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1916 in Ireland – a rising against empire

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At the height of the First World War a rebellion was staged in Britain’s oldest colony. Simon Basketter looks at how Irish rebels took over Dublin 100 years ago
Issue 2489
Holles Street barricade, 5th Leicesters, 1916
Holles Street barricade, 5th Leicesters, 1916 (Pic: Courtesy of the Sean Sexton Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery)

On Easter Monday 1916 about 1,600 men and women seized the centre of Dublin and declared an independent Irish Republic.

A battle raged for six days, resulting in the eventual defeat of the insurgents and the destruction of large sections of the city. In the immediate aftermath 16 of the leaders were executed, and 3,500 people arrested.

Yet the Easter Rising gave birth to a movement that drove Britain out of 26 counties of Ireland, and laid the basis of the modern Irish state.

The rebels blocked Sackville (now O’Connell) Street by detonating a bomb on a commandeered tram.

The explosion shattered the window of Noblett’s sweet shop—people dodged bullets to make off with the chocolate.

People sat in the remains of other shop windows trying on boots and shoes, some for the first time.

Children ransacked an upmarket Grafton Street fruit shop, dragging away “great bunches of bananas”. Bread carts were “looted by hungry mobs”. The rising was fought by the Irish Volunteers, the smaller Irish Citizen Army, and a women’s auxiliary organisation.

The British were initially caught off guard because they were engaged in a much bigger fight on their “eastern front” in Belgium and France.

The extensive spy network claimed to have Republicans and socialists “under a microscope”. But an intelligence report two days before the rising reported “no sign of a ‘rising’”.

The rebels knew they would face an overwhelming British military response. Groups of rebels took a series of sites—including a factory, courts and the General Post Office (GPO).

It was a rebellion of the young. One group in a plush area of Dublin convinced a chauffeur to park his impressive car carefully but permanently in a barricade. One unsympathetic witness said, “Many of them were mere boys, in fact only one in ten was a man. They had a great many young girls ranging from 13 to 20.”

One clear-cut Republican military success was the defeat and surrender of a column of the Royal Irish Constabulary in Ashbourne, about 12 miles north of Dublin.

Another occurred around Mount Street Bridge, over the Grand Canal. A small detachment inflicted huge casualties on a regiment of British soldiers trying to march on the capital.

The next day a single gunshot saw a British column retreat, according to its officers “utterly flummoxed”.

The British ruled Ireland as a troublesome colony. In 1874 even Tory prime minister Benjamin Disraeli admitted Ireland was “governed by laws of coercion that do not exist in any other quarter of the globe”.


Ireland was headed by a viceroy appointed by Britain. At the time of the rising it was brandy-swilling Lord Lieutenant Baron Wimborne. He gave his telephone orders in bad French “to confuse eavesdroppers”.

Anti-Catholic sectarianism remained deeply embedded into the structure of British rule and Irish society (see below).

The growth of a more confident if conservative class of Irish capitalists and land owners added respectable demands for more independence to militant urban and rural protest.

British rule ultimately rested on force. By 1914, as Irish historian David Fitzpatrick put it, “a private army ruled in Ulster with the acquiescence of the state”.

Edward Carson’s Tory-backed Ulster Volunteers had smuggled in 25,000 guns. Some 57 of 70 British army officers quit rather than take on Carson’s force.

Sir Henry Wilson was one of the most senior British soldiers to encourage a British Army mutiny. When he warned that if you lost Ireland, you lost the Empire, he spoke of a common nightmare among Britain’s rulers.

Just 15 percent of the adult population had a vote in national elections in Ireland in 1910.

Westminster had put Home Rule on the long finger once again.

T.W. Russell MP warned that “if you set up a Parliament in College Green … the wealth, education, property and prosperity of Ulster will be handed over to a Parliament which will be elected by peasants dominated by priests”.

He objected to peasants, and Catholic peasants at that, electing a parliament. But anti-imperialism was a growing movement around the world.

In 1913 Republican leader Patrick Pearse wrote, “There will be in the Ireland of the next few years a multitudinous activity of Freedom Clubs, Young Republican Parties, Labour organisations, Socialist groups, and what not; bewildering enterprises undertaken by sane persons and insane persons, by good men and bad men, many of them seemingly contradictory, some mutually destructive, yet all tending towards a common objective, and that objective: the Irish Revolution.”

Pearse is alleged to have said that, if nothing else, the rising would see the end of several bad poets. But they were considerably more than that. They were nationalists, suffragists, revolutionary socialists who fought for a republic of equals.


In a heroic but unsuccessful battle against the bosses, Irish workers had fought the Dublin lockout in 1913.

