Sixteen Dead Men
O but we talked at large before
The sixteen men were shot,
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?
You say that we should still the land
Till Germany’s overcome;
But who is there to argue that
Now Pearse is deaf and dumb?
And is their logic to outweigh
MacDonagh’s bony thumb?
How could you dream they’d listen
That have an ear alone
For those new comrades they have found,
Lord Edward and Wolfe Tone,
Or meddle with our give and take
That converse bone to bone?
– W. B. Yeats
THE ‘SIXTEEN DEAD MEN’ about whom Yeats wrote his poem in the aftermath of the Easter Rising were a diverse group. Ranging in age from 25 to 58, their occupations included headmaster, tobacconist, poet, railway clerk, university lecturer, printer, humanitarian, water bailiff, art teacher, silk weaver, corporation clerk, farmer, trade union leader, bookkeeper, chemist’s clerk and newspaper manager.
Two of the leaders were born outside Ireland: Thomas Clarke in the unlikely location of a British Army barracks on the Isle of Wight, James Connolly in the Irish ghetto of Edinburgh. Some had complicated national and religious identities: Patrick and Willie Pearse were the sons of an English stone carver, Thomas MacDonagh’s mother was the daughter of English parents, Roger Casement was raised a Protestant but secretly baptised a Catholic by his mother, and John MacBride was the son of an Ulster-Scots Protestant from Co Antrim. Others had close links with the institutions of British imperialism that they would later fight against: Michael Mallin and James Connolly were former soldiers in the British Army, Éamonn Ceannt was the son of a Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) constable and Roger Casement had been knighted for his services as a British consul exposing the dark side of the rubber trade in the Congo and Peru.
This group of men, who participated in an armed rebellion against British rule in Ireland in April 1916, came to the point of insurrection by a variety of pathways. For many of them, their revolutionary instinct had developed at a young age. Thomas Kent was in his early twenties when he was imprisoned for his activities with the Land League in Co Cork in the late nineteenth century, Michael O’Hanrahan grew up hearing stories of his ancestors’ involvement in the 1798 rebellion in Co Wexford, Edward Daly was born into a Limerick family prominent in the Fenian movement, Con Colbert and Seán Heuston were members of the nationalist youth organisation Na Fianna Éireann, and Seán Mac Diarmada’s republican politics were nurtured by his national schoolteacher, who provided him with books on Irish history.
For some, the declaration of an Irish Republic on 24 April 1916 was the culmination of a lifetime’s struggle. Thomas Clarke had become active in the secret revolutionary organisation the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) as a young man and had served 15 years’ imprisonment for his involvement in the preparations for a Fenian bombing campaign in Britain; James Connolly had devoted his adult life to improving conditions for working people in Scotland, Ireland and America, and was a long-standing advocate of the establishment of a socialist Irish republic. But for others, the conversion to radical nationalism came late. Patrick Pearse was a speaker at a pro-Home Rule rally as late as March 1912, Éamonn Ceannt’s nationalist activities were mostly confined to the Irish language movement until he was elected to the Provisional Committee of the Irish Volunteers in November 1913, while Thomas MacDonagh was not co-opted onto the Supreme Council of the IRB until shortly before the Easter Rising.
A poster issued by members of Sinn Fein proclaiming the creation of an Irish Republic, 1916. Image: PA
The condemned men
Seven of the executed leaders of the rebellion sealed their fate by signing the Proclamation of the Irish Republic shortly before the outbreak of the Rising. The document, which declared ‘the right of the Irish people to the ownership of Ireland’ and which guaranteed ‘religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens’, was read aloud by Patrick Pearse outside the General Post Office (GPO) on Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street) shortly after noon on Easter Monday. Pearse was president of the provisional government and commander-in-chief of the army of the Irish Republic. He was accompanied by Thomas Clarke, the mastermind of the rebellion, who was invited to be the first signatory of the Proclamation in deference to his contribution to the Fenian movement since the late 1870s.
