Toward the Easter Rising

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw a reawakening of interest in Irish culture and nationalism. The Gaelic League and the Gaelic Athletic Association were founded to revive the Irish language and traditional Irish sports, respectively. These cultural movements became closely tied—through shared ideals and membership—to separatist politics. More direct agitation for Irish independence took voice in periodicals like Irish Freedom and through paramilitary organizations like the Irish Volunteers, one of the forces behind the Easter Rising. Although a Home Rule bill had finally been passed in 1914—providing for Irish self-government under the umbrella of the United Kingdom—its enactment was suspended for WWI. Further tensions surrounded the possibility of wartime conscription in Ireland. It was in this atmosphere that a group of separatists willing to use physical force set about planning a revolt. 

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The Gaelic League was founded in 1893 to revive the Irish language, then spoken by only one-seventh of Ireland’s population. The majority of League members were middle- and working-class English-speakers, and by 1908 it boasted roughly 600 branches, primarily in cities. One of the ways that the organization attracted new members was by offering opportunities for socializing and fun alongside Irish language study. An tOireachtas, an annual national cultural festival, was launched in 1897.

For some, campaigning on behalf of the Irish language was intimately connected to notions of Irish nationhood. Padraic (Patrick) Pearse would remark that “when the Gaelic League was founded in 1893 the Irish Revolution began.” Pearse (1879–1916) was in many ways the public face of the Easter Rising—it was he who read the proclamation of the Irish Republic on Easter Monday, the first day of the rebellion. Though trained as a lawyer, Pearse worked primarily as an educator, poet, playwright, and journalist. He edited the Gaelic League’s magazine An Claidheamh Soluis, and in 1908 founded a school, St. Enda’s, whose curriculum emphasized the Irish language. On display is the first part of An Sgoil, a direct method course in Irish that Pearse developed. Eventually, Pearse grew to push for the continuation of the Gaelic League’s revolution not merely through language, but through arms, declaring “I do not know how nationhood is achieved except by armed men.”

Gaelic League Carnival: Jones’ road, Dublin, ... June 29 to July 5, 1912 [Poster]. Dublin: Gaelic League, [1912]. O'Hegarty Q36

Pearse, Padraic. An Sgoil: A Direct Method Course in Irish. [Dublin]: Maunsel and Company Limited, [1913]. O'Hegarty B3782.



At the same time that the Gaelic Athletic Association and the Gaelic League were attempting to revive popular interest in Gaelic culture, W. B. Yeats, Lady Gregory, and other poets and playwrights were engaging in a revival of Irish literature. Though questions of politics, representation, and artistic freedom often set writers of the Irish Literary Renaissance at odds with some separatist activists, Cathleen ni Hoolihan (later Cathleen Ni Houlihan) captured the imaginations of many nationalists. The one-act play is set on the eve of a battle in the Rebellion of 1798. Cathleen ni Houlihan--Ireland, as represented in the figure of a “poor old woman”—visits a cottage near Killala, where a young man is set to marry the next day. In a memorable speech, she calls for a sacrifice from those who would help her:

          It is a hard service they take that help me. Many that are red cheeked now will be pale cheeked; […] many that have gathered money will not stay to spend it; many a child will be born and there will be no father at its christening to give it a name. They that had red cheeks will have pale cheeks for my sake; and for all that, they will think they are well paid. […]
They shall be remembered for ever,
They shall be alive for ever,
They shall be speaking for ever,
The people shall hear them for ever.

First performed in 1902, the play is shown here in its first edition of the same year. By 1905, Reverend Thomas O’Kelly had published an Irish translation for readers desiring to “see it clothed in the native speech of the people whom it seeks to arouse to a deeper consciousness of the duty of self-renunciation in the cause of the Motherland.”

Yeats, W. B. [and Lady Gregory, uncredited]. Cathleen ni Hoolihan. London: A.H. Bullen, 1902. Yeats Y71



Fianna Éireann (Boy Scouts of Ireland) was a nationalist youth organization led by Bulmer Hobson and Constance Markievicz (1868-1927), a countess through marriage and a republican activist known for her dramatic flair. The organization emphasized training—particularly military training—to advance the work of Irish independence.  In her introduction to the Handbook, Countess Markievicz writes,

The Spirit of Ireland is free because Ireland’s children have never shirked to pay the price. The path of freedom may lead us the same road that Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone trod. Treading in their footsteps, we will not fear, working as they worked we will not tire, and if we must die as they died we will not flinch.

