The 1916 Rising took place over a bloody Easter week in Dublin, when the city centre became a battlefield. During that week, it had little support, but as John Dillon argued, the executions which followed in May infuriated the Irish population. Speaking in the House of Commons, the veteran Nationalist MP and last leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, pointed out that…
What is happening is that thousands of people in Dublin, who ten days ago were bitterly opposed to the whole of life of the Sinn Fein movement and to the rebellion are now becoming infuriated against the Government on account of these executions and, as I am informed by letters received this morning, that feeling is spreading throughout the country in a most dangerous degree…
We who speak for the vast majority of the Irish people, we who have risked a great deal to win the people to your side in this great crisis of your Empire’s history, we who have endeavoured, and successfully endeavoured to secure that the Irish in America shall not go into alliance with the Germans in that country – we, I think, were entitled to be consulted before this bloody course of executions was entered upon in Ireland.
These arguments led to Asquith accepting that some political solution was necessary. The Prime Minister himself, in the aftermath of the Rising, and under pressure from America over the executions in Kilmainham Jail, stopped General Maxwell, the military commander in Dublin, from shooting his prisoners, and announced in the House of Commons on 11 May:
The government has come to the conclusion that the system under which Ireland has been governed has completely broken down. The only satisfactory alternative, in their judgement, is the creation, at the earliest possible moment, of an Irish Government responsible to the Irish people.
He went to Ireland, returned, and told parliament that the government had asked Lloyd George to negotiate for agreement as to the way in which the Government of Ireland is for the future to be carried out, so that the Home Rule Bill, shelved when the war broke out, could be put into immediate effect, without waiting for the end of the war. Yet the position of the Protestants of Ulster – 27% of the total population – and their determination to resist any settlement in which they would be left as a small minority meant that any solution was likely to be accompanied by violence. On the eve of the Great War it was apparent that Ulster’s Protestant population would resist Home Rule if need be by force of arms and the Curragh Mutiny indicated that the army might not repress rebellion in the North. The question of partition from the Ulster Unionist point of view was reported in a letter from Hugh De F. Montgomery, of the Ulster Unionist Council, to his son, dated 22 June 1916. Sir Edward Carson, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and a member of Asquith’s Cabinet as Solicitor-General for Ireland, spoke to a private meeting of the Council for an hour and a half to explain the situation over Home Rule. The main point was…
The Cabinet having unanimously decided that under pressure of difficulties with America, the Colonies and Parliament (but chiefly with America), they must offer Redmond (the then leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party) Home Rule at once; and (not being prepared to coerce Ulster) having authorised Lloyd George to arrange a settlement, Carson, after what had happened at the Buckingham Palace Conference in 1914, could not well refuse to submit to his followers the exclusion of six counties as a basis of negotiation. Carson had satisfied himself, apparently, that he had lost all the ground gained in their anti-Home Rule campaign before the war, and that the majority of the Unionist members and voters took the same view as the majority of Unionist papers as to the necessity of a settlement… If we did not agree to a settlement we should have the Home Rule Act coming into operation without the exclusion of any part of Ulster, or subject only to some worthless Amending Act which Asquith might bring in in fulfilment of his pledge, and we should either have to submit to this or fight…
I was in Dublin for two or three days last week, and the Southerners I met are all convinced that there will be another rebellion whether the Lloyd George terms are accepted or not. The fact that these terms were accepted has enormously strengthened the Sinn Feiners in the country. The acceptance of these suggestions by the Ulster Unionists has not had much effect on this part of the question. The Unionists’ acceptance under protest has increased Redmond’s difficulties, and, as we are given to believe, placed us in the position in the eyes of British public opinion of being reasonable people. If Redmond actually forms a government and tries to rule this country, the rebellion will be directed against him; if he does not, it will be directed against the existing government; in any case, the country will have to be more or less conquered outside the six counties, and that may possibly be the best way out of all our troubles, which have all their root in a British Prime Minister having brought in a Home Rule Bill.
To try to find a solution of a moderate nature, a Convention was called for 1917. Its meetings were boycotted by both organised labour and Sinn Fein, and any attempt at a solution was blocked by in the conference chamber by the total refusal of the Ulster Unionists to consider the possibility of Home Rule for the whole of Ireland. This meant that partition was now the only possible solution, leading to all the problems which were still apparent in the the 1990s, before the Good Friday Agreement of 10 April 1998.
The legacy of the Easter Rebellion lived on. According to Liam de Paor and Conor Cruise O’Brien, 1966 was a watershed in the relationship between the two communities in Northern Ireland: the fiftieth anniversary of the Rising gave an impetus for the Nationalist population to resurrect their ideal of a united Ireland. The celebrations which accompanied the anniversary led to a backlash from the Ulster Protestants who remembered 1916 for the way in which the Ulster Divisions were cut to pieces on the Somme from 1 July to 18 November that year. From an Irish Nationalist perspective, Liam de Paor wrote in 1971, of the contemporary significance of the battle compared with that of the Rising:
Pearse and his IRB comrades, who broke with Redmond, did not feel that they owed any loyalty to England or that they should fight her wars. On the contrary they hoped that the great European war might provide an opportunity to strike against the colonial connection, and they planned accordingly. Connolly, with his tiny Citizen Army, was even more opposed to Irishmen fighting, not only England’s, but in any capitalist war, and he was bitterly disappointed to see Europe’s socialist parties forgetting their principles when the drums beat and the banners waved, and hastening to wear the uniforms of Europe’s various oppressors on both sides. He too was a nationalist of a kind, although he had made it clear that he was not interested in a mere change of flags but in attacking capitalism through colonialism…
On the 1 July the battle of the Somme opened, and the 36th (Ulster) Division was ordered out of their section of the British lines at Thiepval Wood on the River Ancre to attack the German lines. They attacked with tremendous courage… and in two days of battle… ended more or less where they had begun, in terms of ground gained. But their dead were heaped in thousands on the German wire and littered the ground that had been bitterly gained and bitterly lost: half of Ulster was in mourning.
These two bloody events drove Irishmen further apart than ever, for although the Catholic and nationalist Irish also, 200,000 of them, fought, and many died, at the Somme, at Gallipoli, at Passchendaele, and other places with names of terror in that appalling war, their sacrifice seemed, by the turn Irish history now took, irrelevant – barely a footnote in the developing myth by which the political tradition is animated…
… In Ulster, on the other hand, the Somme is more central in the Protestant political tradition, for, futile as the battle was, the Orangemen who fought in it displayed in the most convincing way that, however eccentric their ‘loyalty’ might seem at times, it was to them quite real, and they showed that in this they were, as Pearse had perceived, not ridiculous at all…
Above: Soldiers at the Western Front, waiting to ‘go over the top’.
Above: Soldiers at the front in Gallipoli, 1915.
The well-known folk song, The Foggy Dew, which commemorates the 1916 Uprising, does at least contain a verse recognising the suffering of Irish soldiers in the Great War, even if it places it firmly in the nationalist narrative:
It was England bade our wild geese go
That small nations might be free;
Their lonely graves are by Suvla’s wave
Or the fringe of the Great North Sea;
But had they died by Pearse’s side
Or fallen by Cathal Brugha
Their graves we’d keep where the Fenians sleep
With a shroud of the foggy dew.
Source: Richard Brown and Christopher Daniels (1982), Documents and Debates: Twentieth Century Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan Education.