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 82. This week a big thanks goes out to Russell for his donation to the podcast this week. Last episode we discussed, in very brief form, the history of Ireland in the lead up to the first world war. This week, we get into the meat of these Easter Rising episodes as we dig into the actions around the Rising itself. We start where it started, with who planned it and what they planned to do. We will then move into the story of how it almost did not happen before talking about the first day of the Rising on April 24th 1916. The beginning of the Rising would see groups of men move out all over Dublin to take over various areas of the city. Unfortunately for the rebels they would make a few key mistakes that they would desperately regret as the week wore on. We will cover all of these moves before touching briefly on how the British responded on the first day, or more accurately why they did not respond. One of the actions of the Rebels was to put out a proclamation about why they were taking their actions, their goals, and the declaration of the new Irish nation. At the end of this episode I will read out this proclamation in full as it appeared on the walls of the General Post Office during the Rising.
The idea of a rising in Ireland during the war became a serious possibility after a meeting in 1914 among the IRB and Volunteer leadership committees. At that meeting it was decided that it would be beneficial to try and stage some form of a rebellion before the war with Germany was over. The distraction of the British government and army on the continent was just too good of an opportunity to waste. With this goal in mind a committee was created to plan a rising and its first two members were Tom Clarke and Sean McDermott. This committee would be called the Military Committee and eventually it would be made up of all the key players of the Rising. Along the way Clarke and MacDermott would bring Joseph Plunkett, Thomas MacDonagh, Eamonn Ceantt, and Patrick Pearse into the committee. All of these men would be critical to makes the Rising happen, and they would all play their own parts in the planning and execution of the rising in 1916. The task that this group had in front of them was a big one, it had to somehow plan and execute a Rising possibly involving thousands of Volunteers in complete and total secrecy. This was obviously a big hurdle to overcome, if the British and Irish authorities found out about their intentions they would be doomed to failure. The planning part was easy, in fact they wrote down very little during all of these meetings and counted on everybody to remember the plan, and this results in many things being hidden to us even a hundred years later. With such a small group the secrecy problem was easy to contain, but it became far more difficult when it came to trying to get the Volunteers ready for what was to come. Executing an actual rebellion, during which many Volunteers would probably die was a big leap for the average Volunteer, who for years had been asked for nothing more than a bit of time a few days a week for drilling. To begin this process messages were sent to all of the local Volunteer units, alerting them that they should be prepared to fight at any moment, and perhaps more importantly to remove from their number anybody who was not willing to follow things through. They were also told to do whatever it took to arm their units. This resulted in many guns being stolen from a variety of sources in the lead up to the Rising, some of which even came from off duty British soldiers. However, even with these efforts it was impossible to close the huge gap between volunteer numbers and the weapons that they had available to them. One of my sources gives the numbers at 2,000 rifles for 15,000 men in the Volunteers. One of the problems with the planning was that the Military council themselves did not know precisely when the Rising would happen, they had to plan for it to happen at any time and to make their plan generic enough to work whenever it was needed. This also created the requirement that the plan be simple enough to enact with very little time between when the Volunteer commanders were informed and the Rising started. In the end even the most senior unit commanders would not know that the Rising was planned until 2 weeks before it was scheduled. Some of the simple questions that we have when looking back, and something that we will never know due to the lack of sources from the military council meeting, are the simple things like Why did they chose the General Post Office for their headquarters? Why did they not make a larger effort to take Dublin Castle? Why was it not made the headquarters? The General Post Office was not a great area and, as would be proven later on, it could be isolated and cut off from the other locations quite easily. Another question is why the specific areas were chosen to be garrisoned? The plan from the beginning recognized that there would be a very finite number of men available, but why specifically they garrisoned certain areas and not others, some of which could have been presented much better tactical and strategic situations to the defenders, is lost to history. Another question is how much the leaders planned on being helped by Volunteers from outside Dublin. Only the barest information was given to units outside the city and outside the control of the committee. This created a situation where it was extremely unlikely that any help would come from these areas, even though it was critical for any long term success. When those units did mobilize they were often without specific orders on what they should do to coordinate some sort of action. Charles Townshend in Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion would say on this topic that “the planners might have liked the idea of a national rising, but in practice they dealt with the forces they knew and trusted.” The final question is presented by Fearghal MacGarry in his book The Rising: Ireland: Easter 1916 “How confident were the rebels on the eve of the Rising? The leaders were elated by the imminence and likely impact of the insurrection but fatalistic about their own prospects of survival.” When the time came ordinary Volunteers, even the commanders who had a better idea of the plan, were pretty positive for their chances of success, even if they were not positive what the definition of success was. While we have all of these questions, at the very least it can be said that the committee was successful at keeping the plan almost entire secret before the event happened, although they were helped by some mistakes by the British and Irish government. The leadership in Dublin knew almost nothing of the Rising that was coming until it happened, even though at least 5 different groups within the British government had evidence in hand of what was going to happen, but they all chose not to forward it onto Dublin. So remarkably, a plan months in the making, involving hundreds if not thousands of people in the end, was completely unknown to the most important people who needed to know, the British leadership in Dublin.
