History Military

Dublin, Easter 1916, Their Sympathies Were With The Rebels

I’ve made reference before to one of the great myths of the Easter Rising of 1916. That is, the absence of popular support among the broad swathe of the Irish people for the failed national insurrection, indeed the hostility and opposition that folk memory insists was universal across the island. Unfortunately communal history is as susceptible to official narratives as any printed equivalent, and the agreed account of 1916 was one derived from the imperial corridors of power in London and their colonial extensions in Dublin. By political and military necessity at the height of World War I, as the empire bled itself dry upon the battlefields of Europe and beyond, the republican revolution became a treasonous rebellion, the freedom-seeking insurrectionists became death-seeking fanatics, the expressed desire of thousands the corrupted cultism of hundreds. It was an understanding, a diktat of perception that the collaborating classes of Ireland, nationalist and unionist, parties and newspapers, readily agreed to.

In reality the domestic reaction to the Easter Rising was far more mixed, far more nuanced, than most observers were willing or able to admit. It did not take staggered executions by British military firing squads to shift public opinion across the country. Imperial revenge merely accelerated an existing groundswell of opinion. In the contemporary words of a woman standing with a large crowd on the streets of Dublin cheering a column of captured “rebels”, and spoken to the Canadian journalist and arch-imperialist, Frederick Arthur McKenzie: “Sure, we cheer them. Why wouldn’t we? Aren’t they our own flesh and blood.”

Revolutions have been compared to the kicking down of a rotten door, but the revolutionaries of 1916 discovered that the one facing them was not just rotten but already half ajar. Even the British found it necessary, at times, to admit that the situation in Dublin that fateful April had been far more complex than newspaper reports or House of Commons’ speeches allowed. For instance in mid-May 1916, General Sir John Grenfell Maxwell, the military governor of Ireland following the Easter Rising, issued a statement defending his troops as news of the North King Street Massacre of April 28th spread across the globe. Explaining away the murders of fifteen men and boys by rampaging soldiers of the South Staffordshire Regiment on the last day of the insurrection, Maxwell claimed that:

“We tried hard to get the women and children to leave North King Street. They would not go, their sympathies were with the rebels.”

Even the best intentioned propaganda, it seems, has its limits of applicability.

18 comments on “Dublin, Easter 1916, Their Sympathies Were With The Rebels

  1. Jim Monaghan

    Greaves wrote a little pamphlet which supports the above. People throwing bread to the prisoners, who were hungry, as they were marched to internment.


  2. here are a few comments written by Sylvia Pankhurst (left-wing English suffragette) and Patricia Lynch (well-known children’s author from Co Cork) . Sylvia sent Patricia to Dublin to write a despatch for her paper as soon as news of the rising filtered through to london
    Everything shows that ordinary people ( but not the English in Ireland or the upper-middle classes) supported the Rising


  3. Support only increased after the rising, inarguably shown by the 1918 elections that established the first Dáil.


    • I wanted an “And” at the beginning, and the “only” should be removed as confusing: “And support increased …”


    • I don’t know; the conscription crisis is huge in the 1918 general elections.


      • Conscription was also part of what drove the Rising.
        Electoral processes are always imperfect means to represent the actual desires or thoughts of the people, but the trend can not be denied. A stronger nationalistic vote might well have been achieved earlier with greater enfranchisement, but Redmond’s shadow of the Parnellite party was already nominally nationalist, and Sinn Féin itself (easean?) was not “republican” until after the Rising.


        • Yes I think research is being done on how much conscription did drive the Rising for many men. Judging by numerous Bureau statements, talks of conscription was certainly an effective recruitment tool for Irish Volunteer organisers in 1915.

          The Irish Party’s prowess was most certainly waning nationally by 1916 too. John Dillon – after the Rising – commented on this fact when he stated how “ever since the formation of the coalition in June 1915 [the IPP] had been steadily and rather rapidly losing [their] hold on the people, and the rebellion and the negotiations only brought out in an aggravated form what had been beneath the surface for a year”.


  4. Good article BUT there are also many many accounts of civilian hostility to the Rising by Vols and ICA fighters themselves. I wouldn’t be confident in saying that most people supported the Rising at the time in Dublin, because I don’t think that’s true. I think most people were astounded and shocked, some people – the unionists the separation women, the IPP supporters were totally hostile and some others were secretly or openly supportive.


  5. Seamus Mallon

    Sionnach slightly off topic but talking of mandates,did the people of the six counties get to vote on the treaty or was it just a 26 county vote,something which is never made clear when they say the country voted for the treaty.


    • The 1922 general-election was for the 26 counties only. Two ‘Home Rule’ parliaments had already been established under the provisions of the Government of Ireland Act, 1920. Home Rule, of course, was never enacted in southern Ireland at this time.

