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Ireland’s Easter Wars

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This year marks the centennial of the Easter Rising in Ireland. Beginning on Good Friday, March 25, Ireland launched a six-day commemoration of the key turning point in its long, colorful, and tragic history. Lost in the publicity surrounding the celebration, however, was the fact that the actual date of the Rising was April 24—Easter came late that year—and it occurred on the Monday after Easter, not Easter Sunday. This lack of awareness about the date of the event mirrors much deeper misconceptions about its complicated legacy and why the Rising became so famous in the first place.

For five days in April 1916, primarily in Dublin but also in other parts of Ireland, Irish rebels attempted to seize power and end British rule over their country. Although it caught the British by surprise, the revolt failed. Parts of Dublin were left in ruins, at least 485 people were killed, and more than 2,000 were wounded. Ireland was changed forever.

The leaders of the rebellion were an amalgam of various radical Irish factions. Chief among them were three groups: the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), an offshoot of the pro-republican group of the mid-19th century known as the Fenians; Sinn Féin, Arthur Griffith’s political party; and the Irish Volunteers, a military organization formed on the eve of World War I. A handful of Irish socialists and a few ardent feminists such as Countess Markievicz and the radical Rosamond Jacob sympathized with the Rising. It was a youth rebellion, consisting mainly of the generation born between 1880 and 1900. The leading revolutionaries were men and women who saw themselves in permanent revolt against their parents’ generation and the colonial status quo they inherited. They were radicalized in part by the Boer War of 1899–1902, which saw Irish sympathy and even support on the side of the South Africans against the British.

The spread of radical labor activism led by the head of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, James Larkin, also contributed to the revolutionary mindset. His strike of 1913, and particularly its ruthless suppression, further alienated younger Irish men and women. Even the literary revival of the late 1890s to the early 1900s—with its ridicule of old ways and its treatment of subjects not mentioned in proper society, especially the work of playwrights like J.M. Synge—set the young apart from their elders.


The idea for a revolt dated to the outbreak of World War I in August 1914. The hallowed Fenian slogan “England’s trouble is Ireland’s opportunity” was revived. Radical nationalists, led by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, determined that an uprising was necessary if Ireland was to recover its national honor and capture the imagination of the Irish people. The leaders of the IRB were seized by the romantic notion that violence could be liberating. Men like Joseph Mary Plunkett, Thomas MacDonagh, and especially Patrick Pearse personified the strain of mystic Catholicism and Gaelic idealism found in Irish intellectual circles. They were a unique combination of poets, visionaries, and rabid nationalists.

Pearse, who became the leader of the Rising, was particularly given to rhetoric that romanticized bloodletting. His speeches caught the air of violence generated by the Great War. In a eulogy honoring the old revolutionary Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa in August 1915, Pearse perfectly enunciated this cult of death: “Life springs from death; and from the graves of patriot men and women spring living nations.” Calling the past 16 months of World War I, when millions died, “the most glorious in the history of Europe,” he argued that “Ireland will not find Christ’s peace until she has taken Christ’s sword.”

Even a realist and practical-minded revolutionary such as the socialist James Connolly was caught up in this atmosphere. Just two months before the Easter Rising, Connolly could write, in words that matched Pearse’s mystic idealism, that “no agency less potent than the red tide of war on Irish soil will ever be able to enable the Irish race to recover its self-respect … Without the slightest trace of irreverence … we recognise that of us as of mankind before Calvary it may truly be said: ‘Without the shedding of Blood there is no Redemption.’”

In that light, it is fair to say that it did not matter to Pearse and some of the other dreamy idealists behind the revolt whether the Rising succeeded or not. Their objective was a “blood sacrifice.” In Pearse’s formulation, “bloodshed is a cleansing and a sanctifying thing.” A blow against the British would enshrine their ideas and render their cause noble.

Other nationalists disagreed. A revolt, yes, but one that had a chance of success was the intention of many who sympathized with the idea of an armed action. These nationalists—men like Eoin MacNeill, an historian and Gaelic enthusiast, and Bulmer Hobson, a Northern Irish Quaker and supporter of Sinn Féin—had specific prerequisites before they would support a revolt. They wanted an assurance of German aid—preferably troops (they spoke unrealistically of numbers such as 50,000) but also all types of arms (rifles, grenades, and machine guns)—to support a full-scale revolt. Every attempt to secure German support proved futile, however. With huge forces tied down at the battle of Verdun, the Germans had no intention of shifting manpower or military equipment to Ireland. No matter: Pearse decided to go ahead and call for the Rising as scheduled on Easter Sunday, April 23. Because of last-minute confusion, the revolt was postponed one day.

Ironically, the plans for an uprising came at a time when Ireland was actually benefiting from the Great War. Irish men were volunteering in large numbers for the British Army—eventually 200,000 Irish served in its ranks. Ponder that figure. According to the census of 1911, Ireland’s population was 4.4 million. That means that 776,000 males were of military age and a quarter of them volunteered for the British Army—there was no draft in Ireland. Some of the Irish volunteers enlisted out of idealism, others because of the living allowance provided for their families while in service. The war also had brought new levels of prosperity to the Irish agricultural sector, the backbone of the economy.

