General who had Easter Rising leaders shot was ‘able, level-headed and clear-sighted’

TCD historian Eunan O’Halpin believes no British general would have acted differently

General John Maxwell, the man who is widely blamed for the execution of the leaders of the 1916 Rising, was an instrument and not author of British policy in Ireland, a prominent historian will say tonight.

General Maxwell arrived on the Friday of Easter Week as military governor and was in charge of the aftermath of the Rising.

He presided over the secret military tribunals which ordered the execution of the 15 leaders of the Rising and changed the course of Irish history.

The British prime minister Herbert Asquith said Maxwell's role was to "sanction the infliction of the extreme penalty as sparingly as possible, and only in cases of responsible persons who were guilty in the first degree".


Professor Eunan O'Halpin, Professor of Contemporary Irish History at Trinity College Dublin, believes no other British general would have treated the rebels any differently.

He will say "Irish people are very apt to overlook the point" that the leaders of the Easter Rising were acting in consort with Britain's mortal enemy Germany and against thousands of Irish men who were fighting on the Western Front.

Prof O’Halpin believes that War Office’s attempts to give the leaders a semblance of a fair trial prolonged the executions and turned Irish public opinion against the British.

In his letters to the War Office, Maxwell expressed misgivings at the drawn out nature of the executions. Professor O’Halpin says Maxwell’s letters to Asquith showed him to be an “able, level-headed and clear-sighted man. He knew that a drawn-out succession of executions would, inevitably, produce incremental public unease”.

Professor O'Halpin will give a talk tonight at Glasnevin Cemetery as a part of a series of lectures marking the year before the centenary of the Rising entitled Becoming revolutionary: The year before 1916. General Maxwell's uniform will also be on display.

He will state that General Maxwell’s “greatest failing” was not the execution of the leaders of the Rising but the manner in which he did not deal with the British army’s misdeeds during Easter Week.

Maxwell did nothing to quell public anger about the shooting of civilians during Easter Week by the British army. In particular, Maxwell brushed aside the shootings when troops from the South Staffordshire Regiment ran amok in North King Street.

He was also slow to act in regard to two other series of killings of prisoners, the Portobello shootings by Captain Bowen-Colthurst particularly of the pacifist Francis Sheehy-Skeffington and the Guinness shootings of two workers and two officers by a nervous sergeant who decided they were saboteurs.

General Maxwell has also been criticised for the arrests and internments of thousands of people across Ireland after the rebellion, most of whom were innocent.

However, Prof O’Halpin will say that it is “hard to see how this repression, which further spread disaffection, could have been avoided”.

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times