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The Easter Rising
The Easter Rising is the defining event of the modern Irish republican tradition. Indeed, most Irish nationalists regard the Rising as the most important event in twentieth-century Irish history. Without it, Irish politics would have been shaped by the moderate constitutional nationalism of John Redmond’s Irish Parliamentary Party, and southern Ireland may have remained part of the British Empire, or even the United Kingdom, for much of the twentieth-century.
This lecture will examine the motives of the organisations which planned the Easter Rising – the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army. It will then assess the ideology of the two most prominent rebel leaders, Patrick Pearse and James Connolly. The setbacks faced by the rebels and reasons for the military failure of the Easter Rising will be briefly outlined, and the lecture will conclude by assessing the impact of the Easter Rising on Irish republicanism and Irish politics.
II. InterpretationsBACK TO TOP
A useful starting point in assessing the significance of the Rising is to consider how popular and political attitudes to 1916 and its treatment in historiography – the way in which historians have written about and interpreted it – have changed over time.
For the first half-century after the Easter Rising, the independent Irish state commemorated the Rising with great pomp. For example, the ceremony which formally established the Irish Republic in 1949 was held on Easter Monday, and the fiftieth anniversary of Easter Rising in 1966 was commemorated with impressive parades and other events.
In much the same way as the United States celebrates Independence Day on July 4th, the Irish state regarded the Easter Rising as the central event in the struggle for independence. It was the Easter Rising rather than the 1918 general election or the War of Independence which the state looked to as a source of legitimacy. The proclamation of 1916 was regarded – rhetorically at least – as the founding document of the independent Irish state, and Easter 1916 became the central episode in the long story of Ireland’s struggle for independence.
From the late 1960s, however, the attitude of many Irish nationalists, and the Irish state itself, to the Easter Rising underwent significant changes. A growing attitude of apathy or ambivalence towards 1916 and its legacy became evident. During the 1970s and 1980s, the rallies held outside Dublin’s General Post Office, where the rebel headquarters were based, were generally organised by Sinn Féin rather than the main political parties. The Irish government preferred to commemorated 1916 in a quiet ceremony at Arbour Hill prison, bringing to an end the tradition of holding large demonstrations outside the GPO.
Why did this re-evaluation occur? With the passing of time, and the demise of the revolutionary generation which held power in the Irish state until the 1960s, the legacy of 1916 came to be seen as less relevant in modern Ireland. Many attributed the change in attitudes to the renewal of conflict in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s, a conflict which demonstrated how the southern state fell short of the united republic which the rebels of 1916 had hoped to achieve. Similarly, the Irish government’s decision in 2006 to reinstate commemoration of the Rising outside the GPO reflected the transformed political context in Northern Ireland.
During the ‘Troubles’, violence in the north raised difficult questions for the southern parties which claimed their legitimacy from the republican tradition. Were the actions of the rebel leaders, who accepted that they did not represent the views of most Irish people at the time, legitimate? If so, how could the southern government condemn the activities of the Provisional IRA which claimed the same motives and justification as the Easter rebels?
Attention was also focused on the legacy of the Easter Rising. Had 1916 helped to legitimise use of physical force for the attainment of political objectives? Was the use of force acceptable to attain objectives which few people appeared to share at the time? These questions became central to what became known as the ‘revisionist’ historical debate as traditional nationalist accounts of the Easter Rising were challenged by more critical and sceptical approaches to 1916.
In response, many nationalists – including some academic historians – criticised the direction of ‘revisionist history’. Their criticism was aimed not so much at the research findings of historians but the overall tone of their inquiries. Revisionism was seen as dismissive of the Rising and its aspiration of an independent Republic. Some critics viewed it as an attempt to rehabilitate the constitutional nationalism of John Redmond and his project of an Ireland which retained close links with Britain. Such questions have informed much of the historiography of modern republicanism.
