Essays on the Court Martials

The Courts-martial of the 1916 leaders

Professor Fearghal McGarry

Queen's University


I Introduction

The arrest of over 3,500 suspected rebels in the aftermath of the Easter Rising, which came to an end on Sunday 30 April 1916, posed immense logistical, administrative, legal and political challenges for the British authorities. These difficulties were compounded by the chaotic conditions in Dublin. Most prisoners ended up in Richmond Barracks where army officers and the detectives of the Dublin Metropolitan Police’s G Division began combing through the captives to separate leaders from followers. Given the lack of intelligence on the rebels, this proved a somewhat haphazard process, particularly as many were so dishevelled as to be barely recognisable. One republican recalled how Seán MacDermott, inconspicuous in plain clothes, almost succeeded in leaving Richmond Barracks with a large body of deportees: 'I heard a voice, that of Johnny Barton, the "G" man, saying: "Ah no, Johnny, you're not leaving us"'. Such confusion did not prevent the swift punishment of those deemed the ringleaders. The executions began in the early hours of Wednesday, 3 May, just 3 days after the last rebel garrison had surrendered; within 9 days, 15 men had been executed in Dublin. Their deaths would transform Ireland.

The legal framework for their prosecution was heavily influenced by the First World War which had seen the British Government acquire draconian powers of arrest, detention and punishment under a series of measures known as the Defence of the Realm Regulations (DORR). In addition, martial law had been proclaimed in Dublin on Tuesday 25 April by the Lord Lieutenant, Lord Wimborne, with two further proclamations removing the right to civil trial for DORR offences in Ireland, and placing the entire country under martial law. In reality, the precise meaning and practical consequences of martial law remained unclear. The Liberal Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, subsequently insisted in parliament that the rebels had been tried by due process under DORR rather than by martial law but this claim has been disputed.

The suppression of the Rising was directed by General Sir John Grenfell Maxwell, an undistinguished career officer who arrived in Dublin on Friday 28 April as general officer commanding British forces in Ireland. While authorised to 'take all such measures as may . . . be necessary for the prompt suppression of insurrection in Ireland', Maxwell was also urged by the Cabinet to exercise caution in resorting to martial law powers. Although reviled in popular nationalist memory as the blimpish general 'who lost Ireland for the British', Maxwell was alive to the difficulties of his task. Although Asquith had demanded the rebellion be stamped out 'with all possible vigour', Maxwell came under immense political pressure as soon as the executions began.

While 90 out of the 170 rebels tried by field general courts-martial received death sentences, Maxwell confirmed only 15 of these. Tom Clarke, the most senior IRB organiser, Thomas MacDonagh, the 2nd Battalion commandant, and Patrick Pearse, president of the Republic, were the first to be shot in the stonebreakers’ yard of Kilmainham Jail. Joseph Plunkett, who was responsible for the Rising's military plans, William Pearse, Patrick's brother, First Battalion commandant Edward Daly, and Michael O’Hanrahan were killed on 4 May. John MacBride, who had also fought against the British in the Boer War, was executed the following morning. The 4th Battalion commandant Éamonn Ceannt, Seán Heuston, Con Colbert and the Irish Citizen Army's Michael Mallin were killed on 8 May. Four days later James Connolly, Commandant-General of the Dublin forces, and the IRB organiser Seán MacDermott were the last (if among the most important) leaders executed. In addition, Thomas Kent, who had not participated in the rebellion but was tried for the murder of a policeman on his family farm, was executed at Cork Detention Barracks on 9 May. Roger Casement, arrested shortly before the rebellion (having travelled from Germany to avert it) and hanged in London on 3 August, was the only leader to receive a public trial.

