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Dublin’s Easter Rising 1916
Stonyhurst’s illustrious alumni include three saints, twenty-two martyrs, seven archbishops and seven awarded the Victoria Cross. Among them, there is Joseph Mary Plunkett. He was a key figure in Ireland’s Easter Rising of 1916, and opinion over his legacy is divided: for some, he is a nationalist hero; for others, his execution as a traitor was justly deserved.
This year marks the centenary of the Easter Rising, a rebellion against British rule which began on Easter Monday 1916. The Rising lasted a week, involved 1,500 insurgents and cost 450 lives, over half of whom were civilians. It is seen by some as a catalyst for the foundation of the Irish state. Others consider the Rising a quixotic act which, with Home Rule already on the statute book, was merely destructive and unnecessary.
A series of talks will be given at Stonyhurst this year by a number of distinguished speakers, to help us to make sense of this complex period of Irish history, and to arrive at an informed view of Plunkett’s actions. We are honoured that the Irish Ambassador to the UK, Ambassador Dan Mulhall, is coming to the College on Thursday 28th April, to talk about ‘Irish writers and the Easter Rising’. Stonyhurst’s archivist, David Knight, will talk about ‘The life and times of Joseph Mary Plunkett’ on Wednesday March 2nd; Senator Ronan Mullen will talk about the Easter Rising on Thursday March 17th. Finally, former Taoiseach, John Bruton, will be the Guest of Honour at Great Academies in May.
Wednesday March 2nd
David Knight, Stonyhurst’s archivist: ‘The life and times of Joseph Mary Plunkett, OS’ 7.00pm (AV Room)
Thursday March 17th
Senator Ronan Mullen: Joseph Mary Plunkett and the Easter Uprising of 1916
6.30pm (Bayley Room)
Thursday 28th April
The Irish Ambassador to the UK, Ambassador Dan Mulhall: ‘Irish writers and the Easter Rising’ 6.45pm (Bayley Room)
Joseph Mary Plunkett was born in 1887, the second eldest child of Count and Countess Plunkett. Joe, as he was known to his family, suffered ill health throughout his short life and his schooling was sporadic. He arrived at Stonyhurst in October 1906 when he was almost 19, and spent two years in Philosophy, Stonyhurst’s equivalent of university education for Catholic scholars. He seems to have been happy at Stonyhurst, although the Lancashire climate did nothing to improve his health. A constant reader, he liked the College’s library, wrote poetry, took part in dramatic productions and debates, and won several Philosophy prizes.
On returning to Ireland, he became increasingly involved in Irish politics and separatist nationalism. (His views intensified after January 1913, with the Third Home Rule Bill, which conceded little autonomy to Ireland, in his opinion.) He became the editor of The Irish Review, where he encountered the strong nationalist feelings of the journal’s contributors; these included Sir Roger Casement and Thomas MacDonagh, who also became rebel leaders and were subsequently executed. Plunkett later joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood.
In March 1915, Plunkett travelled to Germany to meet Sir Roger Casement, who was attempting to create an Irish Brigade by recruiting Irish prisoners of war, with the support of the German government. Plunkett’s aim was to obtain arms, and he was successful in persuading Germany to agree to send a shipment of rifles to Ireland, funded by the IRB.
Plans for the Easter Rising gained momentum from this point, and by December 1915 Plunkett, who was to be the youngest of the Rising’s leaders, was working intensively on its military strategy. By April 1916, the wording of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic was finalised and the rebellion was planned to take place on Easter Sunday, 23rd April.
On 21st April the shipment of German arms was intercepted by the British. This was to reduce the scale of the Easter Rising considerably, confining it almost exclusively to Dublin alone. The rebellion was further compromised by conflicting orders sent out to the Irish Volunteers from their headquarters, forcing the rebel leaders to postpone their action to the following day.
At about 11.00am on Easter Monday the Irish Volunteers, along with the Irish Citizen Army, assembled at various prearranged meeting points in Dublin. The General Post Office became the headquarters of the rebellion, and it was here that Plunkett served, along with other rebel leaders.
British intelligence had failed hopelessly – the properties targeted were taken virtually without resistance and immediately the rebels set about making them defensible. When the Rising began the British military confronted about 1,000 insurgents with just 400 troops. As the week progressed, and as British reinforcements arrived, the fighting in some areas became intense and prolonged street battles took place.
By Friday 28th April, around 1,600 rebels (more had joined during the week) were facing 18-20,000 soldiers. From Thursday the GPO was entirely cut off from other rebel garrisons, before coming under a ferocious artillery attack which also devastated much of central Dublin. The British strategy compelled the insurgent leaders to evacuate the Post Office and to accept unconditional surrender. It was Plunkett who carried the white flag of surrender, before his arrest and later transfer to Kilmainham Gaol, where he would be executed on May 4th.
The night before his execution, Plunkett was allowed to marry his fiancée, Grace Gifford. They were married by candle light in the Gaol’s chapel, and were allowed just ten minutes together. The next morning, Plunkett faced the firing squad, and uttered his last words: “Father, I am very happy I am dying for the glory of God and the honour of Ireland”.
Over 3,000 people were arrested and 1,400 were imprisoned. The 17 leaders of the Easter Rising were executed.
A Sinn Fein landslide victory followed, in the 1918 election, as did the war of independence against Britain from 1919 to 1921, and the subsequent creation of the Irish Free State. For many, the Easter Rising is a dramatic symbol of Irish nationhood. Veterans’ statements from new sources, however (such as the archives of the Bureau of Military History) suggest that people rebelled as much out of a desire for economic and social change as for national liberation.
2016 is also the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. On July 1st, the first disastrous day, the 36th (Ulster) Division went over the top near Thiepval and lost a third of their men, suffering over 5,000 casualties. Around 200,000 Irishmen, Catholic and Protestant alike, fought in the British army during the First World War. Ireland is therefore commemorating two very different centenaries this year.
A sepia photograph at Stonyhurst illustrates the irony of this timing. It features both Joseph Plunkett and John Aidan Liddell, one of the College’s seven VCs, sitting side by side on the lawns of Stonyhurst, waiting in the wings of history. Hopefully, since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, both commemorations can co-exist without conflict.