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WWI

Ireland On Stage – The 1916 Easter Rising

In WW1, Irish rebels fought to create their own nation – by breaking away from Britain.

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Easter Monday, April 24, 1916, looked like it was going to be a quiet day.

The British Army did have 2,400 troops spread out across the city of Dublin, but this was nothing compared to the vast multitudes it had on the European continent. It was the First World War, after all.

And there was certainly no expectation, at least not among everyday Dubliners, that these soldiers would be needed for anything. Marching and guard duty in important places, such as the GPO (General Post Office) in the city centre, looked to be the order of the day.

But then, some other soldiers showed up in the southwest of the city. The men were from the ‘Kimmage Garrison’, Irish expats who had worked their way back into Ireland and who now followed a certain Captain George Plunkett.

To begin with, they looked mundane too – just like regular troops on the march.

But then, in a dramatic flair, Plunkett pulled out his pistol, pointed it at a nearby tram, and brought it to a stop. 

After the doors parted, he funnelled his 52 men aboard, then turned around, pulled out his wallet, and said:

“Fifty-Two tuppenny tickets to the City Centre please.”

A little while later, that city centre would become a hive of activity as yet more armed men showed up.

It was a diverse cast. 

There were Irish Volunteers, one of Ireland’s paramilitary groups, in dark green uniforms; and others – a ‘Citizen Army’ - with funny hats pinned up on one side. 

In fact, one of these ‘men’ wasn’t even a man at all. 

Countess Constance Markiewicz was an Anglo-Irish aristocrat who’d wedded a Polish count. But instead of a high-society dress, she wore her own “Resplendent (and) immaculately tailored uniform”, as Michael McNally describes her in ‘Easter Rising 1916’. Like Plunkett, she also gestured men on with, in her case, an oversized pistol.

In fact, strange soldiers were showing up in pockets all over the city.

Another group that assembled in the south-west earlier that morning was meant as reinforcements for other Irish Volunteers. What made this group unusual was that they’d come in civilian clothing. 

Of all the armed men who assembled that day, these soldiers must have looked the most incongruous, not only sartorially but also technologically. For they not only had bandoliers packed with modern ammunition slung over their shoulders, and bore shotguns, but also had antique guns and home-made pikes. As McNally points out, this begged the question of whether this was the Easter Rising of 1916, or Wolfe Tone’s Irish uprising of 1798?

As if all that wasn’t melodramatic enough, back in the city centre, one of the commanders suddenly issued the following order:

“Battalion halt! Battalion, left face! The GPO Building – CHARGE!”

And at that, the Irish Volunteers flooded into and then secured the building.

A little while later, supported by notices that had been flung up all over the city, the new ‘president’, Patrick Pearse, stepped out in front of the GPO. 

He declared the birth of a new, independent Irish Republic.

Speaking on the BBC/RTE documentary ‘1916: The Irish Rebellion’, Professor Roy Foster of Oxford University sums it all up this way:

“When they march off to begin their revolution, somebody asks Countess Markiewicz if she’s taking part in a rehearsal for something. And when the first copies of the proclamation are stuck up … on lampposts with flower paste, somebody passing by says, ‘Is that a playbill?’ Which I always think is emblematic of what is a theatrical production.”

1916 Easter Rising Irish Defence Forces
The GPO (General Post Office), where Pearse declared the start of the new Irish nation (image: Irish Defence Forces)

Act I: Set Up and Dramatis Personae

Most plays and films have what dramatists call an ‘inciting incident’. 

This is an event that confronts the key protagonists, establishing the goal for which they strive, thrusting them into action and thus launching the story.

Like much of history, and Irish history in particular, the Easter Rising is not traceable to a single event. A better metaphor than a play might be a snowball, picking up volume and speed as it encounters events rolling down a proverbial mountain – finally becoming unstoppable as it absorbs key events in the late 19th and then early 20th Century.

One might point to the disastrously-handled potato famine of the mid-19th Century (more below) as making something like the Easter Rising highly likely.

However, if there is one incident that formed a crossroads at which the Rising might have been stopped, and beyond which it was inevitable, it is perhaps this: On Good Friday morning, April 20, 1916, four days before the start of the rebellion, Professor Eoin MacNeill stormed into Patrick Pearse’s study with the following accusation:

“I’ve just learned that you’ve issued orders for an Insurrection!”

MacNeill had heard about a plot to break up Ireland and Britain through revolution and was determined to stop it. 

The information had come through some of his and Pearse’s mutual contacts.

Both men were part of the same organisation, the Irish Volunteers. And, like any good movie, there is extensive backstory behind the split that had occurred within it, leaving Pearse and MacNeill on different sides of the divide.

Quite simply, this was all part of a larger pattern, of division, built upon division, built upon yet more division - on just about all sides and on every level.

To begin with, on the macro end of the scale, ‘The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland’, the full name of the UK as it existed in 1916, was actually a bit of misnomer. In reality, Britain and Ireland were in many ways already split.

Centuries of colonialism in Ireland by England, and later Britain, had stirred up huge resentment. The Irish had their own parliament, but it was really overseen by the one in London (or, more specifically, Westminster.)

And there had been centuries of turmoil, exploitation, neglect and open conflict. While atrocities were committed by both sides, the overall pattern was one of political dominance by Britain and the Protestant settlers it had left behind, at the expense of the largely Catholic majority.

