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The Easter Rising: How 1,558 Irish Defied the British Empire
(Image: The History Press)

The Easter Rising: How 1,558 Irish Defied the British Empire

(Image: The History Press)

Picture it: A cadre of 150 revolutionaries, armed with bolt-action rifles, revolvers and homemade grenades, seize Westminster Abbey, run up a flag sporting a picture of Che Guevara and proclaim Great Britain a workers’ paradise. Would the Coalition government pound London’s most holy place with artillery in Hyde Park, barrage it from a gunboat on the Thames and set the cathedral’s upper reaches afire from howitzers pitching incendiary shells from surrounding rooftops, until there was little left of Westminster Abbey but a steaming shell?

Would Great Britain do such an outrage to one of the Church of England’s most sacred sites just to evict a ragtag band of wannabe revolutionaries?

Bloody well not! But that is exactly what they did to the elegant and historic General Post Office in Dublin during the 1916 Easter Rising, which started on Easter Monday and ended in unconditional surrender by the Irish insurgents the following Sunday – followed by drumhead courts martial and encounters with the firing squad, or deportation to jail in Mother England. By the time the British were finished, Dublin was a shambles.

No wonder historians Michael T. Foy and Brian Barton refer to the British as “the enemy” in their electrifying new book, “The Easter Rising.” True, their account is written largely from the Irish side of the Rising, but they take accurate and objective measure of the contempt in which the British held their subjects – in Ireland and throughout the reaches of the Empire.

“The Easter Rising” was first published in 1999, but in 2004 a pivotal development occurred that mandated not just a new edition but essentially a new book: Ireland’s Bureau of Military History released some 2,000 witness statements proffered by participants in the Troubles of 1913-1921. Consequently, last year, The History Press of Gloucestershire, England released this superbly written, scrupulously researched page-turner of what may be the definitive event that largely united the counties of Southern Ireland against their masters across the Irish Sea and forced a distinctly reluctant David Lloyd George to the bargaining table.

There had been insurgencies against the crown prior to 1916, notably Wolfe Tone’s insurgency in 1798. Tone ended up at the end of a British rope, but he became an iconic figure for subsequent generations of revolutionaries, all of whose insurgencies were dismal failures. Until the aftermath of 1916, revolutionaries were distinctly in the minority; the Irish people were beaten into complacency, thought of their country as part of the British Empire, and generously sent their young men to die at the Somme when the colors called in World War I.

The Easter Rising was an ill-fated enterprise. It was conceived by two revolutionary groups: the Irish Brotherhood (IRB) was Catholic, but far from catholic, while the much smaller Irish Citizen’s Army (ICA) was a democratic-socialist organization that stood for just about everything that made the IRB nervous, from atheism to women’s rights. What united them was their determination to evict the British and establish an Irish state. Their opponents, however, were not just the crown forces, but their Irish subjects was well, for Ireland – like all the participants in the Great War – had been infected with an epidemic of chauvinism. Foy and Barton write: “The First World War was a seminal event in Irish history. It involved more combatants and casualties than all subsequent conflicts in Ireland combined and it utterly changed the country’s political situation. Initially, people appeared gripped by pro-war sentiment as patriotic crowds in Dublin waved Union Jacks, wrecked shops owned by German immigrants and wildly cheered soldiers departing for the Western Front.”

But as the war dragged on, it exerted a divisive effect between the gradualist, pro-war supporters of home rule and the increasingly militant nationalists. Still, what really turned the trick, what had the Irish waving green flags instead of Union Jacks – and within the course of a few weeks – was the savagery with which the British crushed the Easter Rising. A short-term military victory would turn into a political catastrophe for the United Kingdom.

The inevitability of failure for the Rising was twofold. First was the IRB’s choice to make Eoin MacNeill its public face. MacNeill was a 49-year-old professor of early and medieval history at University College, Dublin, whom Foy and Barton characterize as an eminently respectable leader. Eminently respectable he might have been, but as commander in chief of the IRB, he would make a decision that would condemn the Rising. The second surety of failure was, as Peter Cottrell, a military historian and serving British Army officer, points out, the decision to adopt a defensive strategy by occupying what the IRB thought were key buildings, rather than to wage a more effective guerilla war.

