THE BEST OF YEARS, THE WORST OF YEARS
Easter, 1916. It seemed like the perfect time to wage a rebellion against British rule. Their troops were fully occupied on the Continent fighting Germany in the trenches. Those left behind to guard their Irish possessions were few and ill-prepared. Plus, Easter had a symbolic meaning for all Christians. Just as Christ rose from the dead, so would the Irish rise up from 400 years of oppression and take possession of their land and their culture once more.
On the other hand, a bill had been introduced in Parliament to offer Home Rule to the Irish which would give them a measure of autonomy without a revolution.
The problem was that the Unionists in the North were totally against home rule because it would put the Catholic majority in control. In addition, they had formed their own civilian army to fight if such a bill were passed.
Conversely, since the British allowed the Unionists to form their own civilian army called the Ulster Volunteers,[HW1] they could hardly object to those in the South forming their paramilitary group, the Irish Volunteers, to defend themselves. This group, along with another called the Irish Citizen Army that would come mainly from the workers’ unions, would form the core of the Irish rebellion and with proper arms could perhaps overthrow their British rulers.
The problem was that they had insufficient arms and were dependent on shipments from abroad. The Germans were willing to supply such arms, but anyone caught smuggling German arms could be charged with treason and hanged.
There were groups of all sorts in favor of an uprising. The workers and trade unionists because they had suffered under the oppressive paternalism of British owners who controlled the police and brutally put down strikes. The humanists and scholars (Gaelic League) because they saw the replacement of Irish language and culture by the English as a destruction of their heritage. The Catholics because they saw the imposition of a Protestant hegemony placing restrictions on their civil rights. And finally, the socialists who saw capitalism as the root of all the troubles. The problem was that each of these groups had different leaders with different agendas.
Meanwhile, ordinary men and women were just going about their daily business trying to get along, make ends meet, and live peaceful lives. Also, since most of the planning was going on in secret, only a select group of citizens even knew that a revolution was brewing. Could there really be a revolution if no one showed up?
Still, 1916 was a good year. Women’s rights were coming of age and there were several female leaders already in the forefront. The British Empire was overextended with colonies around the world and a major war was draining resources and manpower. In addition, the massive immigration to the US and Canada during the famine years ensured that there were millions of Irish American sympathizers living abroad who would financially support the cause.
Nevertheless, because Britain had possessions and dependents abroad it could call on them to fill the ranks of its armies. Thus, there were Indian soldiers, Canadian soldiers, New Zealand soldiers, Australian soldiers and, yes, more than 200,000 Irish soldiers who served the Union Jack. In addition, the American government considered England its staunchest ally and as the war progressed President Woodrow Wilson could hardly be sympathetic to any uprising which weakened England’s fight against Germany in “the War to make the world safe for democracy.”
Yes, 1916 was the perfect year. Perfectly confusing, perfectly complex. The spirit of revolution would rise and ebb, like the fortunes of World War I itself. It would be full of passion and energy but also blunders and foolishness. The spirit of revolt and its forces would rise, then ebb, then rise again. When the smoke cleared from the awful shelling of the British artillery, it would appear a disaster for the Irish, with a bombed-out capital, her leaders hanged as traitors, civilians ruthlessly murdered, women imprisoned, and the boot of the oppressor firmly on the throat of the Irish people. Yet, in a few short years, the tide would change again, and what had appeared to be feckless would be seen as visionary, what had been perceived as disaster would be known as glorious. The Easter Rising of 1916. And the women? Ah, the women. They helped to turn that tide.
Reading the traditional accounts of the period, one would conclude that women played only a minor role in the Rising. Even the most generous of historians assign them roles as messengers and nurses, non-combatants who played no part in the actual planning, were not involved in military operations, and were assigned to secondary roles because of their gender. The two exceptions made are Constance Markiewicz and Margaret Skinnider, whose contributions would be hard to ignore. Markiewicz was, in fact, a leader in the Irish Citizen Army. She not only designed their uniforms and wrote their anthem, but she helped train young troopers, and was armed with an automatic pistol which she used to considerable effect in the various encounters with police and British soldiers in and around St. Stephen’s Green. That she ultimately went on to be the first woman elected from Ireland to the House of Commons secured her a place in history, as did the fact that, as a Sinn Fein member, she refused to take her seat after being elected.
Margaret Skinnider wrote a widely read book about her experiences in the Irish Citizen Army both as a sharpshooter and a fearsome sniper. She was also an explosives expert who risked her life on many occasions, in the transport of highly volatile chemicals and fuses, as well as the setting of explosives in houses occupied by British forces. Moreover, during one particular raid she was ambushed at the entrance to a house in which British soldiers were barricaded and was shot three times. All three hits were with “dum dum” bullets which caused significant and potentially fatal wounds. She survived, not only to tell her story, but to promote Irish nationalism and women’s rights for many years thereafter.
However, what is often ignored or glimpsed only in piecemeal articles and not part of the general scheme of things, is the vital role women played in the planning of the Rising and the financing and acquisition of arms without which the Rising would have never taken place. In addition to Markiewicz and Skinnider, there were a host of women noted for their courage and poise under fire who served as quartermasters of the rebels, providing them with food, ammunition, and medicines. Others worked as medical personnel not only as nurses, but also in one case as a surgeon operating under combat conditions. Finally, it was a woman who handled the tricky negotiations with the British general to obtain a ceasefire to save civilian lives and (against her wishes) ultimately delivered the surrender agreement at the request of the Commander-in-Chief Pádraic Pearse.
 Charles Townshend, Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion (London: Kindle edition, 2006), 1-10.
[HW1]Please doublecheck the reference below – a different edition & date are listed in the bibliography