Easter Rising: Uneasy calm before the storm

The days before the 1916 Easter Rising were marked by disagreement and uncertainty over whether a rebellion would take place

An ordinary day: Sackville Street, now O’Connell Street, with the GPO on the left and Nelson’s Pillar,  before the Easter Rising.

An ordinary day: Sackville Street, now O’Connell Street, with the GPO on the left and Nelson’s Pillar, before the Easter Rising.


Sunday, April 23rd, 1916

  • Manoeuvres by the Irish Volunteers and the Citizen Army, planned as a cover for the beginning of the rising, are cancelled by the Volunteer chief of staff, Eoin MacNeill. 
  • Large numbers of rebels gather in Dublin and around the country, but there is deep confusion about what is to happen. 
  • The rebel leaders decide to postpone the Rising until noon on Monday. 
  • Explosives are stolen by the rebels and stored in Liberty Hall. 
  • The authorities discuss a plan to raid Liberty Hall and arrest and deport the rebel leaders, but decide to put off action until Monday at the earliest. 
  • On the western front, the Battle of Verdun, which has been raging since late February, is now in its third bloody phase, with the French army trying to hold off another massive German offensive. By mid-December, when the battle ends with no advantage gained by either side, there will be almost a million casualties, half of them fatal. 


The prelude

On the night of July 25th, 1914, Andy O’Neill, a constable in the Dublin Metropolitan Police, had a strange dream. “I dreamed,” he told his colleague Patrick Bermingham, “that there were a lot of women praying for me in the sacristy of the chapel and I could see a stream of blood running down the street.” Bermingham remembered O’Neill’s dream for a long time after. “It was peculiar,” he recalled, “that on that same day blood was spilt and was flowing down the street in Bachelors Walk.”

Three months earlier the Ulster Volunteer Force, which had vowed to fight home rule by all means necessary, had landed nearly 50,000 rifles and three million rounds of ammunition in Larne, Co Antrim, and Bangor and Donaghadee in Co Down. In response the nationalist National Volunteers ran 900 German Mauser rifles and 29,000 rounds of ammunition into Howth on July 26th, 1914.

As the authorities had turned a blind eye to the UVF’s gun-running it seemed likely they would do the same in Dublin. Instead troops of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, who had been sent to Howth in a failed attempt to stop the landing, were jeered and stoned by a crowd on Bachelors Walk as they made their way back into the city.

They opened fire and killed four people. It was the first sign that the conflict over Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom, which had so long been conducted within the realms of parliamentary politics, could cause blood to flow on the streets.

Within days a far greater bloodletting had begun. The outbreak of the first World War at first put Ireland’s internal troubles in the shade. The Home Rule Act – formally the Government of Ireland Act 1914 – which was to create an all-Ireland parliament, was suspended until the end of hostilities.

The Ulster Unionist leader Edward Carson offered the UVF for service in the war, and much of it was eventually incorporated into the 36th Ulster Division of the British army. The Irish Parliamentary Party leader, John Redmond, matched the offer and urged members of the Irish Volunteers to serve in the British army “wherever the firing line extends”.

When a more militant minority distanced itself from Redmond’s line and protested that “Ireland cannot, with honour or safety, take part in foreign quarrels otherwise than through the free action of a national government of her own”, the movement split.

The vast majority of its 188,000 members, who renamed themselves the National Volunteers, stayed loyal to Redmond. British intelligence estimated that just 13,500 went with the militant faction (which kept the Irish Volunteers name) led by Eoin MacNeill, its president and chief of staff, Bulmer Hobson, Michael O’Rahilly, Patrick Pearse, Thomas McDonagh, Joseph Plunkett, Piaras Beaslaí, Eamonn Ceannt, Seán Mac Diarmada and Liam Mellows – and that may have been an exaggeration of its strength.

