The following is taken from “England’s Difficulty, Ireland’s Opportunity” A Chronology of Easter Week 1916 a talk given for Athboy 100 by Máire Ní Mhórdha on 23rd March 2016 in The Darnley Lodge Hotel, Athboy.
There are many reasons why the Easter Week rebels felt the need for an armed uprising in 1916. The 1798 United Irishmen uprising, aided by the French Republic, was an inspirational event for subsequent radical traditions. But while the politics of the rebellion are frequently referenced, its effects on the economy are often overlooked. After the uprising failed, the British government severely limited Irish autonomy within the empire, disbanding what was known as “Grattan’s Parliament” in the 1800 Act of Union, which reinstated direct, colonial, rule over Ireland.
The results of this were devastating for the southern Irish economy. The Famine of the 1840s, when a million people starved in a country rich in food, and lost a million more to emigration, halved the population of the island, and fundamentally changed the political economy of rural Ireland, clearing huge swathes of land that had been farmed by smallholders. Into this vacuum emerged a powerful tenant farmer class.
Decimated by underdevelopment and traumatized by famine, Ireland was also fertile ground for a rising Catholic church, whose clergy disproportionately came from the large tenant farming or bourgeois backgrounds — the sections of Irish society that could afford to educate their children.
Many saw the Church, itself repressed by British imperial authorities, as a more reliable ally than the government and turned to its institutions rather than the state. The Church’ involvement in campaigns for Catholic emancipation and repeal of the Act of Union deepened this affinity.
The rise of the Catholic Church also had consequences for the status of women. While by no means liberated, women in pre-famine Ireland often had a role on the farm and even used their weaving and spinning skills to achieve a degree of economic independence. Over time industrialization made those skills obsolete and the rise of large tenant farms reduced the need for women’s labour. The Catholic Church wrote a new role for women, as the religious head of the family, urging them to take their place in the home and raise their children in the faith.
The long-awaited Home Rule Bill, although on the statute books, was not due to come into effect until after World War 1. More than 60 million Europeans — including 210,000 Irish, fighting for Britain — fought in one of the largest wars in history. Over nine million were killed, including at least 35,000 Irishmen. John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party — the dominant force in nationalist politics — had called on Irishmen to enlist in the British Army, hoping this would secure Home Rule at a later stage.
In 1916, nationalist Ireland was deeply frustrated at the lack of progress on Home Rule, and as the British faced the major challenges of the War, the republican dictum ‘England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity’ provoked those on the radical fringes of Irish nationalism to resort to physical force. These factors, along with the threat of conscription — and later the horror of the 1916 executions — would compound the consequences of the Easter Rising.
By the early 20th century, Ireland’s economic decline had produced widespread misery. Dublin’s slums were recognized as some of the worst in the world. The mortality rate was 227.6 per 1,000 — worse than Calcutta. 25,000 families lived in single-room tenements, often located in the grand Georgian houses of the departed aristocracy, a haunting reminder of the prosperity the city had lost.
Amid growing poverty and inequality, the Fenians aimed to achieve the 1798 mission of an independent republic, declaring in 1867 that “the soil of Ireland, at present in the possession of an oligarchy, belongs to us, the Irish people, and to us it must be restored.”
The men and women of the IRB behind the Easter Rising were a relatively diverse group, from a range of class and religious backgrounds, inspired by political motivations involving the questions of national identity and social justice that were beginning to spark in Europe and beyond.
Above all, the rebels were united in their desire to rid Ireland of British rule their ideals perhaps best summed up in the words of Roger Casement:
‘The British Empire, and British colonialism, is everywhere a usurpation of the rights of humanity… When Irish nationalists claim our right to self-determination we strike not only at our national subjection but also at the chains that hold Africa and Asia in the same humiliation.’
