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The countess wept and begged court for her life, memoirs claim

NICOLA TALLANT SHE has gone down in history as one of Ireland's bravest women who laughed in the face of a British court that sentenced her to death following the 1916 Rising.

But this week a documentary will claim that Countess Markievicz actually broke down in tears and begged for her life after her execution was ordered.

New documents claim that the most famous feminist in Irish history actually cited her gender when begging her captors to spare her life.

Memoirs written by prosecutor William Wiley detail a very different scenario than that which has entered into the pages of history. In the account of her court martial written by Wiley in 1939 - 23 years after the event - he describes how the countess broke down after her fate was read out to the court.

While begging for her life, Wiley claims she told the court: "I am a woman, you must not kill me. Please don't kill me."

His memoirs show a very different countess to the one history claims was disappointed after her original sentence was reduced to penal servitude.

In 1916: The Man Who Lost Ireland, dramatic reconstructions of the secret court martial have been filmed using recently disclosed British records along with Wiley's memoirs. The courts martial were ordered by General Sir John Maxwell, who was sent to Ireland as military governor with orders to crush the rebellion.

He had a glittering career in the army and had spent most of his life in Egypt. Many felt he was used as a "fall guy" by then Prime Minister Asquith who gave him impossible orders to use firm action and "proceed with caution".

He took his role very seriously and hastily convened the secret courts martial that the documentary now says were illegal, and which led to the executions of May 1916.

The private memoir, written by Wiley for his daughter, gives a fresh insight into what went on behind the closed doors.

In them he describes how Countess Markievicz who was in command of the St Stephen's Green unit "curled up" when faced by the hastily assembled military court.

"Another famous prisoner who did not impress me in the court in the same way she had in command of Stephen's Green, was the countess.

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"She had been so full of fight. When the general took out his revolver and placed it on the table beside him, she curled up completely and said: 'You must not shoot a woman.'"

However, author Dr Brian Barton points out that the official record of the court martial records the countess's behaviour differently. He claims she stood up to the court.

"I believe that is much more credible. It would have been included in the record of the trial if she had said that."

Other historians tell the documentary that they believe Wiley, who went on to become a High Court judge, and believe that the countess, a lover of amateur drama, got caught up in the stress of the moment. But Dr Barton is adamant that Wiley lied in his memoirs.

"I would speculate that it could be something to do with sexual bias. He could have been irritated by her defiances."

Maxwell described Countess Markievicz as "blood guilty and dangerous" and was keen to make an example of her. However, the British government forced General Maxwell to promise he would spare her and end the executions soon.

They had begun to realise the tide of emotion being created by the killings which were described as one observer as "watching a stream of blood seeping from under a closed door".

The documentary will also claim that Padraig Pearse exaggerated his role in the Rising during a speech he made at his court martial. But it says that he was highly aware that sympathies would rise for the rebels in Ireland because of their executions.

"Pearse, of all the leaders, had a strategic sense of the moment," it says. "He knew people would curse them now but praise them later. He had a deep historical sense of the role of martyrdom."

'1916: The Man Who Lost Ireland' will be shown on RTE1 this Tuesday at 10.15pm


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