Brian John Spencer delves into the diaries and history books to recount Dublin on Easter Sunday 1916

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Nora and James Connolly, Brian John Spencer

Nora Connolly, writer and activist, is the daughter of James Connolly. 

On Easter Sunday a century ago, the republican movement (the IRB and Irish Volunteers) was thrown into chaos. The plan for ‘Easter manoeuvres’, a guise for a rebellion to unfold across the whole of Ireland, was cancelled at the last minute by Professor Eoin MacNeill.

MacNeill’s countermand, and as published in the Sunday Independent

On Holy Saturday MacNeill, Chief of Staff of the Irish Volunteers, issued a countermand that was dispatched to Volunteers around the country and published the following day in the Sunday Independent (it had the largest circulation of any Sunday paper).

In this action he crippled the plans of the rebels leaders. 

‘Owing to the very critical position, all orders given to Irish Volunteers for tomorrow, Easter Sunday, are hereby rescinded, and no parades, marches, or other movements of Irish Volunteers will take place. Each individual Volunteer will obey this order strictly in every particular.’

Thomas J. Clarke, the veteran fenian leader and signatory of the Irish Proclamation, later said to his wife Kathleen that MacNeill was a “weak man” and this last minute reversal was an act of “treachery.”

Mrs. Hamilton Norway, the wife of the manager of the GPO, wrote a narrative account of Easter week 1916, ‘The Sinn Fein rebellion as I saw it‘. She spent most of the week in the vicinity of Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street), she recounted that “Easter Sunday passed off in absolute calm.”

James Stephens, writer and friend of James Joyce, wrote in ‘The Insurrection in Dublin‘ that “the day before the rising… they were crying joyfully in the Churches “Christ has risen.”” The next day they would say that Ireland has risen.

Nora Connolly, daughter of rebel leader James Connolly and part of a republican nursing corps, was in Tyrone on Saturday evening awaiting the signal for rebellion. Then aged 22, Nora Connolly recorded her experience of the Easter Week of 1916 in her publication, ‘The unbroken tradition‘ (1918).

At around 9pm “We were still talking of our hopes” she wrote, when a courier rushed in to inform them that the Commandant in the North had orders for volunteers to stand down. The Northern commander, relaying MacNeill’s, countermand, said he had received a demobilising order, but said he thought there would be fighting in Dublin.

At that moment Nora moved to return to Dublin. Her train left Tyrone at half-past midnight on Easter Sunday and arrived in the Irish capital at five-fifteen that morning. She went directly to Liberty Hall where her father would be.

“Ever since the attempted raid on Liberty Hall, he had stayed there every night under an armed guard,” Nora wrote.

L.G Redmond-Howard, nephew of the Irish Parliamentary Party, wrote that Liberty Hall was seen “as the centre and symbol of the anarchy.” Mrs Hamilton Norway called Liberty Hall “a nest of sedition.” Jim Mitchell of East Belfast, Ulster Volunteer and Covenant signatory,  and who witnessed the rebellion from the Gresham Hotel called it “the centre of all the disaffection”.

Walking up the steps to the doors of Liberty Hall Nora met with sentry at the window, he gave her access. She then walked up the corridor to her father’s room. James Connolly was lying on his bed that Sunday morning and looked at Nora with surprise.

“I am afraid there is something wrong,” she said as she knelt down beside him to explain to him why I she had returned from the north.

“What does it mean, father? Are we not going to fight?” She asked him when she had finished.

“Not fight!” he said in amazement. “Nora, if we don’t fight now, we are disgraced forever; and all we’ll have left to hope and pray; for will be, that an earthquake may come and swallow Ireland up.”

Nora was then sent to pass news of the demobilisation of the northern volunteers to Sean MacDermott. He had taken rest at a house just beyond Parnell Square. Other girls were sent to the other leaders to do the same.
 She went upstairs and found him in bed, looking tired and very pale. MacDermott listened to Nora while she told him all she had to tell. He then asked her if the other leaders knew this, Nora confirmed. MacDermott remained silent for a while and then said, “I am very glad you came. Tell your father that I’ll be at the Hall as soon as I can.”

After returning to Liberty Hall, Nora went to Mass at Marlborough Cathedral just around the corner at about seven o’clock. When she and her party returned her father had risen (Connolly had not been to bed until 3 o’clock). James Connolly, dressed in his uniform was going about the room singing to himself, “We’ve got another savior now, That savior is the sword.”

Nora began to prepare breakfast for her father and the rest of the leaders.

One by one the leaders dropped into the room. James Connolly ate with Michael Mallin. Nora gave Tom Clarke his last Easter breakfast. His table companion was Sean MacDermott — “they were always such close friends” Nora recorded. Joseph Plunkett, whose throat heavily swathed in bandages from an operation, arrived, and soon after him came Thomas MacDonagh.

They were all in uniform, except Tom Clarke and Sean MacDermott. Pearse did not have his breakfast at Liberty Hall.   He arrived later and had already eaten. As they stood around talking, a girls came in and said:

“Mr. Connolly, look, the Independent says, ‘No maneuvers to-day.’ What does that mean? Is it a trick?”

“What is that?” said Connolly, taking the paper from her.

“What does this mean?” asked Connolly turning to Pearse.

“Let me see it,” said Pearse, adding “I know nothing whatsoever about this,” when he had read it.

The leaders spoke among themselves there and later in the Council room, remaining there till after one o’clock.

Later that Easter Sunday afternoon the Citizen Army started out on a march. It was remarkable that the authorities, two dozen policemen were detailed to attend the march, were not roused to think something untoward was afoot. The rebel’s haversacks were filled with food, the wagons were piled high with supplies and the bandoliers were filled with ammunition.

The men and women were under military orders, yet the officials failed to notice the changed appearance and mood of the crowd that thronged around Liberty Hall all day. The public and pubic office holders were now desensitised to displays of militarism , as L.G. Redmond-Howard wrote:

“Everyone had grown so accustomed to these demonstrations for the past three years, since they had been inaugurated in Ulster by Sir Edward Carson, that nobody had taken any particular notice.”

Before they parted on their march James Connolly told his daughter Nora to bring the girls to Surrey House, the home of the Countess de Markievicz. There they were to have a rest before reporting at Liberty Hall at 8 o’clock on Easter Monday.

Martin Walton who 15 at the time said:

“We all knew there was something big on for Sunday, though we didn’t know what. I found out afterwards that our job was to have been the taking of Ship Street barracks – that’s the barracks behind the Castle – but of course owing to historic events known to everybody now it was cancelled. We were then mobilized for the following morning, but I missed that as I was only a latecomer to the Volunteers.”

By now Pearse, Connolly and the others had agreed that the uprising would go ahead nonetheless. It would begin at noon on Easter Monday, one day later than originally intended to ensure the authorities were taken by surprise.

The British military and political mind were swaddled in caution and complacency. They knew that movement and revolt was in the air, but had thought that with the scuttling of the Aud and MacNeill’s countermand that any grave threat had been neutralised.

Dublin Castle had plans to arrest some of the republican leadership, but before they could act, the rebels would have near total command of a city whose public are on holiday and whose military is “missing in action” at the Races or on leave. Professor MacNeill later wrote:

“There needs be no doubt about it whatever. I did everything in my power to prevent the Easter Week rising.”

John Dillon said to the House of Commons on May 11 1916:

“If it had not been for the action of Eoin MacNeill you would be fighting still… he broke the back of the rebellion on the very eve of it, and he kept back a very large body of men from joining in.”

MacNeill’s change of heart severely reduced the number of volunteers who reported for duty on the day of the Easter Rising. In total around 1,250-1,500 rebels would turn out on Easter Monday.

On the Wednesday before Easter Sunday ‘the Castle Document’ indicates that the British were going to arrest the nationalist leaders. The story was that it had been stolen from high-ranking British officer, however the letter was a forgery.

On Thursday Bulmer Hobson uncovered the plans for a Rising, immediately he informed Eoin MacNeill. The two drove to St Enda’s at midnight and confronted Pearse, he tells them that they can do nothing to stop the Rising.

On Friday MacNeill spends the early morning trying to halt the rebellion, issuing orders for Volunteers to ignore Pearse’s plans. MacNeill then visited by Seán Mac Diarmada who convinces him to support the Rising. 

When MacNeill learned about the IRB’s plans, about Roger Casement who was to land in County Kerry with a German arms shipment upon the Aud Norge, he was reluctantly persuaded to go along with them, believing British action was now imminent and mobilisation of the Irish Volunteers would be a defensive act.

With his mind changed MacNeill then cancels his countermanding orders. That Friday evening Bulmer Hobson was taken prisoner by the IRB at 76 Cabra Park.
That morning at around 3am the German U Boat, U19, carrying Casement, Monteith and Beverley arrived at the Kerry coast. The three men went ashore in a small boat at Banna Strand. Roger Casement stayed in McKenna’s fort, while the other two went to make contact with the local IRB. However all three are arrested by local police.

The Aud also arrived that morning off the Kerry coast. But it had been tracked from that morning and by evening was cornered by the Royal Navy and escorted to Queenstown. The next morning the captain scuttles the Aud. 

Connolly was informed of this on Saturday morning. A meeting of the Military Council decided not to tell MacNeill. 

At 6pm on Saturday Sean Fitzgibbon, Colm O’Loughlin and The O’Rahilly inform MacNeill about the arrests and the loss of the arms shipment. 

MacNeill confronted Patrick Pearse at St Enda’s. MacNeill then countermanded the order for a Rising guised as “manoeuvres”.

He dispatched couriers overnight to Cork, Dundalk, Coalisland, Waterford and Wexford. The O’Rahilly in his car travelled to Limerick, Kerry, Cork and Tipperary.

But the resolve of the rebel leaders to fight was now fixed and total; no countermand could stop the “terrible beauty” that was to be born.

On February 10 1916 London interception an encrypted message from the German embassy in Washington sent to Berlin. The intelligence said a rising was planned in Ireland to take place between Good Friday and Easter Sunday 1916. Henry Oliver, Admiral of the Fleet wrote in his unpublished memoirs:

“We knew beforehand that the revolution in Ireland would start on Easter Monday 1916, and made naval preparations in advance. The cabinet would not believe the First Lord.”

General John Maxwell would write to Lord Kitchener on May 2 1916:

“The responsibility for not dealing effectively with the Sinn Fein rebellion… Must rest with the Irish executive…”

On Easter Sunday night a meeting is held at Phoenix Park to discuss raiding Liberty Hall and arresting the known leaders. The conference is adjourned, no action will be taken until a final decision is made by Chief Secretary Birrell in London.

Tomorrow the rebels will hold almost all of Dublin before the officials even know a rebellion is afoot. 

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Brian is a writer, artist and law graduate.

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