Considering its importance, it is striking how little agreement exists on some of the key questions concerning 1916. Did the rebels feel their rebellion had any real chance of success? Was the Rising intended as a coup d’état or merely a bloody protest? Did the rebels believe their martyrdom would revive militant nationalism?
There is also much disagreement about the motives of the rebel leaders. For example, an influential biography of Patrick Pearse by Ruth Dudley Edwards draws an unsympathetic picture of a frustrated and repressed zealot who was motivated to rebel by vanity, an obsession with martyrdom and an unsuccessful business and personal life.
In contrast, Brian P. Murphy’s biography of Patrick Pearse depicts a moderate nationalist who was pushed into support for physical force through a series of radicalising events. These included the formation of the Ulster Volunteers, Edward Carson’s defiance of British authority, and John Redmond’s concession of the principle of partition. Murphy depicts Pearse as a nationalist who merely adopted the militant tactics which his opponents were using with success.
Similarly, there is much disagreement about James Connolly’s role in the Easter Rising. Why did a radical Marxist support a rebellion led by Catholic nationalists? To sympathetic fellow-communists, such as V.I. Lenin, Connolly had successfully placed socialism at the vanguard of the nationalist struggle. To unsympathetic observers, Connolly had consigned Irish socialism to subordination to reactionary nationalism for decades to come.
Disagreement remains about the rebels’ ultimate objectives. What kind of political system did they wish to see replacing British rule? Part of the explanation for the disagreement on these basic questions is that the rebels, who belonged to several different political organisations, did not have a coherent agreed programme.
III. The organizations involvedBACK TO TOP
Three groups participated in 1916: the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), the Irish Volunteers, and James Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army (ICA). Of these only the ICA, a small radical militia, was fully committed to insurrection. The leadership of the other two, larger, organisations were divided on the merits of a rebellion.
II.1. Irish Republican Brotherhood
The IRB (or Fenians) were the most influential of the three organisations in terms of the planning and organising of the rebellion. This secret, oath-bound, movement had been reorganised by Tom Clarke who returned to Ireland in 1907 determined to organise a rebellion. However, given the disastrous failed uprisings of 1848 and 1867, many within the IRB were opposed to a Rising unless it had both a realistic chance of success and the support of the majority of the Irish people. Indeed, the IRB’s constitution of 1873 declared that the IRB must win public approval before embarking on another Rising.
With the help of the secretary of the IRB, Seán MacDermott, Tom Clarke conspired to bypass the moderates within the IRB leadership. Clarke and MacDermott, who formed a majority of the three-person IRB executive, appointed a Military Council to bypass the IRB leadership (or Supreme Council). It was this Military Council, which would later co-opt Pearse and Connolly, which was the body which planned and organised the Easter Rising
However, two other factors were necessary to make Rising a real possibility for Clarke and MacDermott: the formation of the Irish Volunteers in 1913 (which presented the IRB with a potential insurrectionary force) and the outbreak of the Great War (which offered the prospect of a distracted Britain and a potential ally in Germany).
There is little evidence that Fenians like Thomas Clarke or Seán MacDermott willingly sought martyrdom or ‘blood sacrifice’. Instead, they intended to make what they regarded as a principled and heroic gesture to reawaken the spirit of militant nationalism. This explains why the IRB was more concerned with making a dramatic impact than planning for military victory
The IRB leaders held a pessimistic view of state of Irish opinion at time. When James Connolly described Ireland as a powder magazine waiting for a match to be thrown on it, Bulmer Hobson, a Fenian leader, replied that Ireland was a wet bog and that the match would fall into a puddle.
The IRB’s decision to rise should be seen more as a consequence of weakness than strength. Its leaders were aware that the great 19th century grievances – the Catholic question, the land question and now, it appeared, Home Rule – had been resolved by a series of pragmatically conciliatory British administrations.
