Walk down O’Connell Street in Dublin today, and you’d never guess that only 100 years earlier it was the setting for some of the biggest and bloodiest battles of the Easter Rising. Then known as Sackville Street, it has always been Dublin’s most important and busy public roadway. During the earliest days of the Rising, the Republican rebels took up strategic positions along the street to disrupt the advance of arriving British reinforcements.
The rebellion seemed doomed to failure before the Rising took place. The operation was far from spontaneous. Plans had commenced about two years earlier, with Imperial Germany hoping to gain an ally on Britain’s doorstep (and also providing a handy distraction for Germany to take advantage of). A large-scale military insurgency campaign was devised, that would have taken place across the nation, liberating Ireland from 700 years of brutal occupation and injustice.
With the arms confiscated and the rebels ill equipped to carry out their mission, the Easter Rising ought to have been cancelled and rescheduled, as indeed it was in most of the country. In Dublin, however, it would seem that the leaders had exhausted their patience. A “now or never” mentality apparently came over them. Determined to see a free Ireland during their own lifetimes, they had been frustrated and delayed for too long.
At the time, with many British troops already committed to the war in Europe, Dublin was only lightly garrisoned, the rebels in Dublin were sufficiently well armed and they outnumbered the British troops. It is possible that they reasoned a decisive assault and victory in Dublin, which was by no means impossible, that could have led to a domino effect throughout the rest of Ireland. A victory would also have provided a landing point for German reinforcements and the establishment of German military bases.
An impromptu headquarters for the rebel forces was set up in the GPO, and the key strategic objectives were to hold the bridge, take the castle, and generally harass the troops while they were still relatively unprepared for hostilities.
In theory it was a good plan, however in practice it turned out that the rebels had made some serious miscalculations. The first and most important of these was the speed and volume with which the British were able to reinforce the marginal force estimated at under 500 men at the start of the Rising to nearly 16,000 by the end of it.
The second and more horrific is the willingness—nay, even relish—with which the British were prepared to turn their cannons and machine guns against civilians, including unarmed women and children.
The third mistake, perhaps understandable due to the prevalence of spies and informers, was not giving any warning of the intended actions to civilians. Consequently many civilians were unsure if they were being liberated by freedom fighters or attacked by bandits.
For all their bravery and good planning, the rebels were not professional soldiers, and lacked the discipline instilled by professional training. When the civilian population (still in a state of confusion) were uncooperative or even hostile, the rebels sometimes responded inappropriately, with tragic consequences that diminished support even further during the vital first two days of the conflict.
The force deployed to hold the bridge at first proved effective in keeping reinforcements at bay. As supplies began to diminish, with more and more reinforcements arriving, it became impossible to hold out. The remnants of that force had no choice but to fall back towards the GPO. The British troops, now able to advance virtually unopposed, could have easily taken the city back. By this time they outnumbered the rebels by almost 20 to 1, and had a clear advantage in terms of weaponry as well.
They chose instead to unleash an unholy barrage of shelling around the area of the GPO, without regard to the harm inflicted upon civilians and their property. Indeed this was what prompted the unconditional surrender of the rebel leaders, as they could not bear the agony of seeing so much wanton destruction being ravaged against their fair city without reason.
The smaller forces that had been deployed around the city were successful in creating diversions and ambushing British patrols that had been sent out to investigate the commotion. Meanwhile the main force that had been sent forward with the intention of taking Dublin Castle was also eventually routed, as they lacked the weapons and personnel required to lay siege to a fortified position.
A difficult mission to begin with, the only real hope for success lay in taking full advantage of the element of surprise. It could have worked if the local civilians had been aware of the intended actions and supported them. Instead, while the rebels had managed to effectively protect their secret plans, it was a policy that would turn out to be counter-productive, as many of the local population actually hindered their progress toward the castle, allowing the garrison time to prepare defences.
Once the waves of British reinforcements were finally able to get past the bridge defenders, the majority of rebels were driven back to O’Connell Street, which bore the brunt of British retaliation. The pride of Dublin, the fine shops and houses of O’Connell Street, absorbed massive punishment from British artillery and the resulting fires that broke out.
With the GPO threatening to collapse around their ears, the leaders withdrew from the building and hastily sent a message of surrender to the British, in order to spare further harm to the civilians, whom it was by now clear the British were prepared to slaughter on a wholesale basis.
This noble act of gallantry by the leaders of the Rising was a singular turning point in the tide of British fortune in Ireland, due to the inept response. The rebels had actually done everything right. Establishing a provisional government, raising a flag, declaring war, and not attempting to pass themselves off as civilians. Apart from a few isolated incidents, nothing they had done was against the rules of warfare.
By sharp contrast, the British had perpetrated multiple war crimes during the fighting, and with the typical arrogance of colonial occupation forces, decided to teach the insurgents a lesson by committing an even more scandalous war crime post-combat.
This action consisted of executing the entire self-proclaimed Provisional Government, with the exception of Eamon DeValera, who was spared only because he was technically an American citizen. In doing this, the British made martyrs of their captives, not an especially clever move in a predominately Catholic country.
The deaths of those 16 leaders, including Patrick Pearse and James Connolly, would prove catalytic in rousing the Irish out of passivity. Inspired by the heroism of the small band of men who dared to go head-to-head against an empire during the Easter Rising, within the next five years nearly all of Ireland would be free from British rule.
The martyrs of the Easter Rising undoubtedly lost the battle they fought, but with the sacrifice of their lives, they secured victory in the war for freedom of the Irish people.