On Easter Monday 1916 a few hundred Irish men and women took part in an armed rebellion against the British who controlled the country. They held a few major buildings in Dublin for about a week before being forced to surrender by the superior numbers of the British troops. Although this rebellion was a failure (as had been several earlier rebellions) it is regarded as a key event in creating the modern independent Ireland which followed in 1922. Accordingly, there have been huge celebrations and events to mark the rebellion’s 100 years centenary.
We consider ourselves blessed having been able to live and work in Ireland for three years. We were particularly fortunate to have been here during the 1916 Centenary. In this blog, I (Pip) want to reflect on a little of what I have learned about this event.
When I was a small child, probably younger than 5 years of age, my grandmother, with whom I spent quite a lot of time, had an Irish friend named Phyllis Buck. Phyllis taught me the song ‘Kevin Barry’ (google the words if you’re unfamiliar with it). While Kevin wasn’t involved in the 1916 Rising per se, his plea in the chorus “Shoot me like an Irish soldier, do not hang me like a dog, for I fought for Ireland’s freedom on that dark September morn” was ignored. The 18-year-old was hanged for his patriotism, just as 16 of the Rising leaders were shot, by the British. I was hooked on Irish history from that age. If you can be bothered scrolling back to one of the first blogs I posted when I first came to Ireland on my own, and visited Glasnevin Cemetery in which Barry’s grave is located, you’ll see the impact it had on me. Many of the heroes of the Rising are also buried here, such as Countess Markievicz. I had always thought of the Rising as a tremendous event in Ireland’s history of emancipation from the British. What I didn’t know what how much of a botch-up much of it was, and how it was opposed by many Irish both North and South of the current border.
There had been ‘practice marches’ by the Irish Volunteers happening, largely ignored by the local soldiers and constabulary, but the ‘real event’ was planned to happen on Easter Sunday 1916. The first problem was that the Chief of Staff for the rebel volunteers, Eion MacNeill, was not in on the plan! His anger on finding out was only somewhat lessened by being told that a German ship with 20,000 rifles was due at Tralee ahead of the rising. But unfortunately for the rebels, the British intercepted this ship before it arrived and it was scuttled by the captain, sending the rifles to the bottom of Cork harbour. This was the last straw for MacNeill, who cancelled the event by putting a proclamation in the Sunday Independent newspaper. His insertion read: “Owing to the very critical position, all orders given to Irish Volunteers for tomorrow, Easter Sunday, are hereby rescinded, and no parades, marches or other movements of Irish Volunteers will take place. Each individual Volunteer will obey this order strictly in every particular.” We have to remember that communications back then were far more tortuous than we are used to these days, with our mobile phones and email, but some Irish commentators have remarked caustically that surely this was the only revolution in the world that was cancelled by putting an ad in the paper.
However, there was enough confusion amongst those who either didn’t get the word or who doubted its authenticity that it led to other leaders in the Volunteers going ahead with the plans on Easter Monday in Dublin, supported by restricted patches of Rising in other parts of the country. Also, Padraig Pearse and the other leaders, recognising that the British had wind of the event, decided to go ahead before the inevitable crack-down happened.
On the Monday morning, several key buildings in Dublin were taken over by the rebels. At the General Post Office, Pearse read out a Proclamation of Independence which in part referred to ‘our gallant allies in Europe’ – i.e., the Germans. Not only did this enrage the British but it also went down very badly with many everyday Irish people whose sons and husbands were in the British Army fighting the Germans in France. A fascinating account of all the things that went wrong can be read here.
Of course, the result of the Rising was that although the rebels fought fiercely and there are some very moving stories to be told, many of which were publicised during the Centenary, the outcome was doomed. The leaders were imprisoned in Ireland or sent to gaols in England, and with little formality (the leaders having been deemed to have committed treason) they were shot in Kilmainham Gaol. One, Joseph Plunkett, had married his fiancé Grace Gifford only hours before he was shot. (Google ‘Grace, just hold me in your arms’ for a very moving song about this).
My Irish colleagues inform me that feelings were, and still are to some extent, very mixed about the Rising. Although it is recognised as a seminal event now, at the time it was hijacked to some extent by looters (in Dublin at least), and the regular Irish people were not at all convinced it was a good idea. Almost 500 people died in the Rising. However, the British then shot themselves in the foot by executing the leaders after courts-martial, and the tide turned against them. By 1922 Ireland had become the Irish Free State, a dominion of the Commonwealth. In 1937 the constitution renamed the country Ireland, and by 1949 it had become a republic. It joined the European Community in 1973. 1916 1916 1916 1916
Despite the ambivalence by many Irish about the event, and some expressed fears that there might be trouble-makers interfering with the Centenary, it was a wonderful series of days of celebration, some events of which continue as I write (April 10th; the Centenary happened over the weekend of March 29-31). There were marches, speeches, concerts, plays….the usual rich cultural events which we’ve been grateful to experience in Dublin have occurred trouble-free across the country. Notable was the recognition of ALL who died in the Rising, whatever side they fought for. We are so pleased we were able to be here at this special time.