Dublin City Centre in ruins, May 1916

On 3 May, Augustine Birrell tendered his resignation as Chief Secretary for Ireland to the unconcealed delight of his detractors. It appeared that a new consensus had emerged. From the ranks of the Home Rule Party, John Redmond confessed that he shared in the blame for not anticipating the rebellion because like Birrell, he did not think that an outbreak of such violence was possible. [1] Sir Edward Carson, still seen as Ulster’s guardian angel, then announced that he associated himself with Redmond’s stance in these ‘unfortunate and terrible occurrences’ and made an unexpected plea:

‘While I think that it is in the best interest of that country [Ireland] that this conspiracy of the Sinn Feiners, which has nothing to do with either of the political parties in Ireland, ought to be put down with courage and determination, and with an example which would prevent a revival, yet it would be a mistake to suppose that any true Irishman calls for vengeance. 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. [2]

Even had this been said with the best of intentions, Carson’s words became part of the rumblings which were to shake John Redmond and his party to the core. Firstly the Home Rulers were directly associated with the British view that ‘this conspiracy’ was a Sinn Fein plot. It was not, but the repeated accusation in parliament and the ‘loyal’ press, English and Irish, gave a credence to Arthur Griffiths’s party which it hardly deserved. The Irish independent member of parliament for Westmeath, Laurence Ginnell, spelled out his disgust at what he and others saw as a deliberate insult in early May 1916:

Typical of the establishment press, the Weekly Irish Times published this anti-uprising account, labelled Sinn Fein Rebellion to maintain the myth that the rebels were from that political movement.

‘In all the preceding speeches this House has been bombarded with the expression Sinn Feiners. There are no such people in Ireland, and never have been, as Sinn Fein Volunteers. The Sinn Fein movement is purely a political, economic, and non-military movement … The name was adopted and applied solely for the purpose of opprobrium, solely for a purpose corresponding to that which impels the people and the Press of this country to call the Germans Huns. The expression Sinn Fein Volunteers is no more correct than it would be for me to call you, Mr. Speaker, and all the English Members of this House English Huns.’ [3]

The insult backfired. Sinn Fein gradually became equated in the minds of Irish men and women with an anti-British resentment and the fight for a Republic. In fact Griffiths was not even a Republican but an advocate of a dual monarchy on the lines of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. [4] By damning Sinn Fein for its own purpose, the British State gave rise to a political rebirth.

Secondly, Carson’s advice about the dangers of rushing to a vengeful judgement were already too late. The response to the uprising was swift and absolute. The ‘Irish Executive’, an interesting phrase given that no-one really knew exactly who that might include, was instructed by Westminster to proclaim martial law over the whole of Ireland. Within 24 hours of the uprising the normal rule of civil law was suspended. A military censor was appointed and a curfew was imposed between the hours of 20.30pm to 05.00 am. Anyone seen on the streets between these hours could be shot on sight. Body and house searches could be imposed by the army, and citizens imprisoned without legal representation. [5] General Sir John Maxwell, who had recently returned from his command in Egypt, was chosen by Lord Kitchener to take charge of the governance of Ireland. [6] Asquith declared that the British government was ‘stamping out the rebellion with all possible vigour and promptitude’. [7] It was as would be expected when dealing with colonial uprisings, as far as the Secret Elite were concerned.

Eamonn Devalera under arrest

Statistics for the arrest and deportation of the unsuccessful rebels suggest a much larger uprising, but it gave the police an opportunity to round up and harass all whom they chose. A total of 3,430 men and 79 women were arrested, though 1,424 men and 73 women were subsequently released after initial enquiries. [8] Those deemed responsible for the crime of ‘waging war against His Majesty the King … being done for the purpose of assisting the enemy’ were court-martialled. The sting in the tail was a bitter lie aimed to assuage the Conservative party and press, and convince the general public that it was all a German plot. Ned Daly one of the Dublin commanders, protested vehemently that ‘all that he did was for Ireland’ [9] and there was no evidence to the contrary against any of the uprising’s leadership.

