24 APRIL, 1916: Heroes and Villains

A hundred years ago today, in Dublin, Irish nationalists occupied the main post office and proclaimed a provisional independent government of Ireland. This was the first action of what is now called the Easter Rising against British colonial rule, and anyone with a TV in Britain can tell you it copped for the heritage treatment a few weeks back.  Odd decision, that, and for all that I’m impressed with the resurrection myth’s tenacity I prefer to commemorate the Rising on the day it actually began.

The British heritage industry’s editorial stance was equally odd, though less surprising, in that while dwelling on the rebellion’s brief narrative (and of course every crumb of human interest) they seem to have largely ignored the question of why the rebellion took place.  That may be a matter of embarrassment, because when it comes to Ireland the British have been on the wrong side of history for a very long time – so, with apologies to any Irish reader for being brief and occasionally facile, here’s some background.

The Normans got conquest of Ireland underway, establishing control of an eastern tranche of the country (known as The Pale), and by the later Middle Ages English influence dominated the whole island.  For the next few hundred years Ireland suffered straightforward, often brutal, few-benefits-attached exploitation and oppression, bolstered by colonial seeding of English lords and labour.  Subject to complete union with the UK since 1801, its population of less than five million remained predominantly rural and Catholic in the early 20th century, and industrial development was concentrated in the northern province of Ulster.

In Ireland as elsewhere (if more slowly than in England), the nineteenth century brought literacy and political awareness into mass culture, and with them came a surge of popular nationalism. By the 1880s a movement for autonomy (or Home Rule) had won support from the British Liberal government, but the carrot of Home Rule was destined to dangle for some time, suspended by furious opposition from British conservatives and from the Protestant, pro-British, ‘Unionist’ majority in Ulster.

Home Rule bills were defeated by Parliament in 1886 and 1893, and though the Asquith government – along with southern Ireland’s 84 Westminster MPs – eventually managed to pass one in May 1914, it caused nothing but trouble.  Ulster promptly descended into something close to civil war, and British party politics went into crisis mode when it appeared that British soldiers in Ulster would refuse to fire on Unionists if called upon to enforce Home Rule. Known as the Curragh Mutiny, this sparked the resignations of regional commander General Gough, all his officers, Army chief of staff Sir John French (yes, him) and war minister Seeley – and made the British Army establishment’s opposition to Home Rule, let alone independence, abundantly clear.

The crisis was still in progress, and no new war minister had been appointed, when the assassination of Archduke Franz-Ferdinand brought down Europe’s diplomatic dominoes and Home Rule was shelved for the duration.  Ulster quieted down, and Irishmen from every province enlisted in droves to fight for the Empire.  Most Irish nationalists were caught up in the war fever that infected most of Europe, and their politicians gave official support to the British war effort, but some of their more militant fellow travellers reacted with anger and understandable frustration.

Nationalists had no reason to suppose that the good intentions of a few Liberal politicians represented the views of the British ruling class., and every reason to suspect that war meant the days of reforming governments at Westminster were over for the foreseeable future.  Under the circumstances, it was hardly surprising that some nationalist elements sought to exploit the War – as nationalists had exploited the Napoleonic Wars – by seeking German aid for their cause.  More surprisingly, there weren’t many of them and they didn’t get far, though German agents in the USA did recruit a small number of ex-patriot Irish nationalists to carry out sabotage operations.

The same German agents made contact in New York with one relatively eminent nationalist who was out to make a difference – retired Anglo-Irish diplomat Sir Roger Casement.  Casement travelled to Germany in the autumn of 1914, arranged with German authorities to have Irish PoWs placed in a separate camp, and set about trying to recruit them for a nationalist army.  Few detailed records of the enterprise survive, and those that do are more shaky than wiki-world would have you believe, but it’s generally accepted that no more than a few dozen of the 2,000 prisoners involved signed up for his Irish Legion.

Casement is still a controversial figure – lionised in Ireland, but dismissed as a traitor and subject to character smears by many British commentators – but there’s no doubting his optimism, given that all the men he was trying to recruit had volunteered to fight for Britain.  To be fair, he was also let down by the German authorities, who treated him with benevolent neglect.  They never came close to keeping promises of weapons and training for the Legion, ignored his strategic advice about Irish affairs and generally payed more attention to their sources inside Ireland, in particular the militant Military Committee of the Irish Volunteers.

