(The WAR to DECEMBER 1916 – continued)

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Rebellion in Ireland, 1916

At the beginning of the twentieth century, England still ruled the whole of Ireland – a rule dating back to the Henry II, who had begun exacting submission from Irish kings and lords in 1171. Into the twentieth century, England's more liberal politicians considered autonomy for the Irish – which they called Home Rule. Under Home Rule it was planned that Britain would continue to maintain control over foreign affairs and related military matters. In 1903, England's conservatives, opposed to autonomy for the Irish, passed a land reform law for Ireland, hoping this would delay or prevent Home Rule. Land reform helped appease the Irish and helped make Ireland a land of small farm owners – similar to France.

In 1911, the power of Britain's conservative House of Lords was reduced, increasing the hope for passage of a Home Rule law. A new Home Rule bill was introduced in 1912. And the question whether Ireland's five northern largely Protestant counties should remain as a part of autonomous Ireland brought Ireland to the verge of a civil war between Protestants and Catholics – the Protestants favoring continued union with Britain.

When the Great War erupted in August 1914, the issue of autonomy for Ireland was postponed. And with the English talking of fighting for the freedom of Belgium, a minority among those wanting self-determination for Ireland saw the war as an opportune time to strike for total independence. The war between Britain and Germany began with Ireland's Protestants and a majority of its Catholics supporting Britain against Germany. Ireland's Catholics had often been recruited into Britain's armies, and the British recruited about 200,000 Irish volunteers, who were dispersed in Britain's military units.

One of those opposed to the Irish fighting on the side of the British was Roger Casement, a knighted Irish nationalist who had done service as an investigator for British diplomacy. Just after war broke out in Europe, Casement was in the United States seeking aid for an Irish rebel force called the Irish National Volunteers. In September 1914, Casement met with the Germany's military attaché in Washington, and in November he journeyed to Berlin and tried to set up an Irish brigade among those Irish whom the Germans had captured as prisoners of war. He imagined Germany fighting for the small nation of Ireland just as Britain was posing as fighting for little Belgium. He advocated Germany landing his rebel force in Ireland. And, with some others, Casement planned an uprising that was to occur on Easter, 24 April 1916, to be known as the Easter Rising.

Casement's major problem was the number of men who were willing to take up arms. He considered most of the two thousand Irish prisoners he was training in a German camp as unreliable. Among them he recruited only fifty-five for the landing in Ireland. He tried also to recruit some Irish-Americans for his landing, but only one American volunteered.

In January 1916, the prospects for Casement's cause increased slightly when Britain began conscripting men, including the Irish, for its military. Conscription created unrest in Catholic Ireland. But the prospects of success dimmed again for Casement as Germany decided against backing Casement's expedition, and the Germans withheld the loan to Casement which he needed to finance his plans. The Germans did give Casement transportation to Ireland in one of their submarines, and the Germans were giving Casement's force 20,000 obsolete rifles and a million rounds of ammunition, shipped on a small merchant ship, the Aud, which was flying a Dutch flag. British intelligence knew what Casement was doing, and it knew about the Aud. The British intercepted the ship. On April 21, Casement debarked from the German submarine in a rubber raft and sneaked ashore, Casement wishing to warn his fellow conspirators in Ireland the limits in men that he was bringing.

Those in Ireland who had been planning the uprising with Casement belonged to an organization called the Republican Brotherhood. They had been drilling with mock attacks on buildings, believing that their rising in Dublin would consist of 5,000 men. They hoped that their action would inspire a mass uprising across Ireland, and they believed it was possible that Germany would come to their support with troops once the rebellion got underway, should they need it.

In the final hours before the rising, one of the leaders of the revolt was overcome with doubt, and he withdrew himself and his men from the plan. Instead of 5,000 men, only about 1,000 showed up for the action. They seized Dublin's post office, courts of law, and several other locations. From the steps of the post office they declared Ireland to be an independent republic. People looked at them without enthusiasm. Some expressed hostility. The people of Dublin failed to rise as the rebels had expected.

It was in Britain's interest to offend as few of the Irish as possible and to let the rebellion fade away. Instead, the English applied a wild and imprecise force. The British ship Huelga sailed up the Liffey River and began shelling the rebel headquarters. The shelling killed civilians, and Dublin began to burn. British forces in search of rebels had three Irish journalists shot, which they excused on the grounds that they had been trying to escape after having been captured. Shipments of food to Dublin were cut off. Around 5,000 British soldiers with armored cars began moving into the city, and they were supported by more artillery fire. British soldiers high on emotion, fearful of the people they were ordered to subdue and not properly restrained by their officers, are reported to have gone on a rampage, including bayoneting and shooting civilians hiding in cellars.

Casement was captured on the second day of the uprising. As many as 220 civilians had died in crossfire and artillery attacks, and 134 British soldiers and police had died. Six days after the uprising had begun, the rebels surrendered. The following day the rebels were marched across the city on their way to prison. A few Irish onlookers jeered them. Casement's rising appeared to be a total failure. England court-martialed and speedily executed fifteen of the rebellion's leaders. The US citizen among the rebels – a mathematician – was spared. Roger Casement was tried and sentenced to death. Opposition to his execution spread, especially in the United States. In response, British intelligence circulated what were represented as his diaries, which described homosexual practices. And Casement was hanged in London on August 3rd.

To many Irish Catholics it appeared that the executed rebels had made a blood sacrifice for Irish independence. The British government made matters worse for itself by cracking down on those they suspected of sympathizing with the rebellion. British authorities arrested approximately 3,500 Irish, including 80 women. The British had accomplished for the rebels what the rebels had not: people across Ireland swung from opposition to the uprising to opposition to British authority. Those who had been arrested were marched to the ships that were to take them to English prisons, and along the way crowds cheered the prisoners. Priests blessed them, and women broke through police lines and thrust presents into their hands.

British actions aroused the Irish in the United States. There an Irish relief fund was opened, with archbishops and bishops among its patrons, and politicians were unwilling to alienate the Irish-America vote. Woodrow Wilson was campaigning in 1916 for his second term as president, and national sovereignty and the right to self-determination of all nations were planks in his election platform – with Ireland in mind. The response in the United States led the British government to reconsider its policy toward the Irish. By now, Britain's 1916 offensives in France were proving a horrible failure and the British government was beginning to think that without US support winning the war might not be possible. In December, 1916, David Lloyd-George became Britain's prime minister, and he looked forward to the United States entering the war as an ally. One of his first acts as Prime Minister was to order the immediate release of those Irish who had recently been imprisoned. The released prisoners were welcomed home to Ireland as heroes. And Britain's hold on Ireland remained precarious.

Copyright © 1998-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.