Justifying the executions to an increasingly alarmed Asquith, Maxwell (who drew on intelligence reports that were not presented at the trials in deciding which death sentences to confirm) insisted that they fell under three headings: those who signed the proclamation and were leaders of the rebellion; those who were in command of rebels who killed troops, police or others; and those whose offence was murder. This was broadly accurate. In addition to the seven signatories, Daly had commanded the Four Courts garrison; Heuston led the rebels at the Mendicity Institute; and Mallin had led the Stephen’s Green garrison. But several executions appeared more arbitrary. Nominally second-in-command at Jacob’s, O’Hanrahan’s role there had been superseded by the veteran Fenian John MacBride who had spontaneously offered his services to the rebels on Easter Monday. Colbert, at 27 years of age the youngest to be executed, held a minor rank, commanding a small outpost at Marrowbone Lane. William Pearse, as he asserted at his trial, played only a minor role as ‘a personal attaché to my brother'. In addition, more prominent figures - most notably Éamon de Valera, who commanded the 3rd Battalion at Boland's Bakery (the garrison which accounted for the largest number of British fatalities) and Thomas Ashe and Richard Mulcahy whose men had inflicted heavy losses at Ashbourne - evaded death.

All of those executed by the British authorities were tried by field general courts-martial, although some rebels were subsequently tried by general (rather than field general) courts-martial. Given the authorities’ difficulties in securing political convictions in Ireland during this period, the rebels were never likely to have received a civil trial but the decision to resort to a measure intended for time of war was highly questionable considering the rebellion had come to an end. In contrast to general courts-martial, field general courts-martial offered few protections, allowing a tribunal of three officers, none of whom required legal training, to impose the death penalty. Crucially, the accused did not have the right to defence counsel, to prior notice of the charges against them, or (in effect) to appeal their sentences. Equally significantly, the process was conducted secretly, without the presence of the press, public or other observers.

As well as ensuring that the accused did not benefit from the basic principles of justice, the use of field general courts-martial allowed the process to proceed with remarkable speed. The trials were rudimentary affairs, often lasting (according to the recollections of surviving rebels) less than fifteen minutes. Between 1-4 May, 57 death sentences were passed, 10 of which were confirmed. Between 5 May - when political pressure began to be exerted - and 17 May, a further 31 death sentences were passed, 3 of which were confirmed.

These documents should not be considered an objective record of the trials. Like many archival sources, they reflect the perspective of the powerful. Although not for public consumption, they were intended to rationalise, as well as record, the decisions reached. While subsequent requests for access to them (including, as the documents show, by Catherine Daly, the mother of Edward, and Áine Ceannt, the widow of Éamonn) were refused on the grounds of ‘public interest’, it seems as likely that the unflattering light they shed on the trials reinforced the military’s dogged refusal to release them. Despite their limitations, these records, classified until 1999, cast a revealing light on both the British military and their republican opponents.

II Courts Martial Records

The documents make clear the cursory nature of the trials, and the insubstantial nature of the evidence relied upon for convictions. All the accused were charged with taking 'part in an armed rebellion and in waging war against His Majesty the King . . . with the intention and for the purpose of assisting the enemy'. In addition, several rebels were also charged (unsuccessfully) with attempting 'to cause disaffection among the civilian population of His Majesty'. The charge of 'assisting the enemy' was necessitated by the fact that the Defence of the Realm Regulations did not proscribe insurrection. This allowed the rebels (with the exception of Willie Pearse who admitted his guilt) to plead not guilty without necessarily disowning their actions. As Seán McGarry subsequently recalled:

The last time I saw Tom Clarke he had received his court-martial notice. He regarded it as a formality so far as he himself and the other signatories were concerned but it contained a clause charging him with taking up arms etc. for the purpose and with the intention of helping the enemy. He asked me to point out to everyone that this gave him a truthful plea of not guilty and to plead accordingly.

Although the authorities could produce no evidence to prove that the purpose of the insurrection was to assist Germany, Casement's arrest - and the Proclamation's reference to 'gallant allies in Europe' - cannot have helped their defence. At the time, the British authorities suspected a much greater level of German involvement in the insurrection than would later prove the case.

