81: Eastern Rising Pt. 1


This episode we leave the battlefield and instead move to the streets of Dublin, which are about to erupt in rebellion.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 81. This week we take the podcast out of the trenches and out of the Western Front to an area of the war that is probably not well known to people outside of Ireland, and that means we are headed to the streets of Dublin. From April 24th to April 29th 1250 armed men and women rose up in Dublin in what would come to be called the Easter Rising. During this time they took over several areas of the city with the leadership basing itself out of the General Post Office. This rising, like other rebellions throughout history was not a spontaneous event and instead just the result of a long series of events that reached all the way back to when Ireland was invaded and occupied by the English kings hundreds of years ago. The rising itself would have a long lasting effect on Ireland and would mark the beginning of what was a very contentious century. Because of the rising’s role in Irish history there is no lack of study and discussion about the events of Easter Week and their role in the country’s history. However, even with all of this research there are still some things that have not been answered, especially around the motivations and belief in the possibility of success held by the leadership group of the Rising. We will be spending 3 episodes on these events, with this episode being entirely focused on events in Ireland before the war, if you are anything like me, and I know that most listeners are American so you probably are, you probably do not have a great handle on Irish history. Hopefully today I can remedy that a bit, however I will be hitting things at such a high level so at the end of the third episode I will try and point everybody to more detailed sources of information if you want to dive deeper.

As I just mentioned the problems in Ireland started at the conquest, however for hundreds of years it was relatively integrated into the English kingdom but then an event happened in the 16th century that would greatly increase the rift between the two future nations. It was at this point that Henry the 8th converted to protestantism, if I remember correctly because he wanted to get one of his divorces. While Henry and most of the England was converted, Ireland stayed heavily catholic and this would not change for centuries. This set the stage for several armed conflicts over the next 300 years. Oliver Cromwell came to Ireland in 1649 to put down a rebellion that resulted in 1/5th the population of Ireland dying from war, famine, and disease. In 1798 50,000 men rose in a series of uprising that were all crushed by British troops. These are just two examples of many that would influence the psyche of Ireland leading up to the 20th century. In 1801 there was another big event in Irish history and that was the creation of the Acts of Union which created the United Kingdom and abolished the Irish commons, with the previous Irish MPs moving instead to the House of Commons in London. While all of these events were important, leading up to 1916 the most important conversation in London and Ireland revolved around the desire for Home Rule. There were two main groups in the Home Rule discussions the first was the Unionists, which were the vast majority of Northern Ireland centered around Ulster. This area was now heavily protestant and believed that it was best for Ireland to be an integral part of the United Kingdom. On the other side of the argument was the rest of Ireland, which was primarily Catholic, which believed that it was only through breaking away from the United Kingdom and being an independent country could they reach their full potential. This second group would be called Irish Nationalists. From the 1880s onward the leadership of Ireland, and the MPs elected to go to London, were all put in their positions because of their thoughts on Home Rule, it was THE political issue of the day, right up to the First World War and beyond. In general a person’s view on the Home Rule discussion would also color their opinion of the rising as Fearghal McQuery explains in this quote from The Rising: Ireland: Easter 1916 “If Ireland is viewed as forming an integral part of an imperfect but flexible and increasingly democratic constitutional arrangement, the actions of the Easter rebels appear unreasonable and reprehensible. Alternatively, for those who regarded the union as an imperialist façade underpinned by the threat of military force, the rebellion represented the justifiable and admirable assertion of national sovereignty.”

