Their Finest Hour, Part 2:The Easter Rising of 1916 (Madness, Glorious Madness.)


   I was reluctant to post this particular article so soon after our previous post about the Rebellion of United Irishmen of 1798, as I don’t want to give the impression that this page focuses primarily on Irish history and mythology. However it is Easter 2015 and that means that it is the 99th anniversary of one of the most significant and glorious, but simultaneously tragic and foolish events in the history of Ireland. So I indulged and wrote the damn thing. If Irish history isn’t your thing, fear not; there’ll be more of the usual posts coming up soon (and some awesome new projects). But considering that it’s almost a century to the day that the streets of Dublin ran red with the blood of our heroes; let’s talk about the Easter Rising of 1916. This will be a long article, my longest to date, and in order to describe this significant event in detail but yet remain accessible, I have divided it up into different topics and given it headings as points of reference. You may not wish to read the entire post in one sitting, and you do not have to, but I would recommend that you do read it in its entirety when you can make the time. It is a story full of heroism and glory and tragedy, worthy of remembrance. There are many names who appear in this account who you may not be familiar with, but rest assured, if I have named a man here it is because his actions justify the honor I pay to his name. This article is detailed but it is only the tip of the iceberg, and it is far less than these men deserve.

   For those of you who are Christian,  easter is a holy time where you celebrate the resurrection of your Messiah from death. The Hebrew celebrates the festival of Passover, which commemorates their liberation by Yahweh from slavery in Egypt under the leadership of Moses. If you are any branch of Pagan/Heathen, it is a time to celebrate the return of spring and all its radiance and fertility. It is the time of year where fertility deities like Freyr, Freyja, Aphrodite, Brigid and Eostre ( the Anglo-Saxon spring goddess after whom the name Easter is derived) reign supreme. But if you are an Irishman; it is the time of year wherein we honor the sacrifice which was made by our ancestors who fought and died in the cause of Irish liberty. These men and women took on the mighty British Empire with little more than a handful of rifles, some grenades and the knowledge that their cause was just. The legacy of these men has been appropriated and misrepresented by numerous groups who all hoped to grant legitimacy to their cause and further their own ends by association with the glorious sons and martyrs of ’16. But the fact that so many have attempted to lay claim to the legacy of so few is a testament to the solemnity and respect which our people as a whole pay (or ought to pay) these dead men. 

“It is madness, but it is glorious madness.”

   These words, spoken by The O’Rahily before his glorious death charging a British machine-gun post, were no joke. The Rising could never have succeeded. It was doomed to fail. In terms of its military efficacy; it was a poorly organized, poorly provisioned, foolish waste of resources and lives. One wonders whether the leaders of the revolution had ever held any hope of victory, or if they chose to sacrifice themselves in the hope that it would inspire others to take up the cause of independence. The evidence seems to indicate that they realized they were outgunned from the beginning, yet still decided to pay the Blood Price. The Rising was a blunder and a military disaster, but the Rebel leadership had set a goal of holding their positions for the minimum time which was legally required to launch a claim to independence, as stated in international law. They achieved this end, if nothing else. It seems that the primary objective of the Volunteers was not to hold the city by force, but to hold control over its centers of administration and communication just long enough to broadcast Joseph Plunketts telegraph to the wider world:

