The 1916 Easter Rising was a pivotal moment in modern Irish history.
Despite taking place over 100 years ago, the legacy of the 1916 Easter Rising is everywhere in Dublin, once you know where to look.
Whether you’re catching a train to Heuston Station or strolling past the General Post Office on O’Connell Street, you’re always reminded of that seismic event in Irish history.
But what exactly happened that week? And what did it lead to? Below, you’ll find a speedy insight into what happened before, during and after the 1916 Easter Rising.
Some quick need-to-knows about the 1916 Easter Rising
Before you dive into the article itself, it’s worth taking 30 seconds to read the 3 bullet points below, as they’ll get you up-to-speed quickly.
1. It happened in the middle of World War One
One of the most notable aspects of the Easter Rising was its timing. Taking place during the middle of the First World War, it caught the British completely off-guard since they were bogged down with the trench warfare of the Western Front at the time.
2. It was Ireland’s biggest uprising for over a century
Not since the rebellion of 1798 had Ireland seen such an uprising against the British state. Almost 500 people died in the fighting, over half of whom were civilians (often mistaken by the British for rebels during the battles).
3. Martyrs for the cause
While not all Dubliners agreed with the uprising initially, the heavy-handed response of the British and the executions in particular ultimately contributed to an increase in popular support for Irish independence. Rebels such as James Connolly and Patrick Pearse were seen as martyrs for a just cause and their names are still well-known to this day.
4. Lasting effects
See our guide to the differences between Ireland vs Northern Ireland for an insight into how the partition of Ireland still effects life in Ireland to this day.
The Story Behind the 1916 Easter Rising
Before we get to the events of 1916, it’s crucial to know why those rebels felt the need to stage such a dramatic event.
With the Acts of Union 1800 having abolished the Irish Parliament and brought Ireland into union with Great Britain, Irish nationalists felt aggrieved at their lack of political representation (among many other things).
The Fight for Home Rule
Lead by the likes of William Shaw and Charles Stewart Parnell, the question of possible Irish Home Rule was the dominant political question of British and Irish politics at the end of the 19th-century. Simply put, the Irish Home Rule movement sought to achieve self-government for Ireland, within the United Kingdom.
The impassioned and eloquent campaigning from those involved eventually lead to the First Home Rule Bill in 1886. Introduced by Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone, was the first major attempt made by a British government to enact a law creating home rule for part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
While this bill ultimately failed, it lead to several more over the subsequent years with each one adding to the movement’s momentum. In fact, the Third Irish Home Rule Bill of 1914 was passed with Royal Assent as the Government of Ireland Act 1914, but never came into force thanks to the outbreak of the First World.
And while the eruption of war in Europe had relatively little to do with Britain, its involvement and the subsequent delay of the Home Rule Bill caused huge frustration on the Irish side and was a contributing factor to the events of 1916.
The Build-up and German Involvement
Only a month after WWI had begun, the plans for the 1916 Easter Rising were underway. The Supreme Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) met and decided to stage an uprising before the war ended, while securing help from Germany along the way.
Responsibility for the planning of the rising was given to Tom Clarke and Seán Mac Diarmada, while Patrick Pearse was installed as Director of Military Organisation. To take on the might of Britain, the rebels decided they would need help and Germany was an obvious candidate for providing that (remember this wasn’t Nazi Germany they were dealing with).
Nationalist diplomat Roger Casement travelled to Germany hoping to persuade a German expeditionary force to land on the west coast of Ireland as a way of further distracting the British when the time came to attack. Casement failed to get a commitment on that front but the Germans did agree to ship arms and ammunition to the rebels.
IRB leaders met with the head of the Irish Citizen Army (ICA) James Connolly in January 1916 and convinced him to join forces with them, agreeing that they would launch a rising together at Easter. In early April, the German Navy dispatched an arms vessel for County Kerry carrying 20,000 rifles, one million rounds of ammunition and explosives.
However the British had intercepted messages between the Germans and the United States German Embassy and knew all about the landing. When the vessel finally reached the Kerry coast earlier than planned and was intercepted by the British, the captain had to scuttle and the arms shipment was lost.
But despite this setback, the rebel leaders decided the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin would go ahead on Easter Monday and that the Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army would go into action as the ‘Army of the Irish Republic’. They also elected Pearse as president of the Irish Republic and as Commander-in-Chief of the army.
Around 1,200 members of the Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army gathered at several significant locations in central Dublin as morning broke on the 24th of April, 1916.
Shortly before midday, the rebels began to seize important sites in central Dublin, with the plan to hold Dublin city centre and defend against counter-attacks from various British barracks. The rebels took their positions with ease, while civilians were evacuated and policemen were either ejected or taken prisoner.
A joint force of about 400 Volunteers and Citizen Army marched to the General Post Office (GPO) on O’Connell Street occupied the building and hoisted two republican flags. The GPO would be the rebels’ main headquarters throughout most of the Rising. Pearse then stood outside and read the famous Proclamation of the Irish Republic (copies of which were also pasted on walls and handed out to bystanders).
A contingent under Seán Connolly occupied Dublin City Hall and adjacent buildings, but failed to take Dublin Castle – the main seat of British power in Ireland. The rebels also attempted to cut transport and communication links. Connolly was later shot dead by a British sniper, becoming the first rebel casualty of the conflict.
Shots were fired throughout the day as the British were caught totally by surprise, though the only substantial combat of that first day took place at the South Dublin Union where Royal Irish Regiment soldiers encountered an outpost of Éamonn Ceannt’s rebel force.
Sadly, the Union was the scene of the first civilian death of the 1916 Easter Rising when a nurse in uniform, Margaret Keogh, was shot dead by British soldiers.
