Historical Happenings for May 2016

The Sorrows of May

 by Mike McCormack, NYS AOH Historian

British firing squads executed leaders of the Easter Rising of 1916 in Kilmainham Gaol (on this spot above). Executions took place here on : – 3 May: Patrick Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh and Thomas Clarke – 4 May: Joseph Plunkett, William Pearse, Edward Daly and Michael O’Hanrahan – 5 May: John MacBride – 8 May: Éamonn Ceannt, Michael Mallin, Seán Heuston and Con Colbert – 12 May: James Connolly and Sean MacDiarmada


The month of May is a special month in the roster of Ireland’s heroes.  It was in that month, in 1916, that some of Ireland’s greatest patriots were murdered by a British firing squad.  They had come together in a dream; a dream eloquently articulated by Padraic Pearse; skillfully organized by Tom Clarke; expertly planned by Joseph Mary Plunkett and Thomas McDonagh: brilliantly guided by James Connolly; and courageously executed by Sean McDermott, Ed Daly, Micheal O’Hanrahan, Willie Pearse, John MacBride, Michael Mallin, Eamonn Ceannt, Con Colbert, Sean Heuston , Eamon deValera and the men under their commands.  The dream was for an independent Ireland and Pearse passionately wrote of that dream in his poem, The Fool:

The Lawyers have sat in Council, the men with the keen long faces,
and said This man is a fool, and others have said he blasphemeth;
and the wise have pitied the fool who strove to give a life to a dream
that was dreamed in the heart and that only the heart can hold.
O Wise Men, riddle me this: What if the dream come true,
What if the dream come true and millions unborn shall dwell
in the house that I shaped in my heart?

To bring that dream to reality, brave men joined the IRB, Irish Volunteers, Hibernian Rifles, and Fianna Éireann while equally brave ladies joined The Citizen Army and Cumann na mBan.  Following the formation of the Provisional Government, as outlined in the Proclamation, these organizations became the Army of the Irish Republic under the command of James Connolly.  The organization mustered into five commands: Ned Daly’s 1st battalion, Tomas MacDonagh’s 2nd battalion, Eamon deValera’s 3rd battalion and Eamonn Ceannt’s 4th battalion.  The 5th command was a joint force of Volunteers, Citizen Army and Cumann na mBan under James Connolly as part of the headquarters command which, in addition to Connolly, included four other members of the Military Council: President Patrick Pearse, Tom Clarke, Seán MacDiarmada and Joseph Mary Plunkett.

Last minute misfortunes upset the timetable of the Rising and after 6 days of fighting it became evident that the British had successfully isolated communications from Dublin and nationwide support would not materialize. In order to stop the killing of civilians in the scattered British shelling, Pearse ordered the surrender. Though only 1600 were involved in the Rising, the British arrested a total of 3,430 men and 79 women and General Maxwell, in secret Court Martial sentenced 90 to be executed.  One attempt to arrest members of the nationalist Kent family in County Cork on 2 May led to a Constable being shot dead in a gun battle. Thomas Kent was arrested and became one of only two rebel leaders to be executed outside of Dublin. The other was Roger Casement.

The Sorrows of May began on May 3 with the murder of Pearse, Clarke and McDonagh.  On May 4, Daly, Willie Pearse, O’Hanrahan, and Plunkett were shot and May 5 saw the killing of Maj. John MacBride.  Since May 6 and 7 were a Saturday and Sunday, the Brits gave their executioners the weekend off. On Monday, May 8 the slaughter commenced again with the homicides of Mallin, Ceannt, Colbert, and Heuston. Then, on May 9, Thomas Kent was slain at Cork Detention Barracks. A manuscript recently found in the Capuchin Archives in Church Street, Dublin revealed that Fathers  Murphy, Augustine, Albert, and Sebastian OFM Cap were allowed only a short time to administer to the prisoners. Father Murphy described the process as callously informal. The governor said a name and gave a signal. The prisoner’s hands were then tied behind his back, and a bandage placed over his eyes.  Two soldiers, one on either side, guided the prisoner, and the priest went in front. When the prisoner reached the outer door another soldier pinned a piece of white paper over his heart.  The procession went along one yard, then through a gate leading to the stonebreaker’s yard.  Here the firing squad of 12 soldiers was waiting, rifles loaded. An officer stood to the left; on the right were the governor and the doctor.  The prisoner was led to the front wall and was turned to face the firing-squad. The two soldiers guiding him withdrew quickly to one side.  There was a silent signal from the officer; then a deafening volley.  The prisoner fell in a heap on the ground — dead.  After the executions the priests were driven back to the friary where they celebrated Mass for the repose of the souls of those executed. The public were horrified at the slaughter.

In the House of Commons, MP John Dillon, demanded an end to the killing.  He intervened with Lloyd George to halt the remaining executions authorized by General Maxwell during the courts-martial. Prime Minister Asquith sent a telegram to Maxwell to halt the executions until he arrived on May 12 to investigate for himself.  On the morning of May 12, Maxwell defied the order and had Sean MacDermott brought to the Stonebreaker’s Yard at Kilmainham and shot. Then, after demands from the anti-labor employers whom he had fought during the Great Dublin Lockout, the wounded James Connolly was brought from hospital. His shoulder wounded and ankle, shattered by a bullet, had gangrened from a lack of treatment, he was carried, in great pain, into the yard on a stretcher, placed on a chair against the back wall which tipped over twice.  He was then tied to a stretcher and leaned against the wall nearest the entry gate to receive His Majesty’s lead for sharing a dream.  When Asquith arrived, he commuted the remaining death sentences to terms of imprisonment since Irish-Americans were opposing his overtures for America’s assistance in WWI, but it was too late; the fuse had been lit.

Following the Rising, the manner in which the trials and executions were carried out in secret, changed public opinion to sympathy for the rebels. The self-sacrifice of the leaders for the dream of a free Ireland, the bravery of the rank-and-file and the nauseating manner in which Connolly had been killed at last moved even the most liberal among the public to intense anti-British sentiment. Meanwhile, the 3,000 ‘rebels’ who had been picked up in the military sweep ordered by Maxwell, had been deported to Britain and consolidated in Frongoch POW camp which served as virtual academy of sedition.  When the government realized they could not afford to house and feed all those interned, the declared a general amnesty secure in the belief that the Irish had once again been duly spanked into submission.  On their return home, the Irishmen immediately set about building an army of opposition; it was called the Irish Republican Army and it would eventually fight the Brits to the treaty table after a brutal War of Independence.  The leaders may have died, but the dream did not.  And true to Pearse’s words, millions have dwelt in the house that he shaped in his heart in spite of the fact that the landlord still holds a small piece of the property!