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Thread: The Executions - 100 years ago today

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    Default The Executions - 100 years ago today

    Just after the Easter Rising finished and the executions started, The Irish Times prophesised that the rebellion would “pass into history
    with the equally unsuccessful insurrections of the past”.
    What would have happened had the British not executed the leaders of the Rising is one of the great imponderables of history.
    Would the mood of anger and dismay at the destruction and loss of life have remained?
    Would the hostility towards the rebels evident on the streets of Dublin after the rebellion have persisted if they had not been executed?
    Veteran Nationalist MP John Dillon was sure, even while the executions were going on, that they were “letting loose a river of blood”.
    It was the first time the British had the bulk of the Irish population on their side in a rebellion, he told the British prime minister Herbert Asquith,
    yet the executions had changed all that.

    Disastrous aftermath
    The blame for the disastrous aftermath of the Easter Rising lies firstly with Gen John Maxwell, who was given “plenary powers” to deal with the rebels as he saw fit.
    The British government effectively washed its hands of responsibility. What demanded a carefully calibrated political response was dealt with instead by the brutal
    instrument of martial justice.
    The British used war-time regulations to deal with the rebels. The dreaded Defence of the Realm Act was invoked to stymie anything regarded as injurious to the
    British war effort. Those involved with the so-called mosquito press or those making anti-recruitment speeches were dealt with by the Act.
    Crucially, it allowed those regarded as having assisted the enemy to be tried by field court martial. It involved three army officers, irrespective of whether
    or not they had legal training.

    Affront to justice
    Those British officers chosen to have the power of life or death over the rebels were chosen simply because they were available.
    Even by the standards of the day, the executions were an affront to justice. They were held in secret, the accused were allowed no defence and the executions
    were carried out without leave to appeal.
    It is clear from the paucity of documentations surrounding them, and the sheer volume of trials processed, that they were designed with only one outcome in mind
    – the execution of the rebels involved.
    Many of the leaders, most notably Patrick Pearse and Seán MacDiarmada expected to be executed and, indeed, sought it.
    They had, after all, invoked the aid of Britain’s mortal enemy, Germany.
    But there were also precedents from another part of the British empire which suggested a more judicious process might have been appropriate.
    In late 1914, Gen Louis Botha’s Union of South Africa faced an internal revolt from his fellow countrymen who had aligned themselves with Germany.
    The revolt was suppressed but none of the leaders were executed lest they create martyrs for the cause.
    The Irish Parliamentary Party leader John Redmond and his deputy John Dillon invoked the Botha example, but they had reckoned without the bovine
    stupidity of Maxwell, who was given a free hand to do what he saw fit.

    Historic mistake
    In the end, he ordered 15 men to be executed and commuted the other sentences.
    By the time Asquith had arrived in Dublin just after the last executions, the damage had been done. Britain had made a historic mistake.
    As George Bernard Shaw said afterwards: “It is absolutely impossible to slaughter a man in this position without making him a martyr and a hero,
    even though the day before the rising he may have been only a minor poet.
    “The shot Irishmen will now take their places beside Emmet and the Manchester Martyrs in Ireland and beside the heroes of Poland and Serbia and Belgium in Europe,
    and nothing in heaven or on earth can prevent it.”

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    Patrick Pearse’s court martial included as evidence a letter to his mother in which he confirmed that the rebels had sought the support of Germany for the Easter Rising.
    The letter was written in Arbour Hill detention barracks on May 1st, 1916, on the day before his court martial and two days before he was executed.
    It was handed into the court martial as evidence by a Sgt Goodman, who said he witnessed Pearse writing it and that Pearse had given it to him for posting.
    It was never sent and remained in the execution files until made public in 2003.
    Significantly, it contains a postscript written, not at the end of the letter, but at the start in which Pearse writes: “P.S I understand that the German expedition
    which I was counting on actually set sail but was defeated by the British.”
    This has since been interpreted as a deliberate attempt by Pearse to seek his own death on the basis that the British would certainly execute someone
    who had collaborated with Britain’s wartime enemy.

