The Easter Rising was a turning point in Irish history but the rebellion did not go simply according to plan. 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.
Many believe that the uncompromising attitude of a hard-nosed British commanding officer ensured that the cause for Irish independence not only survived but grew. The 1916 rebellion was far from popular in Ireland, and especially in ruined Dublin, however, the executions in the aftermath of the rebellion ensured that a revolutionary craze was created around the central figure of Patrick Pearse.
The Aftermath of the Easter Rising
The immediate aftermath of the rebellion should not have come as a surprise to anybody: rebels were arrested, thrown in jail, and then around 200 had to face military tribunals. Of these, 90 were sentenced to death for high treason.
The entire process and the resulting rulings and sentences were to be expected. All this was in line with the current British practice at the time, where the death sentence was routinely handed down by British military courts between 1914 and 1918, leading to more executions than the German Army saw during the same war.
What should have been standard practice took an unexpected turn when General Sir John Grenfell Maxwell insisted that the death sentences be carried out quickly. The general, who had served in Egypt and South Africa before, ordered fourteen rebels to be shot as soon as possible in Dublin's Kilmainham Gaol.
The unfortunate group included 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.
Many of their fellow Irishmen saw these men as deluded troublemakers at the time of their arrest but the hasty killings were shocking. As a result, 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 merely due to the fact that she was a woman. The second to escape was Eamonn de Valera, who could not be executed as a traitor because he was not a British citizen. He described himself as a citizen of the (non-existent) Irish Republic and would have been entitled to either a US or a Spanish passport on account of his father. Maxwell choose to stay on the safe side here and spared de Valera, 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.
It was their deaths, and not their actions while alive, which elevated the Irish cause. 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 extent) the government. As the rising itself was ill-timed, ill-prepared and ill-supported it is seen in 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.
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 almost religious view of the cause is confirmed year after year by the simple timing of the celebrations: They are not held on the actual calendar date of the rebellion's anniversary but are instead remembered at Easter.
After all, Easter is the celebration of willing sacrifice and resurrection.
The Easter Rising, despite serious planning deficiencies, was made an unlikely success thanks to the hasty and cruel reaction of British officials.
This article is part of a series on the Easter Rising of 1916: