April 20, 2016

1916: The Revolutionary Origins of the Irish State

Artur Widak
Commandant Pat O Connor from Irish Defence Forces with the copy of the Irish 1916 Proclamation as Ireland marks its 1916 Easter Rising centenary with the largest military parade in the history of the state. Dublin, Ireland, on Sunday Easter, 27 March 2016.
Commandant Pat O Connor from Irish Defence Forces with the copy of the Irish 1916 Proclamation as Ireland marks its 1916 Easter Rising centenary with the largest military parade in the history of the state. Dublin, Ireland, on Sunday Easter, 27 March 2016.

British cruelty in repressing the Easter Rising opened the eyes of common Irishmen.

Easter 2016 was marked by centenary commemorations for Ireland’s 1916 rising, an unexpected nationalist rebellion that began a revolutionary campaign to establish a sovereign Irish republic independent from the British Empire. As Europe approached major war in 1914, an uprising against British rule in Ireland appeared an implausible prospect. At that time, Ireland was politically divided between constitutional nationalists and unionists.1 Fronted by the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), constitutional nationalists aimed to deliver Home Rule for Ireland. This envisaged devolved government catering for Ireland’s domestic affairs within the British Empire. The unionists, on the other hand, wished to retain Westminster’s direct rule over Ireland, while vehemently opposing Home Rule. Most unionists were concentrated in the north-east of Ireland’s northern province of Ulster. By 1914, both the Ulster unionists and the nationalists supporting Home Rule had established their own opposing paramilitary organisations to protect their interests: the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and the Irish Volunteer Force (IVF) respectively.
The outbreak of World War I diverted political attention away from the sharp tensions that had accumulated between Irish nationalists and unionists. As many Irishmen departed for the trenches of the Western Front, a small network of revolutionaries seeking to break Ireland’s link with Britain by force remained in the shadows. The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) was the main underground organisation that attempted to promote the revolutionary nationalist cause. The IRB’s long-standing motto emphasised that “Britain’s difficulty was Ireland’s opportunity”. 1916 was to mark the first notable Irish insurrection for more than a century. Following the failed 1798 rebellion, the influence of revolutionary nationalism had steadily declined and was a peripheral force in Irish politics by the late 1800s.

Linking Political and Cultural Nationalism

The struggle for devolved government within the British Empire dominated the Irish political debate. The nationalist sentiment that began to re-emerge as Ireland’s Home Rule struggle had progressed encouraged many from younger generations to become actively involved in organisations established to protect Ireland’s Home Rule interests, most notably the paramilitary IVF. Some initially became involved in order to support progress towards Home Rule, but had later arrived at the belief that even Home Rule within the British Empire would not be enough for Ireland to reach its social potential. This thinking led a number of initial Home Rule supporters to switch to other outright Irish independence movements.
The revolutionary nationalist cause benefitted considerably from the Irish cultural revival beyond the mid-1800s.2 Among other organisations, the cultural revival brought the establishment of the Gaelic League and the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA). The Gaelic League was a largely intellectual association seeking to both reinvigorate and promote the Irish language, literature and the arts as vital parts of a vibrant Irish society. Founded in 1884, the GAA sought to administrate and promote the playing of traditional Gaelic sports. While transmitting a strong distinct sense of Irishness, the GAA organisation soon became massively popular throughout the country. Both the Gaelic League and the GAA encouraged a tangible popular awareness of a strong Irish identity. Many of the new recruits for different political and paramilitary nationalist organisations, such as the IRB and the IVF, were also members of either the Gaelic League or the GAA, or both.
The 1916 rising emphasised the strong link between Ireland’s political and cultural nationalisms. The rebellion is notable for the high number of poets and writers among its core leadership. In particular, Pádraig Pearse was a leading figure in the planning of the rising. A member of the IRB’s military and supreme councils, Pearse was also a prolific and passionate literary writer in the Irish language. As well as being one of its select seven signatories, Pearse was chosen to read the Proclamation of the Irish Republic as the main ceremonial act to begin the insurrection on 24 April 1916.
For the small cell that plotted the rising, the belief that Irish society had been mismanaged by Britain’s imperial policies had lodged as a fundamental political assumption. The establishment of an independent egalitarian republic was perceived as the solution that would allow Ireland to flourish culturally, politically and economically. Among the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation, this sentiment was embodied most strongly by James Connolly. A leading figure in Ireland’s labour movement, Connolly blamed Ireland’s British-enforced colonial status as a fundamental reason for Irish society’s serious problems of inequality and poverty. Connolly pragmatically believed that, to establish a fairer socialist republic, his ideological movement had to initially join forces with the militant nationalists. As well as revolutionary Irish nationalism, both socialist and anti-imperial ideologies can be observed as being at the root of the 1916 insurrection.

