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Easter Rising

The Easter Rising (Irish: Éirí Amach na Casca) was a militarily unsuccessful rebellion staged in Ireland against British rule on Easter Monday in April 1916. The rebellion marked the most famous attempt by militant republicans to seize control of Ireland and force independence from the United Kingdom. The Irish Republican revolutionary attempt occurred from April 24 to April 30, 1916, in which a part of the Irish Volunteers led by school teacher and barrister Padraig Pearse and the smaller Irish Citizen Army of James Connolly seized key locations in Dublin and proclaimed an Irish Republic independent of Britain. The event is seen as a key point on the road to Irish independence, though it marked a split between republicanism and mainstream Irish nationalism, which had hitherto accepted a promise of limited autonomy under the British crown, enshrined in the Third Home Rule Act, which had been enacted in 1914, but suspended for the duration of World War I.


Planning the Rising

While the Easter Rising was for the most part carried out by the Irish Volunteers, it was planned by the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). Shortly after the outbreak of World War I on August 4, 1914, the Supreme Council of the IRB met and, under the old dictum that "England's difficulty is Ireland's opportunity", decided to take action sometime before the conclusion of the war. To this end, the IRB's treasurer, Tom Clarke formed a Military Committee to plan the rising, initially consisting of Pearse, Eamonn Ceannt, and Joseph Plunkett, with himself and Sean MacDermott added shortly thereafter. All of these were members of both the IRB, and (with the exception of Clarke) the Irish Volunteers. Since its inception in 1913, they had surreptitiously hijacked the Volunteers, and had fellow IRB members elevated to officer rank whenever possible, hence by 1916 a large portion of Volunteer leadership were devoted republicans in favor of physical force. A notable exception was the founder and Chief-of-Staff Eoin MacNeill, who was determined to use the Volunteers as a bargaining tool with Britain following World War I, and who was certainly opposed to any rebellion that stood little chance of success. Nevertheless, the IRB hoped to either win him over to their side (through deceit if necessary) or bypass his command altogether. They had little success with either plan.

The plan encountered its first major hurdle when James Connolly, head of the Irish Citizen Army, a group of armed socialist labor union men, completely unaware of the IRB's plans, threatened to initiate a rebellion on their own if other parties refused to act. As the ICA was barely 200 strong, any action they might take would result in a fiasco, and spoil the chance of a potentially successful rising by the Volunteers. Thus the IRB leaders met with Connolly and convinced him to join forces with them. They agreed to act together the following Easter.

In an effort to thwart informers, and, indeed, the Volunteers' own leader, early in April Pearse issued orders for 3 days of "parades and manoeuvres" by the Volunteers for Easter Sunday (which he had the authority to do, as Director of Organization). The idea was that the true republicans with the organization (particularly IRB members) would know exactly what this meant, while men such as MacNeill and the British authorities in Dublin Castle would take it at face value. Of course this was too much to hope for, and MacNeill soon got wind of what was afoot and threatened to "do everything possible short of phoning Dublin Castle" to prevent the rising. Although he was briefly convinced to go along with some sort of action when MacDermott revealed to him that a shipment of German arms was about to land in County Kerry, planned by the IRB in conjunction with Sir Roger Casement (who ironically had just landed in Ireland in an effort to stop the rising), the following day MacNeill reverted to his original position when he found out the shipment was scuttled. With the aid of his cohorts of like mind, notably Bulmer Hobson and The O'Rahilly , he issued a countermand to all Volunteers, canceling all actions for Sunday. This, however, only succeeded in putting the rising off for a day, greatly reducing the number of men who would turn out.

The Rising

The plan, largely devised by Plunkett (and apparently very similar to a plan worked out independently by Connolly), was to seize strategic buildings throughout Dublin in order to cordon off the city, and resist the inevitable attack by the British Army. The Dublin division had been organized into 4 battalions, each under a commandant who the IRB made sure were loyal to them. A makeshift 5th battalion was put together from parts of the others, and with the aid of the ICA. This was the battalion of the headquarters at the General Post Office, and included the President and Commander-in-Chief, Pearse, the commander of the Dublin division, Connolly, as well as Clarke, MacDermott, Plunkett, and a young captain named Michael Collins. Meanwhile the 1st battalion under Commandant Ned Daly seized the Four Courts and areas to the northwest, the 2nd battalion under Thomas MacDonagh established itself at Jacob's Biscuit Factory, south of city center, in the east Commandant Eamon de Valera commanded the 3rd battalion at Boland's Bakery, and Ceannt's 4th battalion took the workhouse known as the South Dublin Union to the southwest. Members of the ICA also commandeered St. Stephen's Green and Dublin's City Hall. Ideological tensions came to the fore when a Volunteer officer gave an order to shoot looters, only to be angrily countermanded by James Connolly.

As MacNeill's countermand basically prevented all areas outside of Dublin from rising, the command of all active rebels fell under Connolly, who fortunately had the best tactical mind of the group. After being badly wounded, Connolly was still able to command by having himself moved around on a bed. (Although he had the dubious achievement of insisting that a capitalist government would never use artillery against their own property. It took the British less than 48 hours to prove him wrong.) The British worked slowly, unsure of how many they were up against, and put their efforts into securing the approaches to Dublin Castle and isolating the headquarters at the GPO, before the gunboat Helga shelled large parts of the city and burned much of it down. Their plan by and large worked very well. Outnumbering the rebels with approximately 4500 British troops and 1000 police (the insurgent Volunteers are estimated at about 1000 and the ICA at under 250),they bypassed many of the defenses, and isolated others to the extent that by the end of the week the only order they were able to receive was the order to surrender. The headquarters itself saw little real action. Perhaps its most noteworthy moment was when Pearse read the Proclamation of the Republic to a largely indifferent crowd outside the GPO. After that the rebels barricaded themselves within the post office and were soon shelled from afar, unable to return effective fire, until they were forced to abandon their headquarters when their position became untenable. On Saturday, April 29, from the new headquarters on Moore Street, after realizing that all that could be achieved was the further death of civilians, Pearse issued an order for all companies to surrender.

