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Updated on August 10, 2013


Not only did the British government employ the start of World War I as an excuse to delay Home Rule for Ireland, but made participation in it the stick for the Irish to get the carrot of self-government when the conflict ended. The men of Eire responded, encouraged by Irish Party leader John Redmond, to the number of 160,000 serving in France during the war, while 30,000 made the ultimate sacrifice. Other Irish patriots refused to fight for an English king, and saw England’s troubles as Ireland’s opportunity. Coordinated by leaders of the IRB (Irish Republican Brotherhood), plans for an uprising were formulated. The movement hoped to draw upon the strength of the Gaelic revival that had been sweeping the country.

Despite the best efforts of the British to stamp out all things Irish, resurgence in Gaelic culture began in the late 1800’s. The spirit could be found in this exclamation by Young Irelander Thomas Davis, “Ireland free, yes, but at all hazards, Ireland Gaelic.” People began taking Irish language classes, to learn the native tongue. The GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) was founded in 1884 to promote Irish games, such as hurling and Gaelic football, while scorning British sports, like rugby and cricket. Playwrights and authors, W.B. Yeats among them, opened the Abbey Theater in Dublin to put on productions that extolled the virtues of Kathleen Ni Houlihan (Ireland).

It was in this atmosphere that the leaders of 1916 were born and raised. It became their inspiration, and they were willing to sacrifice themselves for Ireland. “To break their strength and die, they and a few, in bloody protest, for a glorious thing.”- Padraic Pearse, 1916. As in the past, they were an unlikely bunch of revolutionaries: school teachers, poets, aristocrats, clerks, and the like. Most were also in the secret IRB, which had infiltrated into the highest ranks of the Irish Volunteers, the Nationalist force raised in response to the Protestant army in Ulster. The Volunteers numbered 100,000, but trained with hurley sticks, as weapons were in short supply. The head of the Volunteers was Eoin MacNeill, who was not in the IRB, and whom the IRB leadership kept in the dark about the planned rebellion, even though they were going to use his men.

There was another group the IRB needed to connect with, one which they feared might launch their own revolt prematurely. These were the Dublin workers, organized by labor leader James Connolly, in a force known as the Citizen’s Army. Connolly also believed violence was the only means of getting the British out of Ireland, “Deep in the heart of Ireland has sunk the sense of degradation wrought upon its people, so deep and humiliating that no agency less powerful than the red tide of war on Irish soil will ever enable the Irish race to recover its self-respect.”- James Connolly, 1916. The alliance of the Volunteers and Citizen’s Army set the day of Easter Sunday, April, 23, 1916 for the uprising to begin, coinciding with the arrival of a shipment of arms from Germany.

Like a broken record, this rebellion, similar to so many before, seemed destined to derail before getting started. The British navy intercepted the German ship carrying arms, and forced it to scuttle. Eoin MacNeill was finally told what was about to happen, and printed an announcement on Holy Saturday telling all Volunteers throughout the nation not to gather for “exercises” the next day. The leaders debated whether to call the whole thing off, but determined to only delay one day to Easter Monday. There would not be time to countermand MacNeill’s order for the countryside units, but perhaps they could still join in once they heard Dublin had risen.

At midday, Monday, April 24, 1916, a ragged assembly of soldiers left Liberty Hall in Dublin (headquarters of the Citizen Army), and began marching through the streets. The largest contingent headed for the GPO (General Post Office) on O’Connell St., while smaller units splintered off to occupy other prominent sites around the city. Upon reaching their destination, the men stormed up the GPO steps with a shout, burst into the lobby, frightening the few patrons inside. Windows were quickly smashed as furniture was piled up to form barricades. A bit later, a tall, thin man appeared on the top step, and began reading a proclamation: “We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland…”- Proclamation of the Irish Republic. At the bottom of the document were the signatures of 7 men whose names would be forever engraved in the history of the Emerald Isle- Padraic Pearse, Thomas Clarke, Thomas MacDonagh, Sean MacDiarmada, James Connolly, Eamonn Ceannt, and Joseph Plunkett. The man (it was Pearse, the central driving force behind the revolt) and his speech did not generate much attention, a few snickers being heard from those who actually stopped and listened. When finished, Padraic Pearse turned around and walked back into the GPO. The Easter Rising was underway.

It took time for the British authorities to realize the rebels were in earnest. Once they did, large reinforcements were rushed to Dublin. Despite being greatly outnumbered in men and weaponry, the Volunteers and Citizen Army put up stiff resistance. The best example was several snipers holding up an entire British regiment for 6 hours as they tried to cross the Mount Street Bridge into the city. After six days, survivors at the GPO and other locations finally surrendered. Communications being cut between Dublin and the rest of Ireland early on, help from the countryside never materialized.

The majority of Dubliners were at first angered by the rebellion. Many had husbands, fathers, and sons serving in the British Army. The center of their city was in ruins. Crowds jeered and threw garbage as the rebel prisoners were paraded through the streets to detention camps. How would London react to this disturbance in its backyard while the slaughter of British troops continued in France? A few urged caution and leniency- “It is not an Irish rebellion; it would be a pity if ‘ex post facto’ it became one.”- Augustine Birrell, British Home Secretary. “The rebellion in Ireland was a direct result of the British government shamelessly pandering to a small minority of Protestants in the northeast corner of the predominantly Catholic island.” – General John Maxwell, British commander in Ireland.

Unfortunately, these voices of reason were ignored. London responded swiftly and brutally to the outbreak. 16 of the ringleaders, including all 7 signatories of the Independence Proclamation were summarily executed. The rest of the rebels were sent to prisons in England. The harshness of the British reaction turned public opinion in Ireland. People began to view the insurrectionists as heroes and martyrs, men willing to lay down their lives for a free Ireland, not one subjugated within the British Empire. The visionary Padraic Pearse saw it all coming: “Life springs from death, and from the graves of patriots spring live nations.”- 1916

It was for the soul of Eire

Awaking in speech she knew

When the clans held the glens and the mountains

And the hearts of her chiefs were true

She hath stirred at last in her sleeping

She is folding her dreams away

The hour of her destiny neareth

And it may be today- to-day!

“A Gaelic Song”- Ethna Carberry







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