Easter Rising 1916 - the Irish Rebellion

The Easter Rising, Ireland, 1916 (1935). Damage caused in Dublin by the disturbances which broke out on 24 April. This view resembles the scenes in Flanders. From The Royal Jubilee Book 1910-1935
The Print Collector/Getty Images

Writing a history of the 1916 rebellion in Dublin is difficult. Too many events have been poorly documented, but acquired a certain glow through folk memory. Let us have a look what happened at Easter 1916. After a false start, the Easter Rising finally really kicked off on an up to then quiet Monday in Dublin...

Dublin, Easter Monday 1916

At noon on Easter Monday 1916, bemused Dubliners saw columns of Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizens Army members (plus some associates) marching through their city. They were carrying mostly antiquated guns, or even pikes and pickaxes, wearing colorful and flamboyant uniforms or civilian clothes. A number of the motley crew assembled in front of Dublin's General Post Office (GPO), listening to Patrick Pearse proclaiming the "Irish Republic", and witnessing the hoisting of the new flag. The GPO was elevated to headquarters, manned under the leadership of Pearse, Connolly, the terminally ill Joseph Plunkett, the doubting O'Rahilly, Tom Clark, Sean MacDermott and a virtually unknown, but enthusiastic, ADC named Michael Collins.

Other parts of the city were occupied by separate rebel detachments. Boland's Mill was claimed by Eamon de Valera for the Irish Republic (Dublin wags still claimed he was inspired by Garibaldi taking the biscuit), while Michael Mallin and Countess Markiewicz occupied the park in St. Stephen's Green, Eamonn Ceant housing estates in South-Western Dublin, Eamonn Daley the Four Courts.

Many important objectives were not achieved and became early warnings of what was to follow. The Magazine Fort in the Phoenix Park was to be taken and plundered, but the commanding officer had the key to the bunker with him at the Fairyhouse Races. Dublin Castle was not attacked due to (entirely false) rumors that it was defended by a strong garrison. The occupation of the main telephone exchange was scrapped after a passing old woman told rebels that it was full of soldiers. The first British soldiers arrived here five hours later.

 Trinity College, built like a fortress and a far better HQ than the GPO, was simply ignored due to lack of manpower on the rebel's side.

The occupation of St. Stephen's Green Park by the ICA quickly declined into tragedy as British troops displayed much more military aptitude than the rebels, and used the adjoining Shelbourne Hotel to rake the park with machine guns, sending rebels scurrying for cover in the flowerbeds. This further declined into farce when a truce was observed to allow a warden to feed the ducks in the pond.

The Irish Rebels' Plan

First successes of the rebels were as much due to surprise as they were to British ineptitude. Unarmed reserves and untrained troops were marched straight into the firing line. And a spirited cavalry attack on the GPO under Colonel Hammond ended in disaster when the horses skidded and stumbled on Dublin's cobblestones.

But all this could not hide the fact that the rebellion was doomed unless all Ireland rose in support of the rebels, bringing about a military victory and expelling the British, or the British simple got fed up and left, or a German force landed in support of the rebels.

All these were about as realistic as Connolly's opinion that the British would use no artillery to avoid destroying capital and investments.

A Short-Lived Dream of Independence

Ireland did not rise, and local disturbances were quickly put down, sometimes with the help of the National Volunteers. The British showed no intention of throwing in the towel. The Germans stayed conspicuously absent. Even Connolly must have realized that he was fighting a lost battle when the gunboat "Helga" began shelling the GPO. Yet, he still wrote "We are winning!" when the GPO collapsed around him, a misapprehension that might be due to the level of painkillers in his bloodstream after suffering two bullet wounds.

With the GPO in ruins, the Four Courts blazing and the ICA seeking shelter in the Royal College of Surgeons, the situation became critical. There simply was no hope of victory for the rebels, tens of thousands of British troops were pouring into Dublin.

It was just a matter of time until the rebels had to surrender - and on the following Saturday, the new Commander-in-Chief General Sir John Maxwell accepted this surrender. 116 British soldiers were dead (plus nine missing), thirteen policemen of the Royal Irish Constabulary and three from the Dublin Metropolitan Police were killed too. On the rebel's side, 64 were killed, at least two by "friendly fire". The highest losses were amongst civilians and non-combatants. 318 died in the crossfire.

But the killing was far from over... Maxwell wanted his revenge!