Notwithstanding the brevity of the records, the insubstantial nature of the evidence against the rebels is clear. Much of it consisted of the testimony of British army soldiers that the accused had been identified while surrendering. Several British soldiers who had been captured by the rebels during Easter Week - including Lieutenant S.L. King of the Royal Irish Regiment and Lieutenant A.D. Chalmers of the Royal Irish Fusiliers - proved ubiquitous witnesses. The soldiers' evidence was not always compelling: 'He appeared to be in authority although he was not in uniform' recollected King of Tom Clarke. Lieutenant Halpin, of the Sherwood Foresters, testified that Edward Daly was 'armed & in uniform', but added 'I don't know if he was in authority'. Lieutenant Lindsay, of the Inniskilling Fusiliers, could not recall 'the accused give any orders', but remembered Daly discussing with him whether he should order a counter-attack or surrender. In some cases undue weight given to vague evidence may have had fatal consequences: 'I know that William Pearce was an officer but do not know his rank.'

Possession of weapons (particularly German-made weapons), the wearing of uniforms, and even the position of the accused at the head of a surrendering column were considered additional indications of guilt. Judging from the underlined content of the documents, evidence of firing from garrisons, or identification with units that had inflicted casualties on Crown Forces, were considered particularly incriminating.

This evidence was supplemented by the testimony provided by the Dublin Metropolitan Police’s G Division. Again, it was not always compelling. For example, Sergeant John Bruton testified that he had seen Joseph Plunkett enter the headquarters of the Irish Volunteers on two occasions. Constable Daniel Coffey testified to seeing Patrick Pearse 'going through the city with bodies of men and acting as an officer', and later in custody at the British Army's Irish Command Headquarters. In some cases, though, the rebels had unwittingly made the task easy for the authorities by identifying themselves as leaders during the surrender. As Captain Henry De Courcy Wheeler noted of Michael Mallin who left the College of Surgeons carrying a white flag: 'The prisoner came forward and saluted and said he wished to surrender and stated he was the commandant of the garrison.'

While the DMP's 'G men' were subsequently vilified for their role in these trials, not all policemen (or 'G men', for that matter) bore animus to the rebels. Indeed, one of the reasons for the weakness of the evidence was the unwillingness of some policeman and soldiers to testify against them. W.T. Cosgrave recalled how Captain Rotheram, a popular polo-player who took the surrender at the South Dublin Union and Marrowbone Lane, refused to give evidence. Another rebel described the actions of one British-army captive from the GPO asked to identify rebels at Richmond Barracks: 'he walked down the line and failed to recognise us' When passing me he winked.. DMP Constable Patrick Bermingham similarly recalled how 'We pretended we never saw the men before.' This lack of hostility (or instinct for self-preservation) may also have moderated some of the evidence presented at the trials. Constable Christopher Butlin, for example, testified that Michael Mallin 'has been on friendly terms with the police and I know nothing against his character.' In contrast, a number of DMP men proved, in the words of one rebel, more 'dangerous and vindictive': prominent among these were Patrick Smyth, Daniel Hoey and John Barton who were subsequently killed by the IRA.

The records reveal that many of the soldiers who testified, prosecuted, or presided over the trials were also Irishmen, drawn from units such as the Royal Munster Fusiliers, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and the Inniskilling Fusiliers. Some of these men were familiar with individual rebels, an intimacy which influenced proceedings. For example, Captain de Courcy Wheeler, who took the surrender at Stephen’s Green, testified against his wife’s cousin, Countess Markievicz. The principal prosecuting counsel, Second Lieutenant William Wylie, was a Trinity-College-educated Kings Counsel who served with the 177th Brigade during the Rising. Wylie had objected to the rebels being tried secretly and without defence counsel. Rebuffed by the Irish Attorney-General James Campbell, Wylie reportedly declared he ’would defend them to the best of my ability and bring out every damn thing I could in their favour’. He certainly did so in the trial of future Irish Free State leader, W.T. Cosgrave, whom he probably saved from death. Wylie clearly sympathised with the rebels, if not their cause: he considered MacDonagh’s death ‘particularly unnecessary’, and described Connolly and Ceannt as 'the most dignified' of the accused.

