Next month marks the centennial of the Easter Rising. To many the day is remembered as the beginning of Irish independence from England. Others see it as the beginning of a destructive conflict that claimed far too many lives.
On April 24th, 1916, around a thousand armed men seized control of buildings in the center of Dublin. They called for an end to British occupation and the establishment of a Free Irish Republic. Led by small groups of Irish separatists commanded by men like James Connelly and Patrick Pearse, the parties had secretly cached arms in preparation for a general uprising. They took up position in the General Post Office where they intended to fight for the liberation of their homeland. Meanwhile, the London government, rejecting any such demands, was making plans to put down yet another in a long series of Irish Rebellions.
To understand how events led to the Easter Rising, it’s important to step back a bit and look at the history of British rule in Ireland.
In the medieval era, Ireland was divided into a collection of independent kingdoms united by a common language and culture. The Romans who colonized Britain never settled in Ireland, nor did the waves of Germanic invaders who settled in England. As a result, Ireland retained a distinct Celtic identity, different than the Latin and later Germanic influenced culture and language that prevailed in England.
In 1169, the Normans who had seized control of England launched a series of invasions into Ireland, bringing it under the control of the English Crown. While I don’t want to gloss over too much of what happened afterwards, let’s just say that that for almost the next 750 years the English ruled Ireland, first as an independent Kingdom, and starting in 1800 as part of the United Kingdom of England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales.
For most of that time the relationship was a pretty exploitative one. English landowners took control of large Irish Estates where crops and livestock were raised for export back to England. Whereas before the Irish had used the land to support themselves, now they farmed it to enrich landlords back in England while they themselves were forced to subsist largely on potatoes. It was a situation that led to the deaths of over one million Irish people in the 19th century when the potato crops failed. Many allege that the English, who largely regarded the Catholic Irish as backwards savages, didn’t go too far out of their way to help with the situation.
Needless to say, the Irish weren’t super thrilled about this arrangement, which is evident when you consider that the Easter rising was something like the 19th major rebellion in Ireland since the Norman invasions. Each time the English stepped in to put the risings down with ruthless efficiency.
So that explains the motivations behind the Easter Rising, but why 1916? Well, if you recall from your history classes, that was right in the middle of WWI, which made 1916 a great time for another crack at independence for a lot of reasons. First, the British had most of their available manpower committed on the continent, so they were pretty distracted. Second the Germans, seeing an opportunity to weaken their enemies, had approached a number of Irish Republican leaders with promises of support. Finally,a lot of people in
Finally,a lot of people in Ireland didn’t like the idea of getting conscripted to fight on the continent. Though conscription wasn’t forced on Ireland until the final year of the war, it was a constant source of anxiety. The first World War was the most devastating conflict up to that point in human history. Men came home shattered by it, physically and mentally.
Understandably, patriotic Irishmen weren’t too excited by the notion of getting their legs shredded by an artillery shell over some god-forsaken patch of mud in Flanders for a government that was oppressing them way more than the Germans ever intended to.
So on Easter 1916, Irish Republicans seized control of several buildings in the Dublin city center. As they moved in they often found themselves fighting other Irishmen who were in favor of the union. At Trinity College the Republicans were repelled by a handful of armed student unionists.
As the sun set the next day, Lord Wimborne, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, declared martial law. Police forces and military units moved in to take back control of the city. By the 26th of April, British forces engaged in heavy fighting on the outskirts of the city with rebel units. As they moved across a bridge into the city, a small unit of just 17 volunteers held them up for most of an afternoon, inflicting over 240 casualties at the cost of four dead. As the day drew to a close, the military units had routed most of the defenders of the city and driven them back towards their positions in the city center.
The police and army made few distinctions between rebels and civilians, arresting men of military age en masse and occasionally summarily executing those they suspected to be rebels.
Artillery was called into position around the last Republican-held position at the post office and, after a few hours of shelling, they surrendered rather than be buried in the rubble. Sporadic resistance continued outside the city, but by the end of the week, the rebellion was over. It seemed to have been a failure. The leaders were in custody and the Union Jack still flew over Dublin. Total casualties had been close to 500 dead or wounded among the police and military and 318 dead among both Republicans and civilians along with over 2,000 injured. Most of these had come from indiscriminate shelling of the city, large portions of which were now in ruins.
The rebellion put down, the British police moved to arrest those that they held responsible. In all, over 3,000 men were detained, although most were later released. However,90 of the leaders not killed in the fighting, including James Connolly were tried and executed by firing squad.
In Dublin, reactions to the uprising were mixed. There were those who considered it a heroic act of resistance, although it seems there were many who resented the Republicans for the destruction their actions had invited. Robert Holland, who fought in the Rising remembered being “subjected to very ugly remarks and cat-calls from the poorer classes” as he was led into custody.
If anything helped sway opinion towards independence it was the heavy-handed British response to the Rising. Angered by what they saw as an act of betrayal during wartime, the government of the UK gave police and their auxiliary volunteers, which is never a phrase you associate with fair and just policing, a wide latitude when it came to suppressing dissent.
Just three years later, simmering resentment boiled over once more into rebellion, beginning the Irish War of Independence. In many ways, it was the legacy of the Easter Rising that culminated in this conflict, which would see the creation of a free Irish republic in 1922.
This wouldn’t be the end of violence in Ireland, however. While most of Ireland was incorporated into the Republic, the Northern Irish, who were primarily protestant in contrast with the Catholic south and in favor of union with Britain remained as part of the UK. Irish Nationalists, who considered the presence of British Rule anywhere on the island an injustice, formed the Irish Republican Army who carried on a struggle some regard as a guerrilla war and others as blatant terrorism. This period of violence continued into the 1980’s, a time known as “The Troubles”.
In many ways the legacy of Easter 1916 continues to this day, making it one of the most significant days in Irish history.