In the second part of our 3-part series on the struggle for Irish independence, Chris Bambery looks at the uprising of Easter Monday 1916
In the course of the 1980s and 1990s the narrative about the Easter Rising fundamentally changed. Out went the traditional nationalist interpretation and in came on that saw the rebellion as a “blood sacrifice” carried out by a small group of fanatical nationalists isolated from mainstream Irish society. This revisionist narrative was part of the offensive in both Britain and Ireland against the Provisional IRA and its military campaign
The nationalist portrayal of the Easter Rising was a fairly easy target because it largely cut out the mass action which swept Ireland from 1912 to 1922, the progressive politics at the heart of the Rising – something the conservative rulers of what became the Irish Republic were deeply unhappy with, and because republicans too often emphasised the rebellion was the work of a small, dedicated minority whose sacrifice revived Irish separatism.
In looking at the reality of Easter 1916 it is worth beginning with its leaders, a talented and inspiring group of revolutionaries, comprising of revolutionary republicans, like Padraig Pearse, socialists and trade unionists, like Connolly, and feminists like Constance Markievicz (also a socialist) who helped lead the Irish Citizens Army in street fighting around St Stephen’s Green, was jailed after the Rising ended and on her release was the first woman elected to Westminster, as a Sinn Fein member she refused to take her seat in an alien parliament!
On Easter Monday Padraig Pearse read out The Proclamation of Independence outside the rebel HQ, the General Post Office in Central Dublin. It stated:
“The Irish Republic is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman. The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally…”
It went on to promise that:
“... a national government would be representative of the whole people of Ireland and elected by the suffrage of all her men and women.”
The British government was led by the Liberal Herbert Asquith who had opposed the Suffragettes and their demand for Votes for Women. Compare his stance with the statement read out by Pearse.
The republicans were not socialists but they had largely been sympathetic to the Dublin working class during the 1913 Lock Out when employers, backed up by the police, fought to break the newly organised Irish Transport and General Workers Union led by the revolutionary syndicalist Jim Larkin and his deputy, James Connolly.
This was not a group of men and women who were committed to collective suicide. The republicans belied a rising was necessary so that the issue of Ireland would be part of any post-war settlement. Connolly saw it as a blow against war and imperialism which could help the European working class revive and resist their rulers.
Pearse did make some comments which play into the hands of the revisionist but Connolly called him a “blithering idiot” for making them and they echo similar statements by many young poets and writers in 1914, Rupert Brooke for instance, who became an English national hero.
The real “blood sacrifice” was on the Western Front and the killing fields of Gallipoli. In July 1916 he first day of Britain’s offensive on the Somme saw the highest casualty list ever in the history of the British Army, 60,000 dead or wounded.
The emphasis on a supposed “blood sacrifice” misses out that the Easter Rising was a carefully conceived act of rebellion which if it had come off had a good chance of success. The plan was for republicans in Dublin to take control of the inner city and draw British forces into street fighting in the capital. Meanwhile arms acquired from Germany were to be landed in Kerry and distributed to republicans across the South West. They were to advance on Dublin forcing British forces there into a two front battle.
The plan fell down because the leadership of the Irish Volunteers, the main rebel force, called off the mobilisation called for Easter Monday. They had been presented with a British document ordering the mass arrest of the Volunteers but discovered it was a forgery, drawn up to force them to act. They had been told of the German ship bringing weapons but when it was scuttled to avoid seizure by the Royal Navy that confirmed their decision to cancel the rising.
The republicans decided to go ahead with a rising on the Easter Monday because plans were so advanced the British would eventually discover them. Their chances of success were slimmer than before but they were not committing collective suicide. 1500 Volunteers and members of Connolly’s Irish Citizens Army, originally set up a defence force for strikers, joined the rebellion in Dublin.
The Irish Volunteers did not allow women to join, but the ICA did and women were involved in the fighting during the Rising. Connolly stated ‘that no movement was assured of success that had not women in it.’ He also wrote ‘Win the women to your cause and your cause is secure.’ Constance Markievicz was second in command of the St Stephen’s Green garrison and was sentenced to death afterwards, although the sentence was commuted. Margaret Skinnider was a scout and dispatch rider for the garrison there and was mentioned in dispatches on three occasions for bravery. Eventually she was shot and wounded.
On that Easter Monday Volunteers in different parts of the country assembled but confusion reigned and they failed to act, with one exception. In North Dublin County a group of Volunteers organised into mobilised columns captured police barracks, gaining badly needed weapons, and defeated a far greater force of police sent to crush them. Their success pointed to the guerrilla tactics used successfully in 1919-1921.
In Dublin too the rebels inflicted a bloody nose on the British in street fighting at Mount Street Bridge, where British troops were ordered into frontal attacks against well prepared fixed positions, and in North King Street, where the British became bogged down in house to house fighting and lost heavily when one officer ordered an open charge down the street. The rebel garrison in the South Dublin Union also succeeded in repulsing an attack by British troops. For a week they held the city centre, despite the indiscriminate use by the British of heavy artillery. Forced to evacuate the GPO after it caught fire, the leaders decided on surrender to avoid any further suffering for the civilian population.
Civilian deaths were in the main caused by British artillery fire and the fires that started. But British troops carried out reprisals on civilians in North King Street and eight innocent civilians were shot dead in Portobello Barracks, including the well known pacifist, Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, arrested while trying to stop looting in the city centre.
It’s often claimed the rebels met a hostile response from the city’s population as they were marched off to jail. That was true in the upper class parts of South Dublin and some wives of soldiers in the British army were certainly hostile, but recent histories have uncovered crowds cheering the rebels, despite the drawn bayonets of their guards, and a growing sense of admiration for their resistance. The executions, carried out under military law, deepened a growing sense of alienation from British rule.
Connolly, shot in the ankle during the fighting, was dying of gangrene but was driven into the prison yard at Kilmainham strapped to a chair and shot. The last calls for his execution had come from Dublin’s main employer.
Connolly was well known to trade unionists and socialists in Britain, and had begun his political career in his native Edinburgh. But few rallied to defend his participation in the rising. An exception was John Maclean in Glasgow who grasped that rebellion in Ireland would weaken British imperialism and that Connolly was determined to strike a blow against the war.
Across Europe, but above all in Ireland, support for the First World War was slipping away as the death toll mounted. Within weeks the slaughter houses of Verdun and the Somme would worsen the barbarity of the Western Front. The tide had turned against British rule in Ireland and there was no going back.
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.