The Executions of 1916

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A historical account of this week in 1916, when the executions of the Easter Rising leaders took place. By Dermot McEvoy (for Irish Central).

 

On May 3, 1916, the first of the executions were held for the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising. Padraig Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh, and Thomas Clarke were executed by firing squad in Kilmainham Jail.

Perhaps the most famous photograph of the 1916 Easter Rising shows Padraig Pearse surrendering to British Major-General William Henry Lowe near the corner of Moore and Parnell Streets on Saturday, April 29. It is a photo that encompasses many things: the receding power of the British Empire and the new indefatigable Ireland. It shows, in several ways, the theatricality of the Rising, and also the role that women would come to play in the coming War of Independence and their struggle for equality for the rest of the 20th century.

On the left is General Lowe and to his is right is his son John Muir Lowe, who, under the stage name of John Loder, went on to act in films (“How Green Was My Valley”) and, most famously, to marry Hollywood sex siren, Hedy Lamarr. On the right is Pearse, “President” of the Provisional Government and Commander-in-Chief of the Irish Volunteers. Hidden behind Pearse (except for her shoes) is GPO nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell, who brokered the surrender (in some photos, in a sign of the times, her feet were actually airbrushed out of the photo).

This is the last known photograph of Pearse. It is the beginning of the end of the Easter Rising -- the executions are about to begin.

GENERAL MAXWELL SHOWS NO MERCY

The man sent to Ireland to put down the Rising was General Sir John Grenfell Maxwell, K.C.B., K.C.M.G., C.V.O., D.S.O. He was appointed the military governor and Commander-in-Chief of His Majesty’s Forces in Ireland on Friday, April 28. Apparently, his main qualifications for the job was that he was available and was a friend of Lord Kitchener.

He was not enamored with the Irish: “The majority,” he stated, “seem to be on the verge of madness which finds its outlet in poetry and emotional traits.” He would soon have his chance to pronounce the ultimate chastisement on the leaders of the Rising, several of whom were published, poets. He knew how to handle these people: “I am going to ensure that there will be no treason whispered for 100 years.”

Apparently, Maxwell thought things out methodically: from court-martial to execution, to burial. He knew the funeral parade Tom Clarke had put on for Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa the previous summer and he was going to have none of it: “Irish sentimentality will turn these graves into martyrs’ shrines to which annual processions will be made.” Thus the bodies would be disposed of without coffin or shroud.

Brigadier J. Young wrote about how it was all to go down at Arbour Hill: “After each prisoner has been shot, a Medical Officer will certify that he is dead, and his body will be immediately removed to an ambulance, with a label pinned on his breast giving his name. When the ambulance is full, it will be sent to Arbour Hill Detention Barracks, entering by the gate at the Garrison Chapel. The party will then put the bodies close alongside one another at the grave (now being dug), cover them quickly with quicklime (ordered) and commence filling in the grave. One of the officers with his party is to keep a note of the position of each body in the grave, taking the name from the label. A priest will attend for the funeral service.”

The British knew exactly what they were going to do with the bodies of the dead rebels, but didn’t have the decency to tell the families. Kathleen Clarke, Tom Clarke’s wife, in her “Revolutionary Woman,” recalls the run-around she and her sister Madge received when they tried to claim the bodies of Tom Clarke and their brother, Ned Daly: “When we got back to the hall, Madge approached the officer at the desk and made the request for Ned’s dead body for burial.

He made no comment but wrote down her request. Then I approached him to say I had not yet received my husband’s body, though I had made a request for it the previous night. He told me he had no information on the matter; he had forwarded my request. Some weeks later, Madge received a letter which said as the body of her brother was already buried, they could not accede to her request. I got no answer to my request.”

Now all that was needed were bodies to put in the grave/trench over at Arbour Hill. General Maxwell would supply those too.

The Court-martials of Padraig Pearse (Prisoner #1), Thomas MacDonagh (Prisoner #30), and Thomas Clarke (Prisoner #31) took place at Richmond Barracks, May 2, 1916. All three faced the same charge:

CHARGE: Did an act to wit did take part in an armed rebellion and in the waging of war against His Majesty the King, such act being of such a nature as to be calculated to be prejudicial to the Defence to the Realm and being done with the intention and for the purpose of assisting the enemy

PLEA (of all three): Not Guilty

VERDICT: Guilty. Death by being shot

As May 4 dawned, many thought the bloodshed was over, but they were to be disappointed. General Maxwell had just gotten started.

Joseph Mary Plunkett, Ned Daly, Micheál O’Hanrahan and Willie Pearse would all face their deaths. All four faced the same charge:

CHARGE: Did an act to wit did take part in an armed rebellion and in the waging of war against His Majesty the King, such act being of such a nature as to be calculated to be prejudicial to the Defence to the Realm and being done with the intention and for the purpose of assisting the enemy

PLEA: William Pearse was the only one of the four here accused to plead guilty. The others pleaded not guilty.

VERDICT: All were found guilty. Death.

On May 8, 1916, the executions of the 1916 Easter Rising’s leaders continued.

Obviously exhausted by the executions of last week, the British took the weekend off. Rested, they returned to their gruesome work on Monday, executing four more rebel leaders.

The Court-martials of Éamon Ceannt (Prisoner #32), Con Colbert (Prisoner #70), Seán Heuston (Prisoner #46), and Michael Mallin (Prisoner #78) took place at Richmond Barracks, May 3-4-5, 1916. All three faced the same charge:

CHARGE: Did an act to wit did take part in an armed rebellion and in the waging of war against His Majesty the King, such act being of such a nature as to be calculated to be prejudicial to the Defence to the Realm and being done with the intention and for the purpose of assisting the enemy

PLEA (of all three): Not Guilty

VERDICT: Guilty. Death

By this point, the Irish people were in shock. After the surrender they had hated the rebels and what they had done to their city. But now, the tide had turned. The rebels, once pariahs, had—thanks to General Maxwell—become heroes.

The unionist journalist Warren B Wells, in a letter called “An Irish Apologia” stated: “I am not asking you to regard the executions of the rebel leaders, the sentences of penal servitude, the deportations, announced badly day after day without publication of the evidence which justified the infliction of the capital penalty, from behind the closed doors of Field Court-Martial, from the point of view of their justice, or even of their expediency. I am simply inviting you to endeavor to understand their effect on that Irish public which read of them ‘with something of the feeling of helpless rage with which one would watch a stream of blood seeping from under a closed door.’ ”

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