The destination for history

The secret court martial records of the Easter Rising


On 29 April 1916, Patrick Pearse signed the surrender order to end the Rising. On 1 May, after the Dublin insurgent garrisons had been escorted to Richmond Barracks, detectives identified those thought to have played the most prominent role; these were to be court-martialled.

Meanwhile, military columns were dispatched to the provinces with the intention of detaining rebel bands still at large. Their activities precipitated a gun battle near Fermoy, County Cork (2 May), after which two members of the Kent family were court-martialled and one, Thomas, sentenced to death; his was the only execution outside Dublin (9 May).

The proclamation of nationwide martial law in Ireland (26 April) had suspended the right of civilians to be tried by civil court; 200 were court-martialled. In Dublin, 161 (including the fourteen executed) were tried by Field General Court-Martial (i.e. by 3 officers, none requiring legal training). Major General Sir John Maxwell, who was appointed General Officer Commanding-in-chief (GOC) in Ireland on 28 April, decided that the trials should be held in camera. The Crown’s law officers later concluded that this had been illegal, as the Army Act did not permit such a procedure, and it was under its provisions that the courts-martial operated. Herbert Asquith, then PM, stated publicly that the proceedings would be published but Maxwell, amongst others, opposed. Eminent legal opinion considered that publication was ultimately a ‘question of policy alone.’ The response of politicians was largely determined by the adequacy of the evidence produced at the trials of those sentenced to death and executed. In January 1917, a high-ranking official advised that there were ‘cases in which the evidence was extremely thin.’ Likewise, Sir Nevil Macready, Adjutant General, considered that in some it was ‘far from conclusive’, and observers would likely conclude that the ‘sole reason’ for the secrecy of the trials was that the ‘authorities intended to execute certain [accused]… whether there was evidence or not.’ The transcripts of the courts-martial were not made public until 1999.

The trials of the fourteen defendants executed in Dublin took place between 2-9 May, and the executions between 3-12 May. All faced the same charge – that they did ‘take part in armed rebellion… for the purpose of assisting the enemy’, and some additionally that they had attempted to cause ‘disaffection… among the civilian population.’ All faced similar types of evidence – witness testimony mainly from military officers who had been captured during the Rising, and soldiers who had observed the surrender. The documentary evidence produced had mostly been recovered during searches of the premises occupied by the insurgents. The court-martial records shed light on Easter week; they reveal: how it was that John MacBride became a participant; highlight how desperate Edward Daly’s position was at the Four Courts prior to surrender; illuminate how Patrick Pearse exaggerated his role in court; dispel suggestions that his brother, William, was too ‘exultant’ during his trial; prove that Thomas MacDonagh did not make a defiant speech in court; detail how James Connolly was medically examined and found to be ‘fit to undergo trial’…

It is unclear whether Asquith’s pressure on Maxwell lessened the number of executions. He had advised Maxwell, when appointed, ‘not to use extreme measures except in…. emergency’, and instructed (3 May) that he be reminded that executions would ‘lay up… future trouble in Ireland.’ On 5 May the GOC was summoned to attend cabinet, where it was agreed that capital punishment should only be imposed on ‘ringleaders… proven murderers.’ On 10 May Asquith suspended briefly the executions of Sean MacDermott and James Connolly. In response, Maxwell informed Asquith (9 May) that he had confirmed death sentences only where the accused was a leader or in ‘command of rebels’, and dispatched a memorandum (11 May) in which he defended his affirmative decision in each of the fifteen cases. Maxwell claimed that he had ‘never intended to overdo… the death sentence’, and he did commute it in eighty-four percent of the ninety instances in which it had been imposed by the courts. In any case, Asquith’s pressure was never intense. In the Commons, he forcefully defended the executions, and asserted that the GOC had shown ‘discretion, depth of mind… humanity’; Maxwell retained his post in Ireland until October 1916.

Both Maxwell and Asquith appear to have been satisfied with the justice of the courts-martial. But William Wylie, prosecution council, described them as ‘drumhead courts’ and, undoubtedly, a number of the trials of those executed were travesties of justice. Some can only have lasted 5-10 minutes. In two instances the defendant who was executed was tried alongside three other prisoners. In many cases the prosecution relied on a single, ill-informed witness, who knew little about the accused, and broadly repeated the same vacuous, generalised testimony. Arguably, some of the executions can be justified – the seven signatories of the Proclamation, three of Dublin’s four insurgent commandants, the Officers Commanding at two outposts where heavy fighting had occurred (Michael Mallin, Con Colbert). But otherwise the outcome appears random and unpredictable, a consequence of the haste with which cases were held, their number, and the inadequacy of British intelligence. De Valera escaped death though he was a Volunteer commandant. Uniquely, none of his Boland’s Bakery garrison was executed, though it was in this area that Crown forces sustained their heaviest casualties. Yet three of those executed had occupied Jacob’s, despite it being largely inactive throughout. The executions of William Pearse, Michael O’Hanrahan and MacBride are amongst the most difficult to defend. Sean Heuston might be included in the list of dubious cases, but at least he had been in command at the Mendicity Institution where British troops suffered substantial losses. Outside Dublin, it is difficult to explain why Thomas Kent was executed for his role in a minor skirmish in County Cork in which one RIC member died, yet none of the Volunteers involved in the Battle of Ashbourne were, though perhaps a dozen policemen were killed there.

The response in court of those insurgents who were executed, varied: Eamonn Ceannt made the most determined defence; to escape death, several understated their involvement (Mallin, Daly, Heuston); others made no statement (Thomas Clarke, Colbert); Patrick Pearse and Connolly made impassioned speeches from the dock, which were addressed to the Irish people, rather than their judges. But all faced death with fortitude, convinced of the rightness of their cause and legitimacy of their actions, which they were hopeful would ensure ultimate victory. Their executions fuelled public hostility towards Britain, and sympathy for an independent Irish republic. A cause is hallowed by those who die for it.

By Brian Barton

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