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Documentary claims 1916 British massacre of Dublin civilians was due to 'unclear orders'

The claim is contained in a new documentary by Michael Portillo.

Portillo in the stonebreakers yard in Kilmainham Gaol.
Portillo in the stonebreakers yard in Kilmainham Gaol.

THE MASSACRE OF civilians by British soldiers on North King Street in 1916 was because of ‘unclear orders’, so claims a new documentary to be broadcast tonight.

The Enemy Files is presented by former Conservative UK Defence Minister Michael Portillo and seeks to give the British perspective on the 1916 Rising.

During the course of the hour-long documentary, Portillo speaks with former British Army General Richard Dannatt about the killing of civilians in the North King Street area of Dublin.

At least 15 civilians were killed by gun and bayonet as soldiers from the South Staffordshire regiment burst into houses over two days.

Portillo and Dannatt speak about the order given to the soldiers that “no prisoners were to be taken”.

As the soldiers fought house to house, they were also told that every person found in a house from which shots were fired was to be considered a rebel, whether armed or not.

PastedImage-25087 The documentray follows the British soldiers who sailed from England to fight the rebels. Source: Midas Productions

In the months after the Rising, the British Army carried out an investigation into allegations that soldiers had massacred unarmed civilians.

The evidence of the investigation was not published after senior British official Edward Troup advised against it.

In reference to the massacre, Troup said that the orders given to the soldiers was “the root of the mischief”.

Portillo put it Dannatt that the orders given to soldiers may have been unclear. The former general agreed that he felt this was the case.

“The short answer is yes, I think it was the root of the mischief,” Dannatt says.

I think Brigadier General Lowe, when he gave his written orders and then repeated them verbally to his commanding officers was unclear in what he intended. The soldier likes clarity and I think, as the orders were passed down…. clarity was inserted and the soldiers understood that you weren’t to take prisoners. And if you weren’t to take any prisoners, people who you think have done wrong, you shoot.

“I don’t actually think Brigadier General Lowe intended that everyone be shot,” claims Dannatt.

The Enemy Files 

PastedImage-13572 Journalist Robert Fisk gives his opinion on the Rising. Source: Midas Productions

The programme also looks the testimony of British soldiers who sailed from England to fight the rebels. It says they “had not the slightest desire to shoot down the Irish or any other English speaking people”.

We’re also told how the British soldiers were cheered by locals when they landed in Dun Laoghaire before they marched northwards into a “killing zone”.

Also featured in the documentary is journalist Robert Fisk who notes the British tactics were to defeat the rebels “at all costs” and that “causalities didn’t matter”.

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Fisk also speaks of the desire for martyrdom among the rebels’ leaders, noting that the insertion of “gallant allies” in the proclamation was a “death sentence” for the signatories.

“Was it really necessary to put in gallant allies? I can’t believe it was, but they put it it. Pearse did anyway,” Fisk says.

Fisk also says that it is his belief that the violent uprising was indeed necessary for Ireland to secure freedom. He argues that constitutional nationalism alone would not have been enough and that the Rising ‘broke the link’ between Ireland and England.

PastedImage-7443 Source: Midas Productions

Towards the end of the documentary, Portillo visits Kilmainham Gaol and the decision to execute the leaders is examined in detail.

Ireland was under Martial law at the time, so punishment was the decision of the army not the justice system.

Portillo says that General Maxwell engaged in “swift and brutal justice” in executing the leaders, something that British politicians in London didn’t necessarily approve of.

Portillo argues that the British fell into a “propaganda trap” by executing the leaders. He adds that their refusal to honour the wishes of Pearse’s mother, whose two sons were executed, made the British appear “inhumane, shabby and sacrilegious.”

The Enemy Files airs tonight on RTÉ One at 9.30 pm

Read: Last surviving child of executed 1916 leader awarded Freedom of Dublin >

Read: Post boxes around Dublin are being painted red for the 1916 centenary >

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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