Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, April 24, 2016

100 Years Ago Today: Dublin, the Easter Rising

O'Connell Street, Dublin, at the Turn of the Century
The buildings on either corner were occupied by the rebels.
The GPO can be seen in the background, facing Nelson's Pillar

The six-day nationalist rising against the British centered in Dublin that started on Easter Monday, 24 April, in 1916 holds a peculiar place in the historiography of the Great War. Most American-written war histories don't mention it. Authors from Britain and Ireland, however, almost always consider it central to the war's story. My godfather, Owen Sweeney, was a boy in Dublin in those days, and since his accounts of the excitement of the rising are part of my life, I find the war and the Easter Rising inseparable. 

At noon on Easter Monday 1916 bemused Dubliners saw columns of Irish Volunteers and ICA members marching through their city, carrying antiquated guns or even pikes and pickaxes, wearing colorful and flamboyant uniforms — or civilian clothes. A number of the motley crew assembled in front of Dublin's General Post Office (GPO), listening to Patrick Pearse proclaiming the "Irish Republic" and witnessing the hoisting of the new flag. The GPO was elevated to headquarters, manned under the leadership of Pearse, Connolly, the terminally ill Joseph Plunkett, the doubting The O'Rahilly, Tom Clark, Sean MacDermott, and an virtually unknown but enthusiastic ADC named Michael Collins.

Other parts of the city were occupied by separate rebel detachments — Boland's Mill was claimed by Éamon_de Valera for the Irish Republic, Michael Mallin and Countess Markievicz occupied the park in St. Stephen's Green, Eamonn Ceant housing estates in South-Western Dublin, Eamonn Daley the Four Courts.

Many important objectives were not achieved and became early warnings of what was to follow. The Magazine Fort in the Phoenix Park was to be taken and plundered, but the commanding officer had the key to the bunker with him at the Fairyhouse Races. Dublin Castle was not attacked due to (entirely false) rumors that it was defended by a strong garrison. The occupation of the main telephone exchange was scrapped after a passing old woman told rebels that it was full of soldiers. The first British soldiers arrived there five hours later. And Trinity College, built like a fortress and a far better HQ than the GPO, was simply ignored due to lack of manpower on the rebels' side.

The occupation of St. Stephen's Green Park by the ICA quickly declined into tragedy as British troops displayed much more military aptitude than the rebels and used the adjoining Shelbourne Hotel to rake the park with machine guns, sending rebels scurrying for cover in the flowerbeds. This further declined into farce when a truce was observed to allow a warden to feed the ducks in the pond ...

First successes of the rebels were as much due to surprise as they were to British ineptitude. Unarmed reserves and untrained troops were marched straight into the firing line. And a spirited cavalry attack on the GPO under Colonel Hammond ended in disaster when the horses skidded and stumbled on Dublin's cobblestones.

But all this could not hide the fact that the rebellion was doomed unless all Ireland rose in support of the rebels, bringing about a military victory and expelling the British, or the British simply got fed up and left, or a German force landed in support of the rebels. All these were about as realistic as Connolly's opinion that the British would use no artillery to avoid destroying capital and investments.

Damage Afterward

Ireland did not rise, and local disturbances were quickly put down, sometimes with the help of the National Volunteers. The British showed no intention of throwing in the towel. Within a few days, the British Army had deployed 19,000 soldiers. And the Germans stayed conspicuously absent. Even Connolly must have realized that he was fighting a lost battle when the gunboat Helga began shelling the GPO. Yet he still wrote "We are winning!" when the GPO collapsed around him — a misapprehension that might be due to the level of painkillers in his bloodstream after suffering two bullet wounds.

With the GPO in ruins, the Four Courts blazing and the ICA seeking shelter in the Royal College of Surgeons the situation became critical. There simply was no hope of victory for the rebels, tens of thousands of British troops were pouring into Dublin.

It was just a matter of time until the rebels had to surrender — and on the following Saturday the new commander-in-chief General Sir John Maxwell accepted this surrender. One hundred sixteen British soldiers were dead (plus nine missing), and 13 policemen of the Royal Irish Constabulary and three from the Dublin Metropolitan Police were killed too. On the rebel's side 64 were killed, at least two by "friendly fire." The highest losses were amongst civilians and non-combatants — 318 died in the crossfire.

In a rather hasty operation 14 rebels were shot in Dublin's Kilmainham Gaol — Patrick Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh, Thomas Clarke, Edward Daly, William Pearse, Michael O'Hanrahan, Eamonn Ceannt, Joseph Plunkett, John MacBride, Sean Heuston, Con Colbert, Michael Maillin, Sean MacDermott, and James Connolly.

Éamon_de Valera

Thomas Kent was executed in Cork. Sir Roger Casement was hanged in London later, after a lengthy trial. Seen by fellow Irishmen as deluded troublemakers at the time of their arrests, the 16 were elevated to national martyrs mainly by Maxwell's heavy-handed approach. Only two rebel leaders escaped these executions. Countess Markievicz was sentenced to die, but this was commuted to a life sentence on account of her sex. And Éamon_de Valera could not be executed as a traitor, as he held no British citizenship. Both were released under the general amnesty of June 1917.  De Valera would later serve 14 years as the president of the Irish Republic.  

As the rising itself was ill-timed, ill-prepared, and ill-supported, it went into history not as a success, but was a spark that re-lit the enthusiasm for Irish independence.

Sources:, Wikipedia,


  1. "All changed, changed utterly:
    A terrible beauty is born."

  2. Too few know of GW Russell's poem written in 1917, "To the Memory of Some I Knew Who Are Dead and Who Loved Ireland." The poem remembers in alternating verses both those killed in the Easter Rising as well as those who died in battle in the First World War. I've posted the poem on my blog for anyone who might be interested:

    1. What a remarkable poem, Connie. So carefully balanced: Ireland and western front, revolutionaries versus Anglo-Irish unionists.

    2. Wonderful poem and outstanding commentary Connie. I will recommend this piece and your blog in the next Trip-Wire.


    3. Thanks, Mike and Bryan, for taking the time to read the poem. I very much love and admire its poignant attempt to work towards reconciliation during the war.

  3. The PBS 3 part documentary, 1916 The Irish Rebellion, is worth watching for good background. Written by Bríona Nic Dhiarmada, professor at the University of Notre Dame’s Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies, and narrated by Liam Neeson. There is a companion book available as well published by U of ND press.

  4. I disagree with the conclusion in your entry, as I set out here ( )

    I really think that what re-lit the spark of desire of Irish for independence wasn't the rebellion, which met with little sympathy. Rather, it was the shocking execution of the captured rebels that did that. The rebellion itself wasn't popular and it met with a hostile response at the time. However, the Irish did not expect those who had taken the action to be so rapidly executed, and sometimes in a shocking manner. James Connolly, for example, was already dying at the time and had to be shot while seated in a chair, an action the Irish found abhorrent.

    So, basically, Irish nationalist managed to turn a defeat into a victory by way of the reaction to the heavy handed actions of the British in putting the rebellion down. Having already committed themselves to Home Rule, had that not occurred, its quite likely that Ireland would have remained a (self governing) part of the UK.