On This Day – 11 August 1796 Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin prepares to receive its first prisoners


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It’s such a huge tourist attraction today that it’s quite shocking to realise there were proposals as recently as the 1950s to demolish much of it. But Kilmainham Gaol survived intact to play a huge part in the current decade of centenaries.

It opened in 1796 and even then, it was a grim place, housing men, women, and children as young as twelve. Some were held there prior to transportation to Australia, others were lodged in the prison before their executions, some served many years there in dreadful conditions, often sharing a cell with up to four others.

Almost every self-respecting nationalist, including some far removed from revolutionary politics, spent a spell at their Majesties’ pleasure in Kilmainham.  A number did so prior to being hanged or shot. The list of guests constitutes a distinguished club, Henry Joy McCracken, Oliver Bond, Napper Tandy, Robert Emmet, Michael Dwyer, William Smith O’Brien, Thomas Francis Meagher, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, Charles Stewart Parnell, and Michael Davitt.

Attached to the Gaol was a magistrates’ court where cases would be despatched, or, if a serious crime was involved, the preliminary process leading to indictment would take place. It was here that the alleged killers of the Chief Secretary, Frederick Cavendish and his Under Secretary, Thomas Henry Burke, in Phoenix Park in 1882—the so-called Invincibles—appeared for remand hearings before being committed to Green Street court for trial. And it was here that they first realised the game was up, when one of their number, James Carey, presented himself as a prosecution witness. He had opted to turn state’s evidence to save his own skin. His first appearance at Kilmainham Magistrates’ Court was greeted with roars of rage from the dock. A reporter observed that one of the accused, Joe Brady:

 

Glared at him and stretched forward towards him [had he] been able to reach him, I believe he would have been torn to pieces, for Brady was a powerful young fellow, and for the moment he was for all the world like a tiger on the spring.

 

The prisoners were returned to their cells and a few weeks later Carey’s evidence sent five of them to the hangman, a seasoned veteran named William Marwood. His customary advice to his victims before they met their maker was, ‘Now then, hold your head back and you’ll die easy’. They were all executed in the Kilmainham Prison Yard, and their bodies were interred under the scaffold erected to hang them.

Three decades later it was the turn of the leaders of the 1916 Rising. Fourteen were executed there over a nine-day period in May. The first to die, on 3 May, were Patrick Pearse, Thomas Clarke and Thomas MacDonagh. They faced firing squads of twelve British soldiers, mostly drawn from the Sherwood Foresters, who had been badly cut up on Mount Street Bridge the previous week. There was little regard to sensitivities on either side. No Catholic priest was allowed to be present to minister to the prisoners, and the same firing squad—consisting mainly of young recruits—was expected to execute all three men. A number of female prisoners, including Countess Markievicz, were rudely awoken by the volleys from the stone-breakers’ yard.

After the establishment of the Irish Free State the prison continued to be used during the Civil War. Around six-hundred Republican prisoners were incarcerated there, many of them women. One of the last to be released was Eamon de Valera.

The prison was closed by the Free State government in 1929, and might well have been demolished in the 1930s, except it was deemed too expensive to do so. The work of organisations, like the Kilmainham Gaol Restoration Society, ensured that it was eventually taken over by the Office of Public Works, and became one of the most visited historical sites in Dublin.

It has also been a useful location for a number of films. These include the adaptation of Brendan Behan’s prison drama, The Quare Fellow, as well as the Michael Caine film The Italian Job, and Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins. Collins himself was fortunate, he never actually served time there.

Kilmainham Gaol was finally completed and prepared to accept its first prisoners two hundred and twenty-one years ago, on this day.

 

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On This Day – 5 May 1916 William Evelyn Wylie and the court-martial of William Corrigan

 

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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.

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On This Day – 29 April 1916 – Patrick Pearse agrees to unconditional surrender

 

 

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With Elizabeth O’Farrell obscured                         Minus Elizabeth O’Farrell entirely

 

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. Though there were inefficiencies on both sides. While the rebels famously failed to take the wide-open Dublin Castle, the well-positioned Trinity College and the strategically important Crow Street Telephone exchange, the flower of the British administration in Ireland was enjoying the fleshpots of Fairyhouse Racecourse while they were being made fools of in Dublin.

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 and James Connolly representing the Irish Citizen’s Army. But it was not their death warrant. The document Pearse was reading was of no use to a prosecutor even in the drumhead courts-martial that followed the rebellion. The reason was simple – the names were printed. The authorities would have had to produce a signed original for it to be of any practical assistance in convicting the signatories.

Most of the fatalities incurred, as the British sought to take back the city of Dublin, were civilians, more than 250 of them. Forty of those were under the age of sixteen. One of the civilian fatalities was the pacifist Francis Sheehy Skeffington, brutally murdered on the orders of an insane British officer, Captain J.C. Bowen Colthurst from Cork as he went about thr city trying to prevent looting. 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 the nearby Bolands Mills by 3rd Battalion Commandant Eamon De Valera. When the Forester’s disembarked in Kingstown – now Dun Laoghaire – they were surprised to hear people speaking English. They assumed they’d just landed in wartime France.

James Connolly may or may not have claimed that capitalists would never destroy property even to end a rebellion – he is unlikely to have been sufficiently naïve to have ever said any such thing – but destroy it they did. Much of the centre of Dublin was laid waste by the shells of the gunboat Helga and British artillery stationed in Phibsborough and Trinity College.

The Volunteers’ Headquarters in the General Post Office was never actually taken by the British forces – it was abandoned by the Volunteers before its total destruction by shelling. Shortly after the evacuation of the GPO the rebel leadership bowed to the inevitable six days after the Rising began. That began a busy day for Nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell who was given the dangerous job of informing the other garrisons, most of which remained untaken, that the Rising was at an end.

Patrick Pearse agreed to an unconditional surrender one hundred years ago on this day.