N is for Nineteen Sixteen

Ireland marks the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising this year.


There have been commemorations about the event that changed the lives of Irish people – perhaps for worse, perhaps for better – over the Easter period.


Briefly, Irish politicians in London’s House of Commons (led for a period of the late nineteenth century by Charles Stewart Parnell) had been trying to establish Home Rule – a form of devolved and limited parliament of their own, in Dublin – through coalitions with William Gladstone’s Liberal Party in London’s House of Commons and broader pleas for devolution, since the 1860s.

The House of Lords kept voting the legislation down. Lords being lords, they were quite conservative, and they wanted to hold onto Ireland and rule directly from London. There were three attempts to pass Home Rule Bills into law. The faces changed but the struggle remained. Redmond replaced Parnell, and Liberal leader Asquith took Gladstone’s role in post-Victorian London.

It reached a point that involved limiting the Lords’ powers so that they could no longer reject laws entirely, but only delay their passage. Or, as Wikipedia has it, after some checking: “The Parliament Act 1911 replaced the unlimited veto of the Lords with one lasting only two years, ensuring that a bill passed by the Commons could not be blocked for more than two years.” 
This was a reasonable and progressive change in a democratic system, as the Lords themselves had never been elected directly by the people.

Home Rule was going to be achieved with the Government of Ireland Act 1914, and the Lords, typically, delayed what they would have previously rejected. But Ireland had its Parliament on paper. 

Then the Great War began, and the British government used it as a pretext to postpone the establishment of an Irish assembly.

The British had their reasons to delay the enactment of the legislation, and certain leaders in Ireland’s nationalist movement even encouraged their countrymen to fight against the Germans under the Union Jack. They expected the British to reward this loyalty and after the war, the new Dublin parliament would be open for business.

However, the British government wasn’t given the chance to stay true to its word. The leaders of the Rising, and those who followed them, declared independence from Britain in 1916, launching an armed insurrection against the UK and UK-sanctioned authorities across Ireland. With WW1’s calamitous death tolls in the trenches across France and Belgium, the British regarded this as the ultimate treason.

The leaders of the Rising were executed – one man, Eamon DeValera – spared due to his US birth and citizenship. He would later become both a head of government and a head of state as Irish prime minister and, later, president (which some claim was a sinecure he created for himself after retiring from Parliament).

So Ireland – with the controversial exception of six counties with a Protestant majority in the north-east of the island – was granted independence by the early 1920s, perhaps far quicker than anyone might have anticipated.
Why did the rebels act the way they did? They felt it necessary, although public opinion was initially against them.


Here are some of the many reasons for the Irish desire for independence.

Dublin – at one point the British Empire’s second city – had been a slum for more than a century. Socialist James Connolly, one of the rebel leaders, regarded the British monarchy and establishment as a privileged elite unworthy of their status.

Discrimination against Catholics had been prevalent for centuries across the United Kingdom, enshrined in property-related and office-holding laws, resulting in what was effectively a serf class of Catholics in Ireland, whose primary and often sole source of nutrition was the potato (beyond the milk with which it was often enhanced).

The Irish Famine of the late 1840s – caused by a disease that affected the potato crop – had been exacerbated by the United Kingdom’s trade policies, which had continued to encourage food exports out of Ireland while its people starved.

Previous rebellions – such as two around the beginning of the 1800s, led by the Protestant Emmets and Wolfe Tone, and supported by the French – had failed. After a battle in the rising of 1798, Irish soldiers were said to have been executed while their French allies stood watching – or perhaps ordered by their British captors to look away – their own treatment as prisoners-of-war more in keeping with the later Geneva Convention than the Irish they had assisted. Over the centuries, the Spanish, French, and those with claims to the British monarchy had allied themselves with the Irish independence movement. A few years before the 1916 Rising, German arms had been sailed into Dublin.

Price of the Rebellion

In the end, the 1916 rebellion’s leaders were executed. Public opinion turned against the UK authorities. But the leaders who replaced these idealistic radicals were – as they claimed themselves – among the most conservative revolutionaries in history. The Irish leaders of the late 1920s were not socialists, atheists, or communists. They were generally church-going anti-feminist economic protectionists. They had few of the progressive tendencies of the men from whom they had inherited the cause of Irish independence. 

It seemed that those who had been willing to kill and die for Ireland – however wrongheaded critics may think they were – had been replaced by the more typical politician class we know today.

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