100 years since the rising that changed a nation

As Patrick Pearse stood outside the General Post Office (GPO) in Dublin and read out the proclamation of the Irish Republic, those who listened knew this marked what was to be the beginning of the end of the British occupation 26 counties of Ireland (in all but the northern counties). The Easter Rising of 1916 was one of the most significant events in both Irish and British history because although militarily it was a failure, in the aftermath there was a wave of nationalism and increased fervour for independence amongst the Irish population. This was instrumental in eventually leading to the end of British rule, after the signing of the Anglo Irish Treaty in December 1921.

The Easter Rising was an armed insurrection by Irish republicans launched in an attempt to end British rule in Ireland and to form an independent Irish Republic. The events leading up to the rising were marred by global conflict, with Britain occupied with the Great War. In September of that year the council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) met and planned to stage a rebellion before the war was over, with help from Germany. This aid was sent in April 1916 in the form of a ship loaded with rifles, ammunition and explosives. However the British discovered the arms shipment and intercepted it. This was a major setback as the rising was only intended to go ahead if there was a reasonable chance of success; victory almost certainly required the armaments on that ship. Without them, the Irish Volunteers were split as to whether the rising should still go ahead or not. This indecisiveness and lack of leadership proved to be key elements in the failure of the volunteers to achieve military success.

On Easter Sunday, 23rd April 1916, the military council decided to go ahead with the rising the next day on Easter Monday. The chief of staff, Eoin MacNeill, had actually issued a countermanding order days earlier cancelling all operations. He felt that resistance would be futile without the German weaponry. MacNeill’s order was ignored. This confusion and inconsistency in the leadership of the IRB resulted in far fewer volunteers taking part in the rising than was originally expected. It also meant the revolt was mainly confined to Dublin.

On the morning of 24th April, around 1,250 members of the Irish volunteers seized key areas across Dublin. These included Clanwilliam House, Watkins Brewery, the Four Courts Building, College of Surgeons, Boland’s Mill and the GPO, which was chosen as the rebels’ headquarters. They held out until 29th April, but the British brought in additional reinforcements and heavy artillery. The gunship HMY Helga was particularly formidable. The Royal Navy sailed her up the river Liffy and bombarded rebel positions with two 12-pounder naval guns. In the face of overwhelming manpower and weaponry, and the rising number of civilian deaths, the volunteers had no choice but to surrender. The rising lasted only 5 days but resulted in around 485 deaths and around 2700 wounded. Most of these were innocent civilians.

Due to the large amount of civilian deaths, the rising initially received condemnation from the majority of ordinary Irish citizens. This changed when the British executed many of the prisoners. Justifiably, these executions were seen as being unduly harsh, particularly since the trials were held in secret and prisoners were not given a defence. This tough stance adopted by the British government undoubtedly swayed many Irish citizens towards support for the 1916 Easter rebels and the cause which they fought and died for.

Today the Easter Rising is still remembered by the Republican community as a brave uprising against an empire that had dominated Ireland for centuries. It has helped inspire uprisings against imperialism all over the world such as the Chittagong raid in India, the 1917 Russian Revolution and Ho Chi Minh’s August Revolution. However, remembrance of it is still regarded as controversial by some communities in Ireland today particularly the Unionist community in Northern Ireland who regard it as symbolism for the fight to achieve a united Ireland, which they vehemently oppose.

As the centenary year of the Easter Rising passes, regardless of our personal views on it, we can accept that because of the rising, Britain and Ireland were never the same again.