The Irish “Twin Towers” – the burned-out ruins of the GPO, destroyed by artillery and machine-gun fire from the British Occupation Forces during the latter stages of the Easter Rising, Dublin, 1916
The annual commemoration of Éirí Amach na Cásca or the Easter Rising is upon us yet again. Some ninety-six years ago on Easter Monday, 1916, members of several Irish Republican organisations came together to unite in a general insurrection against British rule across the island of Ireland. Orchestrated by the secret revolutionary movement of Bráithreachas Phoblacht na hÉireann or the Irish Republican Brotherhood (popularly known as Na Fíníní or the Fenians) the organisations which took to the streets of the capital city and a number of other towns and districts around the country were to shape Irish history for decades to come. They included:
Óglaigh na hÉireann (ÓnaÉ) “Irish Volunteers (IV)”
Arm Cathartha na hÉireann (ACnaÉ) “Irish Citizen Army (ICA)”
Cumann na mBan (CnamB)
Na Fianna Éireann (NFÉ)
The Hibernian Rifles (HR)
Together these groups comprised the new Arm Poblachtach na hÉireann (APnaÉ), that is the Army of the Irish Republic or Irish Republican Army (IRA) whose purpose was to defend the Irish Republic and the Provisional Government of the Irish Republic proclaimed on the steps of General Post Office or GPO in Dublin. Unfortunately confusion about the timing and nature of the uprising meant a national insurrection failed to materialise and instead a number of isolated risings took place across the nation (largely in Dublin city and county but with smaller actions in Waterford, Wexford, Meath, Louth, Tyrone, Fermanagh and Galway). After several days of fighting during which much of the main thoroughfares of the capital city were destroyed by British ground and naval artillery, the Forces of the Irish Republic in Dublin surrendered to the British Forces. Within days fighting around the rest of the island came to a halt as well (though in fact skirmishes both in Dublin and elsewhere continued for some time, principally through sniping and isolated attacks).
Buildings in Dublin city, capital of the island-nation of Ireland, destroyed during the fighting surrounding the Easter Rising of 1916, principally by British artillery and machine-gun fire
How People Viewed The Rising
The reaction of the general public in Dublin, the centre of British rule in Ireland for 800 years and the most thoroughly colonised region of the island-nation outside of the north-east was mixed. Within the large local British Unionist population (Protestants and Roman Catholics who viewed themselves as Irish and British or exclusively British) the feeling was of hostility to the “Rebels” and support for the British state in Ireland. Since this community was closely invested in the continuance of British rule to protect its privileged political, social, economic and cultural standing it was the one that was the most vocal it its expressions of loyalty to Britain and calls for “retribution” against the “Rebels”, their supporters, families and communities. Indeed when captured or surrendered Irish Republican revolutionaries were paraded by the British Forces through Unionist areas of the city they came under verbal and physical assault from crowds of mainly working-class and some middle-class British loyalists publicly mixing together in ways that hadn’t been seen since the last visit of a British head of state to the island. Earlier during the actual fighting stage of the insurrection crowds of Unionists had also lined the streets to cheer passing British reinforcements in the more middle-class southern suburbs of the city after the soldiers had disembarked from transport-ships arriving from Britain.
On the other hand the reaction of the Irish Nationalist community in Dublin, the majority one in the region, was much more complex. Living under absolute and virtually unbroken British rule for centuries had inculcated in it the idea of the absolute might and mastery of the British Empire: not just in Ireland but across the globe (a belief encouraged by the British state itself through every aspect of intellectual life, from education to literature). The belief that Irish people could successfully rise up against the British in Ireland seemed like madness to many ordinary Dubliners. Most men and women simply couldn’t conceive of such a thing happening (however much they may have desired it). Living in the “police state” created by British colonial rule where the conspicuous presence of the paramilitary police force of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and dozens of British military garrisons around the island was a daily reminder of who the true rulers of the Irish were, very few could imagine anything else. Just as importantly generations of Irish people had been made to believe, through centuries of propaganda, that the Irish as a race were “unfit” to govern themselves: too uneducated, unintelligent, uncivilized.