Military Failure

The rising was a military failure. In 1916, those who were to implement the insurrection did not have the legitimacy of broad-based popular support. While Home Rule was an objective frozen by World War I, taking up arms to fight for an independent republic would have been unconscionable for those within Ireland’s dominant constitutionalist establishment. As opposed to the revolutionary separatism of the 1916 rebels, the moderate nationalist establishment strove to ensure devolved government for Ireland within the British Empire. This logic was likewise mirrored in mainstream public opinion on the eve of the 1916 rising.
The immediate prelude to the rising is notable for a number of serious planning failures and disputes. As World War I raged on the continent, the Irish revolutionaries solicited the assistance of Britain’s chief enemy, Germany. Under the guise of a Norwegian ship named Aud, a German vessel set sail from Lübeck carrying arms for the rebellion to arrive at Ireland’s remote south-east coast on 20 April 1916. However, IVF representatives altered their plan. Irish personnel seeking to bring the arms ashore would arrive days later than expected. With no radio on board, the Aud’s crew received no notification of this change. Arriving with nobody to meet it, the Aud remained exposed, close to the Irish coast. It was soon intercepted by Britain’s Royal Navy and escorted to Cork Harbour. Its captain then took the decision to scuttle the ship.
While distinctly separate organisations, the IRB had infiltrated the IVF to a large extent. However, the IVF’s president, Eoin MacNeill, was not a member of the IRB. This was a serious problem for those secretly plotting within the IRB. They could not directly sanction the mobilisation of the IVF required for the rebellion. As Michael Laffan has argued, those plotting the insurrection within the IRB were largely content with ideas such as “heroic defeat” or “blood sacrifice”. Knowing defeat was inevitable, these notions foresaw rebel efforts during Easter 1916 as a spark that would create a later surge in popular support behind a revolution that would eventually overthrow British rule.
MacNeill, on the other hand, believed that the IVF should only take military action against the British state if Irish interests clearly stood to be suppressed. He also understood that the operation designed to do so should have a reasonable chance of military success.3 Manipulating MacNeill’s judgement, a seemingly official document alleged to have been stolen from Dublin Castle, the seat of British rule in Ireland, surfaced stating that a large number of individuals within the Irish nationalist community faced imminent arrest by the British. Under these circumstances, MacNeill initially supported the IVF’s involvement in the planned rising. However, after becoming aware that this “Castle document” was likely faked, MacNeill plunged the plans for the rising into deep crisis as he publicly countermanded his order for the IVF to mobilise.
Shorn of the necessary secrecy, and the men and weapons required for the rebellion, the IRB revolutionaries persisted with their plan to begin the rising. Some IVF personnel would turn out to fight, although the number that participated was significantly lower than originally anticipated. To re-establish an element of surprise, the rising would take place on Easter Monday, 24 April 1916, rather than the original plan stressing the symbolic date of Easter Sunday. The insurrection would be largely limited to Dublin. As Dublin’s General Post Office (GPO) was seized by the rebels, Pádraig Pearse read out the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. Among other lines, the Proclamation praised the Republic’s “gallant allies overseas”, a thinly veiled reference to Britain’s wartime enemies.
Although amateurish in some of their tactics, the rebels fought valiantly. The insurrection lasted six days; it was eventually crushed by British forces. Following their unconditional surrender, the rebels were escorted from the streets by British authorities. On their way, they were jeered and verbally abused by many ordinary Dubliners angered by the severe disruption that the rising had caused for the city.

