Essays on the Court Martials

The 1916 Courts-martial and the Dublin Executions

Dr. Myles Dungan

Untitled Document

While it would be a mistake to see the British overreaction to the Easter Rising as the sole factor that led to the turning of the tide of Irish public opinion in favour of Sinn Féin, it made a huge contribution to the result of the 1918 General Election. The executions, the increasing disillusionment with the Great War, the rounding up and incarceration of 3,000 men and women in the aftermath of the Rising, the cack-handed British threat to introduce conscription in Ireland in 1918 and the risible 'German Plot' arrests of the same year - all played a part in the temporary eclipse of constitutional nationalist politics.

The conviction that the executions had little to do with due process merely served to exacerbate the disillusionment with constitutional politics that led to the massive SF victory in the first post-war election.

In the House of Commons on 11 May, John Dillon warned the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, and the British Cabinet . . . 'You are letting loose a river of blood . . . It is the first rebellion that ever took place in Ireland where you had the majority on your side . . . and now you are washing out our whole life work in a sea of blood.' Dillon's famous speech would prove prophetic.

159 men and one woman, adjudged by the British military authorities to have taken a lead in the Rising, were tried by court martial in May 1916. Ninety-three were sentenced to death, fifteen were executed.

What has finally emerged within the last decade and a half are the actual records of the courts martial. They are, in the main, flimsy documents but in that respect are probably reflective of the cursory nature of the tribunals themselves. They do not always tally with the memories, memoirs and memorials of those who took part in the process, but their release in 2001 added a crucial element to the, often contradictory, narrative of one of the most momentous weeks in the history of Ireland under the Union.

On 25 April the British Cabinet had declared martial law throughout Ireland. The following day a Military Governor, General Sir John Grenfell Maxwell, was appointed. He was given 'full authority to restore order, put down the rebellion and punish its participants'.

The bulk of the rebels rounded up in Dublin on 29/30 April were despatched to prison camps in Britain, such as Frongoch in North Wales. The 'ringleaders' were to be court-martialled in Ireland, not under martial law, but under the terms of the Defence of the Realm Act passed in September 1914 and augmented on many subsequent occasions by executive order and/or by amending Act of Parliament.

Bear in mind that while martial law does confer extraordinary powers of arrest and detention on a military government it does not, per se, suspend the normal legal process of trial in open court for the commission of a felony, including the crime of treason-felony.

It is important to distinguish between a trial under martial law and a court martial under emergency legislation like the Defence of the Realm Act - under which Asquith and Maxwell insisted the rebels were being tried.

An early provision in the DORA legislation provided for trial of civilians by General Court Martial rather than through the regular courts system.

DORA, based on the rules of the General Court Martial, called for the creation of

1) a court with up to thirteen members (and a minimum of five in the case of offences committed overseas), 

2) a professional judge, 

3) a legal advocate,

4) trials to be conducted openly.

In the case of a court marital of a civilian under DORA the death penalty was not applicable except in the case of 'assisting the enemy'.

However, the procedure adopted by Maxwell was closer to that of a 'drumhead' court martial of the type normally seen at the battlefront, known as Field General Courts Martial. They were permitted where a General Court Martial was deemed 'not practicable'. But even the Field General Court Martial procedures were not followed - The Volunteer leaders were tried by three-judge military courts. This was permissible under FGCM rules, but there was no defence counsel and all trials were held in camera. This was not permitted even under military law.

In addition, there was no right of appeal. The only recourse after the verdict of the FGCM was Maxwell, who had to confirm or commute the sentences. The military administration unilaterally and effectively seized itself of Lord Lieutenant Wimborne’s powers of clemency in capital cases. Correspondence between Wimborne and Maxwell suggests that the former would only have countenanced the executions of the seven signatories.

Maxwell's template might well have seemed appropriate given the circumstances of the rebellion but it served, in retrospect, merely to give an impression of arbitrary procedure and summary execution. Even the British Adjutant General, Sir Neville Macready, conceded, for example, that ’There is no legal justification for a Court Martial to be held in camera, either in the Army Act, or in any regulation under the Defence of the Realm Act’.

Coincidentally, and significantly, four British soldiers were tried for murders committed during the Rising. They were tried by General Court Martial [not FGCM] and allowed legal representation.

