The Significance of 1916
The 1916 Rising was a seminal event in the history of 20th-Century Ireland. It was regarded by republicans, then and since, as a glorious fight for freedom, a major step on the road to independence. It was seen by unionists as a ‘stab in the back’, at a time when Britain was at war. Defended by George Bernard Shaw as “a fair fight in everything except the enormous odds my countrymen had to face”, it was condemned by the Irish Times as “rapine and bloodshed”. It has been analysed by academics and military historians, commemorated in song and ballad, revered and reviled. While there has been disagreement regarding its effects and results, there can be no doubt about its central place in the history of modern Ireland.
The Background to 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.
Outbreak of Rebellion
Following the capture of the German ammunition ship, the ‘Aud’, and MacNeill’s countermanding order, Volunteer mobilisation was incomplete and there was little activity outside Dublin. In Dublin, on 24th April, a force of 1,200 Volunteer and Citizen Army members took over the centre of the city. At the GPO, the Proclamation of the Republic was read and an Irish Republic declared, with P. H. Pearse as President. The Proclamation was signed by Pearse and six others: Thomas Clarke, Seán MacDiarmada, James Connolly, Thomas MacDonagh, Eamonn Ceannt and Joseph Plunkett. Garrisons were set up at the Four Courts, Boland’s Mills, Jacob’s Factory, the South Dublin Union, the College of Surgeons and other strategic points, but the insurgents failed to capture Dublin Castle, which was a serious blow to their plans.
The declaration of independence on Easter Monday was followed by five days of fierce street fighting as British forces, aided by artillery brought from Athlone and a gunboat, the ‘Helga’, on the Liffey, slowly encircled and isolated the various garrisons. Some of the heaviest fighting took place around Mount Street Bridge as British reinforcements, advancing from Dún Laoghaire, met fierce opposition. Heavy hand-to-hand fighting also took place around the Four Courts and other posts. The failure of the insurgents to capture Trinity College or Dublin Castle allowed the British to drive a wedge between posts north and south of the Liffey and bring artillery to bear on the GPO. Finally, on Saturday 29th, with the GPO in flames and the city centre in ruins, Pearse gave the order to surrender.
On 28th April, General Maxwell arrived in Dublin to take control of the British forces. Following the surrender, the survivors were rounded up, as were thousands of Volunteers and sympathisers throughout the country. The leaders were promptly court-martialled and over 90 death sentences were passed. On 3rd May, the executions began when Patrick Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh and Thomas Clarke were shot by firing squad in Kilmainham Jail. Over the next eight days, a further 12 executions were carried out, despite growing protests in Ireland, Britain and America. Those executed included the seven signatories of the Proclamation, together with Con Colbert, Sean Heuston, Michael Mallin, Michael O’Hanrahan, William Pearse, Sean MacBride, Edward Daly and, in Cork, Thomas Kent.
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