“Rising in Dublin. Republic declared.”
World War I.
   But first, a little background. When World War I began, 200,000 Irishmen joined the British Army which was fighting against the Germans, who had invaded the small states of Belgium and Luxembourg. The war was portrayed by Britain and her allies as a struggle against an expansionist regime so that “small nations might be free”. This justification rang hollow in the ears of Irish Nationalists, whose small nation had been oppressed by foreign occupiers for centuries. Many who went to fight in the British Army (including some of my own ancestors) did so in the hope that their struggle would encourage Britain to grant Ireland some steps towards independence, primarily Home Rule. However, for many men the idea of fighting alongside the British was not as appealing as fighting against the British while they were distracted by the war. In the lead up to World War I, the situation in Ireland had become increasingly militarized. The British government held full control over Irish policies and there was in effect no Irish government or Military. As a result, many groups began to organize themselves into militaristic entities in order to further their agenda. The Irish Citizen Army (ICA) was formed of Trade Unionists (then a novel concept) who armed themselves and trained in order to protect workers protests from attack. James Connolly turned the ICA from an armed protection band to a revolutionary group dedicated to establishing a Socialist Republic. After Connolly threatened to stage a rebellion with the ICA alone if nobody else began to act, he was approached by a larger group who had been planning the Easter Rising; The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), a secret band of men bound by sworn oaths to establish a Democratic Republic in Ireland. They agreed to join forces and work together during an armed rebellion planned for Easter Sunday 1916. These groups were added to by members of Cumann na mBan, a revolutionary organization composed entirely of women who dedicated themselves to the cause of Irish Republicanism, even taking up arms and training in the skills of warfare. The combined forces of the would-be Rebels went under the overall name of The Irish Volunteers. The Volunteers intended to enlist the help of Britains enemy, Germany, in order to gain weapons and manpower. 

   But despite their enthusiasm, the Rebels plans went to hell from the very beginning. The German boat carrying weapons was attacked by a British ship and the IRB never received the cache of weapons, partly because of the attack, but partly because they were waiting for the ship on the wrong beach. The IRB also had to contend with the risk of sabotage from within their own ranks by those leaders of the organization who opposed the Rising. Hugh O Neill, Bulmer Hobson and The O’Rahilly were three prominent members of the IRB leadership who realized that any revolution that they had the capacity to organize at that time would be doomed to end in bloody failure. In an attempt to fool these men, Padraig Pearse (the IRB Chief of Operations) ordered all Volunteers to stage “three days of parades and maneuvers” beginning on Easter Sunday. This was to be the secret code which he knew that die-hard republicans would recognize as the signal to stage the planned rebellion, but he hoped that those men opposed to the action would take it at face value and fall for the ruse. But the plan failed and the three opposing leaders ordered all volunteers to stand down on Easter Sunday, when they realized what Pearse had planned. However, the only thing they achieved was to delay the revolt by a day, and reduce the number of men who would participate. On the morning of Easter Monday, armed lines of marching men in squadrons passed through the streets of Dublin. The Easter Rising had begun.

Monday: Dublin Is Occupied.
   Estimates of the number of participants sit at around 3000 men and women, although the majority of fighting took place solely in Dublin City. In Dublin, approximately 1200 men forcefully took over a number of indefensible and tactically useless buildings. They established their Headquarters within the General Post Office (GPO), over which they hung out two Republican flags, effectively signaling their intent to wage war upon the British occupiers. On the street outside the GPO, Padraig Pearse read the Proclamation Of The Republic to passers-by. This document proclaimed a policy of liberty, equality and prosperity for all citizens of Ireland. Dublin Castle was the administrative centre of British rule in Ireland, but the attempt to take it failed after one of the men inside was alerted by rifle shots and closed the gate. They next tried to take control of Trinity College but they were fought off by a group of armed Unionist students. Instead, the rebels occupied Dublin City Hall and also set explosives in the Magazine Fort in Phoenix Park. British patrols engaged groups of Rebels in various locations throughout the city, with casualties incurred on both sides. However, the British authorities had been so unprepared for the event that there was no organized operations to control the rebellion until the second day. 

Tuesday: Fire From The Skies.
   By Tuesday morning, British Forces began to launch tentative assaults on Rebel positions, unsure of how many Irish troops that they were up against. Reinforcements were assembled and began making their way to Dublin, via the railways and the ports which the rebels had crucially neglected to seize control of. On Monday, British Forces in Dublin amounted to 1,269 men, roughly equivalent to the number of Rebels. However, by the end of the week there were 16,000 soldiers on Dublins streets accompanied by artillery guns and the HMS Helga, a warship which sailed up the river to bombard rebel positions. This was a key failure on the part of the Rebels, they never controlled the vital access points into the City in order to limit the amount of troops which could be brought against them. 

