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Rebel leaders lacked vision to go on offensive against British


Sean Heuston

Sean Heuston

Sean Heuston

MUCH has been written about the headline events of 1916 but it's worth examining how and why the Rising failed in purely military terms.

The Volunteers had the advantage of surprise but this faded as the days passed and the British gathered their forces.

On Easter Monday the GPO was seized, with rebels barricading buildings at the corners of North Earl Street, Henry Street, as well as Lower and Middle Abbey Street, ensuring a protective cordon around the GPO.

A strong defensive perimeter was established, allowing Volunteer forces to impede the movement of British forces as they responded and to engage them from strong defensive positions, that allowed for good all round observation.

There is no doubt that, in the early days, the Volunteers held the initiative.

The first shots of the Rising were fired that day, when Volunteers opened up on a rather harmless mounted party of local British army reservists, the 'Georgeous Rex' (or 'Gorgeous Wrecks' as they were known to the locals), at Northumberland Road, killing five.

A number of Volunteer battalions occupied key points in the city centre. Commandant Edward Daly occupied the Four Courts on Inns Quay and nearby streets. There was a defensive line established north of the Liffey running between the Four Courts garrison and Cabra, where Thomas Ashe commanded the 5th Battalion.

Citizen Army members under Sean Connolly attempted to advance into Dublin Castle, but did not exploit the element of surprise. Despite the guardroom not being manned, they were beaten back.


They ended up occupying the adjacent City Hall, where heavy fighting ensued with British reinforcements the next day. The British took City Hall and martial law was declared on Tuesday. By that afternoon, they had established a line of posts from Kingsbridge Station (now Heuston) to Trinity College and from Parkgate to the North Wall.

At this point imbalances appear in the strategic and tactical appreciation of how to conduct operations effectively within the Volunteer forces.

For example, two of the most effective garrisons were the South Dublin Union and the Four Courts. The Volunteers at the former pinned down the assaulting British troops from nearby Richmond Barracks, at Inchicore. The South Dublin Union garrison under Eamonn Ceannt slowed down British forces into the city centre to assault the Four Courts.

Sean Heuston's small force at the Mendicity Institute on Usher's Quay held out long enough to buy time for the Four Courts garrison to build up their defences.

By Wednesday, April 26, the British were using their field guns deployed from Athlone as well as the gunship, The Helga, to soften up the Volunteer positions at the GPO and Boland's Mill. The idea was not to waste the lives of British infantry men assaulting well-defended Volunteer positions.

However, at Mount Street Bridge a small party of volunteers under the command of Michael Malone managed to pin down over British 1,000 troops and inflict casualties.


The battle at Mount Street bridge showed up weaknesses in the leadership on both the Irish and British side. The initial British response, probably due to lack of experience in urban warfare, was to continually try and assault across the bridge. This resulted in British casualties, despite the opposing force being quite small.

When they eventually realised that the gunfire was from the nearby Clanwilliam House, their weight of numbers led to victory.

However, the action of Malone's men at Mount Street Bridge delayed British reinforcements to the city centre.

Notwithstanding the early British tardiness at responding, the strategic pattern was set by the leadership of the Volunteers. This was to defend well but to yield up the strategic initiative to the British by not capitalising on earlier rebel victories and having an offensive or more mobile strategy.

For the Volunteers, it was hold and defend at all costs. When, as at Mount Street and South Dublin Union, numerically superior British forces were initially beaten back, the local leadership lacked the military vision to go on the offensive.

With such a strategic deficit in operational planning, it was small wonder that - militarily speaking - the Rising collapsed in defeat by Saturday, April 29.

Declan Power is a security analyst and former soldier