Poor planning, internecine plots ... yet the Easter Rising left its mark on history

Sackville Street in Dublin pictured after the 1916 Easter Rising
Sackville Street in Dublin pictured after the 1916 Easter Rising

The actual centenary of the Easter Rising fell on Sunday, but as historian GORDON LUCY reveals, its central figures were distrustful and badly organised, and had no expectation of success

The Easter Rising was a conspiracy within a conspiracy.

It was planned by the Military Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (colloquially known as the Fenians). This inner group, consisting of Thomas Clarke and Seán MacDermott, collaborated with Patrick Pearse, Joseph Mary Plunkett, Thomas MacDonagh and Eamonn Ceannt, who were all key figures in the Irish Volunteers. They deliberately and systematically concealed their plans from Eoin MacNeill, the chief of staff of the Irish Volunteers, and from other members of the IRB.

In January 1916 James Connolly of the Irish Citizen Army, who had been planning an insurrection of his own, was brought into the conspiracy.

The Irish Volunteers were to provide the manpower for the IRB’s insurrection. They were kept in the dark on the basis that they did not need to know. W. T. Cosgrave – an officer in the Irish Volunteers in the South Dublin Union and one of three future Irish premiers who participated in the Rising – told prosecuting counsel (William Evelyn Wylie KC) at his court martial that ‘he had never heard of the rebellion until he was in the middle of it’ and went on to explain ‘that when he marched out on Easter Monday he thought he was merely going out for a route march’. There is no reason to disbelieve him.

Was the Rising simply intended to be a violent rhetorical gesture? Conor Cruise O’Brien contended that ‘Pearse saw the Rising as a Passion Play with real blood’. Pearse possessed a strong Messianic streak and it is unsurprising that Bulmer Hobson thought he was ‘a sentimental egotist’ with a ‘strain of abnormality’. Pearse believed that if he emulated Christ’s sacrifice on the cross he would redeem ‘the Irish nation’.

Even James Connolly, supposedly an international socialist, a Marxist even, and an atheist, in February 1916 professed to believe that ‘without the shedding of Blood there is no Redemption’.

There was also a strong desire on the part of members of the Military Council of the IRB to keep alive the Fenian physical force tradition in Irish politics, to honour the dogma that ‘in every generation must Irish blood be shed’ and to add 1916 to the almost mystical chain of insurrections which had occurred in 1798, 1803, 1848 and 1867.

Did those who planned the Rising envisage military success? For the reason just alluded to, the Military Council of the IRB was far more interested that a rising should take place than it should be successful. Pearse, Plunkett and MacDonagh invested far more effort in deceiving the sceptics – notably Bulmer Hobson and Eoin MacNeill – than proving that their scepticism was misplaced.

The Military Council did not plan for success. Their planning was sketchy, not to say minimalist. Delays did very little to improve their prospects of success. They merely tinkered with dates. They wished the weapons from Germany to arrive to coincide with the Rising rather than in advance of the Rising. Thomas Clarke seemed to imagine one had only to put a rifle into an Irish nationalist’s hands and he would know how to use it, a very dubious proposition. Furthermore there seems to have been no serious plans to distribute the Aud’s cargo.

On Easter Monday at Liberty Hall, as James Connolly was assembling the Citizen Army prior to marching to the General Post Office, his friend William O’Brien asked if there was any chance of success at all. With absolute candour, Connolly replied, ‘None whatever.’

During Easter week 1916 very little happened outside Dublin. The capture of Enniscorthy railway station by Sean Sinnott’s ‘Wexford brigade’ and the attack mounted by Thomas Ashe and 45 Volunteers from north County Dublin on the RIC barracks at Ashbourne in Co Meath were conspicuous exceptions. There was also some Volunteer activity in Co Louth and Co Galway.

Apart from some activity in the environs of Coalisland in Co Tyrone, nothing happened in Ulster at all. We have this on the authority of the two key participants: Denis McCullough and Patrick McCartan. In 1966, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Rising, Denis McCullough contributed an account to the Capuchin Annual. Twenty years later F. X. Martin reproduced correspondence between Joseph McGarrity and McCartan in an article entitled ‘Easter 1916: An Inside Report in Ulster’ in the Clogher Record. McCartan demobilised the Tyrone Volunteers under his command, informing them that ‘the contemplated rising in the north would only lead to slaughter’. As the historian Ferghal McGarry has noted: ‘The mobilisation had failed before it had begun’. McCartan could only bitterly conclude: ‘We have failed in Tyrone.’

During the course of the Rising 450 people were killed. Of these, 116 were British soldiers (at least 28 of whom were born in Ireland) and 16 policemen. Stephen Gwynn, the Nationalist MP for Galway, noted that one of the earliest British casualties was an officer ‘so nationalist in his sympathy as to be almost a Sinn Feiner’.

Originally there was no distinction drawn between 318 innocent civilians and insurgents who died. Republican rolls of honour drawn up subsequently claimed 64 casualties as their own. Until comparatively recently there was very little attention paid to the fact that 40 children died as a result of the fighting.

Bulmer Hobson feared that the Rising would destroy ‘the national movement’ and thought only British reaction saved the day.

Did the British over-react? Some would contend the British reaction was not unduly harsh, even quite lenient. Others take a different view. It depends very much on one’s politics.

Of the 186 men and one woman (the Countess Markievicz) who were tried, 11 were acquitted and 88 were sentenced to death. The overwhelming majority of these sentences were commuted so that only 15 leaders were executed, in addition to Roger Casement.

Some 3,500 suspect advanced nationalists were detained after the Rising but approximately 1,500 were released almost immediately. 1,800 were interned on the mainland but only for at most seven months. Eamon de Valera, Michael Collins and other key figures survived and resumed their political (and military) activities.

Some 700 rebels took up arms on Easter Monday. By the end of the week that number had probably doubled. It would be safe to say that more than 1,000 but less than 2,000 took part in the rebellion. Some 206,000 men from this island served in the British army during the Great War, of whom 30,000 died. Thus the number of men who participated in the Rising was less than one per cent of the number who served in the Great War.

Compared to the great events taking place elsewhere in the world, the scale of what took place in Dublin seemed pretty modest. The Irish Times, then a unionist newspaper, even predicted a week after the Rising had ended that ‘the Dublin insurrection of 1916 will pass into history with the equally unsuccessful insurrections of the past’.

And yet, as time would reveal, the IRB had succeeded in stage-managing an event which for good or ill would change the course of Irish history.