Midweek: Combat Intensifies.
   When Wednesday came, the artillery crews and the guns of the Helga began bombarding rebel positions. A number of rebel positions, such as the headquarters in the GPO, saw very little combat as the British chose to assault them with artillery rather than with ground troops. But over the following days, some of the Rebels elsewhere found themselves being overrun, such as the group at St. Stephens Green. They were forced to fall back after coming under relentless sniper and machine gun fire from the surrounding buildings. But many groups of Rebels encountered fierce combat as the British assaulted them trying to gain control of the city. During the Battle of Mount Street Bridge, 17 Irish Volunteers killed or wounded 240 British troops as they attempted to gain access to the city. The British eventually overran their position and killed 4 of the volunteers. At the present site of St. James Hospital, Cathal Brugha distinguished himself with honor in combat and was severely wounded while leading forces under the command of Eamonn Ceannt to inflict heavy casualties upon their enemy. When the rebels began to withdraw, Brugha stayed behind due to heavy blood loss after he was caught in a grenade explosion, firing on the advancing enemy with a pistol. Eamonn Ceannt found him half-delirious, singing “God Save Ireland”, with his pistol still in his hand firing at the enemy troops. At North King Street, British forces had faced such fierce resistance while trying to advance on a rebel position, that they became enraged and stormed into a number of houses along the street and shot or stabbed 15 civilians. At Portobello Barracks, which was later renamed Cathal Brugha Barracks when the Irish Army took over from the British, soldiers executed a number of pacifist prisoners in retaliation for the Rebels activities. 

Saturday: Surrender.
   After days of heavy shelling from artillery, half of O’Connell street had been on fire. As the flames spread, the ruins of the General Post Office where the Rebels made their headquarters, went up in an infernal blaze of fire and smoke. The leadership attempted to hold out for a last stand, but on Friday night they had been forced to abandon the building or burn to death. They had to smash through the walls and gates of neighboring buildings in order to avoid enemy fire, and by Saturday morning they had established a position in a small building on Moore Street. James Connolly had to be carried through the streets on a stretcher once the new headquarters was secured. The situation had grown hopeless, and in order to prevent the further loss of life and devastation of the city, Padraig Pearse surrendered unconditionally to the British General Lowe. He wrote out orders to stand-down all other rebel positions in the city and gave them to a nurse, Elizabeth O’Farrell, who delivered the orders under British escort to the remaining Rebel groups still in the fight. By Sunday, the Easter Rising was well and truly over. 

Executions: Giving The People Heroes.
   Thousands of men and women were arrested immediately after the surrender of the Rebels, many of whom played no part in the insurrection. The courts martial which followed sentenced 90 men to death, although they only managed to kill 16 before the public outcry and pressure from foreign governments forced the British government to spare the rest of the prisoners from the firing squad. All of the seven leaders who signed the Proclamation Of The Republic were shot, along with others who played a lesser or no role in the rebellion. Joseph Plunkett was permitted by the Warden of the prison to marry his girlfriend, Grace Gifford, pregnant with his child. After a hasty ceremony, Plunkett was taken outside to face his death. It was a waste of bullets, as Plunkett was already a dying man since having succumbed to Tuberculosis. Old Tom Clarke was permitted a visit by his wife and daughter, to whom he said:

“We have struck the first blow towards Irish freedom. Between this and freedom, Ireland will go through Hell. But Ireland will never lie down again.”
When James Connollys turn to face the firing squad came, he was in such a wretched state from severe wounds that he was expected to have only survived another day or two anyway. But his executioners decided to carry out their orders regardless. Unable to stand on his shattered leg, they had to tie him into a chair before they shot him. In his cell, before Eamonn Ceannt went to his death he took a moment to write a letter to the Irish people as a whole:

“Never treat with the enemy, never surrender at his mercy, but fight a finish. Ireland has shown she is a nation. This generation can claim to have raised sons as brave as any that went before. And in the years to come Ireland will honour those who risked all for her honour at Easter 1916.”

The bodies of the dead were buried in a mass grave with no coffins, which incensed the Irish people even further. It was the executions (especially Connollys and Plunketts, dying men) which turned the public opinion from contempt to sympathy for the Rebels. Eamonn de Valera, who commanded the Rebel forces on the southeast of the city, managed to cheat death by virtue of his American birth. The American ambassador campaigned for mercy on his part, and the British authorities thought that he was unlikely to cause further trouble. So he was sentenced to penal servitude for life, until he was granted a general amnesty in 1917. The names of those who were executed is as follows: 
-Padraig Pearse.
-Thomas MacDonagh.
-Thomas Clarke.
-Joseph Mary Plunkett.
-William Pearse.
-Edward Daly.
-Michael O’Hanrahan.
-John MacBride.
-Eamonn Ceannt.
-Michael Mallin.
-Sean Heuston.
-Con Colbert.
-Sean MacDiarmada.
-James Connolly.
-Roger Casement.

 Women In The Rising.
   A number of women actively participated in the Rising alongside the men of the Volunteers, usually in the role of medics, secretaries, scouts and dispatch carriers. However, a number of women took up arms, reported to their posts with pistols and fought alongside their brothers-in-arms. Constance Markievicz, among others, acted as a sniper and shot some of the enemy. The role that the women of Cumann na mBan played in helping to organize and facilitate the Easter Rising cannot be overstated. It was also a woman, Elizabeth O’Farrell, who undertook the dangerous but essential task of carrying Pearses order of surrender across the war torn city to the Rebels who still fought on. 

Civilian Reaction to the Rebels.   
   The Rising was sprung so suddenly and so secretly that members of the public had been completely unprepared. One witness stated:

“None of these people were prepared for Insurrection. The thing had been sprung on them so suddenly they were unable to take sides.”

The Rebels might have received some support from the local populace if they had focussed on campaigning for public opinion before they acted, as some leaders like O’Rahilly and O’Neill had suggested. But they had neglected to bring the residents of Dublin into the plan, and as a result they faced the wrath and ridicule of the disgruntled population. They Rebels encountered resistance during the attempt to occupy a number of their positions and resorted to beating or shooting a number of civilians, the very people they were fighting for. These attacks on innocent (mostly poor) people, the destruction of the city, the disruption of food supplies, the gunfights on the streets, the loss of income and the large number of civilians who died as a result of the British artillery strikes, combined to make the public extremely hostile towards the Rebels in the aftermath of their surrender. The prisoners were pelted with stones and waste, ridiculed as “murderers”, and attacked as they were escorted to Kilmainam Jail to be interred for trial. It was not until the British began executing members of the Rebels that the Irish public began to show signs of sympathy for them, and contempt for the heavy-handed approach of the authorities. In time, the words of Padraig Pearse came true:

“We have done right. People will say hard things of us now, but in time they will praise us.”
The O’Rahilly.
   The O’Rahilly is responsible for a number of quiet famous quotes from the day. His is the story of a true romantic nationalist and revolutionary. Although he had been opposed to the Rising from the very beginning, when he heard that it had begun without him he immediately jumped into his expensive car (he was fairly wealthy) and drove to the Rebel HQ at the GPO. When he met with Padraig Pearse and Michael Collins inside, they asked why he was there even though he had tried to stop the event, he remarked:

“I helped to wind up the clock. I might as well hear it strike.”

When Constance Markievicz  reminded him that he had described the plan for the Rising as “madness”, he retorted with enthusiasm:

“It is madness, but it is glorious madness.

On Friday, the day before the leaders of the Rising ordered the surrender, he led a number of men in an attempt to establish a new position on Moore Street in order to defend the headquarters. When they left the GPO they found themselves confronted by a well manned machine-gun post. With the enemy so close to the main body of the Commanders of the Rebels, the men had to make a stand and go headfirst into the barrage of enemy fire. As The O’Rahilly stared up along the street before he made his heroic charge at the machine-gun post, he turned to a nervous looking comrade and said:

“Sure look, it’s better than catching a cold here.”
With 12 men following him, he made his way through heavy enemy fire from the rooftops, before he and a number of his men were shot. When he heard British soldiers marking his position, he made a desperate dash across the street into an alley, suffering a number of further gunshot wounds. The O’Rahilly lay dying in the gutter of a dank alleyway, surrounded by enemy soldiers, unable to move. At this point he took out his notebook, and wrote his final letter to his beloved wife:

