The demand for Home Rule as articulated by the Irish Parliamentary Party had dominated Irish politics since the 1870s. This was strongly resisted by Unionism. As the prospect of some form of Home Rule gained momentum in the early 1900s, Ulster increasingly became the focus of Unionism’s attempts to resist Home Rule.
The imminent passage of the third Home Rule Bill, influenced by a British Government’s parliamentary dependency on Irish MPs, led to the formation by Unionists of the Ulster Volunteer Force in 1912. This represented an attempt to prevent the implementation of the third Home Rule Bill by the threat of force and precipitated the formation of the nationalist Irish Volunteers. The outbreak of World War I overshadowed the Irish crisis.
The long awaited Home Rule Bill, though placed on the statute book, was not to come into effect until after the war, at which point special arrangements, yet to be negotiated, to meet the objections of Ulster Unionists would be introduced.
World War I
Official British estimates record over 200,000 Irishmen, from both traditions, fought in World War I with approximately 40,000 losing their lives. For Unionism, it was an issue of loyalty to the Crown. For Nationalists the situation was more complex. The leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, John Redmond, was also the nominal political leader of the Irish Volunteers. At a speech in Woodenbridge in September 1914, he pledged his support for the war effort and called on the Volunteers to go “wherever the firing line extends.” The majority of the Volunteers supported Redmond’s position and formed the National Volunteers. A smaller contingent led by Eoin MacNeill kept the name Irish Volunteers and refused to support the British war effort.
The war was initially promoted by Britain as “the defence of little Belgium”. It later evolved into one fought for the rights of small nations as expressed by President Wilson, and the principle of self determination for such nations, especially in the defeated central European Empires formed much of the debate at the subsequent peace talks at Versailles. For some Irish nationalists there was an irony in fighting in the British army for such a cause. Moreover initial public enthusiasm for the war quickly faded as it was felt that there was little recognition for the contribution of those Irishmen who had enlisted. The rising casualty lists, allied to the threat of conscription, further dented such enthusiasm.
It was against this backdrop that the 1916 Rising was organised. Elements within the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), a secret association going back to 1858, which had consistently held as their aim the securing of a separate and distinct Irish Republic, formed the plan. It was hoped that the Rising would secure Ireland a place at a peace conference after the war. IRB members had risen to positions of prominence in the Volunteers and it was this force, along with the Irish Citizen Army led by James Connolly, that carried out the Rising.
The broad spectrum of views and backgrounds of the Irish Volunteers was reflected in divisions amongst its leadership. The issue of conflicting orders, by those supporting and opposed to the Rising, made for a confused beginning to the Rising. It should be noted that the membership of the Irish Volunteers had risen from 2/3000 members in September 1914 to circa 15,000 by 1916. The organisation was strongly infiltrated by the Irish Republican Brotherhood.
On Easter Monday, 24 April, 1916, the General Post Office in Dublin was occupied by the insurgents and it became their headquarters. The Proclamation was read from here on the same day. The signatories were Thomas J. Clarke, Sean MacDiarmada, P.H. Pearse, James Connolly, Thomas MacDonagh, Eamonn Ceannt and Joseph Plunkett. It sets out their aspirations not just for freedom from British rule, but to create an Ireland where all people could be free to accomplish their potential regardless of their wealth, class or religion.
The insurgents also occupied other strategic buildings in Dublin, such as the Four Courts, Boland’s Bakery, Jacobs Factory, the College of Surgeons and the South Dublin Union. While most of the action took place in Dublin, sizeable numbers of Volunteers turned out in Louth, Wexford, Galway and Ashbourne.
Fighting lasted a week and resulted in the deaths of over 250 civilians, 130 members of the crown forces and over 60 insurgents.
In an effort to prevent further bloodshed, Pearse declared an unconditional surrender which read “ In order to prevent further slaughter of the civil population and in the hope of saving the lives of our followers, the members of the Provisional Government present at headquarters have decided on an unconditional surrender, and commandants or officers commanding districts will order their commands to lay down arms. P.H. Pearse, Dublin 30th April 1916.”
Many Volunteer units marched in formation to lay down their weapons.
It has to be said that, public opinion was not initially on the side of the insurgents, due to lack of understanding of the purpose, as well as the loss of life; the carnage and bloodshed. However, this was to quickly change.
The suppression of the Rising was immediate and vigorous. The city centre was shelled. Despite the concentration of activity in Dublin, martial law was proclaimed and extended across the country. Over 3,500 people were arrested – over twice the number who took part in the rising.. By May 1,600 had been interred in Wales, without trial.
Fifteen prominent insurgents were executed between 3rd May and 12th May. (Roger Casement was subsequently hanged in Pentonville Prison in August 1916). The executions, provoked public outrage, particularly those of William Pearse, for largely being the brother of Padraig Pearse; Major John MacBride, who had played no part in planning the Rising, but had previously attracted British hostility during the Boer War; a gravely ill Joseph Plunkett, and a badly wounded James Connolly. These events, allied to the fate of Francis Sheehy Skeffington, the well known pacifist and writer who was murdered during the Rising, as he sought to moderate its violence and prevent looting, rapidly turned public opinion. The long drawn out period of the executions – nine days- further inflamed public opinion. In the House of Commons, John Dillon of the Irish Parliamentary Party denounced British policy, contending that ‘in the whole of modern history… there has been no rebellion or insurrection put down with so much blood and so much savagery as the recent insurrection in Ireland.’ In lieu of funerals, masses were said for the executed, their bodies having been covered in quicklime. The return of released internees and the funeral of Thomas Ashe following his hunger strike in September 1917, became occasions of public demonstration.