On the surface, even the political situation seemed stable. The leader of the Irish Nationalist Party, John Redmond, had succeeded in securing home rule, the goal of the great Irish hero Charles Stewart Parnell. (The one dark cloud in Redmond’s success was the virtual separation of Ulster, with its Protestant majority, from the rest of Ireland on the eve of the outbreak of World War I.) At the same time, 40 years of British legislation designed to undermine Irish radicalism had inadvertently conceded to the Irish control of municipal government and the middle ranks of most professions, notably medicine, law, and the educational system at all levels. The times hardly seemed propitious for an armed challenge to the British Empire.


By any practical measure, the Rising was a miserable failure. But Pearse and its other leaders did not measure success in practical terms. For them the rebellion failed but the bloodshed cleansed the shame and ignominy of defeat, canonizing the rebels as martyrs and forever exalting their vision of a “United Ireland.” Terence MacSwiney, Lord Mayor of Cork, expressed the rebels’ sense of destiny unforgettably. In 1920, as he lay dying from a hunger strike, he called out: “It is not those who can inflict the most, but those who can suffer the most who will conquer.”

By proclaiming a republic, a concept alien to British constitutional law, the rebels of 1916 began the effective separation of Ireland from the Empire. The “blood sacrifice” of 1916 created the image of “the Republic virtually established,” the old goal of the Fenian movement, which now became the ideal of all Irish nationalists whether radical or moderate. From the Easter Rising until British recognition of Irish autonomy in 1921, the call for “the Republic” galvanized all factions of Irish nationalism.

Yet it was chiefly the bloodshed that immortalized the rebels. The British may have won the battle, but they lost the war—the war of symbols, the war for the hearts and minds of ordinary Irish men and women. The British authorities committed a series of blunders that enshrined 1916 even in the minds of those Irish who had not embraced the republican ideal. Instead of merely arresting and jailing the leaders, as they had done in response to resistance in the past, the British authorities condemned 90 prisoners to death—although 75 had their sentences commuted to various terms of servitude. Among those reprieved were Éamon de Valera, in part because of his American birth, and Countess Markievicz.

In an orgy of bloody-mindedness, the British followed through with the execution of 15 leaders of the Rising, including everyone who signed the proclamation of the Republic. Among those executed, Joseph Plunkett was dying of tuberculosis and James Connolly was so wounded that he had to be strapped to a chair to be shot. The British military also paid off an old grudge: John MacBride, who fought for the South Africans in the Boer War, was among those executed. A knighted diplomat who had thrown in with the Irish, Sir Roger Casement, was hanged for treason. To further blacken Casement’s reputation, the British released his diary showing a long life of homosexual activity.

The result of these British missteps was to create martyrs and, in the process, raise the concept of the Republic to new levels of respect. Any realistic chance of a political solution to Irish issues ended with these bloody executions. The great Irish poet William Butler Yeats said it best in “Easter 1916.” Written between May, as the executions began, and September, while the fury of the Rising was still felt in Ireland, the poem is a powerful commentary on the events of Easter Week. (The very structure of “Easter 1916” calls attention to the precise date of the Rising. The poem consists of 16 lines for the first and third stanzas; 24 lines for the date of the Rising in the second and fourth stanzas; and four stanzas total, referring to April, the fourth month of the year—4/24/16.)

Although a committed nationalist, Yeats rejected violence as a means to secure Irish independence. He also had strained relations with Pearse and some of the other leaders of the Rising. But their deaths profoundly shocked him, and he sought to sanction their sacrifice. His poem wasn’t published until four years after the Rising, but it crystallized the memory of the leaders of the Rising forever in the mind of the Irish public. The men of 1916 were no longer failed rebels.

I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Before the Rising, Yeats held out hope that some form of home rule might satisfy Ireland’s longing for independence. The Rising, and British reaction to it, put that to rest. The past cannot be called back, he argued. All that is important is to remember the revolutionaries’ vision and carry on: “We know their dream; enough / To know they dreamed and are dead”.

The revolutionaries who followed in the wake of Pearse fully shared “the dream.” For them, the rebels’ deaths were not enough: they had to be avenged. Like Pearse, his successors in the revolutionary movement believed that the shedding of blood would redeem and elevate the cause.

Keogh Brothers Ltd./National Library of Ireland on The Commons
Keogh Brothers Ltd./National Library of Ireland on The Commons


The “terrible beauty” of republican violence led inexorably to the Anglo-Irish War of 1919–1921. At the conclusion of World War I the Irish believed that the Versailles Conference, under Woodrow Wilson’s mantra of national self-determination, would recognize some form of Irish independence. That hope was dashed, and early in 1919 the first shots of the Anglo-Irish War were fired. The British resorted to brutal methods to terrorize the Irish people, and the Irish rebels responded with their own atrocities, including the shooting of civilians. A particularly effective rebel tactic was to intimidate the Royal Irish Constabulary, the national police force, whose ranks were dominated by Catholics. Eventually over 400 police were killed by armed nationalist units, commonly known by then as the Irish Republican Army, or IRA.