Run-up to the Rising: Key Actors
The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB)
The Irish Republican Brotherhood was a secret, oath-bound fraternal organisation dedicated to the establishment of an “independent democratic republic” in Ireland. In 1867, the IRB staged an unsuccessful uprising and by the turn of the century the Brotherhood as an effective organisation was in decline. New members, Bulmer Hobson and Denis McCullough, began to revive it with the assistance of Seán MacDiarmada. By 1915 the old stock had been replaced and there were now an estimated 2,000 dedicated members of this highly secretive organisation.
The Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA)
The GAA was founded in 1884 by Michael Cusack and P.W. Nally, with the aim of promoting Irish games and building up a strong and healthy population. The IRB was well established within the GAA and used it to recruit new members. Members of the security forces, such as the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), were banned from the GAA.
The Gaelic League/Conradh na Gaeilge
Co-founded by Douglas Hyde, Eoin MacNeill and Fr Eugene O’Growney in 1893, the aim of the Gaelic League was to revive and promote the Irish language, Gaeilge, with had been in decline since the Great Famine. The League encouraged female participation from the start and a number of women played prominent roles. Pádraig Pearse was the editor of the League’s newsletter, An Claidheamh Soluis (The Sword of Light). The League was infiltrated by the IRB who recruited from amongst the more dedicated nationalist members.
1913 Lockout and the Irish Citizen Army
Jim Larkin, the union organiser from Liverpool, founded the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU). In August 1913, Larkin called a general strike in Dublin for better pay and conditions. The Employers’ Federation, under William Martin Murphy, reacted strongly by ‘locking out’ the workers. The Dublin Metropolitan Police attacked strikers, killing three workers and wounding hundreds more. In reaction to this, Larkin, and James Connolly, an Edinburgh-born Socialist, founded the Irish Citizen Army. The ICA armed themselves to protect the strikers from the brutal tactics of the police and attracted a membership of 400. When the strike was broken due to hunger and extreme poverty, Larkin left for America, effectively leaving Connolly with his own personal army of dedicated Republican Socialists.
The Citizen Army, who trained and based themselves around the union building, Liberty Hall, were one of the first military forces in Ireland to accept women as full members. Their most prominent recruit was the Countess Markievicz who became the Honorary Treasurer and one of the better shots in the Army.
Arthur Griffith was the founder of a newspaper, The United Irishman, thanks to funding received from Clan na Gael, the Irish-American organisation. In 1900, Griffith founded Cumann na Gaedhal to promote a ‘Buy Irish’ campaign, effectively an economic version of the Gaelic League’s cultural campaign. In 1903, Griffith set up the National Council to protest against the visit of Edward VII to Ireland. Meanwhile, Hobson and McCullough had set up societies all over the province of Ulster, called Dungannon Clubs, to promote separatism from Britain.
Between the years 1905 and 1908, Cumann na Gaedhal, The National Council and the Dungannon Clubs amalgamated to form Sinn Féin (We Ourselves).
Sinn Féin were mistakenly accused of being behind the 1916 Rising but it’s clear from the Proclamation who the organisers were.
The Ulster Volunteers
Home Rule was about to be introduced in Ireland. This was not acceptable to Ireland’s Unionist population, who were based mainly in the province of Ulster, and wished to remain part of the British Empire. In January 1913, Edward Carson set up the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) to ‘defend’ Ulster against Home Rule. The UVF imported 25,000 rifles in April 1914, and were acting as a semi-legal army.
The Irish Volunteers
In November 1913, over 3,000 men were inaugurated into a similar militia for Nationalists
called the Irish Volunteers under Chief-of-Staff Eoin MacNeill. Their aim was to ‘secure the rights and liberties common to all the people of Ireland.’ At one stage, there were over 180,000 Irish Volunteers (for the most part unarmed), a figure which caused some alarm to the British government. The real organisers behind the Irish Volunteers were the IRB, who viewed them as a revolutionary force, and planned on using the organisation to stage an armed rebellion, with the goal of separating Ireland from the United Kingdom and establishing a republic.
