The Easter Uprising took place in April 1916 in Dublin and is one of the pivotal events in modern Irish history. At the end of the Easter Uprising, 15 men identified as leaders were executed at Kilmainham Jail. To some, these men were traitors, to others they became heroes. Why did a small group of people try to take on the military might of what was then one of the world’s major powers?
From the time of the Great Famine from 1845 to 1847, certain sections of the Irish population had lost all faith in the British government (and even from before this date). These people felt that the government neither listened to the complaints and grievances of the Irish – nor did they care about such grievances. To them, the Irish had become second-class citizens in the world’s greatest empire builder. Any arguments presented to London about freeing up Ireland from British rule fell on seemingly deaf ears. The issue of Home Rule satisfied some in Ireland, but not all. It was this latter group of people who simply rejected that London had any right to impose any rule on Ireland. Their target was simple: Irish independence and the removal of all aspects of British rule from the island. As the British would be unwilling to simply go along with this, such independence would have to be fought for – hence the armed uprising.
Ironically, though many in what is now the south wanted independence, they did not support the ways of movements such as the Fenians and the IRB. Given the population of Dublin and the surrounding area, comparatively few people took part in the rebellion. Even once it had started, few Dubliners took the opportunity to join the rebels. The evidence suggests that people were concerned about the tactics of known Republicans such as Patrick Pearse and James Connolly – especially what the reaction of the British might be.
The IRB (Irish Republican Brotherhood) had been formed in 1858. It was a secret organisation and it is thought that it never had more than 2,000 members in it. It had one simple desire – Irish independence. In 1910, the IRB started its own publication – the ‘Irish Freedom’ – and all those men who signed the proclamation of an Irish Republic in Easter 1916 were members of the IRB.
By the start of the war, Irish politics had become very complicated. The issue of Home Rule had led to the creation of the Ulster Volunteers in November 1913. This group was against any lessening of the rule that London had over the whole of Ireland. The Ulster Volunteers had no problems flying the Union Jack. In response, those in the south had founded the Irish Volunteers in 1914. Possibly as many as 200,000 joined the Irish Volunteers but only a few thousand were ever trained in a military manner. Even if the Irish Volunteers had wanted to arm those who joined it, sheer logistics meant that this was impossible. When the First World War broke out in August 1914, the leader of the Irish Nationalist Party, John Redmond, accepted that the whole issue of Home Rule would have to be postponed until the war had finished. Many in the Irish Volunteers accepted this and men from all over Ireland rallied to the cause and fought in the British Army against the Germans.
However, such views were not shared by those in the IRB. As early as August 1914, the month war was declared, the IRB supreme council decided that the British involvement in the war would give them the opportunity to overthrow British rule in Ireland. The logic was that the actions of the government in London would be driven by what went on in Flanders – and the vast bulk of Britain’s military might was either abroad or in the stages of being sent abroad to fight. Therefore, British military presence would be sparse in Ireland.
The IRB spent many months planning the rebellion. The organisation had money – most from Irish Americans – and capable leaders but little else. As a secret organisation, it could not act like a political party going out to meet the people to persuade them to support their cause. Therefore, the numbers in it were small. Also, many in Ireland were willing to support the decision to postpone Home Rule – and some were doing well out of the war itself. Therefore, though many may have sympathised with the IRB with regards to its desires, these people did not offer the IRB any practical help.
Also, if an uprising was to take place, the IRB would need access to weapons – and the only obvious source would be Germany.
The IRB was not the only organisation involved in the movement against the British. Others were:
The Irish Citizen’s Army founded in 1913 by James Connolly. This organisation was founded as a citizens guard to the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union. The ITGWU had organised a strike in 1913, which was harshly broken up using force. The Irish Citizens Army was created in response and it was led by a former British Army officer – Jack White. It was meant to have been a highly disciplined force but it only numbered about 250 men. The ‘Fianna Boys’ were youths who were to act as messengers and runners during the actual uprising. Some women’s movements had republican sympathies. The most famous female of the Uprising was the Countess Markievicz who was a member of the Irish Civilian Army.
