Tuesday April 04, 2017

Ireland 1916: how 800 years of British rule led to violent rebellion

Soldiers inspect the interior of Dublin's General Post Office, viewing the complete destruction of the building after being shelled by the British during the Easter Rising 1916.

Soldiers inspect the interior of Dublin's General Post Office, viewing the complete destruction of the building after being shelled by the British during the Easter Rising 1916. (Getty Images)

Listen to Full Episode 53:59

On Easter Monday, April 24, 1916, the streets of Dublin were transformed into a war zone. About 1,200 Irish rebels rose up against 20,000 British troops in a doomed attempt to throw off centuries of British colonial rule. The Easter Rising may have failed in that moment, but the brutality of the British response so disgusted and angered the people of Ireland that Irish independence became inevitable. On this edition of The Enright Files, we revisit some highlights of a two-hour special commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising last year.

The first to die in the rebellions was a 19-year-old Irish nurse named Margaret Keogh. Shot by a British sniper as she tended to a wounded rebel. As the week went on, ordinary men and women heard machine gun and cannon fire, saw bullet-riddled bodies lying in the streets, and watched in anger as their city centre was reduced to fiery ruins and looters trashed their favourite shopping areas.

Relatively few Dubliners really understood what was happening or what the Rising was about. Most, it seems, were indifferent to the cause, or outright opposed to it. By the time the fighting ended the following Saturday, 485 people had been killed. Most of the dead were civilians, including a number of children.
The Irish Republic, declared just five days earlier by rebel leader Patrick Pearse, was dead. For now. Had the British stayed their hand and let the vanquished rebels live, the Easter Rising would likely have become yet another colourful and violent footnote in Ireland's colonial history.

But the British army systematically executed 15 rebel leaders, one by one, after show trials in the days that followed. In the most infamous case, the British took the badly wounded rebel James Connolly from his hospital bed, tied him to a chair at Kilmainham Jail, and executed him by firing squad. 

It was the methodical brutality displayed by the British that finally roused the Irish at large to anger and rebellion, even those who had been against the Rising.

The Easter Rising in Dublin 100 years ago was a disaster if understood only as a failed military engagement.
In the century since, The Easter Rising has come to be remembered and celebrated as a moment of national sacrifice by a handful of doomed patriots who dared challenge the mightiest empire on earth after centuries of British colonial rule. 

It would lead to the War of Independence against Britain, a fateful peace treaty and home rule, and by 1949, to the Republic of Ireland.

Whether it was a military fiasco or whether it pierced the 800-year darkness of British oppression, the Rising of Easter Week 1916 changed everything. In the words of Wiliam Butler Yeats, the unofficial poet laureate of the Rising, a terrible beauty was born.

Guests in this episode:

  • Patrick Geoghegan --  historian at Trinity College Dublin. He is also the author of The Irish Act of Union and Robert Emmet: A Life and is the presenter of the award-winning radio programme, Talking History
  • Declan Kiberd -- cultural historian and literary scholar. He currently teaches Irish Studies at Notre Dame University in Indiana. Among Professor Kiberd's many books is the award-winning, Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation.
  • Senator David Norris -- Irish politician and gay rights activist.
  • Tara Flynn -- satirist, writer and pro-choice activist.

** The Enright Files is produced by Chris Wodskou.