Plans for a rising: Setting a date
In the summer of 1915, the military leadership of the Irish Republican Brotherhood started to draw up plans for a rising against British rule
Eamon Ceannt in 1916
Joseph Plunkett. Photograph courtesy of Honor O Brolchain.
Tom Clarke – 1916 leader. Photograph: National Library of Ireland
Irish Volunteers Drilling. Photograph: Defence Forces Military Archives, Cathal Brugha barracks www.militaryarchives.ie
By the autumn of 1915 Ireland appeared to be a haven of tranquillity in a continent tearing itself apart through war. Her economy boomed as Irish farmers reaped the benefits of the huge wartime demand for food produce.
Having been beset by militant trade unionism in 1913 and a seemingly inevitable descent into civil war in 1914, this transformation was all the more remarkable. With home rule placed on the statute books a year before, most Irish nationalists now appeared content to wait until the end of the war and hoped for a rapid implementation of devolution once it finished.
Few could know or suspect that plans were secretly in train to launch a bloody insurrection which would change the course of Irish history forever.
‘Prating mock rebels’
For the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) the decade before 1916 had been one of regeneration. Once dismissed as an organisation of “prating mock rebels”, the emergence of cultural nationalism as a force in Irish society helped to radicalise a committed core of young militant Irish nationalists who revitalised the Brotherhood.
One veteran of 1916, Padraig O’Kelly, believed that his generation experienced “a kind of natural graduation” from cultural nationalism to republican violence. Men like Pádraig Pearse, Joseph Plunkett, Thomas MacDonagh and Éamonn Ceannt would crystallise this overlap between cultural and physical force nationalism.
The ruling Supreme Council of the IRB had long regarded itself as the legitimate government of the Irish republic. The Brotherhood sought first and foremost to safeguard its own existence until the next revolutionary opportunity arose.
However, in 1907 its reorganisation was given added urgency by the return to Ireland from America of the veteran Fenian activist Thomas Clarke. Aware of the possibility that Britain might become embroiled in a European war with her industrial rival Germany, Clarke returned to ensure that if such a conflict broke out, Irish republicans would be in a position to react.
He was appointed to the Supreme Council and became a close friend and mentor to the young men who were spearheading the IRB’s revival, among them Seán Mac Diarmada. Clarke’s influence secured Mac Diarmada’s appointment as IRB national organiser in 1908.
In August 1914, the IRB’s Supreme Council held a meeting soon after the British declaration of war on Germany and came to a decision to stage an insurrection before the conflict’s end. In the summer of 1915, a Military Council was established within the IRB to drawn up plans for an uprising against British rule using the Irish Volunteers. The continuation of the war offered the council both the opportunity and, more importantly, the time to execute its plans.
Three high-ranking IRB officers in the Irish Volunteers: Pearse (director of military organisation), Plunkett (director of military operations), and Ceannt (director of communications) were the only ones initially on the council, and numbers were kept small for security purposes. In September, Clarke and Mac Diarmada joined.
Meeting in secret, often in Clarke’s tobacconist’s shop at 75a Parnell Street, the council left no record of its deliberations. But by the autumn of 1915 it had become the real power in the IRB, and not even the Brotherhood’s nominal leadership in the Supreme Council was aware of its plans.
Once it had decided on a date for the rebellion, initially planned for the autumn of 1915, but subsequently pushed back to the spring of 1916, Clarke used his contacts in the Irish-American republican movement to help secure aid from a sympathetic German government.
Roger Casement, one of the original founders of the Irish Volunteers, had already styled himself Irish ambassador to a friendly ally and travelled to Germany with the IRB’s support. Casement’s mission was threefold: to recruit an Irish brigade from Irish POWs held in Germany who could be used in any forthcoming rebellion, to secure general German support for a declaration of Irish independence, and to arrange an arms shipment from Germany to support any rebellion.
However, it soon became evident that there were problems with Casement’s cherished desire for a German declaration of support for Irish independence and also with the idea of raising an Irish legion.
On November 20th, 1914, the German government issued a statement which declared that if it invaded Ireland, “it would do so with goodwill towards a people to which Germany wished only national welfare and national liberty”. This was far from the direct recognition the IRB hoped for. The military authorities, who were in charge of allowing Casement to address prisoners and to make arrangements to free those who joined him, were even less enthusiastic. In any event, embarrassingly few POWs did so.
The summer of 1915 also found Plunkett in Germany, sent on a mission to meet up with Casement and persuade German military leaders that Ireland offered a strategic opportunity tantalising enough to justify sending a German expeditionary force to support an IRB-led rebellion. Plunkett proposed a German invasion around the mouth of the Shannon which would support a mass rising of Irish Volunteers in western Ireland at the same time as Volunteers in Dublin seized the capital.
He suggested that 12,000 German troops bringing 40,000 rifles would be enough to begin the process of unravelling British control in Ireland.
While Plunkett’s argument displayed plausible strategic thinking, the Germans’ major concern was the obvious danger of attempting to land a force and support an entire division after a 2,000-mile sea voyage through British-controlled waters.
Also there was the problem of how quickly British forces in Ireland could be reinforced. Though the Germans rejected Plunkett’s plan, he was able to secure an agreement for Germany to land a shipment of arms and ammunition on the eve of an Irish rising.
Into the winter of 1915, the Military Council perfected their plans for a rebellion which was largely based on a strategy worked out by Plunkett over the previous year. This advocated that a ring of fortified positions in strategically placed buildings in Dublin would be seized by the rebels and defended against a full-force British counter attack, while reinforcements from the countryside advanced on the city.
