The Easter Week Rebellion (1916)

As I was entering the House of Commons on Easter Monday afternoon, the door keeper informed me that Dublin was in rebellion and that the Castle had been attacked. Men with eyes to see had long realised that an explosion was coming. The young generation in Ireland was chafing in sullen silence against the inefficiency and degeneracy or the Parliamentary movement; Carson's preparations for rebellion had only to be imitated to supply the means for a revolt, and England's war difficulties suggested the irresistible temptation. Among the younger men of our own movement there had been springing up a hopeless feeling that conciliatory methods, however honest and indeed by reason of their honesty, could be of no avail against the corrupt tyranny of the Board of Erin and the cajolery, if not perfidy, of English politicians. They were already beginning, like the rest, to get their guns and join in the route marches of the Original Volunteers. But so little was I prepared for the thunderbolt that so suddenly rent the sky, that I had been spending the short recess peacefully on the sands at Brighton and returned to London to find that the venue of rebellion had changed from Carson's Belfast to the Irish capital and had within a few hours struck with paralysis the trembling officials of England and their Hibernian advisers.

That the cataclysm should have come with no less surprise upon the responsible rulers of the country, with their innumerable sources of information, is more astonishing, but the Report and blue-book of evidence taken before Lord Hardinge's Royal Commission relating to the outbreak leaves no room for doubt that this was so. The evidence demonstrates that the government of the country was for all practical purposes in the hands of Mr. Birrell and Mr. Dillon, and they could think of no more masterly way of meeting what was coming than in the words of the Prime Minister to "wait and see." The Lord Lieutenant (Lord Wimborne), indeed, had some not very original strategic plans for making a swoop on the leaders, but, when he was overborne by the cheery Mr. Birrell and his Friar Joseph, he exhibited so little foresight of the immediacy of the crisis, that he allowed his Commander-in-Chief to depart for a holiday in England, and saw no objection to the officers of the Dublin Castle garrison going off to the Fairy House Races on the day of the Rising, and went himself and his Under Secretary within an ace of being made inglorious prisoners when the rebels knocked at the gate of Dublin Castle which like the Viceregal Lodge was at the moment defended only by "a corporal's guard." His Chief Secretary had not been in Ireland since February and then only for ten days.

There is one part of the official evidence which would seem to throw upon unfortunate Mr. Redmond some of the blame for the inaction at Dublin Castle. He, in conformity with a now inveterate habit, had withdrawn himself from the region of responsibilities and delegated his authority to Mr. Dillon who, it would seem in his turn, sheltered himself from responsibility by pointing to Mr. Redmond's failure to identify himself with his own strong counsels against the rebels. The following extract from a letter under date 18th December, 1915, written by the Under Secretary to the Chief Secretary is published in the Report of Lord Hardinge and his colleagues:

"What is Redmond up to with his comparisons between Ireland and Great Britain in the matter of police and crime? He knows, or should know, after what Dillon wrote to him over a month ago in the enclosed 'Confidential letter' and repeated verbally on the 3rd instant that the present situation in Ireland is most serious and menacing. Redmond himself sent me the other 'private' enclosure on the 9th."

It is to be observed that of this letter of Sir Mathew Nathan which was published for the first time in Lord Hardinge's Report dated June 26th, there is no mention in the printed evidence of Sir Mathew himself given on May 18th nor of Mr. Birrell given on May 19th. The remarkable letters referred to from Mr. Dillon to Mr. Redmond, and from Mr. Redmond to Sir M. Nathan must have been in the possession of the Chief Secretary or of the Under Secretary and must have been produced and read during their examination. All reference to them, however, is suppressed in the official Minutes of their evidence, and the facts would never have reached the light had not the Commissioners themselves decided to divulge them in their Report. Mr. Dillon, who might presumably have been concerned to explain his part in these transactions, did not present himself as a witness, and the Commissioners who attached much importance to his action in their Report, do not seem to have pressed him to give evidence before them. Mr. Birrell's own account of the difference between the two Irish leaders was this:

"Mr. Redmond always took the view that the Sinn Féiners were negligible and he was good enough to say so in the House of Commons on a particular occasion. . . . Mr. Dillon was very strongly the other way, not in the sense of taking action, but very strongly of opinion that the Sinn Féiners, particularly the Sinn Féin movement and the insurrectionary movement in Dublin was a danger, and on that point there was a very friendly but strong difference of opinion between the two.

