The Easter Rising, Irish Rebellion of 1916

Dublin Uprising, and Its Aftermath, Propelled Fight for Irish Freedom

Ruins of the Dublin post office in 1916
Ruins of the rebel headquarters following the Easter Rising.

LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images 

The Easter Rising was an Irish rebellion against British rule staged in Dublin in April 1916, which accelerated moves toward securing Ireland's freedom from the British Empire. The rebellion was quickly crushed by British forces and was considered a failure at first. Yet it soon became a powerful symbol and helped focus efforts of Irish nationalists to break free after centuries of domination by Britain.

Part of what made the Easter Rising ultimately successful was the British response to it, which included the execution by firing squad of the rebellion's leaders. The killings of men viewed as Irish patriots served to galvanize public opinion, both in Ireland and in the Irish exile community in America. Over time the rebellion has taken on great meaning, becoming one of the central events of Irish history.

Fast Facts: The Easter Rising

  • Significance: Armed Irish rebellion against British rule eventually led to Ireland's independence
  • Began: Easter Monday, April 24, 1916, with the seizure of public buildings in Dublin
  • Ended: April 29, 1916, with the surrender of the rebels
  • Participants: Members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the Irish Volunteers, fighting against the British Army
  • Result: Rebellion in Dublin failed, but the firing squad executions of the rebellion's leaders by the British Army became a powerful symbol and helped inspire the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921)
  • Notable Fact: The poem "Easter 1916" by William Butler Yeats memorialized the event, and has been considered one of the great political poems of the 20th century

Background of the Rebellion

The rebellion of 1916 was one of a series of rebellions against British rule in Ireland stretching back to a rebellion in 1798. Throughout the 19th century, uprisings against British rule had periodically broken out in Ireland. They all failed, generally because the British authorities had been tipped off in advance, and the untrained and poorly armed Irish rebels were no match for one of the most powerful military forces on earth.

The fervor for Irish nationalism did not fade and in some ways had become more intense at the beginning of the 20th century. A literary and cultural movement, known now as the Irish Renaissance, helped inspire pride in Irish traditions and resentment against British rule.

Organizations Behind the Rising

As a result of legislation in the British Parliament in 1911, Ireland seemed to be on the road toward Home Rule, which would create an Irish government within the United Kingdom. The largely Protestant population in the north of Ireland opposed Home Rule, and formed a militarized organization, the Ulster Volunteers, to oppose it.

In the more Catholic south of Ireland, a militarized group, the Irish Volunteers, was formed to defend the concept of Home Rule. The Irish Volunteers was infiltrated by a more militant faction, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, which had its roots in rebel organizations stretching back to the 1850s.

When World War I broke out, the question of Irish Home Rule was postponed. While many Irish men joined the British military to fight on the Western Front, others stayed in Ireland and drilled in military fashion, intent on rebellion.

In May 1915, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (widely known as the IRB) formed a military council. Ultimately seven men of the military council would decide how to launch an armed rebellion in Ireland.

Notable Leaders

The members of the IRB military council tended to be poets, journalists, and teachers, who had come to militant Irish nationalism through the revival of Gaelic culture. The seven main leaders were:

photograph of Irish rebel leader Thomas Clarke
Thomas Clarke. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Thomas Clarke: An Irish rebel who had spent time in British jails for being part of the late 19th century Fenian campaign before being exiled to America, Clarke returned to Ireland in 1907 and worked to revive the IRB. A tobacco shop he opened in Dublin was the secret communications hub of Irish rebels.

Patrick Pearse: A teacher, poet, and journalist, Pearse had edited the newspaper of the Gaelic League. Becoming more militant in his thinking, he began to believe violent revolution was necessary to break away from England. His speech at the funeral of an exiled Fenian, O'Donovan Rossa, on August 1, 1915, was a passionate call for the Irish to rise up against British rule.

Thomas McDonagh: A poet, playwright, and teacher, McDonagh became involved in the nationalist cause and joined the IRB in 1915.

Joseph Plunkett: Born to a wealthy Dublin family, Plunkett became a poet and journalist and was very active in promoting the Irish language before he became one of the leaders of the IRB.

Eamonn Ceannt: Born in a village in County Galway, in the west of Ireland, Ceannt became active in the Gaelic League. He was a talented traditional musician and worked to promote Irish music before becoming involved with the IRB.

Sean MacDiarmada (MacDermott): Born in rural Ireland, he became involved with the nationalist political party Sinn Fein and eventually was recruited by Thomas Clarke to be an organizer for the IRB.

James Connolly: Born in Scotland to a poor family of Irish workers, Connolly became a noted socialist author and organizer. He spent time in America, and in Ireland in 1913 rose to prominence in a labor lockout in Dublin. He was an organizer of the Irish Citizen Army, a militarized socialist faction which fought alongside the IRB in the 1916 rebellion.

