Ireland 1916: a War on Two Fronts

This Sunday, 8th February, will see the final episode of the two-part series ‘Ireland’s Great War’ shown on BBC Northern Ireland. It’s available on Iplayer, and you can catch up with the first episode here now: Diarmaid Ferriter of University College Dublin, Richard Grayson from University of London and Timothy Bowman from the University of Kent join together to explain how the start of the Great War briefly united the Irish Nationalists and Unionists, just when things were about to kick off, and how and why tensions exploded again right in the middle of the bloody conflict.

The Great War occurred at a very tricky juncture in Ireland’s history, when debate regarding a proposed independence from British rule was gathering steam. Philip Warner states in his ‘WW1: a Chronological Narrative’ that even loyal agents of the Queen were torn on this subject. Sir Roger Casement, an Ulster Protestant, had served the Crown as British Consult to Mozambique, Angola, the Congo Free State and Brazil, and had even earned himself a knighthood; however, he sympathised with the Irish nationalist cause, and in 1913 organised a force called the Irish National Volunteers to fight for independence.

At the same time, more moderate parties were petitioning for a similar result; John Redmond, the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, was trying to lobby for certain powers of government to be devolved to a chosen Irish executive in Dublin. Even this idea was hard for some of the Protestants in Ulster to swallow, and both camps were squaring up by August 1914, with the Ulster Volunteer Force springing up to oppose the party and both gathering arms. As war broke out, the local quarrel was largely forgotten, with the UVF emptying into the 36th (Ulster) Division, the INV into the 16th (Irish) Division, and many independence supporters hoping their loyalty would further their cause with the British government.

Not everybody agreed that this was the way forward, though. Sir Roger Casement, seeing an opportunity to put some real power behind the drive for independence, went straight to Berlin to lobby Germans officers and Irish POWs to help him; he failed on both counts. Realising that there was now not enough support to mount a serious challenge, he hastened back to Britain aboard a German submarine to try to quench the rebellion he’d helped to organise before it was too late; once again, he failed.

On Easter Monday, 24th April 1916, a sudden attack was staged in Dublin, masterminded by the radical Irish Republican Brotherhood and supported by elements of the INV and the Irish Citizen Army, about 1,200 people in all. At Dublin Castle a British sentry was shot, several government-owned buildings were set alight, key sites such as St Stephen’s Green were overrun, and the General Post Office in Sackville Street was taken over as Headquarters for the rebellion. At the Post Office, two Republican flags were hoisted, and the proclamation of an Irish republic was read out by Patrick Pearse of the IRB. ‘The First World in 100 Objects’ by Gary Sheffield displays this notice as one of its chosen objects, signed by Pearse along with Thomas J Clarke, Sean Mac Diarmada, James Connolly, Thomas MacDonagh, Eamonn Ceannt and Joseph Plunkett, who appointed themselves as the Provisional Government and announced the establishment of a sovereign independent state. On that first day, along with the sentry, four members of the Cavalry and three Dublin Police Officers were killed.

Having recovered from their initial surprise, on the second day the British began a counter-attack, overseen by Field Marshal Sir John French. The rebels found themselves facing around 16,000 soldiers by the end of the week. Nonetheless, the fighting was fierce. By the end of the day, 11 people had been killed and 16 injured, and by the time the rebels surrendered on the Saturday, 64 of their number, 254 civilians, 116 soldiers and 16 policemen had died overall.

The Rising itself did little to further the Republican cause. It is debatable which side would have won greater support, had the British government’s response to the rebellion been measured and restrained, but it was not. Between 3-12 May, in slow, excruciating dribs and drabs, the rebel leaders were all put to death. The unfortunate Sir Roger Casement, too, despite his attempt to halt the attack, was arrested on 29th April and hanged on 29th June. His influential friends, for all their efforts and arguments of his past service to Britain, could not save him. Stunned by the brutality of this response, many people lost all sympathy for the government. The end of the Great War had seen the talks regarding a possible devolution of powers stall, and in December 1918 Sinn Féin took 73 seats to the moderate John Redmond’s 7 and the Ulster Unionists 22. In 1919, after Sir John French had been appointed Lord Lieutenant & Commander of the British Army in Ireland, an attempt was made on his life.

A guerrilla war began, the Anglo-Irish War, which was fought between the IRA and the security forces from 1919-1921. Despite a ceasefire in 1921 and a treaty that allowed Northern Ireland to opt out of the Free State, much bitterness lingered on both sides of the fence, and 1922 saw the Irish Civil War flare up between two Republican groups, those who accepted the terms of the treaty and those who thought it was an insult to all who had given their lives in the Easter Rising. In theory, that war ended the following year; in reality, a can of worms had been opened that would blight life in Northern Ireland and beyond for many a decade to come. 

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