The 1916 Uprising, also referred to as the Easter Rebellion, was a pivotal moment in Modern Irish history. Though it appears to be a failure at first glance, it was a sacrificial act producing the momentum for Irish nationalists to gain Home Rule, and eventual independence in its entirety. This paper will examine how the concept of sacrifice within the 1916 Uprising, tied in with Catholicism, formed the foundation to Irish nationalism in the 20th century.
In order to understand the Irish struggle for independence from the British Empire, and the cultural connections of Catholicism within Ireland, we must examine the events and movements of the 19th century. The struggle for power dates back to the English invasion of 1171, with British power being insured by the Penal Laws of 1704 restricting all rights of the Catholic majority, and successfully weakening all resistance in Ireland. As a result the Catholics had no political power or even ability to possess their own land, a system that would breed longstanding bitterness between Protestant landlords and their Catholic tenants, the perfect framework for Sinn Fein rebels to build their sacrificial nationalism upon.
The landlord system removed any economic security or foundation the Catholic tenants had in case of economic hardship, and when the Famine hit in 1845 Ireland was left to fend for itself, a bitter choice the Irish nationalists never let Great Britain forget. British decisions during the famine were a catalyst for nationalist movements of the late 19th century at home and abroad in America. The destruction of the Famine motivated those remaining in Ireland to push for change, starting with land reform building towards the ultimate goal of Home Rule.
A new movement emerged of organizations and nationalist leaders, the most significant being the Land League, the Sinn Fein, and Charles Parnell, leaving behind a legacy of action against British rule. They developed a precedent of mobilization and religious unity in their nationalism, as the Land League was built upon two culturally unifying points – land and Catholicism, as most of the rural population belonged to the Catholic Church. The Sinn Fein also developed with Catholicism as a sense of Irish identity as it was the popular majority within Ireland. Parnell’s legacy focused on “obstructionism” within Parliament, a practice that disrupted all agendas to ensure Ireland’s concerns were heard and Home Rule bills considered, and a precedent of constitutional means to achieve independence.
Following the path of constitutional means and Home Rule bills, frustration built amongst the Irish people as the first and second attempts were denied by Parliament, with the third attempt passed in 1914 but implementation delayed by WWI, Irish patience came to an end. This is the key factor that determined why Nationalist rebels chose to rise up in 1916; they needed to make a sacrificial stand the British could not ignore. Home Rule delay signified the end of constitutional means and a shift toward radical policies, a system already utilized by the Sinn Fein.
British disregard for Ireland’s movement towards Home Rule seems at first glance as a cruel ignorance of their own subjects, but in reality Great Britain had concerns of what Irish independence would mean for the role of the Catholic Church. British Protestants feared a strong Papal power in their neighboring island, and with a developing Catholic nationalism at the forefront of the radical Sinn Fein campaign for independence, would upset the balance of power; containment seemed the best policy to follow. Religious tension continued throughout the entire struggle, stemming from Ireland’s new nationalism that combined Catholicism to create a strong unified movement manifested through the sacrifice of 1916.
Originally the Catholic Church was opposed to the idea of Home Rule; like the British the Pope feared Irish independence would unsettle the balance of power, diminishing Papal dominion over Ireland. The Home Rule Bills also clashed with Pope Leo XIII’s desire to re-establish diplomatic relations with Great Britain and heal the wounds from the Reformation, which Irish independence would only further the divide. To solve this problem Pope Leo XIII condemned the nationalist movements in June 1888, forbidding good Catholics from participation and creating tension within the Irish people and church. This decision backfired as the desire of the people to gain Home Rule overruled the decision from the Vatican, and Irish Catholics and their priests continued to support Parnell and the Sinn Fein. Eventually Parnell was able to gain full support of the Catholic Church, by committing Catholic education as a central cause to his Nationalist Party.
