Wednesday, June 6, 2018

A Military Defeat, a Political Victory

1916 Rebellion Walking Tour, Dublin Ireland

The 1916 ‘rising’ against the English is the seminal event in the independence of southern Ireland.  That would be 26 counties out of 32.  Everywhere you go, you see references if you are paying attention.  If you have come for the Guinness or the repetitive pub music, well, not so much.  The proclamation of independence, signed by 7 revolutionaries, with Thomas Clarke an old Fenian at the top, is posted all over the country still.  “To Irishmen and Irishwomen…” it starts, a rarity in revolutionary proclamations.  Our female guide consistently pointed out the role of at least 70 women in the insurrection – and they were not making sandwiches.  This was no accident by her, as the effort to repeal an amendment to the Irish Constitution forbidding abortion was in full swing.  (See below reportage.)  This amendment will help working women the most.

The tour started at the International Bar, south of the Liffey River on Wicklow Street.  Our guide, when asked, mentioned the more distant Collins Barracks and the Gilmainham Gaol as additional sites that play a large role in the rising.  We visited them as well on our own. 

Irish Volunteers in GPO

While 10,000 men were prepared to rise against the English, the majority were warned off when weapons did not arrive on Bana Strand  in the west of Ireland south of Heuston.  This was due to their interception by the English and a truck crash by the Irish drivers.  Roger Casement was arrested when he came on the ship bringing arms. (See book review below.)  So only a minority rose on Easter Sunday, most in Dublin but some in other parts of Ireland, especially in Galway.  

100,000 Irish men volunteered to fight in the English Army in World War I, which should quell any notion that all Irish are somehow radicals.   Yet the later British draft of all Irishmen by the British put steam and steel into the eventual successful guerrilla war against Britain that followed the 1916 rising some years later.  The 5 day insurrection in Dublin was a military defeat but a political victory, especially after the martyrdom of the leaders.

The guide described the various positions of the rebels and the English, and walked us down O’Connell Street and then around to City Hall.  The rebellion started on Monday, April 24, 1916, the day after Easter.  Easter was not chosen for religious reasons but because British troops would be observing a holiday and recovering from one.  The rebellion started at Liberty Hall, on the north bank of the Liffey not far from O’Connell Street, the large main thoroughfare.  From Liberty Hall and other locations, about a 1,200 rebels spread out through town from the Irish Citizen Army (ICA) and the Irish Volunteers  / Irish Republican Brotherhood organizations.  Some dug in at St. Stephen’s Green in makeshift trenches, south of the main part of the city, which involved the leadership of a woman, Countess Georgine Markievicz.  Eamon de Valera led a group of 17 blocking an eastern bridge on Mount Street, where British reinforcements might arrive by ship.  Others had seized City Hall, the 4 Courts area, some railroad stations, the Magazine at Phoenix Park and others.  Buildings along O’Connell Street were taken, with snipers in the top floors.  The main rebel headquarters was at the General Post Office (GPO) just up O’Connell Street, where James Connolly, a socialist, organized the military actions.  (Review of Connolly’s life, below.)  Dublin Castle, just south of City Hall, was not taken.  Patrick Pearse read out the Proclamation of the Irish Republic at the GPO to a small crowd when it was first occupied.  All these locations stand to this day except Liberty Hall, which has been replaced by an ugly tower 16 stories tall.

For three days, the English were not able to retake the city.  A British general stupidly attacked de Valera’s position on the Mount Street bridge, and hundreds of raw English recruits were shot.  They had been told they were going to France, and expected a cheery welcome.  Instead of sending troops across nearby bridges to enfilade de Valera’s group, he insisted on frontal attack after frontal attack.  After this significant resistance, the English decided on a ‘ring of iron” around the GPO.  They moved slowly, taking out outnumbered rebel positions until they had cannons placed across the Liffey shooting up O’Connell Street towards it.  Their cannonade destroyed many buildings and killed many Irish civilians, some of whom had taken the chance to loot, as the citizens of Dublin were extremely poor.  (Class stratification in Ireland is still very obvious…)

The rebels made sure one of the biggest capitalists in Dublin, who owned among other things a nearby hotel, had the Irish flag flying over his property opposite the GPO.  

The Damaged GPO on O'Connell Street

Ultimately, the superior weight of British guns and troops forced the final rebels in the GPO to unconditionally surrender in the next 2 days.  The rebels decided that they could not countenance any more civilian deaths or destruction.  Connolly was injured and taken through an alley behind the GPO towards a nearby hospital.  From there he was captured and taken to Dublin castle.  Most of the rest of the leaders gave themselves up.  Women were also captured, but except for the Countess they were let go because the British did not suspect they were anything more than hangers-on.  They were not.  Markievicz was eventually given clemency after spending jail-time in Kilmainham and much later she ended up serving in the Irish parliament.

Oddly, James Joyce was with the radicals in the ICA, the labor-based military organization promoted by Connolly.  On that Monday in 1916 young Joyce worked in Davy's Pub as a bottle-washer.  With his friends in the ICA, they took over the pub to repel British troops.  At this he was given two weeks notice by his conservative boss at the time, and Joyce retorted: "I'm giving you 5 minutes notice..." and shot off his rifle in the air.   That is the story... 


Of course it wasn’t called Collins Barracks in 1916.  Michael Collins was a leader of the revolutionary war against the English and it was named for him when it became an Irish military post later.  In 1916 it was the main quartering post for English soldiers in Dublin.  A huge square surrounded by 3 stories, far enough outside the main part of the city, close enough to the north bank of the Liffey, within easy reach of anything in small downtown Dublin.   It is now two free museums dedicated to fashion and to Irish military history.  The latter shows the Irish role in warfare and military duty all over the world, in many different countries, including in the U.S. Civil War. (see book review on Meagher, below)  Living in broken down rural farms must have made military life attractive.  The Irish diaspora contributed as well.  Behind the Barracks, in a back churchyard, in a mass grave, lie the bodies of the executed martyrs of 1916.


Across the Liffey and a bit farther west, was the main jail of Dublin – Kilmainham – located on a high hill.  It consists of five parts – a court with a chair for the defendant sitting on a table across from the judge.  A chapel where one of the young men arrested in 1916 married his sweetheart, to be shot the next day.  An older dark part of the jail, where Irish nationalist rebels were kept, including earlier rebels like Robert Emmet and Charles Parnell, along with most of the arrested in the Easter rising.  Then there is a newer, airy jail that reminds one of Alcatraz and is of the ‘panopticon’ variety.  And lastly, the execution yard, where 16 leaders of the Easter Rising were shot.  Crosses mark the spot on the east side.  Of particular note is the cross on the west side of the yard.  Connolly was brought from the medical ward at Dublin Castle.  They unloaded him through a door in the yard next to this spot and dragged him to a chair.  He fell off the chair due to his wound, so he was roped in place and shot sitting.

These criminal executions inflamed world and Irish opinion.  With the institution of an Irish draft by the British to fight in the barbaric World War I, the English sealed their fate.  A year and a half struggle between an aroused nation and the British colonialists resulted in the independence of the 26 counties in 1922.  A civil war between the Irish over the abandonment of the last 6 counties ensued, leaving Michael Collins dead and including more shot in Kilmainham jail … this time by Irish government soldiers.

The jail is now a museum.  But its history is not.

Red Frog

June 6, 2018

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