The centenary of the Easter Rising and lessons on the limits of nationalism
Sumantra Bose | 14 Apr, 2016
ONE HUNDRED YEARS ago this month, a motley band of revolutionaries launched a short-lived urban insurrection against the world’s mightiest imperial power. The setting was Dublin, the capital of Ireland. It began on Easter Monday, 24 April 1916, and ended six days later on Saturday, 29 April, with the surrender of the rebels.
At the time, the week-long drama in Dublin seemed destined to go down in history as no more than a footnote. It was a small event in the midst of the epic battles of World War I. In Ireland itself, the public reaction to the rebellion was ambiguous. Most people appeared indifferent, and some hostile. But what seemed then to be a madcap rebellion by a bunch of adventurers led within six years to British withdrawal from most of Ireland after centuries of domination. The reverse suffered by British imperialism in its long-standing backyard encouraged nationalists in India. The Dublin events of April 1916 soon attained a mythic reputation as the ‘Easter Rising’; today, it is often referred to in Ireland simply as ‘The Rising’. Through the 20th century, the Rising became a source of inspiration to numerous movements for national freedom across Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
This seminal event in the annals of anti-colonial struggle involved no more than 1,200 participants, including many teenage boys and at least several dozen women, who took over six sites in central Dublin and simply waited for the British response. One of these sites was a biscuit factory, another a flour- mill and bakery, a third a public park. The main rebel base was the imposing General Post Office (GPO) building on the city’s main thoroughfare, O’Connell Street (then Sackville Street), and that was where a ‘Provisional Government of the Irish Republic’ was proclaimed to bewildered onlookers and passers-by.
The bemusement was natural. The mainstream nationalist movement in Ireland had agreed to support the British war- effort in return for a promise of ‘Home Rule’—a form of autonomy within Britain and its empire—once World War I ended. Tens of thousands of Irishmen—from the Catholic majority as well as the pro-British Protestant minority—had volunteered for and were serving in the armed forces of the British Empire. The insurgents belonged to a small faction which had split off from the ‘Irish Volunteers’, a militia formed in 1913 to ensure that the colonial government kept its word on Home Rule. The breakaway faction had around 15,000 of the 180,000-strong Irish Volunteers. In the Easter Rising, members of this breakaway group were supported by armed cadres of the Irish Citizen Army, a small militia drawn from Dublin’s working class.
The marginality of the elements who launched the insurrection even within the Irish national movement was why the British government had not taken them seriously, and was consequently caught by surprise by their audacity. Moreover, just as the notion that India’s struggle for freedom was ‘non- violent’ is at best simplistic and at worst misleading, it is a myth that Ireland’s struggle—except for the climactic period, 1916-1921—was about armed action. Armed revolts in 1798 (with French support), 1803, 1848 and 1867 had all failed, and attracted harsh British retribution. That was why the public were initially sceptical about the 1916 insurrectionists.
During the 19th century, Ireland had accumulated a rich legacy of struggle through constitutional and parliamentary means. Between the 1820s and 1840s, its leader was Daniel O’Connell, after whom Dublin’s main thoroughfare is named. He was an Irish version of Gandhi—but a century earlier—who campaigned through mass mobilisation for the abolition of 18th-century ‘penal laws’, which had reduced the Catholic Irish majority to wretched slaves in their own country, and for the restoration of the Irish parliament abolished by the 1800 ‘Act of Union’ that created, ‘for ever’, the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland’. His successor as champion of Irish rights in the late 19th century was Charles Stewart Parnell, a wealthy Protestant landowner who became the president of the ‘Irish Land League’, formed in 1879 to campaign against landlord oppression of the Catholic Irish peasantry, the main victims of the British-inflicted famine of 1845-1849, which killed around one million of Ireland’s then eight-million population. As in Bengal from the 1770s to the 1940s, British colonial rule brought famine to rural Ireland. Parnell dominated the Westminster parliament’s House of Commons with his rousing oratory through the 1880s. Although he maintained close links with rural secret societies, he was a rebel of the establishment, not outside it.
