Sunday 15 December 2019

Show trial shambles

British authorities court-martialled 171 of the 3,226 they arrested during the Rising. Some were convicted in just minutes without any defence, writes Patrick Geoghegan

Dead men walking: Prisoners being marched to barracks in 1916. (Part of the NPA/Independent Collection)
Dead men walking: Prisoners being marched to barracks in 1916. (Part of the NPA/Independent Collection)

A few days after sentencing Patrick Pearse to death by firing squad, Brigadier-General Charles Blackadder admitted that it had been one of the hardest tasks of his life.

"I have condemned to death one of the finest characters I have ever come across," he told a friend.

Reflecting on recent events, he added: "There must be something very wrong in the state of things that makes a man like him a rebel."

Pearse was one of 90 rebels sentenced to death after the rising. Fifteen would have their sentences executed, and were shot between May 3 and 12 1916. In the aftermath of the rising, the British authorities decided to court-martial 171 of the 3,226 rebels arrested. All were men, except for Constance Markievicz.

The legal framework for the prosecutions was ambiguous. The Defence of the Realm Acts had been in place since the outbreak of World War I, but complicating matters was the declaration of martial law when the rebellion started.

Interpreting these measures in a way that was most favourable to get the results he wanted, General Maxwell decided to try the prisoners in secret by field general court martial, without any defence lawyers, rather than open it out to a public jury trial. Field general court martials were designed to try soldiers fighting on the front, not civilians, and had as its primary objective maintaining army discipline. Adopting this in Ireland made it considerably easier to get convictions, but it also raised doubts about the legality of what took place. In a recent scholarly article, Judge Adrian Hardiman has forensically analysed the legal framework used and eviscerated it.

Perhaps the most notable feature of the court martials was their rapidity, and the speed took even the British government by surprise. There was no time to prepare a defence, and most of the trials lasted only a matter of minutes. Some, like WT Cosgrave and Willie Pearse, were found guilty after 15 minutes. Between May 2 and 17, 160 court martials took place and 149 resulted in convictions. Some of the accused called witnesses, but there was almost no time or opportunity to prepare a defence. Even within the court-martial framework, certain rights were ignored.

William Wylie, a lieutenant in the Officer Training Corps and a young king's counsel in Dublin, acted as the lead prosecutor in a number of cases. He was uncomfortable with the 'drum head' nature of the process, the absence of defence lawyers, and the speed and secrecy. He visited the Attorney General, James Campbell, and pleaded with him to allow legal representation for the prisoners. Campbell refused, saying he would give the rebels "no public advertising", and would not be satisfied "unless 40 of them were shot". The draconian approach only contributed to the feeling afterwards that the prisoners had been shot in cold blood.

Three officers formed a panel of judges, and a death sentence required a unanimous guilty verdict, which then went to General Maxwell for confirmation. Almost all of the cases were held in Dublin, and Richmond Barracks was scene of most of the high-profile ones. The accused were charged with taking part in an armed rebellion, waging war against the king, hurting the defence of the realm, and assisting the enemy. All pleaded not guilty, except for Willie Pearse who seemed determined to join his brother in martyrdom.

Major John McBride, who joined the rebellion on Easter Monday in a fit of patriotism, embraced death, and allowed evidence to be discovered on his person that would assist conviction (having first removed the names of other rebels to avoid incriminating them). Creating his own legend, he cheerfully accepted his fate. At his court martial, he called his landlady to give evidence, even though she had nothing of value to offer. It seems he was romantically involved with her and engineered this purely so that he could see her one last time.

From the private memoir of Wylie, we get an incredible insight into the behaviour of the leading rebels, and this is supplemented by the official court records that Séan Enright has analysed brilliantly in his recent book Easter Rising 1916: The Trials.

Some of the leaders made no attempt to defend themselves. Thomas MacDonagh, described by Wylie as "a poet, a dreamer, and an idealist", was the only prisoner who said absolutely nothing throughout, while Thomas Clarke treated the court with icy contempt.

