The Irish Fight for Freedom – Part 2: Easter 1916 to the Free State

“The dispossessed Irish people dragging itself painfully along through roads, mountains and morasses, footsore and bleeding, at the behest of a merciless conqueror, and the same people in the near future marching confidently and serenely, aided by all the political and social machinery they can wrest from the hands of their masters, to the re-conquest of Ireland”.

– James Connolly, The Re-Conquest of Ireland

The history of Irish rebellion in the 20th century really begins in the 19th century with the Irish Republican Brotherhood, Fenian Uprising, and other developments in Irish Republicanism leading up to the Easter Rising.  Among these developments is the rise of Marxism and socialism in Ireland. The revolutionary fervour caused by Marx and Engels would have a profound effect on Irish revolutionaries and the Irish people. James Connolly would develop Irish Republican Socialism and lay the foundation of the Irish labour movement. The IRB would also plan for the national liberation of Ireland. The 20th century is arguably the most important century in Irish history. From the Irish Volunteers to the Provisional IRA, revolutionary warfare and liberation would be defined in Ireland. This period would inspire revolutionaries such as Vladimir Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, and Che Guevara. The events that inspired them, continue to inspire people and, hopefully, will inspire more as time goes on.

To even begin talking about the Easter Rising, the IRB must first be mentioned. The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), was an Irish nationalist organisation founded in 1856 by Irish intellectuals. It was made in response to the collapse of the Young Irelanders in the 1840s following their failed rebellion. It was a secret organisation, it was also fraternal. Irish women were not allowed to join. The message of the IRB was to form an “independent and democratic republic” in Ireland. This goal would lead to them using a wide variety of tactics to achieve it. They began by distributing Irish republican propaganda and ideology. This was in an effort to make the Irish people aware of the need for independence and freedom. This proved hard due to British repression and a lack of general interest from the Irish masses. Irish republicanism had been dominated by bourgeois intellectuals since the Young Irelanders. Each failed rebellion only led to more repression from the British and a sense of disdain towards rebellion. People had lost hope. This disdain would last until the end of the Easter Rising but, that would not stop the IRB from trying. In 1867, the IRB and its American counterpart the Fenian Brotherhood would stage a rebellion dubbed the Fenian Rising. This rising would not last very long but, would prove as an inspiration for others to join the IRB. Minor skirmishes would ensue between rebels and British authorities, with some police barracks being attacked. These would fail due to the lack of actual coordination in the rising. The Fenians would make some symbolic significance out of the rising by proclaiming a republic. The Fenian proclamation was 50 years before the one in 1916 and would be a great inspiration to it. A more interesting aspect to the Fenian Rising was the theatre in America. Irish republicans in the United States would stage raids into British Canada, attacking military installations along the border. Five raids would take place, all would end in failure. The United States would turn a blind eye to this and even allow some former Irish American generals from the American Civil War to participate. Some theories exist that the US helped the rebels but, these lack much conclusive evidence. The Fenian Rising, in general, would see failure. 12 dead in Ireland, with eight killed in the American raids. 30 British soldiers would be killed in Canada as well. This failure would not stop the IRB or Irish republicans, it would inspire them. They would continue operations throughout the rest of the 1800s and into the 1900s. Many would join their ranks, mostly of a bourgeois intellectual stock. They were not the only involved in the fight for freedom, however.

