As we sit around eating chocolate eggs participating in the Pagan/Christian festival that is Easter, we are all inclined to forget the 1916 Easter Rising, and forget those brave men and women who sacrificed themselves against imperialism for a better world.
This blog is in honour of all those courageous souls who died in the Easter Rising. Let us never forget your sacrifice for the Irish people and for the proletariat of the world.
What was the 1916 Easter Rising?
The Easter Rising was an armed rebellion in Ireland, where 1,200 members of Irish socialist and nationalist organisations rose up against the British in Dublin, and proclaimed an Irish Republic. Against the odds, they resisted the British army for a week before surrendering after their command was overrun.
Why did they rise up?
Ireland in 1916 was a tired, broken land. They had been under the yoke of British imperialism for hundreds of years, with the majority of the population living in horrendous conditions as they tried to support their families. Famines were regular, and unemployment ran high. Notably, infant mortality was running at 142 per 1,000 births, and things were only getting worse as time went on.
Because of these conditions, the Irish had fought against the British the moment they arrived on Irish soil. In the years leading up to World War One, they had striked and rioted in an attempt to get the British out of Ireland. With the help of the trade unions, protests for better conditions were a daily affair, and the Irish working c1ass were very militant. But all the lockouts, the pickets, the marches and the unrest just made the British cling on tighter and the repression continued.
The failure of these peaceful methods exhausted and demoralized the people. With the outbreak of war in 1914, they were too tired to commit to the struggle. As many of the labour leaders betrayed the people and committed to the war effort, tens of thousands of Irish joined up and were slaughtered in the trenches. The entire struggle for Independence and better conditions was becoming stagnant, and it needed a jolt to get it going again.
Riots against poor conditions were a daily occurance in Ireland.
So if the people had given up, who lead the Rising?
The Easter Rising was lead by two factions of dedicated patriots (although six organisations contributed to the rising, most under the banner of the Irish Volunteers), who wanted to rekindle the struggle against the British when they were weak.
The largest organisation was by far the Irish Volunteers, who committed the majority of the combatants to the Rising. The IV fought for a free Ireland, and wanted to make Ireland independent from Britain. The IV were fiercely divided about the Rising, and they received conflicting orders about when the rising would happen, and so less than a thousand of their 4,000 combatants actually fought (almost all in Dublin).
The other main organisation were the Irish Citizens Army. They were a socialist paramilitary group, formed to protect trade union protests from police attack. They were fighting for an Irish Socialist Republic. They were smaller than the IV, contributing only 200 or so combatants in Dublin, but they were by far the best dedicated, and were originally willing to begin the Rising themselves had the IV not joined them.
Both groups were lead by capable leaders, most notably James Connolly (ICA) and Patrick Pearse (IV).
James Connolly, leader of the Irish Citizens Army.
The Rising in action.
On Monday April 24th, 1,200 combatants rose up in Dublin. They took control of critical areas and buildings, such as the City Hall, the General Post Office, and the Four Courts legal establishment. At Liberty Hall, the proclamation of the Republic of Ireland was read out. However, due to lack of manpower and failure to capitalize the situation, the Rebels failed to take control of strategic buildings such as Dublin Castle.
The British were taken completely off guard, but they soon recovered from their surprise. With the combat being confined to Dublin, they were able to transport reinforcements to the area, and lay siege to the Rebels. The fact the Rebels failed to capture the two railroads in the city meant that this task was made easier for the British.
Through the next week, the ICA and IV fought valiantly against the odds. On Wednesday morning, 17 Rebels attacked a battalion of English outside Dublin, killing and wounding 240 men. In addition, the British forces pushing into the industrial strongholds were met with fierce resistance, and their advance was payed for in blood.
But though the Rebels tried, they could not stop the onslaught. Having only 1,500 troops (more had joined during the Rising) and no heavy weapons to speak of, they lost their initial advantage. In comparison, the British were now reinforced with around 18-20,000 soldiers, a thousand armed police, and heavy artillery.
The Rebel positions were now under constant shelling, and central Dublin was devastated by the less than accurate fire. The Rebel headquarters in the post office was shelled so much that it had to be abandoned. It was clear to all the leaders that the British had the upper hand, and further resistance would only cost more Rebel lives and many more civilian casualties.
Therefore, on Saturday the 29th of April, after five days of relentless combat, the Rebels surrendered "in order to prevent the further slaughter of Dublin citizens, and in the hope of saving the lives of our followers now surrounded and hopelessly outnumbered." (Pearse in the surrender proclamation).