All of this tension between the two countries caused three different movements to occur in Ireland in the 19th century. These three movements was first a move toward safeguarding Irish culture, the second was the creation of the IRB the precursor of Sinn Fein, and finally the creation of first the Ulster Volunteers and then the Irish Volunteers. The first movement that we will discuss was perhaps the most benign, but also the one that would greatly strengthen the others. By the middle of the 19th century the number of people who spoke Irish was dropping, this coincided with a constant stream of British culture into Ireland which displaced the uniquely Irish culture in the same way that British people and money were doing in other areas. This created a call for Irish, or Gaelic culture, to be preserved in some way. Groups all over Ireland sprung up with this goal, with the two largest being the Gaelic Athletic Association and the Gaelic League, both of which claimed that they were not political. All of the groups, large and small, sought to preserve the Irish culture through teaching and fostering a learning of uniquely Gaelic sports, language, writing, and other pieces of culture. Over the course of the century hundreds of thousands of people were members of these organizations, often when they were young and moving from being children to adults. It should not be surprising that some of the more radical members of the Irish Nationalist movement, both from the political and military perspective, found their start in this cultural organizations and they would always be a great recruiting ground for more radical groups.

The political side of the events of 1916 found their roots in Sinn Fein which was a political organization founded in 1905 that roughly translates to “For Ourselves.” The roots of Sinn Fein were be found in the IRB, or the Irish Republican Brotherhood which was a secret society with the stated goal of Irish independence. One of the tenants of the IRB was that its members should not participate in politics since they believed that all traditional politics were a corrupting force. This presented some problems for the group as an instrument of political change in Ireland and also made them a heavily conservative group that for decades was very resistant to new ideas. Enter Aurthur Griffith and Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein was created to try and both capture and to put to good use the cultural and separatist activists that had been growing in number and power by the end of the 1800s. For several years Sinn Fein was a powerful political force but by 1910 it had fallen out of favor, it would be in position to make a big comeback after the rising. Sinn Fein was just one of several groups that were formed in the decades before the rising, and it was actually one of the more conservative. One of the more radical was the Na Fianna Eireann. Later one of the Irish Volunteers would say that “The object of Na Fianna Eireann is to train the boys of Ireland to fight Ireland’s battle when they are men…we hope to train Irish boys from their earliest years to be soldiers, not only to know the trade of a soldier but also, what is far more important to understand and prize military discipline and have a military spirit.” Several of the leaders of the Easter Rising could trace their history through the Na Fianna. Both of these organizations are just examples of the stronger form of nationalism that was growing in Ireland. The country was no longer satisfied with secret societies or conservative political groups that were extremely slow at enacting change. Instead they wanted change, and they wanted it soon. As this mindset became more and more powerful it was just be amplified even more by each successive generation. By the time that the generation of the rising, and then later the civil war, was growing up they were in a culture that and powerful nationalist movements where a certain level of radicalism was expected. They would, in general, be far more bold and far less patient than those that had come before.

The final of the three movements that we will discuss was blatantly militaristic, and that was the formation of the two Irish Volunteer forces, the first of which was started in Ulster. The Ulster volunteers were formed near the end of 1912 as a straight up military organization. It recruited members and drilled as units with the intention of resisting the implementation of Home Rule should it ever be necessary. Technically drilling as organized militias was outlawed in Britain after 1819, but there was a loophole if 2 magistrates were present to authorize the actions, which sometimes even happened for the UVF. However, even when two magistrates were not present the units continued to drill without any real ramifications. These actions came to a head in March 1914 with what would come to be called the Curragh Mutiny. During this series of events there were discussions in the military about what would happen if the British garrison in Ulster was called upon to act against the Ulster Volunteers. This question had to be asked before the military, and especially the officer corps almost universally fell against Home Rule so it was a real question as to whether or not they could be counted on when asked to put down a group that they agreed with. No orders were actively disobeyed during the mutiny, but it required a very serious re-evaluation of the position of the British army in Northern Ireland. The outcome of the situation was that the government was forced to move more troops into the area, but also and more importantly promise the troops that they would not be used against the UVF. Having to bow to the army in this way was a huge step and a huge boost to both the unionist and nationalist cause in Ireland. On the Unionist side it in some ways presented a form of formal recognition of their cause and the possibility of it succeeding went up immensely. For the nationalists they saw the same thing and saw it as a threat to having a unified, but independent Ireland. The UVF did not waste any time and they used their new found freedom just a month later when they were able to import 50,000 rifles and 3 million rounds of ammunition that could be used to arm its members. Sure, the rifles were mostly old Italian cast offs, but they were still weapons. The British army did not hinder this shipment in any way, which just made the nationalists more frustrated. From the very beginning the nationalists and the leadership of their various groups had watched the situation in Ulster and they had quickly ordered a second set of Volunteers be created in Ireland, only this one would be on the opposite side of the political coin.