"Was Mr. Dillon equally in favour of nonintervention?—Yes.

"He thought it dangerous and yet he was against intervention?—He was against it in the absence of proof of hostile association with the enemy. If there had been evidence of hostile association with the enemy which you could prove, particularly against an individual, he naturally would have been in favour of a prosecution."

The Irish people will have to await future researches in the archives of Dublin Castle to discover the text of the letters which would have explained the nature of the "very friendly but strong difference of opinion" between Mr. Dillon and Mr. Redmond in their advice to the Castle authorities in this crisis. For the present we must be content to know that these letters were for some unexplained reason deleted from the Minutes of Evidence before the Hardinge Commission, and that in the main the "difference between the two" was that Mr. Redmond wrapped himself up in an optimistic haze, while Mr. Dillon only awaited in order to advise immediate action against the rebels that "proof of hostile association with the enemy" which, it is elsewhere mentioned, the landing of Sir Roger Casement in Kerry supplied. And that it was Mr. Dillon and his coadjutor the "National President" of the Board of Erin who really mattered, is obvious enough from this illuminating passage in the evidence of Sir Mathew Nathan:

"Sir MacKenzie Chalmers—The three people upon whom you relied for information—?—Not for information.

"I mean about the feeling of the country—the three people upon whom you relied were Mr. Devlin, Mr. Dillon and Mr. Redmond? Yes; I saw Mr. Redmond comparatively few times.

"Twice, I think, in your Memorandum you used the words 'the Irish Parliamentary Party.' Practically that meant those three gentlemen?—Yes."[28]

There is some pathos in the protestation with which the Viceroy began his evidence that in the Dublin Castle scheme of government, the King's Viceroy is not really of any account, but the rest of his narrative of the Rising would read like so much pure comic opera, only that it was so heavily splashed with blood. The Admiral at Queenstown in the course of a chat with the local General on April 16th, mentioned casually that the Casement cargo of arms had left Germany on the 12th, accompanied by two German submarines, and that a Rising was timed for Easter Eve. It was not until April 18th the chat reached the Viceroy, who wrote off to the Chief Secretary (in London), "a little colloquially, I am afraid," rejoicing in "the stroke of luck" by which "our friend" (Sir Roger Casement) was captured on landing, hoping "there would be no nonsense about clemency in making an example of him," developing a grandiose plan of his own for a swoop on the Dublin suspects, and imploring Mr. Birrell (Mr. Birrell of all men!) "if you agree, do write and ginger Nathan." Nathan remained so ungingered that, on the morning of the Rising, "I urged that the Castle guard be strengthened, but the Under Secretary demurred," and Lord Wimborne himself, having in vain offered "to take full responsibility for any possible illegality" in "making a bag" of six or seven hundred Dublin Volunteers the previous night [29] was at 10-30 a.m. on Easter Monday morning entirely reassured, " especially in view of the obvious disorganisation of the insurgents' plans that the Rising timed for this day would not take place." Nathan went off to the Castle to get the Chief Secretary on the wires, and the Lord Lieutenant who remained at the Viceregal Lodge "had completed a letter to the Chief Secretary and was in the act of writing to the Prime Minister deploring the delay and hoping that no mischief would occur in the meantime when at 12-30 a telephone message from the police announced that the Castle had been attacked, the Post Office seized, Stephen's Green occupied, the Ashtown Railway Bridge destroyed, and that the insurgents were marching on the Viceregal Lodge." So "obvious" was "the disorganisation of the insurgents' plans" that within twenty minutes after the stroke of noon their columns had taken possession of Dublin at six different strategic centres, and poor Lord Wimborne spent " the same afternoon" writing another despatch to the Chief Secretary announcing "the worst had happened just when we thought it averted. The Post Office is seized—Nathan still besieged in the Castle, but I hope he will be soon out. Almost all wires cut. Bridges blown up. Everybody away on holiday." One expects the message to wind up with a comic war-song from Offenbach's Grand Duchess. For a last excruciating touch of humour hear this:

"What troops had you in the Viceregal Lodge on Easter Monday?—Ten men.