Cumann na mBan
Cumann na mBan was an Irish republican women’s paramilitary organisation formed in Dublin in 1914. Its main organisers were Agnes O’Farrelly, Mary MacSwiney, and Constance Markievicz. When the organisation merged with the suffragette movement, Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland) in 1916, they adopted a uniform and became a regular army and auxiliary force of the Irish Volunteers. Its recruits were from diverse backgrounds, mainly white-collar and professional women, but with a significant proportion also from the working class. In September 1914, the Irish Volunteers split over John Redmond’s appeal for its members to enlist in the British Army and fight in World War 1.
The majority of Cumann na mBan members supported the rump of between 10,000 and 14,000 volunteers who rejected this call and who retained the original name, the Irish Volunteers.
The Howth Gun-Running
On July 26th, 1914, the Irish Volunteers unloaded a shipment of 900 Mauser rifles from ‘The Asgard,’ a yacht belonging to Erskine Childers. The rifles, along with 45,000 rounds, had been purchased from Germany. The unloading of guns from a private yacht during daylight hours attracted a crowd, and the authorities ordered police and military intervention. The Volunteers successfully evaded the security forces. As the soldiers returned to barracks, they were accosted by civilians at Bachelors’ Walk, throwing stones. The soldiers shot into the unarmed crowd and bayoneted one man, resulting in the deaths of four civilians and wounding 38. The incident and casualties caused widespread outrage across the country. A week later, on August 4th, 1914, Britain declared war on Germany.
Run-up to the Rising:
Timeline of events
4 August 1914 – Following the declaration of the First World War, Home Rule for Ireland is shelved for the duration of the war.
9 September 1914 – A meeting is held at the Gaelic League headquarters between the IRB and other extreme republicans. The initial decision is made to stage an uprising while Britain is at war.
29 September 1914 – John Redmond urges the Irish Volunteers to enlist in the British Army. A split occurs in the movement as 170,000 leave and form the National Volunteers or Redmondites. Only around 11,000 remain as the Irish Volunteers under Eoin MacNeill.
May-September 1914 – The Military Council of the IRB is formed consisting of Pádraig Pearse, Joseph Mary Plunkett, Eamonn Ceannt, Seán MacDiarmada and Thomas Clarke. These men take effective control of the plans for the Rising.
August 1914 – Pearse gives a fiery oration at the funeral of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa,
warning Britain that ‘Ireland unfree will never be at peace.’
19 January 1916 – James Connolly is encouraged to join the IRB and is voted onto the
Military Council thus ensuring that the Irish Citizen Army will be involved in the Rising.
Thomas MacDonagh becomes the seventh member of the Military Council several weeks
later date. The date of the Rising is confirmed for Easter Sunday.
9 April 1916 – The Libau sets sail from Lubeck in Germany. Captain Karl Spindler changes
the name of the ship to the Aud to avoid detection by the British who would be very interested in her cargo of 20,000 rifles bound for Tralee Bay on the south west coast of
12 April 1916 – Roger Casement boards submarine U-19 at Wilmshaven, Germany, bound for a rendezvous with the Aud at Tralee. With him are Robert Monteith, an IRB man and Sergeant Daniel Bailey, a former prisoner of war who had joined Casement’s Irish Brigade. Casement was tired and ill after many months in Germany seeking military assistance for the Rising.
19th April 1916 – IRB present Eoin MacNeill with a letter, allegedly stolen from high-ranking British staff in Dublin Castle, indicating that the British were going to arrest him and all the other nationalist leaders. However, unknown to MacNeill, the letter, called the Castle Document, was a forgery. When MacNeill learned about the IRB’s plans, and when he was informed that Roger Casement was about to land in County Kerry with a shipment of German arms, he was reluctantly persuaded to go along with them, believing British action was now imminent and mobilisation of the Irish Volunteers would be a defensive act.
