Ireland’s Wars: The Rising In Ulster

It is fair to say that the northern nine counties of Ireland frequently get a raw deal when it comes to the remembrance of the Irish revolutionary period, to the extent that you may be forgiven for thinking that nothing of note ever happened there between 1913 and 1923, such is the focus on events in Dublin and Munster through the Easter Rising, War of Independence and Civil War. But there was a part to play for Ulster in all three, even if in some cases it was minimal. No more than many other places in Ireland, the Easter Rising was still-born in Ulster, but the reasons why and the efforts to prevent this are still worth some examination.

There were Irish Volunteers in Ulster, and plenty of places where nationalist and republican sentiment held sway, especially parts of Belfast, swaths of Tyrone and the counties closest to the Leinster. However, Ulster was still the heartland of unionism and the Ulster Volunteers, and so any movement of the Irish Volunteers was essentially operating in enemy territory. The split left things in an even worse state, with Joe Devlin of the Hibernian Order (and an IPP MP) taking over most of what existed in Belfast, and the rest being piecemeal and scattered.

Arguably the central figure of nationalism in Ulster was Denis McCullough. The Belfast native from a hardcore nationalist stock was a member of the IRB as soon as his father was able to arrange for him to be inducted: in fact, we have covered this event before, as it was McCullough who was sworn in at the side-door of a pub by an inebriated IRB man, an event that made it clear to him that the “Organisation” needed serious reinvention. Together with men like Bulmer Hobson and Sean Mac Diarmada, McCullough worked to make the IRB a more effective organisation, and also was engaged with other nationalist entitles, like the Dungannan Clubs.

Such was his impact that McCullough was elected, in late 1915, to serve as the President of the IRB. It was a double edged sword however: his candidacy may have been supported by the likes of Tom Clarke because they deemed McCullough unlikely to interfere with the plans of the military committee, which McCullough was not part of. He would only learn about the plans for the Rising definitively in the days before it began, when, on the foot of various rumours, he confronted Clarke and Mac Diarmada directly.

The military committee did not ignore the Ulster based Irish Volunteers, but they didn’t exactly pay them a huge amount of attention. Their orders were far too simplye amounting to instructions to mobilise, march west to join with Volunteers in Tyrone, and then to head south to hook-up with Connacht based Volunteers, as far as Liam Mellows in Galway. James Connolly would specifically tell McCullough that they expected no shots to be fired in the northern province. How the Volunteers from Ulster were to do this, without adequate transportation or direction, does not seem to be something that Pearse and company seriously considered.

On Good Friday McCullough took the 200 or so personnel under his command from Belfast to the arranged rally point in Coalisland, County Tyrone, where he encountered what was, essentially, a fatal blow to the idea of a rising in Ulster. The Tyrone-based Volunteers, under a man named Patrick McCartan, refused to obey the orders to mobilise that weekend, even before MacNeill’s countermanding order arrived. Many thought the planned move to Connacht was insanity, while local clergy claimed that the Rising was an Irish Citizen Army affair that the Volunteers should have nothing to do with. McCullough was left in a quandary, as he felt he could not even attempt to move the men from Antrim further on if he could not count on the support of the Volunteers further west.

The news of Casement’s arrest, and then the arrival of MacNeill’s order, only made the situation worse. On Easter Sunday a large enough force had mobilised at Coalisland, but direction was lacking, and McCartan and others were in no mode to commence a march into Connacht. Instead, with the Tyrone Volunteers still refusing to countenance moving out, McCullough took his contingent back to Belfast. He himself was a casualty of the Rising, with an accidentally self-inflicted gunshot wound to his hand. His status as a pre-eminent Irish nationalist took a battering from the whole affair, even if he was arrested in the aftermath, and he himself became disillusioned with the IRB, leaving it in the years afterwards, though he would still play a part in the later conflicts.

In the following days, after the rebellion started in Dublin, RIC units in the north grew increasingly concerned at the possibility of an uprising, especially in Tyrone, to the extent that they were prepared to use the Ulster Volunteers as a force multiplier. Some Ulster Volunteers were apparently employed to patrol and scout, but no rising came. The very fact that they were used in such a fashion, and that the authorities were prepared to give them an even larger role if needed, is a firm indication of the unique challenges the northern Volunteers faced. In the end, McCartan would hold some meetings with his subordinates to discuss the idea of a belated Rising, but found little support, while McCullough had essentially washed his hands of the idea in Belfast.

Around the rest of the province, very little happened, something that the military committee undoubtedly contributed to by limiting even their inadequate orders to the Volunteers of Belfast and Tyrone. The Monaghan Volunteers stuck to MacNeill’s orders, and their O/C claimed he was forced to “go on the run” from them when he tried to spur them into action. Some Derry Volunteers assembled early on Monday morning, before a message from McCullough sent them home. In Donegal orders was not received in time and a small force mobilised, to cut telegraph wires and inspect bridges for possible demolition, before the men went home owing to the predations of the local RIC. Across the province, what Volunteers existed, stayed home.

There was, as in other parts of Ireland, much bitterness and many recriminations following the failure of the Rising in Ulster, with McCullough, as already noted, and McCartan coming in for particular vehemence from some quarters. Certainly, they could be accused of not doing as much as they possibly could have. But much of the anger was misplaced: more than the rest of Leinster, more than Munster, more than Connacht, Ulster was treated as a total sideshow, with orders only given to some of the Volunteer units there, and those orders amounting to a request that they go and help another province. The Ulster based Irish Volunteers had all of the same difficulties as the Volunteers in the rest of Ireland – iffy recruitment, a lack of resolve from much of the membership, a shortfall of arms and poor inter-organisation communication – and dealt with all of those things while operating in an area dominated by unionist thinking, unionist thinking that was backed up by a well-armed and unofficially state-backed militia. To expect anything of such a group seems fanciful: if the Volunteers in Ulster has risen, the impact they could have had would have been minor, and the casualties they would have incurred would likely have been quite high.

We have covered all that I plan to cover in terms of the military events of the Easter Rising, and all that is left is the aftermath, those few critical weeks after the surrender when the British attempted to implement their own justice on those who had carried out the rebellion. In so doing they transformed the Easter Rising, and the men who led it, into more than a failed revolution; indeed, it can be claimed that what happened afterwards was far more important to Irish history than the Rising itself.

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

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