader’s optimism, many commanders were beginning to doubt if they could last much longer.
Then the fires started.
It seemed that a shell had started a fire on Sackville Street, setting it ablaze. It spread around the GPO until the men inside could feel the heat through the walls. Shortly afterward, an oil works on Abbey Street caught fire.
Friday morning, the women were sent out of the GPO which was heavily shelled. It caught fire around 3 pm. Things were growing desperate. Connolly, who had spent all week checking posts and men, had been wounded in his left arm and leg on Thursday and had to be carried out on a stretcher. Fire had reached the GPO roof and many of the Volunteers had been cut off from HQ, left to defend themselves in their ever shrinking fortified positions. An Irish Volunteer, O’Rahilly, who had passed out MacNeill’s counter-order, led a bayonet charge against the British troops and was mortally wounded.
Pearse decided to surrender.
Easter Rising Executions
The order was sent to all the units in Dublin and the few who had risen in the countryside, like the Fingal, Wexford, and Galway Battalions. Most of the troops did as they were told, and they were put in temporary holding cells until the British government could figure out what to do with them.
The British government’s goal was to squash all rebellion within Ireland, thus Maxwell ordered that all Sinn Feiners be arrested. Given the number of people arrested and the severity of the crisis, it was decided that the rebels would be tried by military court and that the men would be executed, but they could not handle the disgrace of executing the women.
The first three leaders to be executed were Patrick Pearse, Tom Clarke, and Thomas
MacDonaugh. They were taken out of Richmond Barracks to Kilmainham gaol and were shot on 3 May.
Edward Daly, Willie Pearse (Patrick’s younger brother), Joseph Plunkett (who was allowed to marry his fiancée, Grace Gifford, the night before), and Michael O’Hanrahan were executed on the 4th.
John MacBride was executed on the 5th.
Eamon Ceannt, Sean Heuston, Con Colbert, and Michael Mallin were executed on the 8th and Thomas Kent on the 9th.
Sean MacDermott and James Connolly were executed on the 13th. Connolly, still recovering from his wounds, was tied to a chair so the soldiers could shoot him.
The government in London had become alarmed with the executions by the 4th, but allowed them to carry on until it became clear that public opinion was decidedly against them. John Redmond pleaded for clemency and the Irish public, who had been detached from the rebels at best, were beginning to praise them. It seems that the fact the Rising lasted for so long combined with the civilians who had been murdered (like Sheehy-Skeffington) and swiftness of the executions turned the public against the British forces and towards the rebels.
Given this startling development, the British government decided to intern the remaining prisoners at various prisons and internment camps in England and Wales such as Frongoch, the “Universities of Revolution’.
The last Irish Volunteer to be executed was Roger Casement. He was tried for treason and was hanged on 3 August.
“That the authorities allowed a body of lawless and riotous men to be drilled and armed and to provide themselves with an arsenal of weapons and explosives was one of the most amazing things that could happen in any civilized country outside of Mexico.”-William Martin Murphy, statement to Royal Commission 1916
It is true that the Irish Volunteers lasted longer than anyone expected (maybe even longer then their own leaders expected), yet that alone cannot count as a victory. Despite their best efforts, the plans for the Rising were muddled at best and the secret nature of their work only hurt their cause. It tore their movement in two, creating a political vacuum that allowed the IRB to take control, but also created a legacy of distrust. There would always be those members who suspected the IRB and this suspicion that would continue into the Anglo-Irish War and contribute to the Irish Civil War and the aftermath of the 1924 Army Mutiny.
Once the Rising started, the battalions quickly became isolated commands of their own, their connection to the GPO and the leadership fragile. There were a number of brave stands during the Rising, such as Heuston’s stand at the Medicity Institute, Ceannt’s stand at the Four Courts, and the Battle of Ashbourne in the countryside and no one can deny the courage or dedication of the men who rebelled.
However, it is also hard to deny the tragedy of the entire affair. It has been estimated that a total of 485 people had been killed and 2,600 had been wounded during the rebellion. Ireland lost many important men and women such as Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, Michael Joseph O’Rahilly (the O’Rahilly) and promising leaders such as Sean Heuston and Edward Daly. Dublin city had been bombarded, burnt, and filled with lead and the Rising pushed the English to establish a military governor, John Maxwell.
So, it was a disaster?
It may have been nothing more than another failed uprising had it not been for the brutal murder of men like Sheehy-Skeffington and the executions. One cannot completely fault John Maxwell. Governments and military men often fall into the trap of believing that a rebellion cannot survive without its leadership. Maybe Maxwell’s fault was, not in executing the seven signers of the Irish Proclamation, but in not killing more of the Irish Volunteers.
De Valera was scheduled to be executed, but was spared because of the change in public opinion. Michael Collins had originally been marked for harsher punishment (such as execution) but was saved because he thought he heard someone call his name and moved to the group marked for littler punishment in an attempt to identify the voice. Once he joined that group, he just stayed there. These two men would be instrumental in shaping the Anglo-Irish War and modern Ireland.
Additionally, men and women like Cathal Brugha, Richard Mulcahy, W. T. Cosgrave, Arthur Griffith, Constance Markievicz, Harry Boland, and many more all participated in Easter Rising, many were interned in prisons like Frongloch internment camp, and would later become vital to the IRA in one capacity or another.
Easter Rising provided these future leaders of Ireland a glimpse into what worked and what didn’t. Michael Collins, himself, was disgusted with the lost of life and Richard Mulcahy, the IRA’s future chief of staff, experienced guerrilla warfare for the first time during the Battle of Ashbourne. De Valera’s experience in Dartmoor prison gave him the reputation and confidence he needed to become President of the Dail. It also created a moment of everlasting brotherhood that created the esprit de corps needed to survive the Anglo-Irish War and the very same brotherhood that would tear Ireland apart during the civil war.
The legacy of Easter Rising will always be tangled with the legacy of the Anglo-Irish War and the Civil War. Was it any different from other Irish rebellions? In some ways, yes, in some ways, no. Was Pearse right? Did Ireland need a bloody sacrifice to be free? It is hard to agree with Pearse when Ireland had made many such bloody sacrifices during its long history and would make many more from 1919 up to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. Can the full impact of Easter Rising be understood outside the context of the First World War and the technological advance that had been made in everyday life and in military affairs? Probably not.
The hardest part about assessing the Rising’s legacy is because of its larger than life narrative. The Rising was immortalized shortly after it was over by poets such as Yeats and, since many members of the IRA fought in the Rising, they added to this immortalization as they won independence and struggled to create a state. There was some reassessment in the 60s and 70s, but, as the 100 year anniversary revealed, Ireland still struggles to properly categorize and understand the Rising.
Despite the changing narrative surrounding the Rising, there is one thing that cannot be denied. The sacrifice of the men and women who fought will continue to challenge and inspire us as we worked to undo the damage caused by colonialism and small nations fight to be heard.
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Cathal Brugha: See page for author [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The O’Rahilly: By National Library of Ireland on The Commons (The O’Rahilly) [No restrictions, Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Pearse Surrenders: By National Library of Ireland on The Commons (Pearse’s Surrender) [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons
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