Intelligence Failure or Conspiracy? How did the British let the 1916 Rising happen?

Dublin Castle, centre of the British administration.
Dublin Castle, centre of the British administration.

Why did the British government in Ireland fail to prevent the Easter Rising? By John Dorney.

In 1916 Britain was at war. In the Defence of the Realm Act it had extensive coercive legislation, certainly enough to crush legally the separatist movement in Ireland.

In the Royal Irish Constabulary or RIC and the Dublin Metropolitan Police Special Branch it had a nationwide source of local information on nationalist organisations and what they were doing. Most importantly of all, through Naval Intelligence, they had covert intelligence on insurgent plans through cables intercepted between Clan na Gael in America and the Germans in Berlin.

The British knew enough to prevent the Easter Rising, but failed to act on what they knew.

We know now that before the Rising, senior British military figures, including the Commander in Chief, Friend, were informed that a rebellion was imminent.

Despite all of this, and despite the fact that Volunteers and Citizen Army were openly drilling in the streets of Dublin and other towns, armed, the British – and more particularly the Chief Secretary Augustine Birrell, his Under Secretary Matthew Nathan and the military commander, General Lovick Bransby Friend – did nothing to stop it.

Why this was so is one of the most puzzling historical questions to come out of the 1916 Rising. Was the British failure down to carelessness, incompetence, complacency or something more sinister?

The British administration

Augustine Birrell.
Augustine Birrell.

Ireland was governed by three administrators. The first was the Lord Lieutenant, the King’s representative in Ireland, who was based in the Vice-Regal Lodge in Dublin’s Phoenix Park. His position was increasingly symbolic, but like the King himself, he had the right to hold up laws and to advise the Executive branch of government.

In 1916 this was held by Lord Wimborne, who had been appointed Lord Lieutenant in 1915, succeeding Lord Aberdeen. He was a former Liberal MP, subsequently sent to the House of Lords and also former British Army commander at the Curragh base.[1]

Executive power lay in the hands of the Chief Secretary for Ireland, who was a Member of Parliament (MP) appointed by the incumbent government in Britain. When in 1905, a dispute arose between the Chief Secretary, Walter Long and Lord Dudley the Lord Lieutenant, the Prime Minister Balfour intervened, writing, ‘if you ask me whether in the case of differences in views the Chief Secretary should prevail, I can only answer yes. There can be but one head of the Irish Administration’.[2]

The heads of the Dublin Castle Administration were the Chief Secretary Birrell and the Under Secretary Matthew Nathan.

The Chief Secretary, from 1908-1916 was Augustine Birrell, a man of liberal sympathies, but regarded by many in the British administration as being increasingly out of touch with Irish realities. In April 1916 he was not in Ireland at all, spending the Easter holidays in London.

The third prong of this trident was the Under Secretary for Ireland. This, unlike the Chief Secretary, was a permanent position, based in Dublin Castle and much more than the Chief Secretary, was responsible for the day to day running of the Irish administration.

It was held in 1916 by Mathew Nathan. Nathan was a 52 year old of Jewish heritage and had served in the British Army’s Engineer corps in countries as a far apart as Sierra Leone, Sudan, India and Burma before taking up a civilian role at the Colonial Office.

Matthew Nathan
Matthew Nathan

There he had acted as Governor of Colonies from Sierra Leone in West Africa to Natal in South Africa to Hong Kong before coming home to serve in the Inland Revenue Service and finally being sent to Ireland in August 1914.[3]

The General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the British Army in Ireland was 60 year old General Lovick Bransby Friend. Like Matthew Nathan he was a veteran of the Royal Engineers, where he had served in the Sudan campaign of 1898, but his career was apparently winding down. The most senior post he had held prior to Ireland was as supervisor of Scottish coastal Defences and with the Great War raging in Europe, Ireland was hardly a priority position in the British military.

In the early months of 1916, elements of the British administration, including Matthew Nathan, grew increasingly worried about what appeared to be a growing wave of unrest and underground agitation in Ireland.

Lenience and repression before the Rising

The Citizen Army, armed and in uniform, parade in 1915.
The Citizen Army, armed and in uniform, parade in 1915.

The Volunteers and the Citizen Army were increasingly aggressive in the months leading up the Rising, particularly in Dublin. On St Patrick’s Day 1916 they took over the city for a parade with over 1,400 armed men and the Citizen Army even staged a mock attack on Dublin Castle.

