February 29, 2016

The execution of the rebel leaders of 1916

Chief Secretary for Ireland in 1916 Augustine Birrell, by Mary Olive Edis
Garrett Fitzgerald wrote:
"My father… Always believed that it was the threat of conscription rather than the 1916 executions that finally swung opinion decisively towards Sinn Fein."
The first executions of the Easter Rising leaders took place on May 3 1916 and continued until the 12th of that month. General John Maxwell presided over the secret military tribunals which ordered the execution of the 15. These executions turned a futile revolt into a glorious outburst of patriotism.

General Sir John Maxwell had issued the following statement with regard to the action of the courts martial:
'In view of the gravity of the rebellion and its connection with German intrigue propaganda, and in view of the great loss of life and destruction of property resulting therefrom, the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief has found it imperative to inflict the most severe sentences on the known organizers of this detestable rising and on those commanders who took an active part in the actual fighting which occurred. It is hoped that these examples will be sufficient to act as a deterrent to intriguers and to bring home to them that the murder of His Majesty’s liege subjects or other acts calculated to imperil the safety of the realm will not be tolerated.'
L.G. Redmond-Howard, nephew and biographer of John Redmond, in 'Six Days of the Irish Republic - A Narrative And Critical Account of the Latest Phase of Irish Politics', described the events surrounding the Easter rebellion of 1916. He witnessed the surrender of the rebels in Dublin on Sunday April 30 1916:
"Weak, poor, ragged—some cripples; one, his whole face a mass of bandages—I never saw a more reckless or determined body of men in my life, and they contrasted strangely with the placid demeanour of their conquerors. Each marched with a certain lightness of tread—greybeards who no doubt remembered the days of the Famine and boys born since the Boer War; and as they stood there, their hands aloft, between the lines of khaki, not one face flinched...
I heard one young Lancashire Tommy say: “The poor beggars! They only obeyed the word of command, and they fought like heroes,” but he was cut short by an English officer with an Oxford drawl: “Damn sympathizing with the swine! I’d shoot all these Irish rebels down like rats—every one of them—if I had my way.” 
The words struck me forcibly at the time, for I knew that it only needed this to make martyrs of every one of them. 
“England has learnt how fatal that mistake has been,” I replied. “We’re surely not going to set Ireland back a hundred years by such a pogrom as followed '98…"
He also wrote:
"Just imagine the situation. England would first of all have told them she wished for no bloodshed beyond the punishment of those who had actually shot defenceless men or whose orders had led to these murders. It would have redounded entirely to the credit of the Englishman. 
England would then have asked the politicians and people alike if they in any way sympathized with such a revolt, and let the penalties be known—the immediate erasure of Home Rule from the Statute Book and the cessation of land purchase, as well as the stoppage of all commercial or financial transactions. 
Finally, if these failed and the people of Ireland really wished for war in its full reality, they could have it, but they must not ever afterward appeal as constitutional partners in the Empire, but merely as a conquered race: mercy they might have, rights they would have forfeited by conquest. 
Had such a course been followed, there would not only have been an opportunity upon the part of the nation at large to disown the usurpers, who would then have had not even the vestige of a grievance upon which to establish their preposterous claims to continuance in the position they had taken up. 
In a word, the English would have made fools of them, or rather allowed the Irish to make fools of them. Instead of this, all the old fatal, discredited methods were employed with the same fatal results, and they became national heroes, whose suppression by force could only give them greater power. 
The whole thing would have taken no longer than the campaign; no further blood would have been spilt, and time would have been allowed for the great adventure to reveal itself in the true grotesqueness of cold reality."
George Orwell admitted that the executions of the leaders of the Easter Rising was "a crime and mistake". Arthur Griffith described his feelings when he heard of the executions of the leaders after 1916 as he lingered in prison:
"Something of the primitive man woke in me. I clenched my fists with rage and longed for vengeance. I had not believed they would be stupid enough to donut. Had I foreseen that, perhaps, my view on the whole matter might have been different."
