Brian Hughes talk to NWHS on 7th January 2016.
– In a 1968 essay, published in the journal Studia Hibernica, the historian F. X. Martin described the Easter Rising a ‘revolt of “a minority of a minority of the minority”. This remains, I think, in many ways an apt description.
– Irish nationalism was a rather complex beast at the turn of the twentieth century and there was certainly not one homogenous nationalist group or identity.
– In 1914, nationalist Ireland was dominated by the IPP and John Redmond – democratic mandate – in the General Election held in December 1910 (last before the Great War) they had gained 71 out a total of 105 seats in Westminster.
– Aim of the IPP was ‘Home Rule’ a limited form of Irish independence through a devolved parliament in Dublin – enough for most Irish nationalists (largely, but not exclusively the Catholic population) and it could be argued that the real ‘social revolution’ had already come via the large scale redistribution of land under successive British acts in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
– Redmond had succeeded in getting a Home Rule Bill through the British House of Commons under the Liberal Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith in 1912. The House of Lords, dominated by Conservatives, had vetoed two previous Home Rule bills in Parnell’s time but a constitutional crisis in Britain led to a change that meant that the House of Lords could only veto the same bill twice. By 1914, then, the House of Lords veto would no longer apply and Home Rule would become law.
– Opposition to HR was most densely concentrated in the north-east and Ulster Unionists, led by the Dublin barrister and MP for TCD Edward Carson (and backed by the Conservative Party in Britain), formed an Ulster Unionist Council and from 1912 began to form local armed militias – the Ulster Volunteer Force. In theory, they were opposed to Home Rule across the whole island but the southern Irish loyalists or unionists formed a small and scattered minority outside of Ulster. Moreover, just as the Ulster Unionists had armed to prevent the imposition of HR, so too had Irish nationalists begun to arm to protect it: the Irish Volunteers, the embryo of the organization that would take to the streets of Dublin at Easter 1916 was formed in November 1913; prompted by what you might call the ‘good example’ of Ulster.
– The compromise suggested to deal with Irish demands and Ulster Unionist intransigence was partition – an arrangement whereby one part of the island would be governed from Dublin and the other would remain under the control of Westminster – and by 1914 it could be argued that partition was inevitable. The most vexed question was, perhaps, then one of borders. How much of the island would be excluded from HR and for how long? – six counties not necessarily inevitable – Tyrone and Fermanagh for example.
– While Ireland was moving towards an increasingly likely civil war between Nationalists and Unionists, war broke out in Europe. With the partition question still unsettled, the Government of Ireland Act 1914 was put on the statute books, but suspended for the duration of the War.
– The IPP in the twentieth century was a ‘catch-all’ organization and was able to appeal to a majority of nationalists by offering a broad, but vague and ill-defined, notion of Irish independence to the public. By never fully articulating what ‘Home Rule’ would actually look like, it avoided offending any of the very many special interest groups within nationalism. After several decades of frustration and failure, Redmond seemed to have succeeded. The Great War was a game-changer in very many ways that would take a separate lecture, or even series, to discuss, but the Rising takes place very much in the context of the Great War and nationalist Ireland’s response to that war.
– Importantly for what was to come, there remained a minority of nationalists for whom Home Rule was not enough.
– As time went on, some who had been initially supportive of moderate policy grew frustrated and came to believe that the British would never willingly give Irish independence without the use of force. Patrick Pearse, for example, had originally spoken in favour of Home Rule in 1912 and was a later convert to the doctrine of physical force.
– The Gaelic League, founded in 1893, though originally intended as non-political, became increasingly critical of the IPP. They came to reject its constitutional methods and what they saw as jobbery and corruption within the party – as well the party’s apparent lack of interest in the language. Eoin MacNeill, for example, a founder of both the Gaelic League and the Irish Volunteers, is a good example of this – MacNeill, though seen as somewhat moderate in his views, was fiercely opposed to the IPP.
