The Easter Rising (1916)

The Easter Rising is among the most significant moments in Irish history. It stands out in memory as a profound moment for Irish freedom and lives as an example of the everlasting strength and courage of Irish men and women. Sometimes referred to as the Easter Rebellion, the “Easter Rising” was a revolt staged in Ireland by Irish Republicans with the hopes of ending British rule and establishing an Irish free state. It was prepared for Easter week, 1916 and it lasted from Easter Monday, April 24th, until April 30th. The Easter Rising, apart from its goal of ending British rule, was the first step towards ending almost a thousand years of British oppression and tyranny on the island. It blazed a pathway for Irish independence and had it never happened, the nation may not be the free state that it is today.

Prior to the Uprising, Ireland had a very personal relationship with British sovereigns. From the 12th century until 1542, the British sovereign had been considered the overlord of the Lordship of Ireland, which was a papal possession.[1] In that year, the Crown of Ireland Act 1542 was passed by Irish Parliament, which granted the English sovereign kingship of the Emerald Isle, proclaiming Henry VIII of England the King of Ireland.[2] Following this legislation, true problems did not arise until 1707 when England and Scotland were combined into one Great Britain, which Ireland could not join as it was still under certain restrictions from England.[3] Irish Parliament responded by addressing Queen Anne, stating “May God put it in your royal heart to add greater strength and lustre to your crown, by a still more comprehensive Union.”[4] The exclusion of Ireland while under British rule created a series of events that led to many clashes, particularly the 1798 Rebellion, which is comparable to none other than the Easter Uprising itself.

The Rebellion in 1798 was an uprising against British rule, lasting from May to September, with over ten years worth of events leading up to revolt. It was one of the most widespread rebellions, as eleven counties in Ulster, Leinster, and Connacht participated and together lost a total of over 20-30,000 men and women. The revolutionary movements of the Americans and the French in prior decades influenced this particular uprising, and “The United Irishmen” became a significant group inspired by the age of revolution.[5] For this rebellion, the British government had in fact been unfair with the Irish, as Parliament passed laws allowing Catholics with property to vote, but no Irishman could be an elected or appointed as a state official.[6] Rioting took place throughout the 1790’s and the country became more and more angered by British oppression. Religious differences came into focus.

A propaganda sheet from a book depicting violent massacres of Protestants by Catholics during the events of 1798. ©Hulton Archive.

A propaganda sheet from a book depicting violent massacres of Protestants by Catholics during the events of 1798. ©Hulton Archive.

Above is a sheet from a propaganda booklet describing the bloody massacres of Protestants by Catholics in 1798.[7] The United Irishmen issued parliamentary plans for reform as early as 1794. According to T.W. Moody and F.X. Martin, these plans suggested that “Ireland should be divided into 300 parliamentary constituencies equal in population, and that every man should have a vote.”[8] The United Irishmen looked to secure reform by looking forward to the abolition of tithe, a reduction in government expenditure, lower taxation, and the encouragement of trade and help for education.[9] Despite the fact that many of the reasons for clashing with the British were due to clashes between religion and politics, the United Irishmen consisted of people of all different religious backgrounds.

In addition, Britain was still aggravated by the fact that France had helped the American Colonies during the American Revolution from 1776-1783. Napoleon, who was about to become Emperor of a new French Empire, had plans to invade England.[10] England was faced with Irish Rebellion with the help of Napoleon’s forces, and by the end of 1796, a French fleet almost landed on the coast of Ireland with the intent of driving English forces out of the region.[11] According to Moody and Martin, from a military point of view, the efforts were so badly planned that this failed, as it became an isolated struggle and an even worse battle with the weather.

Widespread fighting wracked the summer of 1798. British Prime Minister William Pitt understood that the outcome of rebellion based on nationalism, which involves emotional factors, was too unpredictable.[12] He had the Act of Union passed in 1800 and in 1801 Ireland became a part of the United Kingdom.[13] Ireland was granted a seat in parliament and this gave the country a chance to let her voice be heard.[14]

This however simply gave Britain ‘breathing room’ and is interpreted by some historians as a way that London avoided even worse conflicts between Catholics and Protestants. There were several small uprisings throughout the nineteenth century, particularly during the reign of Victoria. A notable protest of British rule happened during the Great Famine from 1845 to 1847, when the Irish had completely lost faith in the British government because of their lack of aide. Yet still, no other uprising was as demanding as the one of Easter, 1916.

