‘What the hell is going on?’ appears to be what the British Prime Minister Herbert H Asquith, is thinking as he disembarks at Dun Laoghaire on May 12 1916, almost three weeks after the Easter Rising. Following six days of intensive fighting, Dublin city centre was unrecogniseable. Practically all its main buildings were destroyed either by artillery fire or burnt out. The list of casualities was horrendous. One hundred and sixteen army dead, 368 wounded, and nine missing. Sixteen policemen died, and 29 wounded. And this at a time when Britain was fighting an appalling war in France, which seemed unending, and its mounting causalities were not only threatening his government’s survival, but had filled the British people with dread and alarm.
As well as in Dublin there were outbreaks of rebellion in County Galway, Ashbourne, and Enniscorthy. But Dublin was the centre of activity. Rebel and civilian casualities there were 318 dead (including 40 children ), and more than 2,200 wounded.
There were nasty rumours of exceptional brutality. Rebels shot some civilians who refused to stop at checkpoints. There were two serious instances of British troops killing civilians out or revenge of frustration: at Portobello Barracks where six were shot, and at North King Street where 15 were shot.
Then there were the executions. General Sir John Grenfell Maxwell, an army vetern of the old school, was given responsibility to clean up the mess. He was determined to teach the rebels a lesson; to stamp out any further threats of rebellion. He had more than 3,500 ‘suspects’ rounded up, and packed off to prison in Dublin or in the UK. He hastily convened secret military courts. A total of 97 people were sentenced to death. Asqueth warned Maxwell to be careful: “Anything like a large number of executions would sow the seeds of lasting trouble in Irlenad.”
Between May 3 and May 8, 13 prominent republicans were shot.
Maxwell continued to ignore the prime minister’s warning. The executions went on. As if to show the prime minister that he was the man who knew how to deal with rebels, the very morning that Asquith arrived in Dublin, May 12, Seán Mac Diarmada and James Connolly were shot, the latter tied to a chair because of wounds.*
Asquith was furious. He ordered all further executions to stop immediately.
‘The sepearation money’
At first, however, many members of the Dublin public were simply bewildered by the outbreak of the Rising. It had been sprung on them without warning. Conor McNamara, in his new book The Easter Rebellion - A new Illustrated History,** describes how the majority of civilain casualties came from the poverty-stricken districts of Dublin’s north inner city, which were in close proximity to the fighting. People became excited when fighting broke out. Drunkenness and looting hindered the rebels’ ability to control the centre of the city. The fact that many people had loved ones fighting on the Western Front led them to regard the rebels with contempt and loathing.
The writer Frank O’Connor noted: ‘Their sons, husbands, brothers, were at the front fighting the Germans; the separation money flowed like water through the streets , and now the dirty pro Germans were attacking it. Attacking the blessed separation money.’
Self-sacrifice for a nation
But the damage was done. Asquith’s fears were soon realised. Stories circulated about the character, and the bravery, of those who put themselves forward in the face of insurmountable odds. This self-sacrifice for a nation would soon make heroes of the men and women who died. The murder of Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, a well known pacifist, angered many. There was the unnecessary slaughter at North King Street, where British soldiers did not differentiate between rebel and civilian.
Áine Ceannt was permitted to visit her husband, Eamonn, at Kilmainham before his execution.
She recalled: ‘Eamonn in a cell with no seating accommodation and no bedding, not even a bed of straw. The first thing I noticed was his Sam Browne belt was gone, and his uniform was slightly torn. A sergeant stood at the door while we spoke, and could say very little. I said to him that the Rising was an awful fiasco, and he replied, “No, it was the best thing since ‘98”’***
In the December 1918 general election to the British parliament, republicans (by then represented by Sinn Féin ), won 73 seats out of 105, on a policy of abstentionism and Irish independence.
On January 21 1919 they convened the first Dáil, and declared the independence of the Irish Republic. Later the same day, the War of Independence began.
Next Week: Airbrushing women out of the Rising.
NOTES: * Roger Casement is traditionally included among the 16 patriots executed as a result of the Rising. He was the only one to be given a public trial at the Old bailey in London, the following August. He was found guilty of treason, and hanged at Pentonville Prison.
**The Easter Rebellion 1916 -A new Illustrated History, by Conor McNamara (the 1916 Scholar in Residence at NUIG ), published by The Collins Press, on sale €24.99.
***Eamonn Ceannt was born in Ballymoe, overlooking the River Suck in Co Galway. He was a self taught Irish speaker and a champion piper. He married Aine O’Brennan, who shared his passion for Irish culture and language. They had one son Ronan.
He was one of the original planners of the Rising, during which he was stationed at the South Dublin Union with more than 100 men under his command, notably Cathal Brugha, and WT Cosgrave. He was executed on May 8 1916, aged 34 years.
Galway city’s Ceannt Station is named in his honour.