The group that would become known as the Irish Volunteers were created as a direct response to the Ulster Volunteers. They were formed in November 1913 and at the beginning the leaders of the volunteer units came mostly from IRB members who had previous military experience or from men with long records in the Fianna. The constitution that was drawn up for the Volunteers had 3 stated goals. To secure and maintain the rights and liberties common to all the people of Ireland, to train, discipline, arm, and equip a body of Irish Volunteers for the above purpose, and to unite for this purpose Irishmen of every creed and of every party and class. It was go on to say that ‘Their duties will be defensive and protective, and they will not contemplate either aggression or domination.’ While it had a constitution with the above lofty goals the Volunteer units were quite diverse in the early years. They were led by a provisional committee that had 31 members, most of which were influential men in the IRB. Generally the committee would come in and form Volunteer units based on geography and then personality of the various commanders of each group would dictate the previous situation with in the unit. The biggest difference between the Volunteer companies was how radical they were, were they moderates or extremists? As a general statement the difference between the two viewpoints was around how far they wanted to go, in the near future, to break away from Britain. At the beginning there were a large number of extremists in the Volunteers, however as time went by and more and more men came into the organization it started to move to the moderate side of the spectrum.

So who were the men who joined the volunteers? The one thing that I think is most important when it comes to discussing the Volunteers, is that they were not all some sort of crazy extremist. Peter Hart would say that ‘people did not join the Volunteers because they were radical. They became radicalized because they joined the Volunteers,’ and from what I have seen this is mostly true. Many of the men were not even politically motivated at all when they joined, many just liked the idea of the military values and the feeling of belonging to a group that they would have once they joined the Volunteers. One volunteer named Laurence Nugent would say after joining that ‘we were no longer a mob, we were Volunteers.’ Along with this feeling of being in a group that was organized for a purpose was there was the simple romanticized notion of fighting for one’ country that so often attracts men to the military in their particular country. There was also of course a lot of social pressure for the men to join as well. Often the Volunteer companies would meet 3 times a week, during which they would drill in public areas and parade through towns and villages. They would then meet on weekends for longer marches and more complex drilling. All of this put huge pressure on many men to join the Volunteers, since they were so present in the specific area where they were based. Most of the units were taught by ex-British Army Officers and they often used British Army training manuals. This created the interesting situation where instead of training for the type of warfare that they would probably be called upon to perform, mostly urban and rural small unit actions, they trained just like the British Army. However, unlike the British army the men of the Volunteers were not well equipped, most of them did not even have the most important tool of Pre-World War 1 British infantry, the rifle. Getting rifles into the hands of the men was a priority for the Volunteer leadership, it had a hugely positive effect on their morale and discipline, and it just made everything feel more real. However, there were just simply not enough rifles to go around, especially as the numbers of Volunteers started to swell. This created the unfortunate situation where most Volunteer units were drilling with wooden rifles or nothing at all. One Volunteer would say “Our absolute deficiency in arms made our efforts at training seem unreal and not worth the effort.” Even with these problems the number of Volunteers continued to go, and the Curragh Mutiny and the importation of firearms for the Ulster Volunteers gave them a boost. In fact the Irish Volunteers would also try to bring in rifles, but they were stopped at the docks by the police. Eventually British troops would even fire on a crowd of Volunteers. Both of these incidents would have the effect of exacerbating the concerns of the nationalists and made them believe that the Volunteers were even more necessary to protect their culture and their country.