When all this resentment and frustration found expression in a failed rebellion in 1798 supported by France and led by Wolfe Tone, the British government responded with a new political arrangement. As Neil Hegarty explains in ‘The Story of Ireland’, going by the logic that it was better to keep one’s friends close, and one’s enemies even closer, Ireland was incorporated properly into the ‘United Kingdom’ in 1801, following the enactment of the 1800 Act of Union. 

Yet despite giving the Irish representation in the Westminster Parliament, the British continued to exploit and neglect the Irish, most egregiously during the potato famine of the 1840s. 

Estimates as to its ultimate death toll vary, but there is broad agreement that upwards of a million people died and a million more emigrated following the disaster. 

To put that two-million total in perspective, that was roughly one quarter of the entire population of Ireland at the time. 

Adjusting that for the UK’s present population base of roughly 65 million, it would be the equivalent today of approximately eight million British people dying over a four-year period (the course of the feminine) and then eight million more being displaced in the years that followed.

No wonder many of the Irish wanted out of ‘Britannia Incorporated’, the British Empire as conceptualised and named by historian Simon Schama.

And yet, fighting against this injustice was hampered by the fact that the Irish too were divided.

To some degree, this was in and of itself a legacy of colonialism. 

By the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, Ireland was configured with a predominantly Protestant and ‘Unionist’ north-east corner in Ulster. Meanwhile, its predominantly Catholic and ‘Nationalist’ populations* were spread across the rest of the island.

(*These groups frequently overlapped, but didn’t always. Wolfe Tone, for instance, was a Protestant but also an Irish Nationalist).

The essential conflict was this: Unionists wanted to remain politically unified with Great Britain (hence the name), whilst Nationalists wanted more political autonomy.

By the late 19th and early 20th Century, political autonomy meant ‘Home Rule’, and was championed by the IPP (Irish Parliamentary Party), led by John Redmond. 

If passed, a Home Rule bill would have resulted in a devolved parliament, enabling Ireland to tend to its own affairs, deferring to Britain only in matters of defence and foreign policy.

And it very nearly did pass.

Failing on the first try, a second Home Rule bill passed in the House of Commons in 1893, only to be blocked in the House of Lords (many of whose members had connections to Unionist Ireland.)

In 1912, the then Liberal government in Downing Street and its allies in Parliament joined with Redmond’s IPP to try again – succeeding in 1914.

Unionists meanwhile, anxious about becoming a minority within a Catholic-dominated and largely independent Ireland, formed a paramilitary group to resist the bill: the UVF, or Ulster Volunteer Force.

In November 1913, Nationalists followed suit, forming a counterpart organisation - the ‘Irish Volunteers’.

The issue was so contentious that not only did it divide the Irish against each other and polarise politics in Britain, it even ruptured the Liberal Party. In the late 19th Century, a ‘Liberal Unionist’ faction broke away from the party’s main body, and united with the Conservatives over the matter.

Even key institutions looked like they might break apart. When, in 1914, the (non-Unionist) Liberal Government attempted to send the British Army into Ulster to maintain peace and order, many within the officer corps** – most notably Lieutenant General Sir Henry Wilson and Brigadier General Sir Hubert Gough – refused to obey the order. 

This became known as the 'Curragh Mutiny’.

(**Some officers in the British Army had Irish-Protestant connections and roots, Gough amongst them; Wilson opposed Home Rule from London, where he was stationed at the time).

Over in Ireland, nationalists themselves also split over the matter.

When the First World War broke out in the summer of 1914, Redmond urged the Irish Volunteers to allow themselves, essentially, to be subsumed into the British Army. His reasoning was that helping with the war effort would engender the British to the nationalist cause, finally convincing them to grant Home Rule when hostilities had ended.

Many agreed, but a radical wing of several thousand did not. (McNally says 13,000 men abstained, Neil Hegarty around 10,000). 

In the wake of this fission, those who followed Redmond became the ‘National Volunteers’, whilst the radical wing retained the ‘Irish Volunteers’ label.

But even that wasn’t the end of the endless subdividing, because the Irish Volunteers splintered too, with this division playing out just as the Rising was about to start.

As McNally explains, the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising were a ‘Military Council’, IRB men (Irish Republican Brotherhood) who wanted to steer the Irish Volunteers towards violent rebellion against Britain.

This ‘Council’ initially consisted of three men. The first was Thomas James Clarke, a US émigré who had gone to prison after a bombing campaign in Britain and, apparently, been further radicalised by having been tortured there. The other two were Bulmer Hobson and Sean MacDermott.

Patrick Pearse and the museum dedicated to him (and his brother)

This Council later expanded, taking in Patrick (or Padraig) Pearse, Joseph Mary Plunkett, Eamonn Ceannt, and, before the rising, James Connolly and Thomas MacDonagh.

There was another change too: Clarke pushed out Hobson. 

Although he had been an IRB man, Hobson sided with Redmond when he took control of the Irish (and later National) Volunteers. He saw Redmond’s moderation as a lesser evil than the breakup of the Volunteers.

Side-lined from the Council, Hobson remained as Secretary of the Irish Volunteers. 

And it was in this capacity that two senior officers came to him on April 20 with a tipoff: the radicals were about to launch ‘the Rising’.

The three of them went straight to Irish Volunteers founder and then Chief-of-Staff Eoin MacNeill; and he, taking them with him in turn, went head-to-head with Pearse about what he had been told.

This was the moment in Pearse’s study that kick-started the story of the Rising:

“I’ve just learned that you’ve issued orders for an Insurrection!”

As we know in hindsight, of course, MacNeill had Pearse dead to rights. Not only was he on the Council, he was also the head of the provisional government for the republic the rebels were about to proclaim.

