Given that one of the highest ranking survivors of the 1916 Rising went on to dominate Irish politics for almost three decades, surely one of the great imponderables of Irish history must be, ‘What if Patrick Pearse had been granted his wish, and he alone was executed after the surrender of the Volunteers?’ How would the avowed Marxist, James Connolly have fared in the Ireland of the 1920s, assuming he recovered from his wounds? What roles would Sean MacDermott and Thomas Clarke have played in the Anglo-Irish war? We would certainly have got some excellent poetry from Joseph Plunkett and Thomas McDonagh.
But only one of the pivotal military leaders managed to survive, Eamon de Valera, and if his subsequent political career is anything to go by, the 1920s and 30s would have been even more interesting with the input of other surviving signatories.
So much for ‘What if?’ you might say, and you’d probably be right. Except that there is a huge counterfactual element—as historians put it—to de Valera’s own narrative. As in, ‘what if’ he hadn’t been born in New York and the British military authorities were reluctant to execute him for fear of antagonising the US administration.
So, let’s clear up a few things about de Valera and his involvement in 1916. First, there’s the assumption that he was the highest ranking survivor. He wasn’t. He was actually outranked by an extraordinary 20-year-old Volunteer named Seán McLaughlin who was promoted to commandant-general around the time of the evacuation of the GPO.
Dev was in command of the Third Battalion of the Volunteers based in Boland’s Mills. A small unit, formally under his command, was responsible for causing the most serious damage to the British Army during the rebellion, when they inflicted over two hundred casualties, mainly on the Sherwood Foresters, at Mount Street Bridge. De Valera, however, played no active part in that famous engagement.
After the surrender, De Valera and his unit were taken to the RDS where they were held prisoner. This was probably a crucial element in his survival. Had he, like most of the other leaders of the Rising, been brought to Richmond Barracks and quickly court-martialled, history could have been very different. But, he was not a signatory to the Proclamation and was only belatedly court-martialled, so he had to wait his turn to be executed or to have his death sentence commuted by the military governor, General Sir John Maxwell.
The first dozen firing squad victims fell quickly, within four days of each other. Then there was a pause, during which a hugely adverse reaction set in, not just in Dublin but in London. With the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, on his way to Dublin—with the clear intention of ending the executions—the priority for the military authorities was to dispose of the final two signatories of the Proclamation, Sean MacDermott and James Connolly before a wavering Asquith could step in and save them.
A Dublin barrister, William Wylie, who had been involved on the legal side in the Courts-Martial, was actually approached by General Maxwell and asked about de Valera. Maxwell wanted to know was he someone who might give trouble in the future. Wylie, by now thoroughly disillusioned with the entire process, might well have saved de Valera’s life when he responded in the negative. Had he not done so there might well have been a third victim of the firing squad on 12 May 1916. De Valera, of course, went on to prove Wylie spectacularly wrong. He managed to cause the British authorities quite a bit of bother, right up to and beyond, the Economic War of the 1930s, and the fateful decision to establish Ireland’s neutrality during World War Two.
So, de Valera’s survival was more to do with timing than with his American citizenship. If the British had been worried about that sort of thing they would not have executed Thomas Clarke either. He had become an American citizen in 1883.
Did de Valera escape execution in 1916 because he was born in New York? No, he didn’t. That’s fake history.