During the time of the IRB’s various campaigns, socialism and Marxism would begin to spread around the world and Ireland. The labour movement in Ireland began to gain traction among the Irish working class, long oppressed by the British capitalists. James Connolly and Jim Larkin are the two most prominent socialists in Irish history. James Connolly is especially relevant. James Connolly was born in Scotland to Irish parents. He would join the British Army and desert while in Ireland to stay with his fianceé. He would move to Scotland and establish himself in the newborn British and Irish socialist movements. His greatest achievements were the founding of the Irish Socialist Republican Party (ISRP), the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU), and the Irish Citizen Army (ICA). The ISRP, while being very small and irrelevant during its time, would prove to be pivotal in the development of socialism in Ireland. Connolly would establish the need for a workers’ republic in Ireland and nothing less. He and Jim Larkin would found the ITGWU in 1909 and would stage the famous 1913 Dublin Lockout. Connolly and Larkin were syndicalists, a form of Marxism based on the revolutionary action of trade unions. The Lockout was in response to abuses by Dublin capitalists against the workers. The main abuse was the refusal to allow workers to unionise. This lock-out is central to the development of Irish socialism in that it defined its physical force politics. The lockout would end in failure and capitulation for the ITGWU. The workers would be forced to sign contracts saying they would not unionise, this would cripple the power of the union in certain workplaces. Another reason the lockout failed was also due to the strikers’ lack of defensive capabilities. This problem led James Connolly to form the ICA in order to defend striking workers from the Dublin Metropolitan Police. The ICA would play a very large part in the Easter Rising and the organisations that spawned from the early Irish socialist movement would be key in the further struggle of the Irish people.

In 1916, the most important event in 20th century Irish history occurred. This event was the Easter Rising. The Easter Rising is important due to the sheer amount of influence it had on the course of Irish history and the political psyche of the Irish people. It is the root of the modern struggle and an inspirational event for revolutionaries in Ireland and abroad. Despite this, it suffered the same follies previous Irish rebellions had. Lack of preparedness, lack of training, poor planning, and general disorganisation were the main reasons it failed. Despite its failure, in the end, the Rising was able to hold off the British war machine for a whole week. The Easter Rising would also lead directly to the formation of the Irish Free State and a somewhat independent Ireland. The Easter Rising was the brainchild of the IRB. It was to be similar to the Irish rebellions of past, following common tactics. It relied on contingents of the Irish Volunteers rising in other parts of the country as well as the main force in Dublin. This would not play out according to plan. Due to an error of communication and a lack of confidence in a rising by the chief of the Irish Volunteers Eoin MacNeill, official orders to Volunteer brigades outside of Dublin would be to stand down. This order essentially killed any effort for an actual rising. This did not stop the leaders in Dublin. In what can be seen as an act of suicide for the rising, the IRB would override the Volunteers’ orders and go out anyway. James Connolly and the ICA would go out also. Why this was seen as suicidal was that the rebels were massively outgunned. This was due to the interception of German guns by the British army. Irish rebel Roger Casement would be arrested for this and eventually executed by the British. The rebels would set up a headquarters in Liberty Hall, the headquarters of the ITGWU. Liberty Hall would be completely destroyed by British bombing. On Monday 24th, a combination of Irish Volunteers, ICA, and Cumman na mBan (female Irish volunteers) would march out to multiple locations in Dublin. A joint force of 400 rebels would march from Liberty Hall to the General Post Office (GPO) and seize it. The GPO was important as it was the only major communications hub in Ireland at the time. With it in rebel hands, it was possible to try and contact other rebels in Ireland in order to spark the original plan into fruition. This would prove mostly useless. Barricades would be set up to defend streets and hinder British army movement in the city. The rebels would fail to capture Dublin Castle, the centre of British rule in Ireland, and other strategic places such as Trinity College. This was mostly due to tactical folly or a lack of confidence in the rebels. The rebels would also fail to take control of Dublin Port or the River Liffey. This would allow for British ships to bombard the rebels from the river and ship in reinforcements. On that first day of the Easter Rising, commander-in-chief Padraic Pearse would read the proclamation of the Irish Republic on the steps of the GPO. The Irish Proclamation was one of the most progressive documents of the time. It declared equality for all in Ireland, an end to British rule, and the beginning of a new Irish struggle for a new century. At the time, the proclamation would mostly fall on deaf ears but, as time went on the Irish people would take it to heart and turn it into a national symbol of freedom. The flag of the Irish Republic would also be flown from the GPO, along with the Starry Plough, a symbol of Irish socialism and workers.

