Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising: commemorating revolution
Commemorations of Ireland’s revolutionary years have been underway since 2016. In 2016, the Easter Rising was celebrated by the people of Ireland as having been essential to the establishment of the Irish Republic. Quite rightly, the events of 24 April 1916, Easter Monday, were seen as being a pivotal moment. Every primary school was sent a flag to raise in memory of the uprising. It is worth saying a something more about this last initiative.
The Irish army, Óglaigh na hÉireann, arranged for a team to visit each school and an officer read aloud the famous Proclamation and presented a pack to the school. This process culminated in Proclamation Day on 15th March 2016, where every school held a special ceremony to raise the National Flag and read the 1916 Proclamation. These are potent messages to the young.
Take the Irish flag: the green, white and orange tricolor. Designed in the spirit of revolutionary France, with a symbolism to embrace the whole country (green for Catholicism, orange for Protestantism, white for peace and unity), from its creation in the mid nineteenth century this flag was banned by the Imperial authorities. It was first flown over a public building when the rebels of 1916 raised it over their headquarters at the General Post Office, Dublin as an act of defiance.
Or the Proclamation. As revolutionary documents go, the Irish Proclamation of 1916 compares well with its antecedents from the US, France and from earlier republican movements in Ireland. It is a beautifully composed and spirited declaration of the rights of the Irish people. For its time, it was a strikingly modern rallying cry, particularly in its care to speak of Irishmen AND Irishwomen throughout. Had the rebels won in 1916, Ireland would have been one of the first countries in the world to grant women the vote.
Among other ringing phrases our children listened to are these:
‘We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies to be sovereign and indefeasible. The long usurpation of that right by a foreign people and government has not extinguished the right, nor can it ever be extinguished except by the destruction of the Irish people.’
‘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 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.’
We can hear in this declaration that the voice of the 1916 rebels was not an exclusively Catholic one, but rather that they aspired to create a new nation in which there was no discrimination on the grounds of religion. The rebels’ reaction to centuries of oppression meted out against Catholics was not to demand retribution against Protestants but simply a society that was no longer divided by religion.
Class Society and the Easter Rising
The radicalism of the events of that era is not something that Fine Gael wanted to highlight, but they were overtaken by the sentiments of the mass of the population. That the country embraced the rebellion of 1916 is a source of discomfort to those at the top of Irish society.
In order to understand the insurrection of 1916 and the importance of the preservation of its memory in the heritage of the country, it’s helpful to distinguish four distinct social groupings of the early twentieth century, four classes that can be identified by their political outlook.
At the top of Irish society around 1900 were a small number of elite men who were entirely in favour of Empire. These men were not just the heads of the military and the civil service but also the large landowners, the heads of the railways, breweries, cattle and pig exporters and – in the north – the owners of the shipbuilding and engineering factories. Overwhelmingly, these men and their families were Protestant and (with some notable exceptions) their politics saw them as the staunchest supporters of the union of Britain and Ireland.
Below these figures were conservative Irish nationalists. Predominantly businessmen who benefited from Ireland’s access to the markets of the Empire, especially middle-to-large farmers, this large body of Catholics wanted far greater control over Irish affairs than was allowed them by Dublin Castle. They resented the petty prejudice that ensured they never obtained senior positions in the colonial administration and they smarted at the fact that a ruinous economic decision could be made in London with no regard for their interests. These nationalists wanted change. But gradual change. Change negotiated in tea rooms by reasonable men of sturdy girth and with gold watches in their waistcoats. Not change brought about by men and women on the streets with guns in their hands.
Speaking of whom, a third important social grouping was that created by middle class urban intellectuals. It was this class which provided the leadership of the Volunteers, the main fighting force of the Easter Rising. A quick look at the backgrounds of some of the men who were executed after the insurrection makes this very clear. Patrick Pearse was the son of an artisan stoneworker and founded two schools which he directed, he was also a poet; Willie Pearse, Patrick’s brother, was a teacher and sculptor; Miceál Ua hAnnracáin (Michael O’Hanrahan) was the son of a skilled corkcutter, who went on to be a full time revolutionary for several organisations, he was also a novelist; Thomas MacDonagh was a teacher and dramatist; Éamonn Ceannt a musician and accountant with local government; Tom Clarke was a shopkeeper and author of a memorable account of prison life; Sean MacDairmada a tram conductor and full time organizer for the Irish Republican Brotherhood and Seán Heuston a railway clerk.
Then there was James Connolly. Connolly was of a slightly different background to his fellow rebels, being born of manual working class parents. He was no less an intellectual, however, despite having left school at ten. Through his own diligence and with the assistance of socialist educators, Connolly became a master polemicist, satirist and historian. Connolly represents the fourth social class of relevance here, the Irish working class.