Memorial to those executed for their part in the Easter Rising

The main instigators were tried by secret military court between between May 2nd and 9th. All bar two of the trials were held in Richmond Barracks. The seriously wounded James Connolly was deemed fit to plead, so a special court was assembled in the Red Cross Hospital at Dublin Castle. Those sentenced to death by firing squad were transferred to the bleak grey of Kilmainham Jail to await a final decision on execution from General Maxwell, the arbiter of life or death. All of the signatories to the Proclamation of the Republic outside the General Post Office were shot, as were the captured commanders from the Irish Volunteers. By 10 May, fifteen rebels, including James Connolly, had been executed by firing squad.

Undoubtedly, Maxwell came under strong government pressure to limit the number of executions but Asquith’s public confidence in the General was bathed in warm terms, insisting that he had shown ‘discretion, depth of mind and humanity’. [10] That said, the prime minister found himself caught between the increasingly partisan stances taken by Unionists and Home Rulers. In the Lords, Midleton focussed attention on the military casualties including Police Officers and Loyal Volunteers which Kitchener, as Secretary of State for War gave as 124 killed and 388 wounded. [11] [12] In the Commons, the Independent MP, Laurence Ginnell, demanded ‘a full list of unarmed civilians killed after the rebels had surrendered’. [13] Home Rule stalwarts like John Dillon could feel the ground beneath his feet being shaken by what he saw as the imposition of a British military dictatorship of undefined duration. Given the paucity of rebellion outside Dublin he demanded to know why the whole of Ireland had been placed under martial law, why wholesale arrests had taken place in districts where there had been no disruption and in which the population remained peaceful and loyal? [14]

Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, murdered by the psychotic Captain Colthrust because he might have been a rebel.

Lurid tales of mass executions without trial at Portobello Barracks were rife in Dublin. In fact a leading Dublin citizen, Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, a committed pacifist and anti-war critic of Redmond’s recruitment drive, was arrested on 25 April as an enemy sympathiser and put under the charge of the psychotic Captain Bowen-Colthurst. Sheehy-Skeffington was an eccentrically attired advocate of just causes, to whom James Joyce affectionately referred as ‘Hairy Jasus’. [15] He and two journalists were shot without trial and buried in the barracks yard and his family home raided by armed police. Though the attempted cover-up failed, the military and legal establishment were forced to introduce a new Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) regulation, so that the civil trial of Bowen-Colthurst was avoided. He was found guilty of murder and confined to a hospital for the mentally insane. [16] Colthurst was not the only one whose sanity was in question.

John Dillon warned Asquith that British reaction in Ireland was spreading disaffection and bitterness from one end of the country to the other with the withering comment that ‘If Ireland were governed by men out of Bedlam you could not pursue a more insane policy.’ [17] He warned parliament that ‘You are letting loose a river of blood, and, make no mistake about it, between two races who, after three hundred years of hatred and strife, we had nearly succeeded in bringing together.’ [18] This was the key to a future which Midleton, Carson and Bonar Law embraced; which the Secret Elite eagerly supported. Ireland ‘had nearly succeeded’ in gaining Home Rule for the whole island, though the thorny issue of Ulster remained unresolved. Despite their years of endeavour to unite Ireland under one flag, with devolved powers in Dublin, Redmond, Dillon and the Irish party at Westminster realised that this was in fact not going to happen. In their eyes, the British over-reaction to the Easter rising ripped asunder any chance of a united Ireland – precisely as the Ulster Unionists had demanded.

Dublin Castle entrance

Easter 1916 changed the parameters. It was an enormous blow for the policy of Home Rule. Men like Redwood and Dillon who had steered Ireland forward through a difficult democratic process feared the return of the old ascendency party. Through martial law, the Irish Establishment, dominated by Protestant business and landed and professional networks emerging from the Big House, the Kildare Street Club and Dublin Castle [19] was back in the driving seat. In other words, with the military in overall control, the backwoodsmen who had dominated Ireland, from local squires to exclusive Dublin Unionist Clubs, could once more dictate the running of the country. The Irish Times, ever the voice of the Unionist party in Ireland, welcomed martial law as a blessing which would allow the country to be strengthened and re-established beyond the powers of injury which nationalism had brought. [20] The Secret Elite appeared to have taken back control of a divided Ireland. But appearances often deceive.