Also present was James Connolly, a fellow signatory and commandant-general of the forces of the Irish Republic in Dublin. Two other signatories were also stationed in the GPO, the headquarters of the rebel forces: Joseph Plunkett, the military strategist of the rebellion, was dying from tuberculosis, and Seán Mac Diarmada, Clarke’s right-hand man, whose involvement in the action was restricted by lameness in his right leg, caused by a bout of polio. The remaining two signatories were in command of outposts in the south-west of Dublin city. Thomas MacDonagh, commandant of the 2nd Battalion, Dublin Brigade of the Irish Volunteers, saw relatively little action at his position at Jacob’s biscuit factory on Bishop Street. By contrast, Éamonn Ceannt, commandant of the 4th Battalion, was involved in intense fighting during Easter Week at the South Dublin Union, a workhouse and hospital complex in the Rialto area of the city.
For the other executed men, the extent of their involvement in the planning of the uprising and their participation in it varied greatly. Edward Daly, like MacDonagh and Ceannt, held the position of commandant of a Volunteer battalion, but he did not learn of the plans for the Easter Rising until the Wednesday before it was due to take place. His rank as commandant of the 1st Battalion, positioned in the area surrounding the Four Courts, ensured that his death sentence was carried out. Likewise Michael Mallin, who held the rank of commandant in Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army (ICA), faced the firing squad for his role in leading the rebel forces who seized the Royal College of Surgeons on St Stephen’s Green during Easter Week.
John MacBride was a veteran Fenian, but his alcoholism and humiliating divorce from Maud Gonne made him an outcast in republican circles and he was not involved in the planning of the Rising. His chance encounter with Irish Volunteers as they assembled at St Stephen’s Green on Easter Monday, while he was on his way to his brother’s wedding, saw him given command of outposts in the south-west of Dublin city.
Rebels proclaiming an Irish Republic seized control of the GPO on 24 April, 1916. Image: PA
All 14 rebels who were executed as a result of their participation in the Easter Rising in Dublin were shot in the Stonebreakers’ Yard at Kilmainham Gaol. Elsewhere, Thomas Kent faced a firing squad at Cork Detention Barracks and Roger Casement was hanged at Pentonville Prison in London. Although Kent faced the same charge as the Dublin men – participating in an armed rebellion – he was not a leader of the Easter Rising and there was little or no rebel activity in Co Cork in April 1916. His execution was the result of a military raid on the Kent family home at Bawnard, during which a member of the RIC was fatally wounded. Roger Casement’s involvement in the Easter Rising was over before the rebellion had even started. Casement had been working in Germany to raise support for a rebellion in Ireland and was arrested on Banna Strand, Co Kerry on Good Friday 1916, after an attempt to land arms for the rebellion failed. His hanging at Pentonville on 3 August 1916 brought to an end the executions of those involved in the Easter Rising.
The events that sparked the rebellion
The rebellion, which started in Dublin on 24 April 1916, was the outcome of a series of events that had begun with the introduction of a Home Rule Bill in the House of Commons on 11 April 1912 by the British prime minister, Herbert Asquith. This was the third attempt to legislate for self-government for Ireland since 1886. However, this time it appeared the efforts of the Liberal Party and their allies in government, the Irish Parliamentary Party, would be successful. The House of Lords had lost its power of veto on bills from the House of Commons in August 1911, and now the way was clear for the enactment of the Home Rule Bill within two years of its passing.
The proposed introduction of Home Rule prompted strong opposition in parts of Ulster, with protests concentrated in the four counties in the north-east of the province. The majority unionist, Protestant population there was outraged by what they perceived as a threat to the union of Great Britain and Ireland. On 28 September 1912, Ulster Day, half a million people signed the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant, pledging to oppose the introduction of Home Rule. By the end of the year a volunteer militia, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), had formed to oppose Home Rule, by force if necessary.
The formation of the UVF prompted nationalists in the south of Ireland to imitate the Ulster unionists by setting up their own military force. The Irish Volunteers was founded at a meeting at the Rotunda Rink in Dublin on 25 November 1913. Unlike the UVF, however, their aim was to defend the introduction of Home Rule in Ireland.
This is an extract from 16 Dead Men: The Easter Rising Executions, written by Anne-Marie Ryan. The title is published by Mercier Press and available to buy on Amazon.