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The British Army’s more favourable treatment of Ulster Volunteer recruits, the formation in 1915 of a coalition government at Westminster comprised of die-hard Conservative and Unionist opponents of home rule, major losses among Irish units at Gallipoli and on the Western Front and growing fears of conscription undermined the Irish Party’s credibility.For Ireland’s republican minority “England’s difficulty” proved “Ireland’s opportunity.” Three organisations were centrally involved in the Easter Rising: the radical faction of the Irish Volunteers that split from the main body when Redmond supported enlistment in the British army; the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) secret society, also known as the Fenians; and the Irish Citizen Army, a socialist militia established by militant trade-unionists during the 1913 Lockout.The inept handling of this incident led to the resignation of the Secretary of State for War, John Edward Bernard Seely (1868-1947), and the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir John French (1852-1925), only months before the beginning of the war.
Since its inception, the purpose of the Volunteers had never been defined beyond a vague aspiration to defend the rights of Ireland, a formulation interpreted by republicans as equating to independence but more cautiously defined by figures such as Eoin Mac Neill (1867-1945), the chief of staff of the Irish Volunteers.
Although later pilloried for sabotaging the Rising, Mac Neill’s objections to insurrection were compelling.
The popularity of volunteering reflected not only the depth of the political crisis but the appeal of military values across the political spectrum in pre-war Ireland.
Britain’s grip on Ireland was further weakened by the Curragh “mutiny” when British army officers resigned to protest the Liberal government’s apparent willingness to impose home rule on Ulster’s unionist majority.
The rebellion ended in six days, leaving almost 500 dead and much of the city centre in ruins.
In response, the British authorities executed fifteen of the ringleaders and arrested over 3,000 suspects.However, the First World War also ultimately created the opportunity for insurrection.Although the overwhelming majority of Irish Volunteers and Catholic nationalists supported the decision of the Irish Party leader John Redmond (1856-1918) to back the British war effort, Redmond’s political authority was increasingly eroded by the unfolding circumstances and experience of the war.Of the three revolutionary bodies, it was only the smallest and least significant – James Connolly’s (1868-1916) Irish Citizen Army – that was fully committed to an unprovoked insurrection.As with the other members of the military council, Connolly’s motives were closely bound up with the impact of the First World War. Although prepared to die for Ireland, there is little to suggest that IRB conspirators like Tom Clarke or Seán Mac Dermott (1883-1916) willingly sought martyrdom despite the subsequent myth of the Rising as a “blood sacrifice.” They intended rather a principled, heroic gesture to reawaken the spirit of militant nationalism among the apparently apathetic masses, an aspiration that explains their preoccupation with symbolic and dramatic gestures, such as the proclamation of an Irish republic, over military objectives.When Sinn Féin swept aside the moderate nationalist Irish Parliamentary Party in the general election of 1918, its demand for the Republic proclaimed by the Easter rebels made inevitable the War of Independence (1919-21) and Civil War (1922-23) that followed.Despite controversies about the morality and legacy of the rebels’ actions, the Easter Rising is remembered as the pivotal event in the struggle for Irish independence.However, following the formation of the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force in January 1913, the importation of German rifles in April 1914 and the establishment of a “provisional government” in Belfast, there was considerable potential for conflict – whether with the British authorities or Irish nationalists – by the eve of the Great War.The British government’s failure to prevent the formation of the Ulster Volunteers enabled nationalists to establish the Irish Volunteers and, by the summer of 1914, over a quarter of a million Irishmen belonged to paramilitary groups, vastly outnumbering Crown forces in Ireland.The Irish Volunteers, the largest of the three organisations, was also divided on the merits of a rebellion.A considerable proportion of its 10,000-15,000 militants (representing fewer than 10 percent of the original body) opposed an unprovoked rebellion.