Sinn Féin and the Rising of Easter Week, 1916

Eleanor Hull
Sinn Féin and the Rising of Easter Week, 1916

Three causes conspired to delay the bringing of the Home Rule Bill into operation. They were Ulster, Sinn Féin, and the Great War. Already, when Redmond addressed the mass meeting in O’Connell Street, Dublin, on March 31, 1912, Ulster and the adherents of Sinn Féin were both actively engaged in propaganda work.

Lord Randolph Churchill, many years before, had provided Ulster with a watchword with which to challenge Home Rule. “Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right,” he declared, and the Tory party pledged themselves to support Ulster in her resistance. Bonar Law declared that “with the help of the Almighty, we intend to keep that pledge.”[1]

From September, 1911, the North had begun to arm, and by 1913 a very considerable body of men had been raised, who were being trained on the lines of the regular army. They were drilling in every Protestant parish in Ulster, under old army officers, and were organized into three army corps. “The figure of Ulster, grim, determined, menacing, dominates the scene,” said the Archbishop of York in a debate in the House of Lords.

When at the close of 1913 a Royal Proclamation against the importation of arms into Ulster was issued it was announced in reply that Ulster was already armed. It had received over thirty thousand rifles and twenty thousand revolvers from Birmingham alone. At the head of the formidable organization stood a Southern Unionist, Sir Edward Carson, wielding a power which he himself said was such “as in the life of any one of us has never fallen to any other man.”

The extraordinary spectacle was witnessed of loyalists holding or to hold the highest legal positions in the land, declaring openly that they intended to defy the law. F. E. Smith, later Lord Birkenhead, proclaimed on September 22, 1913, that when the unhappy moment for war arrived, “we hold ourselves absolved from all allegiance to this Government. … From that moment we shall stand side by side with you, refusing to recognise any law.”[2]

Sir Edward Carson declared that “Ulster would march from Belfast to Cork and take the consequences, even if not one of them ever returned.”

Bonar Law, addressing a meeting at Blenheim on July 12, said that on a previous occasion, speaking as a private Member, he had counselled action outside constitutional limits; he now, as leader of the Unionist party, took the same attitude. “I can imagine,” he said, “no length of resistance to which Ulster will go in which I shall not be ready to support them, and in which they will not be supported by the overwhelming majority of the British people.”

A Provisional Government had been formed in Ulster, and on “Ulster Day,” September 28, 1912, the Covenant was signed by 218,000 persons, after a solemn religious service held in the Ulster Hall. Sir Edward Carson declared that he felt it to be the “supreme moment of his life.” It pledged the signatories to stand together “in defending our cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom, and using all means to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland.”

F. E. Smith had declared that “for solemnity and for binding force” the like of the Covenant could not have been witnessed since the first Solemn League and Covenant.[3]

The position was a difficult one. On April 24, 1914, 50,000 rifles and a million cartridges were landed at Larne and Bangor under the eyes of the police and officials, bearing the impress of the Deutsche Munitionen und Waffenfabrik; men were drilling all over the province and women were forming themselves into corps for field signalling and red cross work or were actually practising the use of arms.[4]

To deal with a conspiracy against the authority of England the law had never failed in resources, but to deal with a people in armed rebellion to support their connexion with England was a more complicated problem.

Redmond’s reiterated assurance that no separation was contemplated by the Home Rule party fell on deaf ears; the Unionists were bent on getting rid of Asquith’s Government, and Sir Edward Carson declared that Ulster was occupied in setting up its own Government, whose members would sit in their own Parliament from September onward.

“It may be, probably it will be, an illegal procedure. Well, if it is, we give a challenge to the Government to interfere with it, if they dare.”

What made the situation more threatening was the attitude of the Regular Army. Over a hundred officers in the British Army had signed the Covenant, and Sir Edward Carson believed that no officer in the Army would obey orders to march against Ulster. The matter was soon to be put to the test, and the “Curragh Mutiny” took place.

On March 20, 1914, Brigadier-General Gough and 57 officers, stationed at the Curragh, reported that they preferred to accept dismissal if they were ordered north, and General Gough was relieved of his command.[5] The action of the officers appears to have arisen out of a misapprehension, there being no intention of employing them in active measures against Ulster, though certain troops were to be moved north to protect depôts of arms and other Government property.

General Gough was reinstated, but the Secretary of State for War, Colonel Seely, who had issued the orders, and Sir John French resigned. Meanwhile a new aspect had been given to the question by proposals made by Asquith in introducing the Home Rule Bill for its passage in the third consecutive session, as was required by the recent Parliament Act.

These proposals for the first time outlined partition; the exclusion of the six counties was to be, however, optional by areas and limited in time. Carson refused, demanding that the exclusion should apply to the whole of Ulster and should be permanent. The time-limit was destined to become a crucial point.

During all this time events in Ulster were being watched with impatience and anxiety in the South of Ireland. Side by side with the preparations for open rebellion in Ulster a movement equally menacing was appearing in Nationalist Ireland. It was brought to a head when a large number of Catholic workmen were dismissed from the Belfast shipyards on the complaints of their comrades that they were disloyal.

At first there was a disposition in Southern Ireland to admire the determined attitude of Ulster, but the approval given to military preparations made in the North while similar preparations made by Nationalists in the South were met by prompt and heavy punishment soon changed this feeling into one of bitter hostility.