By early 1916 about 146,000 Irishmen were fighting in the first World War. At most the Irish Volunteers had 15,000 members, and within that minority was another minority: the 2,000 or so members of the secret, oathbound Irish Republican Brotherhood, effectively controlled by veteran nationalist Tom Clarke and committed to staging a rebellion before the end of the war.

There were also among the potential militants about 250 members of the Irish Citizen Army, initially formed during the labour conflict of 1913 as a workers’ defence force but now, under James Connolly, increasingly committed to a nationalist uprising. By January 1916 both the IRB and the Citizen Army had determined on a joint rebellion at Easter.

Most of the leadership of the Irish Volunteers remained convinced, however, that a rising without significant aid from Germany would be folly. The militants had to deceive their own official leader, Eoin MacNeill. MacNeill’s position was that the Volunteers should resist, by force if necessary, any attempt to disarm them but that aggressive action could not be contemplated unless it had a real chance of success.

On April 5th Patrick Pearse met MacNeill and “explicitly repudiated the suggestion that he or his friends contemplated insurrection”. A few days later MacNeill again confronted Pearse, who now confirmed that a rising was imminent and that the Volunteers had long been under the secret control of the IRB.

MacNeill then issued a command to the Volunteers that “all orders of a special character issued by Commandant Pearse with regard to military movements of a definite kind” were “hereby recalled or cancelled”. He wavered during Holy Week, believing that Roger Casement’s arms shipment from Germany would arrive and that some kind of defensive manoeuvre by the Volunteers might be necessary.

When the news came that Casement’s expedition had failed, he decided he had to act to prevent manoeuvres that had been scheduled for Easter Sunday, and that he now realised were a cover for the Rising.

Late on Easter Saturday he went to the office of the Irish Independent newspaper to place an order that “no parades, marches or other movements of the Irish Volunteers will take place”. On Sunday Michael O’Rahilly drove south to take MacNeill’s orders to the Munster units of the Volunteers.

The rebels

Helena Molony, the official owner of James Connolly’s newspaper, the Workers’ Republic, had been waiting for something to happen. For months she had been reading the cautious pronouncements of Eoin MacNeill and his ally Bulmer Hobson with disdain.

“We were to be cautious, we must not play the enemy’s game, we must have no more forlorn hopes, ‘our children’s children would vindicate Ireland’s right to freedom’, etc, etc. This provoked a storm of angry sarcasm, at least from us women. Our unfortunate young men friends were greeted with, ‘Hello, here come the leaders of posterity. How were they when you saw them last?’ or, ‘Are your children’s children punctual at their drill?’” Mary Perolz – a Citizen Army stalwart – “dubbed them the ‘fan go fóills’ ” – wait-a-whiles – “which name became general”.

Molony was at Liberty Hall, the headquarters of the Citizen Army, on Easter Sunday morning. “I saw Eoin MacNeill’s countermanding order in the paper and heard the discussion in Liberty Hall. Connolly was there. They were all heartbroken, and when they were not crying they were cursing. I kept thinking, Does this mean that we are not going out? There were thousands like us . . . Many of us thought we would go out single-handed, if necessary.”

Robert Holland, who was in the fourth battalion of the Dublin brigade of the Volunteers, had held a meeting with his father and his three brothers on Saturday night.

They had received the order to mobilise the next day, which they understood to mean that the Rising was going to happen. Holland’s eldest brother, Frank, proposed that the three brothers should go but that their father should stay.

“He pointed out that my mother was a cripple and we had a young sister then about seven years of age. My father kicked up a row about this decision, and said he had spent all his life both in the Fenians and the IRB and that he would go out whether we went out or not.”

At 6am on Sunday Holland’s commander, Con Colbert, called to his house and told him “the mobilisation was off pro tem” – for the time being – “but I was to mobilise all the men, telling them to stay in their own homes”. Holland spent the rest of the day, until the early evening, passing on Colbert’s instructions to the rest of the battalion. He himself was unsure about what was to happen. “I knew by Sunday morning’s paper that the general mobilisation was cancelled, but a number of us were in doubt about it being permanent, as we expected that a leakage of our intentions would get out and the press would be against us.”

