Of the three revolutionary bodies, it was only the smallest and least significant – James Connolly’s (1868-1916) Irish Citizen Army – that was fully committed to an unprovoked insurrection.
As with the other members of the military council, Connolly’s motives were closely bound up with the impact of the First World War. Although prepared to die for Ireland, there is little to suggest that IRB conspirators like Tom Clarke or Seán Mac Dermott (1883-1916) willingly sought martyrdom despite the subsequent myth of the Rising as a “blood sacrifice.” They intended rather a principled, heroic gesture to reawaken the spirit of militant nationalism among the apparently apathetic masses, an aspiration that explains their preoccupation with symbolic and dramatic gestures, such as the proclamation of an Irish republic, over military objectives.
The popularity of volunteering reflected not only the depth of the political crisis but the appeal of military values across the political spectrum in pre-war Ireland.
Britain’s grip on Ireland was further weakened by the Curragh “mutiny” when British army officers resigned to protest the Liberal government’s apparent willingness to impose home rule on Ulster’s unionist majority.
While prepared to support a rebellion that had a reasonable prospect of success, Mac Neill argued that it was immoral to shed blood in an insurrection whose only rationale was propagandistic.
Having methodically built up a military force, he believed that the Volunteers should await an act of British aggression, such as an attempt to introduce conscription or to disarm the movement.Others around Mac Neill opposed the insurrection on more pragmatic grounds, arguing that the movement was better suited to guerrilla warfare than an 1848-style citizens’ revolt.The military council bypassed these objections by recourse to the same methods that it used to circumvent those within the IRB who opposed an unprovoked insurrection: conspiracy and deception.On Easter Monday, 24 April 1916, over 1,000 poorly-armed Irish separatists occupied prominent buildings across the centre of Dublin, triggering a week-long battle for what was then one of the major cities of the United Kingdom.Confronted by over 20,000 British troops, many of Irish nationality, the rebels had no chance of military success.Although a military failure, the 1916 rebellion transformed Ireland by destroying the possibility of a political settlement between Irish nationalists and the British state and by popularising a republican movement prepared to use violence to achieve independence.This essay surveys the political background to the Easter Rising, its planning, the motivations and ideology of the rebels and the battle for Dublin.The inept handling of this incident led to the resignation of the Secretary of State for War, John Edward Bernard Seely (1868-1947), and the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir John French (1852-1925), only months before the beginning of the war.The outbreak of war postponed the threat of political and sectarian conflict in Ireland as nationalist and unionist leaders strove to demonstrate their loyalty to Britain.The rebellion ended in six days, leaving almost 500 dead and much of the city centre in ruins.In response, the British authorities executed fifteen of the ringleaders and arrested over 3,000 suspects.