Robert Kee said in his BBC-RTE history documentary on the Easter Rising:
"An Irish woman wrote it was like watching a stream of blood coming from under closed door."
Edward MacLysaght said to Robert Kee (circa 1980):
"I wrote down in my diary something, which I summed up by saying: my heart is with them and my mind is against them, that’s what I thought. From the very beginning I was admiring them although I know I wasn’t personally concerned in any way at all so that was my reaction. 
[The effect of the executions on me was] the same as everybody else, it made me absolutely and completely pro-them and I became a political irishman from that day."
Nora Connolly, writer and activist and daughter of James Connolly, wrote about the executions in her 1918 book 'The unbroken tradition':
"Then day by day the news of executions nearly drove us out of our minds. We heard of the executions of Tom Clarke, and of Padraic Pearse, and of Thomas MacDonagh. Every time we heard the newsboys call out, “Two more executions,” or “One more execution” we dreaded to look in the paper for fear we might read my father’s name. And yet we must buy the papers."
George Bernard Shaw wrote in a letter to the Daily News on May 10th:
"The relation of Ireland to Dublin Castle is in this respect precisely that of the Balkan States to Turkey, of Belgium or the city of Lille to the Kaiser, and of the United States to Great Britain. 
Until Dublin Castle is superseded by a National Parliament and Ireland voluntarily incorporated with the British Empire, as Canada, Australasia, and South Africa have been incorporated, an Irishman resorting to arms to achieve the independence of his country is doing only what Englishmen will do if it be their misfortune to be invaded and conquered by the Germans in the course of the present war. Further, such an Irishman is as much in order morally in accepting assistance from the Germans in this struggle with England as England is in accepting the assistance of Russia in her struggle with Germany. The fact that he knows that his enemies will not respect his rights if they catch him, and that he must, therefore, fight with a rope round his neck, increases his risk, but adds in the same measure to his glory in the eyes of his compatriots and of the disinterested admirers of patriotism throughout the world. 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 or Poland and Serbia and Belgium in Europe; and nothing in heaven or on earth can prevent it."
A few week after the Easter Rebellion of 1916 a shrewd and prosperous Nationalist man of business said to Stephen Gwynn, Home Rule MP, with fury: 
"The fools! It was the first rebellion that ever had the country against it, and they turned the people round in a week."
Augustine Birrell said:
"The unanimity of Ireland has as I say even yet been preserved. This is no Irish rebellion. I hope that, although put down, as it is being put down, as it must be put down, with such success and with such courage and yet at the same time humanity toward the dupes, the rank and file, led astray by their leaders, that this insurrection in Ireland will never, even in the minds and memories of that people, be associated with their past rebellions or become an historical landmark in their history."
Edward Carson said on May 3 1916 in the Commons:
"It will be a matter requiring the greatest wisdom and the greatest coolness, may I say, in dealing with these men, and all that I say to the Executive is, whatever is done, let it not be done in a moment of temporary excitement, but with due deliberation in regard both to the past and to the future."
Stephen Gwynn wrote ‘John Redmond’s Last Years’, published in 1919. He explained the Castle's reaction to the Rising:
"Everybody saw that in such a case the need was to prevent a rebellious spirit from spreading. Sir John Maxwell took the simple view that the way to secure this was by plenty of executions. Knowledge of Irish history cannot be expected in an English Minister, still less in an English soldier; but it could have taught him how often and how ineffectually that recipe had been applied. Still less could it be hoped that a soldier, in no sense bound to the study of contemporary politics... 
All that Redmond could achieve was by incessant personal intervention to limit the list of executions, to put some stay on what he called later “the gross and panicky violence” with which measures of suppression were conceived and carried out. He could not prevent the amazing procedure of sending flying columns throughout the country into places where there had been no hint of disturbance, and making arrests by the hundred without reason given or evidence produced. In many cases, men who had been thoroughly disgusted by the outbreak found themselves in jail; and disaffection was manufactured hourly. 