20th April – The Aud arrives at Tralee Bay. As the local Volunteers expect the ship to arrive on Easter Saturday, the arms are not landed. Spindler waits in vain for a signal from shore.
21st April – Roger Casement and his two companions go ashore from U-19 and land on Banna Strand. Bailey and Monteith go to seek the local Volunteers. Hours later Casement is discovered at McKenna’s Fort and is arrested by the Royal Irish Constabulary. Later that day the Aud is captured by the British Navy and forced to sail towards Cork Harbour.
22nd April, 1am -Captain Spindler and his crew scuttle the Aud to prevent her precious cargo falling into enemy hands. The weapons for the Rising are lost to the sea off Daunt’s Rock.
10pm – After learning of Casement’s arrest and the loss of the promised German arms, andconfronting Patrick Pearse, MacNeill countermanded the order for the Rising in print. The O’Rahilly journeys South with these orders.
23rd April, 9am – The Military Council of the IRB meet to discuss the situation, considering MacNeill has placed an advertisement in a Sunday newspaper halting all Volunteer operations. The Rising is put on hold for 24 hours. Hundreds of copies of The Proclamation of the Republic are printed in Liberty Hall.
Monday April 24th – 12 Noon The 1916 Rising begins in Dublin
The British had not put any military arrangements in place after they learned of Casement’ arrest and in Dublin, they had just 400 troops in a state of “immediate readiness”. At Dublin Castle, just six soldiers stood guard. Many soldiers were on holiday leave, or planned to attend the races in Fairyhouse. The Proclamation was printed that day on the printing press in Liberty Hall with Tom Clarke and Countess Markievicz still fuming that MacNeill had scuppered their plans for the uprising. Although the failure to land the German weapons, along with MacNeill’s countermand, had devastated what was left of the Irish Volunteers, leaving them dispirited and confused, at noon on Easter Monday the Rising was begun, however with extremely reduced numbers.
In Dublin, the Volunteers, the Irish Citizen Army and Cumann na mBan totaled just 3,000 and the number of Irish Volunteers in the country as a whole was no more than 12,000.
The plan was to occupy a number of defensible buildings in Dublin and hold out until there was a general rebellion by the Irish Volunteers throughout the country. The Rising began as Pearse, Connolly, MacDiarmada and Plunkett led the Irish Volunteers marching from Liberty Hall to the GPO in Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street).
Meanwhile, Eamonn Ceannt led the 4th Battalion to the South Dublin Union, and Thomas
MacDonagh led the 2nd Battalion to Jacob’s biscuit factory. However, the rebels failed to
capture the undefended centre of the administration at Dublin Castle.
Rebel Helena Molony described Abbey actor Sean Connolly’s attempt to take Dublin Castle
as she followed with other Irish Citizen Army women.
“It was at the castle the first shot was fired. I, with my girls, followed Sean Connolly and his party. We went right up to the Castlegate, up the narrow street. Just then a police sergeant came out, and seeing our determination he thought it was a parade, and that it would probably be going up Ship Street. When Connolly went to go past him, the sergeant put out his arm, and Connolly shot him dead. When the military guard saw that it was serious, he pulled the gates to.”
The rebels lost their chance to storm the Castle because of indecision and hesitation, and Molony recalled: “On theflash, the gates were closed.”
Despite this failure, on the north side of the city the Four Courts were seized by Ned Daly’s fighters while Sean Heuston took the Mendicity Institute on the south side. St Stephen’s Green and the College of Surgeons were occupied by the Citizen Army under Michael Mallin and Countess Markievicz while Eamon de Valera was in charge at Boland’s Mill. The rebels set up barricades around the city.
Back at the GPO, Pearse proclaimed the establishment of the Republic to ambivalent
Dubliners. Pearse began:
“Irishmen and Irishwomen: In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom…”
The rebels hoisted their flag atop the GPO. It was green with a golden harp and the words “Irish Republic”. Within a couple of hours, the city centre was under rebel control as shops closed, looting began and transport services ground to a halt.