Bluffing, Pearse told MacNeill he would do anything he could to prevent any unnecessary loss of life. This apparently convinced MacNeill to leave, though evidently the Council were not convinced he was convinced enough.

After the meeting in his study, Pearse dashed to the other Council members, and himself, MacDermott and MacDonagh agreed to try and convince MacNeill to stay out of the way.

When confronted by them, MacNeill said he had only talked to MacDermott, who, ushering MacNeill into his bedroom, admitted the planned Rising was coming. He also disclosed that it was to be supported by a huge arms shipment from Germany.

This, MacDermott claimed, left them with two choices: to fight, or be suppressed. 

Believing this to have mollified MacNeill, the Council also took the precautionary step of ‘kidnapping’ Hobson (essentially, confining him to a safe house where he’d be out of the way.)

But that was not the end of the complications.

Treasurer of the Irish Volunteers, the Gaelic (Irish language) professor Michael O’Rahilly (‘The O’Rahilly’) also heard about the rebels’ plans - and he too reputedly went to see Pearse in his study, bursting in with a loaded gun:

“ … whoever you send for me, make sure he’s quick on the trigger!”

Despite the gun, O’Rahilly was unable to convince Pearse to call it off, and so he went in search of MacNeill, who in turn sent out orders for the Volunteers to stand down that Easter weekend. 

His communique read:

“Owing to the critical position, all orders given to Irish Volunteers for tomorrow, Easter Sunday, are hereby rescinded and no parades, marches or other movements of the Irish Volunteers will take place. Each individual Volunteer will obey this order strictly in every particular.”

It worked. The rebels stopped the Rising … for one day. 

They opted instead to launch it on April 24, 1916. Easter Monday.

Despite their numbers having been thinned to around 1,100 by MacNeill’s countermanding order, the rebels assembled in Dublin that day. Believing that if they started a fight with the British, the entire country would eventually join them, in the rebels’ minds, all they had to do was hold out long enough.

With everyone more-or-less in place, Captain Sean Connolly - dispatched to take the area around City Hall by union leader and Council member James Connolly - walked up to Dublin Castle, the seat of British power in Ireland. 

As he did so, Police Constable James O’Brien approached him.

And once O’Brien was close enough, Connolly raised his gun and pulled the trigger. 

It was the first shot, and death, that day. 

The Rising was on.

1916 Easter Rising
A 3D map looking towards northwest Dublin across the River Liffey, with Dublin Castle visible under the pin on the bottom left (image: Google)

Act II: Rising Tension

While the gunshot that killed him obviously came as a shock to Constable O’Brien, the Rising itself did not go unanticipated by the British authorities.

An important part of the backstory to the rebellion is that, because the British had cracked German codes, they were aware there was going to be a rebellion and that the Germans were attempting to support it.

In fact, they had apprehended the diplomat Sir Roger Casement (who had gained previous renown for exposing Belgian atrocities committed in the Congo) on the west coast of Ireland a few days before. He was part of an effort to get German arms to Irish rebels, though when the British intercepted it, the ship carrying the weapons ended up on the bottom of the sea, scuttled.

The British had also sought to pre-empt the rebels, planning to take over the HQ of the ITGWU (the Irish Transport and General Workers Union), the seat of James Connolly’s ‘Citizen Army’ that had augmented the Irish Volunteer forces.

Believing, incorrectly, that it was well armed, they chose to wait until Monday, April 24, when a field gun would have become available. 

But by that point, of course, the rebellion had already started.

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A map of arms-shipment routes to Ireland before the Rising (image from ‘Easter Rising 1916’ by Michael McNally © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

Interestingly, in another example of high melodrama, Connolly himself had been carted off to a safe house, as Hobson was. 

Though in Connolly’s case, it wasn’t an attempt to prevent the Rising that got him ‘kidnapped’, but rather, the fact that his public pronouncements about taking up arms against the British made him a liability. 

Intense negotiations ensued, and, eventually, both sides agreed: Connolly came around to the idea of the Uprising, as it had been planned, and said he’d support it with his Citizen Army. In return, he got to become a member of the Council. 

This merger was soon reflected in the kind of division of labour that took place on the streets of Dublin.

While James Connolly’s man Sean Connolly fired the first fatal shot, the next rebel gunshots came from Irish Volunteers.

Several of them, masquerading as amateur footballers, made out they’d lost control of their ball near the Magazine Fort in Phoenix Park. Moments later, they ambushed the guards and set about laying explosives inside the fort.

The detonation wasn’t meant to happen just yet though. Their plan was to take the larger cache of explosives in the fort before they destroyed it, but the fort commandant was at a horse race and had taken the keys to the magazine with him.

Then, when a teenaged boy they’d taken hostage rushed off down the road and begun banging on doors to raise the alarm, one of the rebels pursued and shot him dead. 

Moments later, the explosives they’d left inside accidentally blew up anyway, alerting the entire city and making the murder of the boy completely redundant. 

It would be the first of several tragic, unnecessary deaths and atrocities committed during the Rising.

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Irish rebels inside the GPO watch and fire on British cavalry that ride past – future IRA leader Michael Collins is bottom left (image from ‘Easter Rising 1916’ by Michael McNally © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

Meanwhile, the city centre was becoming a hive of rebel activity as Pearse, James Connolly and Plunkett organised their men.

Just then, Treasurer Michael O’Rahilly showed up. As McNally explains, he had come to the conclusion that if he could not stop the rebels, he was going to join them.