It was frustration at the moderate state of Irish opinion, as demonstrated by the widespread public support for Redmondism, and awareness that the tradition of physical force resistance to British rule – a tradition which the IRB was guardian of – appeared to be dying which persuaded the conspirators of the necessity to act. 1916 would retrospectively be depicted as the inevitable culmination of process of nationalist radicalisation stretching back to fall of Parnell in 1890 and the rise of cultural nationalism sentiment. In reality, the Easter Rising was – as it seemed to contemporaries at the time – an unpredictable aberration.
II.2. Irish Volunteers
The second key organisation involved in the Easter Rising, the Irish Volunteers was – like the IRB – divided on the merits of rebellion. The vast majority of the Irish Volunteers had supported John Redmond’s call to support the British war effort in the summer of 1914. Even among the twelve thousand or so militants who remained in the Irish Volunteers after it split on the issue of the war in September 1914, there was considerable opposition to the idea of an unprovoked Rising.
Formally, the Irish Volunteer’s leadership consisted of figures like Eoin MacNeill, Bulmer Hobson and Roger Casement. However, an informal but substantial degree of authority was exercised by members of the IRB who had helped to establish and control the Irish Volunteers for its own purposes.
The leadership of the Irish Volunteers had never made it very clear what the organisation stood for. Although its formation was triggered by the establishment of the Ulster Volunteer Force, the leaders of the Irish Volunteers professed to admire rather than resent the revolutionary precedent set by the UVF. The Irish Volunteers were not formed to fight the British government, but rather to ensure that the government did not waver in its intention to enact the Home Rule legislation which it had initiated in 1912.
The split within the Irish Volunteers over Redmond’s support for the British war effort clarified matters. The radical minority who remained within the Irish Volunteers were advanced nationalists (republicans or separatists) who regarded Home Rule as an insufficient measure of Irish freedom. However, many within this group, including Bulmer Hobson, a northern journalist of Quaker background, and Eoin MacNeill, a history professor and chief of staff of the Irish Volunteers, remained unconvinced that an unprovoked Rising was an effective strategy. The reasons why some members of the Irish Volunteers opposed the plans for the Easter Rising go to the heart of the questions surrounding the motives of the rebel leaders and the subsequent revisionist debate on the legitimacy of the Rising. Eoin MacNeill opposed the Rising in 1916 because he believed it had no realistic chance of survival. He believed that unless a rebellion had a reasonably calculated prospect of success it ‘would in the first place be morally wrong’. MacNeill made it clear that the ‘success which is calculated . . . must be success in the operation itself, not merely some future or moral political advantage which may be hoped for as the result of non-success.’ In other words, the important question of whether the Rising was intended to overthrow British rule or merely to register a ‘bloody protest’ in an effort to revive the physical force tradition was debated by advanced nationalists before the Rising took place.
MacNeill’s position – although often criticised by republicans due to his countermanding order (which prevented the mobilisation of the rebels on Easter Sunday) – was astute He opposed co-operation with the British war-effort, but also opposed a rebellion without popular support. He was not opposed to the idea of a rebellion but argued that the Irish Volunteers should wait until the time was more opportune. MacNeill argued that if they waited until Britain attempted either to introduce conscription or suppress the Volunteers, they would win the widespread popular support necessary to rise against the authorities.
The IRB Military Council adopted the same approach to the objections of Irish Volunteer leaders such as MacNeill as they did to their opponents within the IRB. The rebel leaders used conspiracy and deception to outmanoeuvre their opponents and continue planning the rising in secret.
IV. Patrick PearseBACK TO TOP
Although the IRB and the Irish Volunteers were passionately devoted to Irish independence, there was little agreement as to what form independence would take. The ideology of the rebel leaders 1916 is most often identified with its two most prominent intellectuals, Patrick Pearse and James Connolly.
Born in Dublin in 1879, the son of an English monumental sculptor and Irish mother, Patrick Pearse was preoccupied by the importance of education in his early career. After graduating from university, where he studied law, he became a leading Gaelic League activist and founded his own school, St. Enda’s. His criticism of the Irish education system, which he dubbed ‘The Murder Machine’, led him to develop an idealistic project for the creation of a new Irish society which emphasised the development of individualism.
