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History

OTD: The Easter Rising. British Oppression and Irish Freedom.

As down the glen one Easter morn
To a city fair rode I
There armed lines of marching men
In squadrons passed me by
No fife did hum, no battle drum
Did sound its dred tattoo
But the Angelus bells o’er the Liffey’s swell
Rang out through the foggy dew

On Easter Monday, 1916 members of the Irish Republican Army, commanded by James Connolly, marched unopposed into the Dublin General Post Office (GPO), hoisted the white, green and orange tricolour and proclaimed the formation of the Irish Republic. But what grievances did these rebels have with the British and what had inspired them to take such drastic action in the first place?

It is said to be Britain’s first colony and with such a long, shared history, to an outside observer, one might suppose that this had resulted in close ties of national friendship. This is, however, not the case. The occupation of Ireland began back in the 12th century and ever since then the story of the British on the Island has been uniformly one of oppression subjugation and brutality. In the 16th and 17th centuries during the Tudor invasion and the Cromwellian genocide, Catholics were targeted for their beliefs with indiscriminate murder, torture and dispossession of land. During the Irish potato famine, the British Malthusian ideology of laissez-fare governance led to the unnecessary deaths of millions. Food was being transported out of Ireland to be sold to make British absentee landlords money, while whole villages perished. These deaths coupled with mass migration away from the emaciated country has meant that to this day the population of Ireland has yet to recover.

Thus, when in 1916 fear from the threat of another famine, increased taxation and conscription for the war began to surface, Irish Republican leaders the time for ridding the Irish of the British oppressors was at hand. This, along with the war, stretching the British army thin, offered the Republicans an invaluable opportunity to strike whilst their adversaries were weakest and popular opinion could, perhaps, be won over.

Organised originally for Easter Sunday, the rebellion had to be postponed until the Monday when on the Saturday orders were sent by Commandant Owen MacNeil cancelling manoeuvres by the Irish volunteers that would act as cover for the rising. MacNeil was the Conservative leader of the Irish Volunteers who, until the Thursday before, was unaware of the planned uprising, a secret kept exclusively by the Supreme Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Therefore, Irish volunteers throughout the country turning up to mass on Sunday, prepared to launch independent rebellions in tandem with those in Dublin, were simply sent home, massively undermining the Republicans efforts.

Not to be deterred and after the initial seizure of the GPO on Easter Monday continued to proceed extremely favourably for the Republicans. A good portion of the city fell with little resistance and importantly there was no major British counterattack due to generals and officers stationed in the city being on their Easter holidays. By the Tuesday, English infantry and artillery had already been shipped to Dublin from Northern Ireland and England which then began encircling Dublin and moving in from the suburbs. On Wednesday the counterattack truly began with artillery fire from ground forces as well as the warship Helga demolishing Liberty Hall, the GPO building and a great deal of O’Connell Street, the city’s main thorough fare. 

Street fighting was fierce throughout the city and over the coming days over 16,000 British troops were kept at bay against all the odds by a thousand Irish volunteers. One particular exchange, on the evening of the 26th, was between British troops and 20 Irish volunteers under the command of a young Irish American Commandant Eamon De Valera along Ballsbridge Road. After five hours of tireless fighting the British commander-in-chief reported back to London a total of 220 casualties resulting from the exchange. 

However, by Thursday ground was beginning to be lost to the British, hastening on Friday and by Saturday, in the words of President Pearse, “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” the Irish Republican Army surrendered.

Outside Dublin, while MacNeil sent orders for county branches to do nothing and local police forces also worked to suppress rebels, Republicans rose up, nevertheless. In Galway for instance, Republicans armed mostly with pitchforks and other makeshift weaponry won several skirmishes against opposition forces and to celebrate hosted a ball in the castle of an absentee landlord. 

In the wake of the rising, anyone remotely connected to the disturbances or the Republican cause were rounded up and imprisoned. In the days to come secret military courts and swift sentences were carried out on 15 of the highest ranked Republican commanders including James Connolly who, too weak to stand, was propped up before being shot by firing squad. While few at the time of the rising criticised the English for subduing the rising following the brisk, harsh and overzealous punishment, popular opinion of Irish at home and around the world switched in favour of the rebels. 

To this day the memory of Easter 1916, commemorated in song and in legend, has become emblematic of a story as old as time; Irish suffering at the hands of the British. while the rising was not in itself successful, the part it played in uniting the people of Ireland behind the idea of autonomous nationhood cannot be understated. By 1921 the Irish had won independence as a Free State taking their first step away from British domination. Then, in 1949 on Easter Monday, 33 years after the Rising, the Republic of Ireland Act was signed into law and the Irish Republic, first declared in the GPO of Dublin in 1916, was established once more. 

By George Sullivan

History and History of Art student Uni of Nottingham // Nottingham Labour Students Co Chair // https://periscopenottingham.wordpress.com

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