They all made for the General Post Office, quickly overcoming the handful of British soldiers inside, then pushing any civilians out.

The Volunteers and men of the Citizens Army lined up within, their rifles aimed through the windows, which is where they were when British cavalry led by 2 Lieutenant G J Hunter trotted past.

Men inside the GPO were ordered to ignore them, at least initially, as the plan was to catch them in a crossfire. 

Yet, some of the rebels fired early, and then other Volunteers at the nearby Four Courts area opened up.

Hunter was struck and killed almost right off and, with bullets zipping through the air around them, the remainder of the unit promptly dismounted and broke into the adjacent Medical Mission and Collier Dispensary to find cover.

Amazingly, they only sustained four casualties in the whole ambush.

Higher up the British chain of command though, things were comparatively sluggish. Colonel Kennard, the commanding officer of the Dublin area, was absent, and his adjutant Colonel Cowan was desperately trying to figure out what the hell was going on. 

He called on various garrison commanders to send reinforcements to Dublin Castle – recall, the seat of British power in Ireland – as well as to the Four Courts, where Hunter’s men had been ambushed, to reconnoitre and report back.

His next call went to Brigadier General Lowe, 3 Reserve Cavalry Commander, to brief him on what was known, and he likewise dispatched an officer to alert the War Office in London. The man rushed straight to Kingstown Naval Base by bicycle to relay the message by radio.

The news got through - though, as Professor Emeritus Ronan Fanning of University College Dublin explains in 1916: The Irish Rebellion:

“(Prime Minster Herbert) Asquith was down in his country house that Easter weekend, and when he came back to 10 Downing Street, somebody told him as he went in that there’d been a rising in Dublin, buildings had been occupied, and all hell had broken loose. And Asquith just turned around and said, ‘Well, that’s something’, and went to bed. And there’s a certain sense in which that encapsulates Ireland’s inability to command British attention because of the Great War.”

The rebels had gambled on this very situation, betting that the British were so hamstrung by the First World War that they wouldn’t be able to respond to the uprising properly. The French, McNally reminds readers, were certainly embroiled in fending off an enormous assault on Verdun for much of 1916 – something that the British would have to respond to eventually to take the pressure of their allies.

But while the Rising may have felt like a distant irrelevance to those busy waging World War 1, it must have seemed palpably lethal to those on the ground in Dublin.

The volley of gunfire that erupted from the GPO was certainly a fitting opening to the action-packed second act of the Easter Rising. 

And yet, it seems that what Patrick Pearse had hoped and expected to erupt was applause - when he’d made his grand proclamation of the start of the new Irish Republic in front of the GPO a little while earlier.

What he got instead was a muted response. The cheers came later … when the British cavalry showed up. 

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A British soldier shown in 1914 – many soldiers in Dublin still wore peaked caps as metal shrapnel helmets were only introduced in 1916 (image from ‘British Tommy 1914-18’ by Martin Pegler © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

Unlike distant leaders trying to grasp what was happening and exactly how to respond, British troops on the ground were now reacting to the situation adroitly. 

As Cowan had ordered, men from various barracks were pushing their way through to reinforce Dublin Castle – 50 of them even mounted a Maxim machine gun on a trolley and fired bursts at rebels ensconced in the Jacobs Biscuit Factory who tried to frustrate their advance.

At the other end of the scale were men of the Georgius Rex, GRs (or ‘Gorgeous Wrecks’), who’d been drilling without weapons and come under fire as they funnelled back into the city. They scrambled, rushing for cover and leaping over walls.

Bizarrely, when Pearse heard that unarmed*** British soldiers had been fired upon, he ordered for this to stop.

While this marks him out as a more sympathetic central character in the drama, it also juxtaposes sharply with his wider world view. This rather-less-sympathetic version of Pearse is related by Neil Hegarty in The Story of Ireland: 

“A key aspect of Pearse’s political ideology was ‘blood sacrifice’, the Christian-inflected concept prevalent in Europe at this time that war might help to cleanse and renew a nation. ‘When war comes to Ireland,’ he wrote during World War I, ‘she must welcome it as she would the angel of God. And she will’.”

Though, like Hegarty points out, brutal as this viewpoint may have been, it wasn’t completely out of step with the broader concepts of Eugenics and Social Darwinism kicking around at the time. 

(***In actual fact, this is disputed. Joseph McKenna quotes sources in ‘Voices from the Easter Rising’ that indicate the GRs might have been drilling with rifles that just were not loaded, or that some of the rifles did in fact have live rounds in them. Either way, since they would have gone on to load all their weapons at the first opportunity if, in fact, they had needed to, Pearse’s order not to fire on the GRs still seems rather chivalrous). 

Blood sacrifice and superior genes aside, it was superior numbers that were going to tip the scales in Dublin. And by the end of the first day, British reinforcements had brought their forces to around 4,500 – roughly four times as large a force as that fielded by the rebels.

Sean Connolly, the man whose gunshot had effectively kicked off the rebellion, was now cut down by a British sniper. 

And British troops soon started muscling in on rebel positions, launching sorties on City Hall from Dublin Castle.

By day’s end, they had forced their way in via a route through the Castle cellars (prior attacks on ground level had been repulsed.) And machine gun volleys that pinned down rebel snipers positioned on the rooftops allowed passage into the courtyard, and then onto the ground floor of City Hall itself.

Rebels went scurrying up staircases, where they lay in wait for the next assault.