Conclusion: “All Changed, Changed Utterly”

However, with the Easter rebels awaiting their fate in prison, a passage from the Nobel Laureate W.B. Yeats’ seminal poem “Easter, 1916” artistically portrays the volatile and drastically transformed political situation that almost immediately followed the rising—“All changed, changed utterly: a terrible beauty is born”.4 With Dublin under martial law administered by British general John Maxwell, most of the rising’s leaders, including all seven signatories of the Proclamation, were sentenced within days to death by firing squad for high treason. However, the extremely heavy-handed manner in which the British dealt with the rising’s leaders created sentiment that ultimately changed the mood of Irish public opinion. Popular support for more extreme nationalist ideas increased dramatically. Led by Eamon De Valera and Michael Collins, out of the shadow of the rising’s executed leaders came a new generation of prominent revolutionary nationalists. While not a signatory of the Proclamation, De Valera was the only major leader from the Easter Rising to survive the British executions.
Much did change. The relatively sudden increase in popular support for separatism meant a thumping defeat for the constitutionalist IPP as the main voice of Irish nationalism. The IPP was replaced in this role by the separatist and revolutionary party Sinn Féin at the 1918 British General Election. However, the long road to an Irish republic still entailed a large share of violence, tragedy and political turbulence. As a country-wide campaign of guerrilla warfare stirred to start the Irish War of Independence (1919–21), in 1921 British prime minister David Lloyd George attempted to resolve the crisis by partitioning Ireland into two Home Rule jurisdictions, six counties under unionist-centred rule in the north and 26 counties in the south. This failed to pacify the nationalist insurgency.
As both sides felt the strain of an increasingly violent crisis, a truce was called. Signed in London in December 1921, the subsequent negotiations produced the Anglo–Irish Treaty. Ireland was offered “dominion” status within the British Commonwealth. In terms of self-government rights, this was far in excess of Home Rule, but it fell short of a full republic. In an almost ceremonial role, the British king would legally remain head of state. For some, this was a betrayal of the republic fought and died for by the 1916 revolutionaries. For others, it was “freedom to achieve freedom”, a “stepping stone” that could facilitate a future independent Irish republic.
As views on this matter hardened, Ireland soon experienced a bitter civil war (1922–3). As well as dividing the revolutionaries themselves, the Irish Civil War eternally split many families and close friends. Irishmen who had fought united against British forces during the War of Independence now turned their guns towards each other. The Civil War subsided in May 1923. Against this violent backdrop, the leaders that emerged from the Civil War to govern the Irish Free State for more than a decade beyond 1923 remarkably ensured stable parliamentary democracy and the peaceful changeover of power between rival political parties.5 This ranks as an important national accomplishment as it allowed Ireland to consolidate the statehood that its people had sacrificed so much to achieve.
1 Irish nationalism has two long-standing traditions: moderate or constitutional nationalism, which strives to pursue Irish nationalist objectives peacefully and often gradually through the appropriate legal and parliamentary frameworks; and extreme or revolutionary nationalism (in Ireland, “Republicanism”), which promotes the severing of rule from Britain and establishing Irish independence through violent means if necessary.
2 The cultural revival is also known as the Gaelic revival.
3 Michael Laffan, The Resurrection of Ireland: The Sinn Féin Party, 1916–1923, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 38–40.
4 William Butler Yeats, “Easter, 1916”, Raidió Teilifís Éireann. https://apoemforireland.rte.ie/shortlist/easter-1916/ 5 The Irish Free State was the official name for Ireland’s 26 counties ruled from Dublin that held “dominion” status within the British Commonwealth and where the British king legally remained head of state. The Statute of Westminster (1931) and The Irish Constitution (1937) both loosened the rigours placed on Irish sovereignty by the Anglo–Irish Treaty. The Republic of Ireland Act (1948) became law in 1949 and removed any remaining statutory privileges for the British monarchy in Ireland.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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