Ireland’s Wars: The 1916 Plan

The Easter Rising would, when it came to it, amount to the seizure of a number of buildings and other positions in Dublin, similar seizures in a few other parts of the country, and a few rural ambushes and skirmishes. But was that always the sum total of the rebel leaderships ambitions? In this entry, I want to discuss what the overall plan for the Easter Rising was in terms of a best case scenario, and how realistic the planners were in the various aspects.

In order for us to do this, we have to take a closer look at the man whose name is synonymous with the Rising, Padraig Pearse. Born to a middle-class family in the Dublin street that now bears his name in 1879, Pearse was raised, from a very young age, on a diet of Republican glorification, thanks to the influence of various nationalist family members. Finding particular inspiration from the likes of Robert Emmett, Pearse became committed to the advancement of Irish culture and Irish freedom, and professed a desire to die for the concept as early as his childhood years. Pearse studied law and was called to the bar in 1901: he appeared in court just once, to defend a man accused of having his name painted in “illegible” writing on the side of his donkey cart. The illegible writing was Irish, and the case was lost: the result implanted a firm desire in Pearse’s mind to advance the cause of the Irish language. His combined love of Irish and Irish nationalism was a twin motivator for his founding of St Enda’s school for boys with the help of his brother Willie and close friend Thomas McDonough. In so far as it became an educational bastion for Irish nationalism and the Irish language, St Endas was a huge success, though financially it left Pearse in a bad position.

Pearse was among the first to sign-up for the Irish Volunteers in 1912. At the time he professed a satisfaction with Home Rule, but it was always qualified with a warning that future British “betrayals” would necessitate a violent reaction, such as had not been seen in Ireland since 1798. He would voice positive thoughts on the First World War when it broke out, but never strayed far from his primary aim of fighting for a free Ireland.

In late 1913 Pearse was sworn into the IRB (ironically enough by the more moderate Bulmer Hobson: within a year Pearse was denigrating Hobson to American based nationalists). He advanced rapidly in both organisations, and by late 1914 he was the Director of Military Organisation within the Irish Volunteers and on the IRB’S Supreme Council, positions that allowed him the chance to outline his own plans for a rebellion, which at the time amounted to a rising tide of various resistance activities building  up into outright guerrilla warfare, a model perhaps based on the thoughts of Hobson. He also outlined his thoughts on differentiating Irish forces from British models, such as in the swapping of the Colonel rank for Commandant (currently the equivalent of the British Major in the modern Defence Forces). More than that, Pearse’s position allowed him to plant IRB members throughout critical positions in the Volunteer structure.

Even then Pearse and others recognised the overwhelming importance of Dublin, both in terms of its strategic position – being the seat of government in Ireland, but also the key dock on the east coast – and in the fact that the remaining Irish Volunteers in Dublin, after the initial weakening of the split, were probably the best that Pearse had to hand. In early 1915, four full battalions there were commanded by men whose names are well-known to Irish history: Edward Daly (Tom Clarke’s brother-in-law), Thomas McDonagh, Eamon De Valera and Eamonn Ceannt. They were all IRB men, and they were all onboard with Pearse’s stated aim of launching an insurrection before the end of the larger European war.

“England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity” is the well-worn slogan of this principle, but its accuracy is undaunted. The vast majority of British military power had its eyes fixed on the western front or on distance colonies, with meagre garrisons left scattered all over Ireland. In Imperial Germany, a very obvious “enemy of my enemy” opportunity presented itself. These two facts offered the obvious route of a rebellion facing limited British forces with the assistance or active involvement of German troops to boot. A German invasion of Ireland was a theoretical event that figured into many Volunteer and IRB plans at the time, though it was not as realistic a possibility as some thought: if the German Navy was in a position to launch an invasion of Ireland from the sea, they probably would have expended the effort on Britain directly.

Circles within circles went ahead with planning for what became the Easter Rising, with a “military committee” (also described as the “military council”, though this appears to be a retroactive designation) consisting of Pearse, Eamonn Ceannt and Joseph Plunkett in place by May 1915, its existence unknown to numerous other figures within the IRB, and especially the Volunteers.  Within seven or so months, it included Clarke, McDonagh, Connolly and McDermott. These are important names and will get their own fleshed-out introductions in time.

It was this group that came up with the majority of the rebellion’s planning, but they left no written records, or at least none that have survived. What we know is that the Dublin-centric plan of capturing vital strongholds and holding them was largely the result of the thinking of Plunkett, though obviously Pearse and others had an influence. It was in this that the thought of seizing buildings in the city centre, barricading them and then waiting for the assault came from. In this, Plunkett and others were probably influenced by the work of Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian theorist of the Napoleonic era whose On War was (and to a certain extent, remains) the pre-eminent book on military theory at the time. Clausewitz emphasised two things that fit with the Dublin plan: the advisability of fighting on the defensive, and the importance of the large-scale decisive battle.

A street fight in the heart of Dublin, where the Volunteers would be able to mow down British soldiers advancing on their well-built defensive positions, fit the bill nicely, at least in the minds of those planning such an event. The idea was bandied about, possibly by James Connolly initially, that the British advantages in artillery would be negated, as they wouldn’t dare bombard “their” city. Connolly himself, whose Irish Citizen Army was entirely Dublin based and was an admirer of the urban insurrections of 1848, would also have had a firm influence on the Dublin-centric direction that things took. We also cannot discount the lingering effect of revolutionaries past, with Pearse so admiring of Robert Emmet, and his desperate attempt to capture the capital in one bold stroke over a century previously.

There were many who had issues with Pearse, Plunkett and their plans, which frequently strayed into minutia so irrelevant it was practically the realm of fantasy, and at others times wasted much energy on things that should have been relegated in importance, such as attempts to organise Volunteers in largely loyalist areas, like Kildare. Hobson was opposed, believing that the popular support necessary for a rising to be successful did not exist. There was concern among others that the military committee was too dismissive of the idea of guerrilla warfare as a concept, and of such basic military necessities as usable communication and supply lines in the event of an insurrection. One man who disliked the plan, J.J “Ginger” O’Connell, ran training camps for Volunteers that emphasised guerrilla tactics, but was dismissed by the likes of McDonagh, who were derisive when discussing “hedge-fighting”. Hobson had at least one argument with Pearse on the topic, with the former insisting that blowing what the Volunteers and IRB had on one bold stroke was a mistake, when a guerrilla war could be prolonged and costly for the British.

What all of Pearse’ detractors may have underestimated was the man’s commitment to the idea of spectacle and image over more tangible success. Pearse venerated Emmet, whose “rebellion” was a colossal failure in military terms, not because of what he achieved practically, but because of the symbol he became and glorious attempt he had made. A century past, Pearse believed the cause of Irish freedom required a blood sacrifice as much as anything, even if it came with military defeat in the short-term. In the years ahead of the Easter Rising, Pearse’s writings and poetry became increasingly bloody-minded, emphasising a romantic view of what it was to die for one’s country (much to the chagrin of the more pragmatic Conolly, who once referred to a poem Pearse had published on the topic anonymously as being from the mind of “a blithering idiot”).

And most of that feeling was tied up in Dublin. The idea of taking the fight pro-actively into rural areas did not appeal to many of the military committee. There were practical reasons for this, such as the fact that open country favoured British advantages in artillery and mobility, but as much as anything it was the symbolic reasons that mattered most. Pearse, Plunkett and others simply did not feel that their grand gesture could be created in the hills of the countryside in piece-meal fighting, when an altogether more impressive gambit could be enacted in the capital.

But even in the capital, what we know of the rebels’ plans is still sketchy. Relatively early on in the process, buildings to be seized were chosen and areas of operation were created. The GPO was one of these, though it was hardly the best choice for a city centre HQ. Trinity College was dismissed owing to its size, and there does not appear to have been a concerted effort to focus on the capture of Dublin Castle to the required degree. There was also alarmingly little thought into dealing with communication issues between the garrisons, or with the practical obstacle of the Liffey River and its few crossings. And beyond that initial fighting, there was precious little: some accounts claim the plan was to hold Dublin for a time and then engage in a fighting retreat westward, but it seems extremely unlikely that a militia of the kind the Volunteers were would be capable of such an action, even in the very best of circumstances.

And, from those witnesses who claimed to have seen the plan, there was next to no thought put into the idea of a national rising. At various different points, some men were instructed to destroy bridges and impede British communications when the fighting started, but there was little beyond this. Everything would apparently spring from Dublin: the Volunteer units outside the capital were largely on their own when it came to the idea of joining in. Notable men like Terence McSwiney claimed their only plan for Cork in the event of a rising was to assemble their men to receive German arms (an element of the rebellion’s planning for another entry) at a particular point, and then to operate independently. Allegedly some instructions to rural units went little beyond telling them to “hold the county”.

On the other side of the argument, men like O’Connell, Hobson and Eoin MacNeill, though aware of the plans being made by others within the Volunteers and the IRB, did not yet attempt to intervene decisively and put a stop to it. When pushed, Pearse would yet claim he had no set plans for a Rising. For now, a further split within a split was avoided. But that schism was merely delayed, and its eventual eruption, borne out of Pearse’s obfuscation of his goals and O’Neill’s naivety, would have a devastating impact on the essentially threadbare plans of the IRB and the militant Volunteers.

For now, we must turn to the international dimension. England’s difficulty was Ireland’s opportunity, and England’s difficulty was in Berlin. For the military commitee, the Kaiser was a natural ally, and the efforts to create a closer bond between Republican Ireland and Imperial Germany will form the basis of the next entry.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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