You cannot conquer Ireland, you cannot extinguish the Irish passion for freedom. —Irish rebel leader, Padric Pearse
by Roger Childs
An extraordinary event
On Easter Monday, 24 April 1916, a small group of Irish Volunteers started an unlikely and unexpected rebellion in Dublin and nearby counties. Few Irish people supported the uprising and the British Army quickly crushed it.
However, the events which unfolded — ranging from the comical and bizarre to the destructive and brutal — would change the course of Ireland’s history.
The Easter Rebellion was the culmination of centuries of Irish-English enmity and the outcome of bitter divisions between various groups in the early 20th century, grappling with the issues of the political future of Ireland.
At the time, most Irish and English people saw the uprising as an exercise in treachery and futility, but, in the words of one of the organisers, James Connolly: Never had man or woman a grander cause, never was a cause more grandly served.
A divided and troubled “nation”
In 1916 the island of Ireland was part of Great Britain, but there were moves afoot to provide some form of self-government. A “Home Rule” movement had been active from the late 19th century and most Irish people supported an end to government from London. However, the mainly Protestant counties in the north-east region of Ulster, were determined to stay in the United Kingdom.
In the rest of the country, there was a range of groups, wanting everything from full independence and a republic to some form of self-rule while staying in the British Empire. But the outbreak of World War in August 1914 saw the British government postpone settling the issue of Ireland’s political future.
However, in Ireland, leaders from the radical end of the political spectrum, the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen’s Army, decided that Easter 1916 would be a good time to throw the British out, especially as Britain was bogged down in the war. But would the Irish people support a rebellion, especially as there were tens of thousands of Irishmen serving in the British campaign, in France and Belgium?
Confusion reigned amongst the Irish Volunteers over the timing of an armed uprising. The decision to make it around midday on Easter Monday, was only known to a handful of men lead by Padric Pearse, who as well as being a nationalist, was also a barrister, teacher and poet.
Eoin MacNeill, chief of staff of the Volunteers, rescinded the orders for the Monday timing on the previous Saturday, but by then it was too late.
Of trams, stamps and flags
Why bother to pay anyway, when you’ve already captured the tram? —The conductor to Captain George Plunkett
This was one of the bizarre incidents on that Easter Monday. Plunkett decided to use public transport to get his troops into central Dublin. Having boarded the tram with his 56 men he asked for 57 tuppeny tickets!
On the packed tram heading into town, a woman passenger was accidentally struck several times by swinging equipment. She was furious and called to the driver: I demand that you put these men off! He replied: In that case would you mind doing it yourself ma’am. As you can see I’m rather busy.
A key objective of the rebels was the seizure of the General Post Office; the hub of communication in Dublin. The men about to capture the building were a rag-tail bunch in various uniforms and armed with a range of rifles, knives and pikes. They flowed into the building and their leader James Connolly shouted: Everybody out!
At first nobody took a blind bit of notice, notably a woman who was not going anywhere until she got the stamps she had come for. Eventually the building was cleared and, shortly after, a new flag was run up the pole on top of the building. It was green with a gold harp in the middle and across it in bold Gaelic lettering were the words : IRISH REPUBLIC.
On the steps below, Padric Pearse, the head of the provisional government, read a proclamation declaring Irish independence.
The reality of rebellion
The rebels also captured other buildings in central Dublin, including:
- The Law Courts
- Liberty Hall
- The College of Surgeons
- Boland’s Flour Mills.
The British authorities had been taken by surprise. However, they knew that the rebels only had a few hundred soldiers and very little support from the Irish people, many of whom had men folk serving in the British Army.
The uprising was crushed without mercy. The seized buildings were quickly isolated and heavy artillery was brought in to shell the rebel positions. This bombardment was supplemented by the armed fisheries patrol boat, Helga, which fired salvos from the Liffey River.
There were minor skirmishes in other areas, notably Galway and Kildare, but these were quickly snuffed out.
Within a few days it was over: Pearse and others surrendered on 29 April. The outcome was horrendous:
~ 1,351 people killed or severely wounded
~ 179 buildings totally ruined
~ one third of the population needing public relief.
The captives were marched through the streets of the ruined city and, as they passed, bystanders spat at them and shouted insults such as: Shoot the traitors! Bayonet the bastards!
Among those detained were a number of people destined to play key roles in the future of Ireland: Michael Collins, Eamon De Valera, James Connolly and Constance Markievicz.
Brutality turns the tide of public opinion
The uprising was regarded as treason, and all the worse for trying to overthrow a government which was fighting a bitter war in France and Belgium. There were bound to be executions.
They took place at Kilmainham Jail in Dublin and started with Pearse on May 3. Others followed on May 4, 5 and 8. Thomas Plunkett was allowed to marry his sweetheart, Francis Gifford, a few hours before his death on the 5th.
But what would they do with James Connolly who had been badly wounded in the fighting? He was taken in an ambulance from hospital to Kilmainham Jail, put on a stretcher, then tied to a chair.
His daughter recalled the final moments. “He said: I will pray for all brave men who do their duty. His prayer was Forgive then for they know not what they do… and then they shot him.”
This brutal action and revelations of British troops murdering rebels who had surrendered, turned Irish public opinion against the British.
The general reaction to the executions was immediate and hostile … as the impact of what had been done sank in, the temper of the Nationalist-minded community changed from moderation and even apathy, to separatism and firm determination. –Historian, David Ross