From 1880 the Irish Nationalist party regularly won around 80 seats in the British Parliament, taking virtually every seat outside Ulster. The party's domination of southern Ireland was such that eventually the majority of their M.P.s were returned unopposed, with no other party bothering to put up candidates against them. The Irish Nationalists could wield considerable power after a close election. The aim of the party was to achieve Home Rule for Ireland; that is, not complete independence, but a type of devolution similar to that held by Scotland nowadays. The party was officially peaceful in its tactics, but there was always an extremist republican element in Ireland, making its presence felt with occasional terrorist outrages and murders. The republicans were known under the general name of "Fenians".
In 1886 and 1893 the Liberal Prime Minister Gladstone put forward two Home Rule Bills. They were strongly opposed by the Conservatives, and also awakened hostility in Protestant Ulster, where the Orange Order revived, with the slogan, "Home Rule means Rome Rule": a self-governing Ireland would be dominated by the Catholic Church. Liberals opposed to Home Rule left the party and merged with the Conservatives, under the name of the Unionist Party.
The two general elections of 1910 left the Liberals and Conservatives equally balanced in Parliament, and the Irish Nationalists, led by John Redmond, agreed to support Asquith's Liberal government in return for a new Home Rule Bill. The Ulstermen under Sir Edward Carson vowed to start an armed revolt in Home Rule was forced upon them, and their campaign was irresponsibly supported by the Conservatives. Redmond dared not make concessions on Ulster, since he was being outflanked by a number of republican groups, such as Sin Fein and the Irish Republican Brotherhood. The Irish Volunteer Force formed in the south. Both sides started to import arms, particularly from Germany. The House of Lords held up the Home Rule Bill until the summer of 1914, when, as fate would have it, its passing exactly coincided with the outbreak of the First World War. Home Rule then passed into law, but its implementation was suspended until peace should return. The whole question of Ulster was left unresolved.
When the war came, the Orangemen flocked to the colours in such numbers that they formed their own division, the 36th (Ulster), nicknamed "Carson's Army". They were held in readiness for the great offensive planned in 1916. The IVF were allowed to be a sort of militia, to protect Ireland against German invasion. Military conscription, begun in 1915, was never imposed in Ireland. Redmond's party gave full support to the British war effort, but elsewhere in Ireland various groups looked to an armed rebellion, to be supported by Germany. The prospective rebels, contrary to popular belief, did not include Sinn Fein, led by Arthur Griffith: the main activists being the Irish Republican Brotherhood, under the somewhat cloudy intellectual Patrick Pearse, and the "Citizens' Army" of the trades union leader James Connolly. Militants infiltrated the IVF, and the movement split. Meanwhile Sir Roger Casement, a former diplomat, negotiated with the German government for the supply of arms to the rebels, and toured prisoner of war camps in Germany, trying to recruit Irishmen to fight against Britain, though without any notable success. Near the end of 1915, Pearce and Connolly fixed the date of Easter 1916 for an armed rising.
The rising was marked by considerable confusion and incompetence on both sides. British military intelligence had learnt of the plans through intercepted transatlantic cables, but had neglected to inform Birrell, the Irish Secretary. The Prime Minister, Asquith, continued in his traditional Irish policy, which was, in the words of one historian, "to postpone the evil day when something would have to be done". Casement,disillusioned with the lack of German interest, was now determined to call off the rising. The Germans did send arms, but on an aged steamer, the "Ald", which astonishingly had no radio. Having failed to make contact with rebel forces off Tralee on Thursday April 20th, the "Ald" was intercepted by a British warship and scuttled two days later. Casement was landed in Kerry from a German submarine, but was quickly captured and taken to London. Eoin MacNeill, an academic historian who was the commander of the IVF but had possibly been kept in the dark about Pierse's plans, now published an order calling off the rising, thus spreading further confusion.
Nevertheless, on Easter Monday, April 24th, about 1200 men from the Volunteers and the Citizens' Army paraded through Dublin and occupied the Post Office and other buildings. At 12.45 a manifesto was issued proclaiming an Irish Republic and the formation of a provisional government. With the planned offensive on the Somme a little more than a month away, it is not surprising that there were very few front-line troops or commanders in Ireland. In fact, the Beggar's Bush barracks was almost empty, and Dublin Castle, the seat of government, was so weakly garrisoned that the rebels could have seized it quite easily had they made the attempt. In fact the rebels made no serious attempt to spread the rising throughout the city, and there was only small and scattered action in the rest of Ireland.
