1916 for outsiders: Everything you have ever wanted to know

Is this like your Fourth of July, or Bastille Day? Did the rebels really think they could win?

Here is everything you have wanted to know about the 1916 Easter Rising but have been afraid to ask.

Q: So is this like your Fourth of July, or Bastille Day?

A: Something similar, yes.

Q: But I don’t notice any fireworks?


A: No. We're still working through the consequences of the Rising, which included a civil war and - indirectly - the more recent troubles in Northern Ireland, where a majority didn't want independence from Britain, in 1916 or now. So there's still some sensitivity about commemorating the rebellion. Triumphalism is not considered appropriate.

Q: Is it more like the situation in India and Pakistan, which both won freedom on the same day but with a partition most people didn’t want, leading to much bloodshed, and an arrangement whereby the two countries now celebrate independence on August 14th and 15th, just to be different?

A: That’s probably a closer parallel, yes.

Q: How many people took part in the Rising?

A: About 1,400, with just over a third of those in rebel headquarters: the General Post Office. Of course, it soon became fashionable to imply that you had been “out” in 1916, especially in the vicinity of the GPO. But the joke, often, was that if you had been, it was only to buy stamps.

Q: Why did the rebels base themselves in a post office, anyway? Why not Dublin Castle ?

A: They did try to take the castle. And it was very poorly guarded, so a more concerted effort might have succeeded. But the GPO, while harder to defend, was more photogenic than the castle, which may have been a factor. There were a lot of playwrights and actors among the rebels, with a sense of the dramatic. They were staging a rebellion in more ways than one. The GPO and O’Connell Street made an impressive set for the world’s media.

Q: I’ve often heard that Patrick Pearse read the proclamation of a Republic “on the steps of the GPO”. But I don’t see steps there now. What happened to them?

A: There never were any steps. That’s just an expression. The post office was unusually accessible for a building of its time.

Q: Did the rebels really think they could win?

A: There were some vague hopes that the country in general would rise. But the lack of guns and outside support doomed the enterprise to failure, at least in the short term, and they knew that. It’s said the mood in the GPO was a mixture of exhilaration and pessimism. Most people thought it would be all over in a day. They were astonished to hold out for a week, which was long enough to have made the Republic a fact.

Q: Most of the casualties were civilians. Why?

A: Because the fighting was concentrated in a heavily populated city centre, and because the locals moved among it with a disregard for their safety that amazed combatants from both sides. There was also much more looting than anyone expected. It's probably relevant to note that, while Dublin was the second city of the British Empire, it also had some of the worst urban poverty in Europe. Life was officially cheap, and for many, the chance of a windfall from a shop window outweighed the risk of death or injury.

Q: By the end of Easter Week, the city centre had been largely destroyed by British shelling and the resultant fires. Was that necessary?

A: Hardly. Nobody was more surprised than James Connolly, the socialist leader in the GPO. He couldn't believe capitalists would treat property with such disregard. Another leftie, George Bernard Shaw, one of many Irishman watching events from exile, wrote afterwards: "All that was necessary was to blockade the post office until its microcosmic republic was starved out and made ridiculous. What actually happened would be incredible if there were not so many living witnesses."

Q: Would it be fair to suggest that many of the key events of Easter 1916, from the recklessness of the rebellion itself to its brutal suppression, can be understood only in the context of the war in Europe?

A: It would be absolute fair to say that. The heaviest British losses in Dublin, for example, happened when a general ordered his troops to take a small rebel position in Mount Street “at all costs”, even though they had no training in house-to-house warfare. They could have bypassed the street and dealt with it later. But after 18 months of slaughter on the continent, risking vast numbers of soldiers’ lives in pursuit of a few square metres of ground had become normal.

Q: In the immediate aftermath of Easter Week, the Irish public were extremely hostile to the rebels, right?

A: There was some hostility, certainly. But most people were just astonished at what had happened.

Q: Then the leaders were executed, and everything “changed utterly”, as Yeats said.

A: The executions were a big part of that, yes. Also the large-scale internment of suspects that followed, which radicalised many who hadn’t been involved and only furthered the revolutionary education of those who had. In the meantime, the war in Europe dragged on horribly, with the threat that conscription would be extended to Ireland, sooner or later. All that made the rebellion retrospectively popular.

Q: The rebel leaders had welcomed martyrdom, right? That was part of the plan?

A: It was for Pearse, certainly; the others less so. In general, the 16 men faced death very bravely, without expressions of bitterness and often after forgiving their executioners in advance. Thomas McDonagh was said by his captors to have died "like a prince". And a General Blackader, who had chaired some of the court-martials, was so impressed by Pearse he thought there must be something wrong with a system that had led him do what he did.

Q: “Blackadder”. Seriously?

A: Only one ‘d’. But yes, he was very serious.

Q: So what happened next - briefly?

A: The rebel party won a big victory in the 1918 general election, then set up their own parliament and an underground government while simultaneously mounting a guerrilla war against British rule. Eventually there were peace talks, followed by a treaty, which compromised on the republic and partitioned the island into two self-governing units: the Free State South and a Pro-British North.

That caused a civil war, which the pro-Treaty side won, although a decade later the anti-Treatyites took power in Dublin and dismantled all the restrictions on independence with strokes of a pen, establishing a de-facto republic by the late 1930s.

Q: But Northern Ireland remained in the United Kingdom?

A: Yes, and as long as it did so, some militants considered the Republic declared in the GPO to be unfinished business. Hence the late 20th century “Troubles”, which - by coincidence or not - began soon after celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the Rising.

Q: Was that a triumphalist affair?

A: Well, it wasn’t quite as sophisticated as the event we’re having this time. There’s much more nuance to everything these days.

Q: But Ireland is a pretty peaceful country now, north and south?

A: Yes, although there are some out there who continue to think that killing fellow countrymen will advance the cause of freedom. And they still base their legitimacy on 1916. That’s why we’re so sensitive about celebrating the revolutionary past: unlike the French or Americans. It’s still too much with us.

Q: Hey, you think you have problems? We have 30,000 gun deaths ever year in the US, and Obama can’t do anything about it because the second amendment is considered sacrosanct. And you know when that was passed? 1791. We still have fireworks every Fourth of July, though.

A: Fair point.

Q: By the way, were there any other revolutions in Europe during - and partly inspired by - the first World War? And if so, how do they compare with yours?

A: Why yes, there was one in Russia in 1917. In fact, its chief architect, Lenin, had been very impressed by events in Dublin, which he correctly surmised would have a destabilising effect on the British Empire. His revolution was to be even more far-reaching, of course. But now you mention it, it hasn't aged as well as ours.

Q: So there won’t be fireworks in Moscow or St Petersburg next year?

A: It seems unlikely.

Frank McNally

Frank McNally

Frank McNally is an Irish Times journalist and chief writer of An Irish Diary