THE 1916 REVOLUTIONARIES were very different. The rebellion had a romantic streak, often emphasised in its folkloric telling. The man who read the proclamation of the Irish Republic to perplexed bystanders at the GPO was Patrick Pearse, a well-known poet. But otherwise, the Rising was anything but a romantic outing. Its principal planners were not greenhorns or amateurs but seasoned members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a clandestine nationalist organisation formed after the Irish famine and dedicated to ending British rule by any means. One such veteran was Thomas Clarke, a gentle-looking, bespectacled 58-year-old who had served fifteen years in prison in England for attempting to bomb London in 1883. He ran a tobacconist’s shop in Dublin’s city centre where some of the plotting took place.
The Rising’s tactical planning was meticulous. The half- dozen landmark sites across central Dublin occupied and then fortified were carefully chosen to make British counter-attacks difficult. Clarke took leave of his wife—who was fully in the know—casually, as if he was just going to open his shop. She recalled that they were both determined not to break down and so made the goodbye as brief as possible. And the Rising was based on a clear strategic precept—that ‘England’s difficulty’ was ‘Ireland’s opportunity’ and the opportunity had to be seized. Subhas Chandra Bose would emulate that a quarter-century later, during World War II. The rebel leaders knew they would not be able to hold out for long once the government mobilised its forces and counter-attacked. They simply wanted to make a stand, and a statement, in the heart of their nation’s capital.
That stand was fierce and the statement loud and clear, though a plan to land German weapons on the Irish coast failed and only a few scattered and weak insurgent actions occurred elsewhere in Ireland. By the time the rebel detachments surrendered on Saturday, 29 April, much of Dublin’s city centre was in ruins from shelling by British artillery, and the GPO was a gutted shell after catching fire. The majority of the dead were civilians—260 citizens of Dublin killed by shelling or murdered by British forces as they advanced towards the rebel strongholds. Sixty-six rebels died, but British combat fatalities was much higher: 143, including 126 soldiers and seventeen police (over one-third of the ‘British’ dead were actually Irishmen serving in the British forces). In the fiercest battle, a handful of rebels holed up in houses around the mill-cum-bakery base—where a mathematics teacher, Éamon de Valera, was in command—inflicted 230 casualties, dead and wounded, on advancing enemy columns. The rag-tag insurgents had set an example of what would later come to be known as urban guerrilla warfare.
The 1916 revolutionaries were different. The rebellion had a romantic streak, emphasised in its folkloric telling
The British government decided to make an example of the ringleaders, while treating the rank-and-file participants relatively leniently. Within two weeks, fifteen of the Rising’s leaders were executed by firing squads, including all seven signatories of the proclamation of the Irish Republic. Clarke, one of the first three to be shot, calmly told his wife, who was allowed to visit him the night before his execution, that he was certain that he and his compatriots had struck a decisive blow for national freedom. James Connolly, the leader of the Citizen Army militia, was executed sitting in a chair; he could not stand due to a bullet wound in the leg.
The executions were a colossal blunder, on par with the error the British were to make three decades later when they put three officers of the Indian National Army—Shah Nawaz Khan, Prem Kumar Sahgal and Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon—on trial at the Red Fort on charges of treason in late 1945. That trial galvanised and (temporarily) united the nation in opposition to the colonial government and in solidarity with the INA, whose soldiers came to be viewed across the Subcontinent as exemplary patriots. The martyrdom of the Rising’s leaders was the beginning of the end of colonial rule in Ireland.
THE RISING THREW up new leaders. One was de Valera, who narrowly escaped execution and was later to become the dominant figure of Irish politics. Another was Michael Collins, a rank-and-file fighter at the GPO. Released in end-1916, he went on to become the chief architect of the Irish Republican Army’s 1919-1921 war of independence. Unlike the Easter Rising, the insurgency Collins masterminded gripped large areas of rural Ireland. IRA ‘flying columns’—small, highly mobile guerrilla units—roamed the countryside, engaging in hit-and-run warfare. British reprisals against the population only made matters worse. Not that Collins neglected Dublin. In November 1920, he learned the identities and locations of fourteen undercover British intelligence operatives in the city from an informer who worked at Dublin Castle, the epicentre of the colonial regime. One Sunday morning, all fourteen were killed by IRA hitmen, some of whom were veterans of the Rising. The IRA’s war made most of Ireland ungovernable, and presented the British with a grim prospect: a protracted war of attrition.