The military minds behind the Easter Rising were Tom Clarke, Sean MacDermott and James Connolly. Clarke, write Foy and Barton, was a “terribly damaged man, physically wizened, prematurely aged, socially inept, paralysingly shy,” and filled with hatred for the British jailers who shaped him. MacDermott, who wasn’t in much better shape than Clarke thanks to polio, started his revolutionary career as an organizer for the IRB and soon climbed his way up to its Supreme Council, where he joined Clarke. These two strategists linked up with Connolly, the leader of the ICA, and this trio – supported by likeminded revolutionary nationalists – devised the run-up (or more correctly, the screw-up) to the Easter Rising. The plan was to seize key buildings and hold them with the goal of immobilizing the British garrison in Dublin, which in turn would inspire an uprising throughout the length and breadth of Ireland. One hopes that they would have changed their plans had they anticipated the force that the British would deploy against them – and had they anticipated the pernicious role of MacNeill. If “The Easter Rising” has a significant flaw, it is that the authors are overly generous to Clarke, MacDermott, Connolly and especially MacNeill.

MacNeill, the nominal commander in chief of the IRB, was kept in the dark about a projected rising on the Easter Sunday of 1916; it was only on the Saturday before Easter that MacNeill learned of it. On top of that, he found out that the insurgents had cut a deal with Germany – with which the British Empire was then at war – to furnish them with a boatload of weapons and a corps of officers to lead the revolutionaries. The Germans did launch a merchant vessel, the Aud, full of captured Russian rifles, but no officers. However, British cryptographers had deciphered the German naval code, tracked the Aud from the moment it left Germany and sank it. The man who brokered the arrangement, Sir Roger Casement, was arrested for treason.

When MacNeill discovered what was going on behind his back, he exercised his authority as chief of staff to call off the rising, and he was remarkably successful in getting his command spread across Ireland. Equally devastating for the insurgents, he had just enough time (and authority) to place his order in the IRB newspaper, The Sunday Independent.

Foy and Barton may be overly kind in attributing MacNeill’s motives to patriotism and to the fear of an insurgent bloodbath at British hands. Loss of nerve might be an alternative explanation. Clarke called the order “the blackest and greatest treachery.” In any event, the insurgent leadership allowed MacNeill to go to bed on Sunday night confident in the belief that he would be obeyed. But at 8 PM, they started to circulate a directive quite different from MacNeill’s to trusted couriers. It read: “We start operations at noon today, Monday. Carry out your instructions.”

This is what happened:

Connolly, 30 men and a dozen women seized Saint Stephen’s Green, which enabled them to fire on Dublin Castle, the seat of British domination of Ireland. Except that they lacked heavy weapons to do any damage, and there were too few of them – possibly because would-be insurgents obeyed MacNeill’s order – to capture the castle itself. Furthermore, Connolly neglected to take the Shelbourne Hotel, which overlooked St. Stephen’s Green and which the British promptly occupied, spelling doom for the socialists.

Eamon de Valera, a mathematician and opportunist who would become the prime minister and die the president of Ireland, grabbed Boland’s Bakery, which enabled him to immobilize a crucial railway line that the British could have used to transport troops into Dublin proper. De Valera’s brigade had the distinction of killing more British soldiers than any other.

One hundred and seventy eight nationalist and socialist insurgents seized Jacob’s biscuit factory, which cut off Dublin Castle from two army barracks. Lieutenant-General Lowe used sleep deprivation to wear down the insurgents by firing on them night and day. Next, they found themselves ringed by the British and, as Foy and Barton explained, “a few well-directed shells would have made Jacob’s a death trap.”

The South Dublin Union was practically a city in itself: poorhouse, hospital, insane asylum, it commanded a British garrison that would have been among the first to engage the insurgents. It is a reflection of the scrambled orders that only about 100 men mustered to seize the huge complex, which the British surrounded and, keeping their heads down, picked off insurgents with snipers.

Only a third of the anticipated number of fighters in Ned Daly’s brigade turned up at Four Courts, another complex of buildings that housed the seat of British justice in Ireland, a jail and a hotel. The brutal commanding officer whom the Asquith government dispatched to take over from Lowe, General (later Sir John) Maxwell, described the fighting in the streets and houses around the Four Courts Hotel as the worst in Dublin, and Foy and Barton characterize it as a “miniature Stalingrad.” Despite their courage, the insurgents were progressively outnumbered, as more troops arrived from England, and ultimately Daly had to surrender.

The General Post Office was invaded by 160 insurgents – again, far fewer than projected. The siege of the GPO was the iconic battle of the Easter Rising, although Daly’s “miniature Stalingrad” was more representative of what the British would encounter in the subsequent Anglo-Irish War. The GPO had only symbolic value for the insurgents, but obviously not for the British, who reduced it – and the length of Dublin’s main drag, Sackville Street – to ruins.

The authors describe how the Rising spread throughout Dublin.

