By Helen O’Shea
The execution of the Easter Rising rebels has been pivotal to a widely accepted, yet rarely questioned narrative in the Irish and British popular historical imagination – that initial widespread condemnation of the rebels’ supposedly futile actions gave way to a surge of sympathy in the wake of the May executions. While this consensus is unusual in itself, given that so much of Irish history has been politically charged, the centenary offers a welcome opportunity to revisit contemporary perceptions of the immediate aftermath of the Easter Rising. Given the comparative lack of historical attention surrounding the Scottish press reaction to the post-Easter executions, the following attempts to address this particular gap.
It remains difficult to fully ascertain the exact degree to which the consulted newspaper editorials reflected or created opinion at this time of morale-maintaining, heavy-handed wartime censorship. But it is reasonable to assume that they, partially at least, reflected the public consciousness of their supposed readership. While they may have partially functioned as the mouthpieces of the elite, they needed to remain on the side of their readership in order to maintain sales. Despite what political differences existed between the various Scottish press organs, their response to the Easter Rising was one of unified, explicit condemnation. Surveying the editorial responses of the Aberdeen Daily Journal, the Edinburgh-based Scotsman, the Glasgow Herald, the Glasgow Observer and the Dundonian Courier & Argus in the week in which the executions took place also shows how strikingly similar they were in their acknowledgement that such sentences were necessary and justified.
The Scotsman, founded in 1817 ‘specifically to give voice to Edinburgh liberalism in the face of conservative press hegemony,’ did little to hold back its angry condemnation.[i] In weighing up the week’s events, its stance was unequivocal: ‘the rising of the past week is not merely wanton and criminal – it is basest ingratitude; and in that aspect it may be regarded as the darkest blot on Ireland’s history.’ [ii] For the traditionally Conservative Glasgow Herald of 1916, a paper which held the largest circulation out of the four ‘quality morning’ Scottish newspapers at the time, its editorial stance just prior to the first executions reflected the political views of its middle-class readership in its belief that ‘the era in which crime was unpunished and disloyalty was tolerated, if not indirectly encouraged, must be brought to an end. If it survives as a painful memory, let us hope that its lessons will have made an unforgettable impression.’ Commonly regarded as Scotland’s leading newspaper in ‘its ability through its leader columns to represent Scottish industrial and business opinion,’ the paper’s coverage of Irish events was also a useful channel to send candid messages of steadfastness to the Scottish business community in the face of increasing social and industrial unrest following the Munitions of War Act in August 1915 and the high-point of protests surrounding the Glasgow Rent Strikes three months later. An editorial published on 4 May, the day after the execution of Thomas Clarke, Thomas MacDonagh and Patrick Pearse, considered ‘that others have richly deserved the fate of the men executed yesterday is unquestionable, and that some of them must pay the penalty is equally apparent.’[iii] It continued: ‘we do not want vengeance but security, and fortunately for us security will be safeguarded by leniency to the misguided mass of rebels and severity to the relatively small number of deliberate, avowed, and impenitent traitors.’[iv] In light of a Scottish socio-political landscape of unprecedented industrial unrest only ‘forestalled by the firing of some bullets at Sarajevo,’ it seems unlikely that any editorial line in a Scottish newspaper was concerned solely with the Irish context.[v]
The Dundonian Courier & Argus, initially Conservative but comparatively Independent by the later years of the nineteenth century, reiterated the attitude of its Conservative rival: ‘of this misguided trio it may be said at once that they all deserved their fate.’[vi] In the immediate aftermath of the following day’s executions of Joseph Plunkett, Edward Daly, Michael O’Hanlon and William Pearse, the paper’s editorial acknowledged: ‘these sentences are severe, but the crime was great, and nobody can say that they are too severe. The only hope for the rank and file of the misguided rebels lies in the severe punishment of the ringleaders of the most futile and tragic revolt in Irish history.’[vii] Nonetheless, despite not being one of the ringleaders, following the execution of John MacBride on 5 May, the Courier and Argus doubted that he ‘could hardly hope for leniency, and he richly deserved his fate.’[viii] Out of a total of ninety death sentences passed, seventy-five were commuted with fifteen executions taking place (apart from that of Roger Casement) between 3 and 12 May. For the Glasgow Herald, the commuted death sentences were evidence of ‘justice mixed with mercy.’[ix]
By 10 May, and in light of increasing pressure from Irish MPs that the executions cease, the Glasgow Herald’s editorial opened by claiming that ‘it was inevitable that we should have some rather hysterical protests against the methods which are being pursued in Ireland to stamp out the rebellion and punish the ringleaders.’[x] The ‘wild’ appeals by Redmond and others for the culmination of the military executions, were observed as ‘rather hysterical, because it betrays a mental upsetting which throws the facts out of their perspective.’[xi] It reasoned that this was no ordinary rebellion but ‘double-dyed treason,’ one which threatened to not only overthrow the King’s authority but to facilitate the designs of the King’s enemies with over 500 men in the military and police forces killed or wounded.[xii] Given these circumstances, it reasoned that:
