Fifth of five parts.
In Boston, as elsewhere in the United States, many Irish viewed the rebels as heroes from the first news of the revolt. At four minutes past noon on Easter Monday, April 24, 1916, Patrick Pearse read the Proclamation of the Republic from the steps of the General Post Office, declaring Ireland’s right to exist as a free and sovereign nation.
The Boston Globe ran the entire text of the Irish “Declaration of Independence” on May 1, 1916; however, the eloquent document alone was not enough to sway many readers – at least not yet. Supporters of Irish home rule continued to denounce the Rising. A number of Boston priests similarly castigated the actions of Pearse, James Connolly, Michael Collins, Eamon de Valera, and company as criminals against proper authority, “traitors” against a nation [Great Britain] at war against “the Hun.”
A great many of the Boston Irish did not yet know how to assess the doomed uprising. The local newspapers carried accounts of Dublin crowds jeering and hurling invective at the ragged, bloodied rebels as they were marched through the streets to prison. Then, the reprisals by the British came – and everything changed in Dublin and across the Atlantic in Boston.
In London, the Cabinet issued Major-General Sir John Maxwell secret orders that the leaders of the Easter Rising were to be stood in front of a drumhead court-martial, quickly sentenced to death, and cut down by a firing squad. It was only after the rebels had been so dispatched that the public learned of the executions.
The British government believed that the brutal sentences would cow the remaining rebels and that the Irish public, with so many of them so angry at Pearse, Connolly, and their men for the carnage they had brought upon Dublin, would accept and even applaud the executions. On every count, the British Cabinet guessed wrong.
The Globe and the Herald delivered the shocking news to Boston readers on May 4, 1916. “Organizers of Irish Republic Are Executed,” the Herald’s front page announced. “Four signatories to the republican proclamation in Ireland have been tried by court-martial and found guilty and were shot this morning [May 3, 1916]. Patrick H. Pearse, the ‘provisional president of Ireland”; James Connolly, commandant-general of the Irish Republican army; James J. Clark [Tom Clarke]; and Thomas McDonagh [“MacDonagh] were those executed.”
The Globe informed readers that “Three Rebels Were Shot.” The front-page story stated: “Justice has been swift in the case of the leaders of the Sinn Fein rebellion. Three of the ringleaders, signatories of the short-lived Irish republic, paid the supreme sacrifice yesterday morning.”
Recently unearthed firsthand accounts of the British Army’s executions of the Rising’s leaders would have likely ignited fury among Irish Americans stunned by the news. In “1916 Diaries of an Irish Rebel and a British Soldier” (Mercier Press, 1914), Sergeant-Major Samuel Henry Lomas wrote the following in his journal entry for May 3, 1916: “We paraded at the time appointed, marched to Kilmainham Jail. At 3.45 [a.m.] the first rebel MacDonoghue [Thomas MacDonagh] was marched in blindfolded, and the firing party placed 10 paces distant. Death was instantaneous. The second, P.H. Pierce [Pádraig Pearse] whistled as he came out of the cell….The same applied to him. The third, J.H. Clarke [Tom Clarke], an old man, was not quite so fortunate, requiring a bullet from the officer to complete the ghastly business (it was sad to think that these three brave men who met their death so bravely should be fighting for a cause which proved so useless and had been the means of so much bloodshed).”
Captain Arthur Dickson, of the Sherwood Foresters, commanded one of the firing squads on May 1916. In his memoir, published in the 1920s and now in the Imperial War Museum, London, he wrote: “We marched our [execution] squads to [Kilmainham Gaol] long before dawn in a dismal drizzle . . . We had to wait while it grew faintly light and I took the chance to instruct the squad exactly what orders they would get; I didn’t want any muddle. . .
“Thanks to that preparation, it was carried out smoothly. The 13 rifles went off in a single volley. The rebel dropped to the ground like an empty sack . . . I can’t say I felt much else except that it was just another job that had to be done.”
Fifteen leaders of the Rising in all paid the “supreme sacrifice,” and within weeks, Ireland’s and Irish America’s revulsion at the secret trials and firing squads rocked Parliament. In Boston and New York, the Irish denounced the British, and, as in Ireland, conferred martyr status upon the executed men. Inflaming passions to a white-hot degree was the manner in which the British had killed Connolly, who was seriously wounded. He was tried while he lay in a cot in Dublin Castle. Since he could not stand, he had been placed in a chair and blasted from it by his firing squad.
Michael P. Quinlin, in his article “Boston and the Irish Rising” (Irish America Magazine, February-March 2016) described the Boston Irish community’s response to the execution as “electric” and notes that a pro-Rebel assemblage “of 20,000 people” crowded Boston Common and “thousands gathered in outlying cities…”
Quinlin adds that “on May 14, the Friends of Irish Freedom convened at the sacred Tremont Temple in downtown Boston, where Mayor Curley presided over 5,000 fervent followers, with another 4,000 spilling into Boston Common.”
Across America, the tide of public sentiment slowly turned against the British government’s ruthless executions. Mark Duncan, in “Reporting the Rising: Press Coverage of Easter 1916,” aptly asserts: “Even many in the Anglophilic American press were aghast. Nationwide, Irish-Americans who cared little about the Rising now rose up themselves, demanding an end to the executions, which ran from May 3 to May 12, when James Connolly was killed. Eamon de Valera – born in the U.S. – was set to be executed next. But the British finally ceased amidst the international outcry. This, finally, was a silver lining amidst the dark cloud of the Rising.”
Just a few years after the furor following the Rising, Boston’s Irish community would accord de Valera, who had been spared that firing squad at the last moment, a hero’s welcome at South Boston Station and Fenway Park. Both the Globe and the Herald recorded his visit as nothing short of “triumphal.”
Not until the fall of 1920 would the words destined to stand as the very symbol of the Easter Rising and the ensuing Irish struggle for freedom appear in public. William Butler Yeats published his poem “Easter, 1916” that year in the New Statesman as the Anglo-Irish war raged. At that moment, October 1920, Terence MacSwiney, the Lord Mayor of Cork, was wasting away on his hunger strike in prison, sacrificing his life for Irish freedom, as Pearse and the fourteen others done in front of British firing squads.
In this year, the centenary of the Easter Rising, Yeats’s words resonate as powerfully and poignantly as when they first appeared in public:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
(For further reading, see Michael P. Quinlin, “Boston and the Irish Rising,” Irish America Magazine, February-March 2016; The Easter Rising, Michael Foy and Brian Barton, Sutton Publishing, 1999; and The Rising (Centenary Edition) -- Ireland: Easter 1916, Fearghal McGarry, Oxford University Press, 2016; Tom Deignan, “The Irish Revolution in America,” Irish America Magazine, June/July 2006; Mark Duncan, “Reporting the Rising: Press Coverage of Easter 1916,” Century Ireland Project, RTE, in conjunction with Boston College, 2016.)