The second and third days of the Rising would prove to be the real test for the rebels. Since the rebels had failed to control any of the major ports of entry, the British were able to establish supply routes and routes for reinforcements. This led to the British fielding a force of 16,000 men by the end of the week. The failure of the rebels also to take Dublin Castle allowed the British to maintain control of the administrative centre of Ireland. The only real tactical position held by the rebels was the GPO, they were controlling what was going in and out of Ireland for most of the week. Rebels holed up in Dublin City Hall, right next to Dublin Castle, would put up stiff resistance but, would end up surrendering. Rebels in other parts of the city would put up stiff resistance. The British tactic was to eventually surround the principal rebel position in the GPO and central Dublin. This is why much of the heavy fighting took place in the outlying positions, where few rebels were. These small groups would pull off some very extraordinary feats against the British army. One such example was that of Seán Heuston in the Mendicity Institute. Heuston and 26 other volunteers would hold off hundreds of British soldiers for three days, the original order was a few hours. They would, however, become the first rebel position to surrender. While the heavy fighting was happening to outlying rebel positions, the GPO, Four Courts, and other central positions were being constantly bombarded by the British in order to force a surrender of the rebel forces. For most of Easter Week, this would not work. The rebels would continue to hold out in the GPO, even with the constant shelling. The British would try a few times to encroach on the main rebel positions with failure but, as more troops were shipped in from England, the more hope seemed lost. During the fighting, James Connolly would be wounded in the leg and many of the rebel leaders would begin talks of surrender. The British were insistent on unconditional surrender and kept bombarding the GPO. The rebels would eventually be forced from the burning GPO to nearby Moore Street, it is there that they would have their final stand and surrender to British forces. On Saturday, the 29th of April, Padraic Pearse, commandant-in-chief of the rebel forces, would declare an unconditional surrender for all troops. He along with all the rebels would be arrested.

The initial fallout of the Easter Rising was mostly negative. Many people in Ireland saw it as an unneeded loss of civilian life and saw the rebels as nothing but troublemakers. This was due to the feeling in Ireland that the Home Rule bill would lead to freedom. The Easter Rising was especially hard on the civilian population of Dublin. Of the 485 people killed during the Rising, 54% were civilians. It was this severe civilian loss that contributed to the eventual rebel surrender. The signatories of the proclamation would all be executed, including James Connolly who was already near death. The British are also responsible for many atrocities during the Rising. One such example is the summary executions of those suspected of rebel affiliation. During the Rising, pacifist Irish nationalist and writer Francis Sheehy-Skeffington would be killed by the British. He had done nothing wrong but, had been helping wounded civilians in the streets of Dublin. This action is not surprising given the general apathy of the British towards basic human rights in their history. The death of Skeffington would begin the outrage amongst the Irish people but, it would be the execution of the rebel leaders that would truly cause the most uproar. As is proven true in history, a movement or revolution always needs a martyr and the British gave the Irish people several through their executions. It would take the prime minister in London, H.H Asquith, to stop them. These senseless murders would only give the republican movement more steam and the survivors of the rising would take up the reins of the political party Sinn Fein and form a new army, the Irish Republican Army.

