On This Day: the Easter Rising, 100 years on
On a trip to Ireland in 2013, I went to Kilkea Castle in County Kildare, where ancestors of mine once lived. It was one of many places I saw in Ireland that reminded me about my own Irish roots and at the same time showed that my heritage is common to many Australians. Millions of Australians are believed to be descended from Irish migrants, and this heritage has shown itself in Australian history time and again.
The Troubles Begin
One hundred years ago today, the Easter Rising began in Dublin. Ireland was then, as it had been for centuries, ruled from London. The Irish had representation in Westminster, but the rule of the Lord Lieutenant from Dublin Castle could be oppressive and at times quite brutal. Catholicism, the religion of most of the Irish, was repressed by British rule for centuries and, even once this repression was reduced by law in the early 19th century, Protestants and Anglo-Irish landowners continued to be the main powers in an Ireland mostly inhabited by Catholics. These sectarian divisions were, and to some extent remain, a source of major tension.
The religious, political and social problems in Ireland all came to a head on Easter Monday 1916. The paramilitary Irish Volunteers, and associated groups, took over various government and civil buildings in Dublin and proclaimed an independent Irish republic. The British sent in troops to quell the rebellion, and over the course of the next week, about five hundred people died and thousands were wounded. Parts of Dublin were left in ruins.
A Model for Home Rule
From the middle of the 19th century, a movement began for ‘Home Rule’ in Ireland, meaning autonomy for the Irish people, if not outright independence. Around this time, the Australian colonies were beginning to be granted responsible government, with power to make laws independent of colonial rulers. These Australian parliaments, which had many members either Irish-born or descended from Irish stock, were seen by some as the model on which an Irish Parliament could be based.
In 1914, a Home Rule Bill was passed which would have established Ireland as a self-governing state much like Australia, although it would have remained part of the United Kingdom. However, the outbreak of the First World War meant the legislation was never implemented. Protestants in Ireland, mostly in the north, bitterly opposed Home Rule, believing it would lead to Catholic domination (some decried it as ‘Rome Rule’) and formed paramilitary groups. Catholic Irish formed their own groups in opposition. Bloodshed was unavoidable. Historians disagree on whether or not Home Rule could have prevented the subsequent trouble.
Catholics and Conscription
The Easter Rising took place as the Australian government considered the introduction of conscription. News of what was happening in Dublin polarised the Australian community. Was it a justified rebellion against oppressive rule, or a Vatican-backed coup? The unofficial but powerful leader of the Irish community in Australia was Dr Daniel Mannix, the Coadjutor Archbishop of Melbourne.* Mannix initially denounced the rebellion, but he came to support it, and his support carried weight. Mannix believed, as did many Irish Catholics in Australia, that the crushing of the Easter Rising had been a blow against freedom in Ireland. According to historian Colm Kiernan:
Mannix’s opposition to conscription gave a lead to Catholics to hold firm against powerful government propaganda. Catholics were predisposed to oppose conscription not just because of the British suppression of the Irish rebellion, but because they did not have the same feeling for England as ‘the mother country’ that many other Australians experienced.
While there were many reasons the conscription referenda failed, historians credit Mannix’s opposition as a major factor. It galvanised the Irish Catholic community into voting ‘no’, despite support for conscription from many major newspapers, churches and officials.
The Easter Rising was also ammunition for conscription supporters. Sinn Féin, the Irish republican group strongly involved in the Easter Rising, was invoked by conscription advocates. They suggested that opposing conscription was opposing the war and the Empire, and letting groups like Sinn Féin help the Germans. Hyperbole perhaps, but this argument held water in an Australia still very much identifying as a British nation.
When I travelled to Kilkea, my mind was on my own history, and the migration of my family from Ireland at the turn of the 19th century. Many other Australians have that same story, and there are those in Ireland who at times have turned their thoughts to Australia. The strong connection between the two countries remains. The cultural influence of the Irish permeates Australian tradition, the Australian form of government influenced Irish lawmakers and, one century ago today, an uprising in Dublin was felt in Australia and showed just how Irish Australians could be.
* A Coadjutor Archbishop is a sort of deputy Archbishop, although sometimes they can have as much power and influence as their nominal boss. Mannix was appointed Coadjutor in 1912 and was effectively in charge since the titular Archbishop, Thomas Carr, was elderly and infirm. Mannix succeeded Carr in 1917.