The Easter Rising in Dublin by the Irish Volunteers, with the intention of overthrowing British rule in Ireland, failed every single test that would make a war moral. Another, non-violent method to achieve independence existed, namely a parliamentary campaign that had already managed to put limited self-government – “home rule” – for Ireland on the statute book. However, because of the outbreak of war, this had not yet been implemented.
Then there was the issue of proportionality. Any potential gains from the use of violence would be vastly outweighed by the human cost. The insurgents hoped for an insurrectionary war to follow the rising, which would certainly have led to a civil war in Ulster, where unionists had already armed themselves against the prospect of even moderate home rule. Moreover, the insurgents’ hailing of Germany as their “gallant allies” would have obliged the British, in the midst of a war of national survival, to respond in full and terrible measure.
Some still argue that the rebels’ proclamation was far-sighted, tolerant and egalitarian. Not so. It was a masterpiece of humbug. Even as its solemn undertaking to protect the rights and liberties of all Irishmen and Irishwomen were being pronounced outside Dublin’s General Post Office, two streets away an unarmed policeman, Constable James O’Brien, was being killed by gunmen. Nearby, an unarmed, off-duty soldier, John Humphries – an Irishman; only Irish infantry regiments remained in the city – was shot through the head while window-shopping. Then another unarmed Irish policeman, Michael Lahiffe, was murdered in a city centre park by the self-styled countess and socialist, Constance Markievitz.
Nine children were killed in street violence in the hours after the proclamation, 16 per cent of the day’s death toll. Fifteen-year-old Eleanor Warbrook, a Dublin working-class Protestant, was remonstrating with some rebels, one of whom drew a gun and at point-blank range shot her dead. A fellow insurgent later reported: “I just remember seeing her head and face disappear as she went down like a sack.”
Some rebels took over the women’s hospital of the poor house, the South Dublin Union. Nurses and patients were ordered to remain while the insurgents turned it into a strong point for ambushing “British” reinforcements – in reality, men of the Royal Irish Regiment. This was a violation of the first paragraph of the Geneva Convention, which specifically outlaws the militarisation of hospitals. In the ensuing gunfight, 11 soldiers, two patients and a nurse were killed.
The rebellion was, however, smaller than intended. The commander of the Irish Volunteers, Professor Eoin MacNeill, did not realise that a pro-German republican cabal inside his organisation had secretly planned an insurrection, using his members. Moreover, most of these were unaware that they were to take part in a rebellion, believing that they were about to participate in armed manoeuvres through the city of the kind that they had performed before, with no attempt to stop or disarm them by the British authorities.
Furthermore, the German navy had arranged to land 20,000 rifles for the insurrectionaries, meaning that they would outgun the 10,000-strong Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). Meanwhile, the German fleet planned a major assault on Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth to coincide with the rebellion. A previous such attack on Scarborough had caused some 700 casualties. Thus would Britain be under simultaneous attack, east and west.
However, a last-minute countermanding order by Professor MacNeill meant that many Irish Volunteers didn’t turn out, and others crept home when they discovered what was afoot. The weapons shipment was intercepted by the Royal Navy. The attack on East Anglia went off half-cocked, and killed only three people, though it damaged 200 houses. Nonetheless, the real purpose of the rebellion was not just to secure an Irish Republic but to bring about a German victory over Britain, Ireland’s only neighbour and trading partner. This was irrationality of truly epic proportions.
Within 24 hours the British Army was in command of most of Dublin, and only a few rebel strongholds remained. However, reinforcements arriving from Britain were slaughtered in an ambush. Some civilians, including a prominent nationalist named Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, were murdered by an insane Army officer, Captain Bowen-Colthurst, himself an Irishman. Other civilians (all pro-British unionists) and two Army officers in the Guinness brewery were murdered by some panic-stricken Dublin
Fusiliers. But the only killing of this group that is remembered today is that of Sheehy-Skeffington. Some civilians were also shot and bayonetted by men of the Staffordshire Regiment in the last day or so, before the insurgent leaders surrendered. Fourteen of these were subsequently shot. By contrast, in 1916 alone, the British Army shot 108 of their own soldiers. So if an armed Irish insurrection in which some 500 people were killed went seriously unpunished, how could Britain possibly impose the recently introduced conscription on its own civilian population? Moreover, in 1914, the insurgents’ “gallant allies”, the Germans, had executed some 8,000 Belgian and French civilians, while their gallant allies, the Austrians, had executed some 150 Serb civilians in Bosnia.
Within 18 months of the rebellion, most of the insurgents who had been captured and interned were released. Seldom has clemency been so ill-rewarded. The IRA then began an insurgency against the police force, the RIC, which consisted almost entirely of Irish Catholics. The Army was only later drawn into the conflict. Peace talks ended with what was effectively a British victory. The British retained control of the vital Atlantic ports of Queenstown and Lough Swilly, members of the Irish Parliament would swear an oath of allegiance to the King, and a unionist-governed Northern Ireland (with its appalled population of unwilling Catholics, to whose fate the Dublin insurgents had never given a second thought) would remain within the United Kingdom.
Meanwhile, the Irish people would have to pay both for the vast amount of infrastructural damage done to their country by the IRA and, most cruelly of all, pensions for many of the British security forces.
Ireland thereafter lived for 50 years in self-imposed isolation and poverty, proving how enduring toxic ideas can be, even when visibly ruinous. Irish governments proudly implemented the most draconian censorship any democracy has ever known: in 1956, a government minister actually boasted that more than 5,000 books were currently banned. Emigration was a norm: by 1968, a majority of people born in the 26 counties of independent Ireland were living abroad.
Meanwhile, the Catholics of Northern Ireland remained locked in a state which openly despised and marginalised them. In 1970, just as civil rights laws were undoing their second-class citizenship, the IRA, inspired by the militarist absolutism of 1916, started another war, with thousands more dying before the 1996 ceasefire.
The 1916 insurrection was actually not “republican” in the French sense but intensely Catholic in the Irish sense. Whenever possible the insurgents recited the rosary with an almost hysterical fervour, for “the Rising” (as it was deliberately called) was – at leadership level anyway – a suicide cult intended to parallel Christ’s Resurrection on Easter Sunday. Since his last words in Gethsemane were “he that lives by the sword will die by the sword”, to mount a murderous insurrection to coincide with Easter was profoundly blasphemous.
Nonetheless, the Irish Catholic Church acquiesced last month in the Irish government’s decision to commemorate the rebellion not on April 24, its chronological anniversary, but on Easter Monday, its ecclesiastical one.
There is a certain grim merit in this: that the hierarchy today did not object to such a sacrilegious exploitation of the torment, torture, murder and Resurrection of the Redeemer of mankind accurately reflects the theological vapidity of Irish Catholicism down the ages.
Kevin Myers is a journalist and author of Watching the Door (Atlantic Books)
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