The people of Ireland, we are persuaded, do not want any shortening of the arm of justice until the last man whose guilt can be established is punished with adequate severity, for have they not lamentable cause to dread the consequence of this rebellion in their national life, whilst feeling the unmerited shame brought upon the land? The killing and wounding of so many of the King’s soldiers who had enlisted for very different service call for severity. But there is no vindictiveness in the demand that sentimental considerations should not be allowed to unduly temper justice with mercy.[xiii]
The following day, which saw James Connolly executed along with Sean MacDiarmada, the editorial columns of the Glasgow Herald continued with the focus on the perceived need for firmness in the justice meted out to the rebels:
The man who thinks to put down a rebellion with kid gloved courtesy and affability is a fool. Rebellion must be met with shot and steel, otherwise anarchy will fly its flag over the ruins of law. In our comments in these last few days we have pointed out that the agitators against the continuance of martial law are basing their action upon the wrong-headed idea that, in Ireland, whatever may be the case elsewhere, those who defy the law must never be treated in accordance with the elementary principles of justice.[xiv]
By 11 May and with twelve executions having taken place, the Scotsman still remained unfaltering in its editorial comment: ‘The great body of opinion, both in Great Britain and in Ireland, gratefully approves the firm and judicious manner in which Sir John Maxwell has acted, both in the putting down of this mad insurrection and in the meting out of justice, not unmingled with clemency, to the leading actors in it…[executions] which have come in inevitable and salutary sequence.’[xv] This course of action was buoyed by the Aberdeen Daily Journal, with the ‘severe sentences’ seen as ‘imperative,’ in its hope that the example of these executions would ‘be sufficient to act as a deterrent to intriguers.’[xvi] The following day, it expanded upon this policy:
It might be supposed from the language in which certain Radicals and Nationalists are indulging that it is nothing short of a crime and an outrage to inflict the death penalty on the leaders of the Irish revolt. They forget altogether the terrible lists of killed and wounded and the enormous destruction of property for which these men were responsible…we have to recognise the gravity of the revolt and the necessity for teaching such a lesson as will make certain that there will be no repetition of this appalling crime.[xvii]
While many of the Scottish broadsheets could be potentially accused of being reflexive mouthpieces of the pro-Unionist elite, further frank comment on the executions delivered by the main Irish immigrant press organ, the Glasgow Observer, shows that this was unlikely to be the case. On 29 April, as the rebels surrendered, the Glasgow Observer’s Derry-born editor, Charles Diamond, was quick, in the manner of the majority of Irish and British press organs, to judge the uprising as ‘needless, foolish, wicked and unjustifiable’ believing that ‘Irish nationalists will…condemn it as unpatriotic folly: rash, blind, headlong, stupid and wrong.’[xviii] In doing so, his comments also resonated with the heated sentiments of Irish nationalists throughout Ireland and Britain for endangering Irish Home Rule after the war by ‘the madly criminal action of the pro-German plotters who resorted to insurrection in Dublin.’[xix] As Geraldine Vaughan has illustrated, the Easter Rising in Ireland was met with unanimous condemnation made public by damning denunciations by local sections of the United Irish League, Irish friendly societies such as the Irish National Foresters and local branches of the Ancient Order of Hibernians keen to stress the actions as ‘contrary to the expressed sentiments and sympathy of the Irish Nation so gallantly demonstrated by the Irish soldiers on every Continental battlefield.’[xx] Despite his later radicalisation, on 16 May, four days after the execution of James Connolly and Seán MacDiarmada, Diamond not only held fast to his earlier comments but appeared to support the court-martial sentences: ‘their doom is just. They got, or will get, no more than they gave. They shed blood and took life recklessly.’[xxi]
This sizable unified stance of condemnation of the rebels’ actions, and apparent acceptance of, and at times clear support for, the execution sentences transcended regions, religions, class and nationality. In doing so, it may also have furthered the strengthening of Irish immigrant community ties with Scotland, a process initially aided by high Irish enlistment figures, particularly in the west of Scotland, prior to conscription coming into force in March 1916. While motives for enlisting in the army were numerous, and all-too often driven by poverty, with the shared experiences of sacrifice overseas and the common bonds of bereavement, ‘any doubts about the loyalty of the Irish in Scotland to the British state were conclusively removed.’[xxii] Indeed, it has been argued that the Glasgow Observer, ‘never faltered in its support and continuously publicised the heroic deeds of Catholic soldiers at the front,’ in a similar fashion to Scotland’s leading press organs in the weeks and months following the Easter Rising.[xxiii] However, sectarian turbulence in Depression-era Scotland demonstrated that this shared war service could be easily downplayed, if not entirely obscured by anti-Catholic polemics in a socio-political climate of hopelessness.
