How America Backed the 1916 Easter Rising

Rebellion against British rule in Ireland broke out in armed insurrection in 1916, but America’s unofficial support for the rebels did not stop with money.

On April 24, 1916, some 1,600 rebellion-minded Irish nationalists staged an uprising, seeking an end to Great Britain’s rule in Ireland. Slow to react at the start, the British rushed troops across the Irish Sea and amassed a force of nearly 20,000 soldiers by the time the revolutionaries surrendered six days later.

Once the smoke cleared, 485 people were dead—mostly civilians—and more than 2,600 wounded. Destruction of property, especially in central Dublin, was extensive—$255 million in today’s currency by one computation.

Though what’s now known as the Easter Rising was planned and carried out in Ireland, America played a pivotal role in what happened in the rebellion. The Proclamation that was read announcing “The Provisional Government of the Irish Republic” named just one country besides Ireland. The republican cause, the document acknowledged, received support from the “exiled children in America.”

When the Rising occurred, one-fifth of the U.S. population (approximately 20 million people) claimed Irish heritage either through immigration or ancestry, according to census data. More than 1.5 million had migrated to the New World in the mid-19th century because of the Great Famine, and as the new immigrants became settled they often welcomed relatives to join them.

John Devoy, exiled to the U.S. in 1871 for anti-British activity, raised an estimated $100,000 ($2.5 million currently) and surreptitiously sent the money back to Ireland to buy arms and other supplies. Though a naturalized American citizen and long-time resident of New York, Devoy always referred to the island of his birth as “home.”

Seven of the uprising leaders signed the Proclamation, and five of them lived or spent time in America. One signatory, Thomas J. Clarke, was even a naturalized American citizen.

In assessments of the revolt, commentators on this side of the Atlantic drew parallels to America’s own revolutionary past—to the Boston Tea Party and the Battle of Lexington—and P.H. Pearse (president of the Provisional Government and U.S. visitor in 1914) was often compared to George Washington.

The Rising’s combat and its aftermath—14 rebels, including all seven signatories, faced firing squads in Dublin between May 3 and 12—became front-page news in the U.S. The New York Times devoted page-one attention to news from Ireland for 14 consecutive days. During a 19-day period (April 25 through May 13), front-page stories appeared in The New York Times 17 days, The Boston Globe 16, The Chicago Tribune and The World (in New York) 11.

On May 2, The Washington Post published an editorial that, in retrospect, is newsworthy in itself. Arguing that the rebellion was “poorly organized and poorly executed,” The Post projects into the future with a warning for Britain about responding to the revolt.

“The uprising, abortive as it proved to be, is nevertheless a reminder that the Irish question remains to be settled,” the editorial says. “If the British government has not entirely lost its balance, it will not make fierce reprisals in Ireland, but will deal tolerantly even with the ringleaders of the insurrection.”

But the “fierce reprisals,” ultimately, lasted longer than the actual revolt. When the executed rebels began to be called “martyrs” in articles, public opinion took a definite turn. Strong criticism began to be leveled at the United Kingdom, while a sense of compassion developed for the republican-seeking fighters.

Among Irish Americans what was happening a century ago prompted concern for relatives and friends. Less parochially, the general public became curious whether a new front was taking shape in the Great War being waged in Europe. Was the British empire facing bloody internal hostility as well as an existential threat externally from Germany and other Central Powers?

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Throughout the spring of 1916, Sir Cecil Spring Rice, Britain’s ambassador in Washington, sent regular dispatches back to London, describing American thinking. In late April, he said, “The attitude of public opinion as to the Irish rebellion is on the whole satisfactory.”

But, after the executions and the condemnation they provoked, he reported in June, “The attitude towards England is changed for the worse by recent events in Ireland,” adding later “. . . I do not think that anything we could do would conciliate the Irish here. They have blood in their eyes when they look our way.”

Sympathy and support for the republican cause increased, both in Ireland and America, during the summer of 1916. One person, though, who kept distance from what he viewed as an internal matter for the British was Woodrow Wilson.

Seeking re-election to the White House, Wilson worked hard to keep “the Irish Question” at more than arm’s length from his campaign, despite the historic loyalty of Irish Americans to the Democratic Party. While Americans on their own provided hundreds of thousands of dollars in humanitarian aid, he and his administration remained remote and silent.

But 47 years after the uprising, another president made a point of honoring the rebels and what they signified. Six months before his assassination, John Kennedy became the first foreign head of state to visit the military cemetery, where the executed leaders are buried.

After that ceremony, Kennedy delivered a speech in Ireland’s parliament that looked back to a time of bloody struggle yet eventual success. He boldly asserted, “No people ever believed more deeply in the cause of Irish freedom than the people of the United States.”

With the Easter Rising, it’s not poetic hyperbole to invoke W.B. Yeats’s line in “Easter 1916”: “All changed, changed utterly.”

Robert Schmuhl is professor of American studies and journalism at the University of Notre Dame and author of Ireland’s Exiled Children: America and the Easter Rising, published by Oxford University Press.