The fighting in Dublin at Easter 1916 was multifaceted, ranging from rifle fire into and out of houses and large buildings, to ambushes and pitched battles. Grenades and bombs were thrown from roofs while snipers operated from windows, barricades, church spires and clock towers and were, in turn, hunted down by individual enemy marksmen or units. Sometimes combat was at close quarters, almost hand to hand.

When it was all over, the Victorian city of Dublin was a shambles almost beyond recognition, and “the rotting carcasses of horses remain one of the Rising’s most disturbing and indelible images.” Most of the fighting was confined to the capitol, because the third and final order to the revolutionaries failed to reach the countryside. So, an obvious question must be asked: would significantly more insurgents have mustered had MacNeill not given his order to desist?

In the immediate aftermath, the British had to ponder the disposition of the prisoners. Of all the members of the Cabinet, only Lloyd George warned that, “Ireland might be set ablaze by unconsidered actions by some subordinate officer,” but the rest of the Cabinet decided to try leaders among the insurgents by courts martial, in which evidence was heard from the prosecutor by a panel of three officer judges, none of whom needed to be legally trained. Any death sentence had to be unanimous and confirmed by the commanding officer for Ireland, Maxwell. Fifteen executions were confirmed; it speaks volumes about Maxwell’s mindset that his report to Prime Minister Asquith was entitled: “A Short History of Rebels on Whom It Has Been Necessary to Inflict the Supreme Penalty.” To cap it off, Maxwell refused to release the bodies of the executed insurgents to their relatives. “Irish sentimentality will turn those graves into martyrs’ shrines,” he wrote to his wife, “to which annual processions will be made.” Of the brigade leaders, only de Valera’s death sentence was commuted to life because Asquith, responding to public pressure in England and growing disenchantment with the British among the Irish, leaned on Maxwell, whom he eventually shipped out of Ireland and knighted. In later years, crown counselors would research the courts martial and deem them “illegal.”

After the Rising had been defeated, MacNeill turned up on the British doorstep and offered his services to prevent further combat. The British arrested him, court martialed him and sentenced him to life in prison.

With Irish anger escalating over the hangings and imprisonment of hundreds more freedom fighters, the Asquith government poured fuel on the fire by hanging Casement for treason.

It is difficult to anticipate that we will see a better history of the Easter Rising than Foy and Barton’s. Nevertheless, I do disagree with the authors that the ringleaders of the Rising made a prudent decision in ordering their men and women to lay down arms and give themselves over to the British unconditionally, rather than to try to escape – with their weapons – and carry on the insurgency in the back streets of the cities and the countryside. The authors contend that surrender saved needless bloodshed, especially among civilians. As Foy and Barton observe, the leaders knew that they faced a firing squad, but did they anticipate that brigade leaders would join them, when they might have fled to fight and lead another day?

History supports my interpretation. On December 21, 1917, the new chief secretary for Ireland, Henry Duke, ordered an amnesty that freed the jailed insurgents of the Easter Rising. However well-intentioned the government’s amnesty might have been, it did not dissuade fighters like Michael Collins, a veteran of the Four Courts, to return to his country and pick up where he left off. Collins organized a guerilla insurgency that has become a paradigm of its kind. (It is no coincidence that Avraham Stern, maestro of the Zionist Lehi – “Stern Gang” to the British – adopted the nom de guerre “Michael”). Among Collins’ lethal creations was what came to be known as the “Squad,” a tight-knit 12-man team dedicated to taking out the most prized British targets.

On Sunday, November 21, 1921, at precisely 9 AM, teams of two and three members of the Squad commenced to execute pivotal British intelligence officers in their homes, killing them in their beds or batching them three or four at a time. The British were understandably modest about acknowledging the butchers’ bill, putting their losses as 14 or fewer, but a case-by-case examination places the number at 20.

Thus Bloody Sunday may have cost the crown as many as five more spies than the number of Irish they hanged in the wake of the Easter Rising. As Collins ordered, Bloody Sunday was to begin not one minute earlier and not one minute later than 9 AM. “The English,” he commented, “have to learn that Irishmen can turn up on time.”

Further Reading

Coogan, P.T. “Michael Collins.” Arrow, 1991.

Cottrell, P. “The Irish Civil War: 1922-23.” Osprey, 2008.

Foy, M.T. and Barton, B. “The Easter Rising.” The History Press, 2011.

Gleeson, J. “Bloody Sunday.” The Lyons Press, 2004.

Ryle Dwyer, T. “The Squad.” Mercier Press, 2005.

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