Gun-running for Sir Edward Carson at Larne was regarded in Parliament and by the public as a piece of harmless bravado, and an easy tolerance was extended to what some regarded as a huge game of bluff and others as a sign of spirit and resolution. But the landing of arms at Howth for the Irish Volunteers who had determined “to take a leaf out of Carson’s book,” led to military interference, followed by bloodshed and an angry outcry.[6] This occurred on July 26, 1914, less than a month before the outbreak of war with Germany.

To understand the condition in the South we must go back some ten years and consider the rise of Sinn Féin. This new movement grew out of the impulse given to the sense of nationality by the work of the Gaelic League, but it was distinct from it in conception and aim. The Gaelic League, which was established in 1893, chiefly through the energy and enthusiasm of Dr. Douglas Hyde, the son of a clergyman in Co. Roscommon, who had spoken the native language since his childhood, had as its chief aim the directing of young Irish people back to a knowledge and understanding of the native Gaelic tongue and literature. It proposed to place before them literary ideals different from those that they obtained second-hand from England; in the words of the founder, to “de-Anglicize” Ireland.

Many things had conspired to obliterate the use of the native tongue; the system of National Education discouraged it, the priests had ceased to preach in it, and the population, as a whole, had become ashamed to speak it. Even in Irish-speaking districts, the teaching of the schools was given in English. O’Connell’s refusal to speak the language of his birth, even when addressing vast Irish audiences, gave a deadly blow to its prestige. The tendency to look to England for all literary and social ideals was strengthened by the presence of the Irish Parliamentary Party at Westminster, with the inevitable consequence that the mental attitude of the main body of Irishmen was directed across the water to what was going on in London.

All interest in the beautiful folk-songs, folk-traditions, and culture of their native land was dying out with the language, and when the Gaelic League was modestly launched by a few young scholars led by Dr. Hyde, it was opposed by the politicians. But the idea appealed to the people and branches of the Gaelic League sprang up wherever Irish folk were to be found, inside and outside of Ireland. It not only set hundreds of young men and women learning their mother tongue but it had a stimulating effect on their minds far beyond their immediate studies. It touched some underlying strain of native intelligence. Irish dances and Irish folk-singing were revived; societies were formed to edit and publish Irish texts, and reading-books and grammars were forthcoming.

The classes gave a new and vital interest to life and wrought a social and spiritual revolution. By its fundamental rules, the Gaelic League was strictly non-political, and it knew no distinction of creeds. Hundreds of persons who all their lives had been held apart by these divisions now met with a common sympathy and common interests, and learned to know and appreciate each other.

To such established agencies as the Irish Agricultural Organization Society and the Congested Districts Board it added the stimulus of personal endeavour, and out of it sprang new spheres of effort for the material well-being of the poorer classes.

On the other hand, it purified and invigorated Anglo-Irish literature by opening to it fresh and unspoiled methods of expression, which bore fruit in the early poems, plays, and folk-legends of a group of young writers who have many of them become known all over the English-speaking world. Discarding questions of practical utility, the leaders of the Gaelic League taught that the language was in itself a national inheritance which it was the duty of the nation to preserve.

Irish social and political movements have at all times swung backwards and forwards between peaceful methods of propaganda, and the adoption of physical force. The Young Ireland movement was succeeded by the Fenians, and the Gaelic League was followed by Sinn Féin. To many of its members the moment seemed a disastrous one when the Gaelic League abandoned its original programme and split upon the point of active political propaganda.

But there was growing up beside it a body of men who were determined to drive the new impulse out of its original literary mould into the paths of pure politics, and to use what Padraic Pearse called “the most revolutionary influence that ever came into Ireland” for distinctively revolutionary purposes.

The sense of a common nationality among all men and women of Irish birth, which the Gaelic League had instilled, was now to be used to enforce a public recognition of Ireland as a distinct and independent nation.

Sinn Féin came into the field to replace the older organization, often under different names, such as the “Irish Self-determination League”; it eventually split the ranks of the older society, the President, Dr. Hyde, after stormy scenes, deciding to withdraw from the position he had held since the inception of the movement.

The name adopted by the new organization, Sinn Féin, “Ourselves,” has been misunderstood. It can perhaps best be expressed in the words of a poem written by John O’Hagan before the Society which called itself by the name was ever heard of—

“The work that should to-day be wrought, defer not till to-morrow,

The help that should within be sought, scorn from without to borrow.

Old maxims these—yet stout and true—they speak in trumpet tone,

To do at once what is to do, and trust Ourselves Alone.”

But the men who adopted this motto of self-help came in the end to apply it chiefly in the political sphere, with all the implications that an avowal of a separate nationality involved. Mr. O’Hegarty, who was for many years a member of the Supreme Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, traces the uprise of all these associations—Sinn Féin, the Gaelic Athletic Association, the Fianna, and finally the Irish Volunteers—to one and the same source, the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

“It helped and guided the others, it co-ordinated and organized, and at the supreme moment it acted. … It had members everywhere, its tentacles went into everything, it maintained a footing in every organization and movement in Ireland which could be supported without doing violence to separatist principles. Everywhere it pushed separatist principles. … Strange and transient Committees and Societies were constantly cropping up, doing this and that specific national work. The I.R.B. formed them. The I.R.B. ran them. The I.R.B. provided the money. The I.R.B. dissolved them when their work was done.”

And at the back of the I.R.B. stood the Clan-na-Gael of America “to which no appeal for money for an object even remotely separatist was ever made in vain.”[7]