    Pearse’s letter to his mother is partially a plea for clemency for his followers and partly a vindication for himself.
    “Our hope and belief is that the Government will spare the lives of all our followers, but we do not expect that they will spare the lives of the leaders.
    We are ready to die and we shall die cheerfully and proudly,” he wrote.
    “Personally I do not hope or even desire to live, but I do hope and desire and believe that the lives of all our followers will be saved.”
    The court martial took place on May 2nd, 1916, and was presided over by Brig Gen Charles Blackader (president) assisted by Lieut Col George German and Col William John Kent.

    Pearse pleaded not guilty to the charge of staging an armed rebellion “with the intention and purpose of assisting the enemy”.
    Constable Daniel Coffey, a detective with Dublin Metropolitan Police, gave evidence that identified Pearse as a member of the Irish Volunteers.
    “I have seen him several times going through the city with bodies of men and acting as an officer,” he told the court.
    Second Lieut SL King gave evidence at several of the court martials. He had been a prisoner in the GPO during Easter Week.
    He was the only witness that Pearse cross-examined.
    Pearse asked him, “Were you a prisoner in our hands and how were you treated?” King responded: “I was and was very well treated.”
    In addition to the letter, Pearse made an address to his court-martial in which he admitted they had been negotiating with the Germans.
    “I have deemed it my duty as an Irishman to fight for the freedom of my country. I admit I have organised men to fight against Britain,”
    he told the members of the court martial. “As far as I can see, she [Germany] did her best to help us. She sent a ship with men. Germany has not sent us gold.”

    Pearse’s file includes a note from Capt HV Stanley of the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC), sent shortly after the first executions of Pearse,
    Thomas MacDonagh and Thomas Clarke.
    It states: “This is to certify that I was present at the execution of the prisoners enumerated below, which took place at Kilmainham Jail on morning of 3/5/1916
    and that the prisoners were dead before the commandant disposed of the bodies.”
    Pearse was executed on May 3rd, 1916. In her memoirs, Elizabeth, Countess of Fingal, recalled Blackader stating to her that he regarded Pearse as
    “one of the finest characters I have ever come across. There must be something very wrong in the state of things that makes a man like that a rebel.”

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    Padraig Pearse (1879-1916)
    Born in Dublin in 1879 on Great Brunswick Street (now Pearse Street) and educated by the Christian Brothers at Westland Row, before taking a scholarship to the Royal University (University College Dublin) to study law. In 1898 Pearse became a member of the Executive Committee of the Gaelic League. He graduated from the Royal University in 1901 with a degree in Arts and Law. He was later called to the bar.
    From his early school days he was deeply interested in Irish language and culture. He joined the Gaelic League in 1895 and became editor of its paper, An Claidheamh Soluis (‘sword of light’). He lectured in Irish at University College Dublin. To advance his ideal of a free and Gaelic Ireland he founded a bilingual school for boys, St Enda’s, at Cullenswood House, Ranelagh, in September 1908. He later moved the school to a larger location in Rathfarnham in 1910.
    Initially, Pearse was a supporter of Home Rule but his outlook on Irish freedom was to become more radical and when the Irish Volunteers were formed in November 1913, he was elected a member of the provisional committee and later the Director of Organisation. In July 1914, Pearse was involved in the smuggling of weapons and ammunition through Howth in Co Dublin which were stored at St Enda’s.
    Pearse’s graveside oration at O’Donovan Rossa’s funeral in 1915, ended with the much quoted words, ‘Ireland unfree shall never be at peace’, and was influential in the build up to the Easter Rising. One of the founder members of the Irish Volunteers, and the author of the Proclamation of Independence, Pearse was present in the GPO during the Rising, and was Commander in Chief of the Irish forces. After surrendering to save further civilian casualties, he was executed holding a crucifix on May 3, 1916 at Kilmainham, and was buried in quick lime at Arbour Hill.


