1916 courts martial and executions: Sound reasons to be wary of ‘official’ records

Death certificates disappeared and trial records buried to avoid damage to war effort

14 of the 1916 executions took place in Kilmainham Gaol. We look at the cell in which Patrick Pearse spent his last night and retrace his steps to the stonebreakers yard where he faced a firing squad at dawn on May 3rd 1916. Video: Bryan O'Brien


Countess Markievicz avoided execution “solely on account of her sex” wrote Gen Maxwell. It says much about the prejudices of the age that while Markievicz was saved by her gender; Casement’s appeal for clemency would founder on his sexual orientation.

Some of the decisions to execute were capricious even by the standards of the time. O’Hanrahan was executed but his senior officer at Jacobs Factory was not. Colbert, a junior officer at Marrowbone Lane was executed but not his commanding officer or most of the senior officers in his battalion. Willie Pearse, who held the rank of captain, was executed but not de Valera, whose men had inflicted heavy casualties on the Foresters at Mount Street Bridge. Thomas Ashe and his men had inflicted heavy losses at Ashbourne but Ashe was spared.

These last two senior commanders were allowed to live not because the execution policy had run its course but because Sir Francis Vane had blown the whistle on the shooting of Sheehy Skeffington at Portobello barracks. After the shootings, Skeffington and the others were buried the same day. Sir Francis also noted the arrival of a squad of sappers who had crossed war-torn Dublin to repair the bullet marks in the wall. Sir Francis Vane’s report was ignored and so he went to Westminster and made a fuss, which would eventually result in him being squeezed out of the army.

It was Sir Francis Vane’s exposure of the Portobello murders which jolted prime minister Asquith into action and intervention became an urgent political necessity. But by then, 15 executions had taken place.

The executions

The official history of the 59th Division shows all the prisoners “died bravely”. In that anodyne phrase hangs an ugly tale. Pearse, MacDonagh and Clarke were all executed within minutes of each other by firing squads supervised by Maj Rhodes, a provost marshal. For reasons which were never stated, Maj Rhodes was relieved of further execution duty the following day.

A clue to what took place lies in what happened to Maj Rhodes next. A few months later, he was permitted to relinquish his commission on the ground of partial blindness: an odd choice to oversee a firing squad.

There is, however, another more revealing entry in the evidence to the Medical Board: that Maj Rhodes “was not fit for a post necessitating much nervous strain”. It is inconceivable that Maj Rhodes would have been ordered to oversee the execution of the leaders of the rebellion if there had been any doubt about his mental fitness. It is reasonable to surmise that his mental-health difficulties must have arisen from his last stressful duty: the executions of Pearse, MacDonagh and Clarke.

Rhodes was replaced on execution duty by another officer, who issued new and detailed orders for the next round of executions. The fact new orders were necessary implies procedures the night before had not been satisfactory.

The task of execution was more difficult than might be imagined. A firing squad did not always kill. On the Western Front, this was often because the men on the firing squad were church going conscripts who detested this duty and occasionally fired wide. This caused the army to impose strict supervision on the conduct of executions. One measure was the presence of an army doctor who would write a certificate showing the firing squad had met the standard required and the prisoner had suffered death “instantaneously”. The certificate of death for Pearse, MacDonagh and Clark reads very differently: “The prisoners were dead before the commandant disposed of the bodies.”

It should be added that in executions of this era, it is unique to find a death certificate which dealt with more than one prisoner. The inference is that for one of these prisoners, death did not come swiftly and a bland composite certificate was written to disguise that fact. This analysis is supported by a diary written by a member of the firing squad. Sgt Lomas of the Foresters wrote that the third execution did not go well. Tom Clarke was grievously wounded and had to be shot again by an officer.

What took place in respect of the other prisoners who were executed?

The system required the death certificates to be lodged on the prisoner’s file. But the death certificates for the other 12 prisoners are not in the trial files: to lose one certificate is careless but to lose 12 smacks of system.

Why did the death certificates disappear?

After the executions, prime minister Asquith made a commitment to publish the trial records but the army resisted and prevaricated. The Great War was reaching a climax, Ireland was still the great recruiting ground and nothing could be permitted to derail that. Also, hard questions were being asked at Westminster about soldiers being tried and executed on the Western Front: disclosure of the Dublin trial records would intensify that pressure. The trial records could not be made to disappear but the death certificates could be removed from the files.

And it is an inference that this is what happened in the summer of 1916 and it was done to avoid public scrutiny and damage to the war effort. Asquith’s administration disintegrated while the trial records were still awaiting publication. The new government of Lloyd George ordered the trial records to be sent to the archives for 100 years.

Why rake up these issues?

Here is the question: should we settle for the official histories prepared by the generals of the empire or do we want something approximating the truth? There are sound reasons to be wary of official histories and this is particularly so in relation to 1916.

There are many aspects of the “official” histories of 1916 which no longer bear scrutiny. One is Gen Maxwell’s contention that the prisoners were tried by due process. Another is the inquiry into the massacre of 15 civilians at North King Street during the Rising. Brig Maconchy’s inquiry into the conduct of his own troops was conducted in private. He exonerated the Staffordshire regiment but he was hardly an impartial figure and inquiries conducted in private never command respect.

The Sheehy Skeffington affair also rumbled on through the summer of 1916. Skeffington’s widow was a formidable woman who used her political connections to bring about a royal commission into the death of her husband but there was no royal commission on the North King Street massacre or for many others shot down that week.

The conduct of the military in 1916 was undoubtedly oppressive and this framed the national consciousness for decades. As these events recede in time, we have been able to see less obvious forms of oppression that have been woven into the fabric of society. The Ryan commission inquiry into child abuse and the Magdalene laundries scandal have been revelatory events: big institutions are prone to cover up their worst excesses and squeeze out the whistle blowers.

However, the steps taken to deal with these grievances have been part of a transformation towards a society which protects fundamental rights for all, holds governments and institutions to account under the law and in which justice is delivered in public by neutral tribunals. We live in a most imperfect world but we have come a long way.

Seán Enright is author of After the Rising: Soldiers, Lawyers and Trials of the Irish Revolution (Merrion Press, 2016)

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