In terms of his distinctive personal philosophy, Pearse was deeply influenced by both Catholicism and the pagan tradition as represented by the ancient Irish sagas. He attempt to combine what he perceived as the pagan ideals of strength and truth with the Christian ideals of love and humility. His twin heroes were Christ and Cuchulainn, whom he saw as representing the qualities of compassion and strength. His intense spiritual outlook, as reflected in his poetry, amounted to a Christ-like desire for martyrdom which would ensure his immortality and the redemption of his people.Pearse was not alone in holding such views. His fellow poets, and signatories of the proclamation, Thomas MacDonagh and Joseph Mary Plunkett, both to be executed alongside Pearse, shared Pearse’s messianic and sacrificial ideals.
However, Pearse can also be seen as a more rational figure who gradually moved towards radicalism in response to the events taking place around him. For example, Pearse had welcomed the Home Rule Bill in 1912, but had also warned that if it were rejected only rebellion remained as a final option. In 1913, when Edward Carson’s Ulster Volunteer Force (with the encouragement of Bonar Law’s Tory Party) embraced the threat of physical force as political strategy, Pearse argued that nationalists should do the same.
Pearse’s radicalisation was partly a response to the growing militancy of Ulster Unionism and the consequent chain of events it triggered, including the arming of the Ulster Volunteers, the Curragh mutiny and Redmond’s acceptance of the principle of partition.
The wave of militarism which swept pre-war Europe must also be borne in mind in understanding Pearse’s mentality. Pearse’s romantic nationalist rhetoric was common among European intellectuals in this period. He did, however, attach an unusual degree of importance to the notion of blood sacrifice, an attitude evident in his much-quoted response to the arming of the Ulster Volunteers in 1913: I am glad that the Orangemen have armed for it is a goodly thing to see arms in Irish hands. I would like to see the Ancient Order of Hibernians armed. I would like to see the Transport Workers armed. I would like to see any and every body of Irish citizens armed. We must accustom ourselves to the thought of arms, to the sight of arms, to the use of arms. We may make mistakes in the beginning and shoot the wrong people; but bloodshed is a cleansing and a sanctifying thing and a nation which regards it as the final horror has lost its manhood. There are many things more horrible than bloodshed; and slavery is one of them.
Pearse’s views were not altered by the carnage of the Great War. He described the first sixteen months of the war as the ‘most glorious in the history of Europe’ arguing that ‘ the old heart of the earth needed to be warmed with the red wine of the battlefields . . . When war comes to Ireland, she must welcome it as she would welcome the Angel of God.’
Pearse’s distinctive ideological outlook was also characterised by his repudiation of conservative and authoritarian notions of the state and his support for progressive social issues such as universal suffrage. He was an admirer of the social radicalism espoused by nineteenth century Fenians such as John Mitchel and Fintan Lalor.
V. James ConnollyBACK TO TOP
In certain respects, the ideology of James Connolly contrasts strongly with that of Pearse. Responding to Pearse’s militant rhetoric, Connolly had written: ‘We do not think that the old heart of the earth needs to be warmed with the red wine of millions of lives. We think anyone who does is a blithering idiot’. Connolly rejected Pearse’s heroic conception of war and emphasised the differences between socialism and nationalism.
Born in Edinburgh in 1868, the son of Irish emigrants, Connolly’s achievements were considerable. He overcame an impoverished background and lack of formal education to become one of the most influential European Marxists of his times.
After the departure of James Larkin to the United States following the unsuccessful Lock-Out in 1913, Connolly became the dominant figure in both Irish trade unionism and socialist politics. He founded the Irish Citizen Army, the third of the three groups which participated in the Easter Rising.
In terms of his political ideology, Connolly attempted to integrate Marxist thought within the history and political thought of Irish nationalism. Like Fintan Lalor, he argued that Gaelic Ireland had been a communal society, and that genuine independence would necessitate not only the undoing of British rule but also British capitalism. His central, and enduring, legacy was to bring the divergent forces of socialism and Irish nationalism in the struggle for Irish independence.
