Easter Rising

A 1916 Rebellion Declaring an Independent Ireland

English troops under fire during the Easter Rising.
English troops under fire behind a barricade of cars, facing a charge by the rebels on Talbot Street during the Easter Rising. (1916). (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

What Was the Easter Rising?

On Easter Monday, April 24, 1916, over 1,000 Irish nationalists took to the streets of Dublin, where they proclaimed a free Irish republic in defiance of the ruling British government. Following a week of battle with British troops, the vastly outnumbered rebels were defeated. More than 450 people were killed and 2,000 injured during the Easter Rising (sometimes called the Easter Rebellion).

Leaders of the uprising were dealt with swiftly, executed for their actions only weeks after the insurrection.

Although short-lived, the rebellion had not been fought in vain; instead, it marked a turning point in Irish history. The Easter Rising galvanized the Irish people—many of whom had not previously supported the fight for independence—thereby strengthening the nationalist movement.

Factors Leading Up to the Rising

Under British rule for nearly seven centuries, the Irish officially became part of the United Kingdom (UK) with the passage of the Act of Union in 1800. Under the Act, the Irish Parliament was also abolished, leaving Ireland under the governance of the UK Parliament.

Generally unpopular among the Irish, this arrangement led to the creation of several nationalist organizations during the 19th century. One of these groups, a secret society formed in 1848 and claiming a branch in the United States, was the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB).

The main goal of the IRB was to achieve full independence for Ireland.

Other, more moderate, nationalists were opposed to rebellion and advocated for home rule. Under home rule, Ireland would remain a part of the United Kingdom, yet retain some measure of self-government. After many attempts to push home rule through Parliament, the bill finally passed in 1914; however, the enactment of the bill was delayed by the onset of World War I in July 1914.

This delay caused the nationalist group known as the Irish Volunteer Force (IVF) to become divided. The majority of the group—approximately 120,000—split off and formed the National Volunteers, led by John Redmond. This group pledged its support to the British war effort.

The remainder of the group, some 13,000 men, became the Irish Volunteers, committed to the cause of Irish home rule, despite the outbreak of war. These men, led by Eoin MacNeill, remained in Ireland for the duration of the war.

Planning a Rebellion

Impatient to achieve complete independence from the British, members of the IRB did not want to wait until the war was over. In fact, they believed that British involvement in the war would make it easier to stage a rebellion. The IRB began to plan its rebellion in 1915. The group hoped to recruit members of the Irish Volunteers, who shared their vision of an independent Ireland.

First, the group needed both weapons and ammunition. Irish nationalist Sir Roger Casement, a former consular official for the British, arranged for a shipment of arms from Britain's enemies, the Germans.

Casement's plan was stymied, however, when British intelligence intercepted messages between the rebels and the Germans.

Casement was captured on April 21, 1916, just hours after his arrival from Germany to the Irish coast, and the weapons never reached the rebels. Casement was charged with treason and imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Easter Rising Delayed

Casement's failure to supply the arms resulted in the decision by many would-be rebels to withdraw from the planned insurrection. Only the most militant of them decided to remain committed to the mission.

Eoin MacNeill, leader of the Irish Volunteers, was one who refused to continue to back the Easter Rising. Fearing a large number of casualties, MacNeill handwrote several notes on Saturday, April 22 that stated, “Volunteers completely deceived. All orders for tomorrow Sunday are entirely cancelled,” to be delivered to leaders in several cities. To be sure that everyone knew about the change of plan, MacNeill also placed a similar ad in the newspaper calling off the rebellion.

While the Easter Rising was planned for Sunday, April 23 and was to occur in a number of cities, the lack of weapons and MacNeill’s notes caused confusion, resulting in several cities pulling out of the plan and delaying the rebellion by a day.

Leaders of the rebellion sent couriers throughout Dublin to announce that the rising was still on for Monday, April 24th.

Rebels Overtake Dublin

At 11:00 a.m. on Easter Monday, April 24, 1916, rebel volunteers and their leaders came together at strategic positions in Dublin, including the General Post Office (GPO), along with some local factories and other prominent businesses. Among their ranks were members of the IRB, Irish Volunteers who had ignored the warnings of MacNeill, the Irish Citizen Army (a socialist trade union group), and the women's group Cumman na mBan.

In all, more than 1,000 rebels had assembled for the Easter Rising. The leaders successfully commandeered the GPO as their headquarters and then at 12:45 p.m. on April 24, 1916, rebel leader Patrick Pearse read a proclamation to the small crowd gathered at the steps of the GPO. The Proclamation declared Ireland's independence and announced the creation of a provisional government run by the IRB.

When the Easter Rising began, there were only 400 British troops confronting the rebels, but soon nearly 16,000 troops were deployed to squelch the rebellion. Most clashes between troops and rebels occurred in fiercely fought street battles, with the highest casualties (mostly British) at Mount Street Bridge on April 26, 1916.

However, after a week of violence, the fighting was over, leaving approximately 450 people dead and more than 2,000 wounded.

Quick Justice

To the dismay of the rebels, the Irish public did not throw its support behind the rebellion; they instead blamed the rebels for the high number of civilian deaths (254) that occurred during the Easter Rising as well as the destruction of much of Dublin's center.

Leaders of the rebellion were dealt with quickly. Fourteen, including Pearse and the others who had signed the Proclamation, were executed by firing squad in May.

Casement, after it had been conveniently leaked that he was homosexual to further besmirch his reputation, was hanged on August 3.

One Easter Rising leader, Eamon de Valera, was at first sentenced to death but then had his sentence reduced to imprisonment, partly because he was born in the United States. (De Valera later went on to become president of Ireland.)

After the Easter Rising, the British imposed martial law, which lasted until the fall of 1916. Anyone suspected of supporting the Easter Rising in any way was taken into custody, resulting in 3,000 arrests and more than 1,400 imprisonments, many of them without a trial.

Twenty-five-year-old Michael Collins was one of those arrested and imprisoned; he was later released in December 1916.

Aftermath of the Easter Rising

The leaders of the Easter Rising hoped that even if their rebellion was quashed, their martyrdom would inspire others and reinvigorate Ireland’s national spirit.

At first, this did not seem to happen, but soon the Irish became resentful of British authorities. In the face of prolonged martial law, hasty executions, imprisonments without trial, and the postponement of home rule, public support for Irish independence grew.

In December 1918, just two-and-a-half years after the Easter Rising, the Sinn Fein political party, which supported the establishment of an Irish Republic, won a majority of Irish seats in the UK Parliament (73 out of 105).

The following month, January 1919, the Sinn Fein members refused to sit in the UK Parliament and, instead, defiantly created an Irish Parliament in Dublin called Dail Eireann. With the Dail Eireann’s subsequent declaration of Ireland’s independence on January 21, 1919, the Irish War of Independence (sometimes called the Anglo-Irish War) began.

For two years (1919 to 1921), the Irish Republican Army (IRA), led by Michael Collins, used guerrilla tactics to fight off British forces. On July 11, 1921, the British, who were tired of fighting with no discernible results, agreed to a truce.

After months of negotiations, a treaty was signed on December 6, 1921, establishing the Irish Free State, a self-ruling nation of the British Commonwealth. Ireland's six northernmost counties (now known as Northern Ireland) voted against joining the Free State, remaining a part of the United Kingdom.

On Easter Monday, April 18, 1949, the Irish Free State fully left the United Kingdom to become its own country, the Republic of Ireland.