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A map showing rebel (blue) and British (red) positions and movements early on in the siege (image from ‘Easter Rising 1916’ by Michael McNally © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

The following morning, the grand British counter stroke began to take shape as Brigadier General Howe arrived and took control.

The plan was to sail a gunboat right down the River Liffey, bisecting the rebel positions, and then using British troops to surround and isolate them – effectively throwing a giant net over the whole city.

Things got off to an early start when, at 2:15am, Captain Carl Elliotson led 100 men, hauling four machine guns in support, onto the upper floors of the Shelbourne Hotel, as well as to the adjacent United Services Club.

Below them on St Stephen’s Green, the rebel unit commander Michael Mallin - James Connolly’s deputy in the Citizen Army - had made an elementary mistake. Though he had military experience, Mallin had been foolish enough to set up trenches within the green despite being surrounded by buildings that could be turned into elevated positions.

And come 6:30am, that’s just what they became, when Elliotson’s machine guns opened fire.

Those on the green ducked into cover, clinging to trenches overlooked by the enemy.

Smart enough at least to realise his error, Mallin ordered his men to make a run for the nearby Royal College of Surgeons. 

When they did bolt, it was not only British fire they had to contend with, but also rotten vegetables and expletives hurled at them by angry Dubliners. 

A short time beforehand, supporting gunfire at Dublin Castle sparked more running – though this time up stairways as British troops on the ground floor of the City Hall rushed those above them. In short order, the building was secured. 

Bayonet charges also occurred at the Mail and Express newspaper offices. Rebels there repulsed the first four, but were finally overwhelmed by a fifth which, by that point, left behind smoking ruins.

On the Liffey, ‘Helga II’ began bombarding the Boland’s Bakery in the mid-afternoon and, north of the city, the arrival of a four-gun battery of field artillery pieces enabled the British to smash rebel barricades in the north of the city.

‘Field’ artillery is the key here though, since gunners soon found that, without the traction found on grass or mud, firing their guns on the smoothly-pebbled streets was like shooting them on ice. The recoil sent them flying backwards, after which they’d need re-aiming. This must have led to a frustrating drop in their rate of fire.

As well as the field guns, there was a loose cannon of another sort. The otherwise popular and professional British troops were to be undermined by a rogue captain named Bowen-Colthurst.

Like some of the opening shots fired by the rebels, Bowen-Colthurst shot a teenager, then took some journalists into custody after raiding the wrong house. 

Believing his three prisoners to be rebel sympathisers, he arranged for the assemblage of a firing squad in the guardhouse yard the following morning. When asked to walk towards a wall at one end of the yard, the three men were shot in the back - presumably, before they had any idea what was happening. 

Bowen-Colthurst, it seems, thought himself fit to be judge, jury and executioner. 

Wednesday, April 26, opened with more shelling as the Helga II and its escort ship, the Sealark, moored at berths on the north side of the Liffey, then fired upon the nearby Liberty Hall. 

This was reckoned to be an arsenal and centre for rebel activity, and so was also the target of a bayonet charge by Ulster troops - though, by the time they got into it, the building had been deserted.

The good news for the authorities was that British forces were now a mere 100 yards from the rebel HQ at the GPO.

There were also grenade blasts echoing around certain parts of the city that day as the British, after clearing out civilians, advanced forcefully on the Mendicity Institution, a charity centre for the needy.

Yet, the day’s most salient action was in the south-east of the city.

Unbeknownst to them, men of the Sherwood Foresters Regiment – reinforcements who’d just come across the Irish sea from Britain – were advancing on what McNally dubs ‘The Irish Thermopylae’. (The battle portrayed in the movie ‘300’). By the same logic, one might also call it another Alamo.

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The route taken over to Ireland by British reinforcements during the Rising (image from ‘Easter Rising 1916’ by Michael McNally © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

In sharp contrast to the cheering crowds they had passed on the way in, the Sherwood Foresters were about to walk into a truly lethal crossfire.

Their axis of advance up Northumberland Road had been perfectly anticipated by the rebels, and four key locations around the road, up to and including the Mount Street Bridge at the end of it, were set up as fire traps.

The metaphorical tripwire was an inconspicuous house on the corner of the perpendicular Haddington Road: number 25, Northumberland Road.

Inside, two Irish Volunteers, Lieutenant Michael Malone and Section-Leader James Grace, would fire the first shot once a sizeable portion of the Sherwood Foresters’ force had marched beyond them. 

Easter Rising 1916
Line of advance of the Sherwood Foresters past 25 Northumberland Road (image: Google)

McNally describes the tension that built up to this moment:

“Upstairs in No. 25 (Northumberland Road), Malone and Grace watched the troops pass below their position. Silently nodding to his partner, Malone aimed his Mauser C96 semi-automatic pistol out of the window and emptied the 10-shot magazine into the street below. As he ducked back inside, Grace fired several shots in quick succession at another section of the column and after a momentary delay the other positions began to open fire at the British infantrymen who had instinctively dropped to the ground.”

One of those first hit was a certain Captain Dietrichsen, who had moved his family to Dublin so they would be out of the way of Zeppelin attacks. He had met them along the road only a few hours beforehand.

Naturally, the British fired back, although at first the response was somewhat scattershot, since they could not work out exactly where the fire was coming from.

Officers took action, sending a group of men along Percy Place, parallel to the canal, in an attempt to outflank the ambushers. But many men who went around that way would be shot too. 

