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Just why was the Easter Rising so unpopular?


The Rising was roundly condemned by many contemporaries, an irony often commented upon in the years since it took place. Yet the reasons for this aren't hard to understand, and should not be dismissed as the work of so-called 'west Brits' and 'Castle Catholics'.

Hostility & Angry Mobs

Irish unionists and the British authorities were naturally unimpressed by the Easter Rising. But neither were many Home Rule nationalists, who felt that their prospect of getting Home Rule after the war was undermined by events in Dublin; some went so far as to view the Rising as an attack on Home Rule as much as the British.

Then there were the views of those who were literally on the ground. Many of the insurgents who fought in 1916 recorded the hostility of the families of serving soldiers across the city (some went so far as to say that their British captors had saved them from angry mobs).

There was a widespread perception (shared by Redmond) that the Volunteers were in cahoots with the Germans; from that point of view, those who fought in the Rising were stabbing other Irishmen – sons, husbands, brothers – in the back, and doing so in relatively safe circumstances at home; as one irate lady on Bridgefoot Street shouted at the young Volunteer Sean McLoughlin, ‘it’s out in Flanders you should be, you bastards’.

Alongside this was the fact that the Rising had caused massive death and destruction, and disrupted everyday life in the city; Oscar Traynor recalled how he and his fellow Volunteers were accused by one irate Dubliner of being ‘starvers of the people’. Hostility to the Rising on these various grounds was inevitable, and surely understandable.

\u0009 It can't just be blamed on 'jackeens' either, for (some) Dubliners were not the only ones hostile to the Rising. Local authorities and the provincial press across the country condemned it and, as Conor McNamara of NUIG has discovered, in Galway a committee of concerned citizens pledged themselves to supporting the British authorities; the Redmondite Nationalist Volunteers even patrolled Galway City with weapons provided by the British army.

Condemnation of the Rising spread far beyond the city in which the vast bulk of the fighting took place. But such attitudes changed utterly in subsequent weeks and months.

Gut Sympathies

There seems to have been more gut sympathy towards the Rising than is often assumed; the testimonies later provided by 1916 veterans to the Bureau of Military History are littered with discreet gestures of sympathy and acts of kindness towards the defeated insurgents.

James Stephens claimed that at least some Dubliners had a grudging regard —‘almost a feeling of gratitude'—for the tenacity of the insurgents by the Wednesday of Easter Week, ‘for if they had been beaten the first or second day the city would have been humiliated to the soul’. Condemnation was more likely to be heard in a city under military occupation; sympathisers would surely have kept their heads down.

\u0009Many realised that something seismic had happened in Dublin in April 1916, and in less then three years the military defeat of the Easter Rising had been transformed, remarkably, into the political victory of an independence movement with its roots in the Rising.

The condemnation of 1916 was replaced by outright support in 1918. British arrogance and heavy handedness, a willingness on the part of many Irish people to re-assess the motives and characters of the executed 1916 leaders, and disillusionment with the Home Rule party ensured that by 1918, one Irish nationalist movement had been overtaken by another.

John Redmond is indeed part of the story of the Easter Rising; both he and his party were amongst its political victims.

John Gibney is currently Glasnevin Trust Professor of Public History and Cultural Heritage at Trinity College Dublin.

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