Throughout the course of my writings on the Easter Rising, I have attempted to look at things through two viewpoints, and I think I will approach this summary in the same vein. Considering the actions of the Volunteers and the Citizen Army purely on tactical victories would be pointless. Therefore 1916 must be considered as both a military uprising, and a symbolic theatre piece, if we are to fully judge its success and effectiveness.
As a military operation with the stated objective of establishing an independent Irish republic, the Easter Rising was a total failure. Being as generous as we can with the idea, a republic was established within narrow confines of Dublin and a few scattered spots outside the capital, but this functioned merely as a political facade for an ongoing battle. This was something that the Proclamation itself acknowledged, with the “Provisional Government” – ie, the military command of the rebellion, such as it was – taking the reins of government “in trust” until something proper could be set up. This lasted only a week before the effort was crushed. 66 of the rebels were killed to 143 of the British/DMP, with a few hundred wounded. 260 civilians were also killed.
On a strategic level, the Rising’s aims and objectives as set out by its highest authorities were overly-optimistic, poorly communicated and ultimately more fantastical than anything else. Too many of the Rising’s leaders put too much faith into an alliance with Imperial Germany which ended up offering precious little. Their own plans, those that have survived down the years to us, present a picture of a group of men with very little knowledge of how to actually fight a war, and to determine achievable objectives with the force that they had to hand.
On an operational level, the more specific details of how the Rising was to be carried out were not elaborated upon effectively before the fighting began, and the communication between units was poor across the country was poor. This was naturally exacerbated by the split inside the Volunteers between the militants and moderates, which necessitated a level of secrecy and outright deception in the planning that was bound to confuse the situation further. Too much was left to chance owing to a lack of detailed planning, such as the intended landing and distributing of German arms from the south-west coast to the rest of the country, the use of the Shannon as a defensive line, or the expectation that British artillery would be a non-factor in the capital. The confusion over who was authorised to order a mobilisation, the unwillingness of so many Volunteers to rise, the lack of certainty over the larger situation for the individual garrisons, they all point to an operational structure that was weak and unreliable.
On a tactical level, with the exception of a few successful actions – the Mount Street Bridge ambush, the 4th Battalion in the South Dublin Union, the Ashbourne attack – the Volunteers and the Citizen Army were limited in what they were able to achieve. The rebels exhibited plenty of bravery and commitment throughout the week in Dublin, but they were amateur soldiers at the end of the day, being asked to take on British regulars, some of whom were coming back from the western front. They gave as good as they got in many cases, taking advantage of that initial surprise and the fact that they fought on the defensive in nearly all of the smaller fights of Easter Week, but the Volunteers, hamstrung by the sedentary nature of the Rising’s tactical plan, could only do so much. The British advantages in numbers, mobility and artillery, as became more and more evident as the week wore on, could not be borne indefinitely.
But we cannot narrow our view to look at the Easter Rising from a purely military viewpoint, when even (some of) its organisers acknowledged the reality that the entire affair was never intended to be the kind of military success that we have talked about. Instead, it was meant to be a symbolic piece of propaganda, an effort to “redeem” previous generations’ failure to rise and to give the cause of Irish nationalism a militant kick-start, after it had become dominated by more moderate thinking.
There is a lot to consider here. There is the manner in which the British establishment, political and military, was at least somewhat humiliated by the Easter Rising. This is true both in terms of how it caught them by surprise, and in terms of the amount of force they had to employ to defeat it: the shelling of Dublin’s city centre meant that the rebellion could not simply be hand-waved away as the work of an unorganised harmless rabble. The civil government of Ireland was essentially destroyed by the Rising, albeit indirectly. And even though the British regulars were able to defeat the Rising, the fact that it took a week undoubtedly contributed to the growing mystique of the rebels as heroic fighters, bravely holding off the best that the British Empire could throw at them.
In specific instances, the British military showcased a mix of naivety and abject stupidity in the attack at Mount Street Bridge, in launching repeated head-on attacks when previous waves had been mown down by a small number of rebels. They showcased a similar level of ineffective bullheadedness in their efforts to strike back against the South Dublin Union positions later in the week. And they demonstrated a reckless streak in the manner in which they fought their way through civilian populated areas in the later stages of the battle, that nationalists would make full use of later. All of these things contributed to the view that the Rising was, in fact, a success for the rebels, as they, essentially, punched above their weight for a time.
But most importantly of all for the symbolic viewpoint is the aftermath. General Maxwell’s utterly reprehensible actions after the surrender, from the shutdown of the civil government, through to the mass arrests of anybody with even a vague connection to the Rising, all the way on to the trials that Stalin would have been satisfied with, were bad enough. But they were followed by a series of executions that dwarfed all actions that had come before. From May 1916 all the way to the present day, the leaders of the Easter Rising are synonymous with the image of them bravely facing an unjust firing squad in Kilmainham Gaol’s Stonebreakers Yard, most notably the crippled Connolly, obliged to face his death from the indignity of a chair. Add in death row marriages, a succession of moving final letters and the British inability to understand or handle a rising tide of public anger, and you have the real reasons why the Rising must be considered a success.
Pearse especially, but others also, wanted that blazing moment of glory, wanted that opportunity to become a republican martyr in the style of Tone and Emmet. And, thanks to Maxwell, he got exactly what they wanted. If the view the Easter Rising is as that kind of effort, to be an heroic failure that would inspire so many others, then it was undoubtedly a success. And it was so even if it is only fair to acknowledge that the “rank-and-file” of the Rising must be considered, to a large extent, dupes would went out in the belief of military victory, when so many of their leaders knew such a thing was impossible.
In conclusion, it is easy to see, with hindsight, why the Easter Rising is considered the seminal event of Irish history, to the extent that simply the term “1916” is used to refer to it, this one week military event maximised to take over an entire year. The figures that took part in it, both those that died and those that survived, remain the giants of Irish history. No other event of our nation’s past is as discussed or debated, be it the motivations of the people who undertook it, the reactions of the British and the morality of the entire affair. Even though the death toll was so small compared to the wars and rebellions that the Proclamation paid tribute to, the Easter Rising outstrips them all in tangible effect.
Perhaps the most important thing about the Rising is what it inspired. It had been well over a century since the last military rebellion that seriously threatened to overturn the established order; the wait for the next would be much shorter.
As is my custom at the end of a particular conflict, I will be taking a week off from Ireland’s Wars as I plan out where exactly to take the series next, as we face into the interval period between 1916 and 1919. I may yet choose to do a bit more tidying up of previous entries. Regardless, I’d like to thank all readers, subscribers and well-wishers and will be back again on this series in a couple of weeks.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.