The unit commander, Lieutenant Colonel Cecil Fane, was also struck in the arm by a bullet as he rallied his men. As McNally explains:

“Waving away assistance he calmly handed over command to Maj. Rayner and only then consented to withdraw to cover and accept treatment; standing in the middle of the road, giving orders, the new commander seemed to lead a charmed life, his uniform being literally shredded by rifle fire.”

Once the Sherwood Foresters had worked out that much of the fire was coming from Number 25, several of them charged right at it. 

1916 Easter Rising
25 Northumberland Road shown on a 3D map (image: Google)

But the house was very well barricaded, and they were repulsed. 

As they occupied houses opposite and began pouring fire on Grace and Malone’s position, one imagines the whole intersection must have become the epicentre of an already giant gun battle – with rifle reports ringing out and rounds zipping back and forth across the street, ricocheting noisily off brick and stonework and shattering windows.

One British soldier, Captain ‘Mickey’ Martyn, recalled afterwards what fighting in the south of the city had been like:

“I found that a bullet in Dublin was every bit as dangerous as one in No-Man’s Land … In some ways the fighting in Dublin was worse – In France you had a fair idea of where the enemy was and where the bullets were going to come from. In Dublin you never knew when or from where you were going to be hit.”

Indeed, the British Tommy was trained to fire 15 aimed-shots a minute – an impressive rate of fire at the time. Though knowing where to bring this fire to bear was the challenge in Dublin.

Yet, the rebels’ web of sniper fire on Northumberland Road did eventually break up when the British finally managed to break into Number 25 - lobbing grenades through the broken windows and blowing the door open. 

It still took them a little while to push their way inside, and in the meantime Malone and Grace continued to pour fire on them, before making a dash for the cellar.

Malone was struck down by British fire at the top of the stairs, while Grace ducked behind a gas cooker to avoid a grenade blast. He would escape after dark. (According to the ‘Irish Independent’, Grace survived the entire Rising and lived to old age).

This section of the battle actually generated over half of the 500 casualties (i.e. dead and wounded) that the British would sustain over the course of the uprising. Not all of that was down to Malone and Grace (though they certainly caused more than their fair share.) Rather, the entire web of snipers was set up on this route – which ran up to and over the Mount Street Bridge – precisely because it was a main reinforcement route into the city****.

(****The real tragedy, McNally claims, is that the British already held the Leeson Street Bridge to the west, and could have crossed the canal here with little or no resistance).

1916 Easter Rising
Leeson Street bridge shown under the red pin in relation to the Mount Street Bridge, shown inside the yellow circle (image: Google)

This is why such fierce fighting also erupted around Clanwilliam House, on the corner of Mount Street Bridge. Here, the British tried desperately to force their way into the city and the rebels conducted what was effectively a near-suicidal delaying operation.

Again, the Alamo allusion is fitting, since, like that structure, Clanwilliam House sustained a huge amount of fire – laying, as it did, at the top end of the rebel ambush.

Continued British bomb-throwing finally bettered down the defenders when it ignited the gas supply and sparked a fire, forcing them to flee.

In fact, as night fell, Clanwilliam House wasn’t the only building that had turned into a blazing fireball. By this point, several parts of the city were alight. 

Speaking on the program 1916: The Irish Rebellion, Dubliner Henry Kelly remembered:

“As far as we could see, the sky was just one enormous mass of flame. Tremendous, enormous mass of flame, and we felt that the whole centre of the city was being destroyed by fire.”

1916 Easter Rising
Mount Street Bridge, eventually fought past by the Sherwood Foresters, shown under the pin on this 3D map (image: Google)

More fires started the next day, April 27.

As the sun came up, British troops again started pushing towards rebel positions, whilst snipers on both sides hunted each other from the rooftops. 

Then, a shot from one of the field guns ignited paper inside the Irish Times building, and this blaze soon spread to adjacent buildings and rebel barricades, which had been put together using the same flammable material, like wooden furniture and thick rolls of paper.

Inside the GPO, James Connolly had become a dynamo, rushing back and forth giving orders to just about everybody. 

When he stepped out onto the street and got a bullet in the ankle, he ended up on a mattress back in the GPO, from which he continued giving orders.

Osprey Publishing
The GPO near the end of the siege – hoses are used to douse the walls to hold off flames for as long as possible (image from ‘Irish Volunteer Soldiers 1913 – 1923’ by Gerry White & Brendan O’Shea © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

In the south-west of the city, at the South Dublin Union, the intensity of First World War fighting was about to be re-created in another way: as rebels there retreated inside a nursing home and the British gave chase, close-quarters fighting was to break out from within the confines of the complex. To some, it must have seemed reminiscent of a trench raid.

That Thursday morning, 150 men of 4 Battalion, Irish Volunteers, under the command of Eamonn Ceannt, were garrisoning the union. 

In 1916: The Irish Rebellion, narrator Liam Neeson explains what happened next:

“This 52-acre complex is home to three-and-a-half thousand of the city’s destitute and insane, making it one of the rebels most ambitious and perilous locations. Situated to the south west of the city centre, the rebels’ intention is to hold off British reinforcements coming by road and rail from the country. After an initial attack by the British, the rebels are forced back into the vast woman’s hospital, where Ceannt and (his men) dig in.”

Again, men of the Sherwood Foresters, this time arrayed in two whole battalions, moved into the Union.

According to Professor Charles Townsend of Keele University, speaking on the same program:

“This was one of the most intense, hand-to-hand combats of the week.”