On the other hand, the fact that many of those who presided over the trials had also participated in the fighting may have influenced proceedings against the rebels: Longford-born Colonel Ernest William Stuart King Maconchy, for example, had witnessed the devastation of his Sherwood Foresters at Mount Street Bridge, and it may have been no coincidence that this unit was given responsibility for the executions that followed.

Documents - including the Proclamation itself - were also used as evidence by the prosecution. The evidence against James Connolly included his communiqué exulting in the rebellion: 'In the name of Ireland we salute you' This is the greatest day in Irish History and it is you who have made it so'. Connolly's orders ('Seize the Mendicity at all cost') were also used against Seán Heuston. Even Pearse's letter to his mother, which alluded to the support expected from Germany, was introduced as key evidence. Lord Alfred Bucknill - at the time a 2nd Lieutenant admiralty barrister sent to Ireland to provide Maxwell with legal advice - subsequently conceded the evidential weaknesses of these documents: 'there were I think hardly any of any value beyond the actual surrender of Pearse, signed by him and by MacDonagh and Clarke, and various orders signed by Connolly'. Without Pearse's admission to his mother, Bucknill claimed, the prosecution 'would have been in some difficulty'.

Bucknill's recollections confirm the overall impression conveyed by the records: that the authorities knew remarkably little about the individuals and organisations involved in the Rising, and had little in the way of incriminating evidence.

It was obvious from the commencement that there would be great difficulty in getting sufficient legal evidence to pin any particular offence against any particular person, and that the only thing to do was to get the names of officers who could identify prisoners as having taken part in the fighting and having surrendered with arms in their hands. The difficulty of collecting evidence in the cases was very considerable, as it was necessary in every case to prove that the accused had surrendered with arms from some place which had been held by the rebels and where fighting had taken place. In many cases, lists of prisoners had been taken but no officer could identify the accused as the person who had actually surrendered and of course there was the risk of people giving false names and addresses, which in fact was done in several cases. Beyond the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, which contained the names of seven signatories, we knew very little of the prime movers in the rebellion.

These difficulties were compounded by poor record-keeping during the surrender, with officers frequently failing to record basic details such as the prisoners’ identity or whether they were armed.

Unsurprisingly, most of the accused sought to exploit the obvious flaws in the evidence against them. They also sought to mitigate their culpability by disavowing knowledge of, and responsibility for, the Rising, and by minimising their actions during it. Edward Daly, for example, misleadingly claimed to have 'no knowledge of the insurrection until Monday morning April 24', adding that he and his officers 'decided that the whole thing was foolish but being under orders we had no option but to obey.' Remarkably, one rebel who claimed to have entered the GPO to purchase a stamp was acquitted. Most, but not all, sought to survive without compromising their own integrity. However, Michael Mallin, the ICA chief-of-staff and commandant of the Stephen's Green garrison, falsely implied that he had served under Countess Markievicz's authority. A father of five young children, with a pregnant wife, Mallin's lack of chivalry may have been due to a belief that the authorities would not execute a female combatant.

