Easter Rebellion Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Easter Rebellion against Britain failed, but it persuaded the Irish people to seek freedom from British rule.

Summary of Event

On the Monday after Easter, 1916, several hundred Irishmen and Irishwomen began a rebellion against the British Empire. The rising lasted until the following Saturday, when, after considerable death and destruction, the surviving rebels surrendered. The leaders were quickly executed, but within six years an independent Ireland came into existence. Paradoxically, from defeat came victory. Easter Rebellion (1916) Ireland;Easter Rebellion [kw]Easter Rebellion (Apr. 24-29, 1916) [kw]Rebellion, Easter (Apr. 24-29, 1916) Easter Rebellion (1916) Ireland;Easter Rebellion [g]England;Apr. 24-29, 1916: Easter Rebellion[03980] [g]Ireland;Apr. 24-29, 1916: Easter Rebellion[03980] [c]Government and politics;Apr. 24-29, 1916: Easter Rebellion[03980] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Apr. 24-29, 1916: Easter Rebellion[03980] [c]Independence movements;Apr. 24-29, 1916: Easter Rebellion[03980] Pearse, Patrick Henry MacNeill, Eoin Casement, Sir Roger Connolly, James Clarke, Tom MacDermott, Sean Birrell, Augustine Guest, Ivor Churchill Maxwell, Sir John Grenfell

England’s power and influence had hung over Ireland for hundreds of years, and throughout the nineteenth century many demanded greater independence for Ireland. Some were primarily peaceful and political in their approach—such as Daniel O’Connell and Charles Stewart Parnell—but some were violent, such as the Fenians of the 1860’s. In 1910, with the British parliament deadlocked, the Liberal government promised the Irish delegates that legislation for greater home rule would be introduced in exchange for their support.

Opposition came mainly from Protestants in Ulster, who feared for their future in a largely Catholic Ireland. Forming a volunteer army, they were prepared to go to war against the British government in order to remain British. Their example inspired home rulers and Irish nationalists in the south to form their own volunteer movement to support home rule. When World War I began in August of 1914, Ireland was divided into two armed camps. Home rule became law, but its implementation was postponed until the war’s end.

With the outbreak of war, many Irishmen, both Protestant and Catholic, joined the British army. However, under the maxim that “England’s difficulty was Ireland’s opportunity,” a small group, connected to the old Fenian movement through the secret Irish Republican Brotherhood Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), infiltrated the remnant opposed to participating in a British war and began to plan a rising against Britain. The IRB’s beliefs were exemplified in 1915 by Patrick Henry Pearse, a schoolteacher and poet who, at the Dublin funeral for an old Fenian, cried out that Ireland unfree could never be at peace.

The IRB leadership hoped to rely on as many as ten thousand volunteers, and planned that weapons, even soldiers, would come from Germany, Britain’s enemy. Sir Roger Casement, British diplomat turned Irish rebel, traveled to Germany, but his negotiations with the German government resulted only in promises of some weapons. Casement was captured by the British on the Friday before Easter after he secretly returned to Ireland, and the German submarine carrying twenty thousand guns for the volunteers was scuttled when it was discovered by the British.

The uprising was planned for Easter Sunday, the resurrection of Ireland paralleling the resurrection of Christ. The head of the volunteers, Eoin MacNeill, was not part of the IRB, however, and when he heard of the proposed rebellion and that Casement had been captured, he canceled scheduled maneuvers. The inner group decided to go ahead, however, a day late; thus about noon on Monday, April 24, hundreds of rebels took to the streets of Dublin and quickly occupied several preselected sites, trusting that once the rising began others would join. As they marched forth that day, however, they could not have been overly optimistic. James Connolly, a union leader and head of his own Irish Citizen Army, Irish Citizen Army who had only recently been made privy to the IRB plans, commented that they were all going out to be slaughtered.

Among the several locations occupied by the small band of rebels—only about one thousand men and women took part—was the General Post Office (GPO), an imposing structure on Sackville Street, in the heart of Dublin. Shortly after noon, Pearse read the Proclamation of the Republic, Proclamation of the Republic (Ireland) beginning with the emotive words, “In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.” In addition to Pearse and Connolly, the proclamation was signed by Tom Clarke, who had spent years in English jails, Joseph Plunkett, Sean MacDermott, Eamonn Ceannt, and Thomas MacDonagh. There were a few cheers from onlookers, but the responses were mostly just curiosity, amusement, and even outright hostility: Irishmen were serving in the British army in Flanders, and many saw the rebels’ actions as a cowardly stab in the back.

The British authorities were caught off balance. They had information about a rumored rebellion, but Casement was in jail, the German submarine was sunk, and MacNeill’s cancellation of Easter Sunday’s mobilization cast doubt on any immediate threat. Monday was a holiday, and many of the British troops stationed in Dublin were out of the city. The chief secretary for Ireland, Augustine Birrell, who had doubted any threat, was away in London. Ivor Churchill Guest, Baron Wimborne, the lord-lieutenant and the king’s representative in Ireland, wished for a stronger response to the rumors of rebellion, but before action could be taken, the rebels had occupied not only the GPO but also the Four Courts along the River Liffey, St. Stephen’s Green, and other positions, mostly on the south side of the city, that could interdict any British support troops arriving by sea.