On May 3rd, when Redmond made his public appeal to Mr. Asquith, it was still not too late to prevent the mischief from spreading. By general consent, Redmond was right when he said that the rising was thoroughly unpopular in Ireland, and most of all in Dublin. The troops on whom the insurgents fired were in the first instance Irish troops. Later in that year I was attached to one of these battalions (the 10th Dublins), and asked them how they did their scouting work during the conflict. “We needed no scouts,” was the answer; “the old women told us everything.” The first volley which met a company of this battalion killed an officer; he was so strongly Nationalist in his sympathy as to be almost a Sinn Féiner. Others had been active leaders in the Howth gun-running. It was not merely a case of Irishmen firing on their fellow-countrymen: it was one section of the original Volunteers firing on another."
He continued:
"Nothing could have prevented the halo of martyrdom from attaching itself to those who died by the law for the sake of Irish freedom: the tradition was too deeply ingrained in Ireland’s history.  
Yet Redmond did not go beyond the measure of average Irish opinion when he accepted the first three executions as just. People at least knew who these men were, and their signatures to the proclamation of an Irish Republic proved their leadership... 
Already the tide had begun to turn in Ireland. On May 11th Mr. Dillon—who had been in Dublin during the rebellion—moved the adjournment of the House to demand that Government should state whether they intended to have more executions upon the finding of secret tribunals, and to continue the searches and wholesale arrests which were going on through the country."
L.G. Redmond-Howard wrote:
"We were watching the climax of years of planning and the culminating point of so many lifetimes of idealism, effort, and sacrifice, however mistaken. We knew they would fail: we knew the penalty of the failure—the traitor’s death or the convict’s cell; but we were held to the spot, to see just how “dramatic” the fiasco would be.  
The very thought was a continuous torture, and it haunted us like a ghost or a madness. We knew they were our own flesh and blood that had rebelled: it would be strangers who would conquer, and yet we knew that order was right: and this too was a torture-thought."
He continued:
"Monday and Tuesday were for the most part employed in clearing the streets and preparing the field for the battle which was to last continuously until late on Saturday evening, but it seems a pity, looking back on the situation, that the time was not employed in trying to avoid such a fatal issue; and that it would have been possible is proved by the example of Cork, where all conflict was avoided by a timely negotiation between the rebels and the ordinary civil and ecclesiastical authorities. 
However, of this more later; it was decided to treat the matter in the sternest possible manner, which was just, as it turned out, what the Sinn Feiners wanted, and the military authorities, as it were, fell into the trap prepared for them by those astute politicians: for that they foresaw the political effects of ruthless suppression is now an admitted fact."
On May 3 1916 John Redmond said:
"If any more executions take place in Ireland, the position will become impossible for any Constitutional Party or leader."
He also said:
"As the rebellion, or the outbreak, call it what you like, has been put down with firmness, I do beg the Government, and I speak from the very bottom of my heart and with all my earnestness, not to show undue hardship or severity to the great masses of those who are implicated, on whose shoulders there lies a guilt far different from that which lies upon the instigators and promoters of the outbreak. Let them, in the name of God, not add this to the wretched, miserable memories of the Irish people, to be stored up perhaps for generations, but let them deal with it in such a spirit of leniency as was recently exhibited in South Africa by General Botha, and in that way pave the way to the possibility … that out of the ashes of this miserable tragedy there may spring up something which will redound to the future happiness of Ireland and the future complete and absolute unity of this Empire. I beg of the Government, having put down this outbreak with firmness, to take only such action as will leave the least rankling bitterness in the minds of the Irish people, both in Ireland and elsewhere throughout the world."
On 8 May the lord lieutennant, Lord Wimborne, warned Major-General Sir John Maxwell, who had come to Ireland on 28 April as military governor, of possible ‘disastrous consequences’ arising from the executions. 

On 10 May Asquith sent instructions to Dublin that ‘no further executions are to take place until further orders.’ Despite Dillon's warning and Asquith’s instructions, Connolly and MacDermott were shot on 12 May. 

On May 10 1916 the House of Commons convened to discuss the Orders of the Day. The session was marked by the interventions of John Dillon of the Irish Parliamentary Party. Dillon referred to the execution of the Rising rebels no less than 6 times. He spoke with total and searing urgency, stating brightly that executions were the fuel and fodder for raising “old bitterness” and “all kinds of past controversies”. He said:
"My object in moving for the Adjournment was by no means to raise the whole of the Irish question. I entirely endorse the claim made by the hon. and learned Member for Cork [Tim Healy]. Those of us who have been in the middle of it, and realise what it all means and the horrors of it, think we are entitled, at the earliest possible moment, to a discussion of the situation in Ireland. The sole object of my Motion is to stop the executions. I wish I could withdraw the Motion. I cannot! The Prime Minister distinctly guarded himself—as I understood him—by saying that no further executions would take place except in respect of sentences already confirmed."
Dillon continued:
"How many are those? We are in the dark, and I must say that the distinct feeling in Dublin when I left, and in Ireland, was such that I regard, and must regard, as a matter of overwhelming importance—the putting a stop immediately to these executions. Therefore, my Motion is narrowly confined to that, and I have no notion of attempting to raise the general question of Ireland. It would be an outrage to do so on a Motion for the Adjournment which could only last two and a half hours. I have no such notion, but I hope when the proper time comes, at a quarter past eight, fully to justify my action, or at least make an effort to justify it, in asking at the earliest possible moment the attention of the House to stop the executions absolutely. If the Prime Minister could have seen his way to give that pledge, I certainly would not have moved."
He said then on May 11:
"It is the first rebellion that ever took place in Ireland where you had a majority on your side. It is the fruit of our life work. We have risked our lives a hundred times to bring about this result. We are held up to odium as traitors by those men who made this rebellion, and our lives have been in danger a hundred times during the last thirty years because we have endeavored to reconcile the two things, and now you are washing out our whole life work in a sea of blood. 
…the great bulk of the population were not favorable to the insurrection, and the insurgents themselves, who had confidently calculated on a rising of the people in their support, were absolutely disappointed. They got no support whatever. What is happening is that thousands of people in Dublin, who ten days ago were bitterly opposed to the whole of the Sinn Fein movement and to the rebellion, are now becoming infuriated against the Government on account of these executions, and as I am informed by letters received this morning, the feeling is spreading throughout the country in a most dangerous degree. [Reads statement for Mr. Skeffington’s widow] Mrs Skeffington begs me, in conclusion, to ask the Government and the House of Commons for a public investigation. 
I do most earnestly appeal to the Prime Minister to stop these executions… it is not murderers who are being executed; it is insurgents who have fought a clean fight, a brave fight, however misguided, and it would be a damned good thing for you if your soldiers were able to put up as good a fight as did these men in Dublin - three thousand men against twenty thousand with machine-guns and artillery [Heckled and responds]… we have attempted to bring the masses of the Irish people into harmony with you, in this great effort at reconciliation - I say, we are entitled to every assistance from the Members of this House and this Government."
When Redmond joined Carson, “the ring-leader of the Ulster rebellion” and “the arch rebel of the North”, in the Commons to denounce the 1916 rebels William O'Brien wrote in ‘The Irish Revolution and how it came about’ (1923):
"Every honest Irish instinct was revolted by the spectacle of a Nationalist leader closing with the audacious invitation to “join hands in denouncing and putting down these rebels now and for evermore “coming from the man who not many months before had his hands red with the preparations for a rebellion against the King’s law more extensive and bloody and incomparably more sordid than that of Easter Week."
John Redmond said in the House of Commons, July 31 1916:
"I am in complete sympathy with the right hon. Gentleman [Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith] in his references to the new and improved atmosphere which has surrounded this Irish question quite recently. One great good, at any rate, has come out of what has been happening during the last few weeks. That is that the relations between the Irish Nationalist party and the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Dublin University (Sir E. Carson) and his friends have considerably improved. There is less bitterness than ever there was between us, and I, for my part, will be careful, both in this House and out of it, to do nothing and to say nothing in the direction of importing that bitterness in the future. The right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Dublin University recognises now frankly—he has done it in this House: he has done it in the public Press—that the Home Rule Act is on the Statute Book. In addition to that, I think that I am not doing the smallest injustice when I say that his desire, just as much as my desire, is to see in the future a united Ireland. The difference, however, in arriving at that goal which exists between us is largely one of method. But that difference is one which, in my opinion, is not only capable, but is certain one of these days of a peaceful settlement. I certainly, therefore, will lose no opportunity of strengthening the better feeling which has arisen."
Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan wrote:
"Whenever I read the history of Britain’s relations with Ireland, I want to weep at the missed opportunities. Almost any of the Liberal Home Rule Bills could have averted partition, and the horrors that followed. Even as late as 1916, the blood-dimmed tide might have been stopped up. Had the government not responded with such unconscionable brutality, the Easter Rising might now be remembered as a slightly opéra bouffe episode, backed only by a few fanatics: more Southern Irish Catholics died in British uniform on the first day of the Somme offensive than participated in it. I don’t think it’s fanciful to imagine Ireland having evolved into a self-governing Dominion in the way that, say, New Zealand did. 
‘Was it needless death after all?’ asked Yeats. Probably. But how last-century it all now seems. Ireland has become Britain’s closest ally in the EU. All changed, changed utterly."
Michael Portillo said:
"At a time when soldiers were being shot for desertion it was perhaps a surprise that as few as 16 insurgents were executed in total. But, what the Irish situation required was not a judicial or military response, but a political one. The fact that Patrick Pearse and others had courted matyrdom should have alerted them to the propaganda trap."
Gerry Adams said in his Easter 2016 speech:
"By executing the signatories and other leaders the British removed the revolutionary leadership and the most advanced and progressive thinkers and activists. 
They paved the way for the counter revolution that was to follow the revolutionary period and the establishment of two mean spirited -narrow minded states. 
In the Civil War, the forces of conservatism - the Church hierarchy, the media and big business - all supported the Free State regime and opposed those who held out for the Republic proclaimed in Easter Week 1916.

The people of the north were abandoned."

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