One hundred years ago on 24 April 1916 rebels who sought to break away from the United Kingdom and the British Empire proclaimed an Irish Republic in Dublin. The resulting rebellion was fought over a week and saw the destruction of large parts of Dublin’s city centre as well as killing hundreds of people. The British successfully suppressed the rising but their ill-judged execution of the rebel leaders led to a public outcry and contributed to the later Irish War of Independence and the creation of an Irish Free State in 1922. In History of War Issue 28 we spoke to Dr Fearghal McGarry who has written a centenary edition to his book, The Rising: Ireland 1916 about the impact the rebellion had on both Irish and British history and its shadow is still relevant today.
What was the extent of German involvement in the Rising and what did they hope to gain from it?
I suppose you have to distinguish between what was planned and what actually happened. What was planned was that the rebels, Joseph Plunkett and Roger Casement were in Germany in 1915. They weren’t as successful as they would have liked to be in getting German support. Initially they were hoping for a German landing not just with arms but also with a military leadership and troops.
I don’t think that was ever feasible because of the lack of German control of the seas so they were a little bit disappointed with the German support and all they got from Germany was the promise of weapons, which was the ‘Aud’ shipment. It wasn’t great, cutting-edge material, but had the German ship landed, which the British naval authorities knew about anyway, it would have been a considerable number of weapons and it might have might have made feasible a mass rising had there been a mass mobilisation on the west coast but I think from the German point of view they saw this as the ability to cause a lot of trouble at a minimum cost to themselves so I don’t think they took it seriously as a military venture.
They were presented with a slightly grandiose plan, the ‘Ireland Plan’ by Joseph Plunkett. I think they didn’t really see it as credible but that there was nothing to be lost by throwing in a shipment, if nothing else for propaganda reasons to cause disruption on another front. It was more to cause trouble than an expectation of any significant military uprising.
What would the military implications have been for the British in World War One had the Rising been successful?
There are two groups in the Irish Volunteers, the leadership of the Irish Volunteers led by Eoin MacNeill and they didn’t think it was a good idea to have an unprovoked insurrection or action and what he argued for was a rising at the right time for example if conscription was imposed and that group around MacNeill argued that they should play to their strengths which would have meant guerrilla warfare, they called it ‘hedge-fighting’.
That could have been quite a significant thing but we have to judge the Easter Rising in terms of the strategy at the time and what that strategy called for was obviously what happened in Dublin and then also mobilisation in places like Cork, Limerick, Galway but if you look at the strategy of the Volunteer movement, even if all the radical Volunteers had turned out across the country including Dublin you were looking at most 12,000-15,000 Volunteers and they were poorly armed and I think that with the strategy that they adopted particularly in Dublin which was basically taking over fixed positions I don’t think the outcome would have been that different.
I think more people would have been killed and they possibly would have held out a little bit longer but with that strategy its very feasible to see, not that they could have been victorious, that it wasn’t even aimed at victory or even a coup d’état, it seems a very defensive kind of strategy, particularly if you think about Dublin. They march into buildings, poorly armed, and wait for the British to come along with artillery and machine guns and so on so it seems that the leadership are quite clear that what they’re doing is a propaganda of the deed, a gesture that is intended to be a spectacle to transform opinion and not something that is rooted in a credible military strategy.
Many of the Volunteers were basing their ideas on the style of the 1848 Citizens Revolt when you threw up the barricades and you protest and I think that might have been the kind of model they had. James Connolly who was the leader of the socialist Irish Citizen Army was quite interested in street fighting and he did feel that there was the potential to do a lot of damage to the British holding small outposts in built up areas. If you look at the strategy the rebels could have done a lot better. Where they really exacted punishment on the British forces was for example Mount Street, where you had a small number of outposts quite strategically placed but the strategy by and large was that virtually all the rebels were sealed off in five or six buildings that could be sealed off and cordoned so I think from a strategic view they didn’t pursue what could been an effective strategy in terms of inflicting casualties.
What impact did the execution of the leading rebels have on Irish public opinion?
It had a huge impact. I think not necessarily because of the amount of people who were shot. 15 people, in some respects, isn’t a large number considering the scale of the Rising but I think the fact that they are shot in groups of two or three people spaced out for almost two weeks that kind of dominates the agenda and there’s a rising anger.
One quote from The Times talks about the effect that it seems the blood is seemingly seeping out from under a closed door. From the British point of view shooting these people seems like probably the least that can be done in response to a rising of this nature in a time of war with Britain’s back to the wall. It’s difficult to see any of the other powers acting differently. In terms of nationalist public opinion, and of course what’s happening on the Western Front is important because the British Army soldiers are being shot for not fighting in this period, but from an Irish point of view what they see is double standards. Irish nationalists feel that the rebels fought fairly, cleanly, bravely, even with chivalry and that therefore they’d won the right to be treated as prisoners of war. That’s probably the best way to see the contrast in how people like General Maxwell see it and nationalist public opinion sees it.
