The British were caught totally by surprise in Dublin. Augustine Birrell, the chief secretary for Ireland, refused to take seriously the threat posed by the Irish Volunteers (IVF). “I laugh at the whole thing,” he wrote just two days before the rebellion. “I see no indication of a rising.”
Brian Barton provides a good, judicious overview of the rebellion, along with an in-depth profile of John Maxwell, who was appointed commander-in-chief of British forces during the uprising.
Ultimately he ensured the success of the rebellion by revolting Irish public opinion with his executions.
The seven signatories of the proclamation wished to die. From the outset, Patrick Pearse had “no hope of victory” in the actual fighting, but he was convinced that the execution of the leaders would ensure their ultimate success. Thus he welcomed his execution.
“This is the death I would have asked for if god had given me the choice of all deaths,” he wrote.
The person he was most worried about was James Connolly, who appeared to be an agnostic, but Fr Aloysius informed Pearse he had given communion to Connolly after the Rising.
“Thank God,” the deeply religious Pearse replied. “It was the one thing I was anxious about.”
Pearse realised that the execution of the leaders would turn Irish public opinion against the British regime. This quickly became apparent as members of the Irish Parliamentary Party exerted pressure on the British to stop the executions. It seemed that Maxwell would otherwise have executed many more.
On May 3, Pearse, Thomas Clarke and Thomas MacDonagh were executed. The same day, Maxwell authorised the shooting of Willie Pearse, Michael O’Hanrahan, Edward Daly next day, along with Joseph Mary Plunkett. Although Plunkett and the first three had signed the proclamation, there were little grounds for executing the other three, especially Willie Pearse. He was essentially shot for being Patrick Pearse’s brother.
Next day, May 5, Major John McBride was executed, largely for fighting against the British during the Boer War, 15 years earlier. Three days later another of the signatories, Eamonn Ceannt was shot, as well as Seán Heuston, Con Colbert and Michael Mallin. That same day Éamon de Valera was tried. The trial records were so superficial that it should be little surprise they have not yet been found.
Last year, John Turi, an amateur American historian, absurdly concluded that the commutation of de Valera’s death sentence was evidence he was a British spy. Turi conveniently ignored the fact that Thomas Ashe, arguably the most successful of the commandants, was tried the day after de Valera, and his death sentence was commuted, too.
They were reprieved because the British government realised the executions had changed the attitude of the Irish people towards the rebellion. The only two executed for their part in the Dublin rebellion after de Valera’s trial were both signatories of the Proclamation — Seán MacDermott and James Connolly, whose execution was delayed because he was wounded.
This is the story of how the British snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.