Despite the understandable efforts made by most rebels to mitigate their punishment, the records of Éamonn Ceannt's trial suggest that the outcomes of the courts-martial depended less on the quality of the evidence or defence mounted as the extent to which the accused was believed to have held a position of responsibility. Major James Armstrong of the Inniskilling Fusiliers mistakenly testified that Ceannt, the commandant of the South Dublin Union, had surrendered at the head of the Jacob's Factory contingent. Unsurprisingly, Ceannt called MacBride and other witnesses from that garrison who testified to his absence from Jacob's throughout Easter week. Among the defence witnesses called by Ceannt was Thomas MacDonagh who the trial record reported as 'not available' (due to his execution that morning), a much-commented upon example of how the haste with which the trials were conducted disadvantaged the accused. Armstrong's testimony that Ceannt had been armed also proved less than robust on cross-examination: 'I succeeded in making a list of all armed men after they had been disarmed because I had had a separate list of the unarmed men before the disarming took place. I arrived at the list of armed men by a process of elimination only, and a recollection of men seen with arms, the accused was one of them'. Despite mounting an effective defence that highlighted the flawed nature of the evidence against him, Ceannt - whose responsibility for the Rising was hardly in doubt given his status as a signatory of the Proclamation - was sentenced to death.

For other rebels, the shortcomings of the evidence were irrelevant: Ceannt was relatively unusual in making such a determined attempt to fight the charges against him. Con Colbert, in contrast, refused to participate in the process: 'I have nothing to say'. Michael O’Hanrahan, despite facing particularly weak evidence, accepted responsibility for his actions 'as a soldier of the Republican Army acting under the orders of the Provisional Government of the Republic duly constituted'.

Some participated in the trials only to defend their integrity. Tom Clarke, who called no witnesses and made no statement, intervened only to establish that the rebels’ prisoners were well treated. James Connolly made no ‘defence except against charges of wanton cruelty to prisoners’. Pearse similarly placed on record that his sole object in agreeing to surrender - a decision bitterly resented by some rebels - was to 'to save the slaughter of the civil population & to save the lives of our followers'. MacBride's evidence demonstrated the importance of masculine codes of honour that would have been shared by the rebels' opponents. Emphasising how he felt honour-bound to take part in the Rising on learning of the proclamation of the Republic, despite having no connection with its organisers, MacBride explained: 'I considered it my duty to join them. I knew there was no chance of success . . . I could have escaped from Jacob's Factory before the surrender had I so desired but I considered it a dishonourable thing to do.'

Aware of the symbolic power of their sacrifice, several leaders consciously drew on the historic tradition of separatist martyrdom. Pearse's letter to his mother made clear his triumphant fatalism: 'We are ready to die and we shall die cheerfully and proudly. Personally I do not hope or even desire to live'. Drawing on biblical rhetoric, Pearse was clear as to the significance of what they had achieved: 'We have preserved Ireland's honour and our own. Our deeds of last week are the most splendid in Ireland's history. People will say hard things of us now, but we shall be remembered by posterity and blessed by unborn generations'. Drawing on a centuries-long insurrectionary tradition, these 'speeches from the dock' were intended to justify their actions and inspire further support. Connolly's statement, for example, eloquently distilled the separatist rationale behind the Rising:

We went to break the connection between this country and the British Empire and to establish an Irish Republic . . . 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. Believing that the British Government has no right in Ireland, never had any right in Ireland, and never can have any right in Ireland, the presence in any one generation of even a respectable minority of Irishmen ready to die to affirm that truth makes that Government for ever a usurpation and a crime against human progress. I personally thank God that I have lived to see the day when thousands of Irishmen and boys, and hundreds of Irish women & girls were equally ready to affirm that truth and seal it with their lives if necessary.

Connolly's concern for posterity was demonstrated by his request that a copy of the proceedings be provided to his wife; although this was refused, he was able to slip a copy of his last statement to his daughter Nora when she visited him before his execution.

Pearse also delivered what his prosecutor described as a 'Robert Emmet' type speech: 'I went down on my knees as a child & told God that I would work all my life to gain the freedom of Ireland. I have deemed it my duty as an Irishman to fight for the freedom of my country'. Brigadier-General Blackader, who presided over Pearse's court martial, was later reported to have stated: 'I have just done one of the hardest tasks I have ever had to do. I have had to condemn to death one of the finest characters I have ever come across. There must be something very wrong in the state of things that makes a man like that rebel'. Of all the executed rebels, Pearse was perhaps the most conscious of the extent to which his death would transform Ireland, and the most willing to embrace his fate.

