“And what if excess of love - Bewildered them till they died? - I write it out in a verse - MacDonagh and MacBride - And Connolly and Pearse - Now and in time to be - Wherever green is worn, - Are changed, changed utterly: - A terrible beauty is born"
(W. B. Yeats, “Easter 1916”)
-450 Dead: 132 soldiers, 63 rebels, 254 civilians; more than 500 injured, 16 executed -
These simple and terrible figures summarise the 1916 Dublin uprising, but the Easter Rising cannot be defined only in the light of these numbers; especially when comparing the figures with the simultaneous slaughter of the first years of World War I. It is therefore useful to report the main facts of the years before the Rising.
A good date to start is 1913, which saw several important events for the fate of the people of Ireland.1913 was the year of the approval of the Home Rule Bill (the third law on Irish Independence). The Emerald Isle had been under the direct authority of the Parliament in Westminster since the Acts of Union in 1800. Although the issue of a Dublin parliament was largely ignored until after the end of the Great War, the political struggles of the nineteenth century had brought the political and economic emancipation of the Catholic majority. It should be noted that these results were achieved through peaceful means (the invention of the term "boycott" dates back to this time), but in the same century the most violent activists founded a secret terrorist organization, the Irish Republican Brotherhood. The members of this group are called "Fenians" (from Fein, the Irish mythological hero) and were to have a fundamental role in the uprising.
In 1913 the Irish parliamentary group in Westminster – following on from the goals achieved in a legal manner in the 19th century - seemed to have achieved another success with the help of Herbert Henry Asquith’s liberal government. With the aforementioned Home Rule Bill, the creation of an Irish parliament seemed closer. However, the Protestants of Northern Ireland (Ulster) created their own armed body, the Ulster Volunteer Force, to oppose this move. This pressure group, supported by Anglican industrialists and landowners, aimed to keep the 6 counties in Northern Ireland under the jurisdiction of London and therefore exempt them from the Home Rule reform. In response to the “Orangemen” (referring to supporters of William of Orange, the seventeenth century Protestant king), the old sect of the Fenians and other Catholic activists founded the Irish Volunteers, a military organization aiming to maintain the rights of Catholics in Ireland.
At the start of the war, which broke out in summer 1914, the Irish parliamentary leader John Redmond encouraged the Volunteers to enlist in the British Expeditionary Force, with the prospect of speeding up, as a reward, Irish independence. The Orangemen had the same idea - and in fact the 36th "Ulster" Division was set up - hence thwarting Redmond’s efforts within the law.
Under pressure from the Fenians, and in opposition to a political route, the commanders of the Volunteers left in Ireland (about 13,000 men) chose to take advantage of the moment when Britain was preoccupied with the war effort in April 1916. Patrick Pearse, Thomas Clarke and Thomas McDonagh, Fenian members of the executive committee of the Volunteers, decided to transform the traditional religious Easter parade into an armed uprising for independence. They were joined by the union leader James Connolly and his armed organization, the Irish Citizen Army; the uprising would start on Easter Monday 1916.Due to divisions within the leadership team of the Volunteers, the pro-British authorities in Ireland failed to understand what was about to happen in time. For the same reason the number of rebels in Dublin barely reached 2,000 and there were very few uprisings in the rest of the island.
On the morning of Monday 24th April, the rebels occupied what was to become their headquarters: the Dublin General Post Office building. From here Pearse, a member of the Fenians and the Gaelic League, proclaimed the birth of the Republic of Ireland and, along with a few hundred rebels, prepared for resistance without precise objectives, but in a spirit of sacrifice.
It is worth noting that the first resistance against the rebels came from the citizens of Dublin: most of the city saw the Rising as a stab in the back for Britain, engaged in the bloodiest war in its history. Irish parliamentarians condemned the uprising in toto. Over the following days, the troops of the British Army (in particular the Sherwood Foresters) approached Dublin, holding the city in a grip which led the rebels to surrender. House to house resistance of the rebels, however, slowed the advance of British troops, so that it took five days, 15000 men and several artillery pieces to force them to surrender. The gunfire that swept the city centre made the rebels "hope" in a mythical intervention from outside, maybe German, which could save them from the dead end which was, essentially, of their own making. This never happened, the Sherwood Foresters suffered heavy losses in the first days of fighting, but on Saturday forced all the rebels to surrender.
As Yeats wrote, after that week “All changed, changed utterly”, not because of the uprising in itself, but because of the harsh British repression. In the following months the 16 leaders of the uprising were executed and all other adult rebels were interned in special detention camps, including the future Prime Minister Eamon De Valera. London’s harsh suppression made the rebels martyrs, when their own initial plan is unlikely to have worked in favour of the Irish cause. The majority of public opinion on the island had never welcomed extremist nationalist violence and had previously been extremely confident in the parliamentary progress of Home Rule. The dead and the prisoners of the 1916 Easter Rising led many to change their minds. In order to achieve full independence, Ireland would have to go through a period of incessant violence and a bloody civil war (1922-23), as well as political battles, which eventually led to the constitution of the Republic of Eire in 1937.