Patrick Henry Pearse, a schoolteacher and barrister, stood outside the Dublin General Post Office after noon on Easter Monday in 1916 to read the proclamation of the Irish Republic.[15] In this proclamation, he reflected on generations past, the ‘dead generations,’ from which a great sense of nationalism and individual pride was born. It was a day that he hoped would finally succeed in breaking eight centuries of British rule over Ireland. Part of the framework that led up to the Rising included the fact that the British government suspended the recently enacted Home Rule Bill because of the outbreak of World War I.[16] The Home Rule Bill had guaranteed a measure of political autonomy to Ireland. Taking it away angered many nationalists who had waited forty years for it to take effect.[17]

The 1916 Proclamation.

The 1916 Proclamation.

Contrary to the notion that Irish independence had to be shelved because of war efforts, Patrick Pearse felt the complete opposite- he believed that the timing was perfect to throw the British off course while their attention was divided. He wanted full Irish independence and not what the suspended Home Rule Bill of 1912 would have offered him.[19] Pearse helped to organize and lead the Irish Volunteers prior to the outbreak of World War I in 1914, which were the public face of the outlawed Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB).[20] The IRB is famously known today as a group that set its face against the danger of political sell-outs, and according to historian Charles Townshend, “rejected all participation in the British political system in favour [sic] of a commitment to ‘physical force’ to remove British rule.”[21] Together, both the Volunteers and the IRB made up a portion of the ‘rebels’ who were committed to full on combat against Britain, and the smaller Irish Citizen army soon joined them. Along with 200 members of Cumann na mBan, they hoped to establish an Irish free state.

Before noon on Easter, the rebels set out to occupy a number of imposing buildings in the inner city area of Dublin, which included the General Post Office, Jacob’s Factory and Boland’s Bakery. The General Post Office was the nerve center of the rebellion, and after it was taken, two flags were hoisted on each side of the building: one was the tricolored flag, the other was a green flag with the inscription ‘Irish Rebublic’ on it. It was just after this that Patrick Pearse read the proclamation outside the General Post Office, the powerful words that called Irish men and women to their feet to claim what was and remains rightfully theirs away from British hands.

In the beginning of the Rising, the authorities had only 400 troops to confront about 1,000 rebels. The British military onslaught did not mobilize at first, but the week ensued several intense street battles. Before noon the rebels set out to occupy a number of imposing buildings in the inner city area of Dublin, which included the General Post Office, Jacob’s Factory and Boland’s Bakery. The General Post Office was the nerve center of the rebellion, and after it was taken, two flags were hoisted on each side of the building: one was the tricolored flag, the other was a green flag with the inscription ‘Irish Rebublic’ on it. It was just after this that Patrick Pearse read the proclamation outside the General Post Office, the powerful words that called Irish men and women to their feet to claim what was and remains rightfully theirs away from British hands.

In the beginning of the Rising, the authorities had only 400 troops to confront about 1,000 rebels. The British military onslaught did not mobilize at first, but the week ensued several intense street battles. By Friday of that week, Britain responded by sending reinforcements to the capital, putting 1,600 rebels against roughly 17-20,000 soldiers.[22] On April 28th, Dublin came under a violent attack that devastated a great deal of the central parts of the city. By the end of the revolt, over 400 civilians had died.[23] The poet AE (George Russell) explained his reactions to the events leading up to this kind of catastrophe in a verse of his writing:

Their dream had left me numb and cold,

But yet my spirit rose in pride,

Refashioning in burnished gold

The images of those who died

Or were shut in the penal cell.[24]

Scavengers Poor children of Dublin collecting firewood from the ruined buildings damaged in the Easter Rising. ©Hulton Archive.

Scavengers Poor children of Dublin collecting firewood from the ruined buildings damaged in the Easter Rising. ©Hulton Archive.

Patrick Pearse surrendered to the British army on Friday, April 28th. According to Patrick Mannion, there is significant historical debate as to how Irish popular opinion of independence shifted following the events of the rising.[26] It is said that most people did not approve of the mass violence that had taken place. However, beginning on May 3rd of that year, 15 influential rebel leaders were shot by firing squads, including Patrick Pearse and his younger brother, Willie.[27] Irish sentiments drastically changed. As one commentator noted, “a few unknown men shot in a barrack yard has embittered a whole nation.”[28]

After the end of the war in November 1918, Sinn Féin secured a majority of 73 Irish seats in the general election. The Sinn Féin was a political party- a manifestation of the Irish revolution.[29] It represented a vast number of different beliefs, traditions, and methods, and it was a coalition between two different forms of Irish nationalism.[30] One was committed to the establishment of an Irish republic by revolutionary measures (which had occurred).[31] The other was aimed at a more limited degree of independence which could keep Ireland a part of the United Kingdom but still have a great deal of freedom from London.[32] Eamon de Valera, co-rebel alongside Arthur Griffith and Patrick Pearse, and future president of the Republic of Ireland, supported the latter.