III Context

The formal language and bureaucratic nature of these documents sanitises the brutal events they record. The terse, impersonal summary of sentences passed - 'Guilty. Death by being shot' - and enacted - 'I certify that the rebel prisoner named in the margin was duly executed by being shot at 3.47 a.m. this morning' - does not quite mask the sordid realities hinted at by hand-drawn maps of the location of corpses ('Yesterday's Graves') dumped in a quicklime-covered pit- Nor do they record the personal tragedies that subsequently inflamed public opinion: Plunkett's eve-of-execution marriage to Grace Gifford, the poignant last visits with wives, children, and loved ones; the inability of some, including Pearse's mother, to reach their children before their execution.

Evidence from other sources allows us to fill in some of these gaps. The dignity of the rebels clearly impressed their captors, as did their composure in facing death. Lord Bucknill, for example, recorded his belief that all who were executed died bravely. MacDonagh indeed came down the stairs whistling. They were blindfolded in a passage and had a piece of paper pinned on their coats over the heart and were then led out. They were shot at two different spots in two different yards in the gaol. I saw the places of execution. They could not be overlooked from any windows, but the noise must have been terrific. It frightened the people living near who thought it was artillery. Each firing party had 12 men, and the executions took place at 3.45 a.m. At first I used to sleep very badly at Royal Hospital because I could not help thinking of these unfortunate men dying not more than mile away.

This grisly work took its toll. The Assistant Provost Marshal, Major W.W. Rhodes, was relieved of his duties after supervising the first three executions, the last of which may have been botched: 'the soldiers displayed considerable nervousness when the third man was brought out to be executed.' Captain H.V. Stanley, an Irish-born Royal Army Medical Corps officer who attended the executions until 8 May, told a colleague that he 'got so sick of the slaughter' that he requested reassignment: 'they all died like lions. 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 ten yards’. Rhodes' successor, Major Heathcote described Connolly's sordid execution to a colleague: 'he was probably drugged and was almost dead. He was not able to sit upright in the chair on which he was placed and, when they shot him, the whole back of the chair was blown out.'

Not all responded humanely to the unfolding tragedy. Liam Tannam, a prisoner at Kilmainham, awoke to the sound of the executions: 'we were informed by a red-haired Royal Irish Regiment sergeant that our turn would come very soon, and he gloated over having been present at the executions, and in one instance described how he had seen the brains scattered over the wall'. Bridget Martin recalled how her captor 'told us with great satisfaction that "four more were gone today".'

Like all primary sources, these documents should be placed in a broader historical context. Just as the harsh British response to the Rising was shaped by the First World War, the actions of the individual officers in these documents should be considered within the context of their own wartime and imperial experiences.

General Maxwell ('Conky' to his men) had devoted his career to upholding British imperial power. A former governor in Nubia and Omdurman, he had also fought the Boers in South Africa. During the First World War, he had served on the Western Front. Both in Egypt and the Sudan, he had suppressed colonial conflicts, and his experiences there, particularly in using courts-martial and internment against rebellious natives, must have conditioned his actions in Ireland. Brigadier-General Charles Guinand Blackader ('Old Black') had spent much of his career in Africa. An officer in the West African Frontier Force, he had fought with the 1st Leicesters in the Boer War, winning a DSO for his bravery in South Africa, where he also ran a civilian concentration camp. Prior to the outbreak of the rebellion, Blackader led the Indian Garhwal Brigade on the Western Front, before assuming the command of the 177th Brigade which saw its first active service in Dublin. Two years later, he would find himself back in Ireland, fighting the IRA as commander of the Southern District.

Both may have had experience of presiding over field general courts-martial on the Western Front where hundreds of their own men were shot for cowardice and desertion. The wartime context conditioned not only the conduct of the courts-martial but the army's unwillingness to disclose their records of them. Despite Asquith agreeing to make the documents public, it has been suggested that the Army Council's refusal to release them was partly due to its concerns about public scrutiny of the use of field general courts-martial on the battlefields of the Western Front.

