The British Inquiry into the Easter Rising
The Easter Rising took the British authorities in Ireland by surprise; so inevitably, the British sought to understand how and why the Rising had broken out and established a Royal Commission to investigate its causes, with particular reference to ‘the conduct and responsibility of the civil and military executive in Ireland in connection therewith’.
In other words, the remit of this inquiry was largely confined to understanding why the Rising had come as such a surprise to the Irish executive. It was concerned with how the British government in Ireland had failed, rather than with Rising itself. The British had successfully crushed the Rising, after all, and the first sittings of the inquiry were on 18 May 1916, less than a week after the final executions in Kilmainham Gaol.
We know, with the benefit of hindsight, that the political legacy of the Rising led to independence, but in the immediate aftermath it seemed to the British that Irish republicanism had been defeated, and would be an issue to deal with another day, if ever. What their inquiry was supposed to do was to explain how the British authorities had provided Irish republicans with an opportunity to strike.
Citizen Army to Blame
The commission was chaired by Charles, Baron Hardinge, a former viceroy of India, along with two judges: Sir Montague Shearman (sitting), and Sir Mackenzie Chalmers (retired). The commission held nine hearings, five in London and four in Dublin (in the Shelbourne Hotel), and interviewed 29 people; senior figures within the British political and military establishment in Ireland.
The final report traced the traced the roots of the Rising back to the 1913 Lockout, with the creation of paramilitary forces like the Irish Citizen Army setting a dubious precedent that had gone unchecked, which led to the creation of the Irish Volunteers, which had inevitably encouraged ‘seditious’ militarism in Ireland (this was essentially the view of William Martin Murphy, who submitted a statement to this effect to the inquiry).
Curiously, there was no mention of the UVF, despite the fact that the police reports appended to the published minutes of the commission revealed that the UVF was the largest and most heavily armed paramilitary group in Ireland; from this one-eyed perspective, the north never began.
The report went on to trace the activities of the Irish Volunteers in wartime but ultimately concluded that figures such as the Chief Secretary Mathew Nathan and his deputy Augustine Birrell had permitted the republican movement to grow, despite evidence of its trajectory towards rebellion (this was a view shared by some British military figures who privately felt that the growth of the UVF and Irish Volunteers even before the First World War should never have been tolerated).
Ireland, it concluded, ‘has been administered on the principle that it was safer and more expedient to leave law in abeyance if collision with any faction of the Irish people could thereby be avoided’ (it also claimed that the Irish Parliamentary Party had fostered such a climate by its criticisms of the government in Westminster). The military and police forces in Ireland were absolved, and indeed praised for their diligence.
As always in such inquiries, the minutes of evidence presented is far more revealing then the report that was finally produced. Birrell in particular gave a very frank, thorough and perceptive analysis of Irish affairs, in which he identified uncertainty over Home Rule as a key issue that allowed separatists to garner support, given that ‘the chance of it ever becoming a fact was so uncertain’; though again, the inconvenient reasons for such uncertainty were not explored in the commission’s final report.
The report blamed the Rising on British negligence; but one could argue that such negligence arose from an understanding of Ireland’s political reality: Nathan and Birrell knew the dangers of a crackdown on nationalists backfiring by creating martyrs prior to the Rising, which would surely have happened regardless of who was ruling in Ireland from Dublin Castle.
The Royal Commission into the Rising makes for fascinating reading, as it reveals how Ireland’s British rulers sought, however imperfectly, to make sense of what had happened in Dublin over Easter 1916.
John Gibney is currently Glasnevin Trust Assistant Professor of Public History and Cultural Heritage at Trinity College Dublin.