Writer James Stephens noted the general hostility towards the rebels: “None of these people were prepared for Insurrection. The thing had been sprung on them so suddenly they were unable to take sides.”
That night, the British began to respond. Government troops slipped into the Shelbourne
Hotel, unnoticed and unopposed by the rebels, giving them a key vantage point of Mallin and Markievicz’s Irish Citizen Army fighters below.
Before daylight the British had machine guns at the Shelbourne and Trinity College after
arriving in the city by train overnight from Belfast and the Curragh.
From early in the morning, the rebels were coming under heavy fire as Mallin’s fighters were forced to retreat to the College of Surgeons. Five Volunteers were reported dead and back at the GPO, Plunkett was dismayed at that group’s failure to initially claim any of the high buildings around the Green.
James Stephens reported:
“Inside the Green railings four bodies could be seen lying on the ground. They were dead Volunteers. Some distance beyond the Shelbourne I saw another Volunteer stretched out on a seat just within the railings. He was not dead, for, now and again, his hand moved feebly in a gesture for aid; the hand was completely red with blood. His face could not be seen. He was just a limp mass, upon which the rain beat pitilessly, and he was sodden and shapeless, and most miserable to see.”
Newspapers appeared on the streets but most had inaccurate reports on the Rising. The military had banned journalists from the firing line in the city centre. By the afternoon Government troops had retaken City Hall and the military authorities had begun to get to grips with the situations. By the end of the day, almost 7,000 British troops were in town.
Inside City Hall, Helena Molony and her comrades had come under heavy artillery fire and were forced to give up their position as troops stormed the building. The British were about to declare martial law in a city that was to spiral further out of control and the British gunboat the Helga moved ominously up the Liffey as the fighting intensified.
At 8am on Wednesday, the Helga trained its gun on the abandoned Liberty Hall and blasted it for one hour. Its traumatised caretaker escaped, but the building was reduced to rubble. The Irish Times, reporting on the significance of the quayside HQ, said: “For many years past Liberty Hall has been a thorn in the side of the Dublin Police and the Irish Government. It was the centre of social anarchy, the brain of every riot and disturbance.”
James Stephens recorded the mood on the day. “Most of the female opinion I heard was not alone unfavourable but actively and viciously hostile to the rising. This was noticeable among the best-dressed class of our population; the worst-dressed, indeed the female dregs of Dublin life, expressed a like antagonism, and almost in similar language. The view expressed was, ‘I hope every man of them will be shot.’ And, ‘They ought to be all shot’.”
One of the bloodiest episodes of the Rising occurred on Wednesday when Michael Malone
and his small band men held back two full British battalions, inflicting heavy casualties on them.
At 2pm, the GPO shook as heavy artillery hit Sackville Street and fires raged. The British sent General Maxwell from London to deal with the situation, with orders to “take such measures as may in your opinion be necessary for the prompt suppression of the insurrection”. Maxwell was to decide to refuse anything less than unconditional surrender from the rebels — a factor which would be aided by their exhaustion and hunger as they desperately clung to their positions in burning ruins.
By Thursday, the British had retaken control of the city, but Clery’s and the Imperial Hotel crashed to the ground as Sackville Street burned.
The next major scene of combat was North King Street where the British tried to take a well barricaded rebel position. Using Guinness lorries with improvised armored plates,
government troops drove into the rebel stronghold.
It took the North and South Staffordshire Regiments two days to capture the area as they went house to house, boring holes in the inside walls to enter the next building. Reports claimed 15 civilians and boys who had no connection with the Rising were killed, some by bayonet, in the North King Street area.
