I decided to combine all my short Easter Rising posts, into a big one.
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 for five days before being defeated by the British Army under General Maxwell. It was concentrated mostly in Dublin, with a few engagements 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.
Daniel O’Connell and the Young Irelanders
To understand why the Rising, one most first familiarize themselves with Irish’s tortuous history. First, we 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. We 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.
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. 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 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. Additionally, 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 drew 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 renters 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 several 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. John Redmond, another important Irish statesman, was a Parnellite. 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 members from the Gaelic League, Sinn Fein, and 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 Irish people’s frustration 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.
Irish Volunteers and the IRB
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 exalted 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. They 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, keeping their plans to themselves, 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 to 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.
Seven Members of the Military Committee
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 on the seven members.
Patrick Pearse 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 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 was 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) 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 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 in planning the funeral of Irish Fenian leader Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa where Pearse would give one of his greatest speeches.
Joseph Plunkett 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 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 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.
Easter Rising Sunday
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 MacNeil were subsequently written out of Irish history because of their resistance to any violent rebellion 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 noses. 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 when it was going to be implemented. Either way, this was the type of repressive efforts that MacNeil believed were needed to ensure the people would support a rising of any kind. MacNeil gave orders to the men to resist 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.
First, Roger Casement was arrested. 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 on either April 21st or 22nd, he was pick up by British police and placed in jail.
Then MacNeil and Hobson had their worst suspicions confirmed-Pearse and his comrades were secretly planning a rebellion without their support. There was a confrontation between MacNeil and Pearse on the 21st and MacNeil vowed to do everything possible-save warning the authorities-to stop the rebellion. However, the next day MacNeil 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 regarding 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 MacNeil 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, MacNeil 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.
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 at the end of the five days.
The more important question how did the decision by Pearse and his comrades to form a shadow chain of command within the Irish Volunteers affect operations? MacNeil 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. While it is true that Hobson and MacNeil did not want to rebel until conditions were more favorable for the Volunteers, the Rising leader’s decision to split their command in half was far more detrimental to their rebellion than anything else.
Easter Rising Monday
When the Rising began that Monday, only about half of the Irish Volunteers showed up in several key locations in Dublin and even fewer gathered in the countryside. This was because of MacNeill’s counter-order and the men’s confusion about following seemingly fake new orders. This is another example of where the leaders’ decision to keep their plans secret hurt their own rebellion. Pearse and the others lead about 150 men down Sackville Street where they picked up stranglers and marched on the General Post Office (GPO). It was here they would establish their headquarters.
The GPO was a formidable building and important location in Dublin, but there is some question as to whether it offered Pearse and Connolly the ability to effectively communicate with the other garrisons, especially when it was cut off from the southern half by the Castle and Trinity College (both structured would not be taken during the battle).
Whatever its military significance, it became a politically powerful building. After they took the GPO, two Irish flags were hung-one was yellow, green, and orange/yellow and the other was green with a golden harp. Then Pearse read outloud the Irish Proclamation of the Republic to the newly ‘liberated’ people. This proclamation was signed by all seven leaders of the Rising-Pearse, Clarke, Ceannt, McDermott, MacDonagh, Connolly, and Plunkett-and it would later serve as their death warrant.
Whether because he read the proclamation or simply during the stress of the times, Pearse became the unofficial president and general of the Volunteers-although there were claims following the Rising that Clarke was the actual president. Additionally, the name Irish Republican Army (IRA) came out of this makeshift government. They wanted an official name for their army. It originally started as the Army of the Republic, which was changed to the IRA and became official and everlasting in the 1920s.
There was a sense of futility combined with military spirit in the GPO. While men like Pearse had always spoke of the need to wash Ireland in martyr’s blood, even practical men like Connolly seemed to believe that they were going to be slaughter. Yet, Pearse and the other leaders still struggled to develop a military command structure and government while also taking the city. As Pearse became the center of the Rising, Connolly took command of the military forces, sending out orders that his secretary, Winifred Carney, wrote on her typewriter.
While this was happening, the battalions that showed up, quickly dispersed to vital positions throughout the city.
To the east of the GPO, was the Four Courts-the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal, the High Court, and the Dublin District Court. This was taken by the 1st battalion commanded by Edward Daly. Daly was the youngest man to be a commandant and was Tom Clarke’s brother-in-law. Daly sent a small company under the command of Sean Heuston to take the Mendicity Institution (one of Ireland’s oldest charities). Heuston’s original orders (when GPO expected an immediate response from the British Army) were to hold the position for a few hours to give GPO time to get organized. Heuston would hold on for three days.