Soldiers of the British Occupation Forces on guard in front of rubble in the city-centre of Dublin in the aftermath of the Easter Rising of 1916
Fearing the reaction of the British to the “Rebellion” (and with good reason given the traditional savagery of British responses in the past) many in the Nationalist community adopted a wait-and-see approach to the would-be revolution. If it failed, as most fully expected, then they did not want to be seen to be on the wrong side – by the British. The Irish people knew through long and bitter experience that those perceived by the colonial authorities as being “traitors” or “treasonous” in their attitudes would have found themselves at the very least forced into unemployment, perhaps homelessness and impoverishment too (and this in a city where institutional discrimination against the Irish Nationalist community remained commonplace and malnutrition, starvation and disease was rampant in the Nationalist inner-city ghettos). Worse they could have been arrested or interned without trial and possibly “deported” or exiled from the country by British diktat. And, the greatest fear of all, they could have simply been rounded up and executed by the British Forces in a series of mass retributions or communal punishments from which there would be no escape.
Yet the history of the Easter Rising is replete with accounts of civilian men, women and children risking their lives to help the revolutionaries throughout the capital city and county. What’s more remarkable is the breadth of people who lent aid and succour to the insurrectionists, a breadth that seemed to cut across class divisions and boundaries. From washerwomen to businessmen, dockers to doctors, barmen to teachers, hundreds of people, both during the fighting and after the surrender did what they could when they could to aid the cause of the Irish Republic. And this at a time when the first British retributions had already taken place: when buildings in the city-centre and neighbouring working-class districts were being pounded by British artillery and machine-gun fire, killing involved and uninvolved alike; when civilians had been murdered in different parts of the city by British Forces, some of them tortured before hand; when some captured “rebels” or suspected “rebels” were simply being executed on the spot by British officers and soldiers infuriated by the temerity of the Irish to rise up against nearly a thousand years of “ordained” and “lawful” British rule in Ireland.
Crowds on O’Connell Street, Dublin, in the days after the Easter Rising of 1916, with buildings destroyed by British artillery and machine-gun fire all around
In contrast to the affluent and often “ethnically British” southern suburbs of Dublin in the mainly Irish Nationalist areas of the inner city and northern reaches the long lines of captured “rebels” were applauded and cheered by crowds who refused to be cowed by the threatening British troops and watchful RIC policemen. Here and there groups of women and girls would suddenly rush forward pushing little parcels of food and clothes into the hands of the bewildered prisoners, and just as suddenly withdrawing as the British bayonets would dash towards them. Frequently a wounded man or a teenage boy would be dragged or carried away by a surging crowd to disappear into the warren of back streets and alleyways to the fury of the British escorts. Across the city dozens of revolutionaries relied on the sanctuary offered by local people who hid them in cellars and attics, sheds and outhouses, as the British and their willing RIC servants went from home to home, street to street, seeking them out.
Even as the British reinforcements had entered the city proper during the latter days of the Rising in many areas they had met a sullen, uncooperative population (something already experienced by some locally raised soldiers in the so-called “Irish” regiments) and a marked hostility in some districts that puzzled or angered them. It was soon to become clear that the majority of the capital’s population were resentful of the Rising’s failure (even if many never though it would succeed in the first place), paradoxically proud that it had taken place at all, angry at the destruction of so much of the city’s heart by the British Occupation Forces and already aware of the accounts of massacres and outrages carried out by its troops.
Outside of Dublin, in those rural areas where the British writ did not run so firmly, the civilian population was much more vocal in its support. In Galway and Wexford, in small villages and parishes the scattered revolutionaries were greeted as an army of liberation while the handful of local RIC officers who enforced British rule with such iron determination barricaded themselves into their fortified police barracks or fled to the nearest military garrisons. Only when the news of the surrender by the Provisional Government in Dublin reached them did local people in country districts retreat into their customary guise of silence and withdrawal so as not to be singled out for retribution by the British state and its many, many servants. Yet, even here, more “rebels” found a willing and helpful hand than not, and many young men simply discarded their weapons and equipment, returning home to their families and communities who closed ranks around them.
A city in ruins. A view across the battle-ravaged buildings of Dublin in the aftermath of the Easter Rising of 1916. Much of the capital’s centre was destroyed by heavy bombardments from British land and sea artillery
The Myths of 1916
The great myth of the Easter Rising is the claim that the decision by the British to execute the members of the Provisional Government of the Irish Republic and other principal figures who had participated in the insurrection led to the turning of public opinion in Ireland in favour of the revolution. The implication is that before the retributive deaths by British firing squads the Irish people as a whole were opposed to the “Rebels” and were accepting of the need to put down the “Rebellion”. However as we have seen nothing further could be from the truth.
