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Easter Dawn – An Introduction to the 1916 Rising

A full-length photograph of The Rahilly, the 1916 rebel leader, hangs behind an old National cash till. Photo: James Fennell.

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About 500 metres from the old Pearse family home on present-day Pearse Street stands the two-storey red-brick St Andrew’s National School. It opened in 1897 to provide primary education for 1,200 Catholic children from Dublin’s Docklands. Nearly twenty years later, in 1916, eight boys from the school – scouts for the paramilitary Fianna Éireann – carried messages and firearms to rebel strongholds across Dublin in what the school’s roll books for April 1916 described as the ‘Poets’ Rebellion’.

Many of those who sought to establish an Irish Republic in 1916 were poets, including four of the seven signatories of the Proclamation of the Republic (Pearse, Plunkett, Connolly and MacDonagh), while a fifth, Seán Mac Diarmada, enjoyed reeling off Robbie Burns’ poems as his party piece. The Cork nationalist Thomas Kent, who was one of the sixteen men executed in the wake of the Rising, likewise dabbled in poetry.

Others preferred prose. Eoin MacNeill, Chief of Staff of the Irish Volunteers, was a history professor at University College Dublin. Michael O’Hanrahan was an acclaimed novelist, and, while he was not involved in the Rising itself, Erskine Childers, the man who skippered so many German guns into Ireland for the Irish Volunteers, was considered the foremost spy novelist of his generation. Roger Casement earned a knighthood for his stirring reports on the evilness of the rubber barons in the Congo and the Amazon. Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Féin, was a journalist. The playwright Seán O’Casey, a past secretary of the Irish Citizen Army, was briefly interned as a possible rebel during the Rising and knew many of the players involved so well that he would immortalise them a decade later in The Plough and the Stars. George Bernard Shaw viewed the Rising from afar but campaigned vociferously against the executions, particularly for Casement.

Tom MacDonagh, Constance Markiewicz, the Pearse brothers and Seán Connolly had all trod the boards of the Abbey Theatre. Bulmer Hobson would later play an important role in founding the Gate Theatre. The future Hollywood actors Arthur ‘Boss’ Shields and John Loder served on opposing sides during the Rising, Shields with the Irish Volunteers, Loder as aide-de-camp to his father, the British General Lowe. Both men would later co-star in John Ford’s 1941 drama How Green Was My Valley. Sara Allgood, who won an Oscar for her role as Loder’s mother in the same film, was an early member of the Inghinide na hÉireann (Daughters of Erin) organisation set up by Maud Gonne.

Music was also of pivotal importance to many. Éamonn Ceannt once played the uilleann pipes for the Pope, Michael Mallin was an extremely talented flautist, both Thomas Ashe and Seán O’Casey founded pipe bands, and Ned Daly was a fine baritone. Denis McCullough, president of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) at the time of the Rising, was a piano-tuner who specialised in the manufacture of musical instruments. Patrick McCartan, another leading IRB man and occasional actor, became father-in-law to Ronnie Drew of The Dubliners.

Poets, actors, writers and musicians may seem an unlikely collection to lead a revolution, but their creative intellectualism echoed that of their spiritual forebears, the nationalists of the 1840s, the Young Ireland rebels, the Fenians and the founding fathers of the IRB. Indeed, Tom Clarke, who was old enough to have participated in the Fenian Dynamite Campaign of the early 1880s, was an intimate acquaintance of many of those who participated in the 1867 Rising and who founded the IRB. Major John MacBride, who was executed for his part in the 1916 Rising, had similarly befriended the 1848 veteran John O’Leary.

It was not just thespians and wordsmiths who led the rebels. Many were experienced soldiers. James Connolly, Michael Mallin, Kit Poole, Jack White, Bob Monteith and W. J. Brennan-Whitmore were all veterans of the British Army. Major MacBride had commanded the Irish Transvaal Brigade against the British during the Anglo-Boer War. For others, soldiering was in the blood. Tom Clarke’s father was a bombardier in the Royal Artillery. Liam Mellows’ father and grandfather had both been British Army officers. Hundreds of young men like Seán Heuston and Con Colbert learned how to drill with Fianna Éireann, while others such as Éamonn Ceannt and Ned Daly were simply natural-born soldiers who came into their own when the Irish Volunteers were formed.

Sean MacDiarmada, secretary of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, oversaw the making of the first flag of the Irish Republic.

The renaissance of the Irish republican movement in the early twentieth century owed a good deal to the northern counties. Tom Clarke spent much of his childhood in the small town of Dungannon in Co. Tyrone, as did Joe McGarrity and Patrick McCartan, two of the most influential Irish nationalists operating in the USA. Seán Mac Diarmada of Co. Leitrim was working as a tram conductor in Belfast when he first met Bulmer Hobson, a journalist from a Quaker family, with whom he began to reorganise the IRB, the main organ of Irish republicanism. In 1908 Mac Diarmada and Hobson moved to Dublin and united with Tom Clarke, lately returned from New York. Together these immensely dynamic men not only restructured the IRB but also seized control of its Supreme Council. All three were also prominent in co-founding the Irish Volunteers in November 1913, although Hobson later alienated himself from Clarke and Mac Diarmada by supporting John Redmond’s takeover of the organisation. Clarke was to play a major role in the momentous funeral of O’Donovan Rossa, in which all the main republican bodies took part, perhaps most notably, Cumann na mBan.

Eight months later, the Proclamation of the Irish Republic was addressed to ‘Irishmen and Irishwomen’. The inclusion of the latter in such a massive political statement was pioneering in those days before women’s suffrage had been won. Not surprisingly, women of every background joined the cause, from working-class Dubliners like Rosie Hackett and Nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell to ladies from an Ascendancy background such as Constance Markiewicz and Cesca Chenevix Trench. Their contribution to the Rising was considerably muted during the decades that followed, but has been successfully reclaimed in more recent times.

The Irish Republic was conceived by dreamers and poets but harnessed by the methodical minds of the IRB. When the time came for the leaders to face the firing squads, one wonders whether they anticipated that their very executions would convert the legacy of the Easter Rising from being an ill-timed failure into the catalyst that prompted a huge number of Irish to abandon their ambivalence about Ireland’s future and pin their colours to the cause of Irish nationalism. W. B. Yeats, watching from the sidelines, gasped at the effects the Rising would have on Ireland’s future: ‘All changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born.’ It was Yeats who had mourned, ‘Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone / It’s with O’Leary in the grave.’ And yet, as the American poet Joyce Kilmer asked, ‘Then, Yeats, what gave that Easter dawn / A hue so radiantly brave?’