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Courage Boys, We are Winning

An Illustrated History of the 1916 Rising
Michael B. Barry
Andalus Press


The 1916 Rising in Dublin was a small insurrection. Around 1,500 insurgents participated, although many times this number of British troops flooded the city to suppress it. The total killed (rebels, civilians and Crown forces) was fewer than 500. This was a minute fraction of the deaths simultaneously taking place in the trenches of France and Belgium. As for the Germans (the ‘gallant allies in Europe’ according to the Proclamation), the Rising did not afford them any advantage in the war, not that they had any great expectations of such.

However, this small revolution in this small country had repercussions that echoed down the decades. The fundamental result was to lay the foundation stone for Irish independence. The Rising led to Ireland’s being the first country to break away from the British Empire, after the American Revolution nearly a century and a half previously. By showing that a people within an empire could strike for their independence, this Dublin upheaval proved an inspiration for the process of decolonisation. Together with the later War of Independence (1920-21) it helped to inspire nationalists in India (who used ‘England’s Need is India’s Opportunity’, adapted from the original Irish adage) and aspiring peoples across the world.

A myriad of books on the 1916 Rising has been written; as the centenary approaches there will be a deluge. The technique of employing well-chosen images and extensive and informative captions has been successful in my previous books. So, in this book I present the story of 1916 in the same manner. Within the limitations of the caption format, I have tried to incorporate the nuances and twists of this complex story as precisely and accurately as possible. My intention is that this book should be accessible and comprehensive that someone reading it will gain a clear understanding of the main elements of the 1916 story, from A to Z. There is a host of textual books giving much detail, some written elegantly and well, but many others caught up in the opaqueness that can affect some academic output.

Few photographs were taken during Easter Week itself – presenting difficulties for an illustrated book. Organisers of a secret rising do not usually have a publicity department, much less ‘embedded’ photographers. However they were keenly aware of the need to promulgate their message, and made significant efforts to broadcast the news of the Rising via the new medium of radio, by resuscitating the equipment at the Irish School of Wireless in central Dublin (unfortunately, it may be that this message was only received by a British warship at Kingstown). Most available images are of British soldiers posing at barricades and numerous photographs of damage – with one valuable exception, two photographs of Volunteers in the GPO, taken by a photographic chemist, who chose to stay with the republican forces. I endeavoured to add to the available stock of material by sourcing sketches and drawings of action. Also included are a host of relevant documents and a comprehensive series of maps that I have prepared to assist understanding of the action in the various Dublin outposts. Finally, using a technique that worked well in my book The Green Divide dealing with the Irish Civil War (1922-23), I include present-day photographs of areas where key actions occurred. Many of these were taken from difficult-to-access places like the roofs of the Shelbourne Hotel and City Hall.

Even though there is no extant document outlining a military plan, the republican leaders (at core the Military Council of the IRB) did have a coherent strategy and plan. They intended to seize positions across the city at all strategic points. While there has been some argument about the non-seizure of positions like Trinity College and Dublin Castle, military historians generally agree that the overall planning was sound. The simple fact is that on Easter Monday, the republican forces did not have enough men. They were thinly spread in the positions they actually held, apart from a few positions like Jacob’s factory, where, as it happened, they spent the week with little to do. The rebels were certainly adept at occupying advantageous positions in built-up areas. Small numbers of men held off large numbers of British troops. Without the disaster of the failed arms landing and particularly the confusion of the countermanding order, they would have had a much fuller complement in Dublin. Probably the action in the country would have been more effective. It might have taken longer to swamp a country rebellion had correct tactics of guerrilla warfare been applied, with better coordination and adequate weaponry. The events at Ashbourne demonstrated the effectiveness of what was a prototype of a ‘flying column’.

Crucially, the republican forces did not have artillery or machine guns. Interestingly, Connolly is attributed with saying that the British, being capitalists, would not shell and destroy buildings but they did. Connolly and some of the Volunteer cadre had imparted good training on fighting in built-up areas. However, British troops and their leadership soon proved adept at adapting to this new discipline of fighting in a city. They reacted quickly; early in the week they astutely threw cordons around the city. By virtue of luck, they still had good telephonic and wireless communications, allowing an immediate request for huge quantities of troops, who were easily funnelled into Dublin by rail, and from Britain by sea. Later the innovative use of improvised armoured cars allowed them to progress along streets, despite sniper fire. The use of machine guns gave them a significant advantage. In the final stages of the fighting in Sackville Street, the ruthless use of artillery was the game changer. A failure on the British side was the prevailing ‘storm the trenches’ attitude, which caused them needless casualties in the Mount Street Bridge area.