"A corporal's guard?—A corporal's guard.

"And in the Castle?—I do not know; I suppose a corporal's guard—not more.

"When they shot the policeman there was nothing to prevent them going on, of course?—They could walk right in, of course."

General Boum could not have made a more masterly disposition of his forces.

The Parliamentary Party failed as did we all to foresee the Rising of Easter Week, but they failed more inexcusably to foresee its consequences. The first few days' news from Dublin reduced them to a state of decent silence and indeed terror in the House of Commons, but as it became more and more evident that the insurrection was being crushed by Sir John Maxwell and the considerable army assembled for the recapture of Dublin and was not extending to the country, " the Party" rushed to the opposite extreme of confidence, and began to regard the Rising with scarcely disguised satisfaction as marking their deliverance from a vague danger which had long weighed upon their spirits. The effervescence among the young men, which Mr. Redmond's attempt to capture the Volunteers had only inflamed, had at last come to a head, and had been (so the Parliamentary wise men began to calculate) disposed of for another generation by the fiasco of Easter Week and the remorseless executions that followed it. Mr. Laurence Ginnell charged that the Prime Minister's announcement that the first batch of the insurgent leaders had been shot in Kilmainham Jail was hailed with cheers from the Irish benches. His memory had doubtless been confused by the recollection of numerous only less painful demonstrations from the same quarter. In accusing them of that particular enormity he was undoubtedly mistaken and I felt bound, for the sake of truth and of human nature, to attest that the announcement had been received with solemn silence in every part of the House. Characteristically the Board of Erin newspapers which had for years either suppressed or garbled everything else I said or wrote, published and republished my words with an eager emphasis which Mr. Ginnell might well quote as proof that it was I, and not he, who was mistaken. But I added in a passage which the same newspapers carefully deleted, a number of instances during those same tragic days, when the Hibernian members acted with all but equal indecency in cheering wildly every Ministerial announcement of victory for the British arms and blurting out their own contempt for their defeated countrymen and their exultation in what they believed to be their final riddance of "the factionists" of physical force.

Mr. Redmond sinned with the general ruck, although with more decorum. While the lives of the insurgent leaders were still trembling in the balance, there occurred a revolting scene in the House of Commons. The Prime Minister having announced, as the day's news from Dublin: "The rebels continue to hold some important public buildings in Dublin, and there is still fighting in the streets," Sir E. Carson rose to say: "I will gladly join with the Hon. and learned Member for Waterford in everything that can be done to denounce and put down those rebels now and for ever more." Mr. Redmond, speaking in an atmosphere quivering with English prejudice and passion, made this inconceivable response: "Will the House allow me to say just one sentence? I really think it is scarcely necessary to give expression, on behalf of all my colleagues of the Nationalist Party, to the feeling of detestation and horror with which we have regarded these proceedings," expressly adding that he "joined most cordially with the right Hon. and learned Gentleman, the Member for Dublin University," in advice which a less impudent arch rebel than he might well have tendered in a coat of sackcloth and with a head strewn with ashes.

