The Easter rising and its vengeful aftermath

Sally Richardson reviews 1916: the Easter Rising by Tim Pat Coogan, Cassell, £20 hbk and From Behind a Closed Door: secret court martial records of the 1916 Easter Rising by Brian Barton, Blackstaff Press, £14.99 pbk

TIM PAT Coogan’s 1916: the Easter Rising is a handsome book, with a wealth of brilliant illustrations that take up almost half of the available page space. The text is an extended essay that attempts not only to explain what happened and why, but also to find in it what he calls “a cautionary tale for today”.

The 1916 rising was, writes Coogan, “profoundly important and profoundly unnecessary” -- unnecessary because if British and unionist intransigence had not prevented the implementation of Home Rule, then Irish aspirations might not have burst forth in such a violent manner.

He finds parallels in the current peace process, with the warning that failure to deliver real change via the ‘constitutional’ political channels could again result in a small group of physical force republicans seizing the initiative with violent consequences.

There is an extraordinary immediacy in many of the photographs: a snapshot of the interior of a republican post with the window full of bullet holes, British soldiers behind a barricade of sofas and armchairs, a burnt-out tramcar advertising Nestle’s Milk -- glimpses of everyday life caught up in one of the great events of history.

This is more of an overview-cum-polemic than a conventional history but Coogan does make use of contemporary documents only recently released (2001) by the British government.

It appears that 15 unarmed civilians were deliberately killed by the South Staffordshire battalion in North King Street after the ceasefire. The colonel in charge claimed that the victims were “assisting the rebels and found with arms in their possession”.

However, the subsequent inquiry made clear that the authorities knew that this was a case of murder. A typical cover-up followed. The evidence also suggests that some of the British soldiers were reluctant and ashamed to carry out these killings but were given no choice in the matter by their officers.

Apart from a few unfortunate factual errors in the early part of the book, this is a good introduction to the rising and Coogan knows how to insert lively details and tell some good anecdotes without losing the thread of the narrative.

The court martial transcripts for the men executed after the Easter rising were only released by the British government in 1999, although there had been calls by relatives of the men to be allowed to see them immediately after the event.

This secrecy was criticised at the time by William Wylie, the prosecution counsel appointed by the British, who believed that the courts martial should have been held in public.

So what were the British so afraid of? Quite a lot, it seems. These documents -- the 15 relating to the executed men are given in full, complete with typing errors -- indicate some highly irregular proceedings.

They give details of trials where the evidence presented was circumstantial, or simply inaccurate. The authorities admitted that they relied not so much on the trials themselves as on intelligence reports on the accused to confirm sentences of death.

Wylie recalled -- with rueful hindsight -- how he reassured Maxwell, the commander-in-chief of British forces in Ireland, that “somebody called de Valera” was not important enough to execute and was unlikely to make trouble in the future.

Some other defendants were not so lucky. As Barton says, “the cases of William Pearse, Heuston and MacBride are certainly among the most difficult to justify” and, the leaders aside, there was much randomness and inconsistency in the confirmation or lifting of death sentences.

There were a lot of court martials to be got through -- 187, resulting in 88 death sentences, 15 of which were confirmed -- and the proceedings were speeded along as if on a conveyor belt.

Sentence of death was confirmed more readily in the earlier trials before the British government started to put the brakes on proceedings for fear of inflaming public opinion.

The 15 transcripts are each preceded by a biographical chapter, allowing Barton to examine the role of each of these men in the rising, and to explore their different backgrounds and motivations. What an interestingly varied lot they were. It is surely this extraordinary range of disparate interests and personalities, and the astonishing cohesion they achieved together, that made the rising so much more than an attempted coup by a fanatic minority, and led to support for the cause being maintained and expanded.

It is often useful to be able to have a good look around the enemy’s camp, and the introductory chapter gives a detailed outline of the British military and political machinations and procedures. This fascinating book casts a great deal of new light on the rising and makes very good use of the newly released material.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2002-10-02 15:26:14.
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