My 1916: '1,200 Irish died while the Rising raged, most serving with British forces overseas'
Military history expert Lar Joye tells Ronan Abayawickrema 1916 must be viewed in its global context
When he was a child, Lar Joye was told that much of the damage to Dublin during the 1916 Rising was wrought by the Royal Navy's HMS Helga. As he walked the battle sites of the uprising with his father, he pictured "a huge, World War II-era battleship sailing up the Liffey", its gun turrets blazing, laying to waste large swathes of the rebellious city.
Except that's not how it happened. In fact, the Helga was a requisitioned fisheries protection vessel, which had originally belonged to the Department of Agriculture. Armed with just a 12 pounder gun at its prow and a smaller 'pom-pom' gun at the rear, it fired a grand total of 40 rounds during the Rising, as it shelled Boland's Mill and the railway bridge at Liberty Hall. Most of the destruction of Dublin's city centre was due to fires, started by British shrapnel artillery rounds, looters or the rebels themselves.
The fact that a former research vessel used to survey Clare Island had been hastily pressed into service to shell the rebels shows Britain's piecemeal response in the first two days of the Rising, says Lar, now curator of military history at the National Museum of Ireland, Collins Barracks. The British army had been caught unawares by the rebellion, and had just four artillery pieces in Ireland when it began. Most of its matériel was in France, as it prepared for the massive Somme offensive.
The Helga's flag, emblazoned with the Union Jack but also an Irish harp encircled by shamrocks, is on display in the museum's exhibition on Irish military history, 'Soldiers and Chiefs'. It's just one of a number of fascinating artefacts that places the Easter Rising in a wider, global context.
The uniform of an officer in Roger Casement's ill-fated Irish Brigade is another indication of how the revolution in Ireland fitted into the broader context of World War I, and a reminder that the rebels originally hoped for significant aid from Germany. The Irish Brigade uniform was a standard German one, adapted to incorporate Irish insignia. But Casement's force, recruited from Irish POWs held by the Germans, never numbered more than around 60 men, and a German arms shipment to the rebels on the vessel Aud was intercepted by the British.
"The German (connection) in Irish minds is not that big, but in England it was seen as a key element," says Lar. "The Irish see the Rising as part of a long national struggle, but the English see it as pure, unmitigated treason, which therefore has to be treated harshly."
Lar also notes that Ireland's rebellion was just one of a number throughout the British Empire during and immediately after World War I - there were small-scale uprisings or mutinies in South Africa (1914), Singapore (1915) and Malta (1919). "Mutinies or revolutions are more common than people think."
The Aud weapons shipment seized by the British - including 20,000 modern rifles, machine guns and bombs - would have made a real difference to the 1916 rebels, says Lar. As it was, they had to use the weapons smuggled into the country on the Asgard two years before. These Mauser M71 rifles, also from Germany, were 45 years old by the time of the Rising. Long and ungainly, the single-shot rifles also produced a lot of smoke due to their black powder cartridges, making them eminently unsuitable for defending buildings, which was exactly the kind of fighting the uprising entailed.
It would have taken considerable courage to take on the British army with such poor weaponry - one of the Irish Citizen Army contingent which attacked Dublin Castle was armed with a pike, left behind as the assault was repulsed and now in the Collins Barracks museum's collection.
One of the Mausers is also on display, as is the rifle used by British troops opposing the rebels, the Lee Enfield .303. Comparison of the two gives a good idea of the odds facing the Volunteers, Lar says - the Lee Enfield was robust, reliable and compact and therefore better suited to urban fighting, and it was fed by a 10-shot magazine, giving the British soldiers a much faster rate of fire.
In order to put the death toll of the 1916 Rising in a global context, a screen in the exhibition lists the names of the 1,200 Irish people who died worldwide during the three-week period from the start of the 1916 Rising on April 24 to the May 12 execution of James Connolly, the last of the Rising's leaders to be put to death. Some 400 died during the fighting in Dublin - others, serving with British forces, died in Flanders in Belgium; Salonika, Greece; and as far afield as Alexandria in Egypt and Mesopotamia, in what is now Iraq.
The 400 Irish people killed in Dublin included rebels, civilians and soldiers from Irish regiments such as the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, many of whom may well have had mixed feelings about battling their countrymen, but also fought bravely nonetheless.
The civilian deaths included many children, such as 16-year-old Bridget Allen, who died on April 27, and several infants. Lar says that the confused nature of the fighting means we often have scant information about the way in which many of the civilians died - some were caught in the crossfire between the two sides, some may have been targeted, others died in fires. "Revolutions are chaotic... the nature of urban warfare is that civilians get hurt."
As the centenary of the Easter Rising approaches, Lar has noticed a "huge hunger among the general public" for history. He hopes that the centenary events will "get people involved" and that they will also visit the key sites in the capital associated with the Rising, as he did as a child.
"When you talk about World War I, you're talking about battlefields like Gallipoli, which most people will never visit. But you can walk the battlefields of the 1916 Rising - places such as Mount Street, where the rebels ambushed the Sherwood Foresters - and many are largely unchanged."
The National Museum of Ireland, Collins Barracks, www.museum.ie, will open a new exhibition, 'Proclaiming a Republic: The 1916 Rising', early next year