During the occupation of the GPO during the 1916 Rising, Desmond FitGerald commented “I was bemused by the general attitude of security”. At the height of the battle he was in the midst of the conflagration that shook the GPO garrison. Ever the sceptic, Desmond FitzGerald, who was in charge of rations, mentions in his memoir of the 1916 Rising the sudden and unexpected mobilisation, followed by a description of conditions in the GPO, the rebels’ headquarters. While many accounts describe the Rising as a form of blood sacrifice, FitzGerald discussed its wider rationale with the leader Pádraig Pearse, and with Joseph Plunkett who had travelled to Germany in 1915 for assistance. They expected that Germany would win the First World War and that a rising of at least three days would allow Ireland to take a seat at the peace conference.
The O’Rahilly talked of the Rising as a glorious thing in itself, without reference to what it might or might not achieve in the light of the position at the moment. Both he and Joseph Plunkett spoke of how much bigger an event it would have been had the original plans gone forward unchecked. But they did not suggest that even in that case we might have expected a military victory. The very fact that the conversation returned so steadily to what might have been was an admission that there was no doubt now about what was going to be.
Whenever that ship was referred to Pádraig Pearse was careful to repeat that the arms it had contained were not a gift, that they had been bought and paid for either by or through our own people in the United States. The reiteration of that point in the circumstances of that moment seemed to me to be significant in establishing that the Rising was our own work without any outside participation.
The talk went back to what might have been and with the assurance that the arms that had been sent were purchased, and that the Germans had done no more than to try, unsuccessfully, to send them to the purchaser without even attempting to send a voluntary support.
It seemed to me that if they were apparently so indifferent to our success now, when by helping us they might well recognise that they were helping themselves, and when our success might well make the difference between success and failure for themselves, then there was still less assurance that in the hour of their victory, if they were to be victorious, they would put themselves out to make the satisfaction of our demand for freedom a condition of the peace that was to follow the war.
I therefore asked Pearse what interest the Germans would have in coupling our demands with their own when and if the hour of their victory came. In putting my question I did not relate it to the fact that the Germans had made so little effort to assist us at that moment.
Both Pearse and Plunkett hastened to put forward the theory that even in the event of German victory the Germans would still have to look forward to possible dangers.
Obviously they would not attempt to annex England, for to do so would merely create for them a permanent source of weakness within their own system. Neither would they attempt to annex Ireland, for that would merely make us a weakness to them as we were now to England.
But they would need to see that England should not be able to challenge them again in the immediate future. In those circumstances it would obviously be good policy for them to take steps to establish an independent Ireland with a German prince as king. They even named the prince: Joachim, the youngest son of Kaiser Wilhelm II.
In those circumstances they would have an Ireland on the far side of England, linked with them in friendship flowing from the fact that they had promoted that independence and from the link of royal relationship.
That would have certain advantages for us. It would mean that a movement for de-anglicisation would flow from the head of the state downwards, for what was English would be foreign to the head of the state. He would naturally turn to those who were more Irish and Gaelic, as to his friends, for the non-nationalist element in our country had shown themselves to be so bitterly anti-German.
Such a ruler would necessarily favour the Irish language, for it would be impossible to make the country German-speaking, while it would be against his own interests to foster English.
For the first generation or so it would be an advantage, in view of our natural weakness, to have a ruler who linked us with a dominant European power, and thereafter, when we were better prepared to stand alone, or when it might be undesirable that our ruler should turn by personal choice to one power rather than be guided by what was most natural and beneficial for our country, the ruler of that time would have become completely Irish.
Talking of those things that might conceivably have been may seem to have been more calculated to depress us, seeing that even while we were speaking we were conscious that when the assault came it must necessarily overcome us. But somehow they cheered me, and it was quite evident that Pearse and Plunkett found comfort in speaking of what might have been.
Those talks between the three of us were repeated at various times during the week. No matter what might be happening when Pearse and Plunkett came in, I went to them immediately.
Desmond FitzGerald evacuated the wounded to Jervis Street Hospital and then led the escape of the escort party. Later he was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment, commuted to 20 years. With the other prisoners, he was released in 1917. He was elected Sinn Féin MP for the Pembroke constituency of Dublin in the 1918 general election. In 1919 he was appointed substitute director of publicity by Dáil Éireann. He accompanied the Treaty delegation to London. In 1922 he was appointed minister for external affairs and in 1927 minister for defence. He was a member of the Dáil until 1937 and a senator from 1938 to 1943.
These edited extracts are from an autobiographical account that Desmond FitzGerald wrote before his death, in 1947
Photo: Desmond FitzGerald welcomes John Devoy to Cobh on 28 July 1924, during his first visit to Ireland in 45 years. Picture: Irish Examiner Archive
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