Shock new details about 1916 Rising revealed in documentary

NewsBy Jim Gallagher
Michael Portillo fronts the documentary on RTE tonight
Michael Portillo fronts the documentary on RTE tonight

After executing three of the 1916 Easter Rising leaders, a British soldier boasted in his diary: “I was able to return to bed for two hours, and was excused duty until noon.”

The shockingly callous detail is revealed in a new RTE documentary that covers the Easter Rising from the point of view of British politicians, soldiers, bureaucrats and spies.

In The Enemy Files, narrated by former British Defence Secretary, Michael Portillo, newly uncovered material shows the effects the rebellion had on the ruling authorities and military power.

Sergeant Major Samuel Lomas not only recorded his few hours extra sleep, but wrote in his memoir that “P.H. Pearse whistled as he came out of his cell” to face execution.

Thomas MacDonagh was “marched in blindfolded, and the firing party placed 10 paces distant. Death was instantaneous”.

“The third, J.H. Clarke, an old man, was not quite so fortunate – requiring a bullet from the officer to complete the ghastly business.”

Narrator Portillo said that British soldiers were “willing enough” to take part in firing squads “because they had seen their comrades mown down by snipers just a few days before”.

The rebel leaders had plotted with Germany, with whom Britain was at war, and had killed 116 British officers and soldiers in the Rising.

Portillo said this was a time when British soldiers were being shot on the western front for desertion, and it was perhaps surprising that no more than 16 rebel leaders faced the firing squad.

He said that, after the first three executions, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith was recorded “limply being surprised the trial and sentencing was so rapid”.

Portillo said General John Maxwell, who had taken over the running of the country and who ordered the executions, “was allowed to go on piling up the martyrs”.

The mother of Patrick Pearse and his younger brother, William, who fought together in the GPO, asked for the return of their bodies so she could bury them in consecrated ground – rather than in the lime pit ordered by Maxwell for all the executed men.

Prime Minister Asquith wanted to grant the request, but Maxwell vetoed it – claiming the graves would be “turned by Irish sentimentality into the shrines of martyrs”.

Portillo noted: “That was going to happen wherever they lay. But the general had seized the opportunity of making the British appear to the Irish as inhumane, shabby and sacrilegious.”

In The Enemy Files, which will be shown on RTE One tomorrow night, Portillo asks: “Did an unlikely band of rebels, with playwrights and poets as leaders, do more to advance the cause of Irish freedom in five days than nationalist politicians had done in the previous 50 years?

“Or did they damage the cause of an Ireland independent and united?”

He said intercepted messages between Berlin and the German embassy in Washington had revealed there would be an uprising in Ireland by April 22, 1916, “at the latest” – which other intelligence confirmed – but the authorities were still taken by surprise when it finally erupted two days later.

Former British Minister of State for Security and Counterterrorism, Pauline Neville-Jones, tells the documentary the Great War was going badly at that time, and that the “information from Ireland was very inconvenient and to be ignored, because bigger things were at stake.”

The refusal to accept what was about to take place shows the “immaturity” of the system at the time, which could not handle something so “highly inconvenient”, she said.

Portillo reads one “extraordinary” telegram from the German ambassador in Washington to Berlin, saying: “Irish leader John Devoy informs me that the Rising is to begin in Ireland on Easter Sunday. 

“Please send arms to arrive Limerick/west coast of Ireland between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. To put it off longer is impossible. Let me know if help is expected from Germany.”

Portillo also read out the unpublished memoir of Henry Oliver, the Admiral of the Fleet, who wrote: “We knew beforehand that the revolution in Ireland was to start on Easter Monday 1916, and we made naval preparations, but the cabinet would not believe the First Lord.”

One officer on the boat to Ireland after the Rising wrote that his troops “had not the slightest desire to shoot down Irish or any other English-speaking people”.

When they landed, Captain Arthur Lee noted “the streets were thick with people clapping and cheering”.

But that was to end soon after, and Portillo gives graphic detail of the slaughter that took place when young and largely untrained Sherwood Foresters came under sustained fire at Mount Street Bridge.

Soldiers trained in trench warfare were soon engaged in house-to-house fighting in a “killing zone in Georgian Dublin”, where the dead and wounded lay knee-deep.

Portillo says this was unnecessary carnage, but the troops were ordered by their officers to clear each building as they advanced, with little concern for civilians.

The Enemy Files, RTE One, Monday 21 March, 9.35pm