By Edward T. O’Donnell
Last of three parts
Eighty-five years ago this week, on May 3, 1916, the first of the Easter Rising rebels were executed by firing squad. To the British, at that moment in the throes of a devastating war with Germany, the executions were necessary and justified. Blinded by rage, they could not see that in making martyrs of the rebels, they were about to transform the character of Irish nationalism and the course of Irish history.
The initial popular response in Ireland to the Easter Rising of April 24-29, 1916 was negative. Truth be told, most people in Ireland in 1916 did not support violent, revolutionary nationalism. Constitutional nationalism, the type promoted by past heroes like Daniel O’Connell and Charles Stewart Parnell, enjoyed widespread support by 1914. The goal of the constitutionalists, home rule, had actually been granted by Parliament that year, but its enactment was suspended until the war’s end. Although bitterly frustrated, most nationalists sided with John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, when he urged the Irish people to support Britain in the war as a means of securing home rule in the near future. The fact that 200,000 Irishmen volunteered for service in the British army (60,000 of whom died) illustrates this point. Support for the war waned by 1916, especially as casualties mounted and rumors began to fly of an impending conscription in Ireland. But only a zealous minority prayed for insurrection.
Consequently, when it came the general populace, especially the conservative middle-class and clergy, were horrified by its violent and revolutionary character. Many nationalists, led by Redmond, denounced the rebels as a misguided, fanatical minority that had greatly damaged the nationalist cause by antagonizing the British government.
Still others criticized the rebels as "backstabbers" who recklessly endangered the lives of their husbands, brothers, and sons fighting in the British army on the continent. Angry crowds jeered at the rebels as they were led to jail.
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Many of the rebel leaders expected such a reaction. During the last days of the uprising, as their eventual defeat became obvious, Padraic Pearse predicted with great accuracy, "When we are all wiped out, people will blame us for everything, condemn us." Yet he also declared that "in a few years they will see the meaning of what we tried to do." In a word, the nationalist "blood sacrifice" Pearse so often wrote and spoke about in the years leading up to 1916 would eventually rouse the Irish people to fight for their freedom.
In reality, it would take only a few days for the public to begin to change its mind. Despite pleas from leaders in Ireland and Britain for restraint, the British government reacted with white-hot rage. Martial law was declared in Dublin and then extended to all Ireland. The entire country was placed under suspicion, as though the uprising had the support of the masses. Thousands were arrested, bullied, interrogated, and jailed. Some were summarily shot. Stories of British soldiers gunning down unarmed civilians during the uprising soon came to light. The most infamous was the murder of the well-known pacifist and writer Francis Sheehy-Skeffington. While out on the streets of Dublin trying to stop looting, he witnessed a British soldier shoot an unarmed boy. To cover up his action, the soldier shot Sheehy-Skeffington dead.
Then came the secret trials and summary executions. On May 3, Thomas P. Clarke, Padraic Pearse, and Thomas MacDonagh were led to the prison yard at Kilmainham and executed by firing squad. The next day, Willie Pearse, Edward Daly, Joseph Plunkett, and Michael O’Hanrahan suffered the same fate. Over the course of the next week, Sean MacBride (May 5), Michael Mallin, Eamonn Ceannt, Con Colbert, Sean Heuston (May 8), and Thomas Kent (May 9) were similarly dispatched. Last to go were James Connolly and Sean MacDiarmada on May 12. Crippled from a bullet wound to his foot suffered during the uprising, Connolly had to be propped up in a chair before the executioners opened fire.
Only one leader was spared: Eamon de Valera. What may have saved him (though some historians dispute this interpretation) was his American citizenship. Although raised in County Limerick, he had been born to an Irish mother and Spanish father in New York City. The last thing the British wanted in 1916 was a diplomatic dispute with their future ally, the United States, over the execution of an American citizen.
Seventy-five lesser participants condemned to death had their sentences commuted. One of them was de Valera’s future rival, Michael Collins. Both would eventually be released in 1917 and go on to play crucial roles in the coming effort to win Irish freedom.
The summary execution of the 15 rebel leaders produced an astonishing and immediate reinterpretation of the uprising in the eyes of the Irish public. In just 10 days, the time it took for the firing squad to carry out its work, the people of Ireland came to see Pearse, Connolly, MacDonagh, Plunkett and the rest as nationalist martyrs akin to Wolfe Tone. They came to view the Easter Rising as an event on a par with the heroic uprisings of 1867, 1848, in 1798.
William Butler Yeats, who himself had initially been horrified by the uprising, spoke for many when he penned the following lines in the wake of the executions:
I write it out in verse —
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Whenever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
As historian Lawrence McCaffrey writes in his book "The Irish Question," "The British made Pearse’s case: blood sacrifice did convert nationalist apathy into passion."
Ireland would never be the same.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
May 3, 1592: Red Hugh O’Donnell crowned King of Tyrconnell, succeeding his father.
May 4, 1836: The Ancient Order of Hibernians is founded in New York City.
May 5, 1981: Hunger striker Bobby Sands dies.
May 4, 1867: Journalist Nellie Bly born in Cochrane’s Mills, Pa.
May 5, 1914: Actor Tyrone Power born Cincinnati.
May 8, 1895: Archbishop and TV priest Fulton Sheen born in El Paso, Ill.
Readers may contact Edward T. O’Donnell at odonnell@PastWise.com.