Frontline volume 2, issue 1.

The Easter Rising 100 Years On

On the centenary of this great event, Bill Bonnar remembers the Easter Rising of 1916.

In November 1918, Sinn Fein won a landslide victory in the Irish general election. Ireland at that time was a British colony in all but name although could send MPs to Westminster. Winning a majority in 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties they immediately sued for independence. What followed was a British Government refusal to recognise the result, three years of armed struggle by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secret deal between the government and unionists in six out of the eight Ulster counties, a civil war between republicans and the ultimate division of the country between the independent Free State in the South and Northern Ireland. All of these momentous events began with the Easter Rising in Dublin in April 1916. In fact, as was stated by Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, at the recent anniversary commemoration, the origin of the modern Irish state can be located in the events of 90 years ago.

Republican Traditions

Just as the Easter Rising had consequences which shaped and continue to shape Ireland today, (e.g. Bertie Ahern’s Fianna Fail party being the heir to the anti-treaty forces which lost the civil war) its origins are in the years up to and during the First World War and in the much older traditions of Irish Republicanism.

The weight, some might say burden, of that tradition was a key factor for those who took part in the Easter Rising. That tradition would have it that each and every generation had struck its own blow for Irish Independence. In 1798, the United Irishmen organisation, led by the Protestant Wolf Tone and with significant support among Ulster Protestants, staged an armed uprising which, although defeated, cemented their place among the heroes of Irish history. Their struggle is still commemorated today. Future actions by organisations like the Land Leagues and the Fenian Brotherhood provided both inspiration and a blueprint for action. Their activities centred on two ideas: that the British occupation of Ireland was immoral, illegal and only sustained by force, and that it was the duty of Irish people to resist that occupation, by force if necessary. At the same time the Irish people had been cowed into accepting British rule and needed to be awoken from their long sleep. This could be done through the courageous actions of principled men heroically battling against overwhelming odds in the name of freedom. In the words of one republican song, ‘and righteous men will make our land a nation once again’. Such actions would provoke a British reaction, exposing the true nature of its colonial rule, and light a fire under the Irish people which would not be extinguished until Ireland was free. For those who took part in the Easter Rising, those earlier struggles were both an inspiration and responsibility. It was their turn.

Another factor had a major impact on the politics around the Easter Rising. In the early part of the 20th century Ireland saw an explosion of working class struggle with few parallels in Europe. In 1913, Dublin was gripped by intense industrial action and a lockout by employers attempting to destroy the emerging Irish labour movement. This movement centred on the Irish Transport & General Workers Union led by Jim Larkin and James Connolly. This mass organisation was led by two self-proclaimed revolutionaries and developed its own military wing, the Irish Citizens Army. This speaks volumes for the level of political consciousness of significant sections of the Irish working class. Equally significant is the fact that Connolly emerged as the key leader of the uprising and that the Citizens Army fully participated in the struggle. It was an early example of the coming together of a national movement and a movement for socialism that would later find echo in such places as Vietnam and Cuba.

War and Independence

A third factor was that the uprising took place during the First World War. The war had a profound effect on both Irish nationalists and socialists. The Home Rule movement that had made promis