Many Irishmen are serving in the British armed forces, fighting and dying on the Western Front and further afield. Ireland itself has been spared the destruction war has brought to Europe. That may be about to change.
Before war came to Europe in 1914 Ireland stood at the brink of civil war. The country was divided between supporters and opponents of the Home Rule that the British government had agreed to grant the island. In the north east of the island the Ulster Volunteers had formed to oppose Home Rule while throughout the country the Irish Volunteers formed to defend its introduction. Both of these militias imported arms from Germany and prepared to fight.
The outbreak of war in Europe allowed the British government to suspend Home Rule for the war’s duration. The Irish Volunteers split into pro- and anti- war factions. The larger National Volunteers supported the British war effort. Many of them heeded the call to join the British army of Irish Parliamentary Party leader John Redmond. As time went on the remaining National Volunteer organisation became largely moribund.
The smaller anti-war faction kept the name Irish Volunteers and has remained active. Many of their leading officers are covert members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secret society intent on making Ireland fully independent of Britain. The IRB’s Military Council has decided to stage an uprising against Britain, using the men of the Irish Volunteers to do so. Although the Volunteers’ leader, Eoin MacNeill, is not a member of the IRB, the Military Council hope to secure his support for the rising by using forgeries of British documents to make him think that the suppression of the Volunteers is imminent.
The IRB have also formed an alliance with the Irish Citizen Army, a small socialist militia, whose leader James Connolly has been sworn into the IRB. He agrees that the Irish Citizen Army will join the rising.
The rising is to begin on Easter Sunday, the 23rd of April. For the rebels, taking on the might of the British Empire will be a bold step. They are hoping for a further shipment of arms from Germany, but the IRB leadership must know that they have little chance of victory.
Irish Citizen Army members at Croydon Park (National Library of Ireland)