Professor Joe Lee ponders how different things might have been but for so many mishaps in 1916.
To speak of the ‘planning’ of the Rising may seem a contradiction in terms given that hardly anything that the rebels envisaged actually worked out the way they had originally planned.
In fact, the actual Rising was a highly improvised one, cobbled together at a day’s notice in the crisis meeting of the rebel leaders in Liberty Hall on Easter Sunday. It took place after the publication in that morning’s Sunday Independent of Eoin MacNeill’s countermanding order of the Irish Volunteers “manoeuvres” which the Irish Republican Brotherhood had planned for that day, Easter Sunday.
And that was only the second body blow to the nature of the intended Rising, for the rebel leaders must have already realised that their hopes for a Rising in the south-west and west were in tatters after the capture of the Aud. With its cargo of 20,000 rifles and 10 machine guns, it arrived four days earlier than they expected off the coast of Kerry, and confusion over the signals from shore resulted in it being captured by British warships.
The mood can only have been sombre when the leaders gathered in Liberty Hall on Easter Sunday morning to cobble together their response to the implosion of all their plans, so laboriously and ambitiously pursued over the previous year-and-a-half.
And yet there seems to have been no hesitation about proceeding with the revised mini-rising, though inescapably now more a symbolic expression of an ideal than a serious military enterprise, and of which the likeliest result would be their own death.
As the Rising was now conceived mainly as a symbolic gesture, it had to be conceived of at least partly as a piece of theatre, as the politics of gesture, however deadly the likely consequences. In one way, it threatened to appear a pathetic anti-climax to all the ambitious planning of the previous 20 months, when the IRB had resolved they must rise during the war.
Had the war been over as fast as was widely expected in 1914, it seems highly unlikely they would ever have devised a plan.
Far from ‘the boys being home by Christmas,’ as was widely anticipated, the German attack on France ground to a rapid halt in the face of dogged French and British resistance. And within less than two months of the German assault, it had deteriorated into trench warfare on the western front, with neither side able to conjure a breakthrough until 1918.
Had that not happened, who knows what the course of Irish history might have been?
As it was, while the IRB determined shortly after the outbreak of the war on a rebellion before it was over, it would have long been over by the time the IRB had determined on a promising plan, and set about acquiring the guns and ammunition required to mount a serious rebellion.
That all depended on Germany supplying enough weapons. There was a certain rough justice in this, in that it was from Germany that the Ulster Volunteer Force had brought its massive supply of guns and ammunition into the north in the Larne gun-running in April 1914.
One can only speculate on what the consequences might have been of having been able to carry out the original intentions of the Aud expedition. One can get the impression that the planning of rebellion in an arc from Cork to Galway was so hit-and-miss that it didn’t really matter very much whether the Aud landed its cargo of 20,000 rifles — about 15 times more than brought in to Howth by the Asgard in July 1914.
But that is conjectural, even if it is clear that a good deal of improvisation would still have been involved. And much would still have depended on the British response, which is unknowable.
How would the British, by now desperate to drag the USA into the war on their side, have responded?
Would they have sought to crush it instantly, doing whatever was necessary to extirpate it and destroying the rebels before the United States, about to face into a presidential election campaign, with President Woodrow Wilson emphatically asserting American neutrality, and not unmindful of the putative Irish vote in the presidential election looming later that year, began to take a closer look at Irish affairs?
American papers did in fact report extensively, if often erroneously, on the Rising, with The New York Times, in particular, as Robert Schmuhl’s research has so carefully demonstrated, carrying extensive news on the Rising and its aftermath.
Although the series of mishaps on which the more ambitious plans foundered were actually near misses, it is easy to overlook how close they came to success but for a handful of misunderstandings and unpredictable confusions or accidents, as in the case of the Aud. That is not to say that it would have been a success — it might just as easily have led to civil war in Ireland, or at least to a variety of internal conflicts.
Much might have depended on whether the British were sufficiently concerned to bring troops back from France to crush it — and if so which troops, Irish or British, and if Irish, nationalist or unionist, or some mixture?
Or, given the Rising as it occurred, might Prime Minister Herbert Asquith have sought a more politically literate British commander than Maxwell — if there was one to be found in the circumstances of the time?
These questions now belong to surmise, but it is easy to forget that it would have taken only small shifts in what actually happened to have created a potentially quite different Easter Rising, and a potentially different, if unpredictable type of conflict, with incalculable consequence for the future of the country, north and south, in whatever direction.
It is natural that our memories of Easter Week have become so calcified that we tend to contemplate it as foreordained tragedy, doomed by a variety of almost preternatural factors despite all the plotting and planning that went into it.
And in the event, that is how it worked itself out. But there was nothing inevitable about much of that.
If it had from one perspective redeemed the republican military tradition from the de facto fiascos of 1803, 1848 and 1867, there was nothing pre-ordained about the consequences either, and it required sustained British mishandling of subsequent events, not least the ham-fisted attempt to impose conscription in 1918, for Britain to reap the full political harvest.
Joe Lee is Glucksman Professor of Irish Studies at New York University, and was professor of history at University College Cork from 1974 to 2002. His books include Ireland 1912-1985: Politics and Society (1989), now on its 11th reprint.