In the evening Colbert went to a céilí at the Donore Avenue branch of the Gaelic League. He left at 10.30pm and went home to bed, still unsure what morning would bring.

Oscar Traynor, an officer in the second battalion of the Volunteers, met his commandant, Thomas MacDonagh, and fellow officers on Easter Saturday. MacDonagh, “without telling us in actual words that we would be getting into action on the morrow, made it clear that we were going out on something very much more important than . . . manoeuvres”.

MacDonagh asked if he could stay in Traynor’s house that evening, and Traynor replied that it would be an honour. Then he suddenly remembered something. “I said to him, ‘By the way, while I would be delighted to have you in our house, I should mention that our next-door neighbour is a policeman.’ MacDonagh immediately said, ‘That finishes that.’ ”

Later that evening Traynor discussed the situation with another officer, Frank Henderson, who told him there would be a full-scale insurrection the next day but that “‘there is a split, that our headquarters staff are divided on the question . . . and it may be necessary to arrest some members of the staff’. I said that that was an extraordinary state of affairs, and asked him if he knew what Pearse’s attitude was. He told me that Pearse was strongly in favour of the insurrection. I said: ‘That’s good enough for me.’ ”

In the morning Traynor and his close friend Robert Gilligan went to Gilligan’s home to collect his military equipment. On their way they bought a Sunday Independent and “were astonished to find what appeared to be a countermanding order for the Easter manoeuvre. Gilligan said to me, ‘What does this mean? Does it mean that we are divided again?’”

The men carried on nonetheless to Father Mathew Park in Fairview, which was being used as an assembly point for the northside of Dublin. They found “a state bordering on chaos there. Volunteers were coming and going, and there seemed to be doubt in the minds of most of us as to what was to be done.”

Eventually it was agreed that the men would go home but be ready to mobilise again the next day. The large quantities of arms and explosives that had been brought to the park were left overnight, under guard in a pavilion.

Similar scenes were unfolding across the country. In Co Cork, for example, more than 1,000 men assembled across the county, most hanging around in pouring rain until the early evening and then disbanding.

Áine Ceannt, wife of Eamonn Ceannt, had gone to bed at midnight on the night of Easter Saturday, having two hours earlier seen her husband off to prepare for the Rising. At 2.30am on Easter Sunday Ceannt arrived back, carrying all his military equipment. “I was astounded, but he merely remarked, ‘MacNeill has ruined us – he has stopped the Rising.’ ”

Ceannt left again. He called to Liberty Hall, to talk to Connolly, and to the Metropole Hotel, where Joseph Plunkett was staying, but both were asleep and could not be disturbed. He went home again. Áine gave him some hot milk, and he lay down on his bed, saying, “If I sleep now I would sleep on dynamite.”

But he did sleep. When, at 7am on Sunday, a message came for him from Liberty Hall, Áine Ceannt decided not to wake him. Shortly afterwards Liam Mellows’s wife called on her way to Mass. “I told her we were in great trouble and to pray hard.”

As the morning wore on the members of Ceannt’s fourth battalion began to arrive, looking for explanations about the countermanding order. Ceannt had, in the meantime, woken and gone down to Liberty Hall, so Áine suggested that the men wait for him to return. “Soon our drawing room was uncomfortably filled and the bicycles were stacked four deep in the front garden. To pass the time they asked Capt Douglas ffrench Mullen, who was a fine pianist, to play for them, which he did – and amongst the airs he chose was The Dead March.”

In the evening, after he had returned from consultations with the other rebel leaders, Ceannt retired to the front room to fill out forms. When his wife asked if she could help he gave her a bundle of papers to fill out. They were mobilisation orders, commanding his company to assemble again on Easter Monday. The decision had been taken, in spite of the setbacks of the previous days, to go ahead with the rebellion.