Fighting continued for a week. The gunboat "Helga" on the river Liffey fired shells that destroyed the Post Office and surrounding buildings. The rebels in the Post Office surrendered on April 29th, followed by the various other isolated groups. Total deaths have been estimated as 64 rebels, 132 government forces and about 230 civilians. The survivors attracted no support as they were led away into captivity: most Dubliners blamed them for the devastation caused by shellfire and for the fact that the occupants of the slums had taken advantage of the confusion by pillaging the shops. Compared with the Bolshevik seizure of St. Petersburg, successfully organized by Trotsky just eighteen months later, the whole rising looks distinctly amateurish.
Pearse and his friends must soon have realised that their cause was doomed to failure, but saw themselves as heroic martyrs in the cause of Irish independence; and the British government, in an extraordinary misreading of the situation, now proceeded to give them the opportunity for martyrdom. It was quite understandable, under the circumstances of the First World War, that men who started an armed rebellion with the expectation of German help should be charged with treason: and it could even be argued that the government reaction was quite moderate. 77 rebels were sentenced to death by court-martial, but in the end only 16 were executed. Eamon de Valera was reprieved because he was an American citizen by birth; and another reprieved (to her intense disgust) was the only woman sentenced to death: Countess Markiewicz, formerly Constance Gore-Booth of Lissadel house, whose beauty had been admired by the poet W. B. Yeats. One name for the future, Michael Collins, was not considered important enough to be executed.
John Redmond, the leader of the Irish Nationalist party, had been entirely opposed to the rising, but, fearing the consequences for Irish public opinion, he now begged the Prime Minister not to allow the executions to take place. Undoubtedly Asquith could have done this, if only to order a postponement, but he refused to take any action, and must take much of the blame for what followed. The executions went ahead. Their impact on public opinion was made much worse by the fact that the sixteen condemned men were not shot on a single day, but in twos and threes, spread out over more than a week. As a grotesque finale, James Connolly, who had been wounded in the leg and was unable to walk, was dosed with morphine and tied in a chair to be shot on May 12th.
Yeats was in England at the time, but was deeply moved by these events, and composed one of his most famous poems, "Easter 1916", with the refrain, "All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born". Of course Yeats was right, and so was Redmond. One man who was "changed utterly" was Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Fein, who, despite his non-involvement in the rising, was now interned alongside other suspects. He now heard that "men whom he knew and loved" had been "murdered in cold blood by the English law" and "longed for vengeance on the murderers". The shift in Irish public opinion was soon to become evident. In the meantime, there was more death. Sir Roger Casement was charged with high treason. His trial, bizarrely, turned on an arcane legal argument on the precise wording of the Treason Act of 1351, which was of course written in Norman French. He was convicted and, after an appeal had been rejected, was hanged in Pentonville prison on August 3rd. During the course of all this, the "Black books", Casement's alleged diaries, found their way into the press, revealing him to be a homosexual. It has been disputed ever since whether these were genuine, and whether it was a dirty trick perpetrated by the British government. (In the present day, Casement would have been branded a paedophile and universally reviled)
By that time, however, the most far-reaching slaughter had already occurred, for the first day of the great Somme offensive had come on July 1st. The 36th (Ulster) division (many of them,it was said, wearing the sashes of the Orange Order) stormed into attack north of Thiepval, seizing the Schwaben redoubt and pressing onwards before being cut off by German counterattacks. They won two Victoria Crosses that day, but suffered grievous losses. Three of their battalions, the County Down Volunteers, the Donegal and Fermanagh Volunteers, and the Armagh, Monaghan and Cavan Volunteers, each lost over 500 men and ceased to exist as viable units, as did in other parts of the Somme battlefield two battalions of the Tyneside Irish and the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers from the regular army. One can imagine the sentiments in Protestant Ulster, finding their boys slaughtered fighting the Germans whilst in the south, rebels were trying to import German arms. The polarisation of Irish feeling was getting ever wider.
Postscript: A quotation from Patrick Pearse: “We may make
mistakes in the beginning and shoot the wrong people, but bloodshed is a
cleansing and a sanctifying thing, and the nation which regards it as the final
horror has lost its manhood”. This would not seem out of place coming from
Hitler or Mussolini!
(To be continued)