The Background to 1916

Explore the social, economic and cultural background to the Rising with a focus on the First World War, the Volunteers, the GAA, Sinn Féin and the IRB.

Ireland was in a relatively peaceful state during the first decade of the 20th Century. The campaign to end landlordism had been largely successful. The government policy of “killing Home Rule with kindness” appeared to be paying dividends.

New nationalist organisations emerge

At the same time, however, new organisations such as the Gaelic League, the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) and Sinn Féin, all infiltrated to some degree by the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), were working to redefine the meaning of Irishness.

The growth of cultural and economic nationalism, together with the return of Home Rule to the political forefront, were to have a profound influence on Irish affairs.

The military background

The formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force in 1912, and of the Irish Volunteers the following year were accompanied by gun-running on both sides and general preparation for armed conflict. Very importantly, the formation of the Irish Volunteers provided the IRB with access to an open and legal military body. Another armed force, the Irish Citizen Army, had been formed in response to indiscriminate police baton charges on workers during the 1913 Strike and Lock-out. The Citizen Army would come to play an important part in the events of 1916.

World War I

The outbreak of World War I in June 1914 finally provided the opportunity for which a generation of Fenians had waited – a major international conflict. The Rising of 1916 was the culmination of 60 years’ ceaseless probing and planning, by a movement which had survived defeat, imprisonment, ridicule and religious censure.

Planning the Rising

Upon the outbreak of war, the IRB set about planning a rebellion. Contact was made with Germany, control over the Irish Volunteers was tightened and relations with the Citizen Army were improved. A promise of German arms was received, and in January 1916, the Supreme Council of the IRB fixed April 23rd as the date of the rising. This was later changed to the 24th, and plans were made to take delivery of the arms from Germany.

When the Volunteer chairman, Eoin MacNeill, discovered that rebellion was planned, he countermanded the mobilisation orders, changed his mind when told of the German arms, and changed it again when he heard of their capture. The Military Council of the IRB decided, however, to go ahead with the rebellion on Easter Monday, 24th April.