The Easter Rising of 1916 was one of the defining moments in the struggle for Irish independence - indeed it may be regarded as the turning point for the fortunes of Irish republicanism. And this despite the fact that the rebellion was a total failure ... but its bloody aftermath united the Irish. But let's cut through the myths surrounding 1916 and establish the bare facts.
Who were the Irish Rebels of 1916?
"Home Rule", a limited independence of Ireland within the British Empire, had been discussed for ages and was within reach in the early 1900s. It actually should have come about in 1914 - but the start of the First World War intervened.
In preparation for the enactment of Home Rule several paramilitary organizations had been set up. The Ulster Volunteer Force, opposed to Home Rule, mainly Protestant and dedicated to preserving the status quo or take Ulster out of the Empire, flourished in the north. In the south the Irish Volunteers, mainly Catholic, supporting Home Rule and ultimately Irish independence, were set up. But at the outbreak of war in Europe most volunteers from both sides of the divide actually declared their loyalty to London, the most able-bodied joining the British Army. The Irish Volunteers swiftly reinvented themselves as "National Volunteers", with only a (very dedicated) minority concentrating on the original cause.
These were secretly led by an "Army Council" set up by the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Though infiltrated by British intelligence they managed to plan an armed rebellion. And they were supported by groups as diverse an James Connolly's Irish Citizens Army (ICA; a trade-union militia), the Hibernian Rifles (a minute nationalistic fraction), the Cumann na mBan (a nationalistic women's group) and the Fianna Éireann (a nationalistic version of the Boy Scouts). Heading the Irish Volunteers were Chief-of-Staff Eoin MacNeill and "Commander" Patrick Pearse, poet, historian and teacher.
Will They or Won't They?
In 1916 British Intelligence had definite information that the IRB was planning an armed rebellion. They knew the main players and the main problem holding them back - too few weapons. 1,500 rifles had been smuggled into Howth Harbour some years before by Erskine Childers - much too few. Intelligence also knew that republicans were waiting for Roger Casement, currently touring Germany to raise an "Irish Brigade" amongst PoWs, to come back to Ireland with a shipment of arms, courtesy of the Kaiser. So they were well-informed.
And the alarm was fully raised when a slightly disoriented and apparently disillusioned Roger Casement was arrested near Banna Strand on Good Friday 1916. He had just been dropped off by the German U-Boat U19. Unfortunately the ship "Aud", carrying German weapons, was intercepted and had to be scuttled. At the same time the Irish Volunteers and other paramilitary groups were ordered to attend "manoeuvres" on Easter Sunday. A rebellion was obviously imminent - but Assistant Secretary Sir Matthew Nathan decided that it all was much ado about nothing and simply did not carry out the orders to arrest nearly 100 known leaders of the IRB and Volunteers.
Instead the entire British military establishment decided that to miss the traditional Easter race meeting at Fairyhouse (County Meath) would be a sin. So Dublin was stripped of officers and other (competent) decision-makers.
The Irish Divided
On the other side of the divide a seemingly united front was crumbling - after the Volunteers had been ordered to muster on Easter Sunday, Chief-of-Staff MacNeill correctly assumed that the rising was imminent and decided to countermand the orders. He relented when Pearse pointed out that Casement was just arriving with the much-needed weapons. Then the news broke that Casement had been arrested and the weapons were at the bottom of the sea. MacNeill assumed (quite sensibly) that the rebellion was doomed from the start and pulled the plug on any "manoeuvres". The Easter Rising 1916 was effectively called off.
But not for Pearse (who had an obsession with "blood sacrifices" anyway) and Connolly (who had already called off an even more doomed rebellion of the minute ICA alone) - they had Thomas MacDonagh issue orders to the Dublin units of the Volunteers to muster on Easter Monday at 10 AM with whatever weapons they had ... and rations for one day.
This article is part of a series on the Easter Rising of 1916: