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Legacy of the 1916 Executions

Following the 1916 Rising, General Sir John G Maxwell arrived in Ireland on Friday 28 April. The Rising had begun the previous Easter Monday. Maxwell a ‘military governor’ was given extensive ‘plenary powers’ under the Defence of the Realm Act of 1914. This gave him sole charge of the leader’s trials which were held in camera and without defence or jury with sentences by ‘field general court martial’. Maxwell was intent on suppressing this violent outbreak of Irish nationalism. More follow up sweeping arrests rounded up 3,500 more than twice the number involved in the Rising.

On May 2nd, the court martial’s began with the first sentencing of Pádraig H PearseTom Clarke and Tomás MacDonagh to death. They were taken out to be shot at dawn on May 3rd in the Stonebreaker’s Yard of Kilmainham Gaol.

John Redmond, of the Irish Party, warned Prime Minister Herbert Asquith that if ‘more executions take place in Ireland the position will become impossible for any Constitutional Party or leader’.  Asquith The British PM warned General Maxwell that ‘a large number of executions would sow the seeds of lasting trouble in Ireland’. But Maxwell was out of control and out for blood so the executions continued. 15 of the Rising leaders were executed in rapid succession between May 3rd and 12th.

Murder and Judicial Killing

On, the third day of the Rising April 26th, Francis Sheehy Skeffington and Thomas Dickson and Patrick MacIntyre both journalists and two bystanders, were murdered by Captain J.C. Bowen-Colthurst and those he was commanding.

The executions had an immediate and lasting impact on the Irish people already horrified by the brutality of the Bowen-Colthurst butchery and other killings. Outrage was particularly expressed at the executions of Willie Pearse, simply because he was the brother of PH Pearse. Boer War veteran Major John MacBride, and Joseph Mary Plunkett who was seriously ill and the execution of the wounded James Connolly who was strapped to a chair to be shot exposed the British thirst for revenge.

The Slaughter

The Kilmainham executions were swift and brutal. Captain HV Stanley, a Medical Officer in attendance said he attended the executions of the first nine Sinn Féiner’s to be shot. After that I got so sick of the slaughter that I asked to be changed. Three refused to have their eyes bandaged. The rifles of the firing party were waving like a field of corn. All the men were cut to ribbons at a range of about 10 yards.’

The Roger Casement trial followed throughout the summer of 1916, resulting in him being executed by hanging in Pentonville Jail in August exacerbated the people’s revulsion.

A Terrible Beauty is Born

The public mood was changed utterly. Newspapers and the Catholic Church who had firmly opposed the Rising changed too. By the summer of 1916, the rebel leaders had become national heroes. Ballads were written and funds were raised for their families. Recruitment to the British Army dried up.

1916 to Dáil Éireann

The British compounded the alienation of the Irish people with their plan to introduce conscription in Ireland. A newly awakened generation of voters emerged, empowered and enraged resulting in the Westminster Irish Parliamentary Party being decimated by a Sinn Féin tide in the 1918 General Election. All but a few of the newly elected members of parliament refused to go to Westminster and instead they constituted their own Irish Parliament in Dublin, Dáil Éireann. The Rising, which just a short time earlier had seemed a total failure now took on an entirely new significance. Francis Ledwidge wrote:

A noble failure is not vain,
But hath a victory its own.
A bright delectance from the slain
Is down the generations thrown.

The 1916 Executions


In 1916 on the third of May
The Empire howled for vengeance
MacDonagh, Pearse and Clarke that day
Were executed in Kilmainham


Joseph Mary Plunkett was the next
They took him from his wedding
His nuptials were a date with death
For bride and groom no bedding


O’Hanrahan on the 4th of May
Was with Willie Pearse dispatched then
With Edward Daly on that day
Bore a wrathful Empires vengeance


On May the 5th they shot McBride
In South Africa he had whipped them
His death would now restore their pride
They could at last eradicate him


Four days later Eamon Ceannt
For the Empire more bloodletting
And the only words to him did grant
“It’s now your time for dying”


Then Colbert, Heuston and Mallin
As May the 8th was dawning
Were next for vengeful killing
On that bright and clear May morning


Then Thomas Kent on May the 9th
In Cork Jail was executed
Crowns vengeance now so well defined
Its rampant carnage undisputed


MacDiarmada was at dawn marched out
They on May 12th dispatched him
Wounded Connolly then they stretchered forth
Bound to a chair they shot him


Casement they hanged on August 3rd
All alone he felt forsaken
The Irish Nation in deep disgust
In angry grief at last wakened


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