IV Aftermath

Public attitudes to the punishment of the rebels in Ireland were more fluid than would later be recalled. There was initially much popular support for the suppression of the insurrection which brought death and destruction to Dublin. Unsurprisingly, the staunchly unionist Irish Times warned Maxwell against mercy: 'The surgeon's knife has been put to the corruption in the body of Ireland, and its course must not be stayed until the whole malignant growth has been removed'. But Catholic bishops, nationalist local bodies and pro-Redmond newspapers also denounced the Rising as traitorous, futile, lunatic or criminal. Even after the execution of twelve leaders, the nationalist Irish Independent, the most popular newspaper in Ireland, urged Maxwell on: 'Let the worst of the ringleaders be singled out and dealt with as they deserve'.

Within weeks, however, public opinion had transformed from hostility to sympathy for the rebels, and, by extension (if more gradually), into support for their political cause. Most Irish nationalists felt, as the Irish Parliamentary Party leader John Dillon put it, that the rebels had fought 'a clean fight, a brave fight, however misguided', and were deserving of the same treatment as prisoners-of-war on the Western Front. The speed and secrecy of the trials also sickened public opinion: one observer wrote of 'a stream of blood coming from beneath a closed door'. As early as 5 May, Asquith warned Maxwell that 'a large number of executions would excite a swift revulsion of feeling’ and 'sow the seeds of lasting trouble in Ireland'. In a powerful speech at Westminster on 11 May, Dillon denounced the authorities’ stupidity: 'you are washing out our whole life-work in a sea of blood'.

There were other reasons for the shift in public opinion: the wider suppression of the Rising, revelations about the murder and cover-up of Francis Sheehy-Skeffington and the residents of North King Street, and the imprisonment of large numbers of innocent people, many of them in parts of the country that had witnessed no disturbances. But the popular revulsion to the executions was central to the transformation of opinion.

Whether the British response was as draconian as Dillon claimed ‘…there has been no rebellion or insurrection put down with so much blood and so much savagery’ can be questioned. It is difficult to envisage Germany or Russia responding more leniently to a wartime insurrection. But, crucially, the British response was widely perceived within Ireland as cruel and vindictive. Just as the decision to mount the insurrection should be seen as a response to the First World War, Britain's punitive response was equally dictated by wartime concerns. The military needs of the British state overrode any concerns about the political consequences of the repression in Ireland, as was symbolised by the appointment of Maxwell as 'Military Governor' in place of the discredited civilian executive at Dublin Castle.

The political repercussions of the executions, which alienated nationalist opinion from the British government and fuelled support for the previously marginal cause of republicanism, were soon felt. Ironically, the principal political victims of the executions were the separatists’ opponents within the Irish Parliamentary Party. The executions proved a turning point in Irish history, resulting in the 'quasi-religious cult of 1916', and the rise of Sinn Féin but the Rising had also provided more rational grounds for the shift in the political landscape that followed. The insurrection undermined the assumption that political violence was futile, and that nothing more than Home Rule could be hoped for. Within weeks of the Rising, Asquith - concerned about its impact in the United States - had announced his intention to introduce Home Rule in Ireland: as the Royal Irish Constabulary Inspector-General wryly observed, many nationalists drew the lesson that six days of violence had achieved more than twenty-five years of constitutional agitation. As so often was the case in the history of relations between England and Ireland, Asquith's concession proved too little, too late.

Further reading:
Brian Barton, From Behind a Closed Door: Secret Court Martial Records of the 1916 Easter Rising (2002).
Seán Enright, Easter Rising 1916: The Trials (2014).
David Foxton, Revolutionary Lawyers: Sinn Féin and Crown Courts in Ireland and Britain 1916-1923 (2008).
Fearghal McGarry, The Rising, Ireland: Easter 1916 (2010).