Like Pearse, Connolly underwent period of radicalisation prior to the Rising. The events of the Great War had disillusioned Connolly who had believed that the international solidarity of workers would prevent a European war. It was partly as a result of this disillusionment that Connolly threw in his lot with the advanced nationalists whom he had previously criticised.
By July 1915 he was in contact with physical-force nationalists and, in early 1916, he was co-opted onto the IRB’s Military Council. By this time Connolly’s rhetoric had begun to resemble that of Patrick Pearse. On one occasion, for example, he wrote that ‘no agency less potent than the red tide of war on Irish soil will ever be able to enable the Irish race to recover its self-respect . . . we recognise that of us, as of mankind before Calvary, it may truly be said: “Without the shedding of Blood there is no Redemption.”’
Connolly’s biographers have struggled to reconcile such rhetoric with his atheistic Marxist background. Some socialists have criticised Connolly for submerging his ‘red’ ideals in a ‘green’ revolution. Connolly was aware of the dangers of this, but felt that it was only through an alliance with advanced nationalists that Redmond’s Irish Party could be effectively challenged. He also hoped that a successful Irish revolution might send shock-waves throughout war-weary Europe, in much the same way as the Russian Revolution would in 1917.
One of Connolly’s most influential biographers, Austen Morgan, resolves the contradictions between Connolly’s socialism and nationalism by arguing that rather than combining both ideologies Connolly effectively deserted socialism. Morgan concluded that Connolly died without leaving a distinctive socialist project intact, and that his legacy was to ensure that Irish socialism would remain subordinate to the conservative forces of Irish nationalism.
The military plans of the rebels – allegedly devised by Joseph Plunkett while playing toy soldiers as a child – have been much criticised by historians and other observers. Most of the rebel leaders lacked military expertise. The location selected as the headquarters of the rebellion, the General Post Office, had little strategic or symbolic value. In contrast, and despite their vulnerability, the rebels failed to capture the more strategic Trinity College or symbolic Dublin Castle, the seat of British power.
The unfolding of the Rising would suggest that the intention was to register a bloody protest rather than secure a military victory. The strategy, consisting of occupying a series of prominent buildings and awaiting the arrival of British forces, implied a certain air of defeatism.
However, as with most issues related to the Rising, a variety of viewpoints existed among the rebels. While some of the rebel leaders craved military action at any cost, and had reconciled themselves to martyrdom, the efforts made by Joseph Plunkett and Roger Casement in Germany pointed to the serious nature of the Military Council’s attempts to secure German assistance. In their history of the Easter Rising, Michael Foy and Brian Barton argued that the ‘Ireland Report’, the lengthy memorandum submitted by Plunkett and Casement to the German authorities, represented ‘a detailed and cogent analysis of the conduct of a successful military campaign whose unmistakable objective was the complete destruction of British political and military power in Ireland’.
In other words, not all the rebel leaders subscribed to the notion of a ‘blood sacrifice’. While figures such as Pearse, Plunkett and MacDonagh, poets whose writings revelled in the prospect of a messianic self-sacrifice that might later redeem the Irish people, their more hard-headed Fenian partners in the conspiracy, such as Thomas Clarke and Seán MacDermott, had a more practical outcome in mind. Hence, to understand why the Rising was such a military failure, we must consider the chain of events leading up to Easter Monday.
VI. The failure of the RisingBACK TO TOP
The Military Council’s optimistic aspirations to mount a serious military challenge to Britain, then the most powerful military Empire in the world, rested on a number of elements falling into place. The failure of each of these meant that the Rising was doomed before it began. However, this only became apparent in the final days before the Rising.
The first priority of the rebel leaders was to secure a large supply of arms and ammunition. The fact that Germany agreed to send a shipment carrying twenty thousand rifles, one million rounds of ammunition and a supply of explosives, to the Irish coast indicates German confidence in the feasibility of a serious military challenge to British power in Ireland. Although the Aud reached the Kerry coast safely on Good Friday, 21 April, due to poor planning and communications on the part of the rebels, its captain was forced to scuttle the ship when its presence was detected by the British authorities. The failure of the Aud’s mission ended any possibility of a national rising.