The rebels had little public support at the time, and hundreds of people were killed and wounded, (mostly civilians caught in the crossfire). Some 3000 suspects were arrested and 15 leaders (including all seven signatories of the independence proclamation) were executed (May 312). Among them was the already mortally wounded Connolly, shot in a chair because he was unable to stand. At the time the executions were demanded in motions passed in Irish local authorities and by many newspapers, including the Irish Independent in an editorial. Prisoners being transported to internment camps in Wales were jeered and spat upon by angry Dubliners.

Infiltrating Sinn Féin

The executions marked the beginning in a change in Irish opinion, much of which had until now seen the rebels as irresponsible adventurists whose actions were likely to harm the nationalist cause. As freed detainees reorganised the Republican forces, nationalist sentiment slowly began to swing behind the hitherto small monarchist Sinn Féin party, ironically not itself involved in the uprising, but which the British government and Irish media wrongly blamed for being behind the Rising. The surviving Rising leaders, under Eamon de Valera, infiltrated Sinn Féin and deposed its previous monarchist leadership under Arthur Griffith, who had founded the party in 1905 to campaign for an Anglo-Irish dual monarchy. Sinn Féin and the Irish Parliamentary Party fought a series of inconclusive battles, with each winning by-elections, until the Conscription Crisis of 1918 (when Britain tried to force conscription on Ireland) swung public opinion behind Sinn Féin.

There was a Boer uprising in South Africa at the start of World War I when Afrikaners who wished to break the link between South Africa and the British Empire, allied themselves with the Germans of German South West Africa. The revolt was crushed by the forces loyal to the South African Government. In contrast to the British reaction to the Easter Rising, in a gesture of reconciliation the South African government was lenient on those rebel leaders who survived the rebellion and encouraged them to work for change within the constitution. This strategy worked and there were no further armed rebellions by Afrikaners who opposed links with Britain. In 1921 Jan Smuts a leading South African statesman and soldier was able to bring this example to the notice of the British Prime Minster David Lloyd George and it helped to persuade the British Government to compromise when negotiating the Anglo-Irish Treaty. "What if the British had been lenient to the Irish rebel leaders" is one of the interesting speculations on Anglo Irish relations.

1918 General Election

The general elections to the British Parliament in December 1918 resulted in a Sinn Féin landslide in Ireland (though most of seats were uncontested), most of whose MPs gathered in Dublin to proclaim the Irish Republic (January 21, 1919) under the President of Dáil Éireann, Eamon de Valera, who had escaped execution in 1916 through luck. (His physical location away from the other prisoners prevented his immediate execution, while his American citizenship led to a delay while the legal situation was clarified. By the time a decision was taken to execute him, and his name had risen to the top of the executions list, all executions had been halted.)

Long-term Impact

The Rising is generally seen as having been doomed to military defeat from the outset, and to have been understood as such by its leaders: critics have seen in it elements of a "blood sacrifice" in line with some of the romantically-inclined Pearse's writings. Though the precursor to Irish statehood, it did nothing to reassure Protestant unionists in Ireland.

Although recognised and treated as an important stage in Ireland's historical political development, neither the modern-day Republic of Ireland nor the vast majority of its citizenry treat it as the starting date of independence. Instead, the 1922 date of the coming into being of the Irish Free State, as a result of the Anglo-Irish Treaty signed between Irish delegates and the British government in 1921 after the Anglo-Irish War, is considered the starting date of independence as this is when it was first formally recognised by the British.

Until the 1970s, the Irish state commemorated the Easter Rising with a major military parade through Dublin. Those parades have been discontinued.

Irish poet and statesman William Butler Yeats published the poem 'Easter 1916' in 1921, and the poem is among his most popular works. In this poem he specifically cites some of the key figures of the uprising (including Connelly, Pearse, etc), some of whom were his close friends.

Over eighty years later, another momentous event in the history of Ireland occurred at Easter time. The Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998 in an attempt to finally put to rest the troubles of the island.

Socialism and the Easter Rising

The Easter Rising has sometimes been described as the first socialist revolution in Europe. Whether or not such a statement is true is debatable. Of the leaders, only James Connolly was devoted to the socialist cause. Although the others nominally accepted the notion of a socialist state in order to convince Connolly to join them, their dedication to this concept is highly questionable at best. Political and cultural revolutions were much more important in their minds than economic revolution. Certainly men like Pearse were resigned to the notion that the rising would be a military failure, and thus any promises pertaining to its aftermath were inconsequential. Connolly clearly was skeptical of his colleagues' sincerity on the subject, and was prepared for an ensuing class struggle following the establishment of a republic. Many years later, the Soviet Union would be the first country to recognise the Republic of Ireland.

Men executed for their role in the Easter Rising


  • Max Caulfield, The Easter Rebellion, Dublin 1916 ISBN 1-57098-042-X
  • Tim Pat Coogan, 1916: The Easter Rising ISBN 0-304-35902-5
  • Michael Foy and Brian Barton, The Easter Rising ISBN 0-7509-2616-3
  • Robert Kee, The Green Flag
  • F.X. Martin (ed.), Leaders and Men of the Easter Rising, Dublin 1916
  • Dorothy McCardle, The Irish Republic
  • F.S.L. Lyons, Ireland Since the Famine ISBN 0006332005
  • John A. Murphy, Ireland In the Twentieth Century

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