W.B. Yeats wrote of the “terrible beauty” that was born after the Easter Rising. This iconic metaphor was not wrought by the men who led the rebellion, but by the British generals who created martyrs, by executing prisoners with such indecent haste.
The Easter uprising – its background and consequences – has been endlessly studied by historians, and has inspired countless poets, writers and fi lm-makers. What they have not understood – because the Public Record Office declined to release the “trial” records until a few years ago – is that the proceedings were unlawful.
This measured and painstaking study gives the lie to Prime Minister Asquith’s assurance to the House of Commons that due process prevailed. The leaders of the uprising were prosecuted under the Defence of the Realm Act but none of its provisions for defence rights were observed. The defendants had no access to the rules of procedure. They were given no disclosure of the case against them, no lawyers or free access to witnesses and were not permitted to give sworn evidence in their own defence. Most trials lasted less than 20 minutes. The “trials” were held in camera, in a securely guarded fortress – no press or any member of the public was permitted to enter, and the speed and secrecy of the proceedings prevented any challenge to their legality.
There was no appeal. General Sir John Maxwell, confirmed or commuted on political grounds. As public revulsion at the executions spread, his commutations increased. He had said before her trial, that Countess Markievicz (“a woman who has forfeited the privileges of her sex”) would have to be shot and he was only restrained by an order from the British Cabinet – that women rebels must be spared. The leaders of the rebellion were rushed before the firing squad within hours of their trials. Many of the Tommies were still raw recruits and the ragged volleys of the fi ring squads did not always kill outright.
James Connelly had been seriously wounded in the fighting: he was taken from hospital and executed whilst unconscious from his wounds. There were no witnesses, no post-mortems and no mourners at the burials which took place a few minutes afterwards.
The legitimacy of the in camera order was soon the subject of a legal challenge. In ex parte Doyle, Lord Chief Justice Reading was persuaded, all too easily, that if the public were admitted to the trials, witnesses might be shot. His reasoning remains entirely unconvincing. The rebellion had been crushed and the barracks was a heavily guarded fortress. It would have been possible to regulate entry by the press and the public. The judgment of LCJ Reading marked a notable retreat from the principle of open justice.
If there is a criticism, it is that the author is too kind to the prosecutors – William Wylie (later an infamously lazy High Court judge) and Alfred Bucknill (later a Lord Justice of Appeal). They may have tempered the wind to shorn lambs, but they betrayed what should now be recognised as the duty of every member of the Bar, not to accept instructions that would exploit their professionalbstatus to lend legitimacy to proceedings that are a travesty of justice.
The irony of the death sentences, of course, was that they were so defiantly sought by the leading insurgents. MacBride implicated himself deliberately and MacDonagh went to his death whistling. Pearse (trained as a barrister) was well aware that death sentences could not be passed under the Defence of the Realm Act unless the prosecution could prove conspiracy with the enemy (Germany). This, the army could not prove.
So Pearse provided the evidence, in a letter to his mother. The post script, written at the top of the first page read: “the German expedition on which I was counting actually set sail but was defeated by the British.” It was hardly likely that old Mrs Pearse was remotely interested in the fate of the German fleet. The letter was seized and became the cornerstone of the case against Pearse. That it would also be used to convict his comrades-in-arms did not deter the conscience of a man who believed that their martyrdom was necessary for their cause to triumph.
Of course, Irish independence was inevitable.
Negotiations after the Great War might have brought about a peaceful transition of power. Instead, the country descended into appalling bloodshed – the “Black and Tan” conflict, civil war and internecine violence that has soured Anglo -Irish history. Might all this have been avoided if Asquith’s government had ensured due process and shown restraint? This remains one of history’s great conundrums best summed up by Yeats:
But who can talk of give and take,
What should be and what not
While those dead men are loitering there
To stir the boiling pot.
Context of course is everything. In the Spring of 1916 Britain was fighting for survival and the Easter Rebellion was just one of the sideshows of the Great War. This dispassionate, and revelatory work charts the disintegration of due process at a time of national crisis.