On this day – 3 May, 1916

The Easter Rising executions begin



It was never going to be much more than a futile gesture to begin with, but few of those in the know, who gathered in Dublin on Easter Monday, 24 April 1916 for Irish Volunteer manoueuvers, would have expected the rebellion they had planned to last as long as a week.  The failure of the German steamer the Aud to land 25,000 rifles and a million rounds of ammunition on Good Friday, the arrest of Roger Casement in Kerry and the decision of Volunteer commander Eoin MacNeill to countermand the order for units to assemble on Easter Sunday, had lengthened the odds against the Easter Rising being anything other than a brief skirmish. That it lasted almost a week was down to British incompetence as much as it was to Irish luck or pluck.

Matters weren’t helped for the rebels by the British soldier taken prisoner in the GPO in the first moments of the rebellion, who subsequently managed to get hold of a bottle of whiskey and get himself stupendously drunk. He was a constant irritant to Volunteers who had other things on their mind. Two Swedish sailors, whose ship was in port, were seized by the moment and pledged to join in the Irish revolution. Their offer was, however, conditional. Would the rebellion be over by Thursday, as their ship was sailing on that day? Their spirited, but circumscribed, assistance was declined.

Two myths among many. Patrick Pearse did not read the proclamation of the Irish republic from the steps of the General Post Office. He read it from in front of the building. The GPO, then, and now, doesn’t have any steps. The document he was reading bore the signatures of the members of the Military Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. But it was not their death warrant. The document Pearse was reading was of no use to a prosecutor even in a drumhead court-martial, as the names were printed. The authorities would have had to produce a signed original for it to be of any assistance.

Most of the fatalities incurred, as the British sought to take back the city of Dublin, were civilians, more than 250 of them. More than thirty of those were under the age of sixteen. 64 members of the Volunteers or the Irish Citizens Army lost their lives, as did 116 British soldiers. Most of those were from the Sherwood Foresters, picked off on Mount Street Bridge by a small unit sent from Bolands Mills by Commandant Eamon De Valera, to guard this route to the GPO. When the Forester’s landed in Kingstown – now Dun Laoghaire – they were surprised to hear people speaking English. They assumed they’d just landed in wartime France.

The courts-martial began almost immediately after the surrender on Saturday 29 April. First up, on 2 May, before a tribunal chaired by the distinctively named General C.G.Blackader, was the man designated by the British as ‘Prisoner No.1’, Patrick Pearse. Prosecuting attorney was a young Irish barrister and Territorial Army officer William E.Wylie. There was no defence counsel. Not that a man as eloquent as Pearse required one. The Volunteer commander impressed Blackader by asking that he, and he alone, be shot. His wish was not granted. He was one of fourteen men executed in Kilmainham jail over a nine-day period. One of the others was his younger brother Willie. He might have escaped execution – he was a minor figure in the Rising at best – had he not invited the death penalty by claiming to have been a far more influential figure than he actually was.

At dawn on the morning of 3 May, 1916 Pearse, accompanied by the old Fenian Tom Clarke and fellow poet Thomas McDonagh, were marched from their cells into the yard of Kilmainham jail. All three were shot by military firing squad 97 years ago, on this day.