Who except Mr. Redmond could have tolerated Sir E. Carson complaining of sedition and at such an hour? To regret and dissociate himself from the rebellion was one thing, and a thing well within his right; to do so by treating as some monstrous crime a dash for liberty, however temerarious, by young Irish enthusiasts of indisputable chivalry and purity of motive, was another and an unnatural thing. To pretend that in doing so he was saving Home Rule was to contradict the notorious truth, which was that Home Rule was lost already and by his Party's double-dyed acceptance of Partition, and, as it turned out, was only to be resuscitated by the inspired madness of the young fellows who rescued it from the hands of the politicians. Above all, every honest Irish instinct was revolted by the spectacle of a Nationalist leader closing with the audacious invitation to "join hands in denouncing and putting down these rebels now and for evermore" coming from the man who not many months before had his hands red with the preparations for a rebellion against the King's law more extensive and bloody and incomparably more sordid than that of Easter Week. Respect for the British anxieties of the moment might properly have restrained him from the recriminations which the hypocrisy of the ringleader of the Ulster rebellion would have richly merited; but not only to refrain from a chiding word but to make common cause with—even to outstrip—the arch rebel of the North in trampling into the mire the gallant young Nationalists who had only copied his example, showed a perversity of judgment, a callousness to the spiritual pleadings of the Irish soul, which once for all made Mr. Redmond impossible as the National Leader.

His Party, nevertheless, proved themselves equally perverse in cheering his denunciation of the prostrate rebels. They cheered again when the Prime Minister announced that the "National" (i.e., Board of Erin) Volunteers in Drogheda had proffered their services to the police against the insurgents, and cheered more loudly still when the Prime Minister delivered an euloguim of the least reputable of all their colleagues who boasted that he had stolen the rifles of the insurgents on the night of the meditated rising in the County Limerick and then made his escape to the House of Commons to enjoy his blushing honours. They were to give a still more striking proof of their alienation from honest Irish sentiment. Mr. Birrell had just returned from Dublin and handed in his resignation. This time distressingly serious and with irrepressible tears in his eyes, he made a moving description of his feelings as he "stood amongst the smoking ruins of Dublin and surrounded with my own ruins in mind and thought" and had the sympathy of a House melted by his eloquence and by his fate. He by ill chance proceeded to give a new reminder of his irremediable incapacity to understand Irish feeling by hazarding a remarkable prediction: "The unanimity of Ireland has as I say even yet been preserved. This is no Irish rebellion. I hope that, although put down, as it is being put down, as it must be put down, with such success and with such courage and yet at the same time humanity toward the dupes, the rank and file, led astray by their leaders, that this insurrection in Ireland will never, even in the minds and memories of that people, be associated with their past rebellions or become an historical landmark in their history."

A coarse chorus of assent boomed from the Hibernian benches. They could not have given more offence to Ireland's most sacred traditions if they had cursed the memory of Robert Emmet, the hero of a curiously similar insurrection outside the walls of Dublin Castle. If it be true that Success is the goddess of an Englishman, Failure, in the patriotic sphere, is no less truly an object of Irish worship. Our history for ages is the history of heroic failure, pitted for ever against odds to which it was no shame to succumb, and condemned fatally to terminate in the prison or on the scaffold, in broken hearts and calumniated names. If Ireland has no other reward to offer, she has at least a lavish love in which to enshrine her beaten soldiers, and if her young conscripts of Easter Week had done nothing more memorable than to give up their lives in what the Prime Minister of England was among the most generous to acknowledge to be a clean and gallant fight for a fine ideal, the more hopeless was their fight, the less willingly Ireland would forgive any aspersion on their memory.

