Just like most fledgling uprisings, the line between success and failure rides on the razors edge. History is filled with examples of ill-advised, Pyrrhic, and prematurely executed attempts to gain freedom. The Easter Uprising on April 24, 1916 was of no exception.
The Military Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, which consisted of Eoin Macneill, Chief of Staff of the Irish Volunteers, Patrick Pearce, James Connoly, Sean MacDermott, Bulmer Hobson, Patrick McCartan, and John MacBride decided that it would be prudent to call off the uprising and develop a better plan. During the planning meeting, MacNeill had initially voiced concerns that it would not be the best time due to an arms shipment from Germany abourd the Auld had been seized and would not be arriving. Pearse and MacDermott eventually agreed at the meeting that the fighting would be postponed until the time was right. The Military Council was not unanimous in consent to hold off on the Uprising. Tom Clarke gave the most passionate disapproval for the measure insisting that it go on as planed so the movement for Irish Independence would not lose the momentum while the English Military was busy fighting World War 1.
On Sunday, April 23rd, 1916, MacNeill, had an article published in the newspaper the Sunday Independent that gave orders to members of the Irish Volunteers, Citizens Army and the 200 strong female Cumann na mBan to cancel the uprising.
No uprisings were planned on a whim. Even Hitler’s Munich putsch was planned a year prior. Other than the Military Council, most of which would not survive the Uprising, several perennial figures surround the event. Countess Markievicz, oldest daughter to an English baron and Arctic explorer, was a leader in the socialist Irish Citizen Army and close associate of James Connolly. On January 19, 1916, Connolly disappeared for three days and would eventually show back up at the Countess’ house with the plan to go on ahead with the Easter Rebellion despite what certain more cautious council members would say. He has enlisted Pearse to calm any fears that MacNeill would have prior to the event. Prior to the seizure of the German weapons shipment, the council had planned to have MacNeill unknowingly recruit and mobilize for the uprising. As the plan for MacNeill shifted, Pearse leaked fake documents to the council allegedly coming from the Dublin Castle, the British seat of power in Dublin, which gave word that the weapons of the Irish Brotherhood were to be seized. This was to bring a sense of urgency to MacNeill but he instead, of course, advised more caution. In addition to the subterfuge with MacNeill, Connolly and his associates went so far as to kidnap fellow councilman Bulmer Hobson, so as to prevent him from compounding any opposition prior to the uprising.
Even though Connolly, Pearse, Clarke and even MacNeill’s subordinates knew that they would more than likely be leading a failed coup. A failure which would assure their deaths; they were prepared and welcomed becoming martyrs. They had put all of their chips on the fact that the British would completely over-react and in so doing shift more public opinion to home rule and independence. They, of course, would succeed. Everyone, save a couple on the council, would eventually get their chance at martyrdom after the Easter Uprising.
On Sunday, Captain George Oliver Plunkett, commander of the Kimmage Garrison, had been convalescing in a hospital outside of Dublin but discharged himself. The following day, Monday, April 24th, Captain Plunkett marched his Soldiers to the train station and used his revolver to flag down a trolley. He paid for all of his 52 passengers, and then demanded that they be taken to the city center. The first order of business would be to commandeer Dublin’s General Post Office (GPO), a place that would be the headquarters for the rebellion for the remainder of the week.
The instructions to abort the rebellion had significantly reduced the numbers for the first day. Plunkett arranged his coterie in sections of four, as was the standing order for the Irish Brotherhood, and marched them to the GPO. British Army Garrison Soldiers that were off duty lingered outside and were amused that the Irish were playing at being Soldier. Plunkett who had to be assisted off his horse ordered his men charge the GPO and clear everyone out.
The British Soldiers stationed inside had been completely taken by surprise and did not even have ammunition loaded in their rifles. After a few shots at the ceiling and a few bruised egos from the incredulous patrons, the GPO was cleared. Pluckett’s Soldiers immediately took to fortify the building and place snipers on the roof. By this time Pluckett had begun to succumb to his illness and was visibly worn out from the exertion. Pearse and Connolly walked out of the GPO together, and Pearse read the following proclamation to a small audience of curious onlookers whose loyalties to the event were decidedly mixed:
“In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.
