The Easter Rising: Irish Republican Uprising of 1916

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"Birth of the Irish Republic" by Walter Paget, depicting the GPO during the shelling

The 1916 Easter Rising paved the way for the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922.

The causes and consequences of the 1916 Easter Rising are still a matter of dispute. In terms of military scale the uprising was minor compared to the events in Flanders but while the loss of tens of thousands at the Somme meant the loss or gain or a few yards of useless, torn earth, the Easter Rising gave birth to an entire nation. Without the “blood sacrifice” of 1916 there would have been no Irish Free State.

The Causes of the 1916 Easter Rising

During the early years of the 20th century there were myriad organizations representing the cause of Irish nationalism with often different agendas. The more militant of these had come to regard a political solution as impossible especially after the drafting of the Ulster Covenant which committed loyalist organizations to resist Home Rule by any means necessary. Others, most notably the highly influential Irish Parliamentary Party, created by Charles Stewart Parnell and now led by John Redmond urged Irishmen to put aside their differences and support the British war effort.

At the start of the Great War representatives from the most prominent republican movement, The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), met to determine strategy with regard to the cataclysm unfolding in Europe. They collectively decided to stage an armed insurrection before the war was over and a committee was formed to oversee the planning. The Irish Volunteers, led by Eoin MacNeill, open to any able bodied Irishman regardless of creed or politics was created as a result. John Connolly had created the Irish Citizen Army (ICA) in 1913 to support and protect Trades Union members. By 1916 Connolly had become frustrated by what he viewed as mere posturing by other nationalist leaders and was threatening to lead the ICA against the British independently. A hurried conference between Connolly and the IRB leadership convinced him to join forces with them.

Many nationalist leaders including the Volunteers Chief of Staff MacNeill had strong reservations about the uprising but these fears were somewhat allayed by the disclosure that Sir Roger Casement who had been in Germany and the United States garnering support was due to arrive with a shipment of 20,000 rifles. Unfortunately Casement was captured and subsequently hanged by the British and the arms shipment was scuttled by the German crew. The impending threat of widespread arrests of nationalist leaders in response gave new impetus to the uprising, however confusing and often contradictory orders limited the uprising to Dublin and many who turned out went home without a shot being fired.

The Easter Rising, April 24th – April 29th

At around midday on Monday 24th April 1916 a force of approximately 1,000 nationalists lead by Patrick Pearse and John Connolly seized several buildings in Dublin. The first real fighting took place at Dublin Castle where a sentry was killed before the gates were secured by the British. Elsewhere the Irishmen took their initial objectives without much difficulty and a headquarters was established at the General Post Office on Sackville Street. Among the defenders at the GPO was the then relatively unknown Michael Collins.

The British response was initially slow and ineffective. Senior officers were absent and many of the British casualties of the first day can be attributed to poor command. Four troopers from a reserve cavalry unit were killed by rebel fire on Sackville Street before they retreated to their barracks. Elsewhere a detachment of the Royal Irish Regiment en route to Dublin Castle with unloaded rifles were attacked by the rebels at the South Dublin Union and lost three men before they managed to take shelter. Reinforcements were called up including a Lewis Gun and the rebel positions were eventually surrendered after several brief but bloody attacks. As the first day drew to a close the Irish were still in possession of most of their objectives and the British were on the defensive, concentrating mainly on keeping Dublin Castle out of rebel hands.

The Irish leaders sealed their own fate by failing to take the imposing Shelbourne Hotel which the British used to great effect early on the second day as the Irish were driven out of Saint Stephens Green. By Wednesday 26th April the British began to shell the Irish positions with field artillery deployed at Trinity College and from the Royal Navy vessel Helga moored in the River Liffey. The Irish were still far from beaten and managed to inflict heavy casualties on newly arrived British troops in the Grand Canal area.

As the week went by the Irish position in Dublin was becoming untenable. The expected uprisings outside of Dublin had largely not materialized and while their ranks were filled by the arrival of several hundred fresh volunteers, the British reinforcements numbered in the thousands and included artillery for which the beleaguered Irish had no response. On Saturday April 29th Patrick Pearse unconditionally surrendered to Brigadier General Lowe. British casualties including RIC officers were 132 killed, 397 wounded and 9 missing. Irish causalities were 318 killed and 2217 wounded. The rebel totals include civilian losses, the actual number of Irish killed under arms is generally accepted to be only 64.

The Aftermath and Consequences of the Easter Rising

The British executed 15 of the rebels including Patrick Pearse who was first to die and John Connolly who was so badly wounded he could not stand and was not expected to live for much longer. He was shot while sitting in a chair. The executions were widely viewed in Ireland as vindictive and those killed were regarded as martyrs. There seemed to be no particular pattern in who was shot and who was spared. Eamon De Valera who was one of four battalion commanders was spared while William Pearse was shot simply because he was the brother of Patrick.

The sacrifice of Easter 1916 galvanized the Irish community and generated renewed interest in an independent Ireland. In 1922 after a long and bitter struggle the Irish Free State was created.