As well as a large supply of weapons, the rebels also required a large force of men to use them in order to hold out any reasonable prospect of success. The principal difficulty facing the leaders of the rebellion was how to organise a mass uprising without compromising its secrecy, as occurred in previous Irish uprisings. The solution was an ingenious, if rather cynical, one. The Military Council decided to mobilise the entire Irish Volunteer force for manoeuvres on Easter Sunday, a sight to which the British authorities had become accustomed, and to inform them only at the last minute of the intention to rise.
While it was reasoned that some Volunteers would return home, it was thought that many would remain and fight. It was hoped that if the rebels could hold out in Dublin, separatists throughout Ireland might rise up in support.
The plan did not work for two reasons. Firstly, Eoin MacNeill, the chief of staff of the Irish Volunteers who opposed the Military Council’s plans, discovered what was afoot and issued an order countermanding the mobilisation of the Irish Volunteers shortly before the Rising was due to begin on Easter Sunday. Secondly, the plan was so secret that few people, even among the leadership of the Irish Volunteers, knew precisely what was planned. Volunteers, particularly outside Dublin, who would have supported the Rising had they had known of the Military Council’s intentions, obeyed MacNeill’s countermanding order. The widespread confusion which accompanied the Rising confined most of the fighting to Dublin.
The series of mishaps which preceded the Easter Rising was central to what followed, and had the effect of reinforcing the assumption that the rebels never intended to mount a serious challenge to British Crown forces.
Faced with the fact that there could no longer be any reasonable expectation of military success, the leaders of the rebellion resolved to register a bloody protest against British rule. Faced with a choice between imprisonment for an ignominious failure to rise or imprisonment for mounting a heroic if doomed protest, the rebel leaders chose to opt for ‘the propaganda of the deed’.
The tactics adopted by the rebels on Easter Monday appeared to reflect what had now become an essentially symbolic insurrection. The occupation of a number of prominent strongholds around the city and the decision to engage in a ‘straight fight’ with British forces in an orthodox military fashion added a symbolic and moral weight to the protest that guerrilla tactics would not have had.
Although British military intelligence was aware of the plans to send arms to Ireland, and even knew the date of the Rising, Dublin Castle was taken by surprise by the events of Easter Monday. The Admiralty, believing that Dublin Castle could not be trusted with the highly secret information that Britain had broken Germany’s codes, confined itself to vague but ineffective hints of the trouble looming on the horizon.
Dublin Castle, believing that the scuttling of the Aud, the capture of Roger Casement, and Eoin MacNeill’s countermanding order, had ruined any chance of a rebellion decided to wait until after Easter weekend to round up the conspirators. Its failure to anticipate the Rising destroyed the credibility of the Irish executive of Augustine Birrell and Matthew Nathan.
The fighting lasted from Easter Monday to the following Monday. Although often dismissed as an event of little military significance, the resistance of the rebels and the determination of the British authorities to suppress the rebellion as quickly as possible, ensured that much of the city centre was devastated by artillery by the end of Easter Week.
An estimated fifteen hundred rebels participated in the fighting. Four hundred and fifty people died, and over two thousand six hundred people, mostly civilians, were wounded. Of the deaths, two hundred and fifty were civilians, one hundred and sixteen were soldiers, sixteen police and sixty-four rebels (including the fifteen leaders subsequently executed by the British authorities).
The initial reaction of most Irish people to the Rising was hostile. The rebels were jeered by Dubliners as they were led off to imprisonment by British soldiers. These men would later return to Ireland to be met as heroes by cheering crowds.