Losing the position and cut off from some of his men, Ned Daly pulled back to the Four Courts with whatever men he could reach. The struggle to hold the South Dublin Union (now St. James’s Hospital) which has been going for four days continued, often with hand-to-hand combat, under the leadership of Eamonn Ceannt and Cathal Brugha. During a battle at the Union which raged for several hours, Brugha was wounded more than 25 times before he was taken out for treatment by medical staff.
Every bank, shop and public building was closed, although the pubs remained open and
looting was rampant.
By Friday, General Maxwell had arrived in Dublin as commander-in-chief of the British
forces. He wasted no time in declaring his intentions.
“The most vigorous measures will be taken by me to stop the loss of life and damage to property which certain misguided persons are causing in their armed resistance to the law. If necessary I shall not hesitate to destroy any buildings within any area occupied by the rebels and I warn all persons within the area specified below, and now surrounded by HM troops, forthwith to leave such area.”
At the GPO, Pearse ordered the Cumann na mBan women out for their safety — despite their protests.
James Stephens reported on the scene in the city centre. “This morning there are no
newspapers, no bread, no milk, no news,” he wrote:
“The sun is shining and the streets are lively but discreet. All people continue to talk to one another without distinction of class, but nobody knows what any person thinks… The feeling that I tapped was definitely anti-Volunteer but the number of people who would speak was few… I received the impression that numbers of them did not care a rap what way it went.”
Stephens described a city that had been destroyed. “From the roof there comes the sound of machine guns. Looking towards Sackville Street one picks out easily Nelson’s Pillar which towers slenderly over all the buildings of the neighbourhood. It is wreathed in smoke.
Another towering building was the DBC cafe (Dublin Bread Company). Its Chinese-like pagoda was a landmark easily to be found, but today I could not find it. It was not there, and I knew that, even if all Sackville Street was not burned down, as rumour insisted, this great cafe had certainly been curtailed by its roof and might, perhaps, have been completely burned.”
The Volunteers still held Jacob’s factory, but elsewhere the Rising was nearing its end.
By 6pm it was clear that the rebels in the GPO would have to either break out or surrender as fire spread through the building and a badly wounded James Connolly was propped up on an iron bed. Pearse gave the order to abandon the GPO and at 8pm they decided to break out, hoping to link up with the garrison at the Four Courts. Elizabeth O’Farrell, a nurse, and one of the three Cumann na mBan members left in the GPO after Pearse ordered the others to leave, said the following of these events:
“Commandant Pearse was the last to leave the building. He went round to see that no one was left behind. We immediately preceded him, bullets raining from all quarters as we rushed to Moore Lane…”
Leading the charge, The O’Rahilly was killed. He had been director of arms for the Irish Volunteers. Despite having travelled the country in the early part of the week to spread the message of MacNeill’s countermand, hearing that the Rising went ahead anyway he had got fully involved in the fight: “I helped wind this clock and I’ve come to hear it strike,” he said. Michael Collins led the next group, who safely made it out — as did the leaders in the third group, eventually finding safety at No 16 Moore Street, although they were outnumbered, outgunned and surrounded.
Eventually, the main body of the Volunteers got into some houses in Moore Street and
O’Hanlon’s Fish Market.
There, Pearse, Connolly, Plunkett, Clarke and Mac Diarmada planned to make their way
through back streets to the Four Courts for one last stand.
Although Maxwell had demanded unconditional surrender, the wounded James Connolly was ever defiant. “For the first time in 700 years the flag of a free Ireland floats triumphantly in Dublin City,” he told the Volunteers after the retreat to Henry Street and Moore Street. However, after more horrific scenes on the northside of civilian casualties, the end had to come.
By noon, Pearse — fearing greater loss of civilian life — ordered the Volunteers to stand
down, also hoping rank-and-file Volunteers would go free. Elizabeth O’Farrell was sent to carry the white flag to a British barricade.
At 3.30pm Pearse and his GPO garrison left No 16 Moore Street. James Connolly, who was
brought to the military hospital at Dublin Castle, had agreed to unconditional surrender for Citizen Army men under his command.