The authorities

For the day-to-day rulers of Ireland – the chief secretary, Augustine Birrell, and the under-secretary, Sir Matthew Nathan – the most pressing issue was the recruitment of Irish soldiers to the war effort.

They knew very well that the Irish Volunteers and the Citizen Army were committed, at least in principle, to an uprising, but they also feared that any attempt to disarm them could lead to bloodshed and undermine nationalist support for the war. “Action against these Volunteers,” Nathan said, “would have resulted in the alienation of the great bulk of the Irish people, which was not in favour of these people.” They were also inured to the sight of military displays.

Even when, in October 1915, the Citizen Army under James Connolly and Constance Markievicz staged what seemed to some a mock attack on Dublin Castle, Nathan’s response was phlegmatic: “Of course, we were accustomed to all sorts of operations in Ireland.”

Birrell also felt that it would be impossible to disarm the Irish Volunteers without also taking action against the Redmondite National Volunteers and the Ulster Volunteers.

“The misery of the whole thing was this: you had armed bodies of Volunteers all over the place . . . and if you could have got disarmament all round it would have been a blessing, but to disarm any one section of the population on the evidence that we had appeared to me to be a very dangerous and doubtful proposition.”

Birrell was, nevertheless, increasingly anxious. He felt that “Ireland lives under the microscope” and that the daily intelligence reports that flowed into Dublin Castle gave a good picture of the political situation. He also read the signs of the Dublin streets: “The impression I got, walking around the streets, was that Sinn Féinism was in a certain sense in possession.”

Birrell was not in Dublin at Easter. He had gone to London for a cabinet meeting and decided to stay for the holiday period. He left even though Dublin Castle had received intelligence on April 18th that a ship accompanied by two German submarines and carrying arms was heading for Ireland and that a rising was planned for Easter Saturday.

The intelligence came with a warning that it might not be accurate, but as the first part of it proved to be true it might have been logical to assume that a rising really was imminent. Instead the news of the capture of Roger Casement, which reached Dublin Castle on the evening of Friday, April 21st, created an assumption that, if a rising really was planned, it would not now go ahead. The army commander, Major Gen LB Friend, decamped to London for the long weekend on Friday evening after hearing of Casement’s arrest. He called in to the war office – now the ministry of defence – in London on Saturday morning and was told of the scuttling of the arms ship. “I was in touch with the Irish headquarters, and I waited, of course, on Saturday to hear of anything likely to occur.”

No military preparations were put in place: in Dublin just 400 troops were in a state of “immediate readiness”. At Dublin Castle the guard consisted of just six soldiers, with about 20 in the nearby Ship Street barracks. Many officers were given weekend leave; lots of those in Dublin planned to attend the races at Fairyhouse on Monday. No special orders were issued for dealing with the planned Volunteer manoeuvres on Easter Sunday.

On Easter Sunday, however, Nathan and the lord lieutenant, Lord Wimborne, learned that five 50lb cases of dynamite had been stolen from a quarry at Brittas, Co Wicklow, that morning and that the police believed the explosives had been taken to Liberty Hall. Wimborne and Nathan discussed the situation with military and police officials at the Viceregal Lodge – now Áras an Uachtaráin – in Phoenix Park, with Wimborne urging an immediate raid on Liberty Hall and the arrest and deportation of the militant leaders.

Maj Ivor Price of the Royal Irish Constabulary recalled that Wimborne “wanted to rush Liberty Hall for the purpose of getting back the 250lbs of dynamite. The proposal was that 100 soldiers and 100 policemen should rush the hall.”

But Price argued that “the leaders would not be there. Probably 100 lives would have been lost, and then the press would come down and say, ‘Nothing was going to happen; you should not have interfered with them; it is Bachelors Walk again’.”

Wimborne eventually agreed that the operation should be postponed at least until Monday, when the leaders would probably be at Liberty Hall and the military could be properly prepared.

“It was no good to stir up the hornet’s nest,” he concluded, “unless they could capture the hornets.”

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