IN THE LATEST episode of Rebellion, RTÉ’s Easter Rising drama, Pádraig Pearse was accused by one of the characters of ‘signing the death warrants’ of his comrades.
The claim came ahead of Pearse’s court martial and related to a postscript line in a letter to his mother Margaret.
In the drama, Pearse meets with one of the prosecutors the day before his trial.
He is writing a letter to his mother at the time and informs the prosecutor that he has just finished the letter.
Pearse also tells him (and the audience) that he himself is a barrister and therefore knows the law.
The prosecutor is shown to be sympathetic to Pearse and informs him that he and his fellow leaders are charged with “assisting His Majesty’s enemies in a time of war”.
Conviction of this charge would mean a death sentence.
The Pearse character is told that evidence would be needed to convict him and, if it were not forthcoming, they would face a lesser charge. One that does not carry a death sentence.
The following day, it emerges that Pearse included a postscript in the letter to his mother in which he is said to have asked her to, ‘give his thanks and warmest regards to his good friend the Kaiser’.
The line would appear to be a smoking-gun that ensures his conviction of the capital offence.
“He must want to die,” remarks one of the prosecutors.
Another says that Pearse has effectively ‘signed the death warrants’ of the other Rising leaders.
The suggestion that Pearse not only condemned himself and the other leaders to death, but purposely did so, provoked an angry reaction among some viewers online.
Is this criticism justified?
Well, it is true that there was a postscript in Pearse’s letter to his mother on 1 May 1916, and yes, it did make reference to Germany’s involvement.
But the wording was different, perhaps even more incriminating than the text which appeared in Rebellion.
The post-script read:
P.S. I understand that the German expedition which I was counting on actually set sail but was defeated by the British.
Was this line significant? It would appear that it was.
The book Irish Citizen Army by Ann Matthews quotes from General Maxwell’s prosecutor Alfred Bucknill who said that, ‘the prosecution would have been in some difficulty without this postscript’.
Pearse’s postscript line was subsequently used against every one of the 160 people who were court-martialled.
Of course, the mere fact that this postscript was used in the courts martial does not mean that Pearse was responsible for the executions, deliberately or unwittingly.
All it means is that they were used as evidence.
With the British Empire at war, it’s a fair assumption that, had this postscript not existed, other evidence would have been given greater weight in the prosecution of the rebels.
The shooting of Pearse, Thomas McDonagh and Thomas Clarke the day after their courts martial demonstrated the impatience of the British to execute them.
The question as to whether Pearse saw an opportunity in being executed and made sure this happened is a different one.
There is little doubt that Pearse frequently talked about self-sacrifice, and the letter to his mother does show that he is ready and happy to die ”proudly”.
It’s also clear from the final letter that he is convinced the British have decided to execute himself and the other leaders either way.
Our hope and belief is that the Government will spare the lives of all our followers, but we do not expect that they will spare the lives of the leaders. We are ready to die and we shall die cheerfully and proudly. Personally, I do not hope or even desire to live, but I do hope and desire and believe that the lives of all our followers will be saved including the lives dear to you and me (my own excepted) and this will be a great consolation to me when dying.
But whether he actually sought to ensure his own death by including the postscript is something only he knows.
Futhermore, it is an even bigger leap to say that he intended that the other leaders would also meet the same fate.
That he would have been able to predict that this line would be used in evidence against 160 people, including the 14 others who were executed, seems very unlikely.