Start of the Easter Uprising
Republicanism operated in the shadows. A number of clandestine organisations sprung up long before the powder was lit on the Easter Rising. Failed insurrections in 1798, 1848, and 1867, gave notice that the republicanism was not a movement committed to solely political means. Republicanism was fermenting, discontent with the union was shared among a number of disparate political radicals. Going into the 20th Century it would diverge in strategy – though, one would invariably need the other as events would prove. Military force and constitutional politics were two seemingly contrary strands of republican thinking – but the failure of the latter only encouraged those who sponsored the bomb and the bullet. Amassed from a number of smaller republican groups, the Irish Republican Brotherhood became more profound in its activity, passing two motions that blatantly opposed the union: firstly, its committee would govern Ireland should the union be dissolved; secondly, in lieu of a democratic vote, the IRB’s chairman would be president of any newly formed Irish republic.
Politically, the Home Rule League had taken the Irish issue to Westminster . Charles Stewart Parnell’s Irish Parliamentary Party were gathering some momentum, attracting enough support to interest London and horrify unionists – particularly in the north-eastern province of Ulster. They would never favour republicanism, land ownership had favoured them, The Planters who had migrated from Scotland were betrothed the most arable land. It was not to be surrendered willingly.
Famine among Ireland’s impoverished Catholic underclasses was a terror that was never too far away. The Great Famine of 1847 had seen millions flee Ireland, heading to the UK or America. The Home Rule League, Irish Parliamentary Party, and Sinn Féin all championed Ireland as a sovereign nation – Sinn Féin at that time was not as covertly republican, and would only grow in influence in the years to come.
Charles Parnell was a hugely influential figure. He was openly republican, and in the failed pursuit of three Home Rule Bills in 1886, 1893 and 1912, Parnell maintained that a dissolution of the union was the people of Ireland’s decision. Amid, this coalescing of republican sentiment, unionism was formed, allying with the Tories and offering a threat of violence to help quell any thoughts of a republic. As home rule became more of a realistic threat to the unionist status quo, Irish politics were growing ever more fraught. Though, it wasn’t long before trouble was brewing on mainland Europe, taking the focus of the domestic situation. By 1914, the German Empire was dominating the political landscape. Once again, republicanism, which had made such gains, was again in the shadows. But the IRB had not forgotten; on the contrary, this was a time of opportunity.
That it should arrive while Britain fought in World War One was quite deliberate; it was hoped that the Army was suitably preoccupied with the bloody war of attrition currently being waged in Europe. The chaotic insurrection was confined to down town Dublin was more accidental, as support from the rest of Ireland dried up when munitions smuggled from Germany were seized on the Irish coastline – Roger Casement’s arrest extinguishing a more widespread rebellion. The preparations for the Easter Rising involved forming alliances over a number of organisations; secrecy was paramount, so too gathering support for an armed insurrection. James Connolly was then head of the Irish Citizen Army, representing an impatient band of some 200 militant socialists. Acting independently of the IRB, it was not until the beginning of the year that they were accepted to the IRB’s fold, with Connolly joining the IRB’s military committee.
The General Post Office would become the epicentre of the rising. There, commander-in-chief Padraig Pearse and Connolly’s ICA units ensconced themselves. The Irish tricolour and a green flag with gold lettering proclaiming an ‘Irish Republic’ were hoisted above the building. Pearse delivered the proclamation of the Easter Rising’s intentions, and elsewhere there were three battalions under the command of Eamon de Valera, Ned Daly, and Thomas MacDonagh prepared for the bloodshed that followed. Six days of fighting ensued. Such was the secrecy regarding the republicans’ plans, and the lack of intelligence of the British Army’s strengths, the battle ebbed and flowed between fierce fighting and tentative attacks. By the end of the week, however, the British Army numbered some 16,000 men; heavily outnumbered, and with the General Post Office Building shelled to ruins, Pearse surrendered his men.
Indeed, in many respects, the Easter Rising was not such an immediate success; heavy civilian casualties (over 200 were killed), and the subsequent surrender and execution of the rebel leaders left doubt over its significance. Was this really enough to drive Britain to withdrawal from Ireland? Nobody thought so, at least not in the immediate aftermath.
But the speed with which the British government meted out justice to the rebels attracted sympathy and support for republicanism. 82 men were executed – James Connolly was so badly injured he was strapped to a chair to be shot. The British pursued an internment policy; members of Sinn Féin were rounded up, so too those suspected of republican sympathies, and taken to internment camps on the British mainland. From a position of strength, both in terms of military and propaganda, the British government had erred. Sinn Féin men like Arthur Griffith had nothing to do with the rising, but internment allowed republicanism to become a more coherent political force, backed, of course, by the memories of the Easter Rising. But civil war awaited, and the rising spirit of republicanism was not shared by the denizens of Ulster. It may have ushered in an epoch of change, gluing republicanism together and leading to the formation of the Irish Republic, but its fractious nature is somehow a metaphor for the internecine conflicts that would pockmark Irish history in the years that followed
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