But as a matter of fact the Easter Week Insurrection was something more than an obscure deed of desperation. It was, even if it stood by itself, an amazing military success. A body of enthusiasts having according to the official calculation only 825 rifles at their command succeeded in taking possession of the seat of Government within a single hour and holding possession of it for five days against a trained army of 20,000 men at the least, while the fairest quarter of Dublin was being tumbled about their ears in a bombardment whose every shell shock (in the words of Mr. Healy who witnessed it) "sounded like the thud of clay falling upon his father's coffin." The one flaw in their plans was the unaccountable failure to capture Dublin Castle. It might have been the easiest part of their enterprise. We have already seen that the Castle was only defended by a "corporal's guard" and that, according to the evidence of the Lord Lieutenant, as soon as the small party of rebels shot the policeman at the gate of the Lower Castle Yard, "there was nothing to prevent them from going right in, of course." This view is shared entirely by Major Price, the Director of Military Intelligence, who "was talking to Sir Mathew Nathan in his office not 25 yards from the gate when the firing commenced." When asked "why they did not go on?" his reply is: "They could have done it as easily as possible. Twenty-five determined men could have done it." The evidence seems to be that, not even twenty-five, but only "half a dozen Volunteers in green coats" were available, probably owing to the poverty of men as well as rifles—still more likely because great as was the contempt of the insurgent leaders for the ruling powers, they refused to give credence to the unimaginable state of unpreparedness now disclosed in evidence. But it is certain that if half the number of men detailed to seize the Post Office or the Four Courts or to entrench themselves in Stephen's Green had been devoted to the supreme enterprise of capturing the citadel of English power, Dublin Castle and the Viceregal Lodge, with the Lord Lieutenant and the Under Secretary, must have fallen an easy prey to their arms and a victory so resounding must have been followed by an uprising in the country of which nobody could measure the extent or the duration. Verily it was only an ingenuous Mr. Birrell and an Irish Party in the last stages of decadence who could have fallen into the mistake of taking it for granted that their sneers at the beaten rebels would be re-echoed by the Irish nation. Any Irish schoolboy could have taught them that an adventure so glowing with romantic daring, and crowned with the halo of so many unflinching deaths in front of the firing-platoons of England, would be remembered with pride and tenderness as one of the most inspiring episodes of our history.

They believed they were dealing with a trumpery Dublin commotion and were confident they had heard the last of it once the abscess was lanced by Sir John Maxwell. Both as to the facts and as to the prophecy, they were ludicrously astray. The insurrection was planned on the calculation that Reserve Lieutenant Von Spindler, the German Commander of the Aud would succeed in landing his cargo of 30,000 rifles and field guns on the coast of Kerry. He did pass safely through the lines of a great British fleet on the north coast of Scotland and arrived in Tralee Bay on the appointed day, and but for the absurd accident by which the motor-car conveying those who were to signal to him fell into the sea in the darkness, he would doubtless have put his guns successfully on shore. Had he done so, it is now known there was an abundance of men in every county of the South ready and panting to take them up, and an insurrection must have followed which it would have taken England many months to cope with, could she even have mustered the great army that would be required for the purpose in the crisis of her fate in Flanders. It is not so generally known that even the capture of Casement and the voluntary sinking of the shipful of German rifles would not have prevented an insurrection upon a vaster scale than the Dublin one, had not Professor Eoin MacNeill, the Commander of the Volunteers, countermanded the order before the news could penetrate anywhere outside the neighbourhood of Dublin, that his order had been in turn set aside (only, it is believed, by a single vote) by the Dublin Executive. Information not to be doubted came into my own possession that on the appointed night many thousands of insurgents from every part of Cork City and County converged upon the different mountain passes for the march into Kerry, and were only dispersed after scenes of angry remonstrance on the arrival of a messenger from Dublin, who urged in vain that the loss of the German armaments had put an end to all possibility of success. For many months the abject failure of the Parliamentary politicians had been preparing hundreds of thousands of young Irishmen of high spirit for any chance, however desperate, of retrieving the honour of their nation in the fair ranks of war, and the evidence before the Hardinge Commission leaves no room for doubt that by a natural reaction, the young men seduced by the intrigues of the Board of Erin into Mr. Redmond's "National" Volunteers were going over in thousands, with their arms, to the side of the genuine fighters. One of the favourite excuses of "the Party" for the country turning to the side of the rebels was that they were horrified by the barbarities with which Sir John Maxwell put the Rising down. It was a misappreciation of Irish feeling as false as the rest. The country " were, indeed, horrified by the twenty-one shootings in cold blood in Kilmainham Prison, but it was not so much that they pitied the young idealists as they admired and envied them, and they attributed their fate, not so much to the English militarists, as to the laches and incompetence of "the Party"and its leaders. For the young Republicans of the Original Volunteers, of course, Parliamentarianism in any shape was the enemy. But they knew themselves to be and would have remained a minority of no great dimensions, had not the mind of the country far and near been seething long with distrust of the Parliamentary politicians, and that not, as the Party " fatuously tried to persuade themselves because the War Office had been uncivil in their dealings with Irish recruits, or even because of the Kilmainham fusillades, but for very much deeper reasons. Even the older men—"the sane and moderate elements," as they came to be nicknamed—although, until the astounding revelations that were to come later of the possibilities of guerilla warfare, they still believed armed rebellion to be stark madness, were already filled with disaffection to a Parliamentary Party steeped to the lips in a partly corrupt and wholly disgraceful bargain for Partition, and felt their pulses throb at the gallantry and unselfishness of the insurrection which, according to Mr. Birrell and his Hibernians, was only to be remembered with execration by the Irish Nation.

