A Brief Overview of the Events Leading up to the 1916 Easter Rising.
A century ago the Irish were a nation without a state. However, in a world dominated by large empires and where the idea of empire was a dominant political philosophy, that was not a unique situation. The Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians were also stateless nations. The large continent of Africa boasted only two independent states. South Asia and the Middle East were also dominated by the great European imperial powers. And to the majority of the world’s population those powers seemed impregnable.
Of course in international diplomatic circles Ireland would not have been considered to be a colony like India or South Africa. It was an integral part of the United Kingdom. The problem was that many Irish simply did not want to be part of the UK, nor did they feel that they enjoyed parity of esteem with their fellow English royal subjects. Dating back to the Norman invasion of 1169 they had plenty of practical experience and historical evidence to reinforce their sense of inferiority and racial difference.
In 1916 Ireland’s constitutional position resulted from the Act of Union of 1800. That Act had been passed by means of threats, bribery, cowardice, political chicanery, and all kinds of guarantees and promises which were later cynically broken. The vast bulk of Irish people of all classes and creeds were fiercely opposed to the Union which resulted in the destruction of the Irish parliament, however imperfect, and condemned the Irish MPs in London to the status of an impotent and insignificant minority in perpetuity.
As soon as the hated Act of Union became operative in 1801 the struggle to have it repealed began immediately. In 1803 the United Irishmen led by Robert Emmet tried to annul it by force of arms. Next came a decades’ long political campaign for repeal led by Daniel O Connell. In 1848 the Young Irelanders tried again by an armed uprising. Then came the Tenant Right League’s efforts which were undermined by the greed and corruption of its leaders.
Following them came the first armed rising organised by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, popularly called the Fenians, in 1867. Then under the leadership of Isaac Butt, Charles Stewart Parnell, and John Redmond the Irish once again tried political means to break the union. Parnell in particular was an especially able and astute political leader. He harnessed the various strands of Irish political activity from the IRB, the Land League, and various cultural movements to build the Irish Parliamentary Party into an effective force in Westminister to promote the welfare of Ireland and its people. That party achieved some remarkable success in the dismantling of the landlord system and the transfer of the ownership of the land of Ireland to the farmers of Ireland. Then following the general election of December 1910 Asquit’s Liberal government found itself in a minority position in parliament dependant on the Irish Party for its survival and its ability to pass legislation. Redmond agreed to support the government for a price – and that price was Home Rule for Ireland. Consequently a Home Rule Act was passed in 1912. At that point it seemed that the political way was the way to go.
But everything was not rosy in the political garden. For some thirty years prior to this time Unionists in the NE of Ireland, encouraged and abetted by reactionary and racist elements of the Tory party in England, had vociferously equated Home Rule with Rome Rule. Once the 1912 Home Rule Act was passed in the House of Commons it was blocked by the Tory dominated House of Lords. While they couldn’t negate the Act completely their majority opposition in the Lords meant that the legislation couldn’t become operative for a period of two years.
The IPP seemed quite relaxed about and even unconcerned by the opposition of the northern Unionists to Home Rule. They naively believed that once the legislation was democratically passed by parliament then the Unionists would accept the reality of Home Rule. One of its leaders, Joe Devlin of Belfast, pointed out that not only had the IPP a majority of eighty three seats out of 103 in all Ireland, but it also held seventeen of thirty three seats in the historic province of Ulster. There was also a Catholic/Nationalist majority in five of the nine Ulster counties. In January 1914 another IPP MP for N. Tipperary, Dr. John Esmond, asserted that there could be no exclusions from Home Rule and no partition.
