How a rebellion in Ireland raised the temperature on long-simmering tensions between Toronto’s Irish Catholics and Protestants.
On April 25, 1916, Torontonians awoke to a Toronto Daily Star headline declaring that “IRISH REBELS HOLD PARTS OF CITY OF DUBLIN.” The news alarmed even the most war-weary. Although the First World War had at this point been waged for nearly two years, violence on British and Irish soil had been limited to a handful of German naval and air raids.
What later became known as the Easter Rising was an armed rebellion staged in Dublin by militant Irish Republicans to end British rule in Ireland. Between April 24 and 29, a force of roughly 1,200 armed members of the Irish Volunteers, Irish Citizens Army, and the Irishwoman’s Council occupied a handful of strategically and symbolically important sites across the city. The rebels, believing that the United Kingdom’s wartime troubles presented an opportunity, had accepted material support earlier in the year from the German Empire. After several days of street fighting and ambushes, the British military used the navy to shell rebel positions. By the end of the fighting, 64 rebels, 132 British and Irish soldiers, and 254 civilians were dead, and downtown Dublin lay in ashes.
The Rising was a direct response to Westminster’s delaying the Government of Ireland Act 1914’s enactment until the end of the First World War. The Act, which would have granted Ireland its own parliament similar in function to Canada’s, was the product of a long constitutional struggle for Home Rule by Irish nationalists. What the rebels were hoping to achieve remains a contentious topic. The rebels themselves believed that they were establishing a legitimate provisional government for the Republic of Ireland through military action. Many historians have questioned this narrative, arguing instead that their leaders were inspired by a desire to self-immolate and achieve martyrdom.
The most popular newspapers were quick to try and downplay the situation’s severity, assuring their readerships that the rebellion was being quelled. On April 26 the Toronto Globe prematurely announced “Troops promptly suppress the rising in Dublin,” while four days later the Toronto World declared that “capture of the rebels thought to be just a matter of time.” On May 1 the Star delivered news that “All Irish Rebel Leaders in Dublin Surrender with 450 followers.”
The major papers emphasized the Irish people’s trustworthiness in their coverage. While reporting on the Irish volunteers involved with suppressing the rebellion, the Globe quipped that “the Irish loyalists are not all in the north.” On May 3 the Star reported that Irish troops were victorious, and that they “HATE REBS.” The Globe, World, and Star all reprinted letters from Irish Catholics across the British Empire denouncing the rebels and reaffirming their own commitment to the war effort.
Not forgetting that there was a war on, newspapers were quick to emphasize German connections to the rebels. The Globe asked “Is Hun Rule for Ireland the best substitute for Home Rule the [rebels] can suggest?” while the Star reported that the rebels were “undoubtedly [counting] upon the arrival of a considerable German force.” This was not without merit; a few days before the Rising took place, Irish nationalists attempted unsuccessfully to land a shipment of roughly 20,000 rifles and 1,000,000 rounds of ammunition from the German Empire. The Proclamation read by the rebels themselves mentions the aid provided by their “gallant allies in Europe.”
In the Rising’s aftermath, it was briefly rumoured that a Toronto-raised battalion was involved in putting down the fighting when the Star reported that a private from a unit recently sent to England had appeared on the British army’s casualty list. Pvt. Neville Fryday was an Irish-born 16-year-old labourer who lied about his age to serve in the 75th Canadian Infantry Battalion, Ontario Regiment. Fryday was on leave at the time, most likely visiting family. He was killed outside of Trinity College, allegedly while wearing his military uniform. He was buried in Dublin with a Canadian military grave.
The Rising placed Toronto’s Irish Catholics in an uncomfortable position. Although anti-Irish bigotries were nowhere near as intense or widespread as they were in the 19th century, many Irish Catholic Canadians still had to deal with accusations of disloyalty. Toronto in particular was dominated culturally and politically by the Orange Order, a hyper-Protestant association of Irish import that controlled city patronage. The staunch British Imperial milieu and the experience of being a double minority within their own linguistic and religious communities created a strong incentive to keep Irish Catholic toes on the British Imperial line.
The city’s lone Catholic newspaper, the Catholic Register and Canadian Extension, was quick and vehement in denouncing the Rising. The rebels, it wrote, were “unrepresentative” of the Irish people as a whole, and that those of a nationalist stripe were unlikely to be found in Toronto. Editor J.A. Wall identified Germany as the “tempter” behind the revolt.
Orange Toronto was incensed. In the eyes of the Orange Sentinel and Protestant Observer, the Rising had vindicated their worst anxieties about Irish Catholics, and demonstrated their unsuitability for any form of Home Rule. In the preceding years, hardline Protestants in Ireland’s northern provinces had formed a paramilitary named the Ulster Volunteer Force in response to British flirtations with granting Ireland its own parliament. The Rising illustrated “the fact that [Irish Member of Parliament] John Redmond’s guarantees of good behavior on the part of the Nationalists are the flimsiest possible grounds upon which the fortunes and fate of Ulster can be entrusted to a Dublin Parliament.”
Between May 3 and 12, the British executed 15 men for leading the Rising. The British army made a serious misstep in drawing out the executions by only killing two or three a day. The staggered nature of the executions horrified many Irish people, and helped strengthen support across the island for the proclaimed Irish Republic.
Although Toronto’s hyper-loyal wartime atmosphere restrained outward expressions of explicitly nationalist sentiments, the shootings provoked indignant reactions from normally temperate corners. For Irish Catholic Canadians, the shootings raised questions about their place in the British Empire. The Register declared that the executions were, “in the year 1916, something to startle and appal. It is safe to say that it could not have happened in any other part of the British Empire.” It then turned its focus upon prominent Ulster Loyalists, asking why the British government had tolerated their “criminally treasonable conduct” prior to the outbreak of war.
Former Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier, in a letter to a friend, denounced the “terrible executions.” Although the Rising was “foolish,” the British reaction was “worse than a crime, it [was] a blunder.” The Orange Sentinel was less sympathetic, asking if “the Irish expect that they can make an alliance with Germany, import arms and ammunition, destroy a city…and suffer no penalty for such atrocious crimes?”
The Easter Rising and the executions that occurred in its aftermath raised the temperature on long-simmering tensions between Toronto’s Irish Catholic and Irish Protestant communities. Caught up in a wartime milieu, Irish Catholic Torontonians were frequently subjected to suspicions about their loyalty not applied to their Protestant neighbours. Although Irish Catholics had found success in Canada, nativist suspicions at home and events abroad prevented complete societal acceptance. The execution of the rebel leaders demonstrated to many Irish Catholic Canadians the conditional nature of their rights as British citizens, and intensified an already vigorous debate about their loyalty.