Ireland had been an integral part of the United Kingdom since the Act of Union in 1801 and had been subject to varying degrees of British rule since the 12th century.
However, it had always been an uneasy union. There had been several rebellions against the British before the Easter Rising of 1916 so the pursuit of independence was ingrained in the Irish character.
That said, there were many people who were happy with the status quo, or at least happy enough not to consider it a major issue, certainly not one worth dying for.
Many people would have questioned the need to rebel in 1916. The British had passed the Home Rule Act in 1914 and although its implementation had to be postponed because of the outbreak of war, the British Government had pledged revive it once war was over.
That being the case, most Irish people were prepared to wait and in the meantime, they were happy to support the British war effort. More than 200,000 soldiers went off to fight on the British side. Back home in Ireland, their families supported them, worried about them and prayed for them to come home safely.
That being the case, it’s not hard to see why those families would not look kindly on a rebellion that sought to take advantage of Britain’s involvement in the war.
Indeed, if British troops had to be deployed to quell a rebellion then they were not available to provide support on the fronts lines in Europe and that in turn could make Irish soldiers fighting for Britain more at risk.
When looked at from this perspective, it’s not hard to see why the Easter Rising 1916 was not widely supported at the time.
While many Irish citizens were sympathetic to the rebels and their cause, many others saw it as harmful, disloyal and even cowardly to be try to exploit the situation when so many Irish troops were fighting abroad. This is why the rebels were jeered by many Dubliners as they were led away to prison once the Rising had been quelled.
However, public opinion can be fickle as the British were to find out. Following the Rising, the British imposed martial law on Ireland and sent Major General Sir John Maxwell as Commander-in-Chief.
He wanted to crush Irish nationalism once and for all by making an example of the leaders of the Rising.
Fifteen of them were executed after perfunctory military trials. This outraged many Irish people, even those who had opposed the Easter Rising. They saw it as gross over-reaction.
The outrage grew as the stories of the executions began to reach the public. One of the most dramatic involved the trade union leader James Connolly who had been a commander at the General Post Office.
He had been wounded by a stray bullet during the fighting and had lost a lot blood.
When the time came for him to be executed by firing squad he was too weak to stand. Rather than delay, he was strapped upright in a chair so the soldiers could take aim and shoot.
Stories of this kind of “British brutality” became the stuff of legend and changed public opinion throughout the whole of Ireland.
People who had opposed the rebellion now began to sympathise with rebels. They came to be seen as people who had fought the good fight against overwhelming odds and in doing so had restored Irish national pride.
Maxwell’s hope that the executions would set an example and intimidate the Irish backfired completely.
Each execution served merely to fan the flames of nationalist fervour until it became irresistible.
The story of Irish independence still had many chapters to play over the next five years but in 1922 the Irish Free State came into being.
The British may have won the war against the rebels but through their brutality they then went on to lost the peace. Instead of extinguishing the flame of Irish nationalism, Maxwell merely made it burn more strongly.
For this reason, he came to be seen as the man who lost Ireland for the British.