Ireland’s Wars: Executions And The Changed Rising

One week after it had started, in Dublin and in the rest of the country, the Easter Rising was over. From a military perspective, it had ended in complete victory for the British: what rebel forces that had taken the field had been defeated, and the small amount of territory they occupied had been re-taken. But in the days that followed the surrender of the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army, events would occur that would radically alter how we perceive the success of the Rising.

General John Maxwell was in command now, appointed as “Military Governor”, and arriving in Ireland as the rebellion entered its closing stages. Under him, martial law was extended to the whole island, a circumstance that caused a great amount of disquiet in certain circles, who feared what the British authorities might do with such power. Others, quite rightly as it turned out, worried what Maxwell specifically would do with his appointed powers, as the General seemed disinclined for calm reflection and respecting civil authority.

The utilisation of martial law included mass house searches, arms seizures and arrests, not just in Dublin, but across the country. Anyone of even vaguely nationalist persuasion was fair game, and it is in this that the true beginnings of the Easter Rising being labelled the “Sinn Feiner Rebellion” began, with that organisation, despite its non-militarism at the time, and, at best, moderate republican leanings, suddenly being appointed as part-and-parcel with the rebels. Richmond Barracks in Dublin was soon over-flowing with prisoners, leading to widespread criticism, in the press and Westminster. The tide of public opinion was already changing. We will return to the topic of these prisoners, 1’600 of which were soon interned in England, at a later date.

In the first week of May, Maxwell began the process of trying what he viewed as the “ringleaders” of the rebellion, in a serious of court-martials that could, using charitable language, be viewed as legally questionable. It has often been thought, to the point of becoming assumed common knowledge, that the signatories of the Easter Rising were doomed men the moment they surrendered, but this is not strictly true: there was plenty of scope in British law, and even British military law, for trials that could have been elongated, complicated and with possibility for sentences that were not death penalties.

But this is not what happened. Maxwell, fearing political interference, and seeking to make an example for the rest of Ireland, wanted things done quickly. To that extent, using the powers granted to him to their fullest limits, and arguably beyond, he instituted his own unique set of court-martials.

These could not be described as fair trials. They were held in secret (the transcripts would not be released for 80 years). The accused were not permitted the use of a qualified legal defender, and were not given adequate opportunity to form a defence of their own. They were granted no access to defence witnesses, and limited opportunities for cross-examination of prosecution witnesses, nearly all members of the military or police. There was no jury, only Generals appointed as judges, some of whom had commanded troops in the Rising, as clear a conflict-of-interest as you can imagine. The trials lasted only a few hours at most, and the sentences that were passed were carried out quickly, without any possibility of a formal appeal.

Many of those tried said next to nothing during the brief proceedings, refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of what was going on, though a few did attempt more spirited defences. The crux of the matter, from the perspective of what Maxwell wanted, was to prove that the Rising had been conducted with the aim of assisting Imperial Germany. Owing to it being a time of war with this state, this charge, if proved, came with a death sentence.

However, it was hard to prove. A German boat had been sunk outside Cobh and its crew captured, but that did not amount to much in a legal sense. The Proclamation of the Irish Republic referred to “gallant allies in Europe”, but did not name anyone specifically. The arms the Volunteers used were not figurative smoking guns either, as antiquated Mausers could be found in a lot of places. Given the nature of Maxwell’s trials, we must not kid ourselves into thinking the rebel leaders were about to get away with it, but from a legal perspective it was a problem that had to be handled.

Luckily for Maxwell, Pearse himself handed the General what he needed, perhaps deliberately. In a letter penned to his mother where he outlined the close of the Rising and his hope that the rank-and-file would be treated leniently, Pearse added a postscript many have taken as an intentional incrimination: “I understand that the German expedition which I was counting on actually set sail but was defeated by the British.” Pearse, as we have become aware, wanted his “blood sacrifice”, even if some of his compatriots did not share that sentiment. His words certainly doomed himself, and may have doomed others. Even if some of those in the literal firing line had no knowledge of German entanglements – like John McBride – it seemed to matter little.