– The most fierce opposition to moderate, or constitutional, nationalism came from the Irish Republican Brotherhood. They had attempted an armed uprising in 1867 but it was a short-lived and typically farcical affair. It had become a somewhat passive and moribund organization by the 1910s, but the emergence of new generation of radicals – most notably Sean MacDiarmada, the protogee of veteran Tom Clarke – and the culling of the old order had given the IRB new life and vigour. Nevertheless, they remained a tiny and unrepresentative organization.
– It is important to consider that there is some crossover and divergence among these groups – Blanket term of ‘Sinn Feiners’ – misleading and unrepresentative of the complexity –Arthur Griffith – advocated a policy of ‘dual monarchy’ rather than a complete separation from Britain – and a more pragmatic approach than many of his contemporaries – passive resistance (later seen with Dáil Éireann) – Griffith not representative either
– Some of those who wished for linguistic as well as political change in Ireland, – Patrick Pearse being a prominent example – came to see that their aims could only be achieved by rebellion. But though Pearse and Eoin MacNeill worked very closely together in the Gaelic League they did not share the same view on what a rebellion could or should look like. De Valera and others equally committed to the use of armed force, refused to join the IRB owing to an opposition to secret oath-bound societies often linked to their devout Catholicism.
– At a famous speech at Woodenbridge, County Wicklow, he called on the Irish Volunteers (who numbered over 100,000 at this point) to enlist in the British army. [Redmond Poster] This is often seen as a major turning point in Irish history and a gamble by Redmond that failed spectacularly. It also had an important bearing on the course of events that led to the Easter Rising. His call to arms caused a split with those in the Irish Volunteers who believed that Irishmen should only fight in Ireland and not in Britain’s war. A huge majority of the organisation sided with Redmond and became known as the Irish National Volunteers and many enlisted in the British army. One of those men, Emmet Dalton, told Cathal O’Shannon of RTÉ in 1978 that ‘Primarily, I felt I was fighting for Ireland’ and many others shared this feeling. The minority (between 3,000 and 10,000) retained the title of Irish Volunteers under Eoin MacNeill.
– So those who followed MacNeill were a minority, but, as I have already suggested, there were further splits within that minority.
– Some – like MacNeill, O’Rahilly – believed in force but only with a significant chance of victory – guerrilla war
– Others – mostly influenced by the IRB – felt the time had come during the Great War to strike their blow.
– Driven by Clark and MacDiarmada, in 1915 a ‘military committee’ (later known as the military council’) was formed – Patrick Pearse, Eamon Ceannt and Joseph Plunkett – in September they were officially joined by Clarke and MacDermott. In 1916 the council was expanded to seven as Thomas MacDonagh and James Connolly were co-opted. It was these seven men who would sign the proclamation of the Irish Republic. But even within the IRB, these men were a minority and operated largely by keeping those opposed to their ideas out of the loop.
– Connolly – ICA leader – Marxist – relationship with nationalism is still a matter of some debate
– The plan for the rebellion was a simple one. MacNeill would be tricked into agreeing to a rebellion and the Irish Volunteers and ICA would be mobilized on Easter Sunday 1916, but not told what for.
– Informants had been the scourge of previous Irish rebellions and the secrecy with which the conspirators planned the Rising was one of its greatest successes. The Irish administration had received intelligence that hinted an uprising was being plotted, and certainly knew about the planned landing of arms in Kerry, but were caught off guard. The lord lieutenant, Lord Wimborne, had been calling for the repression of the Irish Volunteers in the months before the Rising but had been ignored by the two senior civil servants who really held the power in Ireland, the chief secretary and the under-secretary. The chief secretary, Augustine Birrell, had decided to travel to England for the bank holiday weekend and was not in Ireland when the Rising began. The under-secretary, Sir Matthew Nathan, went to work in his office in Dublin Castle on Easter Monday (even though it was a bank holiday) and spent the week trapped there. Also absent on leave was the general officer commanding the British forces in Ireland, General Lovick Friend. It was Birrell and Nathan who ultimately took the blame for the Rising and both offered resignations in its aftermath. But the secrecy with which the Rising was planned also contributed to its failure as a military enterprise. When Eoin MacNeill found out that he had been tricked, he immediately cancelled the order to mobilise on Easter Sunday. His now famous ‘countermanding order’ was delivered throughout the country. At the same time, a shipment of arms sent from Germany was due to arrive in Kerry but a series of misfortunes and misunderstandings meant the ship carrying the arms was scuttled. Three men, sent to assist in the landing of the arms, were drowned when their car took a wrong turn and drove into the sea, and Roger Casement, who had arrived on German U-Boat to try to prevent the Rising, was arrested on the Kerry coast.
