The 24th of March 2016 marks the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising, and the landmark documentary, 1916: The Irish Rebellion, recounts the details of this history-making and history-changing event.
“Easter Monday. April 1916. A small band of rebels — including poets and teachers, actors and workers — gathered in Dublin, intent on liberating Ireland from 700 years of British rule. Against the might of the British Empire, the poorly-armed rebels stand little chance, yet the decision is made to proceed, even if it brings failure or death.”
Those words open 1916: The Irish Rebellion, the extraordinary documentary that commemorates the 100th anniversary of the seminal event known as the Easter Rising or Easter Rebellion, in which 1600 Irish rebels took on 20,000 British troops in order to establish an independent Irish republic.
The Easter Rising lasted all of six days, and the rebels — men and women — were defeated. But their actions would ultimately lead to the creation of the Republic of Ireland, and inspire freedom movements throughout the world.
Narrated by acclaimed actor and Irishman Liam Neeson, 1916: The Irish Rebellion consists of three hour-long parts that feature rarely-seen archival footage — including of individuals who witnessed the uprising — as well as new segments filmed on location across the globe, interviews with leading international experts, and the untold story of the central role that Irish Americans played in the lead-up to the rebellion. These elements combine to help place the events of the Easter Rising — the precursor to an independent Irish state and the disintegration of the British Empire and other colonial empires worldwide — in their proper historical, political, and cultural context.
Part One: Awakening
“Irishmen and Irishwomen… Ireland strikes for her freedom… We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland… The Irish Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all… to pursue the happiness and the prosperity of the whole nation… cherishing all the children of the nation equally…” — From the Proclamation of the Irish Republic
The ideals for the 1916 uprising emerged from a long and turbulent history dating back to 1171 AD, when King Henry II of England traveled to Ireland and initiated Britain’s centuries-long occupation of Ireland.
The 15th and 16th centuries were marked by outbreaks of Irish rebellion, and the 18th century saw the Irish Rebellion of 1798, also known as the United Irishmen Rebellion. The latter, inspired by the examples of the American and French Revolutions, was a major uprising in which tens of thousands of Irish rebels fought against British rule. At the end of four months of fighting, the rebellion had failed and 30,000 Irish were dead.
By the 19th century, Ireland was fully incorporated into the British Empire. As the Empire continued to expand, from Canada to India and beyond, Ireland, and Dublin in particular, was on a downward spiral of stagnation, exacerbated by the Great Famine of the 1840s and the systematic oppression of the Irish people by the British.
Thus began the great migration of Irish men, women, and children from their homeland to America, to cities including New York, Boston, and Chicago. In the United States they tasted the freedom they hungered for, and they knew they were “going to a land that they ultimately want[ed] Ireland to be.”
The mid to late 19th century saw the birth of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, Catholic nationalists who were (for the most part) pro Home Rule for Ireland, and the beginnings of the Ulster Unionists, Irish Protestants loyal to the British Crown and against Home Rule. Both sides established armed militias and the threat of civil war loomed large.
Then the Great War broke out in the early days of the 20th century, Britain postponed the implementation of Home Rule, and 170,000 Irish men — nationalists and unionists alike — joined the British Army.
Part Two: Insurrection
“As the men and women of 1916 prepare to take on the might of the British Empire, their leaders are aware that they have little hope of success. And yet, the time has come. The most momentous week in Irish history is about the begin.”
The Rising almost didn’t happen.
For the fight for the right of self-determination and self-rule, the rebels planned to seize key locations in Dublin city center while volunteers would also rise in towns across the country. However, the chaos that arose before the uprising even began, including the countermanding order calling it off, caused so much confusion that only 2000 people showed up, when more than 4000 had been expected.
Yet the Rising did happen, despite the rebels having done little to no reconnaissance work and receiving misinformation, and civilians taking to the streets of Dublin, not for the uprising but looting. The British powers that be declared martial law in Dublin.
The world was watching. With 25% of New York City’s population being Irish at the time, The New York Times began fourteen consecutive days of front page coverage about the Rising. America’s past could be Ireland’s future.
After six days of fighting, the rebels who remained standing were forced to submit to unconditional surrender. Approximately 500 people had been killed, including more than 300 innocent civilians, of which 40 were children. In spite of it being a fight for freedom, the Rising was not popular amongst most in Dublin.
Part Three: When Myth and History Rhyme
“The Rising is over, but its repercussions are only just beginning.”
Dublin was devastated. Destroyed on an epic scale. Reduced to rubble.
The British arrested thousands, subsequently releasing most but imprisoning the rank and file members of the Irish Citizen Army and Irish Republican Brotherhood in Britain. Fifteen leaders of the Rising were treated as traitors, court-martialed, and executed.
Britain’s rounding up of people who had nothing to do with the Rising caused those Irish who’d been opposed to the Rising to now see it through the eyes the rebels and to favor the right to self-determination and self-rule in Ireland.
By 1918 Irish women were given the right to vote. The general election that year resulted in the win by Sinn Féin, the pro-independence republican party, which proclaimed an independent Irish republic in 1919.
While the Irish rebellion of 1916 was ostensibly a failure, it created the conditions for a national revolution and changed the course of Irish history.
As many Irish and Irish wannabes celebrate St. Patrick’s Day today, it’s worth remembering that one week from today, one hundred years ago, a relatively small group of Irish rebels rose up against the military might of the British Empire to “proclaim the Irish Republic as a Sovereign Independent State.”
Created by Bríona Nic Dhiarmada, Thomas J. & Kathleen M. O’Donnell Professor of Irish Studies and Concurrent Professor of Film, Television, and Theatre at the University of Notre Dame, and produced by Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies at the University of Notre Dame, in association with COCO Television Productions, Limited, 1916: The Irish Rebellion is presented to public television stations by WTTW Chicago and distributed nationally by American Public Television.
1916: The Irish Rebellion will premiere in the US on the local public TV stations and networks listed below on or after 21 March 2016. Check your local listings or contact the station that serves your area for broadcast dates and times. For information regarding carriage, contact American Public Television.