Great Britain then chose a hitherto unthinkable route. In July 1921, it signed a truce with the IRA, and, after several months of negotiations in London with an Irish delegation led by Collins and the scholarly Arthur Griffith, an ‘Anglo-Irish Treaty’ was concluded in December 1921. The pact created an ‘Irish Free State’, with Dominion status resembling Canada’s, covering 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties. The missing part comprised six of the nine counties of the northern region of Ulster. This six-county area, with a pro-British Protestant majority and a large Irish Catholic minority, became a new political unit called ‘Northern Ireland’, part of a downsized ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’.
National liberation movements tend to develop schisms— often of a deadly nature—over time, and revolutions tend to devour their children. And so it was with the legatees of the 1916 Rising. The accord opened up a deadly rift in the Irish national movement and the IRA.
Two elements of the compromise were the most contentious. One was its effective acceptance of the partition of Ireland. The Ulster Protestants—mostly descendants of 17th-century settlers from Scotland—had massively mobilised against the prospect of ‘Home Rule’ for a united Ireland from the late 19th century onwards. They feared becoming a minority in a Catholic, nationalist Irish entity, even if within the United Kingdom. They were hardly likely to accept becoming part of a semi-sovereign ‘Free State’, and the British government was only too ready to indulge their paranoia. Both Wolfe Tone—a Dubliner and the icon of the failed 1798 revolt, who is revered as the founder of Irish nationalism—and Charles Parnell were Protestants, but this made no difference. The northern Protestant mobilisation— at once political and paramilitary, and the equivalent of the Pakistan movement in the Subcontinent—had its way.
The other explosive issue was Clause 4 of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which stipulated this oath for members of the Free State’s parliament: ‘I do solemnly swear allegiance to the Irish Free State…and that I will be faithful to HM King George V, [and] his heirs and successors, in virtue of the common citizenship of Ireland with Great Britain and her adherence to and membership of…the British Commonwealth of nations’. This was anathema to a large section of the Irish national movement.
In the second half of 1922, the Free State descended into civil war, even as hundreds of Catholic Irish were killed in murderous riots north of the new border dividing Ireland and thousands arrived in the Free State as refugees. In August 1922, Michael Collins was ambushed and killed by ‘anti-Treaty’ IRA forces while directing counter-insurgency operations in his home county, Cork, in the south of Ireland. He was 32. Between November 1922 and May 1923, the Free State’s government executed 77 anti-Treaty nationalists, including many leading figures of the 1916 Rising, by firing squad. In 1923, 13,000 anti-Treaty nationalists were in the Free State’s prisons, many on hunger-strike.
The Easter Rising and its sequel, the 1919-1921 armed struggle that drove the British out of most of Ireland, greatly inspired Indian freedom fighters. In 1929, Jatin Das, a Bengali revolutionary, died after 62 days on hunger-strike in a prison in Lahore. His inspiration was Terence MacSwiney, the nationalist mayor of Cork (and a poet and playwright), who died in 1920 after 74 days on hunger-strike in London’s Brixton prison. Jatin Das’ gigantic funeral procession in Calcutta was led by Subhas Chandra Bose. The Irish example was also an inspiration to ‘Masterda’ Surya Sen and his band of Chittagong rebels, and to Bhagat Singh and his associates. Bose himself met de Valera—the political leader of the anti-Treaty movement in the 1920s and the man who guided the Free State’s transition to full Republic status (de facto 1937, de jure 1949)—thrice in the second half of the 1930s, twice in Dublin and once in London. In 1936, Bose began his tour of Ireland by offering flowers at MacSwiney’s grave in Cork. He then addressed a large meeting convened by the Indian-Irish Independence League in Dublin. The meeting was chaired by Maud Gonne MacBride, the legendary English-born heroine of the Irish independence movement and a leading anti-Treaty activist of the 1920s, who had once been the ‘muse’ of the poet WB Yeats.
The Easter Rising had reverberations far beyond the small island of Ireland, and is rightly being remembered across the world on its centenary. But it is also a cautionary tale—of the limits of nationalism and of revolution.