The Rising that shook the world

Eoin Hahessy

Pause and think of life in 1916. A world two years etched into a weary world war. The one superpower being challenged as it grappled to assert its influence across its Empire. A social struggle, as a heaving mass of working class resentment and frustration simmered under a dominant social order nervous of its position.

In such a world where embers of disaffection flickered, information was controlled and constrained by those who held power. The leaders of the Easter Rising knew that in this historical window of opportunity they had to make the case for freedom to the world and they put a plan into action.

On the corner of O’Connell Street and Abbey Street in Dublin sits the Grand Central. Striking yet easily missed in a Dublin throng, in 1916 it was the site of the Reis building, and on its top floor was occupied by the Dublin Wireless School of Telegraphy. Closed by the British upon the outbreak of the First World War, in Easter week Joseph Plunkett ordered seven men to occupy that building and to restore the radio equipment. Setting up the antenna on the roof, the rebels came under sniper fire from McBirney’s Department Store on Aston Quay. Their perseverance paid off and in what is considered the world’s first pirate broadcast, they sent the following Morse code.”Irish Republic declared in Dublin today. Irish troops have captured city and are in full possession. Enemy cannot move in city. The whole country rising.”

Meanwhile in Kerry, two Valentia Island brothers under British noses in a heavily guarded cable station provided a coded tip off to American and German Irish sympathisers that the Rising had begun. These actions propelled a small uprising into global front page news.

International news

Ireland’s Rising would occupy the front page of The New York Times for 14 days. A fact owing largely to New Jersey-born Joyce Kilmer, whose contribution has been traced elegantly by Robert Schmuhl. A poet and staff writer with the Sunday Magazine of The New York Times, Kilmer had converted to Catholicism in 1913 and despite his American lineage declared himself to be ‘half-Irish’.

On May 7 1916, as the Irish rebels were being executed, Kilmer published ‘Poets March in the Van of Irish Revolt’ that stressed the involvement of writers in the Rising noting with flurry that ‘the Leaders of the revolutionary forces were almost without exception men of literary tastes and training, who went into battle, as one of the dispatches phrased it, ‘with a revolver in one had and a copy of Sophocles in the other.’ Kilmer’s reporting was joined by a slew of journalism throughout the year, the first 20th century challenge to British imperial power was news, as were the tales of courage and sacrifice. The British grew fearful that faith in the Empire would be shaken.

A press censor’s office was established in Dublin to swat any international reporting that could have an impact in surly Ireland or across the Empire. One notable missive that got through was Kilmer’s vividly descriptive article ‘Irish Girl Rebel Tells of Dublin Fighting’ republished by the Roscommon Herald, which drew the wrath of the censor to its doorstep in Boyle.

The Irish diaspora, in particular the Irish-American diaspora, played a highly influential role in the plans and support for the Rising. “Mother operated on successfully today, signed Kathleen”, was the coded message that the aforementioned King brothers from Kerry sent to the housekeeper of the leader of Clan na Gael in the US, John Devoy. It was the equivalent of a ‘heads up’ to an Irish community Stateside that was close to the heart of Irish republicanism.

Five of the seven signatories of the Proclamation spent time in America, and it is no coincidence that the Proclamation that Patrick Pearse read on the steps of the GPO includes the phrase ‘supported by her exiled children in America’. The equivalent of $2.5million (€2.3m) in today’s money was raised by Clan na Gael. A stunning sum that allowed Kevin Kenny to argue in The American Irish that it was largely Devoy’s fund-raising and organisational efforts in the United States that the Easter rebellion of 1916 became possible.’

Australia’s Catholic force

Often forgotten in the narrative of Easter 1916 is the impact this Rising had on the social and political trajectory of other nations. The most popular recounting is its inspiration for a rising in Bengal, India yet its lasting impact in another great centre of Irish emigration, Australia, has received scant focus.

Prior to 1916 the leaders of the Irish community in Australia followed fastidiously the footprints of John Redmond’s Home Rule movement. This was an Irish community a generation removed from the harrows of the Irish famine. A generation that savoured a different flavour to English rule, striving in a colony where rigid social classes, while defined, could be punctured by following the social playbook of the time.

The events of 1916 changed the mood of the Irish-Australian community and through the Archbishop of Melbourne, Cork-born Daniel Mannix, a potent force of Irish nationalism was awakened and a Catholic force in Australian politics was unleashed that still leaves a bitter taste in a generation of Australian mouths today.

“Michael, they have shot them”, weeped Archbishop Mannix to his caretaker in Melbourne upon hearing the news of the execution of the leaders of Easter Rising. Just as the execution of these leaders helped turn the public tide of opinion back home, it stirred the leader of a slumbering Catholic flock into political action in the capital of a freshly-formed modern nation.

“Something in Daniel Mannix was released in the aftermath of the Easter Rising”, asides biographer Brenda Niall in a recent and welcomingly fresh insight of an Irishman who loomed over Australian politics for nearly 50 years. Mannix was alone in taking the side of the rebels among the Australian archbishops. He linked the Rising with World War I and mobilised a Catholic community on a national question that tested the allegiance to the Empire of this new-born nation.

Twice the subject of conscription was defeated in Australia, in 1916 and again in 1917, and Mannix’s colourful public duel with the Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes both contributed to its defeat and led to the first split in Australia’s Labor party. The Irish have “killed conscription”, lamented Hughes in a cable to British Prime Minister Lloyd George. Ireland’s Easter Rising was the charge that shaped a political force on the other side of the world.

An Empire challenged

This was the Rising that inconveniently challenged the entire concept of Empire and provoked a superpower to rash reaction.

“If you tell your Empire in India, in Egypt, and all over the world that you have not got the men, the money, the pluck, the inclination and the backing to restore order in a country within 20 miles of your own shore, you may as well begin to abandon the attempt to make British rule prevail throughout the Empire at all,” warned Edward Carson in 1916 to a nervous British establishment. This British reaction deepened the cracks in the edifice of their Empire.

“Even though a rebellion in Dublin might seem relatively minor in the grand scheme of things,” summarised Declan Kiberd, “it would actually be the pin piercing the heart of the imperial giant.”

This article originally appeared in the Irish Independent on 18 February 2016.

Above: Original footage of the streets of Dublin in the aftermath of the 1916 Easter Rising, which features in “Michael, they’ve shot them”, courtesy of British Pathé.


Header image: Weekly Irish Times, April 29, May 6, May 13, 1916, State Library Victoria.