Members of Fianna Éireann joined Markievicz and others in the Easter Rising, and boys as young as twelve ran dispatches. The youngest republican death, a fifteen-year-old named John (Sean) Healy, was a member of Fianna who was shot during a dispatch mission. Indeed, some leaders, fearful for the lives of these youngest republicans during the rising, dismissed them or encouraged them to leave. This handbook also includes contributions by Padraic Pearse and Roger Casement.

Fianna Handbook, Issued by the Central Council of Na Fianna Eireann for the Boy Scouts of Ireland. [Dublin]: Central Council of Na Fianna Éireann, [1914?]. O'Hegarty B3731



The Irish Volunteers were founded in 1913 as a militia in defense of Home Rule and related nationalist causes. They emerged, at least part, in response to the launch of the anti-Home Rule Ulster Volunteer Force earlier that year. The group splintered in 1914 when the leader of the Nationalist Party, John Redmond, encouraged Irish support of the British war effort. The larger group, siding with Redmond, continued on as the National Volunteers; the smaller republican element continued as the Irish Volunteers. The organization included members of the revolutionary Irish Republican Brotherhood, some of whom began plans for an uprising using members of the Volunteers.

The ticket on display is from a recruitment event in Cork held less than a month after the group’s formation in November 1913.  Spencer holds over forty tickets for this event, several of which bear the stamp of the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union, Dublin on the reverse (click on image to see the stamp on the reverse). Interestingly, though the tickets themselves clearly state that the capacity of the venue is 1500, there are tickets in the lot numbered almost up to 3000.

Irish Volunteers. “Ticket of Admission to Public Meeting …” [Cork: no publisher, 1913.] O'Hegarty AK7



Several of the leaders of the 1916 rising had literary aspirations. Poet, playwright, and teacher, Thomas MacDonagh (1878 –1916) helped to found the Irish Review in 1911 as a “Monthly Magazine of Irish Literature, Art, and Science.” In 1913, Joseph Mary Plunkett (1887–1916), a poet whom MacDonagh had tutored in Irish, took over editorship of the Review, and with his friend steered the magazine in a more overtly political and nationalist direction. The magazine would collapse in 1914 under financial pressures at least in part related to having issues seized for seditious content under the wartime Defence of the Realm Act (DORA).

The issue displayed here features contributions from four of the seven signatories of the 1916 proclamation: Plunkett, MacDonagh, Pearse, and James Connolly (1868-1916).  The contribution by Connolly, a writer and a labor leader, addresses “Labour in Dublin.”  It came in the midst of the Dublin Lockout, during which 20,000 members of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union and other sympathizers were on strike or locked out. Within a month of the article, Connolly would help found the Irish Citizen Army (ICA) to protect the striking workers from the police and others.  Together, members of the ICA and the Irish Volunteers would form the military force for the Easter week rebellion.

The Irish Review.  3, no. 32 (October 1913). O'Hegarty D32



First published in 1910, Saoirse na h-Éireann (translated as “Irish Freedom”) was a monthly periodical associated with the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secret fraternal organization committed to the establishment of an independent Irish republic. The large central column of text on this issue’s front page parodies a British armed forces enlistment ad. The target of Irish Freedom’s attack is not only the English recruitment effort, but also those nationalist Irish newspapers willing to run such ads. Barely visible in purple at the top right corner by the periodical’s banner is the retailer’s stamp of Tom Clarke, “Tobacconist, Stationary, & Newsagent.” A member of the IRB Supreme Council, Clarke (1857–1916) was one of the principal architects of the 1916 rising and was among the first executed following its failure.

This copy comes from the collection of P. S. O’Hegarty (1879–1955), as do many other items in this exhibition. O’Hegarty helped to found Irish Freedom with fellow IRB member Bulmer Hobson and was a frequent contributor.

Saoirse na h-Éireann; Irish Freedom. No. 41 (March 1914). O’Hegarty H5.