Some went to great lengths to try and evade conviction. Michael Mallin, in charge of the fighting at St Stephen's Green, lied throughout his testimony and tried to pass himself off as a simple foot soldier, ordered by Markievicz to take command of the men. He was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Only one of the men who had served in the GPO was acquitted. John Reynolds was found not guilty after pretending he had been taken prisoner in the GPO while attempting to buy stamps with his daughter. In reality, he and his daughter were active rebels.

James Connolly was tried at the Red Cross Hospital in Dublin Castle, propped up in his bed. Two of the military officers who had been prisoners in the GPO testified to Connolly's role in the rebellion, and this was supplemented by some written despatches from him. In a handwritten statement, Connolly denied the charges of wanton cruelty to prisoners, and asserted that he had wanted to establish an Irish Republic, "a holier cause" than fighting in World War I.

Pearse wore his green Volunteer uniform to his court martial at Richmond Barracks. The evidence against him was damning, in particular a letter to his mother where he had made reference to "a German expedition".

He almost certainly knew this letter would be intercepted by the authorities, and that it would provide all the evidence they needed to pass a death sentence.

Speaking in his defence, Pearse declared that he had made a vow to God as a child that he would "work all his life to gain the freedom of Ireland". And he was defiant that he was prepared to accept the consequences of his actions, admitting having organised men to fight against Britain and allying with Germany.

Wylie later described Pearse's speech as "a Robert Emmet type". It had a powerful effect. Blackadder was strangely moved, and admitted that he could understand why Pearse's "pupils adored him".

The court martial of Markievicz on May 4 has proven the most controversial for historians. In some accounts, Markievicz hurled defiance at her accusers; in others she crumpled completely.

According to Wylie, she "curled up" and began crying "I am only a woman, and you cannot shoot a woman, you must not shoot a woman". Wylie had been expecting a performance and was "slightly disgusted", writing that, by the end, "she was literally crawling. I won't say anymore; it disgusts me still". The official transcript is perhaps more reliable. Markievicz declared that she "went out to fight for Ireland's freedom" and asserted that "it doesn't matter what happens to me". [The barrister who recorded the summary of evidence stated that she answered the charge by asserting that "we dreamed on an Irish republic and thought we had a fighting chance", before breaking down in tears.

Under considerable pressure, the British Prime Minister, Asquith, promised to publish the court martial proceedings in June 1916. He repeated this promise on two other occasions, but never honoured it, and the proceedings were suppressed for over 90 years. The reason was obvious. They were too damaging, and even their own legal experts did not believe all of the verdicts would withstand scrutiny. The government also did not want to open up investigation of how field general court martials had been used to convict their own soldiers at the front and enable swift executions.

Excluding the public and the press seems to have been particularly problematic, and had no legal basis except for Maxwell's insistence. Opposing the calls for publication, Sir Reginald Brady, the secretary to the British Army Council, conceded that there were "one or two cases in which the evidence is extremely thin".

Another key figure, General Nevil Macready, admitted that the inevitable results of publication would be a general belief that the authorities intended to execute certain people "whether there was evidence or not".

The feeling that the convictions had been secured unjustly, followed by the rapid executions, helped create a wave of support for the rebels.

In a stunning denunciation, the bishop of Limerick, Dr O'Dwyer, called Maxwell a "military dictator" who had "shot the poor fellows who surrendered in cold blood, outraging the conscience of the country". The legal framework used to prosecute the rebels may not have made much difference in some cases: Pearse, for example, was happy to avow his role. But others would have been more difficult to convict. The biggest problem was that by allowing a shadow to be cast over the rule of law in the country, the British authorities had invalidated themselves.

By using martial law to bypass legal process, the government ensured that justice in Ireland was, in the words of a distinguished British judge from an earlier period, "a mockery, a snare, and a delusion". A show trial may be the best way of securing the desired result, but it is not justice. Perhaps the last word can be left to the Duke of Wellington, the winner at Waterloo, who defined martial law as "the will of the general who commands the army. In fact, martial law means no law at all".

Patrick Geoghegan is professor of history at Trinity College Dublin and presents the award-winning Talking History on Newstalk radio. He was historical adviser for Trial of the Century - a forthcoming dramatisation on TV3 of the trial Pearse never had

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