In those anxious days of May 1916 a seismic change began with this clash of political ideology. While the fear of revolution receded, the tremor shook complacency from the ocean of men’s minds. Words changed shape and meaning. Those who had been called ‘traitors and rebels’ became ‘patriots and freedom-fighters’. An insignificant political party metamorphosed into a Republican movement. Men who had volunteered to fight as heroes for the Empire were derided. A once Liberal and sympathetic government in London became a Coalition into whose promoted ranks more and more establishment and unionist figures were pressed. What was good for ‘little Belgium’ was no good for Ireland. In the smouldering ruins of central Dublin oppression replaced progress. Cracks even appeared in the unity of the conservative Catholic Church.

Condemnation of the rebellion as a the work of madmen and criminals turned into admiration. Bishop Edward Thomas O’Dwyer told his Limerick flock so in September 1916. [21] Younger clergy were more openly supportive. Masses were said for the souls of the departed patriots all across Ireland. The only promise that seemed certain was a return to second-class citizenship inside a heartless Great Britain. The first tremors hardly registered on the Richter scale. But this was only the beginning. The Secret Elite and their establishment agents were far from finished and each act of regression, of suppression and back-tracking deepened the chasm of resentment.

[1] Hansard, House of Commons Debate, 03 May 1916 vol 82 cc36-7.
[2] Ibid., cc38-9.
[3] Hansard, House of Commons Debate, 11 May 1916 vol 82 cc966-7.
[4] Arthur Griffith, The Resurrection of Hungary; a Parallel for Ireland, especially pages 75-95. view online at https://archive.org/details/resurrectionofhu00grifiala
[5] http://www.independent.ie/irish-news/1916/city-struggles-under-martial-law-34385785.html
[6] Maxwell had served with Kitchener in Egypt and Sudan and they formed a lasting friendship. He had returned to England to convalesce in March 1916 and declared himself fit for appointment in May. Kitchener originally favoured giving military command in Ireland to Sir Ian Hamilton who had carried the can for the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign. However, Hamilton’s appointment was deemed insensitive because of the lack of justified recognition given to Irish troops in the Dardanelles. Asquith favoured Maxwell over Hamilton. Unfortunately like many such appointments, Maxwell was better suited to keeping colonial natives in line than military governor of a section of the British Isles. He was ignorant of the Irish situation, but was left in sole charge for a critical fortnight, during which time the trials by secret court martial of those involved resulted in his approving fifteen execution. [H. de Watteville, ‘Maxwell, Sir John Grenfell (1859–1929)’, revised by Roger T. Stearn, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.]
[7] The Times, 28 April, 1916, p. 7.
[8] Michael Foy and Brian Barton, The Easter Rising, p. 347.
[9] Ibid., p. 349.
[10] Hansard, House of Commons Debate, 11 May 1916 vol 82, cc959-60.
[11] Hansard, House of Lords Debate, 09 May 1916 vol 21 c946 .
[12] Lord Kitchener’s figures on 9 May were as follows; military – 104 killed (including one naval fatality) and 359 wounded. Police figures were given as 15 dead and 26 wounded, with 5 Loyal volunteers killed and 3 wounded.
[13] Hansard, House of Commons Debate, 10 May 1916 vol 82 cc631.
[14] Ibid., cc632-3.
[15] Aiden Lloyd, Francis Sheehy-Skeffington – A Pacifist in an Age of Militarism, in Roger Cole [editor] The Irish Neutrality League and the Imperialist War 1914-1918, pp.17-19.
[16] Foy and Barton,The Easter Rising, pp. 292-6.
[17] Hansard, House of Commons Debate, 11 May 1916 vol 82 cc939-10.
[18] Ibid., cc942.
[19] Fergus Campbell, The Irish Establishment 1879-1914, p. 171.
[20] The Irish Times, 10 May 1916.
[21] William Henry Kaputt, The Anglo-Irish War 1916-1921: A People’s War, p. 46.