The courts martial took place in Richmond Barracks over a nine-day period with an unspecified number of trials taking place simultaneously. One of the prosecutors was thirty-five year old 2nd Lieutenant William Evelyn Wylie, a Dublin barrister. Wylie left a record of his own in the form of a memoir written for his daughter. It is an account of his increasing disillusionment with the courts martial process.

'Prisoner No.1' Pearse was court-martialled on the afternoon of 2 May. The President of the Court, as was to be the case with most of the prominent leaders of the Rising, was Brigadier General Charles Blackader, a forty-six year old career soldier who would shortly lead the 38th (Welsh) Division through the horrors of the Somme. Wylie was prosecuting attorney.

Blackader's involvement was, to say the least, of dubious legality. Even under the more permissive Field General Court Martial process, the rules of procedure excluded presiding officers who had a potential conflict of interest; as commander of 176 Brigade, which included the Sherwood Foresters and which incurred most of the 1916 military casualties, Blackader should have stood down.

Pearse, pleaded not guilty to the charge that he '...did take part in an armed rebellion and in the waging of war against His Majesty the King..'

The charge of colluding with the enemy was, in the circumstances, not as easy to establish as it sounds. In most cases - if we are to believe the court martial transcripts - it was actually completely ignored. Theoretically, the prosecution was required to prove that the rebels had an ‘intention to aid the enemy’ if it was to apply the death penalty to civilians under DORA.In reality, it was an in camera military tribunal which could, in effect, do what it wanted.

The transcript of Pearse's court martial reveals, however, that he admitted collusion - he referred to having opened negotiations with Germany.

There is no indication in the court record whether this was a voluntary admission on Pearse's part or whether it was on foot of being presented with the contents of a letter that he had written to his mother the previous night in the postscript to which he had written 'I have reason to believe that the German expedition on which I counted actually set sail but was defeated by the British fleet.' It was an admission that legally entitled the court martial to sentence him to death.

Wylie was favourably impressed at the demeanour of Pearse. 'He was a schoolmaster, I believe and looked a decent chap - When I had finished with the evidence against him, I asked him did he wish to make a statement. He said he did and made a very eloquent speech of which I always call the Robert Emmet type.'

According to the official court martial transcript, however, Pearse made a relatively terse speech in which he asked that he alone should be executed and that 'I should like my followers to receive an amnesty.'

The more eloquent speech alluded to by Wylie, or a later variation probably written by Pearse himself in the hours before his execution, is the one that entered the public domain. The peroration is, indeed, Emmet-like.
'If you strike us down now we shall rise again and renew the fight. You cannot conquer Ireland; you cannot extinguish the Irish passion for freedom; if our deed has not been sufficient to win freedom then our children will win it by a better deed.'

After consulting briefly, the three officers of the court martial found Pearse guilty and condemned him to be shot at dawn the following morning. Pearse was shot by firing squad in the stonebreaker’s yard in Kilmainham jail sometime between 3.30 and 4.00 a.m. on the morning of 3 May.

The court martial of Pearse had been quickly followed by that of another signatory of the proclamation, Thomas MacDonagh. MacDonagh had been in command of the force that occupied the Jacob’s Biscuit Factory. The transcript of his court martial is even briefer than that of Pearse. Once again Blackader presided and a single witness was produced, Major Armstrong of the 1st Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, who had accepted MacDonagh's surrender.

MacDonagh briefly cross-examined Armstrong, called no witnesses and, according to the transcript, when asked did he have anything to say simply observed that . . . .I did everything I could to assist the officers in the matter of the surrender telling them where the arms and ammunition were after the surrender was decided upon.

However, thanks to Wylie’s memoir we know that much more actually occurred than was outlined in the bald transcript. There was a significant exchange which indicates that due process was not to be entirely overridden.

After MacDonagh had been arraigned, Blackader had asked Wylie if the prisoner had signed the 1916 Proclamation. This would, Blackader assumed, establish collusion with Germany because of the reference to ‘gallant allies in Europe’. Wylie, however, pointed out that the provenance of the document could not be established and, therefore, it was not admissible. The proclamation was a printed document. It would be necessary to locate the original and confirm the signatures before it could be presented as evidence.

Wylie, who said in his own memoir that MacDonagh simply shook his head when asked did he have anything to say, was greatly surprised in June 1916 when he noticed a pamphlet on sale in Dublin purporting to be the text of MacDonagh’s address to his court martial. Twelve thousand copies had been printed, of which the authorities, deeming it subversive, were able to seize just over three thousand.