    Thomas MacDonagh (1878-1916)
    A native of Tipperary, MacDonagh trained as a priest but like his parents became a teacher, and was on the staff at St Enda’s, the school he helped to found with Padraig Pearse. A gifted poet, writer and dramatist, in 1909 he was a founding member of the Association of Secondary Teachers of Ireland and also was active in setting up the Irish Women’s Franchise League in 1911 which promoted Irish nationalism and the cultural revival.
    He joined the Irish Volunteers in November 1913, becoming a member of the provisional committee and taking part in the Howth gun-running. MacDonagh believed Irish freedom would be achieved by what he called “zealous martyrs”, hopefully through peace but, if necessary, by war.
    Although a member of the IRB from April 1915, he was not co-opted to the Military Council until early April 1916, and so had little part in planning the Rising. He is believed, however, to have contributed to the content of the Proclamation.
    As one of the four Dublin battalion commandants, MacDonagh was in charge at Jacob’s biscuit factory in Bishop Street. His two most senior officers were Major John MacBride and Michael O’Hanrahan. Survived by his wife Muriel Gifford and his children Donagh and Barbara, MacDonagh was executed by firing squad at Kilmainham Jail on May 3.

    Thomas J Clarke (1857-1916)
    Born on the Isle of Wight to Irish parents, Clarke’s father was a sergeant in the British army. As a young man, he joined Clan na Gael and served 15 years in British jails for his role in a bombing campaign in London. He was released in 1898, and spent nine years in America. He returned to Dublin in 1907 setting up a tobacconist’s shop on Great Britain Street (now Parnell Square), before being co-opted onto the IRB Military Council which was responsible for planning the Rising.
    Clarke was also Chairman and a Trustee of the Wolfe Tone Memorial Committee, which organised the first pilgrimage to his grave at Bodenstown, Co Kildare in 1911.
    The first signatory of the Proclamation of Independence because of his seniority and life-long devotion to the cause of Irish independence, Clarke was with the group that occupied the GPO. He married Kathleen Daly, niece of the veteran Fenian John Daly, and had three children. Clarke faced the firing squad at Kilmainham on May 3, 1916, age 59.

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    If the executions had not taken place then Irish history probably would have been different.
    A lot less violent and possibly the issues could have been settled peacably.

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    The executions were dragged out over a week or two which increased sympathy for the rebels.
    In the aftermath of the rising about two thousand men were interned without trial in Britain - notably Frongoch in Wales.
    Half of these men were not politically motivated but probably became so in the camps, where Republicans continued to organise themselves.
    The British attempted to introduce conscription in Ireland in 1918,to replenish their armies on the Western Front. This drove people in droves to support Sinn Fein.
    British reprisals in the War of Independence finally turned many ordinary Irish against the UK.
    The point has also been made that the British were relatively mild in 1916 compared to examples where Russia or France suppressed their own rebellions.
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    The executions have to be seen in the context of a war in which empires, including the British Empire, where fighting for their very survival. The war did set in train events that would lead to the end of many empires including the British Empire.
    A lot of Irish soldiers were dying in the trenches.
    The British were also “shooting at dawn” (a barbaric practice) soldiers (including Irish soldiers) who were clearly suffering from physical as well as mental problems from the constant artillery bombardment.
    Clearly, in that context, the rebels were seen as traitors especially because they were colluding with the then German enemy.
    Last edited by SteveB; 03-05-16 at 10:57.

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    The Vietnam War was known as the “media war” because of the media attention.
    So also the Afghanistan and Iraq war.

    World War One, the Korea War and the war in Aden were carried out away from the media.
    The horrors of these earlier wars were unknown to the general public at the time.
    The true horrors of war became apparent to the people of Dublin during the executions because it was on their doorstep. There are records that many British politicians saw the dangers of these actions but the “hawks” won over the “doves” because of the war.

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    RIP Rebels at least their deaths were not in vain x
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    Quote Originally Posted by SteveB View Post
    The executions have to be seen in the context of a war in which empires, including the British Empire, where fighting for their very survival. The war did set in train events that would lead to the end of many empires including the British Empire.
    A lot of Irish soldiers were dying in the trenches.
    The British were also “shooting at dawn” (a barbaric practice) soldiers (including Irish soldiers) who were clearly suffering from physical as well as mental problems from the constant artillery bombardment.
    Clearly, in that context, the rebels were seen as traitors especially because they were colluding with the then German enemy.
    The British Army hierarchy put very little value on life - The Battle of the Somme is a perfect example. Mind you the German hierarchy were just as bad.
    The shooting of deserters was typical of the bullyboy tactics of those in charge.

    The rebel leaders were found guilty of treason, which was nonsense given that the majority of those executed were Irish,
    apart from James Connolly(Scottish) & Roger Casement(English).

    Quote Originally Posted by Dalton23 View Post
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