With hindsight it seems almost astonishing that the British allowed an armed and openly hostile nationalist group to parade and manoeuvre in full view on the streets of the Irish capital and elsewhere.

In fact there was fierce debate on whether to move against the Volunteers within the British administration in Ireland. Augustine Birrell the Chief Secretary and Mathew Nathan, the Under Secretary were of the opinion that clamping down on the radical nationalist groups would be more politically costly than it was worth and would alienate the broad nationalist community. The Lord Lieutenant, Wimborne, on the other hand and British military intelligence argued insistently that “seditious” groups must be disarmed. [4]

Birrell and Nathan were not in favour of clamping down on the Irish Volunteers but Wimborne the Lord Lieutenant and many military officers argued that it be done urgently.

Lord Wimborne, along with Lord Middleton the leader of the southern Irish unionists, was a thorn in the side of the Dublin Castle executive, principally Birrell and Nathan. Birrell in particular argued that repression of the Volunteer movement would be more politically costly than it was worth.

According to Birrell, ; Suppressing Sinn Fein [which here means not just Arthur Griffith’s political party but the separatist movement in general] ‘would probably result in shooting and would divide the country’… ‘Strong measures when effective are the best of all measures and the easiest, but if ineffective do no good but only harm’. To suppress the Volunteers would be ‘reckless and foolish’ he argued.[5]

As a result, despite having extensive emergency powers under the wartime Defence of the Realm Act (DORA), the British state in Ireland was only intermittently repressive. Sean McDermott was given four months hard labour for a ‘seditious’ speech in Tuam, county Galway in early 1915 but this put only a short halt to his preparations for insurrection. Irish Freedom the IRB newspaper was closed down in December 1914 for its agitation against recruitment of Irishmen for the British forces.[6]

Connolly’s Irish Worker, was closed down for ‘seditious language’ but only weeks later was replaced with the almost identical Workers Republic. A number of IRB activists, notably Ernest Blythe, were arrested and deported to England for anti-recruitment agitation. On the whole though, the Volunteers were largely left alone in the months before the Rising.

Eamon Broy a detective with Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) G Division recalled;

All this time, police raids were continuously being made on newsagent’s shops and mosquito printing plants, and what they styled “seditious literature” was constantly being seized, accompanied frequently by arrests for disloyal activities.[7]

But this was low level repression and stopped a long way short of what the British military wanted, which was arrest of the Volunteer leaders and confiscation of the organisation’s arms.[8]

There was kind of lethargy about the administration from a British security point of view. Wimborne proposed a raid on Liberty Hall to seize the Citizen Army’s arms dump just before the Rising, and to arrest 60-100 leader ‘Sinn Feiners’ but was, after some discussion, put off by Nathan.[9]

Nathan arranged for some extra troops to be sent to Dublin and for the Volunteer Training Corps, nicknamed the ‘Gorgeous Wrecks’, to be sworn in as Special Constables to maintain order, but it was nowhere near an adequate response to the looming rebellion.[10]

Birrell and Nathan’s policy was naturally fiercely criticized after the rebellion, but was it really as misguided as it seems? Birrell was a highly experienced and not unsympathetic observer of Irish nationalist politics. His reasoning was that Home Rule was coming and the nationalist population had to be kept on side.

Repression, he argued, would be counter-productive by alienating a much broader constituency than the separatists themselves. Piaras Beaslai, in 1916 an IRB man and Volunteer, thought Birrell was in fact, one of the biggest problems they faced. “As one who was working tooth and nail to bring about an insurrection, I can testify that one of the biggest obstacles was the cleverness of Mr. Birrell’s policy”[11].

One problem for the Dublin Castle administration was that they had failed to deal with the armed unionist mobilisation of 1912-1914. The British officers in the Curragh who had been ordered north to take over positions in preparation for operations against the Ulster Volunteers had instead offered to resign their commissions. Suppressing the Irish Volunteers might therefore be seen as showing Dublin Castle to hopelessly one-sided in Irish affairs.

Another  problem, however, that the Castle administration faced was the low quality of intelligence at their disposal. While Birrell later told the Inquiry into the rebellion that “So far as the country generally is concerned, we have the reports of the R.I.C. who send us in, almost daily, reports from almost every district in Ireland and I have them under the microscope. Their reports undoubtedly do enable anybody sitting either in Dublin or London to form a correct general estimate of the feeling of the countryside in different localities”.[12]

The truth was though, that this was low grade intelligence, useful for keeping tabs on local Volunteer units but no indication of what the secret Military Council was planning.

