Putting our ‘gallant allies’ back in the picture
Published 18/03/2016 | 07:00
Against the backdrop of a renewed interest in the involvement of Irishmen in the First World War, and with the on-going peace process and emphasis on reconciliation, perhaps it’s not entirely surprising the significant contribution of Germany towards the insurrection and its planning has gone largely unmarked, writes historian Donal Fallon.
In late 2015, there was much debate at the prospect of a British Royal or Prime Minister lining up on O’Connell Street come Easter Sunday, though few pondered if there would be German representation there. As an active protagonist in the Rising, it was a surprisingly absent subject of discussion.
In April 1966, five men arrived in Dublin Airport to take part in the Golden Jubilee of the Easter Rising. They were not returning veterans of the Irish Volunteers or the Citizen Army, but elderly German men; Raimund Weisbach, Otto Walter, Walter Agustin, Hans Dunker and F. Sohmitz had all participated in the failed German landing of arms on the eve of the rebellion.
Welcomed as heroes, one contemporary newspaper report noted that “they looked rather like benevolent businessmen enjoying the pleasures of retirement, the German officers who played so big a part in the drama before the Easter Rising, as they sat in the VIP lounge of Dublin Airport to talk to newspapermen.”
The Easter Rising not only occurred during the First World War, it was, in many ways, an event of that conflict. It was the outbreak of the European conflict that provided the imperative for republicans to meet at Parnell Square on 9 September 1914, in the library rooms of the Gaelic League.
The seven signatories of the proclamation, along with other republican activists such as Major John MacBride and Seán T. O’Kelly (later President of Ireland) clearly viewed the war as providing the needed catalyst for revolt.
O’Kelly would later recall that those in attendance believed that the war could present opportunities for rebellion in a number of forms, as “at that meeting it was decided that a Rising should take place in Ireland, if the German army invaded Ireland; secondly if England attempted to enforce conscription on Ireland; and thirdly if the war were coming to an end and the Rising had not already taken place, we should rise in revolt, declare war on England and when the conference was held to settle the terms of peace, we should claim to be represented as a belligerent nation.”
In the pages of James Connolly’s newspaper, The Workers’ Republic, readers were left in no doubt that what was occurring was “not a war upon German militarism, but upon the industrial activity of the German nation.”
Connolly sympathised with those who had followed the advice of John Redmond and enlisted, outlining a belief that “ the spirits of murdered Irish soldiers of England call to Heaven for vengeance upon the Parliamentarian tricksters who seduced them into the armies of the oppressor of their country.” Connolly was not uncritical of the German state, nor was his primary loyalty to it; a banner hung across Liberty Hall in 1915 made it clear that his movement “served neither King nor Kaiser – but Ireland.”
For many, support for Germany merely reflected the realpolitik of the moment; Volunteer Joseph Lawless recalled that “the fact was that we were pro-German, insofar as Germany was Britain's enemy, and we would have been pro-anything else that would oppose the ancient tyrant that held our country in bondage”
Crucial contacts with the German state had been established primarily through the endeavours of John Devoy, the Kildare-born Fenian who controlled the movement in the United States, and who Patrick Pearse would proclaim to be the “greatest Fenian of them all.”
It was Devoy’s networks who opened channels of communications with Johann Henrich von Bernstorff, Germany's Ambassador to the United States, and Devoy later financed Roger Casement’s mission to Germany.
While Casement was ultimately unsuccessful in his attempts to build an Irish Brigade from the ranks of Irish POW’s, the clandestine relationship between Irish separatists and Germany ultimately resulted in the ill-fated SS Libau expedition to Ireland. Better known today as the Aud, the name she masqueraded under in the hope of avoiding detection, this was an attempt by the German state to land thousands upon thousands of rounds of ammunition, captured Russian rifles from the Eastern Front, machine guns, grenades and more besides of the southern coast to assist the Irish Volunteer forces.
Ultimately, the crew of Captain Karl Spindler made the decision to scuttle the Libau rather than surrender her load to British forces. The final act of Spindler’s men was to take down the decoy Norwegian flag the ship had been flying, and to hoist the Imperial German flag in its place.
When the crew of the Libau visited Ireland in 1966, they laid flowers on the grave of Roger Casement in Glasnevin Cemetery, and took their place on O’Connell Street for the commemorative parade.
The 'concerted German plan'
The broader context of the Easter Rising is crucial in understanding the events of that time and the political climate. How many know that during the course of the Easter Rising in Dublin, the British state had more to contend with than an insurrection on Irish soil; on 25 April, a German battle cruiser squadron shelled the English town of Lowestoft, which combined with a series of Zeppelin raids the previous day was enough to convince sections of the British press of a ‘concerted German plan’ which was entangled with events in Dublin.
When denouncing the rebellion in Westminster, John Redmond would over-dramatically maintain that “so far as Germany’s share in it is concerned, it is a German invasion of Ireland, as brutal, as selfish and as cynical as Germany’s invasion of Belgium” Redmond’s support for the British war effort proved a decision that ultimately cost many their lives, indeed in November 1915 he was quoted in the media as questioning those “Irish shirkers” who were “running away in the hour of their Empire’s need.”
The renewed public interest of recent years in the First World War in an Irish context is to be welcomed, as I would maintain is anything that increases public engagement with history.
Still, when it comes to the Easter Rising we cannot twist the narrative now to remove it of its European context, perhaps finding the participation of a belligerent nation many Irishmen were fighting at the time uncomfortable.
In 2016, unlike the Golden Jubilee, it is perhaps a case of ‘don’t mention the war’.
Donal Fallon is a historian and one of the writers behind Dublin history blog 'Come Here to Me'