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Execution of the Rising's leaders was a final bloody chapter that turned defeat into moral victory


Sean McDermott

Sean McDermott

Sean McDermott

The Easter Rising executions were not inevitable. Only two years earlier, a similar rebellion against British rule had taken place in South Africa.

That resulted in only one death sentence, while the other ringleaders were either sent to prison or heavily fined.

In the middle of a world war, however, General John Maxwell had no doubt about what the British should do with Irish traitors - which was to give them a quick court martial and then shoot them.

By acting in such a fashion, Maxwell showed he was a soldier and not a politician. In Easter Rising folklore, the 14 executions that took place in Kilmainham Gaol have become a perfect symbol of Irish bravery and British brutality.

Almost all of the victims seem to have died in a calm state of mind, perhaps because they knew that the manner of their deaths would soon turn military defeat into moral victory.

The executions followed a strict routine. Each prisoner was blindfolded, had his hands tied behind his back and a piece of white paper was pinned over his heart.


They were then led down a corridor into the Stonebreakers' Yard and, in some cases, made to sit on a wooden crate. The firing squad consisted of 12 soldiers, six kneeling and six standing, although one rifle at random was filled with blank cartridges so that nobody would know who had done the actual killing.

Patrick Pearse spent his final hours writing to his family. "This is the death I should have asked for if God had given me the choice," he told his mother. "To die a soldier's death for Ireland and for freedom."

Pearse met his end on the morning of May 3, along with Tom Clarke and Thomas MacDonagh. Clarke also seemed content to die and told his wife Kathleen that the Rising would eventually be seen as a success, then correctly predicted: "Ireland will go through hell first."

MacDonagh gave the firing squad some cigarettes and then handed his silver case to the man in charge, saying: "I won't be needing this, would you like to have it?" He also told his executors that it was a lousy job and he knew they were only doing their duty.

One officer said afterwards: "They all died well, but MacDonagh died like a prince."

The following morning saw four more shootings: Joseph Plunkett, Willie Pearse, Edward Daly and Michael O'Hanrahan. In a poignant ceremony, Plunkett married his fiancee Grace Gifford by candlelight a few hours before the end.

He was terminally ill with tuberculosis anyway, and told a priest: "Father, I am very happy. I am dying for the glory of God and the honour of Ireland."

Major John MacBride, a flamboyant alcoholic who had got caught up in the Rising while on the way to his brother's wedding, was shot on May 5. His final words were: "Fire away, boys, I've been looking down the barrels of rifles all my life."

The poet Tom Kettle later wrote: "It was a lie, but a magnificent lie. He had been looking down the necks of porter bottles all his life."

After a short lull, the executions began coming thick and fast again on May 8. Eamonn Ceannt, Con Colbert, Michael Mallin and Sean Heuston all had their names added to the roll call, Ceannt falling with a crucifix in his hands.

Thomas Kent, who had nothing to do with the Rising itself, was shot in Cork the following day for killing a policeman.

By now the public outrage had become overwhelming, with one journalist writing: "It was like watching a stream of blood coming from under a closed door." Even Prime Minister Herbert Asquith wanted an end to the slaughter.

However, two of the Proclamation's seven signatories were still alive and Maxwell saw no reason why they should not suffer the same fate as their comrades.

Sean MacDermott died on May 12 with the same cheerful spirit that had made him such a popular character among his comrades.

He borrowed a razor from one of his prison guards, quipping: "I have to make a nice corpse, you know."

He also told his girlfriend, Min Ryan: "We never thought that it would end like this." It was probably a polite lie to make her feel better.

James Connolly's final days were more difficult. He had been wounded in the ankle, pumped full of morphine, and would probably have died soon in any case.


His daughter, Nora, left behind a moving account of the family's last moments together, with Lillie Connolly crying: "But your beautiful life, Jim, your beautiful life!" Her husband replied: "Wasn't it a full life, Lillie, and isn't this a good end?"

He was taken to Kilmainham in an ambulance, carried to the Stonebreakers' Yard, strapped into a chair and shot.

Even Maxwell could now see that it was time to call a halt.

He ordered the bodies to be thrown into a mass grave at Arbour Hill and destroyed with quicklime, so that "Irish sentimentality" could not create a martyrs' shrine.

As a political decision it was much too little and much too late. The Easter Rising leaders had already become mythical figures, revered for their noble deaths as much as their life's actions.

And the rest is history.