Easter Rising 1916—the trials

Published in Book Reviews, Featured-Book-Review, Issue 5 (September/October), Reviews, Volume 22

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Inside less than three weeks 160 prisoners were tried by field general court martial. The trials took place in secret and none of the prisoners were represented by lawyers. Most lasted less than twenty minutes. This book provides a powerful and compelling account of how the rule of law disintegrated in a time of crisis. It opens with a fascinating account of the men who suppressed the Rising: officers like General Blackader, who had married early to avoid disgrace and later ran a concentration camp during the Boer War, and Brigadier Maconchy, commanding officer of the Foresters who were massacred at Lower Mount Street. Both of these officers conducted trials of prisoners. Neither had any legal qualifications.

In the first chapter Enright explains how the rebel leaders were not tried by ‘due process’ but by ‘field general court martial’, a rudimentary method of trying soldiers on active service. He also explains how the government feared that the publication of the trial records might damage the war effort, and so the trial records were buried in the archives for nearly 100 years. In the second chapter Enright gives a brief and compelling account of the military actions of the week. The third chapter, ‘Trial and Punishment’, deals with the rushed trials of the leaders of the Rising. The first executions, of Pearse, MacDonagh and Clarke, took place on Wednesday 3 May. As pressure grew for the executions to be stopped, the last executions, those of Connolly and McDermott, were hurried through on Friday 12 May.

Chapters 4–9 deal with the legal process under which the insurgents were tried. Enright deals in depth with how the Crown made the case against the accused. The Army had authority to try these men under the Defence of the Realm Act. What becomes abundantly clear, however, is that the slender legal protections put in place for the benefit of the prisoners were bypassed by the Army. The office of judge advocate general, which was intended as a check on legally unsound judgements, was dispensed with by General Maxwell. Indeed, it becomes clear that General Maxwell had also usurped the authority of the king’s representative, the lord lieutenant, Baron Wimborne, to grant clemency to the condemned men. It is also evident from Enright’s research that while many minor participants such as Michael O’Hanrahan, Con Colbert and Willie Pearse were tried and executed, in the crush of prisoners at Richmond Barracks senior Volunteers like Richard Mulcahy and Michael Collins were not even picked out for trial.

With regard to the decision to hold the trials ‘in camera’, Enright disposes of the justifications relied upon. In a test case brought to challenge the legality of the trials, Lord Chief Justice Reading upheld the decision to conduct the trials in camera on the ground of the protection of witnesses. When one considers that the trials were being held in one of the most heavily guarded military barracks in the British Isles and that nearly all the ‘witnesses’ were military or police, it is obvious that this does not stand up. The overriding consideration for holding the trials in camera was so that they could be disposed of as speedily as possible; legal rights and entitlements were secondary to this consideration. These points are very well brought out by the author.

In chapters 10–46 the book recounts individual trials, including that of Harry Boland and fifteen other unpublished trials. Of these some stand out. There is the trial of P.H. Pearse, the leader of the Rising, who literally presented his head on a platter to the authorities by writing a letter home to his mother. The postscript, written at the top of the first page, where it could hardly be overlooked by his captors, tied the rebellion to assistance from Germany. In this way he exposed himself to execution. Prior to this, the Crown legal team were having difficulty tying the rebellion to ‘assisting the enemy’. This then became the legal basis by which all the prisoners were charged. This statement, in addition to his closing address to the court, effectively sealed his fate, because he was admitting treason by helping Germany in time of war. In doing so he also sealed the fate of some of his fellow Volunteers. By ensuring his own execution he snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, but he also made martyrs of many of his comrades, whether they were willing or not.

The author also recounts the trial of William T. Cosgrave. Cosgrave was extremely fortunate to escape execution. The fact that he was a Sinn Féin member of Dublin Corporation caused the British authorities to conclude, wrongly, that he was a senior figure in the Rising. It appears that the president of the court, General Blackader, asked William Wylie (pro-secuting counsel) about Cosgrave’s character before passing sentence. Wylie testified that he believed Cosgrave to be a decent man. Although Blackader sentenced Cosgrave to death, he also gave a recommendation for mercy. The death sentence was commuted by General Maxwell.

The most intriguing chapter deals with the Boland’s Mill garrison and its commandant, Eamon de Valera. De Valera’s survival has been the subject of much debate by historians. Enright establishes a number of crucial factors that brought that about—most notably that, after the surrender, the Boland’s Mill prisoners were moved to the RDS grounds in Ballsbridge for some days before being transferred to Richmond Barracks, where prisoners were already queuing to be tried. There is no doubt that this delay played a significant part in de Valera’s survival, because by the time he came up for trial on 8 May the demand for executions to stop had reached a crescendo. He was tried with Thomas Ashe and Richard Hayes, who had been in charge at Ashbourne, where significant casualties had been inflicted on Crown forces. They also escaped execution for reasons of political expediency.

In summary, Seán Enright’s work is an outstanding exercise in forensically getting at the truth. He has managed to strip out the fiction and leave us with an invaluable and very readable legal insight into the trials of 1916.

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