In spite of the initial opposition of Catholicism to the nationalist movements like the Sinn Fein, the Catholic Church remained the main culturally unifying point in an Anglicized Ireland. The nation of Ireland, in the midst of its development found, itself caught between two different cultures, their native Celtic culture which was portrayed as backward and a foreign British Anglicanism that was viewed as the way to modernism. This cultural confusion led to a disappearance of Celtic culture and particularly loss of the Gaelic language, as Irish adopted English to modernize themselves, leaving 19th century Irish culture in a vacuum between the two with Catholicism the remaining thread.
During Ireland’s development of nationalism a “Celtic Renaissance” did occur and nationalist leaders turned back to their Celtic roots, blending the Catholic foundation in place with a revived Celtic spirit creating an even stronger nationalism unique to Ireland alone. Michael Collins, a nationalist and leader of the 1916 rebels reflected on this key shift, “We only succeeded after we had begun to get back to our Irish ways; after we had made a serious effort to speak our own language and after we had striven again to govern ourselves.” Though Irish nationalism of the 20th century did develop from both Celtic and Catholic, it is only through the basis of Catholic theology that the sacrificial framework of the 1916 Uprising was possible.
The concept of sacrifice and imagery of a blood sacrifice for the cause of revolution to bring redemption to Ireland was championed by Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) leader Patrick Pearse. In every choice the rebels made within the 1916 Uprising, Pearse desired to maintain a symbolic and sacrificial tone; this is why they chose Easter Monday for the date of the rebellion to achieve greater meaning by paralleling their sacrifice to Ireland with Christ’s sacrifice for us. This nature of symbolism also affected the rebels’ choice of the General Post Office as their headquarters, not for its practicality as it made communication more difficult and offered little protection, but for its dramatic location on Dublin’s main street. They did this because the 1916 Uprising was not about a successful revolution, instead it was to gain British attention through an act of violence and sacrifice, a controversial plan that even leaders within the IRB, like Eion (John) MacNeill condemned as a “lunatic idea.”
The desire of the Sinn Fein rebels to gain British attention was an immediate and pressing reason as to why they followed Pearse’s framework of sacrifice within the Uprising. They knew they could not successfully take on the British Empire, but the rebels knew they could cause enough agitation to give the British no other option than to deal with them. Frustration from the delayed implementation of the Third Home Rule Bill motivated nationalists to take action, as patience had worn thin, and Parnell’s system to work with Great Britain in parliament seemed hopeless. Desperation set in amongst the nationalists and the idea of sacrificing their lives to further Ireland’s cause seemed something worth dying for.
The Home Rule Bill’s implementation was delayed by the British due to their involvement in World War I; all of Great Britain’s focus had shifted eastward to the conflict on the European continent and away from the desires of the Irish people. In addition to this Ireland was put under conscription since they remained part of the British Empire, outraging the Sinn Fein leaders as they viewed WWI as a British War, and saw their countrymen’s lives being sacrificed for no greater cause other than British benefit. Britain’s decision to postpone Home Rule until after WWI was a logical one in order to avoid upheaval on two fronts, since the Protestant Irish province of Ulster disagreed with the Catholic nationalism of the Sinn Fein, Great Britain desired to avoid another conflict in the midst of the Great War.
Their fears of a two front conflict were realized on Good Friday of 1916, when the British navy intercepted German munitions ships off the southern coast near County Kerry, destined to supply local IRB units for the Uprising on the following Easter Monday. Under the organization of Roger Casement, a deal was crafted that Germany would supply the IRB with 20,000 rifles and ten machine guns to defend themselves against British military intervention. This deal was mutually beneficial as both Germany and Irish nationalists saw Great Britain as their great adversary, and the potential of surrounding the British between the Western front and a new Irish front seemed too promising for the Germans and Irish to refuse.
In spite of the failed attempt to gain German aid, and MacNeill’s condemnation of the plan to rebel on Easter Monday 1916, Sinn Fein and Irish Volunteer leaders pushed forward. At noon on April 23, 1916, Sinn Fein Volunteers marched through the city for the most part unnoticed by their fellow citizens who were focused on Easter celebrations, and undisturbed by police who did not wish to get involved – the general consensus being “let sleeping dogs lie.” Since the rebels had officially “canceled” the Uprising they sacrificed the opportunity to have the support of Dublin’s citizens, further setting the odds against the small group of Sinn Fein Volunteers, a significant flaw in their plan.
The Sinn Fein and Irish Volunteers were both crucial players in forming the foundation and mobilization of a rebellion for Ireland; though they were at times radical they contributed considerably to the formation of an independent Irish State. Sinn Fein which means “we ourselves” in Irish Gaelic was a forceful movement within Ireland and Irish immigrants abroad in America, where the Fenian Brotherhood was formed by Irish Civil War veterans eager to stay involved in the Irish struggle for Home Rule. The relationship between the American branch of the Fenian Brotherhood and the Sinn Fein members in Ireland provided strong support where the German attempt failed. It also created an interesting relationship between America and Ireland, as American born Eamon De Valera became Ireland’s first President in 1919.
As the rebels marched into the city they commandeered the General Post Office and surrounding buildings, securing a headquarters and stage within the center of the city for the Provisional Government, led by Patrick Pearse to declare the Poblacht Na H Eireann (Republic of Ireland) to the people. In the closing of Ireland’s declaration of independence, the foundation of sacrificial nationalism is evident: “In this supreme hour the Irish nation must, by its valour and discipline and by the readiness of its children to sacrifice themselves for the common good, prove itself worthy of the august destiny to which it is called.”
Sinn Fein Volunteers took several random buildings around the city which made already limited communication even more chaotic, contributing to a failed attempt to take Dublin Castle and railways. As chaos ensued destructive forces took over in both rebel decisions and those of the citizens of Dublin; since the Sinn Fein Volunteers were not able to gain control of the railways they blew them up, along with telephone service, making it more difficult for British military forces to reach Dublin. Citizens capitalized on the opportunities chaos brought, looting stores and buildings, adding to Dublin’s destruction which took a serious turn on Wednesday night April 26th when the fires began. The Uprising lasted six days in its entirety, with British intervention beginning on Tuesday April 25th, and Pearse’s unconditional surrender on Saturday April 29th.
After a week of turmoil Dublin city was ravaged by destruction; the combination of looting, gunfire combat, bombing and fires caused an estimated £2,500,000 of damage. The damage done to Dublin angered the British as much as the rebellion itself, a mood that was reflected in their resulting treatment of the Irish nationalists after the 1916 Uprising. Sinn Fein involvement also contributed to their outrage; in the 1860s and 1870s the organization had been responsible for radical protests including the bombing of the House of Commons in London and another at Clerkenwell prison in 1867 that killed twelve people. Irish nationalists were driven through the events of the Uprising by a sacrificial nationalism, sacrificing themselves for their cause and the British in their desire for retribution enabled this to happen.
British troops invaded Dublin within two days of the initial Uprising with rebels continuing to fight strong, until Wednesday the 26th when the Sinn Fein Volunteers were forced to retreat and fight with desperation, as any momentum they had began to dwindle. Wednesday was a key point in the rebellion, the British sent the Royal Navy Admiralty Steamer Helga up the River Liffey to bomb the General Post Office, which added to the destruction of the city, a point forgotten by the British in their blame placed on the Sinn Fein for the damages. The combination of heavy bombardment and fires that ensued that night utterly destroyed the Post Office, leaving only remnants of the outer walls, a decisive victory for the British. Without the refuge of the Post Office headquarters for the rebels to turn to, their struggle turned into crisis and the eventual unconditional surrender and declared cease-fire on the following Saturday.
Immediately following the cease-fire, Ireland was placed under strict martial law, a system that was to remain in effect until the creation of a free Irish State in 1921. A curfew of 7:30 pm to 5:30 am was established as well as the surrender of arms and the possession of arms prohibited to all Irish citizens, also all political meetings were declared illegal. The British troops were able to secure all the major nationalist leaders and a significant majority of Sinn Fein and Irish Volunteers that had united through the Uprising to form the Irish Republican Army (IRA). A small amount of IRA members remained at large throughout Ireland, forming the precedent of guerilla warfare in 20th century Ireland; a strategy utilized during the Troubles of 1919-21 – the Irish war of independence.
Under Great Britain’s imposed martial law the punishment of the rebels began directly, with trials beginning on April 30th and continuing through May 22nd. Within the first two weeks of trials, all fifteen leaders who signed the Poblacht Na H Eireann were executed, beginning with Patrick Pearse, Thomas J. Clarke, and Thomas McDonagh on May 3rd and ending with James Connolly and John McDermott on May 12th. The only leader spared was Eamon De Valera because of his American citizenship; instead he was sentenced to life in prison along with the majority of his fellow Sinn Fein Volunteers. In total 3,226 rebels, 3,149 men and 77 women, were arrested and imprisoned on varying sentences of two years to life imprisonment.
The vast amount of prisoners could not be contained in Irish prisons and the bulk of convicted rebels were deported to other penitentiaries around the United Kingdom and Australia from May 1st to May 20th. Out of the 3,226 rebels sentenced, 2,169 were deported from Ireland, 1,972 sent to several facilities around England, 103 to Glasgow, Scotland and 97 to Perth, Australia. Though the British made a point of making their power known to the Irish through severe sentences and deportation, on July 11th 1916, 1,104 rebels were released including 72 women, before serving their full term.
The harsh response of British martial law was critical mistake in Great Britain’s plan of Irish nationalism containment; instead of deterring their nationalist spirit it played directly into the Sinn Fein’s sacrificial nationalism. It gave the IRA, newly formed out of the combined efforts of the Sinn Fein and Irish Volunteers, the perfect propaganda turning the execution of each rebel leader into martyrs sacrificing their lives for the good of the Republic of Ireland. IRA member Florence O’Donoghue reflected that, “The military failure of the Rising proved to be less significant than the effects of its impact upon the nation’s mind…In Easter week the historic Irish nation was reborn.”
What appeared a devastating failure initially for Irish nationalism and Home Rule, within the context of sacrificial nationalism achieved more than constitutional nationalists had accomplished throughout the 19th century. The 1916 Uprising shifted the politics of Ireland into an aggressive revolutionary movement, rejecting the constitutional fight of Parnellism, and achieved the initial goal of the Easter Rebellion to get Great Britain’s attention in a way that they could no longer ignore the desires of Ireland. It further supported the republican notion that constitutional means only led to compromise, something the Irish nationalists of the Sinn Fein and eventually the IRA were tired of doing, and radical movements seemed the only logical solution left.
A rebirth of the Irish nation was awakened by the sacrifice of the rebel leaders; the arrests, internments and executions produced widespread sympathy throughout Ireland. The religious fervor in the attitudes of the leaders executed in combination with the sympathetic nature of the rebel leaders themselves produced new martyred heroes in Irish politics and culture of the 20th century. In a letter to his mother on the morning of his execution, Patrick Pearse wrote “This is the death I should have asked for if God had given me the choice of all deaths – to die a soldier’s death for Ireland and for freedom. We have done right.” The Sinn Fein leaders were ordinary educated men, most being writers or poets and through the unity of their new sacrificial nationalism deeply religious, something that hit home with the general public of Irish Catholics.
Sacrificial nationalism embodied in the leaders’ actions and the goals of their 1916 Uprising touched the people of Ireland and their own Catholic backgrounds, unifying Ireland’s people behind the IRA and the guerrilla warfare to come in 1919-21. Without this mindset of sacrificing themselves for the good of country and cause, and the strong reaction by Great Britain, the 1916 Uprising could not be seen as the victory it was for 20th century Irish nationalism.
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