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The Easter Rising

The attempt to overthrow British rule and found an Irish Republic began on 24 April 1916.

Henry Street, DublinEverything that could go wrong went wrong. The insurrection was organised by a small group, the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Their best-known figure was the poet Patrick Pearse and, at a meeting held on the quiet in January, they had gained the support of James Connolly, militant leader of the Irish Volunteers. This was a larger organisation of 15,000 or more members. The rising was intended for the whole country and arms were expected from Germany.

A German cargo boat called the Aud arrived off the coast of Kerry on April 20th, carrying guns and ammunition, but the local Irish Volunteers failed to meet her as planned. She was intercepted by the Royal Navy and forced into Cork harbour, where her captain scuttled her. The only effective action occurred in Dublin, where early on Easter Monday armed nationalists led by Connolly, Pearse and others seized the General Post Office. Republican flags were hoisted and Pearse went out into the street to proclaim the new Irish Republic, to the bemusement of passers-by. An assault on Dublin Castle was easily held off by the British garrison. Small groups of nationalists seized other buildings in the city, or tried to, including Trinity College, where armed students resisted them. By the end of the day, public transport in Dublin had ground to a halt, the police commissioner had called his men off the streets and shops were looted. 

Martial law was declared and British troops poured into Dublin, the insurgents having failed to seize the railway stations. There was street fighting and, assaulted by British artillery bombardments, the nationalist groups were compelled to surrender. Connolly and Pearse announced an unconditional surrender on the Saturday. Some 450 people had been killed, including 64 rebels and around 100 British military personnel. 

Some 4,000 men and women were arrested. Most were released, but in early May, 15 of the leaders, including Connolly and Pearse, were court-martialed and executed by firing squad in Dublin’s Kilmainham Gaol. It was that which turned a flop into a success. As George Bernard Shaw remarked, the British authorities had canonised their prisoners by martyring them. Although the rising failed, it sparked a growing and, in time, effective sympathy for the nationalist cause.


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