The Intercepted cables and British Intelligence failures

The Aud, the ship sent by the Germans with arms for the Volunteers.
The Aud, the ship sent by the Germans with arms for the Volunteers.

The extreme secrecy of the Rising’s planners meant that rank and file Volunteers simply did not know anything about the plans for the impending rebellion. The RIC and DMP had failed to penetrate the leadership circles of either the IRB, the Volunteers or the Citizen Army. Nevertheless, the British administration did get at least one specific warning about an imminent rebellion from a police agent known as ‘Chalk’, who reported the week before, ‘that Professor [Thomas] MacDonagh’s orders are that on Wednesday evening: “We are not going out on [Good] Friday but we are going out on [Easter] Sunday”.[13]

This was a fairly vague tip off however, apparently from a ordinary Volunteer who was not privy to the Military Council’s plans, and was dismissed by the authorities as mere rumour.

British Naval Intelligence had broken the German codes and ‘Room 40’ had intercept the communication from John Devoy to the Germans detailing the plans for a rebellion on Easter Sunday 1916.

However, the really astounding thing about British inaction before the Rising was that elements of their security apparatus did indeed know, in detail, about the plans for the Easter insurrection.

British naval intelligence was at the forefront of its field in 1916. What was known as ‘Room 40’ of the Admiralty was a secret decryption operation commanded by Captain Reginald Hall that, early in the First World War, had managed to break Germany’s codes. Through such intercepts, the British knew such vital details as the exact number of ships the Germans engaged in naval battles.[14]

They also knew from intercepted telegraphs from America to Berlin that the Volunteers, via John Devoy and Clan na Gael in the US, were in contact with and had been offered help by the Germans. And from the same source they knew the exact plans for the Rising. In February 1916, John Devoy cabled the Germans to tell them that the plans for an insurrection were set for Easter Sunday, April 23rd 1916. The Germans were to send an arms shipment to ‘Limerick Quay’ for Saturday April 22nd.[15]

The plans for the arms shipment changed slightly later, the Irish requesting that the ship arrive a day later, but the British had in essence, detailed knowledge of the rebels’ and Germans’ plans.

The British Army’s Director of Military Intelligence, General G.M.W. MacDonagh, informed the Prime Minister, Asquith on March 22nd 1916, that he had it ‘from an absolutely reliable source’ that a Rising was planned in Ireland for April 22nd. It seems certain that his source was Room 40 and Naval Intelligence.[16]

Given that the British had this information, it almost defies belief that they were not able to stop the Rising. What, from their point of view, went wrong?

The problem appears to have been that different parts of the British state were not communicating effectively with each other. The Royal Navy listened to its own intelligence arm, and Admiral Bayly dispatched the cruiser Gloucester and 4 destroyers to intercept the Germans’ arms shipment aboard the Aud and Roger Casement. The failure of the arms landing was actually a near run thing. The Aud did not have a radio and was not to know that the date for delivery had been put back a day. Nevertheless through relatively prompt action the Royal Navy did intercept the Aud, which scuttled itself in Cork harbour and may have prevented a nationwide uprising.[17]

HMS Gloucester. Mobilised to intercept the Aud and later used against the Rising in County Galway.
HMS Gloucester. Mobilised to intercept the Aud and later used against the Rising in County Galway.

Where the story gets really murky though, is in the response of the British military and civil authorities in Ireland. It seems as if naval intelligence did tell General Friend in a secret memo on April 16th. Friend however seems to have taken no notice, dismissed the information as ‘rumours’ and insouciantly remained in England on holiday on Easter Monday.[18]

Admiral Bayly appears to have told also either Augustine Birrell or Matthew Nathan, the senior administrators on the ground in Dublin, of the information telling of the impending uprising in meeting in mid-April, but did not tell them it was hard intelligence from intercepted German cables.

Nathan, the man on ground, apparently said he could not act on such vague intelligence. The Prime Minister Asquith, who was privy to the source of the information, does not seem to have been in touch with the Dublin administration directly. The result was that they did nothing to stop the Rising going ahead, albeit postponed by a day, on Easter Monday.

And so it was that on Easter Monday April 24, 1916, the insurgent Irish Republicans seized the centre of Dublin and proclaimed the Irish Republic, forever changing the course of Irish history. There were as few as 400 British Army troops in the city to oppose them at the start of the week and no preparations had been made on the British side. Many of the Dublin garrison were enjoying the horse-racing at Fariyhouse when the Rising broke out. It would take in excess of 16,000 troops to suppress the rebellion by April 29th.