Having organised and trained her manhood through her secret revolutionary organisation, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and through her open military organisations, the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army, having patiently perfected her discipline, having resolutely waited for the right moment to reveal itself, she now seizes that moment, and supported by her exiled children in America and by gallant allies in Europe, but relying in the first on her own strength, she strikes in full confidence of victory.
We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible. The long usurpation of that right by a foreign people and government has not extinguished the right, nor can it ever be extinguished except by the destruction of the Irish people. In every generation the Irish people have asserted their right to national freedom and sovereignty; six times during the past three hundred years they have asserted it in arms. Standing on that fundamental right and again asserting it in arms in the face of the world, we hereby proclaim the Irish Republic as a Sovereign Independent State, and we pledge our lives and the lives of our comrades in arms to the cause of its freedom, of its welfare, and of its exaltation among the nations.
The Irish Republic is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman. The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien Government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.
Until our arms have brought the opportune moment for the establishment of a permanent National Government, representative of the whole people of Ireland and elected by the suffrages of all her men and women, the Provisional Government, hereby constituted, will administer the civil and military affairs of the Republic in trust for the people.
We place the cause of the Irish Republic under the protection of the Most High God, Whose blessing we invoke upon our arms, and we pray that no one who serves that cause will dishonour it by cowardice, inhumanity, or rapine. In this supreme hour the Irish nation must, by its valour and discipline, and by the readiness of its children to sacrifice themselves for the common good, prove itself worthy of the august destiny to which it is called”
Not knowing the full scope of the uprising, the British Lancers on horseback had been initially dispatched to clear out the GPO. A call from the Irish leaders to not fire, (presumably to maintain the moral high ground), was ignored. As the Lancers began to get closer to the building, volleys of fire from Enfield’s quickly cut down the Soldiers and their mounts and they retreated. A newsboy would collect the rifles and ammunition the Lancers left behind and ave them to the Irish occupiers.
Word quickly spread throughout the city and armed bands of British Soldiers and Irish Constabulary would bump into the “Volunteers”, (a title they used for the collective rebellion forces), and engage each other in small ambushes. To complicate matters, the Dublin slums emptied for opportunistic looting and the city quickly spiraled out of control.
The GPO would withstand repeated assaults, largely due to the defense network and the open fields of fire. With the exception of City Hall and a few other minor road junctions and buildings, the Irish would be unable to capture any other key locations of British government and dislodge the British Garrison from the city. During a night operation, the British entered the City Hall through a back window and retook the building in a stealthy and daring raid. All occupants were killed or captured.
Fighting during the Uprising is largely characterized by rooftop sniping and long range gun battles as neither side was prepared for a direct urban engagement. The British, however, were able to use machine guns and grenades to great effect against the Irish. The fighting on Tuesday would be constant and brutal. Many of the Volunteers had fled the city and it was left with the determined few to hold onto key road or buildings. In Stephens Green, the Irish had dug hasty trenches and prepared to hold the ground. Of note the Countess had been present at the Green to assist in digging trenches and fighting. Instead of an outright battle to clear the area, the British placed machine guns at the top of a nearby hotel to the north that overlooked the green. The British were able to kill five and send the remainder fleeing to the nearby College of Surgeons. Despite the setbacks, the Irish were unbowed and sent out a telegraph to the world proclaiming that they had held the city and today would be the birth of the Irish republic.
The River Liffey, as it is called, intersects Dublin, and it was through here on Wednesday, April 26, a British fishing protection vessel named “Helga” floated into Dublin and opened fire with two large 18 pound cannons on the Custom House and Trinity College. The destruction of the certain parts of the city by the bombardment would be considerable and would deny the Irish more key terrain.
