The Easter Uprising of 1916 was a pivotal event in Ireland’s recent history. Before the Easter Uprising, few in Ireland were overt supporters of the rebels. After the 1916 Uprising, those involved achieved the status of heroes.
On the morning of Easter Monday, about 1,250 people started a rebellion that Patrick Pearse had labelled an all-but suicidal mission. They set out to capture the most prominent buildings in Dublin. The General Post Office is now most associated with the rebels – though they failed to capture or threaten probably the most important building in Dublin – the castle which served as the headquarters of the British administration in Ireland.
From what we know Patrick Pearse said to his mother, we know that he was all but sure the rebellion would fail.
|“The day is coming when I shall be shot, swept away, and my colleagues like me………Willie (Pearse)? Shot like the others. We’ll all be shot.”
So why did he go ahead with it? Some reasons put forward for this are:
1. That the people of Ireland who supported the republican cause would be moved to join the rebels once the rebellion got underway.
2. That the British, with the military situation in Europe, would feel that they could not control Ireland and would pull out.
3. Some have suggested that the Germans would have come to the aid of the rebels and support them in their hour of need in an effort to further weaken the British war aims in Western Europe.
The rebels had rifles but no artillery. The leaders of the rebels hoped that the British army would not use artillery as too much important property might be damaged – and a lot of it was owned by British companies. The rebels did little to disguise what they were doing. They did not gather at dawn to get some cover from the poor light but marched at midday in full view of those Dubliners who were out for what was a bank holiday. The first hours of the rebellion went reasonably smoothly. Fourteen major buildings were taken on both sides of the River Liffey. The rebels based their headquarters at the GPO in what was then Sackville Street but is now O’Connell Street. Patrick Pearse announced the creation of the Republic of Ireland from the Post Office. Also based at the Post Office was Michael Collins who was to play a pivotal role in the future politics of Ireland.
The rebels had carefully chosen the buildings/areas to capture.
The South Dublin Union The Four Courts St. Stephen’s Green Boland’s Flour Mill
The latter building was especially important as it covered the docks at which any troops sent to Dublin would disembark.
The rebels cut telephone lines which, for a while, cut off Dublin Castle. However, they had no phone lines between their main bases and had to rely on runners to keep in contact with each other. At the height of the fighting, messenger boys could not be used simply because of the dangers involved.
Once the British had got over the initial shock of what the rebels had done, they started to organise themselves. Troops stationed near to Dublin were brought in and Dublin Castle informed the most senior British army officer based in London, Lord French, what was going on. French was an Irishman but also a strong Unionist. What was to happen to the rebels was clearly shown in his response to what Dublin Castle had told him. French ordered that four army divisions were to be sent to Dublin. He was in no mood to appease those involved in what he considered to be abject treachery. French wanted the rebels crushed.
Tuesday April 25th was a reasonably quiet day. The rebels busied themselves with reinforcing their bases while the British were clearly pondering their next move. The British army surrounded the area of Dublin that was affected and brought in artillery that was based in Trinity College. Their plan was to split the rebels in two by driving a wedge between them. The fact that the rebels had failed to take an important building such as Trinity College summarised their main problem – a simple lack of people participating in the rebellion. However, it was on this day that martial law was declared by the British; looting occurred in the streets of the city and people not involved in the rebellion were shot by the British army. The rebels based at Boland’s Flour Mill, led by Eamonn de Valera, failed to stop British reinforcements landing at Dublin’s docks (now Dun Laoghaire) and by Wednesday 26th, the rebels were outnumbered 20 to 1.
It was on Wednesday that the British army started their attack on the rebels. The rebels had hoped that the British army would spare buildings in Dublin that either belonged to British companies or had simple capital value. This did not happen. The army flattened any building it felt it had to. A gunboat, the ‘Helga’ was brought in to assist this action. Civilian casualties were high and the attack by the British army failed to distinguish between rebels and civilians. If a building was felt to harbour a rebel, it was attacked. By the end of Wednesday, the British army had clearly shown its hand on how it would deal with the rebellion.
On Thursday 27th, a new military commander arrived in Dublin – General Sir John Maxwell. As the city was under martial law, he had full powers to effectively do as he wished. Asquith, the British Prime Minister, had given Maxwell one simple instruction – put down the rebellion as quickly as was possible. No restraints were put on his methods.
One reason that civilian casualties were so high was because many of the rebels wore civilian clothing. Therefore, British soldiers in Dublin made the assumption that anyone seen in the city not in a British army uniform was a rebel. The use of artillery also led to the city burning and the fire service could not operate properly in such circumstances and the British army was in no hurry to use its men to put out any fires. Their logic was that fire could only assist their cause and do serious damage to the rebels.
By Friday 28th, the General Post Office was in a state of collapse and the rebels based there escaped to a nearby building. A last stand was made in King’s Street but up against 5,000 troops, the remaining rebels had little chance. It was near King’s Street that it is said that attacks against civilians hiding for their own safety were carried out by members of the army.
On Sunday 30th, the rebels were marched across Dublin to prison. At times they were jeered by Dubliners who had seen part of their city wrecked. Damage to central Dublin totalled £2.5 million – a considerable sum of money then. About 500 British soldiers had been killed and over 1000 civilians.
The leaders of the rebellion were shown no mercy. They were tried in secret by a military court and sentenced to death. Their deaths were only publicly announced after their executions. It was now that public opinion in Ireland turned towards the rebels. There was an overwhelming belief that the executions had been unfair and that the men involved, at the very least, deserved a public trial. When it became known that Connolly had been tied to a chair and shot as he was so badly wounded, there was nothing short of public revulsion in parts of Ireland.
Here was the great irony. The hoped for support from the people of Dublin during the rebellion did not occur; the arrested rebels were paraded through Dublin to boos and jeers – and yet within days, the rebels had gone from ‘villains’ to heroes. Asquith quickly took on board the Irish public’s anger and sacked General Maxwell – though the damage had already been done. In an effort to appease the public in Ireland, nearly 3,000 people arrested after the rebellion were released from prisons in mainland Britain. They returned to Ireland and immediately set about rekindling a republican movement.
In an effort to solve what had become called the ‘Irish Problem’, the new British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, called for an Irish Convention to discuss all matter related to Ireland. Sinn Fein refused to attend this and it was a complete failure. In response to this, known leaders of the republican movement were arrested and put into mainland prisons. One man escaped this – Michael Collins. It was Collins who was to lead the republican movement in the immediate aftermath of the failed convention; a leadership that pushed Ireland into civil war.