The 1916 Easter Rising was an attempt by Irish republicans to overthrow British rule and create an independent republic of Ireland. It was launched at the height of World War I when the British were occupied with events on the Western Front. Controversially, the Irish rebels received some support, including weapons, from German agents. Ireland had seen many rebellions before 1916 and most had proved unsuccessful. The Wolfe Tone rebellion, a 1798 attempt to cast off British rule and create an independent Irish state, collapsed after just a few months. The 1848 Young Ireland rebellion was also defeated, as was the 1867 Fenian uprising. Yet despite these failures, Irish Nationalists and Republicans remained determined to free themselves from British influence. The April 1916 uprising was no more successful than these previous rebellions: it was crushed by British military after just a few days and its leaders were rounded up and either executed or imprisoned. However many historians consider the Easter Rising to be a pivotal moment in Irish nationalism.
Home rule – the creation of a self-governing Irish nation within the United Kingdom – had been a pressing issue in British politics for decades. After two failed attempts, the British parliament finally passed the Irish Home Rule Act in May 1914 – however the implementation of home rule was suspended due to the outbreak of World War I. Like others in Europe, many Irish Nationalists believed the war would be over quickly, so were content to put aside the issue of home rule until after the war. But by 1916 World War I had become a long war of attrition with a staggering death toll and no end in sight. The implementation of home rule, it seemed, would be delayed indefinitely. The war also opened up fractures in the Irish Nationalist movement. Some believed the Irish should fight alongside the British in the war; others felt that Ireland had no responsibility to support Britain in a conflict with little direct meaning for Ireland. These sentiments were expressed by Nationalists like James Connolly, leader of the Irish Citizen Army (ICA):
“If these men must die, would it not be better to die in their own country fighting for freedom for their class… than to go forth to strange countries and die slaughtering and slaughtered by their brothers… that profiteers might live?”
Not all Irish Nationalists were content to delay action until after World War I. As early as 1914 members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) plotted to rebel and seize control of Ireland while Britain and its military were distracted in Europe. Setting a date for their rebellion as Easter in 1916, they worked with Nationalist supporters like the Irish-born British diplomat Sir Roger Casement. Shortly after the outbreak of the war Casement travelled to Germany to rally support for a Nationalist uprising in Ireland. The German government, hoping to distract the British by fomenting and supporting an Irish uprising, agreed to provide the Nationalists with arms and ammunition. Casement was intercepted and arrested by the British in early April 1916, days before the scheduled uprising; he was shipped to the Tower of London, put on trial for treason and executed in August. A further setback occurred when members of the Irish Volunteers, the military wing of the IRB, could not agree on the timing of the rebellion. Several of these men had fought alongside the British and had welcomed the granting of Home Rule; they believed that initiating an uprising when Britain was doing badly in a violent and bloody war was inappropriate.
In spite of these attitudes, the leader of the Irish Volunteers, Patrick Pearse, ordered that the rebellion proceed as planned. Pearse was a staunch Nationalist and a strong advocate for the nurturing an Irish identity, distinct from that of Britain (in 1908 Pearse opened his own school, St Enda’s to teach Irish language and culture). He was dedicated to an independent Irish republic rather than Home Rule as part of Great Britain. The ICA commander James Connolly was a Marxist with similar views on Irish republicanism. The rebels went ahead with their action on April 24th. They seized the Dublin General Post Office just after noon, with Pearse reading the proclamation of an independent Irish state from the steps of the post office. According to the terms of the proclamation, Pearse would serve as the republic’s first president and civil liberties would be guaranteed for all citizens. The proclamation was signed by the self-declared, provisional government, whose numbers included Thomas Clarke (who assisted in planning the uprising), Sean Mac Diarmada, Thomas MacDonagh, Eamonn Ceannt and Joseph Plunkett, as well as Pearse and Connolly. The rebels hoisted the Irish tricolour above the post office, along with a second flag containing the symbolic Irish harp. After capturing the post office the rebels seized other important strategic locations including Jacob’s Factory, Bolands Mill, the Four Courts and the College of Surgeons – locations that encircled the city centre. Smaller actions were also initiated outside the capital, mainly against Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) positions. In Ashbourne, Irish Volunteers took the headquarters of the RIC and captured key locations in nearby villages. Smaller attempts occurred in other distant places, such as Galway, where two members of the RIC were killed; and in Enniscorthy, near Wexford, where an attempt to seize the local RIC quarters failed. These rebel brigades were thin in numbers and had no radio contact, which meant they were unable to communicate effectively. This lack of coordination, combined with the arrival of significant British reinforcements, contributed to the inevitable failure of the Easter Rising.