The great failure of the British was not that they ignored the wishes of the Irish people and executed Pádraig Mac Piarais, President of the Provisional Government and Commander-in-Chief of the Army of the Irish Republic, and all the other signatories to the Proclamation. Their failure was that they did listen to the wishes of the Irish people and their demands for violent retribution. Unfortunately it was the wrong Irish people. British military commanders and politicians already convinced of the need for a public show of force through the killing of the leaders of the Rising needed simply enough public encouragement and momentum to go through with it. In Britain there was plenty with demands for blood from across the political spectrum. But they also found it in Ireland. Not from Irish Ireland: but from British Ireland. Amongst the British Unionist population who dominated the locally raised British military and paramilitary forces, the judiciary, the colonial civil service and administration, the business classes and landed aristocracy, and above all the media elite of the time: journalists, editors and newspaper owners.
Rubble is cleared away from destroyed buildings on the quays in Dublin in the days after the Easter Rising of 1916
The British population of Ireland demanded that the British Empire seek retribution upon its and their enemies. By baying for the blood of the “Rebels” the Unionists expressed their loyalty to the existing order while protecting and securing their own place in it. Many believed that in the aftermath of the executions Ireland’s position in the so-called “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland” would be secured forever. To some the insurrection had been a blessing in disguise and now the people of Britain would see the deceit and untrustworthiness of the “native, Catholic, Gaelic Irish” and that the limited reforms of previous decades could be undone. Most expected the British to impose military conscription upon Ireland in order to force tens of thousands of men into the ranks of the British Armed Forces to fight in the trenches of World War I and that the Nationalist politicians of Ireland would be rendered mute and even more ineffective than normal.
However as we know history took quite a different turn. The British soon realised their mistake in listening to the advice of their “West British” co-nationals in Ireland and within eight years the Unionist population in four-fifths of Ireland was abandoned to its own fate as the British colony on the island-nation was reduced to a bloody rump centred in the north-eastern corner of the country where the single greatest concentration of an “ethnically” British population lived as a local majority. But that, as they say, is another story.
A group of British army officers pose beneath the statue of Parnell with the ‘Irish Republic’ flag that had flown over the GPO in O’Connell Street during the Easter Rising in 1916
If you want to learn more about the Easter Rising of 1916, the National Library of Ireland maintains a permanent online exhibition, The 1916 Rising: Personalities and Perspectives. You can view the flash-site or view individual guides in PDF format here.
A mounted-patrol of British troops in Dublin moving through military barricades near the Four Courts in the days immediately after the Easter Rising of 1916
Some more interesting sites are:
The Irish Volunteers Commemorative Organisation
The War Of Independence
The Irish Story
The Irish War
The Easter Rising
An Chéad Dáil Éireann
The Irish Republic
The Proclamation of the Irish Republic: Notes From Dublin
The 1916 Rising: Then and Now
The Irish Rebellion of 1916 and its Martyrs: Erin’s tragic Easter
Sinn Féin Rebellion Handbook, Easter, 1916
The Pursuit of Sovereignty & the Impact of Partition, 1912–1949
The Foundation and Development of Na Fianna Éireann
Troops of the Ulster Volunteer Force, a British Unionist militia in Ireland, move into Dublin to support the British Forces during the Easter Rising of 1916. The presence of UVF men in the capital – regarded by many as terrorists – worsened tensions in the city
Troops of the British Occupation Forces pose for the cameras at a street-barricade in Dublin probably in the days immediately after the Easter Rising of 1916
Members of the British Occupation Forces in Dublin shelter behind an improvised barrier made up of wooden barrels during or shortly after the Easter Rising of 1916
British troops seal off a street in Dublin city-centre with an improvised barrier during or shortly after the Easter Rising of 1916
During fighting in the southern outskirts of the city-centre British troops crawl over a bridge while under fire, with possibly the body of a dead soldier in the background. The Easter Rising of 1916
POWs of the Irish Republican Army under British military escort being marched through the city-centre of Dublin in the aftermath of the Easter Rising of 1916
POWs of the Irish Republican Army under British military escort being marched along the quays in Dublin to detention camps in the capital in the days after the Easter Rising of 1916
Countess Markievicz, an officer of the ICA-component of the Irish Republican Army and one of the leaders of the Easter Rising of 1916, being held in an outside cell by the British Forces following her capture
Defiant Irish children left homeless after the bombardment of Dublin by the British Occupation Forces are pictured in temporary pastoral care in the days following the Easter Rising of 1916