The Easter Rising – for Britain, for Ireland, for Germany?


Trevor Adams and Denis McCarthy

 The Irish revolution, born out of violence, but also with great hopes, in 1916, died a miserable death in the back-roads of Kerry in the spring of 1923

Introduction – a WWI event? myths and sources

This article

 This all started as a lecture to put the Easter Rising into its rightful World War One context in order to explain the Rising and its context to our English and Welsh friends and colleagues in the WFA.  Subsequently, one of our colleagues, Keith Walker, suggested that we put the material on the website so that it was available for anyone who was interested – hence this article.

A key issue was my (Trevor’s) lack of knowledge on the subject which has been rectified by a lot of research and by the considerable help of my co-conspirator Denis McCarthy without whom this account would not have been possible.

 Without WWI and without the Kaiser’s Germany stirring up trouble, the Easter Rising would not have come about.  So, it is a WWI “event”, but do see below as well for further thoughts on that.  Not only was Germany supplying arms to the Irish Volunteers but also to the Ulster Volunteer Force on the Protestant side.  Indeed, Germany was supplying arms further afield, to Pancho Villa in Mexico in order to stir up trouble in the backyard of the United States, with reasonable success.

 So, where do we start?  Well, you cannot understand the 1916 situation in Ireland without understanding the pre-war situation and the political landscape, not only in Ireland but also in London.  However, the new Irish Free State did not come into being in 1916 but rather in 1922.  So, what happened in those six years?  We need to look at the events before and after 1916 as well.

 Was the Easter Rising a WWI event?

  • German involvement in Irish dissent

The arms supplied to both the Protestant Ulster Volunteer Force and the largely Catholic Irish Volunteers came from the Kaiser’s Germany. 

  • Tactics at the battle of Mount Street Bridge

The frontal assault tactics used to assault the lightly held rebel positions at the Mount Street canal bridge were pure Western Front “take at all costs by frontal assault” tactics.

  • Use of artillery in a British city centre

Would such a drastic measure against a handful of amateur soldiers have been used but for the fact that such measures were used every day on the Western Front?

  • Use of DoRA(s) and martial law

The use of the Defence of the Realm Acts, and the subordinate regulations, required a wartime context, as did the use of martial law.

  • Field courts martial, not general courts martial

Aside from the fact that civilians should have been tried in a civilian court under the DoRA(s), a court martial in the United Kingdom, for such it was at the time, should have been a 13-officer general court panel, not a 3-officer field court martial.

  • Pre-emptory nature of executions, contrast South Africa

In South Africa, there had been a rebellion by a section of the Boer population in August 1914 which Smuts and Botha, both Boers themselves, eventually put down by October.  However, rather than shoot the leaders, they were fined and imprisoned for two years.  The result was the lack of a major schism in South Africa, though many young Boers refused to fight in WWI and were imprisoned. (Don’t forget, it was only 11 years after the end of the second Boer War).

  • Harsh repression after Easter Rising

The repressive measures after the Rising itself and in the War of Independence would be unlikely to have been used but for the brutalising effects of the ghastly war of attrition that was WWI.  Indeed, WWI was so intractable because of exacerbated feelings of national identity and of nationalist feeling, factors which certainly played a role in Ireland over the 1913-1923 decade.  After WWI, there was harsh repression in the colonies by the European powers, notably Britain and France, for example resulting in unrest in India with events such as the Amritsar massacre of 1919, and in Iraq where there was a rebellion against the new British regime, replacing an Ottoman one instead of giving the locals independence.

  • Conscription threat helps Sinn Fein win 1918 election

The conscription threat was, in effect, Lloyd George playing politics.  He wanted to, and did, reduce the possible exemptions for draftees in Great Britain (see Keith Jeffrey’s book).  To hide this, the spectre of conscription in Ireland was raised, but in fact never implemented.  However, the spectre did play into the hands of Sinn Fein in the 1918 election, which they won by a landslide.  (However, it should be remembered that Sinn Fein in effect split into two factions in the 1921 election, post the War of Independence.)

 Popular myths

  • Irish nationalism equates with Southern Irish male Catholicism

This is one of the effects of the politicising of historical events such as the Rising.  Those who were part of the independence movement but who were not southern, Irish, male and Catholic were for decades. airbrushed from history. So, those ignored include Bulmer Hobson, a northern Quaker, all southern Protestants in general, and above all the women, such as Elizabeth O’Farrell who delivered the ceasefire message.  On the other side of the equation, there were a lot of Catholic unionists in what is today the Irish Republic.

  • Independence declaration was read on the steps of the GPO by Patrick Pearse

Oh no, it was not!  We are certain of this because the General Post Office (GPO) does not today, and did not in 1916, have any steps (see the photo).  From the survivors’ accounts, Pearse did read out the declaration in O’Connell Street but it is unclear whether he was at the foot of Nelson’s column or on the pavement outside the GPO.

