Once the shooting in the streets and the Easter Rising of 1916 was over, the shootings in the jails started - the British backlash ensured that minor poets became major martyrs. It could be said that the uncompromising attitude of a hard-nosed British commanding officer ensured that defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory. The 1916 rebellion was far from popular in Ireland, and especially in ruined Dublin. But the executions ensured that a revolutionary pantheon was created around Patrick Pearse.
The Aftermath of the Easter Rising
The aftermath of the rebellion should not have come as a surprise to anybody - arrested rebels were interned, around 200 had to face military tribunals. The sentence of death was passed ninety times, for high treason. All this was in line with then current British practice. And not the enormous outrage we would see it as today. Actually the death sentence was quite popular with British military courts between 1914 and 1918, leading to more executions than the German Army saw during the same war.
But total idiocy struck when General Sir John Grenfell Maxwell insisted in a swift handling of the death sentences. After all, he thought he could handle restless natives best, having served in Egypt and South Africa before. So, in a rather hasty operation fourteen rebels were shot in Dublin's Kilmainham Gaol - Patrick Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh, Thomas Clarke, Edward Daly, William Pearse, Michael O'Hanrahan, Eamonn Ceannt, Joseph Plunkett, John MacBride, Sean Heuston, Con Colbert, Michael Maillin, Sean MacDermott and James Connolly.
Thomas Kent was executed in Cork. Roger Casement, often lumped in with the executed in Ireland, was hanged in London later, and only after a lengthy trial. Seen by fellow Irishmen as deluded troublemakers at the time of their arrests, these sixteen men were almost immediately elevated to national martyrs, mainly by Maxwell's heavy-handed approach.
Only two rebel leaders escaped this massacre - Countess Markiewicz was sentenced to die, this was commuted to a life sentence on account of her sex. And Eamonn de Valera could not be executed as a traitor ... as he held no British citizenship, described himself as a citizen of the (non-existent) Irish Republic, and would have been entitled to either a US or Spanish passport on account of his father. Maxwell choose to stay on the safe side here, supported by the impression of prosecutor William Wylie that de Valera would not cause further trouble.
In fact, “Dev” was one of the most uninspiring leaders of 1916, rising to later popularity mainly because of his “leader status”, and his almost accidental survival.
When public outcry finally stopped the executions, the damage was done - Ireland had more than a dozen new martyrs, the British were demonized. George Bernard Shaw, always the sarcastic socialist, pointed out that Maxwell's policy of swift retribution had made heroes and martyrs out of minor poets. Add to this the grotesque background of some executions: Connolly was badly wounded and had to be tied to a chair to face the firing squad, Plunkett was terminally ill, MacDermott a cripple. And William Pearse was only shot because he was Patrick's brother.
Had the leaders of 1916 been allowed to live ... Irish history might have taken a different course.
Remembering the Easter Rising
Every year the events of Easter 1916 are remembered in Ireland - by republicans and (to a lesser extend) the government. As the rising itself was ill-timed, ill-prepared and ill-supported it went into history not as a success, but as a spark that re-lit the flame of Irish freedom. And nearly every fraction of Ireland's political landscape is bound to claim "the heroes of 1916" as their own at some time. Which in some cases is made slightly complicated by later events like the Irish Civil War.
Ultimately the rising is remembered as what Patrick Pearse may well have seen it - a blood sacrifice of a few to awaken the many. This quasi-religious perspective is confirmed year after year by the simple timing of the celebrations: They are not held on the actual anniversary but at Easter, tied without fail to a movable religious feast. After all Easter is the celebration of a willing sacrifice and a resurrection. Just like in Dora Sigerson's sculpture in Glasnevin Cemetery religious and political imagery seem to be interchangeable.
The Easter Rising, despite serious planning deficiencies, was made an unlikely success ... through British idiocy.
This article is part of a series on the Easter Rising of 1916: