MacNeill feared a bloodbath if unarmed Volunteers came out

Week II

‘How did the Germans receive our plans? With polite incredulity’…..wrote Liam Ó Briain, the Galway professor who took part in the 1916 Rising, ‘ignorant of Ireland they viewed us as forlorn visionaries, and even doubted whether we would be rash enough to challenge the armed might of England’.

Ó Briain committed his thoughts to paper years after the Rising in an effort to clear up misunderstandings that followed the contradictory orders that were issued in the crucial days and hours before the Rising began.

‘Yet on the whole’, he continued ‘ the Germans kept their word with Ireland. They told us they would launch an offensive in the spring 1916. So Easter was fixed on as the date for the Rising. It was agreed that a cargo of rifles and machine-guns would arrive off the Kerry coast, near Fenit, from Good Friday to Easter Sunday, April 21st and 23rd. If our campaign was well launched, the Germans would send more arms and men if possible’.

The key to an all-Ireland insurrection was the arms that Sir Roger Casement was bringing from Germany, which were to be landed at Tralee Bay from The Aud, sailing under Norwegian colours in the early hours of Good Friday morning. The rifles and explosives were to be distributed throughout the country on Easter Saturday. Liam Mellows and the Galway Volunteers were to collect their allocation at an agreed place on the Shannon, and distribute weapons at Gort.

But a British corvette, the HMS Bluebell, was waiting and challenged The Aud whose captain scuttled his ship, and the arms were lost. Casement and his two companions were arrested on Banna Strand.

All these dramatic events came as a complete surprise to the chairman of the Irish Volunteers Eoin MacNeill, an Irish language enthusiast and professor of Irish history at Dublin University. As co-founder of Conrad na Gaeilge, he was well acquainted, and friends, with Pádraig Pearse and other Sinn Féin members, but perhaps had missed, or chose not to see, that their vision for an all-out conflict with Britain, was different from his.

Publicly, MacNeill was a highly respected, academic man, the last person British intelligence would associate with armed rebellion. With the approach of Easter, however, he could not avoid, the frantic build up that was happening all round him.

Changed his mind

Liam Ó Briain, only 26 years old at the time of the Rising, and who held out for six days in the Stephen’s Green /College of Surgeons under Michael Mallin, wrote that in placing MacNeill at the head of the Volunteers, he was only ‘an ornament’ to divert attention from the real intentions of the Volunteers. It was only on Thursday of Holy Week that MacNeill learned that a general mobilisation was underway to bring about a rising on Easter Sunday. He protested ‘that he was unfairly dealt with’, but was told that it was too late to stop it now. He was unhappy with the idea, and implied he would like to stop it.

Then early Saturday morning, Pearse and McDermott visited MacNeill again, and told him of the disaster in Kerry. MacNeill ‘ fearing the British would come down on us with all their might’ agreed to stand with Pearse and others ‘and meet the coming storm as best we could.’ Pearse and McDermott left feeling ‘relieved that there was unity at last’.

But MacNeill changed his mind. He feared a bloodbath as unarmed Volunteers came out around the country; and with the acquiescence of Arthur Griffith, president of Sinn Féin, he issued orders cancelling the ‘manoeuvres’ scheduled for Sunday, followed by a signed advertisement in the Sunday Independent. It was understood that MacNeill’s orders ‘would be accepted by the mass of Volunteers who had no suspicion of any disagreement among the leaders.’

No suspicion

The leaders of the Dublin volunteers hastily met at Liberty Hall on Easter Sunday morning. Thanks to Casement, who financed and organised the Howth gun-running, two years previously, the Dublin Volunteers had the weapons they needed. Their decision ‘to come out’ was unanimous.

As it happened MacNeill’s cancellation order threw the British authorities off their guard. ‘They had no suspicion of any dissension, and assumed that events in Kerry had put an end to all.’

On Easter Monday, a day later than planned, the Dublin Volunteers had the city to themselves.

‘So the gathering Volunteers on Monday morning excited no comment. The first battalion under Ned Daly marched into the Four Courts; the second, under McDonagh himself, with Commandant Hunter and Major McBride, occupied Jacob’s biscuit factory; the third, under de Valera, went to Boland’s Mills; the fourth, led by Eamon Ceannt and Cathal Brugha, into the South Dublin Union. The military staff and revolutionary leaders - Clarke, Pearse, McDermott, Plunkett and Connolly (who was in active command of Dublin ), seized the General Post Office in O’Connell Street’.

The rest of the story we know.

Next week: Casement’s Trial.

NOTES: Citing Liam Ó Briain’s account of the historic Rising of Easter Week 1916 taken from Voices from the Irish Free State originally compiled by W G Fitz-Gerald, edited by Eoin and Niamh Ó Dochartaigh, containing essays written about Ireland’s bid for independence from many of those involved including David Lloyd George, Churchill, Michael Collins, Lord Carson, and Arthur Griffith. The editors advise that ‘surprises await the discerning reader’.

Listen to Tom Kenny and Ronnie O'Gorman elaborating on topics they have covered in this week's paper and much more in this week's Galway Diary Podcast.


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