How Dev escaped execution in 1916
Ronan Fanning on the series of lucky breaks that spared the life of future President
Published 03/03/2016 | 02:30
Eamon de Valera's heroic image as the most senior Irish Volunteer officer to survive 1916 has obscured the reality of his minimal role in planning the Rising. He had reluctantly joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) in 1915, an oath-bound secret society which was the real driving force behind the Rising, only when he realised that some of the subordinates in his battalion who were also in the IRB knew more about what was being planned than he did.
Although he took the IRB's oath, his commitment was conditional: he attended no meetings and did not want to know the names of other members or any of the organisation's other secrets other than those he thought essential for his role as battalion commander.
De Valera was not a signatory of the Easter Proclamation, which he had no part whatsoever in drafting. He saw himself not as a leader but as a follower, as a soldier obedient to the orders of his senior officers.
"He was glad that he [had] no responsibility for deciding anything and that he had simply obeyed orders", De Valera told William O'Brien, the Labour leader, when they were imprisoned together after the Rising.
This political anonymity goes a long way towards explaining why Éamon de Valera escaped execution in 1916. Another reason was that the delivery of Patrick Pearse's surrender order to De Valera at Boland's Mill, on the south-eastern outskirts of the city, was delayed by 24 hours. Two more days elapsed before De Valera and his men, who were then temporarily imprisoned in the RDS grounds in Ballsbridge, were marched across Dublin to join the main body of the prisoners in Richmond Barracks in the west of the city.
The screening and court martial of the leaders of the Rising had already begun while De Valera was apart from the main body of prisoners and isolated in Ballsbridge. On his first morning in Richmond Barracks, many prisoners were awoken at 3.45am by the volleys signalling the earliest executions: Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh and Thomas Clarke. The shots did not wake De Valera, always a sound sleeper, but he expected to share their fate.
There were four more executions the next day, May 4, including that of Edward Daly whose case resembled De Valera's on two counts: he was not a signatory of the proclamation and he was a commandant of one of the Volunteer battalions in Dublin. But he had the misfortune to have been among the first of those court martialed - on May 2, when De Valera was still in Ballsbridge.
Another execution, of John MacBride, took place on May 5 and a weekend lull followed; De Valera's court martial did not take place until the afternoon of May 8, a day that had begun with another four executions. Between May 2 and 17, convictions were recorded in 149 of the 160 cases of prisoners who were tried by Field General Court Martial; but only 15 of the 90 death sentences passed were carried out.
Before De Valera's court martial, his wife Sinéad had already made representations to the American Consul in Dublin that he was a US citizen and the Consul had written to that effect to the most senior official in Dublin Castle, the Under Secretary, Sir Matthew Nathan. His relations in New York - notably his half-brother, Father Thomas Wainwright, a Redemptorist priest - did likewise.
But, under questioning at his court martial, De Valera made no such representations on his own behalf; he said that he had been born in New York but did not know "whether his father was a Spanish subject or a naturalised American." He also said that "he always regarded himself as an Irishman and not as a British subject."
De Valera was transferred to Kilmainham Gaol - those executed were shot by firing squad in the prison yard - to await the decision of General Maxwell, Britain's newly appointed general-officer-commanding in Ireland, on the confirmation of his conviction and sentence.
But Herbert Asquith's government were already taking fright at the political repercussions of the executions and on the same day as De Valera's court martial John Redmond warned the House of Commons that such a draconian policy was already alienating many who had no sympathy with the insurrection. John Dillon made an even stronger speech when the Commons debated the Irish crisis on May 11 and when Asquith began a weeklong visit to Ireland next day Maxwell immediately assured him there would be no more executions.
In the meantime, on May 10, an officer had already come to De Valera's cell and read him the verdict of his court-martial: guilty and sentenced to death. But he then read a second document, commuting the sentence to penal servitude for life.
In the last analysis, De Valera owed his survival more to luck than to Asquith or America. He was lucky that Boland's Mill was isolated on the city's south-eastern periphery. Lucky that he was first imprisoned in Ballsbridge and not with the other leaders. Lucky that he was not transferred to Richmond Barracks for 48 hours and that his trial was delayed until May 8. Lucky that General Maxwell had already been summoned to London on May 5 by a government so alarmed at the impact on Irish public opinion that it urged him to bring the executions to an end.
The last of the executions - of Seán Mac Diarmada and James Connolly, both signatories of the Proclamation, took place on May 12 - Asquith arrived in Dublin later on the same day. Having confirmed Connolly's fate after a discussion with William Wylie, the prosecuting officer at the trials, Maxwell had asked who was next. De Valera, Wylie replied, stumbling like so many others over the strange name. "Is he someone important", asked Maxwell, and Wylie made what Tim Pat Coogan has described as "the immortal reply: 'No. He is a school-master who was taken at Boland's Mill'" and so de Valera escaped death.
With the benefit of hindsight and in the light of all De Valera made of the life thus spared, Wylie's reply may indeed seem immortal; but in the context of the time it reveals a more mundane reality: Éamon de Valera survived in 1916 because he was then unknown.
This article is an extract, edited by the author, Professor Ronan Fanning, Professor Emeritus of Modern History at UCD, from his biography 'Eamon de Valera: A Will to Power' (Faber & Faber, 2015)