Séamus Brennan, a member of the Mendicity Institution Garrison under Seán Heuston, gave the following account of the decision to surrender:
“Our tiny garrison of 26 had battled all morning against three or four hundred British troops. Machine-gun and rifle fire kept up a constant battering of our position. Seán visited each post in turn, encouraging us. But now we were faced with a new form of attack. The enemy, closing in, began to hurl grenades into the building. Our only answer was to try to catch these and throw them back before they exploded. Two of our men, Liam Staines and Dick Balfe, both close friends of Seán’s were badly wounded doing this. We had almost run out of ammunition. Dog-tired, without food, trapped, hopelessly outnumbered, we had reached the limit of our endurance. After consultation with the rest of us, Seán decided that the only hope for the wounded and, indeed, for the safety of all of us, was to surrender. Not everyone approved but the order was obeyed and we destroyed as much equipment as we could before giving ourselves up.”
According to the statement given by Séamus Brennan, the British troops were “infuriated
when they saw the pygmy force that had given them such a stiff battle and caused them so many casualties.”
“They screamed at us, cursed us, manhandled us. An officer asked who was in charge and Sean stepped out in front without a word… We were forced to march to the Royal [now Collins] Barracks with our hands up, held behind our heads. In the Barracks we were lined up on the parade ground. Here we were attacked by British soldiers, kicked, beaten, spat upon.”
Meanwhile, Pearse was taken before General Maxwell and signed a general order of surrender.
Fighting had lasted one week and resulted in the deaths of more than 250 civilians, 130
members of the British forces and over 60 rebels.
Elizabeth O’Farrell had been given surrender orders to be dispatched to various posts
throughout the city over two days, from Boland’s Mill to St Stephen’s Green, accompanied by a priest. Dodging the last of the sniper fire and trying to convince the leaders it was not a hoax were among her concerns. “This was a very difficult job and I had to take my life in my hands several times,” she said.
At Stephen’s Green, Mallin lowered the Tricolour and raised the white flag as Markievicz
kissed her automatic pistol before handing it over. At Boland’s, de Valera agreed to surrender as did Eamonn Ceannt at the South Dublin Union.
Writer James Stephens noted:
“It is half-past three o’clock, and from my window the Republican flag can still be seen flying over Jacob’s factory. There is occasional shooting, but the city as a whole is quiet. At a quarter to five o’clock a heavy gun boomed once. Ten minutes later there was heavy machine gun firing and much rifle shooting. In another 10 minutes the flag at Jacob’s was hauled down.”
Aftermath of the Rising
As silence descended on a ruined city, the people of Dublin began to count up the cost. The stunned silence of the population soon gave way to anger and recrimination – initially directed at the rebels.
General Maxwell immediately ordered the arrest of “all dangerous Sinn Feiners”, including “those who have taken an active part in the movement although not in the present rebellion”, reflecting the popular belief that Sinn Féin, a separatist organisation that was neither militant nor republican, was behind the Rising.
In total, 16 rebels were executed following the Easter Rising. These executions were the main reason for the turn about in public opinion. One major reason was the contrasting behaviour of the leaders of the two opposing sides in the days and weeks after the Rising. Whereas the rebel leaders were dignified, unshakeable and unashamed, General Maxwell, the de facto leader of Ireland, was crude and brutal. Using sweeping martial law powers, Maxwell arrested, court-martialled or detained over 3,500 people – more than twice the number involved in the Rising. Four days after the Rising, on 3 May, the first executions of its leaders took place: Pearse, MacDonagh and Clarke were shot at Kilmainham Gaol, their requests tohave a priest present at their executions denied. Over the next 9 days, the executions continued.
