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Easter 1916: The aftermath 06.04.07

By Michelle Boyle

The Easter Insurrection of 1916 goes down as one of the most historic events in modern history. When young Irishmen and women took on the might of the British Empire and struck a blow for freedom. Beneath the exterior of the grand title of Easter Rising 1916 lie stories of pain, hardship and suffering. Even now, 91 years later, little is spoken of events following the Rising.

When, on Sunday, the arrested rebels were marched across Dublin from one prison compound to another, they were at times jeered at and booed by the crowds. The mass of public opinion had been against the rebels. Some 3,430 suspects were arrested; 90 sentenced to death; and 16 leaders executed. A total of 1,480 people and 79 women thought to be "Sinn Féiners" were interned after the Rising, many of whom had little or nothing to do with the affair. Even some of those who were deported, along with the veterans of the Rising, to English prisons had no previous involvement in violent nationalism. The main effect of the arrests, therefore, was to alienate nationalist opinion.
After Easter week all the volunteers not captured went on the run enduring months of bitter cold, as they wandered the country in search of sanctuary to escape police raids. Tomás MacCurtain and Terence MacSwiney were arrested in May and interned in England.

On the direct orders of the cabinet in London, punishment was swift, secret and brutal. Sir John Maxwell, the British Commander-in-Chief ordered sixteen of the Irish leaders to be court-martialed and shot. The leaders were tried by court martial and shot: only when they were dead were their sentences announced. The execution of these men was an attempt to murder of the Provisional Government of Ireland. Padraig Pearse was the first to be singled out for execution; he was not allowed to see his mother or brother before he was executed on May 3, 1916.

At the same time, details began to emerge of British atrocities, including the murders of Francis Sheehy Skeffington and other innocent civilians. Sheehy-Skeffington’s only role in the Easter Rising was as a neutral party. A party of British troops arrested him and took him as hostage on a raid. During this raid, Francis and two other prisoners witnessed the murder of an unarmed young boy by a British officer. The next morning, these three men were taken out into the yard of Portobello Barracks and executed on the order of the same British captain. These revelations undermined the assumption of moral superiority that, for the British authorities, justified the executions of the leaders of the Rising. Public opinion began to change and the leaders were now seen as heroes.

When the last of the prisoners were deported to Britain, British Authorities decided to move the bulk of Irish Prisoners to Frongach, an internment camp in North Wales. The camp was an old distillery, which had already pressed into use as accommodation of German prisons. Internees lay on thin dusty grey mattresses infested with lice which inevitably seen them wake up covered in the vermin, on this damp, cold rat infested site.
Immediately the volunteers began immediately setting up structures, which would demonstrate to the world that they were indeed soldiers. They took their orders from their own officers, whom they elected to the camp council. Although they were living in damp rat infested conditions, the prisoners made the best of the situation using their internment as a platform from which to re-organize themselves. Classes were formed on every subject in everyday life that would be expected of them under law under the Republic. A former prisoner reminisced years later “had the British known what was taking place under their own guard and officials, we would have been hunted out of the camp. For what they didn’t relies was men from all over Ireland came together in the camp, which was invaluable in training the army of the Republic”.

In 1917 when London at last understood that its methods were uniting all Ireland against Britain, there was yet another change of British policy. Many of the 3,000-odd men arrested after the Rising were released from British gaols. They returned to Ireland and began immediately to reorganize a new and more powerful IRA, now with the backing of the people. As freed detainees reorganized the Republican forces, nationalist sentiment slowly began to swing behind the nationalist Sinn Féin party.

By 1917, Sinn Féin had become the vehicle by which most Rising survivors expressed themselves politically. They achieving an over whelming victory in the 1918 Election. Sinn Féin was believed to be involved as it was the best-known, openly anti-English nationalist body in Dublin, and they had been hugely involved in the Anti-conscription campaign swinging public opinion in their favour. In the course of 1917, the movement was transformed. First its organization changed: it absorbed other militant nationalist bodies and its party branches spread nationwide.

The executions on May 3rd, 1916 marked the beginning of a change in Irish opinion, much of which had until now seen the rebels as irresponsible adventurists whose actions were likely to harm the nationalist cause. A wave of disgust crossed all Ireland. That wave did not subside when the British defended their measures in the Commons. For those men and women who took part in the events of Easter week it was only the beginning. Before them lay a path of torture, suffering and pain. Easter Week was but the foundation laid on the path to freedom. From the ashes of the Easter Rising 1916 arose a new national longing to be free. From behind the walls of British internment camps emerged a band of Irish soldiers who were willing to do whatever it took to achieve independence and fight on for as long as that took.
"They think they have foreseen everything, but the fools! The fools! The fools! They have left us our Fenian dead; and while Ireland holds these graves Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.”-Padraig Pearse


Michelle Boyle is a member of Sinn Fein and is based in west Donegal.
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