The wise men in Westminster persisted in their faith that the whole affair was a Dublin bubble and that the bubble was burst. For a moment they were disillusioned by the arrival of Mr. Dillon from Dublin, where he had been besieged in his house in North George's St. under the protection of a party of military. He burst into the House of Commons in a state of intense febrile excitement, and under the scandalised eye of Mr. Redmond, delivered a panegyric of the Dublin insurgents even more extravagant than had been his abuse and ridicule before the Rising. As we have seen, there had been "strong differences of opinion" between him and his titular leader, when there was question of "gingering Nathan," and when even the gentle Nathan asked: "What is Redmond up to, after what Dillon wrote to him over a month ago in the enclosed" (still unpublished) "'Confidential' letter to him?" The "strong differences" this time took an exactly opposite turn. While Mr. Redmond thought the occasion demanded "on behalf of all my colleagues" an expression of his and their "detestation and horror" of the rebellion, his nominal lieutenant, fresh from Dublin, broke into a passionate paean to the glory of the rebels which, it may truly be said, did more to wound the feelings of the British House of Commons than all the frank hostility of the insurrection. Nor were his denunciations in high falsetto of the military altogether deprived of their sting by the absurd anti-climax at which he arrived when he complained that his son had been insulted by some subordinate officer who did not express himself in terms of proper respect for the name of Dillon, and with arm upraised registered the vow: "No son of mine shall ever enter the English Army."

This, however, was but an excited moment of panic on the part of a man who had to do something to make Dublin habitable for him ever again. He, like the rest of "the Party," soon fell back into Mr. Birrell's comfortable infatuation that the "unanimity of Ireland has even yet been preserved"—and preserved, of course, in support of the Board of Erin. Before long they had every Corporation and County Council filled with Hibernian nominees passing "unanimous" resolutions expressing the country's "detestation and horror" of the wicked rebels—resolutions which, before many months were over, the Boards that passed them wiped out from their books with penitential tears in the hope of absolution from their electorate. The rebels were being court-martialled or deported in their thousands, the last of their newspapers were extinguished, and the country laid prostrate in a silence that seemed to be the brother of death. The reign of the Board of Erin was apparently so completely re-established that we had the farseeing Mr. Dillon assuring any Republicans who still ventured to show their heads that "the War Office paid no more attention to their antics than to the hopping of as many fleas."

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The Irish Revolution

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William O'Brien was a County Cork M.P. who participated in the negotiations for Home Rule in Ireland. In this account, first published in 1923, he provides an insight into the politics and politicians of the time - John Redmond, John Dillon, Arthur Griffith, Sir Edward Carson, Bonar Law, Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, etc. - and gives his analysis of the origins of the Easter Rising of 1916 and the subsequent Irish Civil War. From his own perspective, O'Brien was very much anti-Partition, and was evidently frustrated at the failure to give adequate reassurance to the Northern Unionists.

The ebook is available in .mobi (for Kindle), .epub (for iBooks, etc.), and .pdf formats, and a sample PDF can be downloaded. For more information on the book see details ».


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