Their failure to prevent the insurrection cost Birrell, Nathan and Friend their jobs, as well as many British servicemen and not a few Irish civilians their lives. But Nathan and Birrell were not responsible for the catastrophic lapses of coordination between the British navy and military that led to vital intelligence never reaching British decision makers in Dublin. It could be and was argued however that the Dublin Castle Administration’s insistence on ignoring the military threat from the separatists meant they did not act on what was -even if somewhat truncated – certainly ‘actionable’ intelligence.

So why was the Rising not prevented?

General L.B. Friend, who was told of the Rising by the Admiralty but did not act.
General L.B. Friend, who was told of the Rising by the Admiralty but did not act.

It has also been argued that elements of the British military allowed the Rising to happen so they could get around Birrell’s and Nathan’s liberalism and put down the Volunteers.

Jerome Aan de Wiel argues; ‘There can be no doubt that British officials at the highest level let the Easter Rising deliberately happen. We know the name of at least one man involved, Captain Reginald Hall and the name of another man who was warned, Admiral Bayly. But they cannot have been the only ones. It would seem obvious that some people in the army were also involved’. [19]

This is possible, but the Rising and the damage it did both to British prestige and to the stability of Ireland was far more damaging than any possible gains. Yes, the Volunteer movement was temporarily destroyed after the Rising but Irish politics was greatly embittered by the conflagration and particularly by the heavy handed suppression of it. Irish alienation proved long-lasting and terminal for British rule in most of Ireland.

It seems that the Royal Navy passed on the Intelligence to the Army but not where it came from. As a result the military failed to act.

The idea of military conspiracy therefore seems unlikely. It should not be dismissed altogether, however. Roger Casement later asserted that the British Army Intelligence officers who interrogated him refused him permission to make a public declaration calling on the Volunteers to call off the rebellion saying, ‘ its a festering sore, it’s much better that it come to a head’. [20]

A less sinister conspiracy theory is that the intelligence of Room 40 was so vital to the British war effort that those who knew about it were unwilling to compromise it by too overtly telling the British military and civil authorities in Dublin about where their information about the threatened Rising was coming from. If the Germans realised that their codes been broken, the British would have lost a critical advantage in the naval war.

It seems wise, in this case to follow the dictum that, in the absence of firmer evidence, it is better to explain mistakes by incompetence than by conspiracy. The Royal Navy commander Admiral Bayly did act on the intelligence, and may have been under the impression after the interception of the Aud and the arrest of Roger Casement that he had in fact averted the rebellion.

Naval Intelligence under Hall did tell the Admiralty and they in turn did try to tell the British military command in Ireland – in the person of General Friend – that a rebellion was about to break out. They just did not tell him how they knew, with the result that he disregarded the reports.

The truly amazing aspect of the whole affair however, is that the prime minister Asquith did not intervene directly to act on what he was told a month in advance was about to happen in Ireland.

Reginald Hall, Matthew Nathan and L.B Friend are not well known names in Irish history. But by their action, or rather inaction in April 1916, they were a votal part of a week that changed the course of Irish history.


[1] Charles Townshend, Easter 1916, p147

[2] Fergus Campbell, The Irish Establishment, p56

[3] Leon O Broin, Dublin Castle and the 1916 Rising p11-13

[4] Townshend Easter 1916 p147-150

[5] Townshend Easter 1916, p144

[6] Leon O Broin, The Chief Secretary, Augustine Birrell and Ireland, p160-168

[7] Broy BMH

[8] Ibid.

[9] Townshend Easter 1916 p 150

[10] O Broin, Dublin Castle and the 1916 Rising p83

[11] Tim Pat Coogan, The Easter Rising, , p74

[12] Cited In Eamon Broy BMH statement

[13] Townshend Easter 1916, p143

[14] O Broin Dublin Castle and Rising of 1916, p138

[15] Francis M Carroll, America and the 1916 Rising p136, in Gabriel Doherty , Dermot Keogh ed.s, 1916, The Long Revolution p136

[16] O Broin, Dublin Castle and the Rising of 1916, p135

[17] O Broin Dublin Castle p140

[18] Ibid, p136

[19] Jerome Aan de Wiel, Europe and the Irish Crisis, 1900-1917, in 1916, The Long Revolution, p38-39

[20] Paul McMahon, British Spies and Irish Rebels, British Intelligence and Ireland 1916-1945, p21

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