Southeast of the Four Courts was the South Dublin Union. This was taken by the Fourth battalion led by Eamon Ceannt, one of the seven signers of the proclamation and planner of the rising.
West of the South Dublin Union was Jacob’s biscuit factory. This was taken by the second battalion commanded by Thomas MacDonaugh, another signer of the proclamation.
West of the biscuit factory was St. Stephen’s Green, a large park. This was taken by
Connolly’s Citizen Army commanded by Michael Mallin. Mallin was Connolly’s second in command co-founder of the Socialist Party of Ireland. Constance Markievicz, a fascinating and colorful member of the Volunteers, Citizen Army, and, later, IRA, was his third in command. They tried to take Shelbourne Hotel on the north-east side of the park, but didn’t have the sufficient manpower. The British would position troops in the hotel by Monday night.
Northeast of St. Stephen’s Green was Boland’s Mill. This was taken by the Third battalion, commanded by Eamon de Valera. De Valera was a mathematics professor and had joined the Irish Volunteers out of a sense of nationalism, but only reluctantly became an IRB member. He would later distance himself from the IRB, professing a disdain for secret societies.
While they certainly took a large part of the city, Dublin was surrounded by five police barracks. To the northeast there were the Royal and Marlborough barracks, to the southwest there was the Richard Barracks, to the very south was the Portobello barracks, and to the southeast was the Beggars Bush Barracks. Additionally, the Castle, the center of British colonialism in Ireland was in the very center of Dublin, and the Volunteers didn’t take it. There was a futile attempt early Monday afternoon, but for reasons that are still unclear, it wasn’t successfully. The Volunteers also failed to take Trinity College and the telephone exchange in Crown alley, allowing the government to control communication and repair the lines that had been cut. Additionally, they failed to take Dublin’s two railways or Dublin Port and Kingstown. This would, later, enable the British to bring in army reinforcements.
There has been a lot of puzzlement over these failures, but it may have simply between due to the lack of manpower and the confusion caused by the counter-orders. There were mild gunfights throughout the day and the Volunteers waited nervously for Britain’s response. They expected it to be hard and fast, but this was furthest from the truth.
Most of the army had gone to the races and the British representatives in Ireland had not expected anything to happen, despite knowing about the preparation for the Rising and the arms the Germans had sent. Maybe MacNeil’s counter-orders convinced them that internal dissention had killed the rebellion. Maybe they assumed cooler heads would prevail and no one would dare challenge British power. Either way, Monday was a resounding victory for Pearse and his men.
Despite knowing about the upcoming Rising, the British government in Ireland did little to prepare for it. Monday morning there were a total of 400 British soldiers on hand to respond to the rebellion. Townshend claims that there were 100 for each of the four barracks (Richmond, Marlborough, Royal, and Portobello). The rest of the force had taken advantage of the holiday and had gone to the races. The small force engaged the rebels during Monday afternoon, but were unable to displace the Volunteers. This was a short-lived victory for the rebels however, as by Monday night General Lowe had taken command, an additional 150 troops had arrived from Belfast with more reinforcements coming from England, and a colonel had brought up the artillery from Athlone. Lowe’s plan was to establish communication along the Kingsbridge-North Wall-Trinity College line, cutting the city in half, and then isolate the rebel forces from each other.
Martial law was declared, and the fate of Dublin was left in the military’s hands.
Tuesday, 25 April
By Tuesday morning, Townshend estimates that the military strength was up to 3000 men and Lowe estimated the rebels to be about 2000 strong, but he knew little else. There was also the fear that the rebellion could spread to the countryside, so he needed additional reinforcements to control the countryside while he focused on the city.
Despite not knowing the exact situation, Lowe’s men were able to achieve a few victories. By the end of Tuesday, they had dislodged Mallin’s men from St. Stephen’s Green and into the Royal College of Surgeons. A unit attempted to repair a section of the damaged railroad at Amiens Street but were attacked by the rebels positioned along Annesley Bridge. They fought for two hours before the British were forced to retreat.
That night, the British were able to position the four 18 pounder field guns and the guns on the HMS Helga. The British would use these pieces of artillery to great effect on Wednesday, focusing their fire on Liberty Hall, O’Connell Street, and Boland’s Mill. Connolly had once said that Britain would never fire artillery at Dublin because it was a modernized capitalistic city. One wonders what Connolly’s thoughts were during the intense bombardment.
