Today marks the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Easter Rising. A militarily hopeless venture, it was easily crushed by the British. Yet, astonishingly, this doomed quixotic episode began the events that within five years would bring to an end in most of Ireland of almost a thousand years of English rule.
On Easter Monday April 24, 1916, a coalition of fractious Irish republican groups, organized under the Irish Republican Brotherhood, took over key locations in Dublin and proclaimed the provisional government of the Irish Republic. The Irish Republican Brotherhood received substantial financial support from the Fenian Brotherhood in the United States, Irish Americans playing a key role throughout the 19th and early 20th century in the struggle for Irish independence. The Irish Republicans had around 1,250 troops in Dublin. There was minor fighting elsewhere in Ireland, but the Easter Rising was basically a struggle for Dublin.
In retrospect it is difficult to see how the Republicans believed that the Rising had any chance of success. Great Britain was fully mobilized to fight World War I, and Ireland, like Great Britain, was swarming with trained British troops, many commanded by veterans of the fighting on the Western Front. By Saturday the provisional government had surrended. About 500 people were killed in the Rising, half of them civilians.
Initially the majority of Irish civilians had little sympathy for the rising, viewing it as at best a mad adventure, and at worst treason when many Irish Catholics were serving in France. However, British mass arrests, albeit swiftly releasing most arrested, began to alter public attitudes toward the rising. This was enhanced as news of British atrocities, real and false, against civilians during the Rising began to spread. Finally, British executions of the leaders of the Rising appalled most Irish Catholics. The men uniformly met their deaths with great courage, and the British added to this folly by including in the executions the badly wounded James Connolly who had to seated in a chair to be executed. Asked by the priest who gave him the last rites to pray for the men who were executing him, he replied: “I will say a prayer for all men who do their duty according to their lights.”
Connolly was the last man executed, except for Sir Roger Casement, knighted by the British government in 1911, who was executed in London on August 3, 1916 and who converted to Catholicism on the date of his execution. Public opinion was outraged, not only in Catholic areas in Ireland, but also in the United States, and the British Prime Minister ordered that no more executions be undertaken.
From this disaster sprouted the movement that would lead to Irish independence. Michael Collins, who had taken part in the Rising, realized from his experiences during the fighting that attempting to stand up to the British in a conventional War was merely a form of suicide. He began to devise a form of urban guerrilla war that would allow tiny Ireland to confront the mightiest empire in the world.