As with all good stories, even though the plan was mostly kept secret there were sill some problems, and in this case the biggest problem came from within the IRB. The root of the problem was that the military council did not report to the rest of the IRB leadership, this was ostensibly a security consideration. Because of this fact when the Rising was planned it was not known by other members of the IRB leadership included one Eoin MacNeill who was the leader of the Volunteers. MacNeill was in favor of the Rising, but only in the case of the British trying to extend the newly enacted conscription law into Ireland. He just felt that it was the only way to gain the proper amount of support within the country. Since by Easter 1916 this had not happened he was very concerned when he found out about the plan. With the Rising planned for Sunday, at 10PM on the Thursday before MacNeill met with Pearse, who was sort of the leader of the Military council, to determine if the rising was happening and if so to try and talk him out of it. When Pearse was adamant that it was indeed going to happen on that Sunday, MacNeill told him that he would do everything in his power to make sure that it did not. It should be noted that MacNeill was a true believer in the Volunteer cause, and because of this when I say everything in his power, I mean everything short of telling the authorities. When he did do was send out an order to all Volunteer units both in and outside of Dublin, in this order he stated that they should ignore any orders send out by Pearse. On Saturday he would send out another order to take it a step further and say that the “Volunteers completely deceived. All orders for special action are hereby cancelled, and on no account will action be taken.” This threw the leadership of the rising into a bit of a conundrum less than 24 hours before it was supposed to happen. With MacNeill’s order it was clear that there would be confusion if another order came out to execute the Rising and it was almost certain that the number of men available would be reduced. Weighing these facts the council still decided that they should launch the Rising, but it was delayed until Monday. The precise reason that this decision was made is another casualty of the lack of written records. When orders were sent out for mobilization in Dublin for Monday there was the predicted massive confusion among the Volunteer regiments. The confusion was two fold: first, a good number of Volunteers had not received the cancellation of the Sunday orders in time and had turned out for the ordered weekend maneuvers. When these maneuvers did not happen, the men went home, and the second bit of confusion was that a good number of them went on previously planned Easter holidays. To illustrate how big of a problem this was, while the numbers are not certain, it is likely that more Volunteers showed up on Sunday, when everything was cancelled, than on Monday when it happened for real. There was one positive that came out of MacNeill’s order, and that was with the authorities who had begun to hear rumors that some sort of Volunteer action was coming. When they received word of MacNeill’s order they assumed that whatever was being planned had been cancelled and there was nothing to worry about. Historians seem to think that the results of MacNeill’s order is inconclusive, mostly based on the fact that it is not clear how it decisively changed the outcome. About all that can be said is that it certainly reduced the number of volunteers who mobilized on Monday.
