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The story of 1916's band of brothers


Thomas Clarke

Thomas Clarke

Eamonn Ceannt.

Eamonn Ceannt.

James Connolly.

James Connolly.

Joseph Plunkett.

Joseph Plunkett.

Thomas Mac Donagh.

Thomas Mac Donagh.

Sean Mac Diarmada.

Sean Mac Diarmada.

Patrick Pearse.

Patrick Pearse.

DIT Lecturer Brian Murphy pictured at DIT Mountjoy Square. Photograph: Frank McGrath

DIT Lecturer Brian Murphy pictured at DIT Mountjoy Square. Photograph: Frank McGrath


Thomas Clarke

James Connolly was not a man prone to displays of emotion, but shortly after noon on Easter Monday 1916, the Edinburgh-born socialist was visibly moved. He had just heard Patrick Pearse read the Easter Proclamation outside the GPO and witnessed the unfurling from the roof of the tricolour. Gripping Pearse's hand, Connolly said: 'Thanks be to God, Pearse, we have lived to see this day.'

Connolly's uncharacteristic display of sentiment was undoubtedly prompted by the seminal moment that had just occurred. The reading of the Proclamation was the formal declaration of a Republic and it was an act that established the Provisional Government. It also signalled the first full-scale Irish uprising since the Fenian rebellion 49 years previously.

Pearse and Connolly had been involved in months of stressful planning, intrigue, cajoling and deceit to arrive at the point where an armed rebellion against British rule would take place. Both men had been wary, even suspicious of the other's motives, but a genuine respect had developed between them. As they affectionately congratulated each other, WJ Brennan-Whitmore, a general staff officer in the rebel forces, observed that the man who had actually done most to ferment revolution watched contently from the side-lines.

In his memoir written in 1961, Brennan-Whitmore noted that, "Although Patrick Pearse and I were intimates, it is my view that writers and historians in subsequent years have, perhaps unconsciously, given Pearse a position of prominence in the movement which rightly belongs to Clarke… [Clarke's] quiet and somewhat shy unobtrusiveness would seem to have robbed even history of her due. In my frank and honest opinion, insofar as it was in the power of one man to bring an Irish insurrection into forthright activity, the credit for that achievement must go to Thomas J Clarke."

Smoke-filled rooms

Clarke's long commitment to militant republicanism was recognised by his fellow leaders of the Rising when they accorded him the honour of being the first signatory to the 1916 Proclamation. However, in Irish historiography Clarke features less prominently than Pearse and Connolly, largely because the very nature of his work was furtive. Clarke's genius was in smoke-filled rooms where secret military plans were hatched, where the covert Irish Republican Brotherhood infiltration of other organisations was encouraged and where every clandestine decision was inspired by a desire to provoke sedition and to ultimately bring about an armed revolt.

Clarke was 58 in 1916. He was born on the Isle of Wight, the son of a British soldier, but was raised in Dungannon. He had spent large portions of his adult life outside of Ireland. For 15 years, he had languished in British prisons, after being convicted of attempting to place bombs in London, and also lived in the United States.

In November 1907, Clarke sold his farm in Manorville, Long Island, and returned to Ireland. He opened a tobacconist shop in Dublin's north inner city and immersed himself in IRB activities. His shop soon became a hub for nationalist activity and Clarke, with a single-minded focus, sought to encourage a younger generation to commit to militant republicanism.

A definite policy of insurrection

Seán Mac Diarmada, who was 25 years Tom Clarke's junior, became his closest friend and most trusted lieutenant. Clarke was influential in Mac Diarmada's appointment in 1908 as the IRB's national organiser and the latter toured the country on a bicycle building alliances and recruiting young radical nationalists. By 1912, control of the IRB was in the hands of Clarke and Mac Diarmada.

Operating on the old Fenian maxim of 'England's difficulty, Ireland's opportunity,' the pair saw World War One as a once-in-a-generation chance to secure a sovereign Irish Republic. At the very least, they believed that a rising would secure Irish representation at a post-war peace conference.

On 4 August 1914, the British prime minister, Herbert Asquith, declared war on Germany. This event gave impetus to Clarke and Mac Diarmada's objective of a separatist revolt. As respectively the secretary of the IRB Supreme Council and its treasurer, they brought all of their influence to bear to rapidly commit the small revolutionary organisation to a definite policy of insurrection.

Just over a month later, on 9 September 1914, as British and French troops engaged the German army in bloody hostilities on the banks of the Marne, the Supreme Council of the IRB in Rutland (now Parnell) Square adopted a hugely significant resolution. This three-pronged resolution mandated the IRB to stage a rising if: Germany invaded Ireland; the British Government sought to impose conscription on Ireland; the war looked like coming to a conclusion without a rebellion already having taken place.

