How two lawyers ended up on opposing sides in 1916

A landmark trial began 98 years ago today

Mon, May 5, 2014, 01:06

In the days following Easter Week 1916, barrister William Wylie helped to prosecute 160 rebels for their role in the insurrection. One, however, was unique: William Corrigan, a Dublin solicitor who, before the chaos, was a colleague and friend to the up-and-coming king’s counsel.

The extraordinary trial of Corrigan, which took place in a makeshift courtroom in Richmond Barracks 98 years ago today, set in motion a series of encounters which would inextricably link the two lawyers to the creation of the Irish State.

Corrigan was born in Dublin in 1888, the son of an undertaker and Irish Parliamentary Party member. He attended Blackrock College where he excelled in rugby before qualifying from Trinity College as a solicitor. He immediately began work in his older brother Michael’s firm on St Andrew Street, which became known as Corrigan & Corrigan.

He joined the Irish Volunteers and served as a lieutenant at the South Dublin Union during the 1916 Rising. He was badly wounded during the fighting and, after the surrender, was taken to Richmond Barracks to face a court martial.

William Evelyn Wylie was born in 1881. He also studied law at Trinity before being called to the bar in 1906. He was a keen cyclist, a fact noted by a passage in Ulysses which describes a bicycle race between Wylie and his fellow law students.

As a barrister he worked mainly on the northwestern circuit where he achieved considerable success. His friend and fellow barrister Tony Babbington later recalled that “he was a great opponent, very clear-headed and quick off the mark”.

He took silk in 1914 before joining a training programme for British officers at the outbreak of the first World War.

After Easter Week, the young king’s counsel was given the task of prosecuting the dozens of rebels who had been selected for trial. Gen John Maxwell, who had been appointed military commander of Ireland during the Rising, had ordered that trials would take the form of field general courts martial. These were stripped-down versions of the standard courts martial. Proceedings would be held behind closed doors and prisoners would not be entitled to legal representation.

Aspects of the trials would later be found to be illegal but at the time, they were deemed absolutely necessary. The idea was to convict and shoot enough rebels to send a strong message to the general population. History would show that it was a startling miscalculation on Maxwell’s part.

Despite being the head prosecutor, Wylie recognised the deficiencies of the proceedings. He frequently attempted to help the rebels in their defence; military history interviews show that several of them remembered him in positive terms decades later.

Wylie meets Corrigan
It was in these circumstances that Wylie came across Corrigan in a corridor of Richmond Barracks where the solicitor was waiting for his turn in the dock.

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