The order to mobilize on Monday was not sent out to Volunteer units until Monday. Many of the commanders only had an hour notice before their units were supposed to begin moving out to their objectives. This resulted in unit commanders rushing around trying to notify everyone in their units. The chaos that would ensue would ensure that a large number of volunteers could not be reached or simply chose not to obey the summons. Part of the decisions made to ignore the summons was because of MacNeill’s order, some of it was because of men choosing instead to keep with their plans for the day. All of this resulted in a situation where only small pieces of units would end up mustering out on the first day. Liam Tobin, one of the men that did mobilize, would say that “I had often seen our company, C Company of the 1st Battalion, muster a bigger number than the whole battalion did on that morning.” The numbers at the beginning of the week were very disappointing, with total numbers not coming close to 1,000. This number would grow throughout the week as it became clear what was happening, but it would never come close to the numbers that the planners anticipated, which was at least 2,500. This put the various unit commanders around the city in a tough spot, they had orders to occupy certain buildings and areas within the city. These areas had been arranged in a way to create a roughly solid perimeter, but also to support each other. Now that there were not enough men to occupy all of these objectives the units needed to be coordinated from central command in the GPO to occupy different areas. However, this coordination from the GPO was not present, and very little direction was given to the individual unit commanders. This would mean that the commanders were forced to make decisions for their men without a good understanding of what everybody else was doing. This would often put their men into positions that were horribly placed when looking at the city as a whole. Sometimes the men would be spread too thin, sometimes they were simply in bad positions. For the men that did appear and were put into position they quickly started to determine that this was not just some drilling, this was the real thing. Many had shown up in civilian clothes, most of them did not have a choice without any form of official uniform. This is an important fact to remember for later when the British start engaging the Rising and the difficulty that this would cause in trying to tell who and who was not a rebel inside central Dublin. As the various units marched through the city they generally were not initially paid much attention from the civilians, it was not that abnormal for groups of Volunteers to be marching around Dublin, so it probably just seemed like a kind of normal Monday.
For the men who did show up, and the ones who were able to meet up with their units, it is time to discuss what these men did, and for this we are going to break it down into three different sections. First we will discuss the taking of the General Post Office, or GPO, then we will look at what happened at Dublin Castle, then finally we will take a whirlwind tour around the rest of the city to see where and how the various garrisons posted up in their buildings for the week ahead. At about 11:50AM on the 24th the Headquarters Battalion, as it would come to be known, moved towards the GPO. The GPO would be the rallying point for the rebels for the entire week, and would also be the focus of a lot of the destruction by the British artillery later on. It was located on Sackville Street and this area would be the strongest garrisoned of any of the areas around the city. Part of the reason for this was that when men shoed up later in the week there was a tendency to stick them around the GPO, especially after the first day. At 12:45 the GPO had been taken by the rebels without firing a shot and the flag of the Irish Republic was raised. This is also the time that the proclamation of the formation of the provisional government was formally released, which I will read in full at the end of the episode. It used the oppression of previous rebellions as its justification for the violence of the current and copies were distributed around the city by the hundreds. While most of the men who had planned the Rising from the beginning were in the GPO for the week the man put in charge of the whole defense was a man named James Connolly. Connolly was a committed socialist, but that did not stop the other men from choosing him as commander, and he would prove to be a good solid person for the job. Throughout the week he would often be seen walking around touring the various rebel positions near the GPO. The mood within the GPO would remain extremely positive for most of the week, even after things started to go south, but part of this was probably just the belief that they were martyring themselves for their chosen cause. One problem that would quickly become apparent was that the GPO was not a good position to try and stay in communication with that various rebel positions around the city, meaning that while the leadership was still positive and lively later in the week they had no way to communicate this or to alter events that were happening around the city.