In the early twentieth century Ireland seemed to be heading towards a significant reform in governance, as unionist hegemony had been steadily undermined by the political progress of the conservative Catholic nationalists. Once the various factions of the Catholic upper class had united their political voice in the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) – led by John Redmond from its foundation in 1900 – it seemed only a matter of time before some concessions were made to their demands for increased autonomy for Ireland.
Even the other nationalist inclined social forces, the urban middle class and working class, accepted that the IPP would be the leading power in an Ireland with ‘Home Rule’. This was especially the case after the great lockout of 1913 saw the defeat of Dublin’s workers at the hands of an alliance of imperial authority and IPP determination to crush one of the world’s most militant syndicalist trade unions, the Irish Transport and General Workers Union.
Yet the steady progress of the IPP was dramatically blocked on the outbreak of the Great War in 1914. Suddenly, the opinion among Britain’s rulers hardened. There could be no talk of allowing self-government for Ireland in this crisis. Indeed, a strict line was needed to ensure Ireland made its full contribution to the war effort, both in terms of economic assistance and the contribution of hundreds of thousands men to the army.
How should Irish nationalists respond to the Great War? Following the logic that a gradual and negotiated introduction of Home Rule was possible for Ireland, John Redmond committed the IPP to Britain’s war effort. This meant his face appearing on posters all over the country, urging Irishmen to join the British army and fight in the war. Some 75,000 men followed this political lead in the first year of fighting. By the end of the war, as many as 40,000 Irishmen had died in the conflict.
It is worth pausing for a moment and dwelling on this figure in the light of the claim by critics that the 1916 Rising was deliberate attempt to cause mayhem and bloodshed. Those determined to condemn the violence of the rebels are almost always hypocrites. Modern day equivalents of John Redmond, they make no mention of the grim fact of these tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths. To put the figures in perspective, around 500 people died in the fighting of Easter Week. Every violent death is a tragedy, but one cannot claim that the IPP were the moderate, non-violent party in 1916. Their responsibility for violent deaths was a hundred times greater than that of those who rose in rebellion.
As the war continued, the IPP found themselves on a roller coaster ride, heading towards their own destruction. The British War Cabinet paid little attention to the desires of the Irish upper classes during this emergency. Conscription was introduced into England, Wales and Scotland in March 1916, with the generals in the Cabinet objecting to the exclusion of Ireland. It was only a matter of time until Irishmen would be forced from their homes and into the trenches. As for giving Ireland any kind of increased political autonomy, that was quite out of the question.
Consequently, there were signs of a shift in support from the IPP towards the radicals, although it was far from the case that in 1916 a majority of the country were convinced of the necessity of rebellion. Ten months after the Irish insurrection, the February revolution in Russia triggered a huge anti-war response in Europe and this – or the extension of conscription to Ireland – would have been a much more favourable context for an Irish insurrection.
Certainly in 1916, a sizeable section of the urban middle class were utterly disaffected with British rule (naturally), but also with the policy of the IPP. A funeral of a rebel from the last attempt to rise up against the empire, the Fenian revolt of 1867, was a chance to test the mood on 1 August 1915. At the graveside of O’Donnavan Rossa, Patrick Pearse gave an oration that concluded: ‘they think that they have pacified Ireland… but the fools, the fools, the fools! – they have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.’
A portion too of the working class were ready to fight both the Empire and their local exploiters with arms in hand. But having been thrown back in 1913 from their great heights of confidence, solidarity and organization, the majority of trade unionists were bitter rather than militant. Only a minority close to James Connolly and organized in the socialist Irish Citizen’s Army believed in the possibility of defeating the scant British forces that remained in Ireland.
It was these two layers of Irish society who united in insurrection in 1916.
The Events of the 1916 Easter Rising
On Easter Monday, 1916, at around 11am teenager Willie Oman sounded his bugle for the muster of the rebels outside of Liberty Hall in Dublin. Approximately 400 people were present and another 1,000 people mobilized elsewhere in Dublin. Most had come via the Irish Volunteers, an unofficial Irish army established by men who had invested their own funds and time in its creation. The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) had provided the backbone of the Volunteer force and the members of this secret oath-bound society turned out in force. Hundreds of women were present, either as Cumann na mBan members (auxiliaries to the Volunteers), or as combatants in the Irish Citizens Army, which was around 200 strong.
The overall rebel fighting force was far weaker than had been planned for by the leaders of the insurrection. On paper, the Volunteers were 15,000 strong: a force that if fully armed, had the potential to defeat the British troops in Ireland. But with just two days to go, on the evening of Friday 21 April, the forces of the rebellion were thrown into disarray by a disastrous mishap.
