The Easter Rising has gone down in Irish History as a watershed moment. For Republicans especially it is the seminal moment in recent Irish History commemorated with parades and rallies at Easter every year. Many to this day still believe the Rising was an unexpected event from the British perspective. There is a belief that the British were taken totally by surprise by a well- disciplined force, the Irish Volunteers, as most of the Dublin Garrison had left to enjoy the Bank Holiday Easter Monday and attend the horse racing at Fairyhouse which was hosting the Grand National. In this piece of Busting the Myths I will try to examine the Rising from a different angle. Did British Intelligence allow the Rising to go ahead to further the aims of some of their hierarchy and force a confrontation once and for all with Irish Volunteer Movement and is the standard narrative of a shell shocked British establishment coming to terms with a surprise attack fully accurate?
The Easter Rising took place mainly in Dublin between 24th April and 30th April 1916. The event was masterminded by a seven man IRB (Irish Republican Brotherhood) military council with these plans unknown largely to those on the ground- the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army. Even some IRB and Irish Volunteer leaders such as Bulmer Hobson and Eoin MacNeil were in the dark. At the last minute the MacNeil however became aware of the plans and attempted to have the Rising cancelled by issuing countermanding orders. His attempts were ultimately futile as the Rising was cancelled for one day and commenced not on Easter Sunday as planned but on Easter Monday. One of the signatories Seán Mac Diarmada was so enraged that he had Bulmer Hobson, who had agreed with MacNeil’s position held under house arrest at gunpoint and circumvented MacNeil’s orders by contacting reliable, as he saw it, Volunteer units.
Ireland at this time was ruled by three administrators, the Lord Lieutenant, the Chief Secretary for Ireland and the Under Secretary for Ireland. In 1916 these positions were held by Lord Wimborne, Augustine Birrell and Matthew Nathan respectively. These three men would be at the heart of what was to come. Prior to the Rising these three men had disagreed with each other on the best way to counter an increasingly aggressive and assertive Volunteer movement who openly drilled on the streets of Dublin. Birrell and Nathan felt that any heavy handed approach would be counter- productive and that such moves would antagonise public opinion against Britain. Wimborne disagreed and he was supported in this assessment by British Intelligence who were aghast at the pacifist approach taken by the Chief and Under Secretaries. Indeed there was a great deal of friction between both sides.
A huge problem that the British faced was its inability or even refusal to have dealt with the Unionist armed mobilisation of 1912-1914. When the army had been ordered North most of the officers had offered to resign their commissions rather than enforce Home Rule on Ulster. For Birrell and Nathan it seemed that to now put down the Irish Volunteers would provoke a ferocious backlash which would show the British to be one sided in Irish affairs confirming to many that the Nationalist Revolutionaries were right all along. However British Intelligence had gleaned some top secret information- there was a rebellion planned in Ireland to commence on Easter Sunday. British Naval Intelligence and the top secret ‘Room 40’ which had broken the German codes had also intercepted communication between Clan na Gael in America and the German Authorities. In fact the British knew a full two months before the Rising occurred that one was planned for Easter Sunday after intercepting a communication from John Devoy of Clan na Gael and the Germans.
Augustine Birrell and Matthew Nathan were informed of these interceptions by Admiral Bayly but as they were not informed from where the information came they dismissed it as too vague and insisted they could not act upon it. General Friend Commander in Chief in Ireland was also informed that a Rising was imminent. However the really key information crucial to the Dublin authorities understanding was not passed on. That information was that British Intelligence had it from an extremely reliable source, namely Room 40, that there would be an uprising on 23rd April 1916. Was it to keep Room 40, a crucial naval intelligence source secret or was there something more sinister. Why this information was not passed on remains an open question. However Roger Casement who was famously arrested on board the Aud with an array of weaponry destined for the rebels declared that during his interrogation he offered to call on the Volunteers to desist from action on Easter Sunday. His Military Intelligence interrogators however told him, “It is a festering sore, much better that it comes to a head”. Casement’s interrogators had been Reginald Hall and Basil Thomson.
The week before the Rising two informers within the Volunteers codenamed ‘Chalk’ and ‘Granite’ had informed their handlers that they had received orders to prepare for mobilisation as they were ‘going out’ on Easter Sunday and some may not come back. Armed with this information and the intercepts it seems incredible that the British did not intervene before the rebels struck. It is even more amazing that the Prime Minister who was also fully aware of the Intelligence available and from whence it came did not directly intervene. Rather he did nothing and the Rising went ahead as planned. To be fair to Nathan and Birrell they had advanced plans in place to arrest key activists after the capture of the Aud and Roger Casement. However by the time those plans were being put into place Padraig Pearse was reading the proclamation on the steps of the GPO.
It is my contention that British Intelligence had achieved what they had been advocating for months and it had been in their interests to let the Rising occur. Certainly those on the ground were taken by surprise at the outbreak of Rebellion and most British forces in Dublin were enjoying the horse racing at Fairy house when they heard of the takeover in Dublin. There also does seem to be some evidence that the Dublin Administration was drip fed information but without the verification needed were reluctant to take decisive action. However, now there had been open confrontation with the Volunteers who were decimated with their leadership executed and their rank and file interned. Dublin city centre lay in ruins and the population were hostile to what had occurred. Birrell and Nathan had resigned, totally discredited and were out of the picture whilst Wimborne who had declared martial law during Easter Week was fully vindicated. However the British Intelligence apparatus had miscalculated the fallout from the Rising. Not six years later Ireland would see a Free State established and the partition of the island. The fallout from the Rising was considerable and in the end although a terrible defeat for the Volunteers in the short term, in the long term Easter week would and still does illicit a massive emotional response in Nationalist Ireland. It is the great question we can’t answer, if the British had intervened before the Rising would events have transpired as they then did? I will leave it to the readers to debate that one.
I am a 40 something Derryman with a fondness for all things History. I also like challenging accepted narratives. An Irish History First Class Honors Graduate I currently am sitting in splendid isolation during this once in a lifetime event.