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1916: out of empire and war

13 February 2016

Birth of the Irish Republic by Walter Paget, depicting the GPO during the shelling. James Connolly is depicted lying injured on the stretcher.

In World War One, groups of brave Irishmen struck to leave the British Empire and the war. It became known as the Easter Rising.

The 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin stubbornly troubles the present. Prompting strong feelings, it has been categorised wildly as dismal failure and tragic folly, daring adventure and noble sacrifice, while its participants have been classified as everything from dangerous lunatics to national martyrs.

With the passage of time, the Rising obstinately refuses to diminish but shines through as a most extraordinary, challenging event; its scale and significance weirdly out of kilter with its actual size. Many of its intimations are still unrealised.

Unlike most of the other 20th-century moves out of empire and into nationhood, it did not occur at the end but in the very midst of the cataclysm of World War One. Britain’s difficulty was Ireland’s opportunity.

This was the first open revolt by workers against the carnage of inter-imperial conflict, showing they could strive for social and economic advance rather than being dragged into the great slaughter-house of capitalist competition. The sacrifices of the Rising proved of long-term benefit to Ireland, whereas 49,500 Irishmen (many from nationalist backgrounds) died in the futility of the Great War fighting for the British Empire.


On Easter Monday 1916, intent on starting a rebellion against British rule in Ireland, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army gathered at prearranged meeting places and occupied a number of strategic buildings in the inner city area of Dublin around the General Post Office (GPO) that commanded the main routes into the capital and enjoyed a strategic position in relation to the major British military barracks. Taking the British military by surprise, the properties were taken virtually without resistance. The rebels set about making them defensible. The GPO was the centre of the rebellion; it served as the rising’s headquarters and the seat of the provisional government.

A proclamation was read to the public on Easter Monday by Patrick Pearse the president of the provisional government of the Irish Republic. Accompanied by an armed guard, he stood on the steps of the GPO and read the statement to a sparse crowd that offered a few perfunctory cheers.

The proclamation had been secretly printed before the uprising. All seven members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood military council had approved it on 17 April and later signed it. In doing so, they were virtually guaranteeing that they would face the firing squad should the insurrection fail. The seven who signed were Thomas J Clarke, Seán Mac Diarmada, Thomas MacDonagh, PH Pearse, Éamonn Ceannt, James Connolly and Joseph Plunkett.


The proclamation declared that an independent Irish Republic had been established and a provisional government had been appointed, with the seven members of the Council, to temporarily administer its affairs. Ireland’s “national right to freedom and sovereignty” was asserted, as was “the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland”.

The leaders claimed: “Ireland through us summons her children to her flag” and could thus “prove itself worthy of [its] august destiny”. The Rising was linked to Irish history: “the Irish people have asserted their right to national freedom … in arms … six times during the past 300 years”. The Rising was not seen as a sudden, opportunist outbreak but part of a long-established nationalist tradition with a republican flavour: the document uses the term “republic” on five occasions.


The proclamation suggested that the Rising was not just a political event but also foreshadowed social and economic change, providing a vision of a free Irish state which would oversee the welfare of all its citizens. The republic would guarantee “religious and civil liberty, equal rights and opportunities” and would “pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation … cherishing all the children of the nation equally”.

This passage shows the influence of Connolly’s socialist principles. There was also a commitment to introduce universal suffrage, a phenomenon limited at the time to only a handful of countries, not including Britain. The revolutionaries hoisted the new flag of the republic, a green white and orange tricolour, from the flagpole of the occupied buildings, instead of the British union flag.

Although the leaders of the uprising knew that they would probably lose and likely die as a result, it did not mean they were unprepared. James Connolly had published studies of the European insurrections of 1830, 1848 and 1905 in the socialist press. He was convinced that even if the rising failed, it would “reawaken the soul of the nation”.

The nationalist volunteers fought bravely. The Rising attempted to occupy key parts of Dublin but failed to take Dublin Castle (the seat of British government), the train stations or the two docks. Though there were assemblies outside of Dublin, many dispersed in confusion though there was an attack on the Royal Irish Constabulary barracks at Ashbourne, County Meath and 700 volunteers mobilised under Liam Mellows in County Galway.