Trusting no-one but their closest allies, to advance plans for an insurrection, Clarke and Mac Diarmada established a highly secret military sub-committee (subsequently the Military Council) in May 1915 consisting of themselves and Pearse, Éamonn Ceannt and Joseph Mary Plunkett, who had a wide knowledge of military strategy. Senior IRB figures, such as Denis McCullough and Bulmer Hobson, were kept in the dark because Clarke and Mac Diarmada doubted their commitment to a rising.

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As a tiny, secret oath-bound society, the IRB lacked the military manpower and capacity to mount a genuine rebellion. Clarke's policy of infiltration of nationalist organisations had been pursued to surmount such difficulties.

Unlike the IRB, the Irish Volunteers, which had been founded in 1913 to protect the Home Rule Bill then going through Westminster from the threat posed by Edward Carson's Ulster Volunteer Force, had a decent-sized armed militia at its disposal. Prior to the Rising, membership of the Irish Volunteers was estimated at approximately 15,000. From the formation of the Volunteers, members of the IRB had sought to establish secret but effective control of the organisation by placing their own personnel in key positions of authority.

Seán Mac Diarmada had actually been a founder-member of the Irish Volunteers and other leading IRB planners, including Pearse, Plunkett and Eamon Ceannt, also held prominent positions on its executive. However, Eoin MacNeill, the Chief-of-Staff of the Volunteers, was not an IRB man and he was strongly against any pre-emptive rising. MacNeill had grown increasingly close to Hobson, who held sincere convictions that the Volunteers should adopt only a defensive strategy.

In the months leading up to the planned date for the Rising, the IRB element in the Volunteers either worked around or willingly deceived MacNeill, Hobson and others, while making surreptitious preparations for a rebellion. This level of manipulation reached its zenith in the week prior to Easter 1916 when the IRB held Hobson under house-arrest and forged the so-called 'Castle Document' in an attempt to convince MacNeill that the British authorities were going to suppress the Volunteers and that he had nothing to lose in backing a revolt.

Gaelic League

Tom Clarke spoke little Irish, but he instinctively understood that the Gaelic League was an influential mass-movement. A year out from the Rising, the League had an estimated 50,000 members nationwide, many of whom had advanced nationalist views. The IRB had for a number of years engaged in a steady infiltration of the organisation.

At the League's ard-fhéis in July 1915, the IRB moved to change its character from a non-political organisation to an avowedly separatist grouping. Clarke was the mastermind of an organisational coup d'etat, which precipitated the resignation of the League's founder, Douglas Hyde, who wanted to keep the language movement free from politics. In essence, the IRB take-over of the Gaelic League was about further shaping the wider public's consciousness in support of Independence.

A large number of those who would ultimately taken up arms in 1916 had first travelled down the road of militant republicanism via their membership of the Gaelic League. Its strong Irish-Ireland ethos convinced many young men and women that there was a strong intellectual and political basis for a separatist state.

Pearse, who had originally been a strong supporter of Home Rule, wrote about the politically radicalising effect of the Gaelic League. In 1914, he noted "the Gaelic League will be recognised in history as the most revolutionary influence that has ever come into Ireland. The Irish Revolution really began when the seven proto-Gaelic Leaguers met in O'Connell St… The germ of all future Irish history was in that back room."

Thomas MacDonagh, a close associate of Pearse, was co-opted onto the IRB Military Council in April 1916, just before the Rising. His political journey had begun in the early years of the 20th century when he attended a Gaelic League meeting with the intention of sneering at proceedings, but instead he experienced a Pauline conversion.

Eamonn Ceannt, another signatory of the Proclamation, had joined the Gaelic League as far back as 1899. He was a talented Irish language teacher and an accomplished uileann piper, who had once performed in private audience for Pope Pius X.

Connolly's Ambivalence

James Connolly was ambivalent about the Irish language. He once wrote: "You cannot teach starving men Gaelic." Connolly's immersion in Irish politics commenced as a trade union activist and he evolved into a radical socialist hardened by his experiences during the Lockout.

Connolly had little sympathy with Pearse's notion of a blood sacrifice, but his decision to throw his revolutionary lot in with the IRB amounted to a recognition that the national question had to be resolved before socialism could take root.

At Connolly's insistence, the fusion of his own Irish Citizen Army with the IRB-controlled Irish Volunteers in Easter Week created a new entity known as the Irish Republic Army. This is the origin of the title that a number of organisations have claimed - or still claim - direct historical continuity with.

Despite his warm handshake with Pearse on the steps of the GPO, Connolly instinctively recognised that they were strange bedfellows. A week before the Rising, Connolly instructed his most trusted colleagues in the Citizen Army that "in the event of victory, hold on to your rifles, as those with whom we are fighting may stop before our goal is reached. We are out for economic as well as political liberty."

Connolly's brand of Hiberno-Marxism sat uncomfortably with the more socially conservative separatists and gaelic revivalists of the IRB and this was just one of the many complexities of Easter 1916.

Dr Brian Murphy lectures at the Dublin Institute of Technology. He completed his PhD in Modern Irish History at UCD