The Easter Rising took place on Easter Monday, April 24, 1916. It was yet the latest in more than a dozen attempts by the Irish to break the chains of bondage imposed on them by the Crown since the Normans first invaded in 1171. At least a dozen times in the previous seven centuries the Irish had organized military opposition and several times they had even tried parliamentary reform – all to no avail. With the dawn of the twentieth century, a new generation inherited the nationalist tradition of the past and was determined to keep faith with that tradition and try again.
To understand the significance of the Rising, one must start with the Gaelic revival early in the century. A literary movement, it sparked a renaissance in Ireland’s cultural heritage – language, history and arts. It planted the seeds of nationalism which led to a demand for Home Rule – a separate parliament for Ireland to govern herself. The government in Westminster depended on the Irish members of Parliament to ensure their power, so they acquiesced and promised Home Rule. However, loyalists in northern Ireland, who felt they would be a minority in an all-Irish Parliament, vowed to fight Home Rule if it were imposed. They formed a loyalist paramilitary militia called the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) in 1912 and became the first to import arms on a large scale as a force of 100,000 were armed and trained. In 1913, the Irish Volunteers were formed by members of the Gaelic League, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Sinn Féin and the Irish Republican Brotherhood to counter UVF opposition to Home Rule. However, they were only a poorly armed force of about 10,000.
The key to what happened next was an American citizen from Long Island, New York. His name was Thomas J. Clarke. An unrepentant veteran of the Fenian Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secret revolutionary society in Ireland, he was imprisoned for anti-Crown activities. Released after charges of torture were upheld he was exiled from Ireland. He fled to America in 1898. He settled in New York and became active in Clann na Gael, the American branch of the Fenian movement. He was employed by an Irish-American newspaper edited by John Devoy – the most powerful figure in the Clann at the time. Highly respected for the suffering he endured for Irish freedom, Clarke became one of the Clan’s most trusted members. He became an American citizen and in Sept, 1906, retired to Manorville, Long Island. Though prematurely aged at 48, Clarke was not put out to pasture.
In December, 1907, he was sent to Ireland to rejuvenate the Irish Republican Brotherhood which had become inactive due to age and apathy. As the trusted link between the Irish exiles of Clann na Gael and the IRB in Ireland, he was appointed to the Supreme Council of the IRB and was one of its most powerful advocates of revolutionary action. He infiltrated the Volunteers, brought a young schoolteacher named Padraic Pearse into the brotherhood and recruited a young cadre to become a military council to further the goal of Irish freedom.
Home Rule was passed by Parliament, but with the outbreak of WWI, implementation was postponed; then, Northern politicians moved an amendment to exclude six counties of Ulster from the provisions of Home Rule and establish a separate state. John Redmond, head of the Irish Parliamentary Party believed that loyalty shown to the Crown at this crucial hour would result in the Crown acting favorably on behalf of Home Rule at the wars end, so he committed the Volunteers to serve in the British Army. This split the Volunteers and those who opposed service in the British Army reorganized under Eoin MacNeill.
IRB members within the Volunteer movement felt betrayed, and began to plot a rising. They were Padraig Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh, Joseph Plunkett, Eamon Kent, Sean MacDermott, led by the old Fenian, Tom Clarke. James Connolly and the Irish Citizen Army, a force organized to protect workers from police during labor disputes, was brought in on the plans. They set a date for a rising on Easter Sunday because of the symbolism of Christ’s rising from the dead and because all the military would be off on holiday. Orders were issued for training maneuvers throughout the country. When Volunteer Roger Casement was captured trying to land arms in Kerry on Good Friday, MacNeill learned that the maneuvers were to be an actual rising and countermanded the orders in the public press, determined to keep the Volunteers as only a balancing force to the UVF. Clarke rescheduled the rising for Monday, but was unable to get the word to the Volunteers outside Dublin. The military council decided to rise anyway, believing that the rest of the country would rally when they heard of the fighting in Dublin.
The patriots marched into Dublin on Monday and the British immediately cut all communication lines out of the city. The word never got out. The rising was confined to Dublin, and for five heroic days, the insurgents held out against the might of the British Empire. In the end, battered by shot and shell, they surrendered. By the time the rest of the country found out what had happened, it was over. Then the British did a very stupid thing.
They separated the leaders from the mass of prisoners who had surrendered, lined them up against a wall, and murdered the noblest leaders Ireland had produced in that generation. Connolly, who had been wounded in the fray, was taken out on a stretcher, and propped up against a wall to receive the bullets. That foolish act of revenge brought the Irish nation to their feet as one angry mass against the Crown. The seeds planted by the Gaelic Revival burst forth in a nationalist fury that led to the War of Independence, and the ultimate treaty with the British that led to the modern Republic of Ireland. Although six counties in the north were left to the Crown, most of Ireland was free. As we know the struggle for the Erin’s remaining green field continues yet, but whether or not the current peace leads to the promised unification of Ireland, the men of Easter Week who gave their lives that Irishmen might control their own destiny must never be forgotten. Remember them in your prayers on April 24.
Throughout the hardship of seven centuries
brave Irishmen struggled and fought
remember the price already paid
and don’t let it be for naught!