The destination for history

The 1916 Easter Rising


At the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, the slogan ‘England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity’ became synonymous among Irish nationalists and became the driving force behind physical force nationalism in Ireland during the first half of the twentieth century.

With the outbreak of the war came the suspension of the Third Home Rule Bill, which was due to become law in Ireland in 1914. The bill was to be suspended until after the war, which was not expected to last longer than Christmas of 1914. The outbreak of the war saw the Ulster Volunteer Force in Northern Ireland willingly coming to the aid of Britain by sending most of the force to fight in the war. These men became known as the 36th Ulster Division and took part in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. However, for their counterpart in the south of Ireland, the Irish Volunteer Force, the decision as to whether or not they should enter the war and fight on the behalf of Britain was not an easy decision.

As a result, the issue of war led to a bitter split in the Irish Volunteer Force. This however, was not an equal split in the force as some 105,000 men under the leadership and persuasion of John Redmond, enlisted to fight in the war with Britain. This branch of the Volunteers became known as the Nationalist Volunteers. Redmond was of the thinking that if Irish men were to fight for Britain it would make Home Rule a reality as soon as the war ended. This idea of constitutional nationalism was not shared by the remaining 12,000 members of the I.V.F, who were becoming increasingly frustrated by British control in Ireland. Members of this branch, who kept the name Irish Volunteers, believed that physical force nationalism was the only means of eradicating British control from Ireland and, ultimately as a means of achieving a self - sufficient Irish Republic. Under the leadership of Eoin Mac Neill, the Irish Volunteer Force, was completely opposed to entering the war. In fact, many members of the I.V.F had other intentions now that Britain was preoccupied with the war, and the phrase ‘England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity’, became a slogan that was to forever be inextricably linked with the Irish Volunteers. 

By 1916, as the war continued with no immediate end in sight, members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood decided to stage an uprising in Ireland in order to gain independence. A Supreme Military Council was founded and plans were secretly put into place by members Thomas Clarke, Seán Mac Dermott, Joseph Plunkett, Eamon Ceannt, James Connolly, Thomas Mac Donagh and Patrick Pearse, to stage the rebellion for Easter Sunday 1916. However, two major setbacks were to occur and alter the course the rebellion was to take. Firstly, it was planned that arms and munition was to arrive from Germany to aid with the rebellion. Roger Casement was tasked with acquiring these arms and having secured some munition while in Germany, it looked as if the rebellion may have a chance of succeeding, as most of Britain’s troops were tied up in the war at the time. However, a fatal blow was delivered as confusion arose about when and where the arms were to be landed in Ireland. When the ship carrying the arms and ammunition, known as the Aud finally arrived at Banna Strand, in Tralee, Co. Kerry, it was intercepted by the royal navy and immediately abandoned by its captain, Karl Spindler, who plunged the Aud further into the sea. 

Secondly, Mac Neill was not willing to let his men rebel against Britain unless there was an immediate fear that Britain was going to suppress the Volunteer movement, and when he was presented with the ‘Castle document’ by members of the Supreme Council, he believed this was in fact a genuine threat and agreed to allow his Volunteers participate in the rebellion. However, after finding out the fate of the arms and ammunition and the fact that the ‘Castle document’, he received days earlier was in fact a forgery, in order to gain his support to commit the Volunteers to a rebellion, Mac Neill issued a countermanding order in the Sunday Independent, cancelling all Volunteer manoeuvres for Easter Sunday morning.

With orders cancelled by Mac Neill, members of the Supreme Council were forced to abandon their plans on Easter Sunday. However, plans were put into place to proceed with the rebellion on Easter Monday. As a result of the countermanding order, many of the volunteers were left confused and many did not show up on Easter Monday. Instead of a national rebellion that had been intended, the rebellion began at noon on Easter Monday 24 April, and was confined to Dublin, with only 1,500 rebels turning up. The rebellion became known as the 1916 Easter Rising and the General Post Office (GPO) on Sackville Street was chosen as rebel headquarters, and remained so for the duration of the week. Other positions were taken up around Dublin such as Boland’s Mill, Jacob’s Biscuit Factory and City Hall, to name but a few. Back at headquarters, the flag of the Irish republic was raised on the roof of the G.P.O, and Patrick Pearse, on the steps of the post office proclaimed an Irish republic when he read the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, which had been signed by the seven members of the Supreme Council.

Although Britain was preoccupied with the war in Europe, troops were sent to Dublin over the course of the week and martial law was declared on the city by General Lowe when he arrived in Dublin with reinforcements of British troops. The rebellion had taken civilians by surprise and there was no public support for the rebellion during its duration. With the death toll of civilians rising, the decision was taken by Patrick Pearse on Friday 28 April, to surrender unconditionally. By the end of the rebellion, with less than a week of action, 142 British soldiers and policemen had been killed, 64 Volunteers had died, as well as 254 civilians and some 2,000 injured. The weeks immediately following the rebellion saw sixteen of the leaders of the rebellion, including all members of the Supreme Council, imprisoned and ultimately executed for their actions. Other members of the Volunteer movement were interned in prisons in Britain such as Frongoch. The 1916 Easter Rising was the beginning of the Irish revolution, and once the war in Europe was to end, Britain was to engage in a two year battle with Ireland, even if it was less significant than the war they had fought in Europe.  

By Emma Savage. Emma studied History and Irish for three years and has also completed her master’s in Military History and Strategic Studies at NUI Maynooth. 

Sign up for our newsletter

show more books