Any rebellion needs an army and the Military Council looked to the Irish Volunteers which the IRB had successfully infiltrated and gained increasingly control over at all levels. Following the split within the greater Volunteer movement, the more radical Irish Volunteers (whom British intelligence estimated numbered only 13,500 out of the original force of 188,000) had throughout 1915 begun to slowly but surely rebuild and increase its numbers.
The principal reason for this was the ever-increasing fear among young Irishmen that due to the huge losses being sustained in the European war, Britain would introduce compulsory conscription into Ireland.
Even the moderates within the organisation (like its leader Eoin MacNeill) were determined to resist, by force if necessary, any attempt to introduce conscription into Ireland. By the autumn of 1915, the IRB’s control over the leadership of the Volunteers was a secret one which most ordinary members were unaware of. Yet, increasingly, Volunteer units across the country came under the authority of local commanders who were invariably IRB men and who reported directly to IRB officials such as Pearse, bypassing MacNeill’s official chain of command.
By now, Pearse and the Military Council were also able to use the nexus of control and influence the IRB enjoyed among nationalist organisations such as the Gaelic League and the GAA to further their designs. For example, in October 1915, Pearse visited Tralee and appointed Austin Stack, the senior IRB officer in Kerry and chairman of the Kerry GAA, as commander of the county’s Irish Volunteers. At this time, Pearse first informed Stack of the IRB’s plans for revolt and asked him to prepare a plan to help land a German arms shipment off the Kerry coast on the eve of the Rising. In preparation for this, Stack used the All-Ireland Final between Kerry and Wexford in November 1915 as cover for an operation to smuggle a sizeable consignment of rifles from Dublin in order to properly arm the local Volunteers so as to protect the planned German arms landing.
Tadgh Kennedy, a lieutenant in the Tralee Volunteers and a member of the Kerry County Board, was put in charge of a group of Volunteers ostensibly travelling as supporters to the match. The morning after the game, Kennedy’s men drove to the residence of Michael O’Rahilly, the Irish Volunteers’ director of arms, where the weapons were secured and smuggled aboard the returning supporters’ train to Tralee that evening.
Similarly British intelligence reports from Ireland warned that the Gaelic League had come under the influence of men “of extreme views”. Pearse and several of his co-conspirators were all enthusiastic Gaelic Leaguers. By 1915, members of a radical group of Irish language activists with strong IRB connections, known as “The Left Wing”, had taken control of the league’s ruling executive board.
The group included O’Rahilly, Ceannt and Thomas Ashe. All three were destined to play a prominent role in the upcoming rebellion. At its ard fheis in August 1915, they passed a resolution declaring: “The Gaelic League . . . shall devote itself to realising the ideal of a Gaelic-speaking and free Irish nation, free from all subjection to foreign influences”. This radical pledge of support for Irish sovereignty marked a definite break with the non-political policy of the league’s founder Douglas Hyde, who subsequently stepped down as president.
Meanwhile, for James Connolly the outbreak of the Great War was a watershed moment which sent him down the road of revolutionary nationalism. As a committed socialist, Connolly had believed that the working masses of Europe were on the verge of overthrowing their capitalist masters and creating a socialist golden age for European civilisation.
But such a conviction was disastrously undermined by the widespread patriotic reaction of the working class to the Great War. Out of the wreckage of his socialist beliefs, all Connolly could salvage was the idea that national liberation was now the only feasible path to a socialist society for Ireland.
Throughout 1915, Connolly and his tiny Irish Citizen Army moved closer to Pearse. The latter’s increasingly explicit talk of revolution seems to have convinced Connolly that some within the IRB were prepared to go beyond rhetoric and empty gestures. Pearse, genuinely shocked by the events of the 1913 Lockout, had afterwards shown an inclination towards cautious socialism. This gave Connolly hope that a revolution in Ireland might achieve more than simply a change of capitalists. In November 1915, Connolly was asserting that if Ireland “did not act now the name of this generation should in mercy to itself be expunged from records of Irish history”. In January 1916, Connolly and MacDonagh were the last two members to join the Military Council.
Ironically, in the autumn of 1915, the organisation which would benefit most from the IRB’s Rising, Sinn Féin, verged on obscurity. Arthur Griffith’s movement had preached a doctrine of national independence through a campaign of passive resistance and social and economic self-sufficiency.
Yet after contesting and losing a by-election in Leitrim in 1908, the movement had seemingly missed its opportunity. With the Irish Parliamentary Party’s successes in the form of the Third Home Rule Bill after 1910, Sinn Féin was cast into the political shadows. According to one Dundalk Sinn Féin activist, by 1915 the public looked upon them “as cranks and dreamers”.
But Sinn Féin would be important for what it represented, an attempt to harness the energy and idealism of cultural nationalism in a more tangible and political form. Though it had no involvement with the IRB’s planned rebellion, for a decade British authorities had casually branded radical nationalists as “Sinn Féiners”. The defeated rebels of 1916 would be labelled the same, inadvertently investing Griffith’s Sinn Féin party with a role of authority in Irish nationalism it had never achieved by itself.
Dr Richard McElligott lectures in modern Irish history in UCD. His study of the role of the GAA in the 1916 Rising was published in October in The GAA and Revolution in Ireland: 1913-1923, edited by Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh and published by the Collins Press