It was Easter, 1916, and a group of patriotic Irishmen combined to work for the independence of their native land. Their leaders were Tom Clarke, the unrepentant Fenian returned from America to rejuvenate the aged Irish Republican Brotherhood; Padraic Pearse, a poet, playwright and schoolteacher who taught the history and language of Ireland; and James Connolly, a champion of the laboring class who had dedicated his life to organizing Irish workers against employers who exploited them, and who formed the Irish Citizen Army to protect them.
It was a time of promised change. World War I was being fought for the rights of small nations (as American President Wilson had said), and the English, in keeping with that theme, had promised a Home Rule Bill which would give Ireland an independent Parliament. However, the promised legislation was continually stalled. When the Orangemen in the north of Ireland formed an armed force called the Ulster Volunteers to oppose Home Rule if it were imposed, a similar organization was formed in the south of Ireland called the Irish Volunteers. They were to counteract the northern volunteers, and their leader – the moderate Owen McNeill – promised to use them for defense only. However, Padraic Pearse, a more militant disciple of freedom, was its second in command and its leading spokesman. The mood of many of the leaders was sullen over the continued delays in passing Home Rule. They claimed that the British were only using it as a carrot on a stick to win American support for their war effort, and to get Irishmen to join the British Army and defend England on such foreign battlefields as Flanders, Subla Bay, and Sud-el-bar. The Irish leaders contended they would rather die on an Irish battlefield for their own freedom, and they swore that if Home Rule failed, their generation would not pass away without at least striking a blow against the Crown so that their claim for Irish independence might be considered in the post war settlement.
When the Home Rule Bill finally came before Parliament for a vote, the British accepted a Loyalist motion to partition Ireland, and abandon the Irish in six northern counties to the control of the Loyalists. The leaders felt betrayed and put plans in motion for an armed insurrection on Easter Sunday. Clarke’s IRB, Pearse’s Volunteers, and Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army were ordered to practice maneuvers on Easter Sunday – maneuvers which would in fact be the rising. McNeill learned of the plans to turn the maneuvers into an insurrection, and canceled the orders in the public press.
The leaders knew that spies among them had already relayed their plans to the Crown, and arrests and imprisonment would surely follow. It seemed the years of planning, and the hope of freedom had been dashed again. Then a bold decision was made to take the capital city of Dublin on Easter Monday. It was a bank holiday, most of the British soldiers would be off to the races or other recreation, no one would expect it, and if they could hold it for a few days, the news would spread throughout the country, and Ireland might rise and throw off the chains of bondage. The leaders also knew that though the rest of the country might rise, they would never reach Dublin in time to save them, but the freedom of Ireland was worth the sacrifice.
And so at 12:15 P.M. on Easter Monday, April 24, 1916, 1200 men under the leadership of Clarke, Pearse, Connolly, Joseph Mary Plunkett, Sean McDermott, Thomas McDonagh, and Eamonn Kent, marched into the streets of Dublin and the pages of Irish history. They marched to the General Post Office in Dublin where Padraic Pearse read the now famous proclamation declaring an Irish Republic. With the GPO as headquarters, they commandeered several key buildings within the city to defend their newly declared independence. The British immediately cut all communication to the remainder of the country, isolating the patriots, and began to shell their positions. Gunboats sailed up the Liffey and bombarded the city. The heroic men of 1916 held off the British Army for five full days suffering only 56 casualties. Finally, Pearse – to save the lives of his brave comrades in arms – surrendered.
True to expectations, the leaders were hastily sentenced to death. Starting on May 3, the noblest Irishmen of their age were lined up against a wall and shot. Pearse, Clarke, McDonagh, Plunkett, Micheal O’Hanrahan, Willie Pearse, Ed Daly, Sean McBride, Eamonn Ceannt, Sean Heuston, Michael Mallin, Con Colbert, Sean McDermott, and finally on May 12, his stretcher propped up against a wall, the wounded James Connolly paid for his love of Roisin Dubh.
The Easter Rising was a surprise to the majority of the Irish people, in fact, some were even angry at the destruction caused by the insurgents. However, the brutality with which the British put down the insurrection, and the hasty manner in which the leaders were executed angered them even more. It was then that the dream of the leaders came true, and the rest of Ireland did rise. They rose and carried the fight through the War of Independence, and in the end, they won a limited form of the independence that Ireland had sought for 800 years.This month, between May 5 and May 12, remember the martyrs of the Easter Rising.