The Unionist reaction to the Home Rule Act was immediate, powerful, violent, undemocratic, and treasonable. As soon as the Bill was published in 1912 they organised the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant as the first step in opposition to it. The Covenant was signed by 250,000 men. Next they founded the Ulster Volunteer Force in January 1913 to defy the government by force of arms. The Unionists were led by Edward Carson and James Craig in Ireland, and they were supported by the Tory leader Bonar Law in England. In spite of increasing tensions between England and Germany Edward Carson, the hyper loyalist, went to Germany to meet the German Kaiser and to secure a cargo of rifles and other munitions for the UVF. In March 1914 Nationalist Ireland was shocked to the core by what became known as the Curragh Mutiny. That was the refusal of British army officers to go to Ulster to protect the army’s arms depots there or to act against the UVF. It also clearly indicated that the government could not depend on the army to enforce Home Rule. Anyway on 25 April 1914 the UVF landed 24,600 rifles and over a million rounds of ammunition which had been procured in Germany at Larne, Co. Antrim and Bangor, Co. Down. Neither the British army nor the RIC made any attempt to intervene. Thus it was the Ulster Unionists that introduced the gun into twentieth century Irish politics. Shortly after the Easter Rising had been suppressed, the Bishop of Killaloe, Dr. Michael Fogarty, stated: “Carson is the root cause of all this trouble. He it was who schooled the country into the idea and practice of rebellion. He has been honoured by a seat in the Cabinet, while the young Irishmen who were goaded to insurrection by his insulting taunts have been treated unmercifully. No Curragh officer refused to shoot them.” In 1919 Dr. Helen Waddell, an Ulster Presbyterian, wrote: “What Sir Edward Carson did was to break down the hold that constitutional government had at last won in Ireland. He proved that a threat of physical force could paralyse government by the will of the majority. English papers actually commented on the contrast between the red fury of Ulster and the apathy of the rest of Ireland, as proof that Ulster was much more in earnest against, than the rest of Ireland for. Do you know that speeches on behalf of the Ulster position, collected in book form, are now suppressed as anarchic in tendency in Ireland? And by some of the very men who made them?”
But nationalist Ireland did learn from the Unionists. Eleven months after the founding of the UVF, the IRB engineered the founding of the Irish Volunteers, Óglaigh na hÉireann, in the Rotunda, Dublin on 25 November 1913. Some 4,000 men packed the hall with a further 3,000 on the street outside. The Volunteers were dedicated to supporting and defending Home Rule. Their aim was, “to secure and maintain the rights and liberties common to the people of Ireland……and to unite, in the service of Ireland, Irishmen of every creed, of every party and class.” Their figurehead was the Professor of Early and Medieval History in UCD, Eoin McNeill, who was elected Secretary at the inaugural meeting. The committee included representatives from the Irish Parliamentary Party, Ancient Order of Hibernians, na Fianna Éireann, Sinn Féin, Gaelic League, GAA, the Celtic Literary Society, organised Labour, and the Irish Republican Brotherhood. It was an all-male organisation, and women were refused admission to the inaugural meeting. Undeterred the women, with the support of the IRB, founded their own organisation, Cumann na mBan, in April 1914.
At this point it is probably necessary to point out that, contrary to the oft proclaimed statement, that a hundred years ago the vast bulk of the Irish people were happy with their lot and willingly accepted their status as subjects of the King and members of the UK. Yet during the half century or so prior to that many organisations with a Nationalist agenda had been founded and had thrived. Some of them, like the IPP, the Land League, the GAA, the Trade Unions, and the Gaelic League were mass popular movements. Other societies and organisations included the Dungannon Clubs, the Phoenix Society, the National Theatre, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Na Fianna Éireann who were the equivalent of the Boy Scouts, Cumann na mBan, the United Irish League whose members acted as canvassers for the Irish Parliamentary Party, Irish National Foresters, Inghinidhe na hÉireann, the Ladies Land League, the Irish Women’s Franchise League, and the Irish Women’s Suffrage and Local Government Association. Added to that was a plethora of nationalist publications all of which educated and informed people about their rich history and kept the spirit of nationalism and separatism alive. Most importantly there was the IRB. This secret oath-bound society was implacably opposed to the Union and was absolutely determined to destroy it by any and every means possible, even, and especially, by armed revolution. It worked on the tenet that “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity”.