As the week progressed
British forces initially poured their efforts into securing any approaches to Dublin Castle and isolating the rebel headquarters, which they wrongly believed was at Liberty Hall.
Fighting began along the northern edge of the city centre on Tuesday afternoon and at that same moment Pearse walked out into O’Connell Street with a small escort and stood in front of Nelson’s Pillar. As a big crowd gathered, he then read out a ‘manifesto to the citizens of Dublin,’ essentially calling on them to support the 1916 Easter Rising (something not everybody in the city had initially agreed with).
While the rebels had attempted to cut transport links, they failed to take either of Dublin’s two main railway stations or either of its ports (Dublin Port and Kingstown). This was a huge problem as it completely tipped the balance in favour of the British.
With no substantial blockade to transport, the British were able to bring in thousands of reinforcements from Britain and from their garrisons at the Curragh and Belfast. Despite fighting a war in Europe that had caused unseen levels of death and devastation, the British were still able to bring in a force of over 16,000 men by the end of the week (compared to the rebel force of around 1,250).
Heavy fighting took place on Wednesday morning at Mendicity Institution, which was occupied by 26 Volunteers under Seán Heuston. Heuston had been ordered to hold his position for a few hours, to delay the British, but had held on for three days before finally surrendering.
Fierce fighting also took place later in the week at the South Dublin Union and in the area of North King Street, north of the Four Courts. At Portobello Barracks, a British officer summarily executed six civilians (including nationalist activist Francis Sheehy-Skeffington), an example of British troops killing Irish civilians that would later be hugely controversial.
With fire raging inside the GPO thanks to relentless shelling by British troops, the headquarters garrison was forced to evacuate by tunnelling through the walls of the neighbouring buildings. The rebels took up a new position at 16 Moore Street but it was to be short-lived.
Though they had plans for a new breakout against the British, Pearse came to the conclusion that the plans would lead to further civilian loss. On Saturday 29th of April, Pearse finally issued an order for all companies to surrender.
The surrender document read as follows:
‘In order to prevent the further slaughter of Dublin citizens, and in the hope of saving the lives of our followers now surrounded and hopelessly outnumbered, the members of the Provisional Government present at headquarters have agreed to an unconditional surrender, and the commandants of the various districts in the City and County will order their commands to lay down arms.’
A total of 3,430 men and 79 women were arrested throughout the week, including all of the main rebel leaders.
The 1916 Easter Rising Executions
A series of court-martials began on 2 May, in which 187 people were tried and ninety were sentenced to death. Fourteen of those (including all seven signatories of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic) were infamously executed by firing squad at Kilmainham Gaol between the 3rd and 12th of May.
Military governor General John Maxwell presided over the court-martials and stated that only the ‘ringleaders’ and those proven to have committed ‘coldblooded murder’ would be executed. Yet, the evidence presented was weak and some of those executed were not leaders and did not kill anyone.
Thanks to his American birth, future President of Ireland and Commandant of the 3rd Battalion Éamon de Valera managed to escape execution. The executions were as follows:
- 3rd May: Patrick Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh and Thomas Clarke
- 4th May: Joseph Plunkett, William Pearse, Edward Daly and Michael O’Hanrahan5 May: John MacBride
- 8th May: Éamonn Ceannt, Michael Mallin, Seán Heuston and Con Colbert
- 12th May: James Connolly and Seán Mac Diarmada
Roger Casement, the diplomat who had travelled to Germany to try and secure German military support, was tried in London for high treason and eventually hanged at Pentonville Prison on the 3rd of August.
While some MP’s in Westminster had tried to put a stop to the executions, it wasn’t until the leaders of the rebellion had all been executed that they finally relented and released most of those who had been arrested. But the damage had been done.
In the aftermath of the Rising, public opinion in Dublin and beyond coalesced into a general feeling of support for the rebels. Whereas many had previously expressed either ambivalence or hostility to the drama that took place during the Easter of 1916, British actions at the time and immediately following turned the court of public opinion in Ireland firmly against them.
Those who were executed were venerated by many as martyrs and, in 1966, huge parades in Dublin took place in a national celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Rising. The names of Patrick Pearse, James Connolly and Seán Heuston were also leant to three of Dublin’s most prominent train stations and many poems, songs and novels have since been centred around the Rising.
But, perhaps most importantly, in the short term the Rising eventually lead to Irish independence five years later and the creation of Northern Ireland. Whether these events would have taken place without the rebellion of 1916 is up for debate but there’s no doubt that the 1916 Easter Rising had enormous ramifications in Ireland for the rest of the 20th century.
1916 Rising facts for kids
We’ve had questions from teachers since this guide was first published asking for some 1916 Rising facts that are suitable for children.
We’ve done our best to make these as classroom-friendly as physically possible.
- The Easter Rising laster for 6 days
- It took place during the First World War, to catch the British off-guard
- The Rising was Irelands biggest uprising for a century
- The first recorded casualty of the Rising was Margaret Keogh an innocent nurse shot by the British
- Around 1,250 rebels battled against a 16,000-strong British army
- The rebels surrendered on the 19th of April, 1916
- 2,430 men were arrested during the conflict and 79 women
FAQs about the 1916 Easter Rising
We’ve had a lot of questions over the years asking about everything from ‘Did people at the time support it?’ to ‘How did it end?’.
In the section below, we’ve popped in the most FAQs that we’ve received. If you have a question that we haven’t tackled, ask away in the comments section below.
What was the 1916 Rising?
The 1916 Easter Rising was an uprising by rebel forces in Ireland against the British government. It lasted for 6 days.
How long did the Easter Rising last?
The 1916 Easter Rising, which took place in Dublin, began on the 24th of April, 1916, and lasted for 6 days.