Given the prominence of writers in the rebellion, it's not surprising that a proclamation became part of the Easter Rising. The Proclamation of the Irish Republic was signed by the seven members of the military council, who proclaimed themselves the Provisional Government of the Irish Republic.

Problems at the Outset

In the early planning of the rising the members of the IRB had hoped to receive assistance from Germany, which was at war with Britain. Some German weapons had been smuggled to Irish rebels in 1914, but efforts to obtain more weapons for the 1916 rising were thwarted by the British.

A gun-running ship, the Aud, was set to land guns of the west coast of Ireland, but was intercepted by the British navy. The captain of the ship scuttled it rather than have it fall into British hands. An Irish aristocrat with rebel sympathies, Sir Roger Casement, who had arranged the delivery of the weapons, was arrested by the British and ultimately executed for treason.

The rising was also originally intended to occur across Ireland, but the secrecy of the planning and confused communications meant nearly all the action occurred in the city of Dublin.

photo of British troops during 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin
British soldiers at a barricade in Dublin during the Easter Rising. Bettmann / Getty Images

Fighting in Dublin

The original date set for the rising was to be Easter Sunday, April 23, 1916, but was delayed one day to Easter Monday. On that morning columns of Irish rebels in military uniforms assembled and marched out in Dublin and seized prominent public buildings. The strategy was to make their presence known, so the headquarters of the rebellion was to be the General Post Office on Sackville Street (now O'Connell Street), the main street through the center of the city.

As the outset of the rebellion, Patrick Pearse, in a green military uniform, stood in front of the General Post Office and read the rebel proclamation, copies of which had been printed for distribution. Most Dubliners thought, at first, that it was some sort of political demonstration. That quickly changed as armed men occupied the building, and eventually the British forces arrived and actual fighting began. Shooting and shelling in the streets of Dublin would continue for six days.

A flaw in the strategy was that the rebel forces, which numbered less than 2,000, were spread out in locations which could be surrounded by British troops. So the rebellion quickly turned into a collection of sieges at various locations in the city.

During the week of the rising there were intense street battles at some locations, and a number of rebels, British soldiers, and civilians, were wounded and killed. The population of Dublin was generally opposed to the rising as it was happening, as it not only disrupted ordinary life but created great danger. British shelling leveled some buildings and set fires.

On the sixth day of the Easter Rising, the rebel forces accepted the inevitable and surrendered. The rebels were taken prisoner.

Irish rebel prisoners being marched through Dublin in 1916.
Captured Irish rebels being marched through Dublin in 1916. Independent News and Media / Getty Images

The Executions

In the aftermath of the rising, the British authorities arrested more than 3,000 men and approximately 80 women suspected of involvement. Many were released quickly, but a few hundred men were eventually sent to an internment camp in Wales.

The commander of British troops in Ireland, Sir John Maxwell, was determined to send a strong message. Ignoring advice to the contrary, he began holding court martials for the rebel leaders. The first trials were held on May 2, 1916. Three of the top leaders, Patrick Pearse, Thomas Clarke, and Thomas McDonagh, were quickly convicted. They following morning they were shot at dawn in a yard at Kilmainham Prison in Dublin.

The trials and executions continued for a week and 15 men were eventually shot by firing squads. Roger Casement, who had been arrested in the days before the rising, was hanged in London on August 3, 1916, the only leader to be executed outside of Ireland.

Legacy of the Easter Rising

The execution of the rebel leaders resonated deeply in Ireland. Public opinion hardened against the British, and the move toward open rebellion against British rule became unstoppable. So while the Easter Rising may have been a tactical disaster, in the long run it became a powerful symbol and led to the Irish War of Independence and the creation of an independent Irish nation.

Sources:

  • "Easter Rising." Europe Since 1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of War and Reconstruction, edited by John Merriman and Jay Winter, vol. 2, Charles Scribner's Sons, 2006, pp. 911-914. Gale Ebooks.
  • Hopkinson, Michael A. "Struggle for Independence from 1916 to 1921." Encyclopedia of Irish History and Culture, edited by James S. Donnelly, Jr., vol. 2, Macmillan Reference USA, 2004, pp. 683-686. Gale Ebooks.
  • "Proclamation of the Irish Republic." Encyclopedia of Irish History and Culture, edited by James S. Donnelly, Jr., vol. 2, Macmillan Reference USA, 2004, pp. 935-936. Gale Ebooks.
  • "Easter 1916." Poetry for Students, edited by Mary Ruby, vol. 5, Gale, 1999, pp. 89-107. Gale Ebooks.