Ireland’s long-standing struggle for independence from the British had been going on for hundreds of years when, on April 14, 1916, Easter Monday, an armed rebellion by a few thousand Irish men and women in Dublin began a sequence of seven years of bitter fighting in three separate engagements that led to the eventual creation of the Republic of Ireland we enjoy today.
The Easter rebellion, was followed by the War of Independence from 1917 to 1922 and, finally, the tragic civil war in 1922-1923 that began after the signing of the Irish/British agreement that provided peace, and partitioned Ireland, leaving six counties from the Northern part of the island to Britain.
This year, the centennial of the insurrection in Dublin, there will be celebrations in Ireland, here in the United States, and in Irish enclaves throughout the world commemorating the lives and deeds of all involved in the fight for independence.
The celebrations should also be a remembrance of the men and women who gave their lives in the cause of Irish independence over the centuries well before the Rising in 1916. Historians count more than 20 rebellions since 1600, all attempts at removing British rule.
The ages-old quest for freedom and independent nationhood has become part of Ireland’s romantic culture, with songs such as “By the Rising of the Moon,” written by John Casey and first published in 1866, making the point. Casey’s words saluted the United Irishmen’s rebellion of 1798 and speak of the gathering of a thousand pikes and “Harrah, me boys, for freedom. Tis the rising of the moon.” And the final lines of the dying Bobby Sands’s diary refer to “the day will dawn when all the people of Ireland will be have freedom, it is then we’ll see the rising of the Moon.”
The 1916 Rising took place over just a few days, from April 24 to the following Sat., April 29, as those few thousand poorly armed men and women decided the time had come once again to challenge the right of their powerful next-door neighbor to subjugate the Irish people. The British had not been benevolent rulers over the years. The attempt at eradicating the Catholic religion, the lack of forceful action during the famine, and the London landlord system all contributed to ill feeling among the Irish.
Nearly 500 people died during the short-lived rebellion. According to the “Book of the 1916 Rising,” by the Irish Times, 62 Irish rebels, 132 British soldiers, and 256 civilians met their death during the fighting. And when 15 of the rebel leaders surrendered, they were taken to Kilmainham jail and shot dead by British firing squads on the orders of the British commander, Gen. John Maxwell. In addition, downtown Dublin suffered severe damage and 3,000 Irish fighters were taken prisoner and sent to prison in Wales.
When the fighting was done with, British soldiers remained in charge, but it was clear to everyone that the larger battle wasn’t over; the seeds of an active rebellion had been planted firmly in the Irish soil.
The killings of the 15 rebel leaders were greatly resented by the average Dubliner, and they evoked an awakening of anti-British sentiment that would never be extinguished. Men like Patrick Pearse, James Connolly, and Tom Clark are widely remembered today, their names etched in memorials across the island.
Over the following two years, most of the 3,000 Irish who had been dispatched to Welsh prisons were released and returned to Ireland. It was from their ranks that the leaders of the bloody War of Independence emerged. Eventually, a form of home rule was introduced as a possibility, and an Irish delegation went to London to negotiate peace pact. The resulting treaty, with its agreement forfeiting the six Northern counties, proved to be one of the most divisive issues in Irish history, with thousands dying because of it.
The effects of the civil war between the Pro-Treaty and the Anti-Treaty factions still exists 90-plus years later, in the forms of two of the major political parties. But the diplomacy ended the War of Independence, and, over time, Dublin’s Parliament moved further and further away from British influence to develop the independent republic we have today.
No matter what side of the treaty a person is on, we should all pay homage to the brave and principled men and women who sacrificed themselves for a greater cause. As the year 2016 dawns, the modestly powerful country of Ireland is testament to their devotion.
Now, it’s time to look forward to the celebrations and a wonderful year for the Irish.