IRELAND –  PATRICK PEARSE & THE EASTER RISING The Order of Surrender, typed and signed ("P. H. Pearse") and dated ("29th April 1916/ 3.45 p.m.")

The catastrophic Easter Rising had barely begun before it was over. Yet this abortive revolt against Britain, Ronan McGreevy discovers, would lead directly to an independent Ireland.

On Easter Sunday 2016, one of the largest public events ever staged in Ireland took place in Dublin. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to commemorate the centenary of the Easter Rising. The parade was led by the Irish defence forces, the clearest expression of the independent Irish state wrought out of rebellion on the streets of Dublin in 1916.  

Some 3,500 events were staged for the centenary. Schools received a copy of the Proclamation, foundation document of the modern Irish state. In it, the leaders of the Rising stated their intention to declare a "sovereign independent republic" – a radical notion at the time.

Schools also received a tricolour, one of the many flags that flew during the Rising, but now the flag of the Republic of Ireland. 

The Rising was conceived of in secret by a military council determined to use the First World War as an opportunity to strike at the British. England's difficulty would be Ireland's opportunity.

Its leaders concealed their plans from even their superiors. They were, in the words of one commentator, a "minority of a minority".
Yet ultimately they succeeded in persuading the Irish people that Ireland's destiny lay in the pursuit of independence from Britain.

The Rising took place in the middle of the First World War. Tens of thousands of Irishmen were serving at the Front in British uniforms. They had been encouraged to do so by Irish nationalist leaders who felt their involvement would gain a better Home Rule settlement for Ireland after the war. 

The timing of the rebellion was propitious and not coincidental. The Christian symbolism of a rising from the dead was appropriated by the rebels for an Irish nation long occupied and subjugated. At the heart of it all was Patrick Pearse, the president of the Provisional Government, though there was no government and the rebellion lasted just six days. He is the dominating personality of the Easter Rising, only ever seen in profile (apparently he was self-conscious about a cast in his eye). His short life – he died at the age of 36 – has been the subject of endless scrutiny.

Pearse was a poet, Irish-language enthusiast and orator. He was also half-English. His father was a stonemason from Birmingham; his mother from an Irish nationalist background. It "made me the strange thing I am", he said.

He was once a moderate nationalist who supported the limited self-government within the United Kingdom on offer through the Home Rule bill of 1912, yet he turned into a militant separatist. In 1915, he made a memorable speech at the grave of an old rebel, Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa, promising the torch of rebellion would pass to a new generation: "We pledge to English rule in Ireland our hate." It was Pearse who read the Proclamation outside the General Post Office in Dublin to an indifferent and puzzled crowd on Easter Monday 1916.

As an armed rebellion, the Easter Rising was doomed from the start. The rebels had sought the support of Germany. Sir Roger Casement, knight of the realm turned Irish rebel, persuaded the Germans to send a consignment of arms aboard the Libau – disguised as a Norwegian ship, the Aud. Carrying 20,000 guns, machine-guns and ammunition, the Aud was intercepted by the Royal Navy and scuppered on Good Friday 1916. 

Those who rose up during Easter Week 1916 were mostly Irish Volunteers, an armed militia set up in 1913 to defend the promise of Home Rule. When their chief-of-staff Eoin MacNeill heard of the failure of the Aud, he issued a countermanding order calling off all manoeuvres. As a result, the rebellion was confined to Dublin and a few isolated pockets elsewhere. 

Had 20,000 Irish Volunteers armed with German guns been able to rise, they could have made serious mischief for the British, a nation locked into an existential struggle for survival against the Germans on the Western Front. 

A more prudent military command might have called the whole enterprise off, but the rebels had come too far in their planning to turn back. Besides, the gesture was as important as the result. The rebels hoped by their boldness to wake the conscience of an Irish people who had become used to British rule. So, at midday on Easter Monday, 1,200 men and women occupied the General Post Office (GPO) and other buildings in Dublin.

The authorities in Ireland were taken by surprise, though they had been monitoring the leaders assiduously for a long time. The scuppering of the Aud had led them to believe that no rebellion would take place.

The rebels had initial success, but the greater firepower of the British prevailed. They brought up a gunboat, the Helga, to shell Liberty Hall, the home of the socialist Irish Citizen Army, the smaller of the two rebel formations, and reduced the centre of Dublin to rubble. 

The rebels held out longer than many of them expected – previous 19th-century rebellions had been farcical one-day affairs – but the destruction was beyond compare and nearly 500 people were killed, mostly civilians.

Throughout Easter Week, Pearse pondered the morality of this loss of life. One eye-witness, Desmond FitzGerald, whose son Garret went on to become a future Irish Prime Minister (Taoiseach), remembered Pearse agonising over the responsibility he bore for the rebellion: "Pearse, as he looked at the men about him with their weapons – pitiful weapons to set out to beat the British Empire with: some were rifles but more of them were shotguns, and there were some that we called the Howth rifles, very antiquated – I could see that he was deeply moved. These young men had come out at his bidding to give their lives for Ireland."

The British flooded the centre of Dublin with troops.  In desperation, the rebels fled the smoking ruins of the GPO to a number of houses in nearby Moore Street. Pearse witnessed the death of three civilians caught in the crossfire and concluded that enough was enough. 

On Saturday 29 April, a military council was held and the rebels decided to surrender. Pearse sent out Nurse Elizabeth O'Farrell as an emissary to General William Lowe, the commander of British forces in Dublin. Shortly afterwards the moment of surrender was captured by a photographer. In the photograph are Pearse, O'Farrell, Lowe and Captain Henry de Courcy-Wheeler, a young British officer. His daughter Dorothea (106) is still alive. She is the last living person to remember the Rising. 

Shortly afterwards Pearse's original surrender note, to be offered at auction in June at Bonhams Knightsbridge, was typed up and signed by him to bring to the outlying garrisons. "In order to prevent the further slaughter of Dublin citizens," it read, "and in the hope of saving the lives of our followers now surrounded and hopelessly outnumbered, the members of the Provisional Government present at Head Quarters have agreed to an unconditional surrender, and the Commandants of the various districts in the City and country will order their command tp [sic] lay down arms". 

The terse document expresses Pearse's belief that he would certainly be executed, but that all the others would be spared. Instead the British executed 15 leaders, including Pearse, and imprisoned thousands. This brutal military fiat turned Irish public opinion against British rule in Ireland exactly as the rebels had hoped. 

In his last letter to his mother before his execution, Pearse wrote:  "Our deeds of last week are the most splendid in Ireland's history. People will say hard things of us now, but we shall be remembered by posterity and blessed by unborn generations." How right he was. 

Ronan McGreevy is the editor of Centenary – Ireland Remembers 1916, which will be published in the autumn.

Sale: Fine Books, Atlases, Manuscripts and Photographs
Wednesday 14 June
Enquiries: Matthew Haley +44 (0) 20 7393 3817

  1. Matthew Haley
    Montpelier Street
    London, United Kingdom SW7 1HH
    Work +44 20 7393 3817

Related auctions