Fearghal McGarry, historian
On Tuesday April 25th martial law was declared in Dublin and thousands of British troops were deployed in the city. These soldiers took hold of strategic positions and access points and established barricades around key locations, such as the post office, to prevent the rebels from escaping. The ongoing violence and civilian deaths, coupled with the inconvenience of having the city shut down for several days, meant the rebels enjoyed little support from locals of Dublin. By April 26th British army units were advancing through the streets of the capital. The gunboat Helga was moved up the River Liffey to fire on rebel positions; its weapons demolished the rebel stronghold at Liberty Hall before taking aim at the post office. This attack resulted in the destruction of several houses. The rebels’ fate was cemented by the arrival of over 10,000 troops from Britain by the evening of April 27th. That afternoon the GPO was ablaze and the Republicans were forced to flee to Hanlon’s Fish Shop, where they weighed up their options. Understanding that they were defeated, the rebels contacted the British to negotiate terms of surrender. But the British refused to offer terms: the only acceptable surrender was an unconditional surrender. In no position to argue, negotiate or continue the fight, the rebels surrendered on April 29th.
The Easter Rising, an ambitious attempt to spark an Ireland-wide rebellion and bring an end to British rule, had failed in less than a week. Those involved in the Rising were arrested, locals hurling abuse at them as they led away. Over 400 are believed to have been killed during the rising. The British Army claimed to lost 116 men along with 16 members of the RIC, whilst rebel and civilian deaths numbered 318 in total, of which 64 belonged to Republican groups like the ICA and IRB. The majority of those killed were members of the public, caught it the crossfire or under the British artillery bombardment. More than 3,400 people were arrested in the aftermath of the Rising, though the majority were eventually released. Ninety people were sentenced to death, including all those named as members of the Provisional Government; these rebels were executed swiftly, most dispatched in the first two weeks of May 1916. The execution of James Connolly evinced some public sympathy; Connolly’s ankle had been shattered by a British bullet and he was shot while tied to a chair. Some prominent Republicans managed to escape the executioner. Eamon de Valera was spared because his father was American and the British government was reluctant to upset the United States, a potential war ally. Michael Collins was interned at Frongoch Camp in Wales. Both men later played important roles in the struggle for an independent Ireland. Oddly, what the rebels could not achieve in life, they achieved in death. The swift and brutal execution of the Republicans raised concerns and criticisms about the British response and generated some sympathy for the Republican cause. Many of the rebels interned by the British were released as early as December 1916.
1. The Easter Rising was an attempt to seize control of Dublin, form a Republican state and incite an anti-British rebellion.
2. It was carried out by radical Republicans, most of whom were dissatisfied with delays in implementing Home Rule.
3. Armed with weapons from Germany, the rebels began their action on April 24th, seizing control of the Post Office.
4. The uprising was put down within days, following the arrival of British reinforcements and a lack of public support.
5. Though it was unsuccessful, the Easter Rising was a watershed in Irish Republicanism. The rebels were arrested and swiftly executed by the British; this brutal treatment invoked some sympathy for the Republican movement.
This page was written by Rebekah Poole and Jennifer Llewellyn. To reference this page, use the following citation:
R. Poole and J. Llewellyn, “The 1916 Easter Rising”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], http://alphahistory.com/northernireland/1916-easter-rising/.