Clearly, when all actual support was counted, the planned uprising could not count on that many people.
What would it be up against?
There was not a huge army presence in Ireland. Most of the law enforcement was done by the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). There were about 10,000 police officers in the RIC. At a time when employment opportunities were reasonably limited, the RIC seemed to offer a sound career and, in general, those in it were loyal to Britain and the government. Members of the RIC invariably worked in or near the district they lived in, the theory being that they would pick up on any information that could prove useful to the authorities in Dublin. British intelligence, based at Dublin Castle, gained a great deal of its information from the RIC. 1000 members of the RIC were based in Dublin itself.
The IRB and other movements were woefully short of weapons. The RIC in Dublin did not carry arms but it had easy access to them. The British Army in Ireland had as many weapons as it needed – including armed personnel carriers, tanks and artillery guns. The Ulster Volunteers had gained 35,000 rifles by August 1914; the Irish Volunteers had just 1000, and there were those in the Irish Volunteers who did not support what the IRB wanted. An attempt by Sir Roger Casement to land German guns also failed as the British Navy intercepted the ship (the ‘Aud’) carrying weapons. Casement was arrested and hanged as a traitor.
However, to the authorities both in Dublin and London, this proved just how untrustworthy the republican movement was. In April 1916, the war in Europe was not going well for the British and French. The French, our allies, were taking a desperate hammering at Verdun and wanted Britain to launch an attack across the Somme to take pressure off of the French. What Casement did provoked a very negative response at a time when Britain needed unity throughout its lands.
The men in Ireland who represented the government in London were:
Augustine Birrell, Chief Secretary Sir Matthew Nathan, Assistant Secretary Major-General Field, commanding officer of the British army in Ireland. Lord Wimborne, Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland.
What seemed to link all four men was their failure to grasp what was going on in Ireland. Wimborne had an extensive knowledge of what might be termed the Irish psyche, but he seemingly failed to recognise what was happening. This could have been a failure of the security agencies based at the Castle. Special Branch had infiltrated the IRB but either they had not done this too well, or the information sent through to Dublin Castle simply was not being acted on.
The intelligence service at Dublin Castle knew that a rising was planned fairly quickly after Casement’s arrest. As Casement landed on April 21st, those in charge in Dublin knew that something was about to take place. On April 23rd, Wimborne demanded that Nathan issue arrest warrants for between 60 and 100 known Republican leaders. Nathan managed to persuade Wimborne that there was no need for action as there was no immediate crisis to worry about. Birrell, as was often the case, was in London and took no part in this decision.
Why did Nathan take this decision? It seems that British spies in the Irish Volunteers had informed him that Eoin MacNeill, the accepted leader of the Irish Volunteers, had decided not to go ahead with the uprising because of the failure of Casement to get the required German weapons into Ireland. What Nathan almost certainly did not know was that Patrick Pearse, a young lawyer and member of the IRB, did not agree with him and decided that the rising should go ahead regardless. There were others who also agreed with Pearse.
This dispute split the Irish Volunteers and meant the end of it as a major player in Irish politics. After the uprising, those who followed Pearse and had been members of the IRB joined the Irish Republican Army; those with a political bent joined Sinn Fein. There were those, of course, who did both.
MacNeill further hindered Pearse by getting the cancellation of the uprising advertised in newspapers. Young boys were even used to cycle around Ireland with the information. Therefore, it seems completely untenable to accept that the authorities in Dublin did not know that something had been planned even if it appeared to have been cancelled. At the very least, the authorities should have been on the alert.
In fact, Nathan had concluded that if anyone did participate in the uprising, the numbers would be small and those involved would be hopelessly disunited. With the Irish Volunteers split and with no weapons, what did the British have to fear? On the morning of the uprising, many British army officers were at the races!