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Understanding Easter 1916 - A Quick Guide to the Easter Rising!

April 18, 2016

Understanding Easter 1916: A Quick Guide to the Easter Rising!

Understanding the 1916 Easter Rising

One of the most significant periods in Irish History was the 1916 Easter Rising.  But in terms of studying Irish history, the 1916 Rising is also one of the most challenging! There was loads happening at the same time – nationalism, dual monarchism, Home Rule, different characters with different agendas, political scandal, political intrigue, military force versus guerrilla warfare, executions, betrayals: Ireland was extremely volatile and a highly dangerous place!

One of the greatest challenges facing students who are studying this period is that there is just so much to remember, so much to learn! When you are revising large topics like the 1916 Rising, it is a good idea to focus on the main points first, keep it simple, and then get into the specifics!

Use the following study guide to help keep you on track when you are revising Easter 1916… it deals with the main ideas, causes, and consequences of the 1916 Rising and it helps you to look at the Rising from a couple of different perspectives.    

The 1916 Rising: why did Irish people want to rebel?

Following a lot of failed rebellions in the 18th and 19th Centuries, Ireland was still longing for independence from the British Empire. Then, World War 1 broke out, and Britain became heavily involved in the fighting overseas. With England busy fighting the war, some Irish politicians seen the opportunity to encourage Britain to award Home Rule to Ireland. Remember, Home Rule was NOT full independence – it only gave Ireland ‘semi-independence’ – and under Home Rule Ireland would have had its own parliament, it could have made its own laws, but Ireland would STILL have remained part of the British Empire.

Obviously, this was not good enough for nationalists who wanted a fully independent Ireland. Nationalist groups like the IRB and the Irish Volunteers planned to catch the British by surprise and stage a nationwide armed rebellion on Easter Sunday, 1916. In the end, the Rising was postponed until Easter Monday.  

The 1916 Rising: a Recipe for Disaster?

On paper, the Easter Rising looked like a good idea. Guns were coming from Germany, the IRB, the ICA, and the Irish Volunteers were mobilising across the country.

But in reality, the Easter Rising was probably doomed to failure from the start. There are many, many different reasons for this, but here are the most important: firstly, it was badly organised.

Eoin MacNeill kept changing his mind about whether he would order his Irish Volunteers to fight (this was partly because of his personal concerns and partly because he was tricked by the leaders of the Rising); the shipment of guns and ammo sent from Germany was seized by the British Navy before the Rising began; the Irish Volunteers did not have the support of civilians – civilians were either confused or indifferent when Pearse read out the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. Even throughout the Rising, most civilians hadn’t a clue what was going on: some thought it was a German invasion, some thought it was a socialist revolution, and others thought it was the ‘Sinn Féiners’ wreaking havoc on the city

Even the whole strategy of the Rising was a bad decision. The rebels chose to occupy buildings in Dublin: this was a really bad idea.  The rebels should have stayed on the move and used hit-and-run guerrilla tactics against the British.  But they didn’t – they chose to stay put, and this allowed the British forces to surround them and defeat them easily. Indeed, the disastrous strategy of the rebels has actually made many historians wonder if the rebels actually hoped to or wanted win…but we’ll get to that shortly!

Don’t forget Helga

Don’t forget that the British gunship, the Helga, also made matters worse by concentrating on shelling the rebels occupying the GPO. Imagine being stuck inside a building that is being bombed continually by a huge warship? Not pretty. By staying put in one location, the rebels became sitting ducks and were easy to defeat. 

What happened afterwards?

After a week of fighting, it became clear to everyone (including the rebels themselves) that the Rising had failed. Pearse, Connolly, and the other leaders surrendered. The British government thought that the Rising was part of a larger German plot (don’t forget that Britain was fighting Germany in WWI at this time). The British government decided to make an example out of the ‘ringleaders’: most of the leaders, including Pearse and Connolly, were executed.  But then a strange thing happened…

…When the British began to execute the leaders, lots of Irish people began to sympathise with the 1916 Rebels. They thought that the executions were barbaric and unnecessary, and they began to become hostile towards Britain. Fearing another, larger rebellion, Britain commuted (reduced) the remaining death-sentences into life-sentences and the executions stopped.

A different perspective on Easter 1916: Pearse, and the ‘Blood Sacrifice’

So, in military terms, the Rising was a definite failure: the leaders were arrested an executed, half of Dublin was destroyed, and Ireland was still part of the British Empire. But that is not the only way of looking at the Rising…what about Easter 1916 and Pearse’s idea of ‘blood sacrifice’? Remember when we said how some historians have actually wondered if Pearse and the other leaders even wanted to win during Easter Week? Well, this is where the blood sacrifice comes into the story…

What was the ‘blood sacrifice’?

To put it really simply, Padraic Pearse was an extreme nationalist: he became convinced that the best way to win Irish independence was through violence. Soon, he began developing and celebrating the idea of the ‘blood sacrifice’ – the idea that Irishmen needed to sacrifice their lives in order to win Irish independence. Pearse believed that the spilling of the blood of Irish patriots would inspire the rest of Ireland to rise up against Britain. Did Pearse and the other leaders know that they were going to die, that they were never going to win, but that their deaths might inspire Irish people to take up arms?

By executing the rebel leaders, the British government actually played into Pearse’s hands, and in some ways Pearse’s ‘blood sacrifice’ became a reality. The executions really brought the whole question of Irish independence into discussion, and in the wake of the executions many people in Ireland were no longer willing to accept Home Rule as being a good enough offer from Britain. Now, it was either full independence or nothing. So by looking at the Rising from the ‘blood sacrifice’ perspective, historians have argued that the Rising was in some ways a success – the rebels failed militarily (they were beaten by the British army), but they succeeded ideologically (lots of people now supported the movement for Irish independence).

Easter Rising: Remember, keep it simple!

·         WW1 presented an opportunity for nationalists and Home Rulers.

·         A Rising was planned for Easter 1916 but it was badly planned and had no support from civilians.

·         The rebels took up bad positions and were defeated easily.

·         The rebels were unpopular at first, but after the executions people became sympathetic and supportive of the nationalist movement.

·         Remember Pearse’s idea of the blood-sacrifice…

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