People always think about the executions but the arrests are also important. The British arrest over 3,000 people, which is larger than the number of people that took part in the Rising and they intern 2,000 people and when you think about all the number of family and friends that are involved that’s where actually, the executions were shocking, but the arrests cause a much more deep-rooted campaign, an amnesty campaign to get the prisoners out and that leads directly to more popular support for republicanism so that’s an important additional factor. It’s not just the executions but it’s also the wider repression of arrests and so on and the arrests of innocent people.
What was the impact of the Rising on American opinion towards entering World War I?
I’m not sure that it did have a big impact. Certainly American opinion was really transfixed by the Rising. It was reported on the front page of the New York Times every day for two weeks but in terms of influencing the regime it did not have a big effect. What happens during the First World War is that the Irish-Americans, like other hyphenated Americans, become a bit marginalised particularly after the Americans enter the war. Irish republicanism is seen as akin to antiwar activism and it’s seen as maybe a little bit disloyal but particularly later after America joins in.
What did Michael Collins learn from the Rising when he helped to conduct the subsequent Irish War of Independence?
The whole point of the Rising for people like Patrick Pearse was to have a kind of symbolic gesture and maybe for Pearse certainly a blood sacrifice. A lot of people didn’t agree with that line of thinking and a lot of Irish Volunteers who were radical didn’t turn out and fight because they didn’t see the point in symbolic violence. People like Eoin MacNeill felt that if you can’t win then there’s no point in shooting people.
Collins falls into the pragmatists and so for example one of the most experienced rebels was a guy called MacBride and one of the last things MacBride says to the rebels is, “Never get caught inside a building and never get caught like rats in a trap” and Collins is very much one of these people who describes the Easter Rising as a Greek tragedy. He said that “It didn’t seem like a good time to be making speeches” and so on and actually funnily enough in that respect I think he’s quite wrong because the Rising was really effective political propaganda but for Collins the lesson was: if you’re going to have a military campaign it should be efficient and effective so the type of violence that Collins spearheaded in 1919 is very different.
Its not about self-sacrifice, its about using violence as effectively as possible, using the strength that you have in terms of guerrilla warfare with the least possible cost in terms of the dangers you expose your own men to.
There are also propaganda implications because a lot of people, it seems funny perhaps from a 21st century perspective, could admire what the rebels did in 1916, their bravery. But when you’re talking about say shooting a man when he comes out of his lodgings, ambushing policemen on the steps of a church, a lot of people felt that was murder. So it was effective but there were propaganda implications to it.
Catholic priests for example thought it was murder and even some republicans within the republican movement. Its never been conclusively proven but people like de Valera wanted more open kind of battles rather than ambushing because it was seen as less credible. So something like what happens at Kilmichael is a much easier sell if you like. Notions of chivalry are very important, the notion of fair fighting and so what Collins does is very effective and there’s a certain amount of leeway for it because the first people have a link with the Rising. His first campaign of violence begins in 1919 by targeting the ‘G’ men and the ‘G’ men are the secret police who had picked out the 1916 leaders and so to a certain extent they were seen as fair game. Then of course Collins extends to officials and intelligence operatives and wider circles.
What did Irish soldiers fighting in the British Army think of the Rising?
A lot of the soldiers who respond initially to the Easter Rising are actually Irish, which is often overlooked and a significant number of the British Army casualties were Irish, I think its somewhere around a quarter, so obviously there were Irish troops stationed in Ireland but there was also large numbers of Irish troops who were back from the Western Front on holidays and leave so what did they think? They thought a range of things.
We have a lot of first hand accounts of the rebels’ experiences and some of the Irish soldiers seem to have been particularly brutal, seeing the rebels as betraying them, stabbing them in the back and so on but on the other hand you have a lot of interesting examples of a lot of ambivalence with Irish soldiers saying, “We’re fighting for freedom too, why don’t you join us and fight for freedom on the Western Front?” and then even more striking examples of, probably not in large numbers but, “Why didn’t you wait until the war was over and we would have joined in with you?”
The interesting thing is that many Irish nationalists in the British Army and most Catholics in the British Army were nationalists, shared broadly the same kind of ideals as the rebels and the shared the same culture of admiring the rebel tradition of men like Wolfe Tone and so on. So there’s actually quite a wide range of different responses.
For a lot of soldiers on the Western Front it seems like a betrayal, it seems shocking and they’re actually being taunted by Germans about what’s happening in Dublin and its obviously very worrying but in a sense they become victims of the Easter Rising. By the time they come home to Ireland in 1918-19 suddenly as being seen as heroic figures going off to fight for Irish freedom under John Redmond they’re seen as being on the wrong side and to a certain extent are reviled in some quarters.