Upon hearing this proclamation, the Rebels in other areas surrendered. Although none of the Rebel positions had been taken by force, it was clear that it was only a matter of time before they were overrun. The Rising had been defeated.
The Rebel headquarters after the surrender.
What were the casualties?
On the British side, 116 soldiers lay lead and over 300 were wounded. 16 policemen were killed, and 40 were wounded.
The only Rebel casualties are those stated by the IV and ICA that list 64 dead, but many more lay within the civilian casualties. However, we will never know how may Rebels were really killed or wounded, although it was definitely higher than 64.
The civilian casualties (along with those uncounted Rebels) stood at 318 dead and over 2,000 wounded. The high civilian casualty rates are usually attributed to the British, who used heavy artillery in the city, which lead to indirect civilian killings.
So what happened to the rebels?
The British were not happy about the Rising. Being in the middle of their imperialist war, an uprising in Ireland was the last thing they needed. Because of this, they were brutal to the Rebels, and they attempted to 'purge' the country to ensure it would never happen again.
In a series of courts martial, a total of 90 were sentenced to death. The seven who signed the proclamation declaring the Republic were all executed. Great patriots like P. Pearse were shot in cold blood after fighting for their liberation. The wounded James Connolly had to be shot in a chair because he was unable to stand.
In addition to this, over 3,000 were arrested, and 1,000 interned. 50,000 troops were moved into Ireland, and there was intense repression as the government hunted down all resistance and anyone who even hinted that they supported the Rising.
Irish prisoners are marched away to captivity - many to be executed.
Why did the Easter Rising fail?
The Rising failed because it was never meant to succeed. James Connolly himself, when asked by a comrade if they had any chance of success replied with two words: "none whatever." The Rising was meant to rekindle the fire in the Irish people, not liberate them outright. Indeed, the whole fact they instigated a rising was because they could not liberate themselves at that present time.
Although it is worthy of note that the majority of Rebel forces actually did not participate in the fight, due to conflicting orders. Had the Rising gone to plan, the ICA and IV would have risen over the entire country, not just in Dublin.
In hindsight, should it have been attempted?
It is always easy to criticise when looking back on an incident such as this. And indeed they made some mistakes. They did not take many of the strategic points, and therefore allowed the British to bring up substantial reinforcements. They did not tell the Irish people of their plan, and so although the Irish sympathised with the Rising, they did not help, because they were simply too stunned at the small group of militants declaring war on the British Empire.
However, as James Connolly said in his Final Statement before he was executed:
"We went out to break the connection between this country and the British Empire, and to establish an Irish Republic. We believed that the call we then issued to the people of Ireland, was a nobler call, in a holier cause, than any call issued to them during this war, having any connection with the war. We succeeded in proving that Irishmen are ready to die endeavouring to win for Ireland those national rights which the British Government has been asking them to die to win for Belgium."
The Easter Rising succeeded in drawing support back to the independence struggle, and Ireland was plunged into civil war, attaining its independence from Britain only five years after the Rising in 1921. In this goal they succeeded, but with the death of many of Irelands best leaders in 1916 (eg. Connolly), this meant that the new state did not stand for what many had died for in the 1916 Easter Rising, and instead of being a great friend to the Irish people, the exploitation continued, abeit through Irish exploiters instead of English ones.
Central Dublin was devastated by British artillery fire.
But even with these failings, these men were martyrs for the struggle for independence and liberation. Even in the dark years of imperialist war, these men and women were willing to sacrifice their lives for a just cause - not so they would benefit from it, but so that their children could benefit from it. Connolly puts it brilliantly in the last lines he ever wrote before the night of his execution:
"Believing that the British Government has no right in Ireland, never had any right in Ireland, and never can have any right in Ireland, the presence, in any one generation of Irishmen, of even a respectable minority, ready to die to affirm that truth, makes that Government for ever a usurpation and a crime against human progress.
I personally thank God that I have lived to see the day when thousands of Irish men and boys, and hundreds of Irish women and girls, were ready to affirm that truth, and to attest it with their lives if need be."
Therefore, in hindsight, to reject the Rising and say that it was 'poorly attempted' or 'unprepared' is just wrong. They knew exactly what they were fighting for, and they fought for it. They were true patriots and martyrs, and to reject the Rising would be an insult to their memory.
Although this article does not do them full justice, I ask you to remember these brave men who gave their lives for the liberation of Ireland, and for the fight against repressive imperialism - a repression that still stalks our world to this day.
If you have any questions, feel free to ask them. I will answer as best as I can.
Thank you for reading, and I hope you enjoyed the article,