“Written after I was shot. 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 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’ Rahilly, 40 Herbert Park, Dublin. Goodbye Darling.”
Before he lay down for the final time he dipped a finger into one of his wounds, reached over his head to a nearby door, and thereupon he wrote in his own blood: “The O’Rahilly died here.” Eyewitness accounts describe how a British soldier was placed to stand guard over his wounded body, with orders to deny anybody from going near The O’Rahilly. They stole his watch, his ring and the letter to his wife. They denied him access to an ambulance on two occasions, and left him on the street where he lay. It took more than 24 hours for him to die, and for all the time, it was all he could do to lay in the gutter as an enemy soldier and a number of civilians watched him bleed to death. When one of the ambulance drivers asked the soldier why he was standing watch over the body and refused to allow the man receive treatment for his wounds, the soldier remarked:

“He must be somebody important, because the bastards want him to bleed to death.”
O’Rahillys final letter would probably have been lost, like his watch and ring, if it wasn’t for the kindness of one woman. Apparently, either a cleaner or a nurse in Dublin Castle saw the infamous letter sitting on an Officers desk and made off with it. She later delivered it to O’Rahillys widow Nancy, as the note requested.

The Legacy of the Dead.  
   The dramatic story of The O’Rahilly is a good snapshot of the character of these rebels. The majority of them were nationalist romantics. But they were not soldiers, or captains, or generals or tacticians. Only a minority of the members of the Rebellion had ever served in the military, usually with the British or the Americans as there was no Irish military at the time. Fewer still had seen combat. With more experience among their captains, the Rebels might have devised a more tactically sound plan, executed more skillful operations and met with some measure of success. But they lacked this vital experience and relied only on their romantic enthusiasm and what little preparation they had made. The idea of “Blood Sacrifice” may have been a noble one, but it was a foolish one. Michael Collins, hero of the War of Independence which followed the 1916 Rising, thought the same. He was there in the GPO with the rebel leadership and he cursed the folly of the whole affair. 
   Many of those who fought during the Easter Rising would later go on to become key players in the War of Independence. Eamon de Valera became Irelands most prominent political leader of the early 20th century, after he narrowly escaped execution for his actions. Michael Collins had served in the Rebel headquarters during the Easter Week, and would later become a successful politician, a revolutionary, the most celebrated leader of the Irish Republican Army and the first Commander-in-Chief of the Irish National Army. He also negotiated the controversial Anglo-Irish Treaty which would grant Ireland her first steps towards independence, but which crucially partitioned the country into what is now Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. The effects of this partition were tragic, bloody and remain seen even today. Cathal Brugha eventually recovered from his many wounds against all odds, and rose to a position on par with that of Michael Collins during the War of Independence with Britain. It was Brugha who amalgamated the IRB and the ICA into the Irish Republican Army, of which he was elected as Commander-in-Chief. The Irish Army barracks in Dublin is named after Brugha, while the barracks in Cork City is named after Collins.
    We are not so far removed from these heroes as we might think. A century has not yet passed since the Rising. These men were our grandfathers and great-grandfathers. They were our Golden Generation. They walked among men as Giants and Titans. They were not perfect men, and they were far from ideal revolutionaries, but they knew where they stood on the most important matters of the day. They choose to act, instead of just debating and planning and begging for meagre handouts. They were divided on many issues, as one can only expect in such troubled times, but they were united by their commitment to their cause and their resolve to achieve victory at any price. Even the price of their blood and their life. There are a great many of their relatives and descendant alive even today, in whose veins flows the blood of valiant heroes and impassioned patriots. But unfortunately, many people of my generation neglect to honor the sacrifices that these men and women made in our name. It was for our sake that they rose, and it has been to our benefit. We owe much to the memory of the fallen, and I am ashamed to say that we do not go far enough in honoring them. 
   As I have said before, men under foreign rule will always rise in revolt. If it hadn’t been the Irish Volunteers, it would have been somebody else who took advantage of Britains distraction and reached out to snatch at liberty and a place in the history books. The political and social landscape was such that revolutionary action was inevitable. Many of the key players who helped to organize the Rising, to “wind the clock” as The O’Rahilly would say, have been forgotten because they were not executed with the 16. Bulmer Hobson, Eoin O’Neill, Dennis Mcullough, among countless others who made huge commitments to the cause of Irish freedom without actually participating in the Rising itself. All of these men are worthy of praise in their own right, but it is the men who fought and bled that we remember most. It is the man in the arena to whom belongs the glory. I will never forget the story of The O’Rahilly, who was one of the men who had actually tried to stop the Rising. But when the moment to act came upon him, he acted even though it was against his best judgment. He would not stand on the sidelines while other men fought for the glory, he stepped into the arena and died there. If he had lived, he would have been forgotten. How many remember the name of Hobson, who lived to old age as a civil servant? On the pages of history and in the hearts and thoughts of men, it is the man in the arena who counts. No one else.
100 Years On.
   The present government of Ireland attempt to usurp control and claim credit for the planned Centenary Commemoration of The Rising in 2016, in order to establish a connection between their political parties and the Honored Dead. In this way they hope to grant some legitimacy to their rule and associate their names with the Heroes of ’16. But they neglect that it is the people of this country and the families of the Volunteers to whom the commemoration truly belongs. The men and women who rose in revolt, did so not for the elite ruling classes, but the common citizen of this country. The authorities disrespect the memory of the slain by allowing such historically sacred sites as Moore Street, where The O’Rahilly met his end with such glory and Pearse fought his way to safety before issuing the final order of surrender, into ruin and disrepair. They walk a tightrope between claiming ownership of the celebrations of the Rising, and limiting the publics exposure to revolutionary ideas and uprising against tyrannical regimes. Now more than ever, the political landscape is divided and open to upheaval, as huge swathes of the population express dissatisfaction with the present authorities. Stir up too much reverence for revolution in the people now, and they may even decide to Rise again. 