The numbers are staggering. 2,000 people at most fought in the rebellion whereas over 200,000 fought in the First World War but by 1919 they’re coming home to a place that’s transformed in terms of public opinion and the republican movement is essentially antiwar so you get a whole range of responses. You get men like Tom Barry who fought in the Middle East and he comes home and joins the IRA and that’s not uncommon but what does become very difficult is for returning British Army soldiers who are nationalists to be proud of what they did in the First World War so that certainly by the late 1920s there are very few Armistice Day marches and so people keep quiet about their army service and that has only changed in the last two decades as part of the peace process.
Why is there a comparative lack of British historiography about the Rising?
I think one criticism that’s often made of Britain’s attitude to Ireland is that British people are just not that interested. I think it explains the British response during the War of Independence that what’s happening in Ireland just isn’t as important as what’s happening in the Middle East or in India. Its partly a lack of interest to a certain extent but I think the group of people who are now the least remembered victims of the Easter Rising I would say are the British Army soldiers who were killed and if you look at what happens to their memory its kind of awkward to remember them after Irish independence so the British tend not to be commemorated or they’re silently included in the commemoration of the British First World War dead.
There’s a difficulty around remembering them because it can create Anglo-Irish tensions. I would say also that there’s a problem in the historiography in that I think there’s a tendency for British historians they consider Britain to be ‘Great Britain’ as in England, Scotland and Wales rather than the UK as it existed in 1916. So quite often you will hear the idea that Britain was different to the other empires coming out of the First World War because it remained strong and it didn’t collapse, it wasn’t shaken by the First World War but actually if you think about Ireland as being a part of the UK, which of course it was, what happens is very much on a par with what happens in central and eastern Europe. You have paramilitary violence, revolution, partitions, secession and territorial loss if you think about the Free State breaking away and sometimes
I think that in Ireland we’re very conscious of the fact that Ireland got its independence through that First World War experience, just as many other states did in the 1920s but I think perhaps there’s not so much awareness of that in Britain. It seems maybe different to that pattern of what happens to empires because of the First World War when also of course it’s related to the emergence of the age of self-determination and popular sovereignty. It becomes very difficult to make the argument that you have the right to control a large group of people who reject rule from the British Empire.
You could almost make the argument that the current British state is a product of Irish revolutionary violence and I think a lot of people would probably be surprised by that and I think it goes back to a much wider problem that Ireland was never really seen as integral to the United Kingdom. It wasn’t ruled like Great Britain, it had a semi-colonial administration. The Union was never really a success in that sense. Some people would probably not like this to be said but the same could be said about Northern Ireland at times as well.
After 100 years to what extent is the Easter Rising still relevant to Irish politics and national identity?
In terms of identity and consciousness I think the Easter Rising is probably more relevant or has a higher profile in the Republic of Ireland than it has for several decades and the reason for that is that there was a lot of embarrassment about 1916 in the context of the Troubles because it was very easy for the Provisional IRA to claim a kind of legitimacy from 1916 and say, “We’re fighting for broadly the same objectives. We don’t necessarily have a democratic mandate but neither did the people in 1916” so there was a kind of embarrassment and certainly uneasiness at certain periods.
In 1976 for example, the 60th anniversary is very low key. So what you find in the last decade or so, it really starts in 2006 with the military parade in Dublin, which was suspended in the early stages of the Troubles, is brought back with an enthusiastic, little bit more celebratory, greener remembrance of 1916 because it doesn’t have those troublesome connotations.
The other thing that has changed which is very positive is there is a retrieval of the more radical elements of 1916, with focuses on groups like socialists and feminists. The history is becoming a bit more complex. Before it tended to polarised around nationalists and the Troubles. The other point I’d make is that like any time in the past century how Irish people view the Rising is very much influenced by the border. In Northern Ireland especially there is still sensitivity, even now, around the Troubles. It just isn’t something that can bring people together both nationalists and unionists. Unionists are struggling to find ways of commemorating an event, which is obviously very important to the Republic of Ireland. It is for them very bound up in notions of political violence.
I’ve noticed that the British government has signed on to the Irish government’s idea of a decade of centenaries. Whether that has much impact on your side of the water I doubt. Certainly there’s a willingness, as in Dublin, to use the commemoration of this decade to basically shore up the very positive developments in the peace process and so on. If anything it’s a actually a little tricky for the Irish government because on the one hand they’re trying to use history to promote a reconciliation but actually the nature of the event of 1916 itself is a tricky one in terms of that agenda.
The First World War is a much easier event to bring together British and Irish people but also to bring together unionists and nationalists. It’s much easier to bring together that idea of shared service during the First World War. I’ve noticed that the Irish government are going to have an official ceremony to commemorate the British Army dead in Grangegorman Military Cemetery so obviously there’s a lot more inclusivity and sensitivity about remembering all sides whereas in previous ceremonies the state would only remembered and recognised the republicans. It’s the kind of thing you would expect to see after 100 years in for example how the French and the Germans would commemorate conflicts.