Like Pearse's "amended" speech, MacDonagh's was florid, passionate and defiant. He claimed to be part of ..‘but a small section of the great unnumbered army of martyrs whose Captain is the Christ who died on Calvary. Of every white-robed knight in all that goodly company we are the spiritual kin... Take me away, and let my blood bedew the sacred soil of Ireland’.

But was it actually written by MacDonagh or was it penned later by a sympathizer capable of mimicking his style? According to the published pamphlet, after an altercation between the prisoner and the court MacDonagh remarked that ‘….The proclamation of the Irish Republic has been adduced in evidence against me as one of the signatories…’ As Wylie noted, at his insistence the proclamation was not to be adduced in evidence. Either MacDonagh was allowing himself a measure of poetic licence or the speech was written ex post facto by someone who was unaware of what had taken place at the trial.

MacDonagh was shot by firing squad within minutes of the execution of Pearse and the oldest signatory of the proclamation, Thomas Clarke, on 3 May.

After the court martial of MacDonagh, Wylie began a practice of consulting with prisoners about to face trial while the court was considering its verdict in a previous case. This was with a view to discovering whether they wished to call defence witnesses. Pearse, MacDonagh and Clarke had been given no opportunity to produce any.

Éamonn Ceannt’s court martial continued into a second day when he called two defence witnesses. Ceannt argued that in his case ‘there is reasonable doubt and the benefit of the doubt should be given to the accused’. A reading of the court martial transcript suggests that, in an open criminal court with the customary level of evidential testing, the Crown might well have failed to establish a bona fide case against Ceannt.

This suspicion is reinforced by an opinion offered by the Adjutant General, Sir Neville Macready, on the issue of whether or not the accounts of the courts martial should be released. Publication had been promised by Asquith to the House of Commons in October 1916. Having consulted with Maxwell, General Macready wrote:

‘Publication is in my opinion a complete admission that there was no justification for trial in camera . [and] I have reason to believe that in certain cases the evidence was not too strong’. The evidence presented against Ceannt satisfied the Court Martial judges who sentenced the 4th Battalion Commandant to death. He was executed on 8 May.

By the end of the first week in May tensions in Dublin were mounting as the executions continued. In London, Asquith was coming under pressure, in particular from Redmond and Dillon, to bring the judicial bloodshed to an end. In response, he was applying pressure of his own on Maxwell and Macready. Asquith would, belatedly, travel to Ireland on 11 May to take control of the situation himself.

He arrived in time for the final executions of Connolly and MacDermott. Despite the imminent arrival of the Prime Minister, Maxwell had insisted that the courts martial of both men should proceed, despite the palpable unfitness of Connolly to face trial.

The arrival of Asquith may have contributed to the failure to execute Éamon de Valera. Wylie records that Maxwell consulted him on the importance of de Valera, a commandant [3rd Battalion] and therefore of similar rank to many of the other executed leaders and of higher rank than others who were shot.

Maxwell asked Wylie "I wonder would he be likely to make trouble in the future?" To which Wylie responded "I wouldn't think so, sir, I don't think he is important enough. From all I can hear he is not one of the leaders…"

Apart from the element of comedy it is an interesting insight into Maxwell's thinking and into his motivation for approving so many of the death sentences imposed by the courts martial - i.e., the eradication of future potential trouble makers.

Where is, of course, the pervasive myth that de Valera was spared by virtue of his American birth. It is more likely that, in the context of Asquith’s intervention, he was saved by the timing of his court martial, one of the later ones to take place.

Wylie's memoir must be treated with some caution in his account of the court martial of Countess Markievicz on 4 May. Her reputation preceded her. Wylie noticed that when her name was announced that Blackader placed his revolver on the table beside him. However, according to Wylie ‘ . . . he needn't have troubled, for she curled up immediately. "I am only a woman," she cried, "and you cannot shoot a woman…"’. She was sentenced to death but the sentence was commuted by Maxwell, under orders from the Cabinet.

The trial record of the Markievicz court martial is totally at variance with Wylie’s disparaging account. There she is recorded as having made a brief address, merely saying ‘I went out to fight for Ireland and it doesn’t matter what happens to me. I did what I thought was right and I stand by it’.

Wylie may well have been pursuing an agenda common among upper crust Dubliners vis a vis the Countess; she had betrayed her social class and was fair game for any sort of innuendo and misrepresentation.

The executions of James Connolly and Seán MacDermott, came after a four day hiatus and the commutation of the sentences on Markievicz and de Valera and, despite their status as signatories of the proclamation, were doubly shocking for all that.

