‘The shame of Easter week’ is how Edward Carson (somewhat predictably) described the events which we know today as the Easter Rising when 1,200 Irish separatists led an occupation of buildings across Dublin triggering a battle with the British Army for control of the Irish capital. Almost 500 people lost their lives, many of whom were civilians, during the six-day struggle for the city.
Unionist attitudes and responses to the Easter Rising were much more complex than have previously been considered, even by authoritative voices on the period. Beyond the accepted notion of their detestation of the rebellion and its ideals the unionist response was at times surprising, occasionally amusing, but by no means homogenous. Indeed, their opinions were often at stark odds, usually between northern and southern unionists.
Many unionists were initially dismissive of the rebellion, though these attitudes tended to emanate from Ulster where it was much easier to be dismissive from a safe distance. Ulster Unionist Adam Duffin, for example, wrote to his daughter Emma (better known as a wartime nurse) that ‘we are having a little rebellion here just by way of a change… isn’t it like a comic opera founded on the Wolf[sic] Tone fiasco a hundred years ago?’ Ironically, Duffin felt that it was a positive development that events had finally come to a head, thus allowing the authorities to ‘deal thoroughly with the pests’.
Amusingly there was a genuine belief in some unionist circles that the teaching of Irish history, was somehow responsible for the Rising. Several history textbooks were singled out for special criticism, the primary complaint being the magnification of figures like Wolfe Tone, Robert Emmet, and the Fenian movement. As a result, all Irish history books on the curriculum were subjected to a review in order ‘to ascertain if they contained sentences likely to excite religious or political bitterness’. Two books were found to be objectionable. Any book that had been objected to by even a single member of the review board was barred from the curriculum.
Elsewhere, a dominant theme in the papers of senior unionists such as Edward Carson and Wilfrid Spender for this period was a fear that the British government, in accordance with Martial Law, would demand the surrender of all weaponry held by paramilitary groups in Ireland. The retention of UVF weapons became a huge issue for Carson. He chose to go against the judgement of many fellow unionists, particularly in the south, who felt that UVF arms should be surrendered for the greater good. In the end the British government made no such move, however the disparity between northern and southern unionism was both telling and a sign of things to come.
Throughout the whole Rising episode the British government remained the primary focus of unionist blame. In a statement to the House of Lords on 26 April 1916, two days into the Rising, Lord Midleton, leader of the Irish Unionist Alliance in Southern Ireland made a detailed attack on the government’s position (or lack of it) in Ireland. ‘They [the British government] decided not to deal with the Sinn Fein conspiracy’, said Midleton, ‘the Sinn Fein conspiracy has now dealt with them’. Unionist fury at the government, and in particular the Chief Secretary Augustine Birrell was unrelenting. Nevertheless, with every unionist finger pointed in blame there was at least one more pointing back at them. Moderate southern unionists were highly critical of northern unionists, blaming them for escalating the home rule crisis and in turn creating the conditions for the Rising. There were many southern unionists who did not approve of Ulster’s militant methods during 1912-14. Southern unionist criticism of northern militarism became part of a wider effort to paint Carson as the true engineer of the Rising; the man who had re-ignited the ‘fenian flame’. From early May 1916 Carson and his wife Ruby were subjected to a deluge of threatening letters containing terrible abuse, and during another incident a man tried to force his way into Carson’s London home. Some Irish nationalists blamed Carson too. On 9 May 1916 the Prime Minister read out the number of casualties sustained by the military, RIC, Dublin Metropolitan Police, and the Loyal Dublin Volunteers. Alfred Byrne, nationalist MP for Dublin Harbour hit back, ‘you ought to shoot Carson for that’.
Carson was, of course, never likely to be shot, but the fate of the Rising leaders was hotly debated in unionist circles. On 3 May 1916, the first of the rebel leaders’ executions were held; Padraig Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh, and Thomas Clarke were executed by firing squad in Kilmainham Jail. On the same day Carson gave a speech to the House of Commons in which he suggested that ‘it would be a mistake to suppose that any true Irishman calls for vengeance’, while at the same time he insisted that the rebellion be put down with ‘courage and determination’. ‘Whatever is done’ he said, ‘let it not be done in a moment of temporary excitement, but with due deliberation in regard both to the past and to the future’. His pragmatic approach was the trait of a lawyer who recognised that every action has a consequence, but also proof that he had the political antennae to recognise the danger of overplaying his hand. Such pragmatism was rarely shared by the wider unionist community who felt threatened by the Rising and feared that a weak response from the British government could leave them in a vulnerable position.
Ultimately though, as Carson stood increasingly isolated, his growing political stature and national prominence became diminished by events that flowed from the Rising. For Carson, the real ‘shame of Easter Week’ was that it was the beginning of his political demise. For unionism more broadly the biggest consequence of the Rising was its fracturing, a consequence from which they have arguably never recovered.