      There was two elections in 1921. I don’t have a reference in front of me, and it’s a bit complicated, but because nationalists did not accept the Northern parliament; in the first election of 1921 Sinn Féin candidates ran for the 2nd Dáil, which in essence covered all of Ireland. The 2nd general election in May 1921 was again for both parliaments. The Northern election was for candidates for the Northern Ireland House of Commons, but in the south Sinn Féin ran unopposed so all its members were returned to the 2nd Dáil. The Anglo-Irish Treaty created the Free State, so basically the northern nationalists who were represented in the 2nd Dáil were just left behind. (I don’t know if that makes sense, I’m going off stuff in my head)


      • Yep, those were the UK-mandated “home rule” elections to the House of Commons of Northern Ireland and the House of Commons of Southern Ireland. In the north-east unionists took 40 odd seats, SF 6, nationalists 6. Nationally SF took 124, unionists 4. All of the SF deputies, actually 125 (because of double-sitting TDanna, such as Collins elected for Armagh and Cork), sat as the 2nd Dáil. The 44 unionists and 6 nationalists refused to join them. Something like that I think.

        Northern-based SF TDanna were allowed into the Provisional Parliament of Southern Ireland (that is of the Provisional Government) in early 1922, but not the Free State parliament in late 1922, which is what the former became. Though it was also the 3rd Dáil. Upon such ambiguities of law and constitution was the Irish-British Treaty of 1921 built.

        Basically northern-based TDanna elected post-1922 were told by the FS folk to get lost.


  6. Seamus Mallon

    Shanebrowne many thanks for that but im more confused than ever,(nothing new there),i always thought there was a referendum on the treaty itself by the electorate in the june of that year,thats why i wonder why the pro treatietes call the anti treaty ira undemocratic.if it was not an all ireland vote then the freestate itself was undemocratic.


    • No referendums, simply a Dáil vote in early 1922, after which Collins, Griffith and and the pro-treaty folk spilt off to form a Provisional Government of (Southern) Ireland. That Provisional Government, the Provisionals, ran things until the Free State Government took over in late 1922. Basically the Provisionals acted with no legal or constitutional authority of any type for most of 1922 and the first crucial months of the Civil War. Remember, in 1922 Collins was the head of the Provisional Government and the minister of finance in the Republican Government while Griffith later served as the minister for external affairs in Provisional Government despite holding the office of the President of the Republic.

      There was no plebiscite and certainly no all-Ireland democratic mandate for the events of 1922-23.


    • Yeah sorry, I couldn’t articulate it clearly without some kind of source in front of me. I see now what you were getting at though. On 16 June 1922 the Irish general-election was held, pretty much run on the basis of ratifying the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The pro-Treaty contingent won, which in their eyes, gave the Free State democratic legitimacy.

      The partition of Ireland had been long decided prior to even the War of Independence though. John Redmond would also have acquiesced to partition. Even with Home Rule implemented and made law, there would have been two Home Rule parliaments for the north and south.

      I think De Valera knew partition was inevitable too; most of the Dáil knew it was inevitable. During the Treaty debates of 1921 partition was rarely brought up as an issue. The Ulster Unionists would have to have been coerced into any 32 county parliament and a civil war of that magnitude was not something the British could ideally wave away.


      • 1922 is such a political and administrative mess to navigate through that popular history simply chooses to overlook the nuts and bolts of it all. In early 1922 there were four parliaments claiming jurisdiction over the whole or part of the country (British, Irish, Southern Irish and Northern Irish) not to mention four governments (Irish Republican, Provisional, Northern Irish, British). And that’s putting it in simple terms.

        Yep, partition for Ireland was being pushed since the early 1900s and became popular after WWI in part because it was so common elsewhere for the world powers who were “partitioning” up the globe as they pleased. I think there was something like 10-20 temporary or permanent partitions of national territories in Europe between 1900-1925. Ireland was seen in that context.

        On the other hand unionists were being offered a home rule parliament for a 9-county, 6-county or 4-county north-east Ulster within a united Ireland since 1914 or so. Sinn Féin took up that offer, so there was no insistence on a single 32 Co. state. Unionists could have had a degree of autonomy within an independent Irish Republic: a parliament, government, constabulary, judiciary, etc. Notably de Valera made that offer several times to Carson, Craig, etc.


        • Yeah it’s definitely hard to navigate alright.

          The Buckingham Palace Conference talks fail in July 1914 as result of this issue. I really wonder how viable a 4-county opt out was though. Did Redmond push for a 4 county north-east Ulster during the debates at the Buckingham Palace Conference? I know Carson played hard ball all the way through.


          • Redmond accepted the principle of temporary partition for all 9 Cos. of Ulster, for three years or so, in the July 1914 conference. Around that time suggestions were made of excluding some counties, by electoral representation or mini-plebiscites. Redmond was going to make a speech agreeing to a permanent partition sometime in late 1914 in return for a smaller north-east Ulster region. The matter was raised again in the 1917-18 Irish Convention. The idea was also taken up by de Valera, albeit with greater emphasis on a home rule north-east within an independent Ireland. Redmond, because he favoured a quasi-federal United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland seems, ultimately, to have been less perturbed by partition than he initially appeared. He believed both “Irelands” could co-exist within the UK. That’s a broad interpretation of events of course. There was the Midleton Plan, etc. in the mix.


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