In a similar fashion, the Easter Rising executions were to be quickly reimagined from the vantage point of each successive political or economic episode which had the power to galvanise or polarise opinion and through the accumulative impact of often unwise measures taken as a result of these incidents – the conscription crisis in Ireland from April 1918 onwards, the supposed ‘German plot,’ the atrocities carried out by the Black and Tans, (in whose ranks were ‘many battle-hardened Scottish soldiers’), the execution of IRA volunteers between 1919 and 1921 during the Anglo-Irish War and the execution of seventy-seven men by the Irish Free State during the Irish Civil War.[xxiv]
While the Troubles have ended, the memory struggles continue, with memorialisation itself being part of a never-ending, multi-layered imaginative process. As it was the general policy of ‘quality’ Scottish newspapers, such as the Scotsman and the Glasgow Herald, to provide space for individual comment in news items even if it differed from the paper’s editorial bent, ‘in that respect, the papers represent the rawness of contemporary opinion better than perhaps any other source…’[xxv] If one accepts that history is a continuous conversation between the present and the past, it is certain that the Scottish political present will inform how the historical past is perceived and articulated. The Scottish press reactions to the executions reveal the widespread acceptance, indeed support, for such measures, their potential future impact impossible to envisage in an Ireland with the still-perceived potential, albeit jeopardised, to achieve Home Rule. In this way, revisiting these observations reveals the possible disparities between perceptions then and our expectations today. In doing so, it helps counter mythologising narratives that may, often unwittingly, serve the present but do little to help us understand the complexity of the past as perceived by those in Scotland in the immediate aftermath of the Easter Rising.
[i] David Hutchison, ‘The History of the Press,’ in Neil Blain & David Hutchinson (eds), The Media in Scotland (Edinburgh, 2008), p.57.
[ii] Scotsman, 2 May 1916, p. 4.
[iii]Glasgow Herald, 4 May 1916, p. 6.
[v] George Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England (Stanford, 1935), p. 322.
[vi] Courier & Argus, 4 May 1916, p. 3.
[vii] Courier & Argus, 6 May 1916, p. 3.
[viii] Courier & Argus, 8 May 1916, p. 3.
[ix] Glasgow Herald, 6 May 1916, p. 8.
[x] Glasgow Herald, 10 May 1916, p. 6.
[xiv] Glasgow Herald, 11 May 1916, p. 6.
[xv] Scotsman, 11 May 1916, p. 4.
[xvi] Aberdeen Daily Journal, 12 May 1916, p. 5.
[xvii] Aberdeen Daily Journal, 13 May 1916, p. 4.
[xviii] Cited in Tom Gallagher, Glasgow, the Uneasy Peace: Religious Tensions in Modern Scotland, 1819-1914 (Manchester, 1987), p. 87.
[xxii] Tom Devine, The Scottish Nation, 1700-2000 (London, 2000), p. 496.
[xxiii] Devine, p. 496.
[xxiv] Devine, p.497.
[xxv] Ian Levitt, ‘Newspapers Since 1900,’ in Michael Lynch (ed.) The Oxford Companion to Scottish History (Oxford, 2001), p. 453.
Helen O’Shea (firstname.lastname@example.org) lectures in modern history at the University of Dundee. She is the author of Ireland and the End of the British Empire: The Republic and Its Role in the Cyprus Emergency (2014).
George Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England (Stanford, 1935).
Tom Devine, The Scottish Nation, 1700-2000 (London, 2000).
Tom Gallagher, Glasgow, the Uneasy Peace: Religious Tensions in Modern Scotland, 1819-1914 (Manchester, 1987).
David Hutchinson, ‘The History of the Press,’ in Neil Blain and David Hutchinson (eds.), The Media in Scotland (Edinburgh, 2008), pp. 55-70.
Michael Lynch (ed.) The Oxford Companion to Scottish History (Oxford, 2001).