The Irish had been fighting against British rule on the Emerald Isle for centuries before the First World War. But with British troops tied up fighting the Germans on the European continent and elsewhere, World War I was an opportunity for the Irish Republicans to finally shake off the yoke of London’s tyranny.
On Easter week of 1916, more than 1,200 Irish Republicans launched an uprising in Dublin against the 16,000 British troops stationed there. Organized by the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), the uprising was joined by volunteers from other independence movements. The British Army was too much for the rebels and it was put down within the week, but there were moments where it looked like the rebels could win.
Cathal Brugha did not fit the stereotype of the Irish rebel, especially for the time. He was raised by a family that had both Protestant and Catholic members. His father was an antique dealer and Brugha did not smoke, drink, or even curse. Brugha joined the IRB in 1908, and was staunchly opposed to British rule.
He was also an accomplished athlete, an avid boxer, swimmer, cyclist and gymnast who enjoyed rugby and cricket. In November 1913, he became a member of the Irish Volunteers, and was elected First Lieutenant of C company, 4th Dublin battalion. Within a year, he was the battalion adjutant, landing a large supply of arms smuggled into Ireland by private yacht.
When the Easter Uprising was launched in 1916, Cathal Brugha was sure to be there, and he was. It was in some of the fiercest fighting of the entire week that history would remember his heroics. It was also because of those heroics and the aftermath that Brugha would survive to see a full on War of Independence.
An alliance of pro-independence Irish forces seized a series of government buildings in Dublin on April 24, 1916. With these strategic holdings in place, they declared the Irish Republic. In response to the uprising, the British sent in thousands of troops, artillery and even a gunboat. British troops fought their way through Dublin, taking fire at every turn.
Cathal Brugha was the vice commander of the 4th battalion of Irish Volunteers, who were holding the South Dublin Union. On Thursday the 27th, British troops reach his position. Fighting was brutal and often in close quarters. Brugha was seriously wounded and cut off from his unit, facing hundreds of British troops.
Instead of retreating, he charged at them alone. He single-handedly held them off until he couldn’t fight anymore. When his fellow Irishmen could finally reach him, he was propped on a wall, holding a pistol, with 25 wounds on his body. He’d been shot multiple times and hit with a hand grenade.
It’s believed the last thing he said before slipping into a coma was “God Save Ireland.” He was taken to Union Hospital, but was not expected to survive, although his wounds might have saved his life. He survived and would play critical roles in forming a new Irish government before dying of wounds in the Irish Civil War.
The Easter Uprising was pretty much limited to Dublin, though there was fighting elsewhere. Once the British had the upper hand, they cornered the Irish rebels into one area of the city and pummeled them with artillery. On April 29, 1916, the rebel leader surrendered. Most were executed. Thousands of others were rounded up and put into camps. Brugha was in a coma and was spared execution or imprisonment.
It was later written by Irish Republicans: “In the glorious roll-call of Easter Week few names stand out so prominently as that of Cathal Brugha. So unassuming and gentle, yet so daring, his part in the fight during that memorable week singles him out as one of the noblest heroes of our own time, and an equal to any of Ireland's long list of heroes, not excluding the Signatories of the Proclamation of the Republic.”