By Edward T. O’Donnell
Second of three parts
Eighty-five years ago this week, on April 29, 1916, the rebels who staged the Easter Rising surrendered. They’d held out for six days of fierce fighting, barricaded behind the walls of several Dublin landmarks. But faced with the overwhelming superiority in numbers and firepower of the British Army and Dublin Metropolitan Police, the leaders of the uprising realized they had only two options: a suicidal fight to the death or surrender. They chose the latter, not to spare their own lives — for they expected to face the firing squad — but those of rank and file Irish Volunteers and innocent civilians.
The Easter Rising began on Monday April 24 and lasted six days. Some 1,500 rebels held positions in and around central Dublin, including the General Post Office, Four Corners, and the Royal College of Surgeons. They’d built barricades, dug trenches, and set up firing positions to hold off advancing British units. Runners relayed messages between the outposts and the GPO, where Michael Collins and others directed military operations.
They had hoped their brazen efforts would touch off a popular rising across Ireland. When that failed to materialize, the rebels focused on holding out as long as possible. If they couldn’t win, they’d at least send a message to London and the world: the Irish people were fed up with empty British promises and demanded self-determination.
Despite the sacrificial nature of the rising, some of the rebel leaders were surprised by the fury of the British response. Socialist James Connolly had allowed himself to believe that a capitalist nation like England would never attack private property, even to put down an insurrection. Just how wrong he was became apparent when the British moved a gunboat up the River Liffey and began shelling rebel positions. He’d failed to recognize that England considered the protection of private property secondary to the protection of empire. Had he lived, he would have had the opportunity to read a pamphlet written at the time of the uprising (though not in reference to Ireland) by another revolutionary. Writing in Zurich in the spring of 1916, Vladimir I. Lenin observed that "imperialism [is] the highest stage of capitalism."
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The rebels also failed to take seriously the World War I context in which they operated. It seemed unlikely to them that England would divert arms and soldiers from the Continent to Ireland to put down an insurrection. They ignored the fact (or dismissed it as an imperialist cover story) that England for centuries had viewed Ireland as a potential backdoor platform for invasion by a hostile European power. The last thing England was prepared to do in 1916 was create an independent — and hostile — Ireland.
Thus insurrection in Ireland, with not-so-secret German assistance, triggered a massive military response. Some 6,500 soldiers were rushed to Dublin, with more arriving by week’s end, to crush the rebel force of 1,500.
The rebels’ stock of guns and ammunition — mostly outdated weapons smuggled in from Germany — quickly ran low. British machine guns and artillery took up strategic positions overlooking rebel strongholds and rained down bullets and shells. Within days dozens of rebels lay dead or wounded. Among the latter was Connolly, who took a bullet in the foot on Thursday.
By late Friday the fires touched off by artillery shells began to close in on the General Post Office. Evacuation proved impossible because British troops had sealed the area. Padraig Pearse, Collins, and the rest realized they had but two choices — fight to the death or surrender. As the situation deteriorated into Saturday, they reluctantly opted for the latter. Late Saturday afternoon, Pearse issued an unconditional surrender, "to prevent the further slaughter of Dublin citizens, and in the hope of saving the lives of our followers now surrounded and hopelessly outnumbered." Some, like Countess Markievicz, reacted with dismay. "Let’s die at our posts," she pleaded before eventually obeying the order. Eamon de Valera, commanding the distant outpost at Boland’s Mill, was the last to surrender — a fact more to do with geography than valor, but one nonetheless one carefully cultivated by de Valera in the years to come.
The Easter Rising was the biggest revolt in Ireland against British authority since the United Irishmen in 1798 and the scene around the GPO reflected it. Dozens of buildings in downtown Dublin were destroyed and Sackville (now O’Connell) Street was left a charred ruin. Some 508 people lay dead. These included 300 civilians, 132 soldiers and policeman, and 76 rebels. An additional 2,520 were wounded.
Hundreds of rebels, including their leaders, Connolly, Pearse, Plunkett, were arrested and taken to jail. There they were informed that courts martial proceedings would begin immediately. Most of the rebel leaders knew what legal verdict awaited them. What they could only wonder about was the verdict rendered by the Irish people and by history.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
April 27, 1983: By notching his 3,509th career strikeout, Nolan Ryan of the Houston Astros surpassed Walter Johnson to become baseball’s career strikeout king.
May 1, 1169: The Norman invasion of Ireland begins.
May 1, 1960: Navy pilot Gary Powers’s U-2 spy plane is shot down after invading Russian airspace. He will be held for 17 months before being exchanged for a Soviet spy arrested in the U.S.
April 25, 1906: Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court William J. Brennan Jr. is born in Newark, N.J.
April 28, 1878: Academy Award-winning actor Lionel Barrymore is born in Philadelphia.
May 2, 1871: The "fighting priest" of World War I, Fr. Francis Duffy, is born in Cobourg, Ontario.
Readers may contact Edward T. O’Donnell at odonnell@PastWise.com.