There are times when working on a new record collection at Ancestry is very personal. But there are times when it can go beyond that. This is one of those times. This week Ancestry released the Ireland Courts Martial Files (1916-1922). I find it hard as an Irish person to describe my feelings regarding these files. Just reading them can send a shiver down my spine. Fascinating, powerful, tragic, and heartbreaking. All of these apply, but yet somehow it is more than that. For those unfamiliar with the 1916 Easter Rising, it is perhaps the defining event of Irish history. It is the catalyst that set in motion a war of independence against British rule that would result in an Irish Free State in 1922 (which became the Irish Republic in 1949).
On Easter Monday 24th April 1916 a small group of Irish Volunteers occupied the General Post Office (GPO) in Dublin and proclaimed an Irish Republic. The volunteers also secured several other key locations throughout the city including the Four Courts and City Hall. From a military perspective, the Easter Rising was a complete failure. But it was the events that followed that ensured the effects of the Rising would alter the course of Irish history. It is within this context that the Courts Martial Files play such an important role.
On Tuesday 25th April martial law was declared in Ireland and the following Friday General John Maxwell arrived in Dublin as military governor in charge of dealing with the Rising. The actions of Maxwell had major repercussions. The shooting of civilians was brushed aside (more civilians than combatants died during the Rising). Over 3500 people were arrested and interned, most of whom were not involved with the Rising. Most damaging of all, Maxwell tried the 15 leaders of the Rising by Field General Court Martial, a secret trial without a defence or jury. All the leaders were sentenced to death and executed. The resulting outcry around the world caused British Prime Minister Asquith to halt the executions (in total 90 had been sentenced to death).
The secret nature of the Courts Martial proceedings further damaged the British during 1916. Asquith himself recognised this and promised to publish the trial. In reality the files only became available 90 years later in the The National Archive in Kew. Now for the first time, Ancestry are making the Courts Martial proceedings available online allowing anyone to examine first hand those crucial days in Irish history. The collection contains proceedings for each of the 15 men executed. Each set of documents provides unique insight into the stories of the men involved. Here are just a couple of excerpts.
Padraig Pearse was one of the most charismatic of the 1916 leaders. It is not surprising that there is quite a lot of detail in Pearse’s file. Of particular note is a handwritten letter Pearse wrote to his mother on the 1st May, two days before his execution. In it he describes the last moments of the Rising including the fact that Pearse was “in favour of one more desperate sally before opening negotiations, but I yielded to the majority and I think now that the majority were right”. Of all the leaders, Pearse had a strong idea of the historical context of the Rising. He writes “people will say hard things of us now but we shall be remembered by posterity and blessed by unborn generations”. The first page of his letter to his mother also contains a significant postscript where Pearse writes, “I understand that the German expedition which I was counting on actually set sail but was defeated by the British.” Pearse knew that the military authorities would read the letters he wrote. It has long been thought he added the postscript to leave the court martial with no choice other than a death sentence.
Tom Clarke was the oldest of the leaders and the first signatory of the proclamation. Clarke along with Sean MacDiarmada ran the secret group (known as the Irish Republic Brotherhood) within the Irish Volunteers that planned the rebellion. Included in Tom Clarke’s file is a sketch map which shows the layout of the bodies of the executed leaders in Arbour Hill (at that point, (1) Pearse, (2) MacDonagh and (3) Clarke). In the file of John McBride, there is an updated sketch showing McBride’s position (number 8).
James Connolly had been badly wounded in the GPO during the Rising and it was very possible that he may have died from his wounds anyway. However it was seen as important by the military authorities that he be put on trial. Connolly’s file includes a medical certificate stating that he is well enough to stand trial. The doctors certificate notes that “he has been perfectly rational and in complete possession of his faculties.” In fact from his own statements at trial Connolly was very clearly able to articulate his motivation for rebellion. Connolly writes, “I’ve went out to break the connection between this country and the British Empire and to establish an Irish Republic. We believe this call we thus issued to the people of Ireland was a nobler call in a holier cause than any issued to them during this war.” James Connolly was the last of the leaders to be executed in Dublin. Connolly was so badly wounded he was unable to stand and had to be tied to a chair when executed.
The Courts Martial Proceedings
The following is the full list of Courts Martial proceedings for each of the executed leaders. The seven signatories of the proclamation in order of signature, and the eight other leaders executed along with them.
The seven signatories:
- Thomas J. Clarke
- Seán Mac Diarmada
- Thomas MacDonagh
- Padraig H. Pearse
- Éamonn Ceannt
- James Connolly
- Joseph M. Plunkett
The eight other leaders who were executed: