The Sunday Magazine·The Sunday Edition

The Triumph of Failure - Ireland 1916; How 800 years of British rule led to violent rebellion

Michael Enright explains how the Easter Rising of 1916 came after centuries of Irish discontent with British domination. And why, even though it failed - the rebels were defeated, their leaders executed - it succeeded in the end. Ireland would finally become an independent republic in 1949.
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)

The shooting began shortly after one in the afternoon of Easter Monday, April 24, 1916. The first to die - a 19-year-old Irish nurse named Margaret Keogh. She was shot by a British sniper as she tended to a wounded rebel. By the time the fighting ended that Saturday, 485 people had been killed. Most of the dead were civilians, including a number of children.

Irish Volunteers barricade Townsend Street, Dublin, to slow down the advance of troops during the Easter Rising. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The Easter Rising in Dublin 100 years ago was a disaster if understood only as a failed military engagement. But in the century since, it 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. A rag-tag but disciplined citizen army of 1,200 against  20,000 seasoned English troops.
Initially, the majority of Dubliners in those early hours were uninterested or even unaware of the rebellion. Those who knew about it were incensed that their city centre lay in fiery ruins and looters prowled the downtown streets. It was only when the British army systematically and serially executed 16 rebel leaders after show trials that the country rose up in anger and rebellion. The Rising that Easter Monday led to the War of Independence against Britain and ultimately a fateful peace treaty and  home rule. The Easter Republic lasted barely a week. The real thing wouldn't come along until 1949. Had the British stayed their hand and let the rebels live, the Rising would likely have become yet another colourful and violent footnote in Ireland's colonial history.

Henry the Eighth made the island England's first colony. Over the next few centuries, Irish Catholics saw their civil and religious rights denied and were treated like serfs in their own land. The Irish tried several times to cast off the British yoke ... in 1798, with an aborted invasion by the French, and again in 1803. There was an attempted revolution in 1848. All ended in failure.

The potato famine of the 1840s inflamed Irish nationalism. A million people starved to death. A million more left Ireland, many of them immigrating to Canada. Irish men and women, both at home and in the Irish Diaspora, felt that Britain was not only indifferent to their plight, but actively supported the further oppression of a broken people. Secret nationalist societies sprang up, such as the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the Fenian Society, which promoted independence through violence. Scattered throughout the bloody pages of that history are the names of heroes like Daniel O'Connell and martyrs like Robert Emmett.

Late in the 19th Century, the Irish Parliamentary party worked at Westminster for Home Rule - long discussed by the British government. And discussed and discussed some more. The Rising of 1916 erupted against the backdrop of the First World War. England lost interest in Home Rule ... it wanted young Irish recruits to fight Kaiser Bill on the Western Front of Europe. At least 200,000 served. About 50,000 died for England's cause.

Ireland is a republic of the imagination, an island of mists and myths, fed and restored by the tide pools of its history. We have come here to Dublin to decode those myths and mysteries, unlock the true meaning of the Rising and to take the measure of Ireland 100 years on. Dublin a hundred years later struggles with all the tensions and turmoil of any modern Western metropolis. The city has soup kitchens and homeless people ... drugs and gangland shootings ... house prices beyond the reach of young people. And at the  core of its culture and its politics, the burden of its history.

In the next two hours, we will visit the sacred places of the Rising - the General Post Office where it began; Kilmainham Jail where the rebel leaders were executed; Glasnevin Cemetery where the patriots of other rebellions are buried. 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. Utterly.

In the words of Ireland's greatest poet, a terrible beauty was born.

  

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