In the end, given the absence of hoped-for German troops (difficult to transport to Ireland, due to the Royal Navy’s mastery of the seas, as the Germans had well recognised) and the lack of a significant guerrilla campaign in the countryside, the republican forces could not have won. Even had a full complement of Volunteers mustered in Dublin, the British would have thrown more resources into the battle and eventually swamped the insurrection. Given the limited forces and weaponry available, what the republican forces achieved by occupying positions in Dublin for a week was an impressive achievement, and would have been even for a regular army.

The republican forces, a collection of poets, writers and ordinary men, fought, on the whole, in line with the principles of the Proclamation, a brave and honourable fight. These unpaid volunteers fought with nobility for aspirational principles, for no material gain, in a scenario full of mortal risk. In turn, the average British soldier, mostly young and untrained, did what he was ordered to do. Many, particularly at Mount Street, City Hall and the SDU areas, made brave assaults. The British Army let itself down with the atrocities in North King Street and in its attempt to cover up the murders there as well as those at Portobello Barracks.

Military dispatch and a military view of the world led to the colossal mistake by General Maxwell (although being clever and not the mono-dimensional man often described) in executing the republican leadership. From a military point of view, shooting 15 would be a normal consequence for leading a ‘treasonous uprising’, in time of war (3,000 British troops were executed over the course of WW I). It was the absence of any real control by the pusillanimous Prime Minister Asquith, who should have been sensitive to the political consequences in Ireland, that left Maxwell to follow his own military logic. Even the self-important Viceroy, Lord Wimbourne, so removed from the local populace, was perceptive enough to protest at the executions.

The reaction quickly followed. Public sympathy led to significant support for Sinn Féin, now, with 1916 veterans in the leadership by 1917, taking a more republican direction. They won a majority in the 1918 general election, leading to the establishment of the First Dáil. It ratified the earlier Proclamation of the Irish Republic of Easter 1916. Following treaty negotiations in 1921, dominion status for 26 counties was achieved in 1922 and the Civil War ensued. The pro-Treaty side prevailed and the Irish Free State was established. Republic status (for the 26 counties) was declared in 1949.

An article, which has been largely disregarded in history, was published in the Irish War News, issued on the Tuesday of the Rising. I find the article (written before Easter Week) to be, in its understated and wry way, as good an argument for a rising as any other. It draws on a recent article in the New Statesman which sets out a picture of an England under German rule, on the assumption that the Germans won the war. Such a ‘horrendous’ scenario is illustrated in every aspect of life, right up to the sending of English MPs to attend the Reichstag. The Irish War News writer points out, with humorous irony, how almost every detail fits the case of Ireland at that time. The writer shows that Ireland, living in the half-light of membership of the United Kingdom, but in reality being a neo-colony, was having the essence of its nationhood leached out of it. Irish participation in the Empire including through the army, pro-consulships, Indian Civil Service for the middle classes and education about the greatness of the Empire, created the descent into a mind-set where the Empire knew best. Any concept of an independent nation called Ireland was an aberration. The New Statesman article had depicted a situation that would pertain in England after its defeat by Germany, where they would have been “a nation of slaves, even though every slave in the country had a chicken in his pot and a golden dish to serve it on”. The sharp shock of the Rising began the process of ending the transformation of Ireland into this kind of Home Counties-type province, at least for the 26 counties. (The partition of Ireland and its peaceful resolution is still an unfinished project.)

Remembering 1916 has been difficult in Ireland. It is the essential founding myth of the State. There are complications in commemorating a vanguard of republicans who were willing to use force, particularly in the light of the conflict in the north which ignited in 1969. No doubt the centenary year will bring revisionism on all sides, as many try to stretch the legacy, meaning and reality of 1916 as a justification for their own current agenda.

The Proclamation of an Irish Republic was clear and inspirational. It was progressive for its time. The element, probably written by James Connolly, encapsulating what the state should be, includes “its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and all of its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally”. The part which states: “We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible” is laudable and appropriate for its time. However, whether we like it or not, we now live in a more complicated globalised world. Ireland is one of the most inter-dependent countries in the world, sensitive to every chill in the world economy. We are independent, but we have had to sign Faustian pacts, not least our dependence on multinationals, and we do not nor ever will have “unfettered control of Irish destinies”.

On the last day at the GPO, as British bullets and shells flew, Connolly wrote: “Courage boys, we are winning”. In reality, he and his comrades did win. We have independence and freedom from the Empire. However, it would be good, if, set against the framework of the Proclamation of the Republic and the 1919 Democratic Programme of the First Dáil, there were an informed and rational debate on what kind of modern state we should aspire to and how to achieve it.