Tuesday was a day of small engagements while General Lowe assessed the situation, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t a day of tragedy. The shock of the rebellion shattered the complacency that had taken over the Irish government. With a crisis on their hands, the military responded swiftly and harshly. An example of the kind of repression the military would use during the rest of was week was the arrest of a pacifist, feminist (he had adopted his wife’s name) and prominent Irish social figure-Francis Sheehy-Skeffington.
Sheehy-Skeffington was vehemently against the militarism that had taken over the Irish
Volunteers and was out Tuesday not trying to discourage looters. He was arrested by British Lieutenant Morris and taken to Portobello Barracks. Later that night Captain J.C. Bowen Colthurst wanted to go led a raiding party up to Harcourt Rd. (south of St. Stephen’s Green) and he took Sheehy-Skeffington as a ‘hostage’. On the way there, he killed a young man named Coade before ransacking a house owned by the alderman Tom Kelly. He arrested two men Thomas Dickson and Patrick McIntyre, and took them back to the barracks. He reviewed the papers he found at the alderman’s house and the papers on Sheehy-Skeffington. Wednesday morning, he took the three men out to the yard and shot them, claiming they were dangerous men and he shot them to prevent the men from escaping.
The commander of Portobello Barracks, Francis Vane, was not there during the shooting. When he found out, he demanded that Colthurst be arrested. Instead, the bodies were buried in the yard, Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington was not told about her husband’s death, and Colthurst broke into her house to find evidence that Francis Sheehy-Skeffington had helped planned the revolution. Hanna eventually found out what happened to her husband. Vane pressed to prosecute Colthurst and Vane lost his command while Colthurst kept his rank.
Colthurst was finally arrested May 9th and would later be court-martialed and convicted of insanity. He was sentenced to Broadmoor Hospital, but was released in 1918 and resettled in Canada. Vane was dishonorably discharged from the army and went on to become involved in with the Boy Scouts.
Wednesday, 26 April
During Wednesday, the British tightened their grip on the city. Using their artillery to bombard positions such as O’Connell Street and Boland’s Mill, Lowe sent his new reinforcements from England into the city to further cut the rebels off from each other.
One unit was sent to attack Heuston’s position at Mendicity Institute. With only 26 Volunteers against hundreds of British soldiers, Heuston held until the British were so close, they could throw grenades into the building. His troops were the first to surrender.
The Sherwood Foresters, a unit that had arrived from Britain, were sent down Grand Canal Street, near Beggar’s Bush Barracks. They were held up where Grand Canal meets Mount Street by heavy rebel fire. The Volunteers had fortified various positions along the street, meaning that the Foresters were caught in their cross-fire as they repeatedly tried to this position. After five hours of fighting and losing 240 men wounded and killed, they defeated the rebels and took the position, but many historians have wondered why they didn’t try another path into Dublin.
Additionally, the 3rd battalion commanded by de Valera was only 200 meters from this battle and yet they did not help. This has been explained with de Valera’s inexperience and the fear that once the British took Grand Canal and Mount Streets, they would quickly attack Boland’s Mill. However, this kind of inexperienced cripple the rebel’s efforts throughout the week and did not bode well for the Rising.
Thursday 27th, and Friday 28th April
Thursday and Friday were some of the bloodiest days during the Rising. One of the greatest battles in the countryside, the Battle of Ashbourne, in which the Fingal Battalion defeated a RIC detachment took place on Friday. Within Dublin, he famous battle for the South Dublin Union occurred on Thursday and Four Courts waged during Thursday and Friday. Friday also saw the arrival of Commander-in-chief General Sir John Maxwell, who, 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. Ten, Thursday morning, reinforcements from Kingstown port arrived and attacked. The fighting here was vicious and 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 not 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 men back to the Four Court proper on Friday night. They were exhausted, but had fought long and hard.
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 anyway, 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. Then an oil works on Abbey Street caught fire.
Friday morning, the women were sent out of the GPO. The building was hit by shells and 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. It was decided 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 (Patricks’ younger brother), Joseph Plunkett (who was allowed to marry his fiancée 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 at various prisons and internment camps in England and Wales such as Frongoch, the “University 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 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 several 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-keffington, 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 loss 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 free.
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Townshend, Charles. Easter Rising: the Irish Rebellion
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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
Francis Shehy Skeffington: By photographer not identified [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Cathal Brugha: See page for author [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons