Ireland’s Wars: The Last Weekend Before The Rising

As things stood on the morning of Saturday the 22ND of April, it appeared that the Irish Volunteers were about to launch a full-scale uprising across the country, with the backing of Eoin MacNeill, but what exactly this backing actually entailed remains a mystery to us. But that backing, from MacNeill and from those who thought much the same as him, had become dependent on the promise that German arms were about to be landed. As we have covered, that would never take place. What remains in that critical weekend is the fallout, and the final desperate hours before the Easter Rising went ahead.

That afternoon other sympathetic members of the Irish Volunteers, most notably the O’Rahilly, came to see MacNeill with several crucial bits of news. First, the German arms shipment had failed to land, and the Volunteer efforts to help with the process had ended in disaster. Second, it was put to O’Neill that the “Castle document” was a forgery designed to deceive the more moderate elements of the Irish Volunteers into supporting the plans of the more militant. And third, and probably most alarming in the short term, Bulmer Hobson had been abducted by the IRB faction the previous day, taken from the Volunteer HQ on Dawson Street and then sequestered, in the apparent belief that he needed to be removed from the equation lest his influence stop the rising from happening altogether. Hobson would be freed within a few days, but his retreat from the pages of Irish history begin here.

MacNeill went to St Enda’s once more, to meet with an unrepentant Pearse, who almost gloated over how the wool had been pulled over O’Neill’s eyes, allegedly claiming that the IRB had used MacNeill’s name for all it had been worth, and there was nothing the nominal head of the Volunteers could now do to stop the rising. Any pretence of trying to cobble together a common front was dropped.

MacNeill disagreed with Pearse’s assessment. That night he issued orders, through colleagues like the O’Rahilly and in the pages of the Irish Independent, cancelling all Volunteer manoeuvres planned for the Sunday. This action has become a touchstone for debate on MacNeill’s legacy, with some, most notably Constance Markiewicz, ready to declare MacNeill a traitor for doing so. But we should, perhaps, judge his actions with more sympathy: MacNeill had been ready to support a rebellion, as long as he felt it actually had a chance of succeeding. With the German arms gone, this no longer seemed possible. The idea that some manner of perfect plan was scuttled as a result of his action is nonsense: as we have seen, the plans for the Rising were not all that great to begin with.

On Sunday the 23rd the military committee met in Liberty Hall, headquarters of the ITGWU, and debated what to do next. Despite MacNeill’s orders a substantial enough amount of men had turned up for “manoeuvres” in the expectation of a rebellion starting, but plenty had stayed at home. Against the wishes of Tom Clarke, it was agreed to postpone the start of the rebellion one day, with new orders to be sent out confirming MacNeill’s cancellation and moving the start time to the following day. Those who did stand ready to begin an uprising went home disappointed: many would not turn up the next day, particularly outside of Dublin.

We must, at this point, briefly consider the British side of things. The administration in Dublin was personified by Lord Wimborne, the Lord Lieutenant who was nominally a figurehead but still retained some influence, Augustine Birrell, the Chief Secretary who held most of the real power, and Matthew Nathan, the Under-Secretary. Wimborne had long been an advocate of a greater crackdown on Irish nationalist groups, something that Birrell and Nathan both resisted, believing that such a crackdown would ultimately do more harm than good. If they suspected anything likely to happen, it was isolated acts of terror, and not any attempt at a nationwide uprising. Senior military figures, like Lord Kitchener, and the Commander-in-Chief of “Home Forces”, John French (last mentioned being relieved of command on the western front following the bloodshed at Loos), were more bullish in their assertions that Ireland was ripe for rebellion, but they were more concerned about the possibility of a German invasion, though not arm in arm with the “Sinn Feiners”: as late as the 21st of April French dismissed reports of nationalist collaboration with Germany.

The week before the Rising, two informers, code-named “Granite” and “Chalk”, told DMP officers that a rebellion was planned for Sunday, but nothing in terms of reaction occurred (the identity of these two people has never been uncovered). When the news broke of Casement’s arrest and the capture of the Aud, Nathan and Birrell both assumed that any likelihood of a rebellion had passed. On the 23rd Wimborne pressed for a clampdown on nationalist groups, with Nathan suggesting a raid of their main buildings, such as Liberty Hall: the final decision was put off for the following day, when Birrell, then in London, would agree to the arrest of numerous nationalist leaders. By then, of course, it was too late.

On Monday morning, around 1’200 members of the Irish Volunteers, the Irish Citizen Army and Cumann na Mban assembled at various points across Dublin. The number was far less than had come out the previous day, due to combination of dissatisfaction and genuine confusion over differing orders, but more would join as the week went on.

400 of them were at Liberty Hall, under the direct command of James Connolly. Around 11 o’clock in the morning, they began moving to their assigned positions, with the Liberty Hall contingent – the Headquarters staff – moving out around 15 minutes before noon, down the quays before turning onto Sackville Street. The mood among those now going out to fight was mixed: some were fatalistic – Connolly apparently stated to a comrade that morning they were all going out “to be slaughtered” – some were almost naively optimistic, believing in the idea of a national rising with German support. Most of the British forces, be they the military, the police or the government, even then had little inkling of what was about to occur. And the public too must have believed the marching men, some not even in uniform, were engaged in what was long since a routine exercise of drills.

Some units had already seized their positions when Connolly gave the order to change direction and charge the General Post Office, the building soon to become far more than just a pivotal node in Ireland’s communications network, but it is a good a point as any to declare the start of what we call the Easter Rising. A bloody week was in store: and the final outcome of the rebellion very much in doubt.

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

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