Monday 14 October 2019

What did the Easter Rising hope to achieve?

John Gibney

What did the Easter Rising of 1916 hope to achieve? It can be hard to be entirely sure, as the execution of the seven men who planned the Rising silenced them, and they brought their plans to the grave.

The obvious and correct answer to the question is: Irish independence. But how exactly the Rising was supposed to bring that about is another matter entirely. In doing so it might be wise not to place too much stock in the aspirations of the famous proclamation.

The very existence of a proclamation was unknown to most of the rank and file of the insurgents until it was revealed; its status as holy writ came after the Rising, and had little or nothing to do with how the Rising was planned and fought.

Another reason for leaving the proclamation to one side here is that hints that some of the leaders may not have been overly committed to it.

Patrick Pearse and Joseph Plunkett were apparently overheard in the GPO discussing the prospect that a German prince could become a putative Irish monarch should German assistance gurantee the success of the Rising, and Tom Clarke, on being asked by Min Ryan of Cumann na mBan why he and his co-conspirators emphasised a republic, replied that 'you must have something striking to capture the imagination of the world'. The leaders of the Rising were interested in the substance of full independence, but perhaps weren’t overly fussy about the form it might eventually take.

So if they were going to fight for Irish independence, were they going to win? Was the Rising a realistic plan or a sacrificial gesture, the so-called ‘blood sacrifice’? Depicting the Easter 1916 in hindsight as a sacrificial gesture, in which the moral victory took precedence over the physical victory, is a handy way of getting around that the fact that Rising was defeated by the British. 

Figures like Pearse certainly eulogised sacrificial gestures, and some of their colleagues felt they might not be averse to dying for Ireland. But that does not mean that they didn’t think in terms of succeeding; witness the elaborate, albeit vague, plans to import weapons and stage risings along the western seaboard.

These plans fell apart at the eleventh hour, prompting the British to think about suppressing the Irish Volunteers and other groups and thereby forcing the IRB’s hands. The Rising that took place was more desperate gamble then blood sacrifice, for it wasn’t the rising that had been planned.

Sean Heuston and Thomas MacDonagh both contemplated Ireland being recognised by a post-war peace conference: hardly necessary if they had either become martyrs or had driven the British into the sea.

We can never be sure of what the outcome of the Rising was supposed to be. Maybe the executed leaders simply thought that the rebellion they had hoped to bring about could be sustained long enough to push the British to a point where they might open the door to Irish independence, something far more then Home Rule. After all, isn’t that what their successors in the IRA do in 1920-21?

John Gibney is currently Glasnevin Trust Assistant Professor of Public History and Cultural Heritage at Trinity College Dublin and is the author of A history of the Easter Rising in 50 objects (Mercier press, 2016)

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