There were many unsung heroes of the 1916 Rising. The courageous Nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell, for example, who risked her life to carry Pearse’s flag of truce along Moore Street, and then took his surrender note, under heavy fire, to the remaining Volunteer garrisons. Or Sean McLoughlin, the ‘boy commandant’, promoted to that rank by James Connolly, who was twenty years of age when he played a pivotal role in the evacuation of the GPO.
William Evelyn Wylie may be ‘unsung’, ‘deeply flawed’ or just an anti-hero, depending on your point of view. He was a successful barrister who, when the Rising began, helped to seal off Trinity College, and deny that strategic position to the rebels. As it turned out the Volunteers didn’t really have much interest, whether they should have or not.
After Pearse’s surrender Wylie was tapped to participate in the court martial process as lead attorney. He prosecuted ‘Prisoner No. 1’, Pearse himself, and was hugely impressed with the Volunteer commander’s conduct at his brief trial. At the court martial of one of the most tragic figures of the rebellion, Thomas McDonagh, Wylie pulled up the presiding Judge, whose name was—I kid you not—General Charles Blackader. Blackader sought to use the 1916 Proclamation as conclusive evidence against the prisoner. Wylie, who actually had a copy of the document in his possession, pointed out that it was inadmissible. Although McDonagh’s name was appended to the printed version, the court would require the presentation of the original signed copy in order to convict him.
As the courts martial proceeded Wylie, a unionist and a strong opponent of the principles underlying the rebellion, became increasingly concerned at the overriding of due process. He wrote a memoir of that week, which was left to his daughter after his death. In this he described how he took matters into his own hands. Although no defence attorney had been appointed in any of the one hundred and sixty abbreviated trials—an illegal procedure in itself—Wylie took it upon himself to act as both prosecution and defence. While the three presiding military judges were considering their verdict in a case, Wylie would step outside to see who was coming next. He would then advise the accused of their rights, and inquire whether or not they wanted any witnesses to be present. Pearse, McDonagh and Thomas Clarke had not been made aware that such a facility was available.
It was while engaged in this Janus-like activity, on the fourth day of the courts martial, that Wylie realised, to his intense surprise, the next prisoner was a Dublin solicitor, William Corrigan, who had briefed him on many occasions in the recent past. Corrigan had been taken prisoner at the South Dublin Union. When the court-martial began, with Blackader presiding, Wylie took the unusual step of arguing the case for and against the prisoner. When Blackader asked why Wylie had adopted this unorthodox approach, the barrister revealed the nature of Corrigan’s profession. He then added that he had an uncashed cheque from the accused Volunteer in his pocket which might be void were he to be executed.
Corrigan was one of more than ninety prisoners to be sentenced to death, but in his case the court martial recommended clemency, and Wylie’s brief fee was thus secured.
Later, according to his own account, Wylie was consulted by the commander of Crown Forces in Ireland, General Sir John Maxwell, about the need to carry out the death sentence passed down on one Eamon de Valera, Third Battalion commandant. Wylie told Maxwell that he didn’t see any need to execute de Valera, as he was unlikely to cause trouble in the future. ‘I don’t think he’s very important’ said the clearly misinformed barrister.
Wylie, a keen cyclist, who is mentioned in this context in James Joyce’s Ulysees, went on to defend Sinn Fein prisoners during the War of Independence, despite his strong unionist sympathies. He was appointed to the High Court by the first Free State government, and served there until 1936.
William Evelyn Wylie prosecuted and defended Lieutenant William Corrigan of the Irish Volunteers, before a court martial in Richmond barracks, one hundred and one years ago, on this day.