Drama of the Rising captured in exclusive extract from ‘The 1916 Irish Rebellion’

Delving into the mishaps and mixed signals which befell the rebels over that fateful Easter weekend, Bríona Nic Dhiarmada details the fascinating history of the 1916 Rising. Read an exclusive extract from The 1916 Irish Rebellion, published by Cork University Press as the companion book to the documentary series which airs February 10 on RTÉ. 

The 1916 Irish Rebellion

Holy Thursday, April 20 

Bulmer Hobson, the secretary of the Irish Volunteers who, along with MacNeill, had also been left in the dark about the planned rising, was informed that an armed insurrection was planned and that Volunteer units throughout the country had received orders to take part under cover of the maneuvers. Hobson immediately went to MacNeill’s house and, rousing him from bed, told him of the plans for the rising. MacNeill was thunderstruck and, outraged at what he felt was Pearse’s duplicity, went immediately to confront him.

MacNeill told Pearse that he would do all in his power to prevent a rising short of informing Dublin Castle. He would not allow “a half armed force to be called out,” asserting that there would be “no waste of lives for which I am directly responsible.” MacNeill’s reaction caused consternation among the conspirators. Later that day MacNeill agreed to meet with Seán Mac Diarmada. Mac Diarmada informed him of the imminent arrival of German arms. In the light of this news, MacNeill was reluctantly persuaded to go along with the plans. His support, however, was to be short-lived. 

That same day the Aud, having completed her perilous journey, was making her way through the waters of Tralee Bay. She dropped anchor at the designated spot in the late afternoon. The prearranged signal was not answered.

Unknown to both sides, confusion had arisen as to the date the arms were due.

The IRB’s military council had earlier sent Joseph Mary Plunkett’s sister, Philomena, to New York with a urgent message for John Devoy. Devoy was asked to forward it to the Aud, requesting that they delay the landings until Easter Sunday in case an early arrival would alert the British. He passed on the message to the Germans, but the Aud carried no radio and never received the message. It was another indication of the quagmire of chaos and confusion that would bedevil the conspirators’ plans.

Good Friday, April 21

Just after midnight the submarine carrying Casement was in Tralee Bay only a mile northwest of the Aud. The ships missed each other. With no sign of the Aud, Casement and two companions set out under cover of dark in a collapsible dinghy, hoping to rendezvous with local Irish Volunteers. The boat capsized in the heavy surf. Casement barely made it to shore. The boat was found early that morning at Banna Strand along with three revolvers and one thousand rounds of ammunition. Casement, who had nearly died from hypothermia in the cold waters, was arrested later that morning by local police from the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and was taken to Tralee, the beginning of a journey that would lead him inexorably to the scaffold. 

The litany of mishaps and disasters was not yet over.

That afternoon the Aud was intercepted by British warships as it fruitlessly sailed up and down Tralee Bay. As the Aud was escorted to Queenstown under armed guard, the captain decided to scuttle his ship to prevent his cargo falling into English hands. The twenty thousand rifles destined for the Irish Volunteers sank to the bottom of Cork Harbor.

That same evening a group of five Volunteers, including a wireless operator sent by Mac Diarmada to set up a transmitter to communicate with the German ships, had arrived in Kerry. On their way out of Killorglin, the second car missed a turn on the narrow twisting roads. The car plunged off Ballykissane Pier and into the waters of Castlemaine Harbor. Three of the Volunteers, including the wireless specialist, drowned. On the back seat of the car was the signal lamp with which they intended to signal the Aud. It was now Easter Saturday, April 22.



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Easter Saturday, April 22

News of Casement’s arrest and the loss of the arms had by now trickled through to the military council in Dublin. They were despondent but determined to continue with their plans. At Liberty Hall, members of the Irish Citizen Army gathered their weapons and made final preparations. MacNeill, learning of the disasters in Kerry, was adamant that Sunday’s maneuvers must be called off and made a final desperate effort to abort the rising. He sent trusted couriers with handwritten notes throughout the country countermanding Pearse’s mobilization orders. One of those who went was Michael Joseph O’Rahilly, known as “The O’Rahilly,” one of MacNeill’s right-hand men who played an important part in later events. MacNeill’s last act of the day was to deliver the countermanding order for publication in the following day’s Sunday Independent: “Owing to the very critical position, all orders given to Irish Volunteers for tomorrow, Easter Sunday, are hereby rescinded, and no parades, marches, or other movement of Irish Volunteers will take place. Each individual Volunteer will obey this order strictly in every particular.”

The countermanding order was the final blow to the plans for a successful rising. 

Whatever faint chance of military success they might have had at full strength had evaporated with MacNeill’s order and the loss of the arms shipment. With the British alerted by the capture of Casement and the Aud and the leaking of an intelligence document from Dublin Castle, the leaders knew a crackdown was imminent.

As Easter Sunday morning dawned, Pearse, Clarke, MacDonagh, Plunkett, Ceannt, Mac Diarmada, and Connolly, the leaders of the conspirators, realized the plans they had carefully laid were in tatters. But not to fight
would be a disaster much greater than a military defeat. The more romantic among them, such as Pearse, saw the possibility of self-sacrifice to redeem Ireland’s honor and to pass the torch on to a new generation. The more
pragmatic felt that at the very least it might win Ireland a place at the peace talks at the end of the war. As the rebel leaders, the military council, made their way into Liberty Hall for one final meeting, the fate of Ireland, and their own fates, still hung in the balance. The die, however, would soon be cast.


The 1916 Irish Rebellion

By Bríona Nic Dhiarmada

384pp. Published by Cork University Press.  €29.95 £20

Bríona Nic Dhiarmada is the Thomas J. & Kathleen M. O’Donnell Professor of Irish Studies and concurrent professor of Film, Television, and Theatre at the University of Notre Dame. Professor Nic Dhiarmada is originator, writer, and producer of the multipart documentary series on the Easter Rising of 1916.

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