– MacNeill as ‘villain’ – not a pacifist – his justification for it was pragmatic many ways – moral reasons, just war – quote from memoir that encapsulates this:
It is not too much to say that Patrick Pearse allowed himself to be carried away with the notion of heroism on the Cuchulain model. … The danger of this line of thinking is plain enough. It teaches young people to regard their country or their nation not so much as a thing which they should be satisfied to serve, but rather as a stage upon which they may expect to play a part in the drama of heroism and that notion has become very widespread among the younger people down to this moment. Besides the heroic ideal of this kind, certain mystical notions were at work. The Nation itself became disembodied in some of their ardent minds and became reduced to a sort of mystical abstraction.
– Despite these disasters, the Rising’s planners met and decided to go ahead with the rebellion but to postpone it until Easter Monday. It is generally accepted that the confusion brought about by MacNeill’s order meant that the Rising was largely confined to Dublin (there was some isolated fighting in Meath, Galway, Wexford and Louth, which I will refer to shortly) and no more than 1,000 Volunteers could be mobilized, along with about 200 from the Irish Citizen Army. – It is not entirely clear if the leaders ever held any hope of a complete military success, even before the failure to land arms and the countermand. Many historians have noted the concept of ‘blood-sacrifice’, characterised most strongly by Patrick Pearse. Pearse had written about how ‘the earth needed to be warmed with the red wine of the battlefield’ and the sanctifying effects of war. This view was not necessarily shared by all the leaders – Connolly had called Pearse’s words those of a ‘blithering idiot’ – and was certainly not shared by the ranks and file, but by agreeing to go ahead on Easter Monday, the Rising’s leaders essentially committed to a doomed but bloody stand that would, they hoped, reignite the patriotism of the Irish population and encourage the final push towards independence. They also committed the centre of Dublin, and some of its most densely populated civilian areas, to a rebellion that they had not asked for and were blissfully unaware of. Whether they had naively failed to consider this, or it had been cynically and deliberately planned this way to provoke the maximum amount of British damage and thereby turn public favour against the British, remains open to debate.
At 12pm on Easter Monday, 24 April 1916, 1,200 or so rebels seized and occupied a number of buildings around Dublin city centre. Patrick Pearse read out the Proclamation of the Irish Republic to a small, bemused crowd in front of the General Post Office on O’Connell Street (or Sackville Street as it was officially called at the time). [Proclamation – talk about this more broadly]
– At around the same time, groups of rebels occupied other sites around the city: St. Stephen’s Green; City Hall, the Four Courts; Boland’s Flour Mill; Jacob’s Biscuit Factory; the South Dublin Union; the Mendicity Insitution and Watkin’s Brewery. Many of the decisions made by the rebel leaders have drawn criticism from historians.
– [Stephen’s Green image] The decision to occupy Stephen’s Green and dig trenches there while ignoring the high surrounding buildings like the Shelbourne Hotel, for example, has been roundly criticised. The park was evacuated on the Tuesday morning when the British entered the Shelbourne and poured machine gun fire on the rebels from its windows, whereupon they retreated to the Royal College of Surgeons.
– Dublin Castle was originally attacked but a hasty retreat was very quickly made into City Hall and Trinity College was ignored completely. The sites chosen may have had some strategic importance (particularly the GPO – letters etc)
– But they certainly had little symbolic merit (unlike Dublin Castle, the seat of administrative power in Ireland) – a post-office, a biscuit factory, a flour mill, a distillery and a workhouse (South Dublin Union) sound rather unimpressive when listed in that way. Unfortunately, as no original blueprint of the plan for the Rising survives, the rationale (and, perhaps, the blame) for many of the decisions taken will have to remain firmly in the realm of speculation.
