Newfoundland Responses to the Easter Rebellion and the Rise of Sinn Fein, 1916-1919

Article excerpt

ON 24 APRIL 1916, at the height of World War I, members of the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army occupied key locations in Dublin and began a six-day rebellion against British rule. British forces suppressed the armed insurrection and it was condemned across the English-speaking world. Subsequent executions of its leaders, however, instigated a dramatic shift in Irish popular opinion. Many of those who had previously identified with non-violent, constitutional nationalism were converted to a more militant brand of Irish republicanism. The British government's attempts to enact conscription in Ireland in 1918 enhanced such sentiments, and the shift in opinion was reflected in the victory of the republican Sinn Fein party in that year's general election.

There is a substantial literature on popular reactions to Irish affairs among members of the Irish diaspora. Generally, historians have argued that while many of the Irish abroad held esteem for the land of their forefathers, reactions to events in Ireland were tempered by new identities. (1) Despite their much-heralded connections to the homeland, the reactions of Catholic Newfoundlanders, who were overwhelmingly of Irish descent, to the Easter Rising and its aftermath have not been studied. I suggest that while Irish-Newfoundlanders maintained a keen interest in Irish affairs throughout World War I and after, their reactions were characterized by a strong loyalty to the British Empire. Writing in 1919, Governor Sir Charles Alexander Harris noted to Colonial Secretary Walter Hume Long that the Roman Catholics in Newfoundland were "generally loyal," but were "coloured by that tendency to lament the 'wrongs of Ireland' which seems to have become inherent in the Irish character, especially on this side of the water." (2) Newfoundlanders of both Irish and English descent generally favoured Irish Home Rule within the British Empire, but sympathy for an Irish Republic, Sinn Fein, or revolutionary Irish nationalism was rare.

This essay's principal source is the newspaper and magazine press. Both editorials and letters to the editor provide valuable insights into how Newfoundlanders, Protestant and Catholic, responded to the Irish Question, the variety of opinions that existed, as well as how their attitudes may have been shaped. Several official bodies also discussed the Irish Question. The House of Assembly, the Legislative Council, and the St. John's Municipal Council all responded to the Easter Rising and the Home Rule debate. The reactions of institutions such as the Benevolent Irish Society and the Roman Catholic Church also reveal the views toward Irish Home Rule of Newfoundlanders of Irish descent.

HISTORIOGRAPHY AND CONTEXT

The period covered here is from the outbreak of the Easter Rising in the spring of 1916 to the end of 1919, when the transition of popular opinion from favouring constitutional nationalism to republicanism in Ireland was largely complete. (3) Before the Easter Rising, the Irish Parliamentary Party, or Nationalist Party, dominated the Home Rule movement. Led by John Redmond, it called for an Irish parliament within the British Empire. In the tradition of Charles Stewart Parnell and Daniel O'Connell, it espoused non-violent, constitutional nationalism. (4) At the outbreak of World War I, Redmond's party and the majority of Irish Catholics, including the Catholic press and the clergy, rallied behind the Allied cause. (5) Despite Ireland's enthusiastic reaction to the war effort, there were small groups of revolutionary nationalists, in particular those involved with the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and the Irish Volunteers, who were determined to ensure that "England's difficulty" would be "Ireland's opportunity." (6) By 1916 the IRB had come to dominate the Irish Volunteers and its members agreed that they would stage a rebellion against British rule. The Easter Rising began on 24 April 1916, was largely confined to Dublin, and lasted six days. …