Osprey Publishing
A map showing rebel (blue) and British (red) movements and positions towards the end of the siege – the South Dublin Union is bottom left (image from ‘Easter Rising 1916’ by Michael McNally © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

Irish Volunteer John Joyce of the South Dublin Union garrison remembered:

“The situation was an ugly one. It was like hide and seek and many encounters took place at point-blank range. The court nurses, and patients and the emaciated had a trying time, for fighting actually took place on the wards, and it is miraculous how they escaped so well.”

And on the British side, Sir Francis Fletcher Vane, commander of those in the Royal Munster Fusiliers who attacked, recalled:

“We fought up to literally three feet of the enemy, but everything was bizarre on that day, for we advanced through a convent, where the nuns were all praying and expecting to be shot. The poor creatures. Then through the wards’ imbeciles, who were all shrieking.”

The British pulled back here, but more generally their giant net was closing in on the rebels.

Act III: Climax, Denouement and Endless Sequels

Come Friday, April 28, it was obvious that the rebels’ position at the GPO was untenable. 

Even Pearse’s confident speech to his men about the imminent national uprising doesn’t seem to have helped. With the building about them clearly on the verge of combusting, a new headquarters had to be found.

As Professor Mike Cronin of Boston College explains in 1916: The Irish Rebellion:  

“The one thing the (men inside the) GPO (were) supposed to be able to do was to look down streets, to see the British coming, but actually all that’s now been blocked by this inferno … Irrespective of the military dynamics (of the situation), it’s the fire that ultimately will defeat them, because you can’t hold onto burning buildings, you can’t survive an inferno.“

Osprey Publishing
3D map of the city during the last few days of the siege with fires and the British cordon (red line) isolating/closing in on the blue rebel positions (image from ‘Easter Rising 1916’ by Michael McNally © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

The lack of any British infantry assault gave them the interim they needed to evacuate, sending the women amongst them out first. (Though a few women elected to stay).

By the evening, they also managed, via a tunnel to the Dublin Coliseum, to smuggle out their wounded and prisoners – the latter they advised to make a run for it.

When the Volunteers assembled, ready to move out themselves, Gaelic language professor Michael O’Rahilly joked with his men:

“English speakers to the front, Irish speakers to the rear.”

O’Rahilly was then shot as he led his men out into the street.

While the rebels reeled, struggling to find a new HQ, and were sent tunnelling through houses in desperation, O’Rahilly ducked into a doorway, then into a nearby lane.

His life slipping away, he penned one final letter, to his wife:

“Darling Nancy,

“I was shot leading a rush up Moore Street, and took refuge in a doorway. While I was there, I heard the men pointing out where I was, and I made a bolt for the laneway I am in now. I got more (than) one bullet I think. Tons and tons of love dearie to you and the boys and to Nell and Anna. It was a good fight anyhow. Please deliver this to Nannie O’Rehilly, 40 Herbert Park, Dublin. Goodbye Darling.”

Back at the GPO, the fire was spreading and the rebel leadership rapidly losing control of the situation. Looking out at the street on Saturday morning, it was apparently the sight of a family evacuating their burning house waving a white flag – a description reminiscent of Bloody Sunday in 1972 - that finally convinced Pearse to call it a day. Clarke, who’d wanted to go on fighting, was overruled.

Tom Devine, an Irish Volunteers there at the time, later remembered:

“ … we knew that the end was near, and (Patrick Pearce) said then that, ‘Win it we will, although we may win it in death’.”

Elizabeth O’Farrell, a nurse still embedded with the rebels, acted as the go-between with the now British commander General Maxwell (he’d taken over from Lowe the day before.)

After being driven to meet Maxwell, Pearse put his name to a surrender document that read as follows:

“In order to prevent the further slaughter of Dublin citizens, and in the hope of saving the lives of our followers now surrounded and hopelessly outnumbered, the members of the Provisional Government present at Headquarters have agreed to an unconditional surrender, and the Commandants of the various districts in the City and Country will order their commands to lay down arms.”

Connolly also signed on behalf of the Citizen Army.

In the weeks that followed, members of the Council and other ringleaders were tried and executed by firing squad. They were: Patrick Pearse, Thomas Clarke, Thomas Macdonagh, Joseph Plunkett, Edward Daly, Willie Pearse, Michael O’Hanrahan, Major MacBride, Eamonn Ceannt, Michael Mallin, Con Colbert, Sean Heuston, Sean MacDermott, James Connolly and Thomas Kent. Roger Casement, the diplomat caught on Ireland’s west coast trying to assist with the landing of German arms, was hanged.

As for Countess Markiewicz, Irish Volunteer Liam O’Broin recalled in 1916: The Irish Rebellion that:

“She was a great inspiration, the Countess … in her picturesque uniform, moving around among all the lads, encouraging them all, all the time. She was a wonderful woman. She was a combatant … if it did come to a fight, she would be really there in the middle of it – she was asking for no favour, no indulgence on account of her sex.”

She did not get her wish. She was spared execution, according to Hegarty, because she was a woman.

Eamon de Valera, who’d led 3 (Dublin City) Battalion of the Irish Volunteers in the south-east of the city, was also spared, apparently on account of his being an American citizen.

And the response to the surrender of his garrison is an interesting demonstration of just how divided opinion on the Rising was. According to McNally, he and his men received applause from Dubliners they passed by right before giving their arms over to the British.

On the other hand, Irish Volunteer Martin Walton recalled in 1916: The Irish Rebellion:

“After some odd adventures that got as far as Jacob’s (biscuit factory), by God was there a hostile crowd there, calling everyone … ‘Come out you F-ing slackers. If you want to fight, go out and fight in France’, and all this. They were waving Union Jacks and God knows what.”