– Most successful rebel engagement in Dublin was the battle of Mount Street Bridge – [Map] Explain
– Impact of Rising on civilians in Dublin – most obvious is casualties [Glasnevin necrology]
– Interrupted daily life – food a huge issue – cut off from outside world – both common themes in civilian accounts
– Looting – caused huge disruption, fires, over 400 arrests – dominates newspaper and civilian accounts during and afterwards – class dimension in the descriptions.
– The role of women was certainly underappreciated and underrepresented, perhaps to some extent forgotten, for decade after the Easter Rising – that has changed.
– Not one of equality – Éamon de Valera excluded women entirely from his garrison, and while he was the only commandant to do so, the leaders of the other rebel posts had not made much provision for women either. Many women spent the Rising as nurses or cooks and even these appointments were often last minute arrangements designed to keep the men free for combat. Of the few women who did take a military role, most were members of the Irish Citizen Army garrisons. The commandant in St. Stephen’s Green, Michael Mallin, appointed Constance Markievicz as his second-in-command (however, this too was a last minute improvisation). Another female member of his garrison, Margaret Skinnider, was badly wounded attacking the Russell Hotel. Other women took on the potentially dangerous task of delivering messages to rebel headquarters and Mallin’s outposts. Despite the increased military role of a small number of the women in Mallin’s force, some were extremely disappointed with the role they were allotted. Marie Perolz was initially immensely proud at having been asked to operate as a messenger but this pride was soon replaced with a ‘bitter feeling of frustration’ at not having been involved in the fighting.
– But Perolz was not necessarily representative and many of the women who took part in the Rising either expressed no desire to take part in active combat, or no expectation that they might. To some extent, their participation should be seen in the context of broader, and widely accepted, ideas about the role of women in combat. The most dangerous work carried out by women was dispatch-carrying. In the absence of telephone or other communications between garrisons, this was vital work that put women directly in danger. That no female participants in the Rising were killed may say more about their skill and ingenuity than any lack of danger.
– As the week went on the British gradually encircled the rebels and the military response was rapid and generally efficient. They were gradually able to enter the city and cordon off and isolate individual garrisons. This meant that communication between garrisons became impossible and those within each building were sustained by rumours and gossip about how well the fight was going. On Wednesday, the garrison commanded by Seán Heuston in the Mendicity Institution, almost out of ammunition and hopelessly outnumbered, became the first to surrender. Heuston was later executed. General Friend was replaced as officer commanding the British forces in Ireland by General Sir John Maxwell. It was Maxwell who was ultimately responsible for the suppression of the Rising, which I will speak about shortly. On the Thursday of Easter week, the British began shelling the GPO (rebel headquarters) and the surrounding area, including the empty Liberty Hall. By Friday, the GPO was in flames and the rebels there were forced to flee to the Moore Street area where they soon decided to surrender. Pearse, apparently appalled by the civilian casualties, agreed to an unconditional surrender and the order was delivered to each of the rebel garrisons, who surrendered in turn on Saturday and Sunday.
– The provincial rising (the Rising outside of Dublin) has often been treated as an afterthought to the battle in Dublin. This is at least partly because, with one notable exception, it was largely unremarkable. Where provincial Volunteers did rise, they were usually left in a position where they were unsure what they were supposed to do and any action was carried out off the cuff rather than as part of any plan. This exception was the battle at Ashbourne, County Meath, between the Fingal Brigade of the IRA, led by Thomas Ashe and Richard Mulcahy, and the Royal Irish Constabulary on the Friday of Easter Week. Ashbourne was not only the single successful operation of the whole week, but also foreshadowed the kind of warfare that would be carried out by the IRA after 1919. The Fingal Brigade spent most of the week roaming around the countryside on bicycles arresting soldiers, raiding post offices and capturing police stations. It was only the decision of the RIC to attack the Fingal Brigade that allowed them the opportunity to carry out their successful operation. In Louth, Irish Volunteers spent the week doing much the same as their Fingal counterparts but were denied a place in history by the refusal of the RIC there to take the offensive. Ironically, it was probably also the lack of numbers and ammunition that contributed to the success as it dictated the way that the rebels had to fight – a guerrilla style ambush that succeeded in overwhelming and capturing the RIC patrol. In Galway, about 1,000 men were raised under the organisation of Liam Mellowes (executed in 1922). After a few derisory attacks on police barracks in the county, the action there was restricted to defensive manoeuvres, bicycle patrols and the disruption of communications but limited military action. In Ennistorthy, Volunteers occupied Vinegar Hill (scene of a symbolic battle in 1798) and attempted to starve out the local RIC barracks rather than attack it. They were also limited in what they could achieve owing to a lack of resources, manpower and plan.