One feature of the Rising that makes it quite different than the military actions we have discussed so far is the role of women. From the beginning of the Volunteer movement women were involved, even if they were not allowed in the actual Volunteer units. Due to the fact that they could not be in the Volunteers proper an equivalent for women was formed, and it would be called the Cumman na Mban. The goal of this group was ‘to assist in the arming and equipping a body of Irishmen for the defense of Ireland.’ There was debate right from the beginning in the group about how independent it was, was it just an auxiliary for the Volunteers or was it its own group that could make its own decisions and take its own action. In some areas the women were allowed to train with the Volunteers and even to train with their firearms but it was well understood by all that if there was any fighting they would not be involved. While this would still be true during the rising, what we will see in 1916 is that the women were participating in the rising right from the start, putting their lives on the line for the cause that they believed in, sometimes in even more dangerous situations than the me. We will talk a bit more about their role in the Rising when we get there, but I think it is one of the many interesting pieces of the Rising puzzle that is well worth highlighting and devoting some time to.

In the decades before the war Home Rule had always been an on again off again conversation in the British government. In 1910 it would make another resurgence when Asquith became the Prime Minister. Asquith and David Lloyd George wanted to pass a radical bit of economic legislation through Parliament. It was called the People’s Budget and while it had a lot of support in the House of Commons it was vetoed by the House of Lords. At this point in British history the House of Lords had absolute veto power over legislation and they used it to stop this new budget. After quite a bit of political maneuverings Asquith found himself in a position where he absolutely had to have the Irish members of the House of Commons to pass the budget. These Irishmen were nationalists, and they wanted something in return for their support, and that thing was the Home Rule bill. Asquith promised them that if they voted for the budget he would push Home Rule through. The bill would set up a wholly Irish parliament in Dublin that would control almost all domestic Irish affairs. The Unionists in the north, who were generally quite powerful in London, were prepared to fight the bill and threatened armed rebellion if it was forced through. This resulted in a lot of discussion about whether or not the counties of Northern Island had to be included in the Home Rule bill. However, as the discussions continued over whether or not they were excluded and whether or not that exclusion was permanent or just for a set period of time and also how many counties would be included in the exclusion were all still open questions when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was killed and the war started. When the war started the Home Rule Bill was suspended for the duration of the conflict, and both the nationalists and unionists were told that when the war ended the discussions would be restarted at the place they were at in 1914. Nobody would have dreamed that the war would last 4 years.

When the war started everything changed, and not just the implementation of Home Rule. The IRB thought that this would be a great opportunity to increase the strength of the Volunteers and to use them to get concessions from London. However, with Britain which included Ireland, now at war with a continental power the differences between the Volunteer leadership and the membership started to show. The massive majority of the Volunteers wanted to side with the British in the new conflict, and many Volunteer companies became profitable recruiting grounds for the British Army. One Dublin volunteer would say about this point in time was “People who were what one would have thought rebels on Sunday were completely pro-British the following Sunday.” The movement to volunteer for the army was so widespread that as many as 90% of some Volunteer companies would leave. They also took many of the weapons with them since at this point most of the firearms were individually owned rifles that the men had either bought for their use in the Volunteers or for hunting. Overall, Ireland including the nationalist and unionist areas were valuable recruiting grounds for the British Army, and the volunteer rate was 2/3 of what it was in Britain as a whole, which was higher than I expected. However, as the war drug on and conscription started to be proposed the Irish Volunteers found new purpose as an organization resisting the implementation of said conscription. This got them more support among the population and also brought in new members. Over the first year of the war the biggest effect on the Irish Volunteers, along with the rapid contraction in membership, was that it was purged of many of its most moderate members and this left only the most radical of members both in the leadership and in the membership as a whole. It would be these radical leaders that would plan and execute the Rising in 1916. Next week we will discuss how the plan for the rising came about, and what happened on April 24th when the call went out for the men of Ireland to rise up and take their country back.