The Easter Rising of 1916 not only destroyed much of the center of Dublin – it changed the course of Irish history. Yet basic questions about why the event occurred continue to divide historians. In The Rising: Ireland: Easter 1916, by Fearghal McGarry, we learn about the uprising from the perspective of those who made it. McGarry makes use of a collection of over 1,700 eye-witness statements detailing the political activities of members of Sinn Féin and militant groups such as the Irish Republican Brotherhood. In the excerpt below, we learn first-hand how it felt to walk off to war that morning.
The insurrection could not have begun in a more chaotic manner. Mobilizers received less than an hour’s notice to alert their companies, a process that normally took at least four hours. At 10 a.m. Liam Archer received an order to mobilize his section of the company – for 10 a.m.: “My first two calls at Jones Road and Clonliffe Road drew blanks, both members had gone out for the day. At this point the motor cycle combination broke down…I set off on foot for Blackhall Place, giving up the idea of mobilising my Section’. Seán Kennedy ‘only contacted those within reasonable walking distance’. John Kenny ignored the mobilization order he received, joining his friends on an outing as ‘we were still sore about the fiasco of the previous day’. The Third Battalion’s quartermaster told his mobilizer that he (like many other Volunteers and British army soldiers) was going to the Grand National horse race at Fairyhouse: ‘I said to him: “What will the battalion do, they are depending on you?” He said they would have to get a horse and car’. In contrast, more zealous Volunteers were delighted that the day had finally come. Annie Cooney recalled the excitement of Christy Byrne and Con Colbert, a former Chief Scout of the Fianna, who had devoted years of activism to bringing about an insurrection:
During the time I was buckling him up Con-who had not a note in his head-was singing ‘For Tone is coming back again’ he was so excited and charmed that at last the fight was coming off. He thought of nothing else. The pair went off, wheeling their bicycles which were loaded up with pikes, their rifles and small arms.
For many, the Rising was a family affair: fathers, brothers, sisters (and the occasional mother) fighting together. Michael O’Flanagan was mobilized with his father and two brothers, one of whom was killed. Molly Reynolds was joined by her father and three brothers. Some parents were prepared to sacrifice their children for the cause. Pat Fox thrust his young son-who was killed the following day-towards Frank Robbins as the rebels marched from Liberty Hall: ‘Here is my lad; take him with you for the Irish Citizen Army. I am too old for the job’. Some parents were willing to sacrifice themselves, leaving their children behind. After the Rising, John MacDonagh ‘was struck by the sight of a wife keeping step with her husband, Séamus Murphy, both prisoners. I knew both of them, and knew they had left their young children at home’. Some were motivated to fight because of their children, as one elderly rebel explained to MacDonagh: ‘I was never able to do much for them but isn’t this the grandest thing I ever could do for them’.
Many Volunteers mentioned their parents’ support for their decision; few, perhaps understandably, recalled their opposition. ‘My father showed emotion, but my mother was calm and controlled’, one Dublin Volunteer who left to fight alongside his brother recalled: ‘She gave us her blessing, told us to fight well, and added: “Remember that your deaths are ordained by God and not by the English.”‘ In contrast, Charlie D’Arcy’s father told his eighteen-year-old son to chose between Liberty Hall and his family: ‘He immediately, and without hesitation, chose the Hall. I was present and I admired him with all my heart’, Jim O’Shea recalled, ‘He was killed on Henry & James’ roof, a bullet between the eyes’. Frank Robbins father, a veteran Fenian, called to Liberty Hall with the same purpose in mind: ‘I guessed immediately the nature of his visit and for the first time in my life purposely tried not to see him’. O’Shea parted with his own family on bad terms: ‘My people though we were mad to try anything and were not as sympathetic as I would wish’, he recalled: ‘I was sorry I parted with my people as I did but I considered I had done my best and I felt a savage exultation thinking of what we were about to do’.
Other parents positively encouraged their children to fight. Joseph Lawless was handed his mobilization order by his father: ‘his eyes were alight with the excitement of joyful news’. Patrick Kelly describe the enthusiasm of his father, an elderly Fenian, as his mother made his sandwiches: ‘He worked the bolt of the rifle, sighted it and fired imaginary shots. As he handed me the rifle he remarked, “if I were a few years younger I would go with you”‘. The Plunkett brothers actually did have to turn their elderly father away from the GPO. Some parents demonstrated a remarkably defiant spirit to the authorities. When James Kavanagh’s family home was raided, the sympathetic officer in charge told his mother (who, he knew, had five sons in the Rising) that he was sorry for her:’”I’m sorry too”, she said to him, “sorry I haven’t five more out with them”‘. Family loyalties, at least in some cases, outweighed professional ones. On Monday morning, the DMP knocked on the door of Joseph Bryne, who was home on leave from the Royal Irish Rifles, to tell him to report to his barracks as there was trouble in the city. He reported instead to his family home to join up with his two Volunteer brothers. ‘My mother put her arms around me’, he recalled, “God bless you, I knew you would do it”, and she burned my British uniform’.