Historian Thomas Bartlett remembers firsthand how Ireland commemorated the Easter Rising’s 50th anniversary in 1966. “Not so much commemorated,” he says, “as celebrated.” Lionized 50 years ago as martyred founding fathers, the 16 rebel leaders executed by the British were regarded as unambiguously heroic and essential to the eventual creation of the Republic of Ireland. Any inglorious consequences, like the loss of scores of innocent lives in the destruction of central Dublin, were ignored. “There was no probing questioning, no critical examination, no scrutiny of their motives,” says Bartlett, a visiting faculty fellow at Notre Dame’s Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies.
The revolution would be staged.
Cultural influences were among the most potent motivations for the poets and playwrights who were leaders of the Irish independence movement. Some traced their militant stance directly to the 1902 play _Cathleen Ni Houlihan_, a nationalist call to arms by William Butler Yeats and Lady Gregory. Yeats later wrote in his poem “The Man and the Echo”: Did that play of mine send out / Certain men the English shot?
The organization of the Easter Rising itself drew on artistic inspiration. “It was staged to some degree,” Irish Studies professor Kiberd says, “as street theater.”
And the battle’s symbolism would become central to its historical importance, because even the distraction of the Great War did not make Great Britain and its mighty military especially vulnerable to the rebels. Determined to seize their moment in history and forge an independent future for Ireland, the rebels proceeded with little heed for what they lacked. This, finally, was their time.
They negotiated with the Germans — the enemy of their enemy — for munitions to support an uprising, but intercepted cables kept the British appraised. Sir Roger Casement, a Dublin-born retired British consular official who supported independence, secured a commitment from the Germans to release Irish prisoners of war to join the fight. The insurgents even believed German soldiers might supplement the rebel ranks, which proved an unfounded hope.
Without such reinforcements, the rebels were not an imposing force. By early 1916, exercises for an insurgency had become commonplace, held under the tolerant noses of the British government in Dublin Castle. English leaders seemed to have made a strategic decision not to obstruct the rebel drills. On March 17, Irish volunteers practiced setting up roadblocks and checkpoints around the city, provocative exercises that stirred no official notice.
When a German ship delivering arms was trapped and scuttled off the Kerry coast a month later during Holy Week, any imminent threat of a genuine revolt seemed likewise lost at sea. The British, to paraphrase historian Bartlett, shrugged and decided to go to the races on Easter Monday.
The rebel plan to take Dublin, meanwhile, was developing in absolute secrecy, the truth known only to the smallest inner sanctum within a larger clandestine circle within the open group of regular volunteers. That structure created a helpful fog of obfuscation that threw off the British, but it also confused the volunteer rank-and-file throughout Ireland.
Chaos prevailed in the ranks to the extent that many from Cork, Galway and elsewhere in the country were unaware that Easter Monday, April 24, 1916, was to be the true day of reckoning. The fewer than 2,000 who were in Dublin, Bartlett says, took up the fight “against the backdrop of order, counter-order, the rising’s called on, the rising’s called off, the rising’s on, it’s off.” Some of them thought this was just another exercise.
But the leaders issued a proclamation declaring an independent Irish republic and took control of key locations in Dublin. At the rebel headquarters in the city center’s General Post Office, men such as Patrick Pearse, Joseph Plunkett and Desmond Fitzgerald discussed the preservation of Irish identity as a core principle of the rising. To do nothing, they believed, risked the loss of the national character once and for all, a recurring concern over the decades that had been revived with so many countrymen fighting under the Union Jack.
They also spoke of theological validation. Catholic just-war doctrine calls for a genuine hope of success in any act of aggression, a dubious claim in their situation. Another leader, James Connolly, believed they would be slaughtered.
“He said that to a comrade,” Kiberd says. “He didn’t want to lie to anyone that was taking the risk with him.”
For the cause of independence, though, a rebel slaughter did not necessarily equal defeat. Connolly believed in equal measure that to strike was to win, a gesture of symbolic inspiration to the Irish and other oppressed people.
When the insurgency began, catching the British unaware, it seemed for a fleeting instant like the rebels could win outright.
“If you look at the panicked reactions of the British,” Kiberd adds, “it does seem like they were at least momentarily made to wobble.”
The Brits sent reinforcements, who believed they were en route to France, to quell the rebellion. But a number of them were so green they had never fired a gun. As the soldiers disembarked at Kingstown, what’s now Dun Laoghaire, a sergeant ordered them to shoot into the sea for practice. More than a hundred of those men were dead within three hours, gunned down as they crossed a bridge into Dublin.
Once the element of surprise passed, however, the rebels could not match the waves of British artillery and manpower coming across the Irish Sea. Within two days, Christine Kinealy writes in _A New History of Ireland_, “the troops outnumbered the insurgents by twenty to one.” The rebel leaders surrendered in less than a week.
Some among the Irish people respected the effort and were proud that the country’s few freedom fighters could withstand the counterattack for as long as they did. But many were also ambivalent — about the cause, the timing, the tactics — and hostile toward the rebels.
Deaths of innocent bystanders fueled the hostility. Civilians made up the largest number of fatalities — 230, compared to 64 rebels and 132 British troops. Many more people who were caught in Dublin’s chaotic crossfire had lost relatives on European battlefields. They felt no patriotic affinity with Irish freedom fighters.
“A lot of these guys were spat upon afterwards,” Fox says. “Who was spitting on them? Widows and mothers of Irish kids, guys who had been killed in the trenches.”
Irish public opinion coalesced around the British executions of 16 leaders. To the imperial government, the men were traitors. To the Irish, the death sentences became perhaps a greater rallying point than the Easter Rising itself.
George Bernard Shaw wrote in a London newspaper that the surrendered rebels should have been treated as prisoners of war, like any enemy soliders. In conducting secret courts martial, as if the men had turned against their own country in wartime and not stood up for their own, the British miscalculated the disposition of the Irish people toward the Empire. The executions only increased the revolutionary temperature in Ireland.
“I think the authorities utterly misinterpreted the importance of the moment,” Kiberd says, “because they were distracted by what they would call the main theater of actions in Europe.”
The political context of the executions and their local and global ramifications give the cause of Irish independence its historical bone structure, but the intimacy of individual stories adds flesh and blood to the documentary. Like footage of an aging Nora Connolly O’Brien, the daughter of James Connolly, describing the family being summoned for a final meeting with him. She recalls being escorted by the British along still-smoldering O’Connell Street to see her condemned father for the last time, smelling smoke and cordite in the air and hearing her mother cry out in grief.
Or the recollection of a British soldier who survived the initial ambush, recounting the experience in an interview decades later with what Fox calls “gut-wrenching” detail. “These guys hadn’t been in action,” Fox says, “and all of a sudden they’re walking down a Dublin street and they’re getting mowed down. . . . What would it be like?”
One objective of _1916: The Irish Rebellion_ is to blend scholarly perspectives, evocative music, and archival footage and imagery to give viewers a vivid answer to that question for participants on all sides.
A photograph of Dublin in ruins serves as a defining illustration of the documentary. The fighting is over, and the rebuilding of personal and national life has yet to begin.
Two children in the foreground face away from the camera, looking toward the rubble. More bloodshed and eventual independence will be their conflicted inheritance, the story of their lives and of the Ireland that the Easter Rising helped create.
_Jason Kelly is an associate editor of this magazine._
_This story was updated on January 15, 2016._