“The ghosts of a nation sometimes ask very big things…”
-Padraig Pearse.

Song: The Foggy Dew.

As down the glen one Easter morn to a city fair rode I
There Armed lines of marching men in squadrons passed me by
No pipe did hum, no battle drum did sound its loud tattoo
But the Angelus Bells o’er the Liffey swell rang out in the foggy dew

Right proudly high over Dublin Town they hung out the flag of war
Twas better to die ‘neath an Irish sky than at Suvla or Sud-el-Bar
And from the plains of Royal Meath strong men came hurrying through
While Britannias sons, with their long range guns fired in to the foggy dew

Twas England bade our wild geese go, that “small nations might be free”;
But their lonely graves are by Suvlas waves or the shore of the great North Sea.
Oh, had they died by Pearses side or fought with Cathal Brugha,
Their graves we’d keep where the Fenians sleep, ‘neath the shroud of the foggy dew.

Oh the bravest fell, and the requiem bell rang mournfully and clear
For those who died that Eastertide in the spring time of the year
While the world did gaze, with deep amaze, at those fearless men, but few,
Who bore the fight so that freedom’s light might shine through the foggy dew

As back through the glen I rode again and my heart with grief was sore
For I parted then with valiant men whom I never shall see more
But to and fro in dream I go and I kneel and pray for you,
For slavery fled, O ye glorious dead, when you fell in the foggy dew.

Song: Erin go Bragh.

I'll sing you a song of a row in the town
When the green flag went up and the crown rag came down
'Twas the neatest and sweetest thing ever you saw
When we played that great game they call Erin go Bragh

God bless gallant Pearse and his comrades who died
Tom Clarke, MacDonagh, MacDermott, McBride
And here's to James Connolly who gave one hurrah
As he faced the machine guns for Erin go Bragh

Now, one of our leaders was down in Rings End
For the honor of Ireland to uphold and defend
He had no veteran soldiers but volunteers raw
Playing sweet Mauser music for Erin Go Bragh

Bold Ceannt and his comrades like lions at bay
From the South Dublin Union poured death and dismay
But what was their wrath when the invaders there saw
All the dead khaki soldiers in Erin Go Bragh

A great foreign captain was raving that day
Saying, "Give me one hour and I'll blow you away"
But a big Mauser bullet got stuck in his jaw
And he died of lead poisoning in Erin Go Bragh

Glory to Dublin and to her renown
In the long generations her fame will go down
And children will tell how their forefathers saw
The red blaze of freedom o'er Erin Go Bragh

Easter Sunday, 2015. Dublin.


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