Lacking any creative strategy, the republicans merely occupied key places and waited, hoping for the best—a popular uprising by the populace of Dublin and throughout Ireland, a reversal of the German decision not to send troops, or a British collapse. All were unlikely, and none materialized. There were a few minor skirmishes elsewhere, but they had little effect. The Irish population did not rise up in support.

The British general staff preferred a cautionary approach, isolating the various rebel locations, wearing them down by attrition rather than frontal assaults against entrenched positions. Still, there were British casualties, most notably on Northumberland Road and Lower Mount Street where a small detachment of Irish rebels fired from nearby houses, decimating an inexperienced British force, causing about two hundred casualties. There were probing attacks by the British, but mainly they resorted to artillery against the rebel outposts.

Republican morale remained high, but superior force began to tell. At the GPO and Sackville Street, where the Republic’s proclamation was first read, the destruction was the greatest. By Friday, British artillery had such an effect that the building was in danger of being engulfed by fire. Although Connolly had been shot twice on Thursday, most seriously in the ankle by a ricocheting bullet, the rebels had suffered relatively few casualties because of their defensive strategy. Pearse issued a statement on Friday morning, saying, “If we accomplish no more than we have accomplished, I am satisfied. I am satisfied that we have saved Ireland’s honour.” Early on Saturday, concluding that the GPO must be abandoned, the rebels escaped into side streets to the north, but retreat was no longer possible, and at 12:45 p.m. a young nurse was sent out under a white flag to seek a truce. The British authorities would accept nothing less than unconditional surrender. At 3:45 p.m. on Saturday, April 29, Pearse signed the surrender document. Bypassed by the British, some of the rebel locations that had seen little fighting were reluctant to surrender, but they did so anyway.

Significance

Officially, 1,353 individuals were reported killed during the rising, with losses greater among the British soldiers than among the rebels. Property damage was immense. None of the signers of the proclamation had been killed, but the commander of the British forces, General Sir John Grenfell Maxwell, established courts-martial to try the leaders for rebellion in time of war. Pearse, Clarke, and MacDonagh were sentenced to death and were shot on May 3, 1916, at Kilmainham Jail. On the following day Plunkett, married in the jail chapel only a few hours earlier, and three others followed. Fifteen executions occurred in all, the last on May 12 with Connolly and MacDermott. Casement was hanged in August in Britain. As the executions dragged on, public opinion began to change in support of the rebels. Pearse, Connolly, and the others did not intend merely to make a blood sacrifice, but as martyrs they were more influential than they had been when they were alive. War broke out again in 1919, and in 1922 the Irish Free State came into being. Easter Rebellion (1916) Ireland;Easter Rebellion

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Caufield, Max. The Easter Rebellion: Dublin, 1916. 1963. Reprint. Boulder, Colo.: Roberts Rinehart, 1995. Well-written, detailed account of the events surrounding the Easter Rising. Depicts the rising in a highly dramatic, moment-by-moment style. Portrays the republicans as heroes, but attempts to present a generally balanced point of view.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coogan, Tim Pat. 1916: The Easter Rising. London: Cassell, 2002. Account of the rebellion and its surrounding events by a recognized Irish scholar. Includes photographs and maps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Edwards, Ruth Dudley. Patrick Pearse: The Triumph of Failure. 1977. Reprint. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2006. Presents a sympathetic but not uncritical analysis of the Easter Rebellion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fitzgerald, Redmond. Cry Blood, Cry Erin. New York: C. N. Potter, 1966. Colorful discussion of the Irish nationalist movement from the early nineteenth century to the end of the Irish civil war in 1923. Written from a nationalist perspective by an Irishman obviously sympathetic to the republicans. Includes an outstanding series of illustrations, especially many photographs from the period 1914-1923.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Foster, R. F. Modern Ireland, 1600-1972. London: Penguin Books, 1988. History of Ireland by a leading scholar includes an informative and readable account of the rebellion. Features maps, tables, and figures.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kee, Robert. Ireland: A History. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1980. One of the best introductions to Irish history available for the general reader, particularly concerning the centuries-long conflict between Ireland and Britain. Debunks many of the myths of Irish history and also shows how they influenced future events, effectively connecting past and present.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lee, J. J. Ireland, 1912-1985: Politics and Society. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989. Presents an informative discussion of the causes and results of the rebellion. Includes maps, tables, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McHugh, Roger, ed. Dublin 1916: An Illustrated Anthology. New York: D. Elliot, 1980. Unusual compilation of illustrations, diary entries, autobiographical accounts by participants in the rebellion, contemporary newspaper stories, interviews, essays, poetry, and historical articles related to the rising. Places the events in a larger context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nowlan, Kevin B., ed. The Making of 1916: Studies in the History of the Rising. Dublin: Stationery Office, 1969. Collection of articles commissioned by the Irish government to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the rebellion. Surprisingly objective, despite its sponsor. Several essays provide useful background material, and two unusual chapters explain the influence of the Gaelic cultural movement on the nationalist movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Broin, Leon. Dublin Castle and the 1916 Rising. New York: New York University Press, 1971. Scholarly, readable discussion of the response of the British administration in Dublin to the rising. O’Broin’s experience as secretary of the Irish Department of Posts and Telegraphs is reflected in his ability to present the rebellion from the viewpoint of the government bureaucracy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ward, Alan J. The Easter Rising: Revolution and Irish Nationalism. 2d ed. Arlington Heights, Ill.: Harlan Davidson, 2003. Uses the Easter Rising as a starting point from which to examine Irish history from the twelfth century to the beginning of the twenty-first century.

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