Maxwell wanted his example. 90 death sentences would be passed by his courts before political pressure put a stop to things; all but 15 would be commuted. The 15 are well known, executed by firing squad in Kilmainham Gaol between the 3rd and 12th May. They comprised the seven signatories – Pearse, McDonough, Clarke, Plunkett, Ceannt, Connolly and Mac Diarmada – and higher ranking officers and garrison commanders, actual or de facto – Edward Daly, Michael O’Hanrahan, John McBride, Michael Mallin, Sean Heuston and Con Colbert – alongside Willie Pearse, probably executed more for his name and blood than his actual role as his brothers aide-de-camp and Tom Kent, one of the Kent brothers who tried to fight it out with the RIC in Cork. A 16th name is often added to these 15: Roger Casement, tried and convicted of treason in another controversial trial where his homosexuality was used as part of the prosecution, was hung in London on the 3rd August. The 16 faced the death sentences stoically, and passed into romanticised legend almost immediately.

There were numerous escapees of note, sentenced to death but excused for various factors, or those who dodged a death sentence entirely. Three names stick out as worthy of further discussion. Constance Markievicz was saved by virtue of her sex, much to her own disgust. Eamon de Valera probably would have been shot, but was saved by a multitude of factors, including confusion over his nationality – the British were trying to bring the US into the war, so it would not have done to execute someone who was possibly a US citizen – his relatively low profile before the Rising which even Maxwell noted as cause for commutation and the simple fact that he was one of the last to be tried, and avoided being in that initial rush of executions before a halt was called. It was a fortuitous escape, not just for the commandant but for the nationalist movement as a whole: de Valera now became a natural focal point as the most senior surviving Easter Rising leader. Lastly, there was Eoin MacNeill, whom, it was pointed out, had done everything he could have done to prevent the Rising from taking place. Arrested with a horde of others, he was given a life sentence on a slew of slightly lesser charges, though Maxwell probably wanted more than that.

To say that the executions changed the nature of the Easter Rising is a dangerous understatement. Before the trials and the shootings Ireland was reeling from the shock of the event and the sudden imposition of martial law: it certainly could not be said that there was a groundswell of positive feeling towards the revolutionaries, even if the claims that there was outright hatred are probably over-stated.

But the combination of the imposition of martial law, the widescale arrests, the unjust trials and then the executions, transformed public opinion. It is not inaccurate to say that it was the most important, decisive event of the entire revolutionary period, and maybe even the entirety of Irish history. People who would have been opposed to the rebels, or at best ambivalent, saw their outlook changed by the perceived rapidity and unfairness of the trials, and the merciless cruelty of the firing squads.

The news of Plunkett’s pre-execution wedding to fiancee Grace Clifford, the execution of Willie Pearse even though Maxwell had initially claimed he would only pass death sentences on “ringleaders” or the fact that a still-wounded Connolly needed to be tied to a chair in order to face the firing line were simply fuel to the fire. Soon masses were being held to honor men already being seen as republican martyrs; soldiers and RIC began to be jeered in public; and after an initial period when their existence seemed to be in danger, nationalist organisations began to thrive, not least the soon to be radically changed Sinn Fein. Maxwell was painted as a bloodthirsty tyrant, having destroyed the civil government in Ireland, doing so with the support of an uncaring London administration.

By the time that Prime Minister Asquith stepped in to put an end to the executions, after several stuttering attempts to rein Maxwell in did not go far enough, the damage was done. It is remarkable to see various strands of the British political system uniting in their condemnation of what occurred: the IPP and other moderate nationalist groups, Ulster Unionists and plenty of British political parties all called for a halt, in the full knowledge that what was happening would only make things more likely to go towards the militant nationalist viewpoint in Ireland. John Dillon of the IPP put it best in Westminster when he stated that the executions were “washing out our whole life work in a sea of blood”. The punitive reaction of Maxwell, which might well have been based off emotionally driven feelings of betrayal in a time of war, had done more for Irish republicanism than every rebellion for the past century.

How would things have turned out if there had been no rapidly carried out pseudo-trials? If the Rising leaders had been the subject of civil trials after a cooling off period, and if they had not been sentenced to death? It is fair to say that the rapid upswing in radical nationalist sentiment would not have occurred, and the entire picture of what occurred in Ireland from 1917 onward would have been very different. How different is impossible to say; but, as we will see as we move towards the War of Independence, the manner of how things unfolded in Ireland after 1916 always came back to what occurred in 1916.

Ireland, socially, politically and militarily, would never be the same. W.B. Yeats summed up how the nature of the Easter Rising created such transformation poetically: “All changed, changed utterly”. But it remained to be seen what would come of the “terrible beauty” of what had transpired.

Next week I will offer a brief summary of the Easter Rising before outlining how I plan to move forward.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

This entry was posted in History, Ireland, Ireland's Wars, War and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.