Sinn Féin and the Rising of Easter Week, 1916 (3)

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

While Irish regiments were winning their honours in France and at Gallipoli and coalescing as brothers in the trenches, a fresh and startling development occurred at home. In Easter week 1916, there was an outbreak of rebellion in Dublin.

Mr. P. S. O’Hegarty tells us that as far back as August 1914, at the opening of the Great War, the Supreme Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood had decided that an insurrection must be made before the end of the war, and bent all their energies to bring it about.[20]

Six out of the seven young men who signed the Proclamation for the Irish Republic belonged to the Brotherhood, and Connolly, though he acted independently, shared this view.

Of the leaders of the Rebellion Pearse was, as we have seen, a mystic with a belief in the needed purification of Ireland’s lethargy by a sacrifice of blood, and of the same mind were the young poets Thomas MacDonagh and Joseph Plunkett; Sean MacDermott and Edmund Kent, The O’Rahilly, and others of the group, were also men of a fine and high intelligence, possessed of the purest and most unselfish motives, who were prepared to accept failure and death as the passport into the company of the heroic dead who in the past had perished for their country.

Associated with them were men of a different type, Labour men of advanced opinions, like Tom Clarke and James Connolly, who were leaders in the Citizen Army and who had been influenced in adopting communistic doctrines by the wretched social conditions and low wages existing among the poor of Dublin and the workers in the docks and mills of Belfast and other towns of Ireland.

Associated with Connolly was James Larkin, the organizer of the great industrial struggle of 1913, whose headquarters at Liberty Hall formed the centre from which the strikes of that year were planned. It became the headquarters of the Transport Workers Union and of the Citizen Army.[21] There were all shades of opinion among the leaders who rose.

On April 26, 1916, being Easter Monday, the Republic was proclaimed, and the country called to arms in its defence. The General Post Office was seized and turned into military headquarters and there was fighting in the streets, but the back of the rebellion had been broken before the rising, not by the authorities, who were unprepared for the outbreak, but by the calling off of the mobilization through the country by Professor Eoin MacNeill, who was acting as Chief of Staff of the Irish Volunteers.

The countermanding orders reached the various stations early on Sunday morning and threw the whole scheme into confusion. The reason for this sudden change of plan, which probably saved the country from being deluged in blood, appears to have been the failure of Sir Roger Casement’s attempt to land arms and munitions on the Southwest coast of Ireland, the tidings of which came to hand just before the mobilization.

Casement’s biographer speaks of him as “the central figure and in a certain sense the figurehead and original prime mover in the rebellion.” While the rising was being organized at home, he was moving about freely in Germany endeavouring, by various promises, to seduce Irish prisoners in the camp at Limburg from their allegiance, and to persuade them to join an Irish Brigade “to fight solely for Ireland under the Irish flag alone and in Irish uniform … and to be of moral and material assistance to the German Government.”[22]

He met with little success, the Munster Fusiliers being particularly resentful that such attempts should be made upon their regimental honour, accompanied by threats of punishment if they did not consent. Their reply: “We must beseech his Imperial Majesty to withdraw these concessions unless they are shared by the remainder of the prisoners, as, in addition to being Irish Catholics we have the honour to be British soldiers,” is too fine to be forgotten.[23]

There is no doubt that both Pearse and Casement expected financial and material help from Germany, and the Volunteers had long been hoping that he would succeed in inducing German officers to come to Ireland to train their men and to bring arms and ammunition. It was this attempt of an old servant of the Crown to land equipment from Germany on the shores of Ireland to assist a rebellion against England in the midst of the war with Germany, that gave the most sinister complexion to the rising.[24]

The attempt failed. Casement was landed in a collapsible boat on the southern coast, and was recognised and arrested on Good Friday morning, while a German ship carrying twenty thousand rifles and a million rounds of ammunition was scuttled by her commander in Tralee Bay to escape capture by the British. The whole arrangements for the rising were deranged and the country insurgents outside Dublin were called off by hasty dispatches.

From Easter Monday to the following Friday the flag of the Irish Republic waved from the General Post Office, the headquarters of the rebel forces. During those eventful days Stephen’s Green was occupied by the Volunteers, and some of the chief buildings in the city, the Four Courts, Jacob’s biscuit factory, the City Hall, and the bridge at Lower Mount Street were strongly held by them. Liberty Hall and Bolands’ bread factory were also Volunteer centres.

The men showed their training by the accuracy of their fire and the excellence of their marching. Their arms were formidable, the officers carrying swords and the newest German pattern of automatic pistol. But a military cordon was gradually drawn round the occupied parts of the city and after some days of desperate fighting, General Lowe received a message at noon on April 29 from “Commandant-General” Pearse, carried by a woman-nurse, stating that he wished to negotiate.[25] He was informed that only unconditional surrender would be agreed to, and that evening 500 of the leaders and men surrendered. Connolly, who had been twice badly wounded and who directed the operations of his men from his bed, which he had caused to be taken into the firing line, was removed to hospital.