While it maintained its own active, efficient, and nationwide network of activists, it availed of every opportunity to influence as many other nationalistic organisations as possible. Thus it was very influential in the GAA, the Gaelic League, Sinn Féin, the United Irish League, and the Irish Volunteers. After August 1914 it determined on armed rebellion.
Numbers of men joining the Irish Volunteers grew steadily and within six months membership exceeded 75,000 men. At that stage John Redmond and other IPP leaders decided that this rapidly growing movement represented a threat to their monopoly of Irish political activity and influence. So in June 1914 he issued a public ultimatum to the leadership of the Volunteers demanding that they co-opt twenty five IPP nominees onto their executive committee. While the IRB members of the executive were fiercely opposed to Redmond’s highhanded demand they were in a minority and Redmond got his way.
The biggest and most immediate problem facing the Volunteers was the necessity to procure arms and munitions. In the summer of 1914 Roger Casement raised £1,500 among Protestant friends and sympathisers in London for the purchase of arms. He purchased 1,500 rifles and about 30,000 rounds of ammunition in Hamburg. On 27 June 900 of the rifles were landed in Howth where they were taken in charge by the IRB, the Volunteers, and na Fianna Éireann. While the importation of arms into Ireland was not illegal at that time the British army tried to disarm the Volunteers but failed to do so. That evening troops opened fire on a crowd of civilians who were jeering them at Bachelor’s Walk. Four people were killed. The contrast with the authority’s attitude and reaction to the UVF gunrunning was not lost on the Irish public. A short time later the remaining 600 rifles were landed at Kilcoole in Co. Wicklow.
Events in Ireland were then overtaken by events in Europe. On 4 August Britain and France declared war on Germany. As part of the UK Ireland and Irishmen were committed to war whether they wanted it or not. On 20 September the IPP leader, John Redmond, made a speech in Woodenbridge, Co. Wicklow in which he urged the Irish Volunteers to join the British army. That advice caused an immediate split in the Volunteers. A minority, led by the IRB, rejected both Redmond and his proposal. However, over 100,000 members did heed his urgings. They formed the Irish National Volunteers. The ranks of the new organisation swelled to over 150,000 men. Tens of thousands enlisted in the British army.
Many of them joined the sixteenth Irish regiment. It was officered by Englishmen, unlike the thirty sixth Ulster regiment composed of many from the UVF who were allowed to keep their own officers. Thanks to Redmond and his advice more Irishmen were killed fighting for the king of England than were killed in the 1916 Rising and during the War of Independence and Civil War combined. England rewarded him by postponing Home Rule for the duration of the war.
Only about 11,000 Volunteers supported the IRB and they retained the title Irish Volunteers. Those who had remained loyal to their ideals re-organised, held a national convention, and elected a general council and executive in October. Then in December it appointed a headquarters staff which consisted of E. McNeill, Chief of Staff, The O Rahilly, Director of Arms, T. MacDonagh, Director of Training, P. Pearse, Director of Military Organisation, B. Hobson, Quartermaster, and J. Plunkett, Director of Military Operations. Later E. Ceannt was appointed Director of Communications, and J. J. O Connell Chief of Inspection. All during 1915 the Volunteers held training camps throughout the country. In late July they put on a public display of force at the funeral of the old Fenian, Jeremiah O Donovan Rossa. The IPP refused to participate and Redmond forbade the National Volunteers to attend.
In May 1915 the IRB Executive Council appointed a Military Council to prepare for a rebellion. The three original members were Patrick Pearse, Joseph Plunkett, and Eamon Ceannt. Later they were joined by Tom Clarke and Seán MacDiarmada. In January 1916 James Connolly was co-opted onto the Council. In 1912 he had been one of the founders of the Irish Labour party in Clonmel. Appalled by the violence visited by the RIC on defenceless workers during the General Strike of 1913 he organised an armed Socialist-Republican militia named the Irish Citizen Army to defend the workers. The ICA had participated in O Donovan Rossa’s funeral marching behind their own flag, the Starry Plough. Then in early April Thomas MacDonagh was co-opted onto the Military Council, which was then comprised of the seven signatories of the Proclamation. They decided on an armed rebellion to begin on Easter Sunday, 23 April, which was the anniversary of the Battle of Clontarf, 1014.