  • 1916 Rising was a popular revolution

It was never a “revolution”, hence the use of the word “Rising”.  It was carried out by people who were a minority of a minority (X ref), and who were a bunch of romantics, actors, literary nerds and dreamers.  After the Rising was put down, the rebel prisoners were reviled by the crowds after they had surrendered.  It was only sometime after news of the subsequent executions of prisoners that the popular mood turned.

  • Easter Rising was put down by “British” troops

The Easter Rising was indeed resisted by troops in British army uniform but, for the first 48 hours anyway, there were very few English troops – the bulk of the troops were Irish. In the first day or so they were largely Royal Dublin Fusiliers, but see Appendix 3 for details of the British army units available at the start of the Rising.

  • Anglo-Irish War = War of Independence

The events of this period are not a war between the Irish and the English! There were Irish people on both sides and English people, including the upper classes, on both sides. The name used in Ireland, that is “War of Independence”, is much more accurate.

  • “Black and Tans” were the source of all evil

This goes back to the misconception in the point above about the “Anglo-Irish war”.  In fact, actions that are popularly ascribed to the so-called Black and Tans were often retaliatory acts carried out by the Royal Irish Constabulary, ie the regular Irish police, usually in response to the killing of their officers.  The “Black and Tans”, more properly the RIC Special Reserve (RICSR), only operated alongside the regular RIC, so they learned their bad habits from their Irish comrades.  The Auxiliary Division of the RIC (ADRIC), the “Auxies”, were in reality totally separate from the police and were the ones responsible for many of the outrages in what was in effect a “shoot to kill” policy of random retribution against the local population.

  • Not part of WWI

Oh yes it was!  That is the point of this article.

 Sources of information

The striking aspect here is how recently much of this material has come into the public domain.

  • Bureau of Military History – released 2004

The Irish Bureau of Military History interviewed surviving participants of the Rising in the 1940s and 1950s, on the basis that nothing would be released until the last of them had passed away.  The text of the 1,400 interviews is now on the internet.

  • Irish Times rebellion handbook (1917)

This was published in the aftermath and is an important contemporaneous source.  The toll of civilian deaths is in fact too low and in recent times the National Cemetery at Glasnevin in Dublin has scoured its records to correct the figures.

  • DMP G divn reports, but some are still secret!

G divn was the “government division”, ie the special branch of the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP). Some of these reports were published on a month by month basis leading up to the centenary of the Rising.  However, an access to information request in regard to some of the reports in the British National Archives at Kew was refused on the basis that there could still be danger to the families of persons named as informers.

  • Court martial transcripts – 1999 & 2001

These were released by the British government as part of the “Good Friday” peace agreement in Ireland (1998).  There was suspicion that the British authorities had held on to them for so long so as to doctor the accounts given.  However, the litmus test was the similar nature of the accounts given of James Connolly’s trial in both the official British version and in the version written secretly at the time by Connolly himself and given by him to his daughter.

  • Margot Asquith’s diaries (2008)

She was the wife of HH Asquith, the Prime Minister. All her diaries were donated by her granddaughter to Oxford University in 1998 and the wartime ones were published in 2008. She reveals much of the internal workings of the government.

  • British Labour Party report 1918

This is pretty much contemporaneous and sought to seek out the mistakes that were made, by a Liberal government.  It thus tends to be slanted somewhat against the government of the day.

  • American commission report 1921

The Americans sought to have a balanced investigation into what went on in Ireland.  In the event, the British refused to let people travel to the United States to give evidence, especially from the government side, with the result that the report is somewhat slanted against the British.

  • Administration of Ireland: Major JC Street 1921

This book was written by an intelligence officer and is contemporaneous and a first hand account.  It tends to slant toward the government viewpoint.

  • Diary of Father Columbus Murphy of the Capuchin order. 

These were rediscovered in the archives of the Order in the early 2000s.  Father Columbus Murphy administered to the condemned men and recorded the events.  His diary was published as “Echoes of the Rising’s Final Shots”.

  • Diary of District Inspector Regan RIC

In fact, he was an army officer by the time the Rising happened and was in Dublin because he was posted to Portobello Barracks with 3rd btn RIR.  He wrote a diary of his experiences during Easter week, which is in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI).  He returned to the police after WWI and ended up in the new RUC in the North after partition.

  • War diaries

Well so far we have not discovered any!  Certainly, the Staffordshire regiment and the Inniskillens do not have anything in their war diaries.  It was not regarded at the time as anything other than a skirmish.  The account of the 59th Divn in WWI does have some mention of the Staffordshire and Sherwood's role in Dublin.

 The next section is here