In 1919, twenty-seven Sinn Féin MPs assembled in Dublin and proclaimed themselves as an independent parliament of an Irish Republic, ignored by Britain, which ensured the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921).[33] War persisted until a truce on July 11, 1921, and Sinn Féin representatives were sent to London to negotiate.[34] Initially, Arthur Griffith and Eamon de Valera (who both lead the Sinn Féin, or “do it ourselves” rebel movement of Ireland), were at one in the arrangement of the negotiations.[35] A treaty was in fact reached on January 7, 1922, and British troops left Ireland.[36]

And so it is important to understand that people did not wake up on Easter and decide to start a revolution. The seeds for the actions of that week were planted centuries earlier, and fueled by centuries of oppression, tyranny, and even neglect in years more recent to the rising itself. The people of Ireland were treated like second to third class citizens when they had the spirits and the will of first class nobility. It was not until 2011 that a British sovereign made his or her first state visit to a free Ireland. Queen Elizabeth II made perhaps the most successful state trip of her 60-year reign- immediately striking a peaceful tone when she stepped out of a plane wearing green. In a speech in front of President Mary McAleese at Dublin, she admitted to the harshness and unnecessary brutality of their shared history. Above all, she opened the speech in the Irish language.

To have done so is the mark of someone who hopes to find peace between two nations that share a rough history. Especially, when a hundred years ago, the Irish would have been persecuted for speaking their own language. One can only hope that the Queen’s visit in 2011 secured Irish freedom and a sense of sympathy from British neighbors, and remain confident that peace will remain intact throughout the new century and forward.

*

”A huachtarain agus a chaired.”

(President and friends).


  • [1] James Loughlin. The British Monarchy and Ireland, 1800 to the Present. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 1.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Ibid., 2.
  • [4] William Cobett and Thomas Curson. The Parliamentary History of England, from the Earliest Period to the Year 1803. London: T.C. Hansard, 1819.
  • [5] T.W. Moody and F.X. Martin. The Course of Irish History. Cork: The Mercier Press, 1967. 239.
  • [6] Edward Hay. History of the Irish Insurrection of 1798. New York: John Kennedy, 1847. 7.
  • [7] Getty. “Scenes from the Irish Rebellion of 1798”. ©Hulton Archive, 1886.
  • [8] T.W. Moody and F.X. Martin, The Course of Irish History, 239.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] Thomas Packenham. The Year of Liberty: The Story of the Great Irish Rebellion of 1798. Panther, 1972. 392.
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] T.W. Moody and F.X. Martin, The Course of Irish History, 246-247.
  • [13] Ibid., 247.
  • [14] Charles Townshend. Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2006. 24.
  • [15] Ibid., 1.
  • [16] T.W. Moody and F.X. Martin, The Course of Irish History, 304-305.
  • [17] T.W. Moody and F.X. Martin, The Course of Irish History, 304-305.
  • [18] Charles Townshend, Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion, Preface.
  • [19] Charles Townshend, Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion, 21.
  • [20] Ibid., 3.
  • [21] Ibid.
  • [22] Patrick Mannion. “Newfoundland Responses to the Easter Rebellion and the Rise of Sinn Fein ,” 1, no. April 1916 (1919): 1719–1726. 2.
  • [23] Ibid.
  • [24] Goddard Lieberson. The Irish Uprising. New York: Hinkhouse, Inc., 1966. 24.
  • [25] Getty. “Scavengers Poor Children of Dublin Collecting Firewood from the Ruined Buildings Damaged in the Easter Rising”. Dublin: ©Hulton Archive, 1916.
  • [26] Patrick Mannion,  “Newfoundland Responses to the Easter Rebellion and the Rise of Sinn Fein ,” 1, no. April 1916 (1919): 1719–1726. 2.
  • [27] Ibid.
  • [28] Michael Laffan. The Resurrection of Ireland. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. 53.
  • [29] Ibid., 4.
  • [30] Ibid.
  • [31] Ibid.
  • [32] Ibid.
  • [33] T.W. Moody and F.X. Martin, The Course of Irish History, 311.
  • [34] Ibid., 324.
  • [35] Ibid., 324-325.
  • [36] Ibid., 304-305.
  • [37] Getty. “The Queen Observes a Minute’s Silence After Laying a Wreath at the Irish War Memorial Garden in Islandbridge During Her Historic Visit. Picture: Getty Images Source: The Australian.” The Australian. The Australian, 2011.