Having successfully negotiated a shipment of arms from Germany (via their envoy Roger Casement), the IRB arranged for communications with the ship to be established by wireless expert Con Keating from Dublin. Tragically for them personally and for the fate of the Rising, the driver of their car made a mistake and took a wrong turn. Instead of racing along the coastal road to the rendezvous, the car hurtled up a route that turned out to be a pier and crashed into Castlemaine harbour at Ballykissane. Keating and two other IRB men from Dublin were drowned. The next day, two British sloops had arrived to capture the German ship (the Aud). It’s captain, Karl Spindler scuttled her, rather than let his cargo fall into British hands.
This failure to land the weapons in the Aud had severe repercussions for the rebellion. Firstly, it meant that in the main towns of Ireland, where Volunteers had mobilized expecting a delivery of rifles, there was demoralization and confusion. Dublin Volunteers were relatively well armed, but the rest of the country desperately needed weapons. Secondly, many of the Volunteer leadership no longer believed an uprising could win and in particular this was true of the leader of the Irish Volunteers, academic Eoin MacNeill. MacNeill was not a member of the IRB and was shocked to find how many of the Volunteer leadership were moving towards a Rising without his agreement.
Vacillating over whether to agree to the rebellion or not, the loss of the arms convinced MacNeill that he must try to halt the undertaking. On the Sunday morning that the rebellion was due to begin, the newspapers carried his personal ‘countermanding order’, calling off all manoeuvers for that day. The IRB, now including James Connolly, then met and attempted to get around MacNeill by putting everything back a day and sending out their messages to mobilise. But a great deal of damage had been done.
In the end, despite the difficulties and the now long odds, the rebels – both leaders and activists – felt it better to fight than to have the movement die with a whimper. If the IPP could pour scorn on a botched revolt, the radical tradition might never recover from the claim that they were all full of empty bravado. So they marched out to declare the Irish Republic.
In the course of a week of fighting, the rebels did surprisingly well. When it came to street battles with the British Army, they could give as good as they got. Indeed, at Mount Street bridge, poor tactics from the British officers meant that just seventeen rebels could inflict over 200 casualties, killed or wounded, on the British soldiers. The rebels had no answer, however, to the use of artillery by the British and their last outposts surrendered on Sunday 30 April.
If the Easter Rising was a defeat for Irish nationalism, then why is it celebrated as Ireland’s national day? Most countries prefer to highlight a triumph, such as the signing of an auspicious document or the successful storming of a palace or prison. Here, the answer is that although the insurrection was crushed, with hindsight it can be seen to be the key turning point in the eventual establishment of an Irish Republic.
By 1918, with the attempt by Britain to introduce conscription and after two more years of war and declining living standards, the vast majority of people came to see the rebel leaders as having been right. Suddenly, the tide flowed away from the IPP, leaving both the Imperial administration and Ireland’s upper classes stranded.
Popular boycotts, a mass working class movement, soviets, general strikes and a guerrilla campaign undermined the ability of Britain to govern the country. By July 1921, British rulers understood that they had to retreat (although a few, such as General Macready, advocated a thorough re-invasion of Ireland with 100,000 troops). And in 1922 a treaty was agreed that gave 26 counties of Ireland a limited form of independence. This treaty split the nationalist movement and a cruel civil war took place over it. The Irish elite rallied heavily to the treaty and their resources ensured that after a brief moment where matters hung in the balance, the pro-treaty side were victorious.
The Ireland that was born in 1923 was truncated and far from fully independent. Gradually, over the years, the country was able to push back the remaining features of Empire, with the process not complete until after the Second World War. So there is no one moment that captures the celebratory feeling of national freedom. Instead, the rebellion that began the process is the focus of national enthusiasm for the fact that the country escaped the British empire.
The original 1916 commemoration video that Fine Gael tried to hide.
Unfortunately for Fine Gael and the inheritors of John Redmond’s political tradition, the period of anniversaries occured in a context that meant the insubordinate, revolutionary spirit of 1916 was not be buried under insipid rituals and empty media production. The insipid promotional video that highlighted the visit of the Queen of England to Ireland and didn’t mention the Easter Rising was ignominiously withdrawn and there was an attempt made to delete it everywhere. Fortunately, someone had already saved it to YouTube so you can see for yourself how cringeworthy and lacking in spirit the production was.
The 2016 commemorations took place in the aftermath of terrible recession where the majority of people in the country experienced a drop in income. For many this meant crossing a tipping point into homelessness. The hated water tax was still a live issue and millions of us were wondering why we should be made to pay for the collapse of banks that were in private hands. Also, there was and remains a sense here that the old goals of empire are still in play around the world, especially in the Middle East.
What this means for the commemoration of 1916 and those to come is that there is an edginess to the events: an extra emphasis on the anti-imperial message; a demand by women that their involvement in the rebellion be recognized and the emancipatory goals of 1916 be realised today; an appreciation by workers of the importance of James Connolly to the Rising. The government wanted the year 2016 to be a year of reconciliation between Ireland’s social classes and between Ireland and the UK. Instead, it was a year of celebration of revolt.