Easter 1916 Background.

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By Mag Fhionn

The Act of Union 1800 united the Kingdom of Great Britain and the Kingdom of Ireland, abolishing the Irish Parliament and giving Ireland representation at Westminster. From early on, many Irish nationalists opposed the union and what was seen as the exploitation of the country. Opposition took various forms: constitutional (the Repeal Association; the Home Rule League), social (disestablishment of the Church of Ireland; the Land League) and revolutionary (Rebellion of 1848; Fenian Rising). Constitutional nationalism enjoyed its greatest success in the 1880s and 1890s when the Irish Parliamentary Party under Charles Stewart Parnell succeeded in having two Home Rule bills introduced by the Liberal government of William Gladstone, though both failed.

The First Home Rule Bill of 1886 was defeated in the House of Commons, while the Second Home Rule Bill of 1893 was passed by the Commons but rejected by the House of Lords. After the fall of Parnell, younger and more radical nationalists became disillusioned with parliamentary politics and turned towards more extreme forms of separatism. The Gaelic Athletic Association, the Gaelic League and the cultural revival under W. B. Yeats and Lady Augusta Gregory, together with the new political thinking of Arthur Griffith expressed in his newspaper Sinn Féin and the organisations the National Council and the Sinn Féin League led to the identification of Irish people with the concept of a Gaelic nation and culture, completely independent of Britain. This was sometimes referred to by the generic term Sinn Féin.

The Third Home Rule Bill was introduced by British Prime Minister H. H. Asquith in 1912. The Irish Unionists, led by Sir Edward Carson, opposed home rule in the light of what they saw as an impending Roman Catholic-dominated Dublin government. They formed the Ulster Volunteer Force on 13 January 1913. The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) saw an opportunity to create an armed organisation to advance its own ends, and on 25 November 1913 the Irish Volunteers, whose stated object was “to secure and to maintain the rights and liberties common to all the people of Ireland”, was formed. Its leader was Eoin MacNeill, who was not an IRB member. A Provisional Committee was formed that included people with a wide range of political views, and the Volunteers’ ranks were open to “all able-bodied Irishmen without distinction of creed, politics or social group.” Another militant group, the Irish Citizen Army, was formed by trade unionists as a result of the Dublin Lockout of that year.

However, the increasing militarisation of Irish politics was overshadowed soon after by the outbreak of a larger conflict—the First World War The Supreme Council of the IRB met on 5 September 1914, the day after the United Kingdom declared war on Germany. At this meeting they decided to stage a rising before the war ended and to accept whatever help Germany might offer.Responsibility for the planning of the rising was given to Tom Clarke and Seán MacDermott.The Irish Volunteers, the smaller of the two forces resulting from the September 1914 split over support for the British war effort,set up a “headquarters staff” that included Patrick Pearse as Director of Military Organisation, Joseph Plunkett as Director of Military Operations and Thomas MacDonagh as Director of Training.

Éamonn Ceannt was later added as Director of Communications.In May 1915 Clarke and MacDermott established a Military Committee within the IRB, consisting of Pearse, Plunkett and Ceannt, to draw up plans for a rising. This dual rôle allowed the Committee, to which Clarke and MacDermott added themselves shortly afterwards, to promote their own policies and personnel independently of both the Volunteer Executive and the IRB Executive—in particular Volunteer Chief of Staff Eoin MacNeill, who was opposed to a rising unless popular support was secured by the introduction of conscription or an attempt to suppress the Volunteers or its leaders, and IRB President Denis McCullough, who held similar views.IRB members held officer rank in the Volunteers throughout the country and would take their orders from the Military Committee, not from MacNeill.

Plunkett had travelled to Germany in April 1915 to join Roger Casement. Casement had gone there from the United States the previous year with the support of Clan na Gael leader John Devoy, and after discussions with the German Ambassador in Washington, Count von Bernstorff, to try to recruit an “Irish Brigade” from among Irish prisoners of war and secure German support for Irish independence. Together Plunkett and Casement presented a plan which involved a German expeditionary force landing on the west coast of Ireland, while a rising in Dublin diverted the British forces so that the Germans, with the help of local Volunteers, could secure the line of the River Shannon.

James Connolly, head of the Irish Citizen Army (ICA), a group of armed socialist trade union men and women, was unaware of the IRB’s plans, and threatened to start a rebellion on his own if other parties failed to act. If they had gone it alone, the IRB and the Volunteers would possibly have come to their aid, however the IRB leaders met with Connolly in January 1916 and convinced him to join forces with them. They agreed to act together the following Easter and made Connolly the sixth member of the Military Committee. Thomas MacDonagh would later become the seventh and final member.