The IRA is probably the most well-known revolutionary organisation in Ireland but, many think of the iterations of the late 20th century. The IRA actually has its roots in 1917, one year after the Easter Rising. 1917 was the year of the first republican prisoners being released and the IRA was organised on the base of the old Irish Volunteers. The IRA would also take a political wing in the form of Sinn Fein. The IRA and Sinn Fein would see great success and popular support due to the shift in Irish opinion of the freedom struggle. In the 1918 general election, Sinn Fein would win most of the Irish seats in Westminster and would declare an independent Irish republic with a legislative body known as the Dáil Éireann. The government would consist of mostly veterans of the Easter Rising and other nationalist politicians. Among the most prominent of these were Eamon De Valera and Michael Collins. De Valera would serve as president of the underground republic for most of its history and Collins would organise the IRA and the guerrilla war. Collins would challenge much of the preconceived notions of the old guard in Irish Republicanism by promoting a guerrilla war against the British instead of traditional warfare as had been the norm with the Irish Volunteers. The IRA would be organised in a system of brigades and Flying Columns. The Flying Columns would be common in the countryside. They would harass British patrols, raid police stations, and always be on the move, hence the name Flying Column. While the concept of them dates back to Sun Tzu, the IRA applied it in an entirely new way in the form of guerrilla warfare. This would be an inspiration for many revolutionaries who studied the Irish struggle such as Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara. In the North of Ireland, the IRA campaign would become more religious, a trend that would be very common in the rest of the struggle. In Belfast, IRA actions would be met with reprisals on the Catholic population by unionists. This would lead to the conflict being especially more violent. As the IRA campaign continued to succeed, the British would become increasingly more brutal. The police and military would become increasingly more repressive and would disrupt speeches and curtail the freedoms of Irish republicans. The British reaction culminated in the deployment of the “Black and Tans”. They were former British Army soldiers in the service of the Royal Irish Constabulary. They acquired their nickname due to the colour of their uniforms. The Black and Tans would commit numerous atrocities against the Irish people, mostly as reprisals for IRA actions. Among these actions are the burning and sacking of the city of Cork in 1920, brutal revenge reprisals against Irish civilians and entire towns, and the notorious massacre at Croke Park where 13 people were murdered. That incident became known as Bloody Sunday and would set a disgusting precedent for British conduct in Ireland. Despite all this, the IRA persevered and continued to maintain the support of the Irish people. As Republican leaders got arrested, the IRA would break them out. They sabotaged railway lines, patrol routes in the countryside, and vital military targets in Ireland. The campaign came to its peak in 1921 and the IRA command feared a standstill as the British continued to adapt. A proposal was drawn up to start attacks in England to try and further pressure the British but, this would not be so. The British were facing their own problems in dealing with Ireland and with a proposal for martial law shot down, they resorted to a truce with the IRA. This truce would be welcomed by the IRA command and Michael Collins would go to London to meet with the British. This would not end well, however.

The Anglo-Irish Treaty would cement a quasi-independent Irish state known as the Irish Free State. This state would still remain within the British Commonwealth and would also accept partition, with 6 counties in Ulster forming a colonial statelet called Northern Ireland. Those 6 counties were able to do this because of carefully fostered British divisions. The majority of the population in those counties were mostly Protestant, this is due to the British having sent settlers to the area hundreds of years earlier. The British would use this to maintain control of the industrial city of Belfast, the largest shipyard in the British Isles. This capitulation of Northern Ireland would spark a civil war and a split in the IRA. The Anti-Treaty IRA, led by Eamonn De Valera, would fight the Pro-Treaty IRA which became the army of the Irish Free State. The Free State would be led by Michael Collins. This split would devastate the new Free State economy and government. The treaty to many Irish people was a betrayal of the struggle and what hundreds and thousands had fought and died for. To others the Free State was “the path to freedom” and in a referendum on the treaty, the people of Ireland would vote to keep it, although many anti-treaty parties boycotted the vote. The civil war would pit Irish against Irish and would leave Michael Collins dead at the hands of soldiers he once commanded. Despite his death, the Free State would prevail and the Anti-Treaty IRA would be defeated. De Valera would leave the armed struggle to enter the political realm, founding the party Fianna Fail, the most influential party in Free State politics. The IRA and Sinn Fein would continue, barely. Losing popular support and going almost completely underground. The IRA would remain somewhat active but, would be almost gone through the late 1920s and 1930s. The organisation would only maintain support from the Catholic population in the North and some border communities. The Free State would repress them severely. The struggle looked bleak but, prevailed. Soon, the IRA would resurge and the struggle would begin anew.


I hope you enjoyed this second part. I was hoping to keep it to 2 parts but, it seems that this is too large a topic. The third part will be the final part, I promise. It will be talking about the struggle after the Civil War and The Troubles in Northern Ireland. I’d like to give special credit to The IRA: A History by Tim Pat Coogan for being a source for the bulk of the information. As mentioned in part 1, I will include a full list of sources at the end of the project. I post this on the anniversary of the death of James Connolly so this is dedicated to him, a personal hero of mine.

“We believe in constitutional action in normal times; we believe in revolutionary action in exceptional times. These are exceptional times.”

-James Connolly, Workers Republic, 1915


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