– The failure to rise in the rest of the country can attributed to some extent to MacNeill’s order and the confusion it brought, although it is less clear why provincial units did not rise up once the fighting in Dublin is underway. The only shots fired in Cork were in Bawnard when a police patrol raided the house of Irish Volunteers the Kents, and this took place after the official surrender. A gun battle ensued during which a policeman and one of the Kent brothers was killed. Another brother, Thomas, was arrested and executed on 9 May. In Cork the Volunteers had assembled but were then stood down by their leaders, Terence MacSwiney and Tomas MacCurtain (both of whom were to die in 1920) and, inexplicably, handed their arms over to the local police. This failure to rise in 1916 haunted MacSwiney and MacCurtain and the shame surely helped to ensure that Cork would not remain inactive in the future.
– The material and personal cost of the Rising is not as well covered or understood as it might be. Buildings had been destroyed by fire and artillery; businesses and livelihoods temporarily or permanently ruined [Images of destruction x 3]
– Dead and wounded and hygiene issues [Epidemic poster]
Families were bereaved or separated by imprisonment – Property Losses (Ireland) Committee set up by British – received 7,001 claims for compensation and awarded grants totalling over £1,800,000 (almost €150,000,000). Amounts ranged from £1 7s 5p for an apron and shoes to £77,292 for the destruction of Clery’s department store on Sackville (O’Connell) Street.
– Bereaved families – example of Agnes Mallin [image of family] – also example of Pte. Davenport [image of War Office letter]
– Long-term effects of participation – example of Seamus Grace [image of MSPR] – value of these records in that respect
– Worth taking a more complex look at the idea of support for the Rising – Support came but not necessarily immediately – Example of Dublin Chamber of Commerce
– One major change is that the ‘republic’ became the nationalist aim – Sinn Féin as an umbrella organization for many diff types of nationalist with often very different ideas
– Anti-conscription was another important factor in 1918 General Election
[DEPENDING ON TIME] – The acid test for any aspiring political party is often the bye-election. In 1917 Sinn Féin candidates won three significant seats in bye-elections. Count Plunkett, father of executed leader Joseph Plunkett, was elected to the seat for Roscommon North in January. In May Joseph McGuinness won the seat in Longford South while still in prison. [Poster] In July Eamon de Valera won the seat left vacant by Willie Redmond, brother of John Redmond, killed on the Western Front. The 1918 general election, the first after the end of the Great War, saw a landslide victory for Sinn Féin candidates and sounded the death knell for the Irish Parliamentary Party. [Election results] Sinn Féin won 73 seats, Unionists 22 (including the two Trinity College seats) and the IPP only won 6. At the same time, the Irish Volunteers were reorganised as local units formed in parishes and towns around the country. The US played its own part in this regeneration. In 1917, America joined the Great War and their traditional sympathy for Ireland, as well as President Wilson’s assertion that no people would be forced to live under a sovereignty against their will, offered much encouragement to Irish nationalists. The fear that conscription would be extended to Ireland in early 1918 saw huge numbers join the Irish Volunteers who promised to resist its imposition. Even though many of those who joined quietly disappeared once conscription had been defeated, it was seen as a victory for advanced nationalism. What happened afterwards is for another day.