Notoriously, in the case of Connolly, he was so badly wounded that he had to be propped up in a chair before being shot. Those within the military command structure, like Maxwell, who were determined that he be executed must have been well aware that delay might prove fatal. Maxwell was conscious of the growing opposition to the continued executions both in Ireland and the UK. Even the Unionist leader, Edward Carson, had spoken in the House of Commons against further retribution in its current form.

Asked at his court martial if he had anything to say before the court considered its verdict Connolly observed that .

‘We succeeded in proving that Irishmen are ready to die endeavouring to win for Ireland their national rights which the British Government has been asking them to die to win for Belgium. As long as that remains the case the cause of Irish Freedom is safe’.

The manner of Connolly's death, perhaps more than any other, cemented the growing Irish disenchantment with the English military reaction to the failed rebellion. That sentiment was exacerbated by what was to follow.

General Sir John Maxwell, known today as ’The Man Who Lost Ireland’ became the sacrificial scapegoat of the British government for military decisions made with tacit political approval.

Maxwell had no concern with political nuance. The ramifications of his policies were of less concern to him than stabilisation of the military situation and avoiding a recrudescence of rebellion by wiping out the command structure of the rebels. For the literal-minded Maxwell that constituted sufficient grounds for taking the action he did. But, as Roy Foster has put it, while 'the case in law, given the German connection, was conclusive for the death penalty . . . in the circumstances of Ireland during 1916, the decision against commutation was inflammatory'.

Maxwell himself recognised that 'the first results of the punishments inflicted were good . . . The majority of people recognised that they were not excessive . . [then] . . a revulsion of feeling had set in.'

Writing in June 1916 he contended that 'If there was a General Election, very few if any, of the existing Nationalist MPs would be re-elected so there is a danger that Mr. Redmond's party would be replaced by others perhaps less amenable to reason'.

The executions, on their own, were not the only cause of the Irish revulsion that led to the end of the status quo. For a start, there was an often unacknowledged measure of Irish support for the rebellion as it actually progressed.

There was anger in Dublin at incidents like the judicial murder of the pacifist and maverick Francis Sheehy Skeffington on the orders of a deranged British officer, Captain J.C. Bowen Colthurst. There was fury at allegations that soldiers had fired on and killed civilians in North King Street and at the perception of wanton and unnecessary infrastructural damage to the city. In addition the countrywide arrests, amounting to more than 3,000, and detentions had, inevitably, included the arrest of a number of people whose connection to the Rising or the IRB was tenuous.

But in the weeks after the Rising there was also growing sympathy and admiration for the executed leaders. Much of this derived from the proliferation of rumours about the dignified manner in which they had gone to their deaths and the distribution of leaflets and pamphlets containing their, alleged, valedictory addresses to their courts martial. The tragic romance of the marriage of Joseph Plunkett to Grace Gifford in Kilmainham hours before his death excited compassion in the same degree as the brutal nature of Connolly's death inspired nausea and resentment.

The growing consensus was neatly encapsulated in the writing of a distinguished exiled Dubliner, George Bernard Shaw:

"My own view is that the men who were shot in cold blood, after their capture or surrender, were prisoners of war, and that it was, therefore, entirely incorrect to slaughter them . . . I remain an Irishman and am bound to contradict any implication that I can regard as a traitor any Irishman taken in a fight for Irish independence against the British government."

In an ironic twist of nomenclature the Rising, thanks to the manner in which it was reported and the ignorance on the part of the British military of the subtleties of Irish politics, became associated with Sinn Féin.

That misapplication ultimately became a self-fulfilling and unifying phenomenon. Of course it was a quite different Sinn Féin from the pre-1916 model, now led by Éamon de Valera, which swept aside the Irish Parliamentary party in the December election of 1918. Casement, for whom Sinn Féin was ‘the cause closest to his heart’ had not been able to prevent Pearse from taking to the streets of Dublin on 24 April 1916. He had been excluded from the IRB cabal, led by Thomas Clarke, that had planned the insurrection. But the undue credit gained from the event by Sinn Féin might have afforded his spirit a measure of grim satisfaction.

Recommended texts

Brian Barton - From Behind a Closed Door: Secret Court Martial Records of the 1916 Easter Rising (Blackstaff Press, 2002)

Seán Enright - Easter Rising 1916: The Trials (Irish Academic Press, 2014)