The Irish Citizens Army developed out of the organised workers who had defended strikers.

Their headquarters was that of revolutionary Marxist James Connolly’s Irish Transport and General Workers Union. From the outbreak of war it displayed a banner reading, “Neither King nor Kaiser but Ireland”.

During the rising Connolly made sure the Starry Plough, the flag of Irish Labour, flew over the Rebel-occupied Imperial Hotel.

The hotel was owned by William Martin Murphy, the Irish boss who had set out to smash the unions in the lockout.

The proclamation of The Republic that came from the rising was addressed to “Irishmen and Irishwomen”. That was significant, as was the promise of universal suffrage.

This was a time when nationalist leader John Dillon could declare that “women’s suffrage will, I believe, be the ruin of our Western civilisation. It will destroy the home, challenging the headship of man, laid down by God.”

Some conservative republicans rescinded the rebellion order on Easter Monday and a shipment of guns was intercepted in Kerry. This stopped many more from taking part across the country. But in truth the rising was not enough to take on the British Empire.

The government in London resolved to “spread terror” through martial law. General Sir Grenfall Maxwell took thousands of prisoners.

Of these 1,867 were deported and 171 tried, with 90 sentenced to death. Fifteen were shot, including Connolly, before public disquiet ended the policy.

The Rising showed that Britain could be challenged. Its power was not unassailable. The issue of Irish self-determination would have to be dealt with. That was an achievement.

Just weeks before the Rising Connolly wrote, “We are out for Ireland for the Irish. But who are the Irish? Not the rack-renting, slum-owning landlord; not the sweating, profit-grinding capitalist; not the sleek and oily lawyer; not the prostitute pressman—the hired liars of the enemy.

“Not these are the Irish upon whom the future depends. Not these, but the Irish working class, the only secure foundation upon which a free nation can be reared.

“The cause of labour is the cause of Ireland, the cause of Ireland is the cause of labour. They cannot be dissevered.”

Barricade made from barrels, 1916
Barricade made from barrels, 1916 (Pic: Courtesy of the Sean Sexton Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery)

Who are the true ‘inheritors’ of the Rising?

The Easter Rising did not introduce violence to Irish politics. People were shot during election campaigns before the Rising. Street fighting was an established part of electioneering.

Sectarian riots in Belfast drove hundreds of Catholics from their workplaces during 1912. Strikers and their supporters were batoned and sometimes killed.

Over the years many have poured scorn on the “blood sacrifice” of the Rising that failed militarily. But the real, far bigger “blood sacrifice” was the First World War.

Russian revolutionary leader Lenin defended the Easter Rising. “To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe is to repudiate social revolution,” he wrote.

“Their misfortune was to have risen prematurely, when the revolt of the European working class has not yet matured.”

Political leaders in Southern Ireland have competed to be the true inheritors of 1916. The new state dumped the social radicalism that inspired a section of the rebels. It emphasised the religious and the pious.

Armed struggle was embarrassing because it could legitimise the fight of republicans in Northern Ireland. The 100th anniversary was to celebrate reconciliation and the queen was initially invited to attend.

Instead it has started with protests against attempts by developers to destroy the area around the GPO.

Irish socialist Kieran Allen’s new book, 1916 Ireland’s revolutionary tradition, powerfully recounts a proud tradition that traces resistance to empire and capitalism from 1916 to today.

He argues, “The best way to commemorate the 1916 rising would be a new revolt to change Ireland—so that it will be in reality, [as the proclamation says] ‘cherishing all the children of the nation equally’.”

Rule by violence and sectarianism

Ireland was Britain’s oldest colony. After it was fully conquered in the 17th century the English rulers sent in Protestant colonists to impose their will on native Catholics.

Britain prevented the economic development of much of Ireland. During the 1840s famine more than a million Irish people died.

In the 1880s sections of the British ruling class encouraged sectarianism in response to demands for Home Rule. They were terrified it would encourage independence across the Empire.

Repression after the Rising, and an attempt to introduce conscription in Ireland, fuelled anger against Britain.

After an overwhelming vote for independence and the setting up of an Irish parliament Britain attempted repression again.

It created the Black and Tan death squads, which carried out vicious attacks. The mass guerilla resistance efforts of tens of thousands of republicans made Ireland ungovernable.

There was also a massive increase in working class struggle, including a general strike against military repression in Limerick in February 1919.

Agricultural labourers in the south west of Ireland began occupying land.

By 1921 the British ruling class was forced to accept that it could not hold onto all of Ireland.

It began imposing the division of Ireland from April 1921. It partitioned off the six counties of the north, creating a sectarian statelet described by its first prime minister as “a Protestant state for a Protestant people.”

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