Ireland had been part of the United Kingdom since the abolishment of the Irish parliament in 1801 and was ruled from London via its appointees in Dublin.
While this country had elections and was represented at the Westminster Parliament, just three men held power in Dublin — none of whom was Irish.
The Lord Lieutenant was Ivor Churchill, Baron of Wimborne, who was based at Phoenix Park. The Chief Secretary was Augustine Birrell, a pro-Home Rule liberal from Liverpool, who was responsible for formulating and administering government policy in Ireland. Fiercely loyal to Birrell, civil servant Matthew Nathan was the Under Secretary.
The demand for Home Rule had dominated Irish politics since the 1870s but was strongly resisted by Unionism.
The imminent passage of the third Home Rule Bill, with the British parliament dependent on Irish MPs, led to the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force in 1912 — who attempted to prevent Home Rule with the threat of force. This also precipitated the formation of the nationalist Irish Volunteers.
So, while Ireland had elected representatives, the Irish didn’t run the country. Ireland was neither a colony nor entirely democratic as a result.
World War I (WWI) — sparked by the assassination in June 1914 of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria — plunged Europe into conflict after long-simmering international tensions and imperialist foreign policies exploded.
The long-awaited Home Rule Bill, though placed on the statute books, was not to come into effect until after the war — but the outbreak of WWI overshadowed the Irish crisis.
More than 60 million Europeans — including 210,000 Irish, fighting for Britain — were mobilised in one of the largest wars in history. More than nine million combatants were killed. There were an estimated 35,000 Irish casualties.
John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party — the dominant force in nationalist politics — had urged Irishmen to enlist in the British Army, believing this would secure Home Rule at a later stage.
Echoing the call of Dublin-born Ulster Unionist leader Edward Carson, Redmond asked members of the Irish Volunteers to serve in the British army “wherever the firing line extends”.
This caused a split in the Irish Volunteers, amid growing tensions between Redmond, who was taking control of the organisation, and their leader and Chief of Staff Eoin MacNeill.
The minority believed the principles used to justify the Allied war cause would be better applied in a bid to restore Irish freedom.
They retained the name ‘Irish Volunteers’ and under MacNeill called for Irish neutrality.
Redmond, however, found the support of some 175,000 members into the ‘National Volunteers’, leaving the Irish Volunteers with a maximum of 13,500.
The more extreme leaders of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) saw this as a chance to wrestle back strict and secretive control of the Irish Volunteers.
The Volunteer split was acrimonious, but non-violent. Before the war, there was an estimated 250,000 enrolled in citizen militias in Ireland.
The Irish Volunteers, founded in 1913, had declared in its manifesto: “To drill, to learn the use of arms, to acquire the habit of concerted and disciplined action, is beyond all doubt, a programme that appeals to all Ireland.”
However, as the British faced the major challenges of the War, the republican dictum ‘England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity’ would provoke those on the radical fringes of Irish nationalism to resort to physical force.
In November 1915, Matthew Nathan, acutely aware of heightened nationalist sentiment in Ireland, said: “Redmond has been honestly Imperial in the war, but by going as far as he has done, he has lost his position in the country.”
Previously, Theobald Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen (1798), Robert Emmet (1803), the Young Irelanders (1848), and the Fenians (1865-67) plotted rebellion but failed in the face of formidable empirical and military resistance.
In 1916, nationalist Ireland was deeply frustrated at the lack of progress on Home Rule. Then, the British War Office refused to allow the creation of a distinct Irish Brigade.
These factors, along with the continuing threat of conscription — and later the horror of the executions — would compound the ramifications of the rebellion.