2000 fresh faced and brand new British Soldiers landed in Dublin with orders to clear the streets. Their effects, however, were quickly halted when they were ambushed and began taking considerable casualties from coordinated fire from two different building. Eventually the British would have to clear the buildings with a series of grenade attacks. Word eventually spread to the Volunteers of the considerable casualties they were inflicting upon the British, but it was obvious that they were not gaining any new ground that their supplies were quickly being depleted.
Fighting on Thursday would be even more desperate. By the end of the day many of the Volunteers that still chose to fight had either expended their ammunition and died in place or surrendered. Connolly was wounded in the ankle and was able to make it to the GPO for medical care by a captured British Army surgeon. Many parts of Dublin were burning or had been destroyed by artillery. The last fighting between the British and the Volunteers would be in house to house clearing. The Irish would knock down walls to enable them to move effectively from house to house.
By 3 P.M. Pearse had surrendered to the British military authority, General Howe. Connolly had to be removed from the GPO by stretcher and would follow Pearse to sign the surrender order. Plunkett led his Soldiers out of the GPO and surrendered en masse. Fighting would go on sporadically with 1st Battalion’s Ned Daly refusing to lay down arms. The Uprising, however, had been crushed and by Sunday the city was rebuilding. Civilian casualties would be horrific. An estimated 250 were killed and over 2000 had been wounded.
The Countess would eventually be captured and was given a death sentence for her part in the Easter Uprising. She would eventually have that sentence commuted, and would take an active part in the Irish Civil War and Irish politics. Eamon De Valera would also be spared death, largely due to the fact that he was part American, (his father was actually of Cuban decent). James Connolly was famously executed while sitting in a chair (due to his leg wound). Thomas Clarke, Sean MacDermott, and John MacBride were also executed that May.
Lesson 1: Trust your friends, but verify.
Never turn your back on crazy. MacNeill had been an unwitting pawn, but by issuing the stand down order on Sunday, he stymied the efforts to truly bring about a decisive victory on the first day of the Uprising. Had the Irish been able to use the momentum of the victory at the GPO to take more buildings unawares, they could have isolated Dublin Castle until reinforcements arrived. Potentially, they could have captured more of the Garrison and used that as a bargaining chip. As it went, they had too few Soldiers and too few weapons to ensure victory.
Also, if your friends are quite serious about martyring themselves, you should believe them. If you are not into the murder-suicide thing that characterizes martyrdom for political beliefs, it is probably best to choose different friends. Citizen Soldiers generally do not have any qualms about laying down their life for something greater, like freedom from a tyrannical foreign government. What they would strongly disagree to is dying for the sake of a body count.
Lesson 2: Know the capabilities of your enemies and know your own.
The British employed superior firepower from machine guns, grenades, a gunboat and a armored cars to break the lines of the Volunteers. While the Military Council was quite aware of how foolish the coup would be, the average Volunteer could not have known, at least initially, how desperate their fight would be. Numbers of actual fighters for the Uprising have the Volunteers outmatched by four to one. Additionally, most of the Irish Volunteers would not participate in the hard fighting at the end of the week,
Lesson 3: Sometimes you have to go through the rain to get to the rainbow.
After the Military Council was destroyed, Puckett’s Aide de Camp, Michael Collins, would pick up where they left off and would cause the British immeasurable grief to great effect and without the martyrdom. Not martyrdom by the British, at least. He could not have had the opportunity to do so without the council destroying itself and creating a power vacuum.
Lesson 4. Always have a Plan B.
By Thursday, the Military Council discovered that they were surrounded and that the same barricades that helped to defend their positions were the same positions that helped to tighten the noose around them and cut them off. The ability of the British to envelope their positions could largely be from the fact that they had 16,000 Soldiers and 1,000 local police to work with whereas the Irish had on 1200 determined fighters. Had they abandoned their positions by Wednesday, the Council would have remained largely intact and it would not have been so costly in civilian deaths. Hindsight being what it is, the fact remains that they did not allow for a Plan B, or a way out. I would consider that pretty important.