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The Easter Rising: the spark that ignited a nation

It was the afternoon of Easter Monday, April 24, 1916, when Patrick Pearse emerged from Dublin's General Post Office and declared an independent Irish nation.

Following the 1800 Acts of Union, Ireland (which had been under some form of English control since the 12th century) joined with Great Britain, forming one United Kingdom. It was a strained relationship across the Irish Sea, with resistance to Westminster present across the 19th century. This strained relationship was somewhat tempered with the passing of the 1914 Home Rule Act; a bill to give Ireland some form of self-governance. However, the outbreak of WW1 and the suspension of the bill, meant old wounds began to reopen.

Irish republicans sought complete independence, and the UK's focus on 'The Great War' coupled with the growing strength of unionism within Ireland, meant for many the time was ripe.

'It is not those who can inflict the most, but those that can suffer the most who will prevail'

Terence MacSwiney, Irish Republican who died on October 20, 1920, after a 73-day hunger strike

On April 24, 1916, rebel leaders and over 1600 followers marched on Dublin’s city centre, seizing strategic positions, including Boland's Mill and the General Post Office. Later, the General Post Office would act as the stage from which Patrick Pearse – a leader of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB)- would proclaim Irish independence.

At first, authorities struggled, outnumbered roughly four to one. But, the introduction of martial law and with it the arrival of thousands of British reinforcements meant the tide briskly turned. Street fighting broke out across Dublin, and with relatively poor resources, rebels resorted to sniping and improvised explosives. This wasn't enough. Throughout the damaged city, rebel-held posts fell one by one to the British and in just under a week, the rebellion was extinguished. On April 29, Pearse had agreed to an unconditional surrender.

Over 450 were killed (54 per cent were civilian fatalities) and over two thousand were injured. A lack of national mobilisation, an absence of public support, and a failure to control key transport routes all contributed to the rebellion's swift end. The British capture of a shipment of German arms also proved crucial. Nevertheless, the legacy of the Easter Rising is not so much rooted in its events, but rather its aftermath.

'If you strike us down, we shall rise again and renew the fight.'

Patrick Pearse, leader of the Easter Rising. Executed by firing squad May 3, 1916.

Fifteen leaders of the uprising were executed by firing squad, with over three thousand suspects arrested – the majority of whom were sent to England and imprisoned without trial. Martial law also remained until the fall of 1916. This draconian response by the British government led to growing public support for the idea of Irish independence. Moreover, ongoing losses in WW1 and the introduction of conscription fuelled a more radicalised view over the Anglo-Irish relationship which culminated in Sinn Fein – an Irish Republican Party – winning the majority of Irish seats in the 1918 general election.

In the following years, a mixture of guerrilla warfare and political campaigning paved the way to the signing of the 1921 Anglo– Irish Treaty, which called for the establishment of an Irish Free State. Six northern states chose to remain within the UK, whilst the rest made up a newfound republic; one that was formally proclaimed on April 18, 1949. 

'It (The Anglo – Irish Treaty) gives us freedom, not the ultimate freedom that all nations desire…but the freedom to achieve it.' 

Michael Collins, Irish revolutionary, and chairman of the Provisional Government of the Irish Free State. Assassinated August 22, 1922. 

The significance of the Easter Rising mustn't be understated. Whilst the uprising itself was limited, it was the first armed action during the Irish revolutionary period. From it, the oppressive nature of British rule was exposed, transforming public opinion. The idea of home rule was derailed, and republicanism became more present within the Irish people's conscience. The rebellion was a military loss, that gave way to political gains. The Easter Rising was the spark that ignited a nation. 

By Yadavan Moorthy

Yadavan Moorthy is a freelance writer from London specialising in history, and is currently contributing to HISTORY.