On 4 May, Ned Daly was executed, along with Willie Pearse, Michael O’Hanrahan and Joseph Plunkett. Plunkett had married his fiancé, the artist Grace Gifford at midnight, and a few hours later was taken out to the yard and shot. The rebels’ bodies were buried in quicklime rather than given to their relatives for funeral. Not all were leaders, and not all the leaders were shot: the Fenian John MacBride had not even been aware of the Rising until he met the Volunteers on the street and joined in; Thomas Kent did not come out at all but was executed for the killing of a police officer during the raid on his house the week after the Rising. The most prominent leader to escape execution was Éamon de Valera, partly because of his American birth.
By this time, popular opinion was shifting considerably. The letters and final statements of the executed, along with the resolve with which they met their deaths, were introducing the leaders of the rebellion to a huge audience to whom they had previously been strangers. The wiser Irish political figures, such as John Dillon, urged Prime Minister Asquith to bring ‘Bloody’ Maxwell under control and stop the executions. However, Maxwell still had two prominent figures from the Rising on his hands – James Connolly and Seán MacDiarmada.
Both were signatories of the Proclamation. But it was not only Maxwell who desired to rid Ireland of these men. William Martin Murphy, the employers’ leader during the brutal 1913 Lockout was smarting at the damage done to his property because of the Rising. He was worried that leaving Connolly alive would allow his Socialist ideas to take root and grow. Murphy used his newspaper, the Irish Independent, to campaign for Connolly’s execution. One of Murphy’s editorials urged –
At dawn on May 12th, James Connolly was taken from the Red Cross military hospital in Dublin Castle, where for 5 days British doctors and nurses had been trying to save his life, tied to a chair in the yard of Kilmainham Jail and shot. Sean MacDiarmada was executed the same morning. Roger Casement was tried in London for high treason and hanged at Pentonville Prison on 3rd August.
Recently released documents belonging to Constance Markievicz, including military plans, poems and drawings, shed light on these days. While held in Kilmainham jail, Markievicz was at her lowest ebb – she was awaiting what she assumed would be a death sentence, and many of her comrades were being executed. One poem in particular, entitled In Kilmainham, expresses these fears.
“Gray dawn and Spring
I cannot sleep
Despair is in my brain
The dead hours throu the prison creeps
As if they felt the pain
As if the pain would stop and weep
And times grim hand restrain”
This is a rare glimpse of vulnerability for the usually indefatigable Markievicz.
Soon after the executions, the literary and political work of the rebels became available and proved that far from being irresponsible criminals or German agents, the organisers of the Rising were motivated by high ideals. Continued internments, the attempted cover-up of the execution of pacifist Francis Sheehy-Skeffington and other British atrocities also began to swing public opinion. Britain’s urgent need for troops for its War effort led it to try and introduce conscription, a move that led to outrage and an immensely popular general strike. Finally, the conservative nationalist strategy of John Redmond was wearing thin as it became clear from British assurances to the Ulster Unionists that it had no intention of giving Home Rule.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that the survivors of the Rising, together with a new generation of radicals, could rally the nation for independence. Maxwell himself had contributed indirectly to the re-emergence of republicanism by interning so many prisoners in Frongoch, Wales, which became known as “Ollscoil na Réabhlóide” the “University of Revolution”. It was there that Volunteer officers who survived the Rising – most notably Michael Collins, were able to pick up the pieces of the movement leading to the War of Independence.
I will leave you with paragraph 4 of the Proclamation of the Republic:
‘The Irish Republic is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman. The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien Government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.’
And finish with an open question about the legacy of the Rising… An event which raises uncomfortable questions for the Ireland of 2016, where even the names of the rebels have been strangely omitted from many official commemorations to mark the Rising.
As Yeats wrote perceptively in his poem Easter 1916:
All is changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
Máire Ní Mhórdha, a native of Rathmore, Athboy, is a recently returned émigré after 13 years abroad. An anthropologist by training, she dabbles in history and politics when not occupied with full-time parenting. The slides which accompany this talk are available here.
If you missed this event why not come to our next event “Athboy In 1916”? See the Facebook event page for more details.