On the same program, Professor Diarmaid Ferriter of University College Dublin points out that 25,000 Dubliners were serving with the British Army in the First World War, and that 5,000 of them would die in the conflict. Catroniona Crowe of the Ireland National Archives adds that the wives of these soldiers were frustrated that the siege blocked access to their husbands’ pay, which came through the GPO.

The Rising, as well as leading to 550 British casualties and 200 for the rebels, McNally says, also caused 2,500 civilian ones. (The total dead, according to 1916: The Irish Rebellion, worked out to 70 rebels, 140 British soldiers, and at least 300 civilians).

The war, both McNally and Hegarty point out, increased prosperity in Ireland by raising food prices (Ireland’s economy had a large agricultural component.) This made many suspicious of Connolly and the socialist element of the rebel cause.

And John Redmond, the moderate leader of the IPP, felt he represented broad Irish public opinion when he expressed outrage at the leaders of the Rising, Hegarty says.

And yet, civilian deaths and citywide damage aside, Hegarty also points to this quote by British commander Sir John Maxwell:

“We tried hard to get the women and children to leave North King Street area … They would not go. Their sympathies were with the rebels … ”

Putting roughly 3,000 men and 100 women thought to be connected with the rebellion in prison also didn’t help. About a third of those apparently caught up in the dragnet turned out to be innocent, and were promptly released. Those who weren’t developed contacts in prison that helped facilitate future violence against the British in Ireland.

It also surely didn’t help that there seems to have been a blatant double standard when it came to meting out justice.

As McNally points out, Captain Bowen-Colthurst, the ‘loose cannon’ who had shot the Dublin teenager and ordered the killing of three journalists, was found guilty of murder. Yet he escaped execution because of insanity. 

Meanwhile, some members of 2/6 South Staffordshires, who had killed civilians in Number 172 North King Street during the Rising, were presumably among those rotated back to Britain when witnesses were given the chance to identify the killers.

It seems obvious there was also a class bias when one compares the Curragh Incident to military justice more generally. Its leaders went on to lead their men in the Great War, whilst 306 of those men (only three of them officers) were executed by firing squad during the conflict. 17 of these cases, according to ‘Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire During the Great War 1914 – 1920’, were for mutiny or ‘mutinous’ offences (disobedience, casting away arms and quitting one’s post.) One wonders if, had Home Rule been implemented in 1914, an ‘Ulster Rising’ might have ensued, and how this would have been dealt with by the British authorities. 

Killing the Rising’s ringleaders certainly helped increase public support for them and their cause - making it ever more likely that the otherwise one-off smash hit ‘1916 Easter Rising’ would be franchised and followed by numerous sequels.

These were the Irish War of Independence that broke out after the First World War, the Irish Civil War that then ensued between those who supported a peace treaty with the British and those who could not abide it; and then, of course, the later Troubles that began in the late 1960s.

Old faces popped up again in many of these sequels. Michael Collins, who had been present in the GPO during the Easter Rising, became Director of Intelligence for the IRA in the Anglo-Irish War. He was later killed when the Irish Civil War broke out.

And Eamon de Valera, the American-born battalion commander who escaped execution, went on to lead Ireland when it eventually became an independent state. The creation of the Republic of Ireland was an important step in calming down centuries of political turmoil there. Though, as we know, it also was not the end of violent conflict in Ireland, given the eruption of the most recent phase of ‘the Troubles’ in the late 1960s.

Recently, of course, the Brexit result has led many to fear for the ongoing viability of the ‘Good Friday Agreement’ that brought an end to this conflict in the late 1990s.

The border between Northern Ireland and the Republic has, of course, now been left untouched by the decision to put the EU/Britain customs barrier across the Irish Sea instead, something that ought to help preserve the agreement.

Though it remains to be seen if this new state of affairs will be acceptable to the unionist community in Ulster and their representatives. The new arrangement may be deemed to threaten the close affinity and connection they have had, and want to continue to have, with Britain. There are also more immediate economic concerns, as DUP member Christopher Stalford said at a session at Stormont (the seat of the Northern Irish government) on January 20:

"This deal is bad for Northern Ireland economically, because it hives us off from our single biggest market (i.e. Britain), and it will be the responsibility of the executive going forward to ensure that there are no barriers to east-west trade (between Northern Ireland and Britain)."

And, in fact, the nationalist side has come out against the Brexit treaty too, as they were against Brexit more generally.

As the Financial Times neatly summed it up: "On the Brexit treaty itself there is rare unity at Stormont - although the pro-Brexit DUP and anti-Brexit Sinn Fein oppose Mr Johnson's deal for different reasons". The paper notes that, in fact, all five parties in the legislature that day (January 20) withheld their consent from Boris Johnson's Brexit treaty.

While a deeper exploration of the possible remedies to these Brexit-related divisions are beyond the scope of this article, what can be re-iterated is the importance of the Easter Rising and its influence on today's events. As the Brexit process continues, it's clearly important for those of us in Britain to remember both the Rising and the Troubles more generally, and to be considerate of Ireland and its still-delicate situation going forward.

For more, read ‘Easter Rising 1916: Birth of the Irish Republic’ by Michael McNally, and visit Osprey Publishing for more military history.

Read ‘The Story of Ireland’ by Neil Hegarty for a comprehensive history of Ireland.

And to see footage of the Rising and learn more about First World War history, watch 'The Great War' channel's video on the Easter Rising just below, and visit their channel for more on the period.

'The Great War' channel's explainer on the Rising