During its sixty plus year history the IRB had learned the hard way that the only way to keep a secret is to tell nobody. In 1916 this worked well as few outside the inner circle of the IRB and its Military Council knew what was afoot. The Commandant of the Volunteers’ Third Battalion, one Éamon de Valera, complained to S. MacDiarmada shortly before D-day that some of his men knew more about what was going on than he did. MacDiarmada explained to him that the reason why that was so was that those who were well informed were members of the IRB, and he invited Dev to join. Having wrestled with his conscience he declined to do so lest orders from the IRB might conflict with orders from his Volunteer superiors. While Dublin Castle was in the dark about the plans for a rising so too were the leaders of the Volunteers. Many of them, including E. McNeill and The O Rahilly, were opposed to military action. On Holy Thursday, 20 April, Bulmer Hobson informed Eoin McNeill about the proposed rising. McNeill was opposed to the plan and threatened to cancel it. The following day the IRB arrested Hobson and MacDonagh, MacDiarmada, and Pearse persuaded McNeill to agree to a rebellion when they assured him that a huge cargo of guns and ammunition were about to be landed in Kerry. When he learned on the Saturday that the arms ship had been scuttled and Roger Casement arrested in Kerry McNeill immediately cancelled the Rising. He despatched messengers throughout the country with his countermanding order and also had it published in the press. The IRB’s Military Council decided to postpone the rising by twenty four hours to give themselves a chance to bring some order out of the chaos caused by McNeill’s orders.
At this point it’s necessary to relate something about local events and preparations in Co. Tipperary leading up to Easter 1916. The IRB was well established here. The County Centre was Éamon Ó Duibhir, Ballagh, other circles were headed by D. P. Walsh in Fethard, Jimmy Kennedy in Thurles, William Benn in Tipp Town, and Frank Drohan who had three circles in Clonmel. The first Volunteer Company was founded in Ballagh by E. Ó Duibhir in December 1913. Pierse McCan founded Vol. Coys. in Dualla and Cashel. In December too Dan Breen founded a Company in Donohill, and another Coy. was established in Tipp Town. In early 1914 F. Drohan founded a Coy. in Clonmel. By August it had reached a membership of 300. In April Coys. were founded in Thurles, Nenagh, and Newport, and in Ballina in May.
By the end of June there were nineteen Coys. with a membership of 2,487 in N. Tipp. A month later it had grown to thirty Coys. and 3,557 men. The split had a disastrous effect on the local organisation. The number who remained loyal to the IV in N. Tipp plummeted to 250. In Clonmel the 300 were reduced to 20 to 25 members. The Tipperary Coy. was reduced to less than ten. É. Ó Duibhir boasted that in only two Coys., Ballagh and Upperchurch, both of which had been founded by himself, did the overwhelming majority remain loyal to their original aims. One of his loyal members was a young Volunteer and future TD named Mick Davern. P. McCan rejected Redmond’s appeal and was elected Co. Commandant of the Vols. The rest of 1914 and all 1915 were spent rebuilding numbers and morale, raising funds, training, disrupting recruiting meetings, and gathering arms. On Wednesday, 19 April 1916, P. Pearse informed É. Ó Duibhir of plans for a rising on the following Sunday. He made plans to mobilise the Vols. in Clonoulty, Ballycahill, Drombane, Knockavilla, Rossmore, and Upperchurch. On Easter Sunday James Meagher mobilised his Co. at The Ragg. F. Drohan mobilised forty five Vols. in Clonmel. The Tipperary Coy. which was part of the Galtee Batt. assembled in Galbally. But McNeill’s countermanding order had reached McCan on Saturday night and everything was thrown into confusion. The mobilised Coys. were stood down on Sunday. With the exception of Michael O Callaghan’s action in shooting two RIC men who illegally tried to arrest him, and in spite of the determination and enthusiasm of the local leaders, the Easter Rising was a non-event in Co. Tipperary.