1916: Trial of the Rebel Leaders- Connolly, MacDonagh, O’Hanrahan and Macbride

Yesterday, the 12th of May, witnessed the execution of the last of the rebel leaders, James Connolly, by a British firing squad in Kilmainham Gaol.


Thomas MacDonagh/The Poetical Works of Thomas MacDonagh

At his trial, he read a brief hand-written statement which stated that, “The cause of Irish freedom is safe as long as Irishmen are ready to die endeavouring to win it”.

“I personally thank God that I have lived to see the day when thousands of Irish men and boys, and hundreds of Irish women and girls”, he wrote, “were ready to affirm that truth, and to attest it with their lives if need be.”

James Connolly was one of the seven signatories to the Proclamation when the rebellion started on Monday 24th April.

Connolly was in charge of the General Post Office during the rebellion, which was used as the rebels headquarters. He was severely wounded during the fighting and was arrested once the rebels had surrendered. He was court-martialled in a military hospital in Dublin and charged with treason.

Unable to stand before the firing squad due to his serious injuries from the fighting, he was tied to a chair and shot. The execution order was still given despite a doctor having already said he only had a day or two to live.

With the other executed rebels, his body was put into a mass grave with no coffin.

The past couple of weeks has also seen the execution of other leaders involved in the rising. Of those leaders, Thomas Macdonagh, Michael O’Hanrahan, John MacBride were the three leaders that lead the volunteers occupying the Jacob’s biscuit factory.

Thomas MacDonagh, the commander of the Second Battalion of Volunteers that occupied Jacob’s factory and surrounding houses, was executed on the 3rd of May by firing squad in Kilmainham Gaol, aged 38.

One of the signatories, he was also among the first leaders to be executed, with Patrick Pearse and Thomas Clarke.

He pleaded not guilty. But at the conclusion of the trial, MacDonagh was found guilty and sentenced to death.

The sentence was immediately confirmed by General John Maxwell. And at 3.30 a.m. in Kilmainham Gaol, MacDonagh, Pearse and Clarke were executed on May 3rd, in the presence of Captain H.V. Stanley and Lieutenant colonel W.J. Macnamara, who immediately confirmed, in a dispatch to headquarters, that, “the prisoners were dead before the commandant disposed of their bodies”.

General Maxwell was a British Army officer who ordered the execution of the rebel leaders. During the week 2–9 May, Maxwell was in sole charge of trials and sentences by “field general court martial”, which were in camera trials. He had 3,400 people arrested, 183 civilians tried, 90 of whom were sentenced to death. Fifteen were shot between 3 and 12 May.

At the trials, prisoners were not legally represented and were not permitted to give evidence on their own behalf. It appears the prisoners also did not have access to the rules by which the court proceedings were being held.

Most of the trials, which saw over 90 death sentences handed down, lasted twenty minutes. The expediency of the trials is believed to be on account of the intensifying war in Europe.

In MacDonagh’s final letter, written on the 2nd of May, he said, “I, Thomas MacDonagh, having now heard the sentence of the Court Martial held on me today, declare that in all my acts — all the acts for which I have been arraigned — I have been actuated by one motive only, the love of my country, the desire to make her a sovereign independent state. I still hope and pray that my acts may have for consummation her lasting freedom & happiness.”

“I am to die at dawn, 3.30a.m., 3 May,” he continued, “I am ready to die, and I thank God that I die in so holy a cause. My Country will reward my dust richly.”

He had no regrets for himself, but one towards his family,“The one bitterness that death has for me is the separation it brings from my beloved wife Muriel, and my beloved children, Donagh and Barbara. My country will then treat them as wards, I hope. I have devoted myself too much to national work and too little to the making of money to leave them a competence. God help them and support them, and give them a happy and prosperous life.”

“I counted the cost of this and am ready to pay it”; these were Thomas MacDonagh’s last written words.

Michael O’Hanrahan, second in command to Thomas MacDonagh, was executed on the 4th of May.

Once the rebels of the Jacob’s factory surrendered, all the leaders were arrested.  O’Hanarhan was taken to Kilmainham Gaol, court martialled, and sentenced to death by firing squad.

John MacBride was executed on the 5th of May. He was not a member of the Irish Volunteers, but upon the beginning of the Rising he offered his services to Thomas MacDonagh, and was at the Jacob’s biscuit factory.

The priest, Father Augustine, who was with him recalled visiting him in his cell, saying, “He was quiet and natural as ever. His very first words expressed sorrow for the surrender…placing his Rosary tenderly in my hand, he uttered a little sentence that thrilled me: ‘And give that to my mother.’”

The priest also recalled how MacBride faced death, “He asked quietly not to have his hands bound and promised to remain perfectly still. ‘Sorry, Sir,’ the soldier answered, ‘but these are the orders.’ Then he requested not to be blindfolded, and a similar answer was given. Turning aside slightly, he said to me, quite naturally, in a soft voice: ‘You know, Father Augustine, I’ve often looked down their guns before.”

He was shot by firing squad at 3.47 am on May 5, 1916.

By Hajar Akl

Last statements of leaders sourced from the book Last Words by Piaras F. Mac Lochlainn published by the Office of Public Works.

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