The British military onslaught, which the rebels had anticipated, did not at first materialise. When the Rising began the British authorities had just 400 troops in Dublin to confront roughly 1,200 insurgents, so they began to amass reinforcements. They gathered information on volunteer strength and locations and protected strategic positions, including the seat of government, Dublin Castle, which had initially been virtually undefended.

‘If we lose Ireland, we have lost the Empire.’

As the week progressed, the fighting in some areas did become intense, characterised by prolonged, fiercely contested street battles. Military casualties were highest at Mount Street Bridge. There, newly arrived troops from Britain made tactically inept, frontal attacks on determined and disciplined volunteers occupying several strongly fortified outposts. They lost 234 men, dead or wounded while just 5 rebels died. British soldiers were alleged to have killed 15 unarmed men in North King Street during intense gun battles there on 28 and 29 April.

“If we lose Ireland, we have lost the Empire” commented one member of the British elite. The British authorities drafted reinforcements into the capital. By Friday 28 April, the 1,600 rebels (more had joined during the week) were facing 18 to 20,000 soldiers.


The GPO was entirely cut off from other rebel garrisons. Next day it came under a ferocious artillery attack which also devastated much of central Dublin. Having learnt the lessons of Mount Street Bridge, the troops did not attempt a mass infantry attack.

The new strategy compelled the insurgent leaders, based at the Post Office, first to evacuate the building and later to accept the only terms on offer – unconditional surrender. Their decision was then made known to, and accepted sometimes reluctantly by, all the rebel garrisons still fighting both in the capital and in the provinces.

In total, the Rising cost 450 persons killed, 2,614 injured, and 9 missing, almost all in Dublin. The only significant action elsewhere was at Ashbourne, 10 miles north of Dublin. Military casualties were 116 dead, 368 wounded and 9 missing, and the Irish and Dublin police forces had 16 killed and 29 wounded. A total of 254 civilians died. 64 rebels lost their lives.

All seven signatories of the proclamation were executed by the British military on the charge of committing treason in warfare. James Connolly who had been wounded in the fighting was executed sitting down in a chair. Though initially largely unsympathetic or indifferent to the Rising, Irish public opinion switched and became more sympathetic due to the manner of their treatment and the executions. Eventually the executions were halted, though there were several thousand arrests.


The Rising was the most significant uprising in Ireland since the 1798 United Irishmen Rebellion. It transformed Irish nationalist politics and prompted the rebirth of the Irish nation. Though the Rising failed in military terms, the event and the Proclamation principles have influenced to varying degrees the thinking of later generations. In his poem Easter 1916 the great Irish poet WB Yeats commemorated some of the fallen figures of the uprising with his refrain warning that everything was “changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.”

Many had greeted the Rising with either a lack of sympathy or bewilderment. But within three years everything had changed and the Irish people turned their back on the British Empire. They elected a rebel parliament in the UK general election of December 1918. There were 73 Sinn Féin victors out of Ireland’s 105 seats in the House of Commons, 25 unopposed. These winners did not take their seats at Westminster but those who were not in British jails convened on 21 January 1919 at Mansion House in Dublin as the Dáil Éireann (Assembly of Ireland).

The Dáil ratified the proclamation of the 1916 rising and declared a republic, independent from Britain and its monarchy. The British government made that assembly illegal in August 1919, which led to the War of Independence against Britain from 1919 to 1921 and the eventual creation of the Irish Free State, though that came with the barnacle of reaction and partition holding back development.

There is a profound distaste among ruling elites for the message of the Rising. They have bundled together the First World War and the Easter Rising in the same commemorative centenary events, as if to assert that the pointlessness of one equates to the positivity of the other.

The impact of the Easter Rising was felt not only in Ireland and Britain, but worldwide, inspiring among others Lenin and Ho Chi Minh as well as independence movements in India and Egypt. There is a fear on the part of the Irish and British governments of other bouts of resurgent popular nationalism encompassing social advance.

The sacrifice involved in the Easter Rising propelled Ireland a few steps on the road to freedom. However, the ideal of 1916 is not yet fulfilled. Partition remains, the EU remains to be broken. The Easter Rising still has meaning, in Ireland, Britain and beyond.

A shorter version of this article was published in Workers March/April 2016 edition.