Race Matters

The Easter Rising was an inspiration for anti-colonial struggles

Professor Michael Silvestri argues that the 1916 Easter Rising was not simply an Irish event – it influenced Asian and African anti-imperial liberation movements

The 1916 Easter Rising has been big news recently in Ireland.  On Easter Sunday, a quarter of a million people packed the streets of Dublin to view a military parade marking the centenary of the Rising. 

Patrick Pearse, the author of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, which he read outside Dublin’s General Post Office on the 24th of April, 1916, and other leaders of the rebellion – already familiar figures in modern Irish history – have assumed a new public prominence through commemorations, museum exhibitions, historical re-enactments and new tours for visitors to Dublin. 

Yet the Rising also features a less well-known legacy: an inspiration for anti-colonial campaigners around the globe.

The Easter Rising was not simply an Irish event, but one with important relationships to and impacts upon Britain, the British Empire, and the wider world.  As the late Keith Jeffery emphasised recently in 1916: A Global History, the Rising “can only be properly understood in the context of the Great War, which provided both the moment…and the mode…for its planning and execution.” 

Over 100 Britons of Irish descent traveled to Ireland to participate in the Rising, while Irishmen serving in the British Army fought against the rebels.  While the rebels did not achieve their goal of a republic comprised of the entire island of Ireland, within several years’ Irish participation in the United Kingdom had been significantly altered. 

In 1922, twenty-six of the thirty-two counties of Ireland gained dominion status as the Irish Free State which, in 1949, become the Republic of Ireland, as Ireland severed remaining ties with the British Commonwealth.

Michael Silvestri
Michael Silvestri

In the years after the Easter Rising, nationalists and revolutionaries increasingly challenged the British Empire and other colonial empires.  In their campaigns they drew inspiration from the events in Dublin in 1916.  Although they embraced diverse political ideologies, many agreed with the Bolshevik revolutionary Lenin’s interpretation of the Rising as a fundamentally anti-imperial event, and saw the Irish as a kindred people to Asian and African peoples fighting for national liberation.

The Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey christened the United National Negro Association’s meeting place in Harlem, New York, as “Liberty Hall,” in conscious emulation of the headquarters of the Irish Citizen Army, the socialist republicans who had fought in the Rising. 

At the new Liberty Hall’s dedication in July 1919, Garvey stated that “the time had come for the Negro race to offer up its martyrs upon the altar of liberty even as the Irish [had] given a long list from Robert Emmet to Roger Casement.”

Indian nationalists had perhaps the most diverse and long-standing engagement with Irish nationalism, and they too drew inspiration from the Easter Rising.
A small number of Indians, mostly university students, in fact experienced the events of the Rising firsthand, a reminder that Dublin, and other United Kingdom cities, already featured diverse racial and ethnic communities well before the waves of post-World War II migration. 

Future President of India V.V. Giri, a law student at the National University of Ireland, “experienced a complete sense of identity with the Irish cause” in 1916.  Giri and other students were eager to witness the events of the Rising, and years later he still remembered “the sound of the bullet which whistled past my ear.”

Giri’s desire to witness the Rising was not mere thrill-seeking, however, but solidified his commitment to anti-colonialism.  “Inspired by the revolutionaries,” he wrote, “I determined to return to India and take an active part in the political movement to secure the independence of my country.” 

The executions and internments that followed the Rising created sympathy for the rebels in India as well as Ireland.  Jawaharlal Nehru recalled how the support for the heroic failure of the Dublin rebels surged at the Indian National Congress’ December 1916 meeting in Lucknow: 

The Easter Week in Ireland by its very failure attracted, for was that not true courage which mocked at almost certain failure and proclaimed to the world that no physical might could crush the invincible spirit of a nation.”

During the First World War, the Ghadr Party, the most influential Indian revolutionary organization in North America, had, like their Irish counterparts, negotiated with the German imperial government for support for an armed uprising.  After the Easter Rising, more than two dozen stories were published on Irish affairs in the Ghadr newspaper.

The Ghadr went as far as to re-imagine the Easter Rising as an act of Indo-Irish anti-imperial solidarity.  The newspaper reported a story, which it claimed was common knowledge in Ireland, regarding an Indian soldier who was present in Dublin at Easter 1916 and, rather than attack the rebels in the GPO, he turned his machine guns on British troops. 

Ghadr also honoured Eamon De Valera, the senior surviving commander of the Easter Rising, when he came to San Francisco in July 1919, presenting him with an engraved silver sword and a large silk Republican tricolor.

The Easter Rising continued to resonate with revolutionary nationalists in the interwar years.  Indian revolutionaries read publications banned by colonial authorities and were inspired by both stories of the Easter Rising and by the guerilla warfare of the IRA which subsequently followed the Rising.

The martyrdom of Patrick Pearse and other leaders of the Rising was incorporated into a long-standing emphasis on violence, sacrifice and heroic martyrdom in Indian revolutionary traditions.  A 1929 leaflet entitled “The Youths of Bengal,” for example, explicitly urged young Bengali Hindus to emulate the martyrdom of Patrick Pearse:

This is how a nation awakes….Read and learn the history of Pearse—the gem of young Ireland—and you will find how noble is his sacrifice; how he stimulated new animation in the nation, being mad over independence….Pearse died and by so dying he roused in the heart of the nation an indomitable desire for armed revolution.  Who will deny this truth?”

While Ireland was far from the only influence upon Indian revolutionaries, it formed an important thread in a revolutionary worldview stitched together from indigenous and foreign sources.
The impact of the Easter Rising in India culminated in April 1930, a month after Mohandas Gandhi had initiated a nationwide Civil Disobedience campaign. 

On the evening of April 18th in the port town of Chittagong in present-day Bangladesh, over sixty young Bengali Hindu men, armed and dressed in military-style khaki uniforms, carried out an assault on local government installations.  They attacked and burned the local Police and Auxiliary Force armories, seized weapons and destroyed the local telegraph office. 

For several hours, until they retreated into the hills surrounding the town, the revolutionaries controlled Chittagong.  The attack, which became known as the “Chittagong Armoury Raid” was acknowledged by both Indian nationalists and by British intelligence officers to be inspired by the Easter Rising.

The Director of the Intelligence Bureau of the Government of observed that:

the comparative success of the methods adopted by the Irish terrorists from 1916 to 1922 had stirred the imagination of the revolutionaries, and there is no doubt that the latter’s tactics have been closely modeled on those of the Sinn Féiners … like the Irish insurrection in Dublin in 1916, the raid took place at Easter, and the insurgents depended for their success on the secrecy of their preparations, and the dramatic suddenness of the attack.”  

The echoes of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic on the fringes of Britain’s Indian Empire illustrate the global impact of the Easter Rising, and invite us to reflect on how its legacies should be interpreted and understood today.

Michael Silvestri is associate professor of History at Clemson University and the author of Ireland and India: Nationalism, Empire and Memory (2009) 

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