One hundred years ago today one of the most ill-considered, worse-executed rebellions in history began. Dublin, Easter 1916, while over 35,000 Irishmen were dying fighting for Britain on the Western Front and Gallipoli, a group of Irishmen, some veterans of that fighting, took over the Post Office and other key buildings in Dublin, ostensibly waiting for the populace to rise up and join them.They issued a Proclamation establishing an Irish Republic.
It never happened. There were over 5,000 British troops – many of them Irish – around Dublin at the time, the rebellion lasted six days, over four hundred – mostly civilians – were killed, a swathe of downtown Dublin was blown to pieces by British artillery. The self-styled Irish Volunteers surrendered, were vilified by the people of Dublin who had had no warning of the rebellion.
That was that and it probably would have been another short circuited Irish uprising doomed to historic obscurity along with Vinegar Hill and the skirmishes of the ‘Year of the French’ except for what followed. Despite British Prime Minister Asquith’s assertion to the House of Commons that the Irish Volunteers “fought bravely and did not resort to outrage” harsh reprisals followed.
The British arrested 3,430 men and 79 women all across Ireland. One hundred and eighty-seven men and one woman were tried in secret by military tribunals and were not allowed a defense. The British government later found that the trials were illegal. That would come as little comfort to the the leaders of the rebellion, ninety were sentenced to death.
Sixteen were executed over the course of five days in the first week of May – despite warnings and pleas by the Irishmen in Parliament. With every execution public opinion in Ireland changed. Radically. The execution of the rebellions de facto leader, James Connolly appalled the world – severely wounded, probably with a day or two to live, he was brought to the place of execution on a stretcher and had to be tied to a chair to keep him upright enough to be shot.
World outrage was so great all the other death sentences were commuted to penal servitude. Almost two thousand Irishmen were held in prisons in Scotland and Wales for a year or more without ever being charged with a crime.
In an instant, Great Britain snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Public opinion swung, unrest grew, the British fed into it, Ireland achieved independence a half a dozen years later.
The inept, local, uncoordinated rebellion succeeded in the long run. There’s scores of lessons, from every viewpoint to be learned.
William Butler Yeats was caught as off guard by the Easter Uprising as most of his fellow countrymen. He wrote one of the great poems of the English language a few moths after the executions. It’s beautiful and ambiguous. But, he saw the future, the last line of the poem is A Terrible Beauty is Born.