One of the first goals of the Rising was to capture Dublin castle, which was the seat of British power within the city. For this purpose 30 men under the command of Sean Connolly were sent out to capture and to hold it. These men were not part of the Irish Volunteers but were instead members of the Irish Citizen Army. This groups had been founded by the workers unions in Dublin to protect worker demonstrations, and one of their founding members was James Connolly. In terms of training and armament they were similar to the Volunteers, and generally there is little distinction made between the two groups during histories of the Rising. Sean Connolly had been given 30 men to achieve his goal and achieving it would have been a huge boon for the Rising. It was the center of British government and also contained many members of the British and Irish administration that would control the early response to the Rising. It was also just a good spot to have men in with its strategically important positioning. There are many historians of the Rising that even question why it was not chosen as the headquarters of the Rising instead of the GPO, that is how nice of a location it was. When the 30 men approached the castle it was guarded by only one man, an unarmed constable who was unfortunately shot and killed, becoming what I think was the first casualty of the Rising. The rebels far outnumbered the number of armed guards inside the castle, although they of course did not know that. The first man to fire on them was Major Price, who was only armed with his revolver, but he was shortly joined by 6 soldiers who had been at lunch in the guardroom when the first shots were fired. These 7 men were pretty much the sum total of the men defending the castle against the rebels, but Connolly, thinking that they were in big trouble, chose at this point to retreat across the road. Here they garrisoned the Daily Express and City Hall buildings from which they thought they would be able to interdict any movement of men into the castle. Unfortunately this was the be first area attacked by the small British garrison that were kept in barracks near the castle. Just a few hours after taking up their positions the rebels would be forced to retreat away from the castle by this group of soldiers. Not garrisoning the castle was the first of many mistakes made during the taking of the city leading Fearghal McGarry to say “in this respect the attack also exemplified the wider Rising which prioritized heroic gestures over practical objectives and was beset by a string of missed opportunities and unforeseen disasters.”
While the headquarters was at the GPO there were garrisons all over the city, and all of them were struggling to determine how to deal with having far fewer men than they expected. The plan was generally for each battalion to have more than 500 men, so when I saw how many men actually were present, keep that number in mind. On battalion took over St. Stephen’s Green, and this was the group of Citizen’s Army. The green was surrounded by taller buildings, including the multi-story Shelbourne Hotel. Instead of attempting to occupy some of these buildings the men dug entrenchments on the green, which would have disastrous effects for the men when the British arrived and occupied all the tall buildings all around it. Another battalion of men was stretched from the North Dublin Union to the Four Courts. Here only about a third of the planned numbers were present and this meant that they were spread extremely thin. Then men would have the honor though of firing the first shots against arriving British reinforcements when they would put some shots on a squadron of lancers while the cavalrymen were escorting an ammunition convoy. The second battalion had just 185 men and decided that instead of occupying all the areas that they were assigned they would instead all garrison inside of Jacob’s Factory. Because of this decision they would be one of the first unit surrounded and they would take part in almost none of the fighting of the coming week. The Third battalion was even worse off than the 2nd, with just 130 men. This battalion was led by Eamon de Valera, who was by all accounts a competent and prepared commander. With so few men he was forced to quickly change the plans that had been given to him and instead of putting multiple garrisons in multiple places he was forced to have one strong garrison inside of Boland’s Bakery and then a few smaller units spread out watching the main routes into the center of the city. Finally, the 4th Battalion was supposed to occupy the South Dublin Union, and some other nearby buildings. The South Dublin Union was a large building and with only about 100 men it was simply impossible to occupy the entire building and they were forced to fall back to smaller buildings in the area almost as soon as they came under any British pressure. In all of these areas the Volunteers put up barricades, fortified their buildings, collected food and water, and prepared for what they thought would be s violent fight.
