On 24 April 1916, Easter Monday, seven Irishmen proclaimed the establishment of the Irish Republic outside Dublin’s General Post Office. Members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood’s Military Council (IRB), formed at the onset of World War One, had planned in secret for armed insurrection. Inspired by the sentiment of Robert Emmet’s 1803 independence proclamation and previous generations of revolutionary nationalists, the reading of the Easter Proclamation by Patrick Pearse marked the beginning of a six day rising.
Despite the success of the British Army in suppressing the Rising, in which 54% of 485 casualties were civilians, the execution of sixteen of the rebels in in Kilmainham Gaol and subsequent political developments ultimately increased popular support for Irish independence.
1. Thomas Clarke (1858-1916)
From Co Tyrone and born on the Isle of Wight, Clarke was the son of a British Army soldier. During childhood years in South Africa, he came to view the British Army as an imperial garrison oppressing the Boers. He moved to the US in 1882 and joined the revolutionary Clan Na Gael. During this period, Clarke proved himself a talented journalist, and his anti-British propaganda attracted 30,000 readers across America. A proponent of armed revolution for most of his life, Clarke served 15 years in English prisons after a failed Fenian dynamiting mission in London.
Returning from another stint in the US, Clarke and his wife Kathleen Daly set up a Dublin city centre newspaper shop in November 1907. As the exhausted old guard of revolutionary nationalism, the IRB, ceded influence, Clarke concentrated power in himself and a small like-minded inner circle. Clarke conceived propaganda successes like the Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa funeral August 1915, and thus created a recruiting platform for separatism. A mastermind of the Easter rising, Clarke opposed surrender but was outvoted. He was executed by firing squad at Kilmainham Jail on 3 May.
2. Seán MacDiarmada (1883-1916)
MacDiarmada was born in Co Leitrim and emigrated to Scotland before settling in Belfast. He was circulation manager for Irish Freedom, the mouthpiece of the IRB, dedicated to total separation from Britain, a radical fringe idea prior to the Easter Rising.
MacDiarmada believed the only means of achieving a republic was revolution; he’d prophesised in 1914 that it would be necessary for “some of us to offer ourselves as martyrs if nothing better can be done to preserve the Irish national spirit and hand it down to future generations” and played a leading role in planning the 1916 rising. He was executed by firing squad in Kilmainham Jail on 12 May, serene in the belief that the example of his life would inspire future generations of separatists.
3. Thomas MacDonagh (1878-1916)
From Co Tipperary, MacDonagh trained for priesthood but ended up as a teacher. He joined the Gaelic League, an experience he termed “a baptism in nationalism”, and discovered a lifelong love of the Irish language. Sworn into the IRB In April 1915, MacDonagh also recruited Eamon de Valera into the conspiracy. As the last man co-opted onto the military council, it is believed he played a somewhat limited part in planning the Rising.
He took charge of Jacob’s Biscuit Factory during Easter week until his 2nd Battalion of the Dublin Brigade reluctantly complied with Pearse’s surrender order. MacDonagh was executed by firing squad in Kilmainham 3 May 1916, acknowledging that the firing squad were only doing their duty, and famously offering the officer in charge his silver cigarette case “I won’t be needing this – would you like to have it?”
4. Pádraic Pearse (1879-1916)
Born in Great Brunswick Street, Dublin, Pearse joined the Gaelic League at seventeen reflecting passion for Irish language and literature. Pearse had become a prominent figure in the years before the Rising as a poet, playwright, journalist and teacher. He set up a bilingual boy’s school at Saint Enda’s and later for girls education at Saint Ita’s.
Though initially supportive of Irish Home Rule, Pearse was increasingly frustrated by the failure to enact it and in November 1913 was a founding member of the Irish Volunteers. His involvement with the IRB and Military Council led him to have a major role in planning the Rising. As president of the Provisional Government Pearse read the Proclamation, and issued the order for surrender after the GPO was evacuated. He was one of the principal authors of the 1916 Proclamation, inspired throughout his life by Wolfe Tone’s republican philosophy and Robert Emmet’s commitment to revolutionary activism as well as the muscular social radicalism of Michael Davitt and James Fintan Lalor.
He was executed by firing squad on 3 May. His legacy remained controversial, ex-IRB organiser Bulmer Hobson had blackened his reputation into the 1940s by which time partition, the Civil War and the IRA’s “S-Plan” had further agitated partisans.
5. Éamonn Ceannt (1881-1916)
Born in Co Galway, Ceannt was deeply interested in Irish language and music. A fluent Irish speaker and member of the Gaelic league, Ceannt also joined Sinn Fein and the IRB. He helped to raise finance to purchase arms to the Irish Volunteers. During the Rising, Ceannt and his men of the 4th Battalion occupied the South Dublin Union. Ceannt defended himself in typically measured fashion during the hastily convened court martial.
Executed by firing squad on 8 May 1916, in his final letter to his wife Áine, he wrote: “I die a noble death, for Ireland’s sake” and expressed the hope that “in the years to come, Ireland will honour those who risked all for her honour at Easter in 1916″.
6. James Connolly (1868-1916)
Son of poor Irish Catholic emigrants to Edinburgh, Connolly was eleven when he left school for working life. A Marxist revolutionary socialist, Connolly was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World and founder of the Irish Socialist Republican Party. After returning from the US to Ireland in 1903, Connolly organised the Irish Transport and General Worker’s Union.
He opposed Home Rule as middle class and capitalist, and with James Larkin formed the Irish Citizen Army. In January 1916 he agreed that the IRB, the ICA and the Irish Volunteers should organise joint insurrection. In directing military operations in the GPO, Connolly was seriously wounded in the shoulder and ankle during the Easter Rising, he was executed in his stretcher on 12 May. Connolly’s vision of a workers’ republic largely died with him, nationalist and conservative forces took hold in the developing independent Ireland.
7. Joseph Mary Plunkett (1887-1916)
Dublin born Plunkett was the son of a papal count. Together with close friend and tutor Thomas MacDonagh, Plunkett and Edward Martyn established the Irish Theatre and Irish Review Journal. As editor, Plunkett was increasingly political and supported workers’ rights, Sinn Fein and the Irish Volunteers. Following a mission to Germany in 1915 to obtain arms he was also appointed to the IRB military council.
Heavily involved with the final preparations for the rising, Plunkett joined the efforts in the GPO despite being ill after an operation. Seven hours before his execution by firing squad on 4 May, Plunkett married his sweetheart Grace Gifford in the prison chapel.
In the context of world war, British forces delivered ultimate punishment to the leaders of those who had attacked their forces and openly declared alliance with Germany. Unsurprisingly, in the context of Irish history, those reprisals alienated much of Irish opinion and increased public sympathy for the rebels and their goals. Typically operating on the fringes of society throughout their lives, the signatories gained in death their place in the pantheon of national martyrdom.