I’m not getting into the minutiae and individual lives of Irish republican politics here – you haven’t got the time and I might get the nuance wrong – but broadly speaking the movement was represented by three significant organisations.  Sinn Fein was nationalism’s relatively new political wing, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB, and known as the Fenian Brotherhood in the US) was its long-established agitprop organisation, and the Irish Volunteers was its militant, activist cell.  The Volunteers alone refused to officially support the British war effort in August 1914, and the Military Committee, a splinter group within it, had begun planning a wartime uprising by early September.  That said, it’s worth pointing out that these organisations overlapped all over the place, and that many of the principal figures involved in the Easter Rising belonged to all three.

The Committee had begun making practical arrangements for a rising by May 1915.  Though never given the full support of the Volunteers, Sinn Fein or the IRB – who all considered an uprising premature, inappropriate and unlikely to win popular support – the Committee was in contact with German agents and delayed plans in the hope of significant backing from Germany.  When Casement and the Committee eventually co-presented a scheme for a German invasion to coincide with the rebellion, Berlin turned down the idea, agreeing only to send arms to Ireland.  Despite opposition from nationalist politicians (the plan was hardly a secret, though theoretically kept from the British), the Committee went ahead anyway, and the date of the rising was set for 23 April 1916.

Up to a point the Germans kept their word, sending a few thousand old rifles and a handful of machine guns to southwest Ireland on a disguised steamer in early April.  They also sent Casement, by submarine, to act as a figurehead for the rebellion, but the British were way ahead of them, using intelligence from the United States to catch both the guns and Casement, who was captured on 20 April, stripped of his knighthood and hanged as a traitor.   News of the losses sparked another round of calls for the rising to be cancelled from leading nationalist figures, which cut down the number of people taking part but only postponed the event for one day.

The Rising went ahead on 24 April and, as TV documentaries have been at pains to point out, lasted less than a week.  Following the post office occupation, rebels took several buildings covering roads into Dublin after fierce street fighting with British garrison troops, but attempts to storm Dublin Castle and the local arsenal failed.  The Empire fought back with ruthless efficiency.  Britain put the whole of Ireland under martial law from 27 April, and troops led by General Maxwell forced the surrender of surviving rebels on 1 May.  About 300 were killed in the fighting, roughly a third of them military personnel, and another 1,000 or so were wounded or reported missing.

dublin-after-british-shelling-1916
Dublin after it was shelled by a British gunboat… that’ll teach them to mess with the post office.
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This was always a form of civil war… 35% of the troops killed during the Rising were Irish born.

That’s about where the British heritage story ends, and it tends to dismiss the Rising as a failure.  From a simply historical point of view – in other words without taking sides – that’s nonsense.  Of course it didn’t sweep the rebels to political power in a liberated Ireland, but none of the Rising’s main protagonists expected that it would.  In its intended role as a demonstration of Irish intent and impatience, it could hardly have been more successful.

The enormous international splash created by the Rising amounted to a massive propaganda victory for Irish nationalists, particularly in the USA, a constituency the British government dared not upset as long as it remained neutral. The government’s relatively mild reaction in the aftermath of the Rising –’only’ 14 rebels were executed and those imprisoned were given amnesty in 1917 – was an attempt to soothe US opinion that made very little difference, and nothing an increasingly divided administration could do would restore Britain’s popular reputation in southern Ireland.  By 1919, when enforcement of Home Rule was finally due, southern Irish politics had shifted decisively away from the compromise it represented, and after three years of sporadic civil war the Independent Irish Free State was established in 1922, with Ulster becoming an autonomous province within the United Kingdom.

Whatever your view of the violence it entailed, the modern standards we like to set for other countries insist that Irish nationalism in 1916 was a just cause – just as they make Britain an evil empire straight out of central casting.  Opposed or let down by their supporters, manifestly doomed to failure and, at best, imprisonment, the Easter rebels were in effect successful martyrs for that cause.  At the time, of course, they were officially British, and it seems a shame British popular history can’t treat them with the respect it reserves for violent rebels with a cause like Oliver Cromwell or Robin Hood.

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