Police barracks throughout the country were emptied, and Ireland was left without a workable police force. To fill the gap the British eventually resorted to paramilitaries such as the infamous Black and Tans and the Auxies. A low point of this war took place in November 1920 when a hit squad killed 10 British officers in Dublin for carrying out intelligence operations against the IRA. In reprisal that same day, Black and Tan units fired into a crowd at a football match. A dozen people died, some of them in a stampede to get out of the stadium.

A byproduct of the growing atrocities on both sides was the gradual fading of the political idealism and radicalism of the rebel generation of 1916. By the end of the Anglo-Irish War in 1921, the traditional values of the Irish people began to reassert themselves. Partly in revulsion over the violence and destructiveness of the war, powerful conservative forces, especially the Catholic Church, middle-class business interests, and the farming class reasserted their influence. But the country remained bitterly divided over the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty that had ended the war with Ireland as a “Free State” still within the British Empire. And so an even more destructive civil war broke out between those nationalists who favored the idea of a pure Republic and a more pragmatic group, led by Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith, that supported the Treaty. The pro-Treaty forces commanded a majority in the Irish parliament, the Dáil, and formed a government. The anti-Treaty forces led by Éamon de Valera boycotted the Dáil and took up arms.

One of the great tragedies of the struggle for Irish independence begun in Easter Week was this war that emerged in 1922. Like all civil wars it was ugly and brutal; it was worse than anything seen during the Anglo-Irish conflict. More lives were lost, and atrocities of astounding savagery were carried out. The IRA targeted members of the Dáil and killed judges loyal to the government, as well as members of the British army serving in Ireland, including Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson. In retaliation, the government executed in cold blood 77 members of the anti-Treaty faction.

The Four Courts in Dublin, one of the landmark sites of Irish culture, was burned down in the fighting. The death toll was terrible: at least 800 members on the government side and perhaps double that figure for the anti-Treaty forces. In a grotesque commentary on the state of Ireland during the Civil War, Kevin O’Higgins, head of the pro-Treaty faction, had Rory O’Connor, who had been the best man at his wedding less than a year earlier, executed. Michael Collins was shot and killed by some of the very men he had once led during the Anglo-Irish War. The ghosts of Easter Week, inflamed by Pearse’s rhetoric of violence, had come home to haunt the new Irish nation.


thisarticleappearsThe Easter Rising resonated with political and cultural significance in Ireland and even far beyond it. Three ambiguous and powerful legacies warrant mention.

First, the Irish revolution was conducted in English, the language of the conqueror, despite the efforts of the extreme nationalists to use Gaelic as a unifying force. The Gaelic revival of 1890–1910 had surprisingly little influence on the events of the Rising. Although the Proclamation of the Republic issued on April 24 used Gaelic for its title, Poblacht na hÉireann, it was usually cited and quoted in English.

Second, the Rising was the first of the nationalist revolts spawned by World War I that changed the face of Europe. The Czechs, Poles, Finns, Baltic peoples, and even the Turks would follow Ireland’s lead in revolting against alien rule. The Irish rebels of 1916 laid down markers in their struggle against Britain that would be widely copied by other nationalist movements. The Zionists were particularly impressed by Irish tactics and adopted them in their campaign against the British in Palestine after World War II.

Third, Easter 1916 was, like all revolutions, a revolt of the young, a generational conflict. The rebellion leaders were in their twenties or thirties—Pearse and MacDonagh were in their late thirties, while Plunkett was 29. Even Connolly, who had a long, active career in labor agitation and socialist politics, was only 47. Tom Clarke, the old Fenian, was the senior figure among the rebels, and he was just 58.

The rebels were turning their back on those nationalist leaders who had worked for decades to win some form of autonomy for Ireland. Autonomy was no longer enough. The goal must be absolute independence and a Republic. The young revolutionaries of 1916 rejected the values of their parents’ generation in favor of a transformative nationalism that would emphasize a unique form of Irish cultural and political identity.

The subsequent violence that flared up left Ireland with a number of questions that are still unresolved, particularly what to do about Ulster with its large Catholic minority. That issue, unforeseen by the leaders of the Easter Rising, would complicate Irish history for the rest of the 20th century. Yet since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998—whose liturgical date was no accident—an uneasy peace, however fragile, has survived. Perhaps the gun finally is out of Irish life, and Irish history, so long fixed on the bloodshed, sacrifice, and self-crucifixion of the Easter Rising, can at last achieve the triumph of Easter peace.

John Rodden has written on Irish history in The Review of Politics, The Midwest Quarterly, and other publications. John Rossi is professor emeritus of history at La Salle University.

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