One of the things that seems pretty common among the rebels is that they expected a quick and decisive move from the British, but on the first day of the Rising this simply did not happen. During the first afternoon several hours after things had gotten going, only 6 policemen had been shot, and the only serious casualties among the rebels were from accidents. For the most part all of the men could do nothing except for sit in their positions and wait. The greatest part of the resistance to the risin came from normal people, once they realized what was happening they generally did not approve. The rebels were not very quick to make friends when some of their first actions were to go around and start confiscating food and other supplies and also to create a bunch of barricades in the streets. Instead of getting a huge amount of support from the community the rebels instead were on the receiving end of insults and some actual violence. One man who was part of the garrison of the distillery would say “the women spat at us and shouted jingo slogans, while the men started to pull down the barricade.” In general, most of the this resistance came from the lower classes in Dublin, which were most of the people in the area which the rebels had chosen to occupy. The South Dublin Union for example was the largest poorhouse in the country, and other areas around it were also in tough economic positions. The resentment from these citizens was mostly because many could not afford to not be able to work for a week, if only from the perspective of lost income to buy food, let alone what would happen if the British showed up and fighting started. As it was, the Rising would be a real hardship for a good number of Dublin citizens something that we will revisit. However, even though these groups did not like the rebels some among them still took advantage of the situation to do a bit of looting which in the years after the Rising were sometimes attributed to the rebels themselves. On the first day there were a few small skirmishes around the city, but for the most part normal people had little to fear from the rebels or the British snipers that were posted around them. During this period the biggest threat to the volunteers has an organization was the boredom and slow decay of discipline, which was helped by all of the rumors that would spread around the city like wildfire. This fostered a wide variety of expectations from unit to unit since nobody really had any idea of what was happening in other areas of the city let alone in the country as a whole. The rumors went from the severity of the British response, to the countryside mobilizing and marching on Dublin, to the most absurd which involved large groups of Irish Americans being landed on the coast to come to their assistance.
When the rising started there were around 200 women who would be present and ready to do their part. There were originally no official mobilization orders for these women and for others of the Cumman na Mban, but this would be sent out later at their insistence. Even though the proclamation at the GPO spoke of equality, it was not often present for the women of the Rising. At the beginning the women who showed up where often told to go home by the unit leaders, most of which believed that now that the fighting had started there was no place for the women. On the somewhat rare chance that they were accepted into the units they found their roles to be rigidly demarcated by genders. They were not allowed to take part in any actual fighting and they were often relegated to cleaning or food preparation. Even the most supportive members of the leadership thought that this was the only way that women could contribute to the Rising in the early days. When the British began to appear in large numbers most of the women were strongly encouraged to leave altogether. Even with all of the prejudice that they were experiencing the women did find a way to contribute to the rising. Due to similar prejudices present among the British soldiers and commanders the women were often able to move around Dublin far more freely than the male rebels. This meant that they made ideal dispatch carriers, and as a method of moving weapons, ammunition, and supplies among the various rebel held buildings, even when it would have been suicidal for any many to attempt a similar action. They were still in danger though, especially later in the week when the British started to catch onto what was happening.
So, with the rebels spreading around the city, why was the British response far slower and weaker than expected? Well, to start with there were only 400 troops in Dublin when the Rising started, with the rest of the 2400 garrison outside the city on Easter holiday. Due to the general lack of knowledge of the Rising, and the knowledge of the countermand from O’Neill, very few of the planned holidays had been cancelled. Even with this extreme weakness the British would quickly begin to recover because of a few important mistakes made by the rebels, the biggest of which were the failure to take over the telephone and telegraph exchange inside the city, which allowed news of what was happening to quickly get out of the city and start to bring troops into the area. However, instead of quickly attacking the various rebel positions, most of the troops were used to simply garrison important locations like the rail station and were then told to await reinforcements. There was some action which we will discuss next week but for the most part this defensive posture was the norm. This went along with the commander’s wishes when Brigadier General William Lowe gave the orders that “the establishment of a central axis of communication running from Kingsbridge to the North Wall and Trinity college, folowed by the coroning off of the main rebel positions.” by Tuesday there would be 4,000 troops available and this number would continue to grow rapidly, next episode we will discuss what the troops were used for as the Rising that so quickly came into being would also come to an end.
Before I end today though, here is the full text of that proclamation like I promised: IRISHMAN AND IRISHWOMEN: 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 organized and trained her manhood through her secret revolutionary organization, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and through her open military organizations, 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 Irish woman. The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities of all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government, which have divided a minority 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 Provision 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. Signed on behalf of the Provisional Government,