The response of the nationalist national and local press, which generally supported John Redmond’s Irish Party, was also hostile. An editorial by the Galway Express characterised the response of mainstream nationalist opinion: Easter Monday, 1916, has made history in Ireland. But, oh, what rank nauseating stains will besmear its pages! – how generations yet unborn will burn with shame when, in the calm light of detailed and exalted impartiality they scan its humiliating chapters!
The Irish Independent, the biggest Irish newspaper of the day, infamously went even further in its condemnation of the rebellion by appearing to encourage General Maxwell to continue executing the rebel leaders when it appeared that the worst ringleaders might yet be saved due to growing public consternation about the policy of executions.
Nonetheless, within months nationalist opinion in Ireland was transformed, largely in response to what was perceived as Britain’s vindictiveness in executing the rebel leaders, imprisoning several thousand men, and enforcing martial law.
VII. ImpactBACK TO TOP
In conclusion, what was the impact of the Easter Rising on nationalist politics? As a military event it was hugely unsuccessful. As a protest in arms or bloody sacrifice of the sort anticipated by Patrick Pearse in his poetry and writings, it was enormously successful.
The Rising began or – at the very least – dramatically hastened the process by which the Irish Party and its objective of Home Rule ceased to represent the aspirations of most Irish nationalists. Within eighteen months of the Rising, the nationalist consensus in favour of Home Rule was replaced by a widespread demand for an Irish Republic. Although the Easter Rising was the central event in this transformation of opinion, it is important to set the rebellion in a wider context. The Rising alone would not have been sufficient to detach Irish nationalists from support of the Irish Party had a number of other crucial factors not been in place. According to observers as diverse as Eoin MacNeill and Augustine Birrell, it was the mobilisation of the Ulster Volunteers and its successful defiance of British authority between 1912 and 1914 which triggered the slide towards revolution in Ireland.
The failure of John Redmond to persuade the British Government to implement Home Rule in the summer of 1914, and Redmond’s decision to tie the Irish Party’s political fortunes to an increasingly unpopular war, allowed the previously unpopular separatists to challenge the Irish Party’s position.
The events which followed the Easter Rising were also crucial. British coercion in Ireland, rationalised by the British government in the context of what was viewed as a ‘stab in the back’ by Irish rebels, was counter-productive. The attempt to introduce conscription in the spring of 1918 also dealt a hammer blow to the fortunes of the Irish Party and did more than any issue since the rebellion to harden support for republicanism. The failure to reach an agreement between Unionists and constitutional nationalists at the Irish Convention organised by Lloyd George also undermined the Irish Party in the eyes of most nationalists.
The most important impact of 1916, however, was its impact on the course of Irish nationalism. The Easter Rising revived the use of violence for political purposes. Although this tradition was celebrated in the nationalist discourse of the times, most nationalists had come to view physical force as an anachronistic relic from the past. However, the British government’s attempt to push through a measure of Home Rule in the wake of the Rising led many nationalists to believe that the use of force had achieved more than decades of patient constitutional activity.
The carefully orchestrated actions of the leaders of the Easter Rising, and the Proclamation of the Irish Republic by Patrick Pearse, established the continuity of the Irish separatists of 1916 with the past rebellions of the Fenians, Young Ireland and Wolfe Tone’s United Irishmen. The violence of 1916 must also be viewed in the wider context of the violence engulfing the continent of Europe in this period.
The Easter Rising also ensured that republicanism – the specific aim of an Irish Republic rather than the objective of Home Rule or Arthur Griffith’s Dual Monarchy or other forms of independence – was established as the objective of most advanced nationalists. Pearse’s establishment of an Irish Republic, later confirmed by the establishment of the democratically-elected Dáil Éireann in 1919, would greatly influence the actions of future generations of republicans, whether during the violence of the Civil War or the more recent decades of conflict in Northern Ireland.
The Easter Rising provided a model, a justification and a degree of legitimacy for future generations of Irish nationalists who would use physical force to achieve their aims. Ultimately, the Easter Rising achieved almost everything the rebels had hoped for.
See also: Podcast on the Easter Rising, by Dr Feaghal McGarry.
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