In my previous article I was probably a little mischievous in my conclusion as I attempted to convey that the British Intelligence Community was well aware of the plans for a Rising on Easter Sunday and that there had been on their part a wish to combat and defeat the Irish Volunteer movement once and for all. There is now to this day a general feeling that the Rising and its aftermath changed Ireland utterly. There is a feeling that the Rising was a springboard for an outpouring of Nationalist sentiment that would change Ireland forever. However this may not fully be the case. Was British Intelligence actually right in their approach to allow the Rising to happen and to, as they had told Casement, allow the festering sore to come to a head. This may somewhat be the case. Was the Rising and its aftermath not the seminal moment it is painted and was it in fact one factor, maybe not even the most important, in a number of factors that saw Irish Separatism come to dominate the Political landscape in Ireland?
There can be no doubt that the Easter Rising was met with a great deal of hostility from some sections at the time. However much of the antagonism towards the Volunteers came from those who were termed ‘Separation Women’. These were women who relied on the state as their husbands were serving on the frontline in France. Often their husbands sent home money as well representing a decent wage for these women. Throughout the war period and even afterwards there was great hostility between these two factions. Of course the 80,000 strong Unionist community in Dublin was also aghast at the rebels actions. However to many others the Rising itself was met with bafflement and amazement. Throngs of crowds would gather daily to watch the unfolding chaos especially in Mount Street. There was some anger of course at the takeover of many business premises like Jacob’s Biscuit factory but for the most part the population was not outright hostile to the Rebel’s actions.
The executions of the leaders of the rebels were taken in a two week period in May. Fifteen in total would be executed including Willie Pearse, Padraig’s brother, who undoubtedly received a very harsh sentence indeed. There can be no question that the executions of so many enflamed the situation. Deaths had been expected however and General Maxwell in truth had been left with little choice but to conduct executions in earnest. However the arrest of 3000 ‘rebels’, of which half were released almost immediately, throughout the country was also a very poor error of judgement. 1500 or so ended up in Internment camps but the arrest of so many, on faulty intelligence left the military with questions to answer. Prime Minister Asquith would visit Dublin during May and call off any more executions taking place as he felt the British had taken enough action. But the damage was done. A wave of Nationalism swept over Ireland but whether that translated into Separatism is very debateable. David Lloyd George would meet John Redmond and Edward Carson to try and re-ignite Home Rule but both Redmond and Carson would be promised different solutions separately. Redmond would be under the impression that Partition would be temporary, Carson that it would be permanent.
The Irish Parliamentary Party was sufficiently alarmed in the aftermath of the Rising and executions and John Dillon would declare that the Party’s life work was being, “swept away in a sea of blood”. However the IPP were far from finished despite the swaying of opinion and would go on to win the West Cork by-election in November 1916. This was actually a gain from the All For Ireland League. It was though becoming clear to the leadership of the IPP that there was a crucial need to find agreement on Home Rule if the party was to maintain the ascendancy. By early 1917 it was certainly on the back foot but impressed upon the British Government the absolute imperative of finding a solution imminently. To this end the British would announce a Constitutional Convention in May 1917. It would sit from July 1917 until April 1918 at Trinity College and was the last great hope of the IPP. It brought together Irish Nationalism, Irish Unionism, Ulster Unionism, Labour and the Catholic Church hierarchy. It also included prominent citizens such as Mayor’s and chairmen of public bodies. Sinn Fein did not attend. The key reason they cited was the terms of the Convention declared how best to find a solution with Ireland inside the Empire.
The Convention unfortunately for the IPP was doomed to failure. It would end without agreement. A great tragedy befell the convention in late 1917 when the Ulster Unionist chief negotiator Alexander McDowell fell ill and died. With him also died any attempt by the Ulster delegation to find a solution which would avoid partition. In the end Joe Devlin of the IPP would lament in 1920 that the Ulster Unionist delegation did ‘not move an inch’ from their position of Ulster exclusion. The failure of the convention was a great blow to the IPP. They had also lost three by-elections to Sinn Fein in 1917, albeit one of those losses was by a mere 37 votes. Despite those losses the IPP would win three of their own by-elections in early 1918, two of which were in Ulster, the other Waterford. However with the war still dragging on and Ulster Unionism remaining intransigent in its opposition to Home rule the IPP was further rocked in March 1918 when its great leader John Redmond died quite suddenly after post operative complications. His death signalled the end of a Political era. His replacement John Dillon although much less British orientated would take over at an extremely difficult moment as the Germans would launch a Spring Offensive, an event which would change the course of Irish history.
The last ditch attempt by the German armies to win the war with the Spring Offensive was initially quite successful and created complete panic in London. With Paris itself threatened the British Government embarked on a decision which would have a profound effect on Ireland. Lloyd George extended the Military Service Bill to Ireland and would appoint Sir John French as Lord Lieutenant in Ireland with the view to imposing conscription. In fact plans were even drawn up to use air power against those resisting.
The IPP withdrew from Westminster in protest but looked impotent, the Catholic Bishop’s had issued a statement declaring Irishmen to have the ‘right to resist by all mean consonant with the law of God’, but it was Sinn Fein who would take the lead in the campaign against conscription. The Volunteer movement which had an estimated 10,000 members mushroomed into a force of 100,000 or more. Indeed some of the more extreme Republicans like Cathal Brugha even drew up plans to assassinate the British Cabinet should conscription be enforced. They also with the IPP and Labour Party presented the anti-conscription pledge signed by hundreds of thousands. It was however the one day strikes of 23rd April 1918 led by Labour which would break the spirit of the British to enforce Conscription. The issue was on the back burner when in May most of those separatists and Republicans involved in the strike were arrested on the spurious claims now known as the ‘German Plot’. This sowed Sinn Fein’s status as the party who had done more than any to destroy the notion of conscription in Ireland. Whether that was true or not Conscription had alienated and radicalised almost the entire Irish Nationalist population creating a mass movement that would change Ireland forever.
So was the Easter Rising all that important? Retrospectively there may be a tendency by Republicans to heighten its significance. That of course is not to say it wasn’t a significant event as it clearly was but it was one in a series of events that would lead to separatism becoming the mainstream in Irish Nationalist Politics. Despite this however the IPP would go on to gain 220,837 votes in the 1918 election to Sinn Fein’s 497,107. In a PR system they most definitely would not have seen the destruction they did when they lost all but 6 of their 67 seats. In the end though maybe it wasn’t the Easter Rising that was the watershed moment, maybe it wasn’t the failure of the Convention in 1917 which destroyed the IPP and maybe Conscription didn’t change the course of Irish History alone. Maybe in fact it was the one thing that links the three and the true event that changed Ireland forever was the outbreak of the Great War. Without which England’s difficult would not be Ireland’s opportunity, without which the Home Rule issue may have been resolved by whatever means and without which enforcing Conscription would not even have been a notion. Alas we will never know how events would have turned out but for the intervention of The Great War.
“Kilmainham Gaol – Dublin, Ireland – Travel photography” by Giuseppe Milo (www.pixael.com) is licensed under CC BY
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.