The Countess Markievicz, dressed in the uniform of an Irish Volunteer, who with Michael Mallin, had been holding the College of Surgeons in Stephen’s Green with 109 men and ten women followers, made a dramatic exit by kissing her revolver as she surrendered her arms to the officer in command, and marching out at the head of the troop. By Saturday evening the last band of the insurgents had surrendered and quiet reigned. But the finest street in the city lay in ruins, and from many of the buildings flames and smoke still ascended. The shops had been looted by the populace early in the struggle.[26]

The general feeling had at first been against the rising and it was denounced not only by Redmond, who emphasized the “additional horror” caused by the fact that the news arrived from Dublin on the same day on which the report had been received of the magnificent dash forward of the Irish troops to retake the trenches won by the Germans at Hulluch, but by District Councils and Boards of Guardians all over the country.[27] Mr. O’Hegarty is probably right in thinking that “if the English Government had laughed at it, tried the promoters before a magistrate and ridiculed the whole thing, with no general arrests and no long vindictive sentences, they could have done what they liked with Ireland.”[28]

This is an Irish point of view. But in the urgency of the war with Germany such sanity and coolness was hardly to be expected. The English were kept excellently posted up by their Intelligence Department as to all that was going on in Ireland and the preparations that had been made long before the actual rising; their information about the communications that had been made with America and Germany was equally complete.

But O’Hegarty is right in saying that the volleys of rifle fire which one by one picked off the chief signatories of the Proclamation on the May mornings succeeding the Rising blotted out the old Ireland, and that in a few weeks the whole temper of the people toward it was changed.

The men who had been condemned as disturbers of the peace became popular heroes and martyrs, and “men who had never heard of Sinn Féin began to ask about its ideas …; the rebels were forgiven everything, for they had meant, in their wild, mad way, to help Ireland, and the Government that punished them only meant to humble her.”

The Government seemed, indeed, to be acting in a panic. Three thousand arrests with imprisonment and deportation followed the executions, and in the revulsion of feeling, heightened by house-searchings and raids by the military, and some very bad cases of unauthorized executions by certain officers, of which the shooting of Francis Sheehy-Skeffington was the worst example, Sinn Féin received a new life.

The Republican ideal once more caught hold of masses of the population; and though the rising had cost between four and five hundred lives and destroyed nearly £2,000,000 worth of property, all this was forgotten in a wave of Separatist fervour.[29] Organizations that had formerly stood aloof from each other decided to accept the name, and a compact comprehensive party was formed, with a similar Republic to that of 1916 as its object.[30]

In New York the men who had been shot in Dublin were accorded a public funeral. On the other hand, Asquith talked of at once setting up an Irish Parliament, with an executive responsible to it, and Partition, temporary or permanent, as part of its policy. It seemed that an Act for the practical operation of which Redmond had for years struggled in vain was to be given to Sinn Féin for a week’s rebellion.

Irish Members were to be retained at Westminster in full strength, but the whole arrangement was to be temporary until after the war. “Partition,” as the exclusion of the six counties of Ulster came to be called, though most unpopular in Ireland and pronounced by Redmond to be “unworkable,” was reluctantly accepted by him on the understanding that it was to be only a temporary measure; he believed that the force of circumstances and the dictates of patriotic feeling and of common sense would bring Ulster in and that the North would find that partition from their own country was, even from an administrative and financial point of view, distasteful and unpractical.

But in a secret Cabinet, at which Redmond was not present, this temporary measure became hardened into the permanent exclusion of the six counties, and modifications were also agreed to in the provision for retaining Irish Members in their old numbers at Westminster. Lloyd George, who was in charge of the negotiations, was accused on both sides of having made false promises, and resentment, deep and bitter, arose in Ireland.

The whole situation was changed. The Ulster party had won, but at the cost of enforcing the lesson that no British Minister’s word could be accepted as binding. It gave the deathblow to the position and influence of Redmond, who was looked upon as having, in his desire to arrive at a solution by compromise, sacrificed his followers and his country.

It seemed to prove that any Irish statesman who endeavoured to combine loyalty to his country with loyalty to the Empire would be abandoned, not only by Irishmen but by the British Government. The Bill was withdrawn, Dublin Castle again became a Tory stronghold and, as Sir Horace Plunkett had prophesied, an opposition was aroused which drove thousands of moderate men into the Sinn Féin camp.

The first election, that of North Roscommon, resulted in the return of a Sinn Féin candidate, and in June, 1917, Mr. de Valera, whose name began now for the first time to be heard of outside his immediate circle, was returned by a sweeping majority of nearly three thousand for East Clare, the constituency for which Major William Redmond, the brave and distinguished brother of the Parliamentary leader, who had fallen in the attack on Wytscheate Wood, had sat.