Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,
Nicholas
nwhyte

January Books 17) From Behind a Closed Door

17) From Behind a Closed Door: Secret Court Martial Records of the 1916 Easter Rising, by Brian Barton (.co.uk, .com)

A Christmas present from wwhyte, this pulls together the primary source material of the official records of the court-martial trials of the fifteen executed leaders of 1916, with framing and explanatory text by Barton. Reading it in the context of the recent execution of Saddam Hussein and the ongoing war crimes trials in the Hague is an interesting experience: it is almost a matter of course to learn of gross procedural errors, of dubious verdicts arrived at by dubious means.

It has to be said that not only the British, but also the rebel leaders - specifically, those who had signed the Proclamation, and the sectoral commanders - expected that they would be executed. As with Saddam Hussein, while one can query the sentence and the procedure, the verdict was pretty inevitable in those cases. Barton makes much of the half-dozen of those executed who did not fall into that category, and the lack of evidence against them; indeed in one case, that of William Pearse, he seems almost to have been desperate to incriminate himself in order to share his brother's fate (he was the only one to plead guilty to the charges put to him). I wish he had gone more thoroughly into the cases of the two sectoral commanders who were not executed, Eamon de Valera and Constance de Markievicz; he spends little time on the former and his account of the latter is dubious, as discussed in more detail below. (Roger Casement's case is also absent.)

The overall point, though, is a valid one. Even if everyone knows the facts of the matter and the inevitable verdict, if the court is not to show itself to be as bad as the abuses it is set up to deter, the accused must get a fair hearing and due process; and the Irish rebels of 1916 got neither, as Barton demonstrates. Indeed (and this is another point I wish he had gone into further) the seventy-five years of secrecy surrounding the records appears to have been extended not by any sensitive practical information in the transcripts, but by their revelation of the scantiness of the process by which almost a hundred people were condemned to death, fifteen of them actually executed. The brutal inequity of British justice has been a mainstay of Irish nationalist propaganda for centuries, but this is evidence of it straight from the horse's mouth.

However. Even though this is only meant to be an apparatus to illuminate a particular set of source materials rather than a comprehensive analysis of the events of the time, it is still much inferior to Charles Townshend's Easter 1916, which I read last year. In particular, Barton has (like other authors I have complained about previously) allowed himself to become too fascinated by his particular strand of the source material, meaning that we lose out on the bigger picture. He actually comes to the conclusion that the notion of the rebellion as a "blood sacrifice" was a last-minute stratagem decided on by Pearse to save further bloodshed among his own men and the civilian population, based on the scribbled memos issued from the GPO; but to say this is to ignore the substantial body of evidence about his intentions written by Pearse himself over the years before he went into the Post Office on Easter Monday.

Indeed, in one case I think Barton reveals himself as putting too much credence in his source. This is the case of the trial of Countess Markievicz, who according to W.E. Wylie who prosecuted her and most of the other rebels, "curled up completely. 'I am only a woman. You can't shoot a woman. You must not shoot a woman.' She never stopped moaning the whole time she was in court." Barton describes Wylie's account as "fictitious", as a "wilful and scurrilous distortion", on the basis that it is not reflected in the official records of the court-martial (which, as Markievicz was not in fact shot, he does not reproduce in the book).

This really isn't good enough; at other points in the book Barton quite reasonably relies on Wylie's unpublished memoir as a powerful and convincing first-hand account. I actually went through Wylie's papers myself in the early 1990s, more because of his important role in the post-1921 evolution of the Royal Dublin Society, but you can bet that I also took the time to read through his unpublished reminiscence of prosecuting the rebels. Also, it's clear by inspection of the official records that Barton provides that they were not intended to be verbatim transcripts (and in the case of Sean McDermott, the record is visibly incomplete). In addition, the Markievicz verdict itself ("The Court recommend the prisoner to mercy solely and only on account of her sex") somewhat supports the Wylie account.

I confess I am troubled by Markievicz's behaviour as described by Wylie, in that her record for most of her life is that of a very brave person who stood up courageously for what she believed in, but who knows what any of us will do if faced with the imminent prospect of execution? I guess we'll never know exactly what happened in that courtroom.

Finally, I think Barton allows himself to get carried away by the story in places. I suspect that the fifteen executed men were not, in fact, saints; but we are told their biographical details in hagiographical tones. We are also given a list of 60 IVF and ICA members who were killed in action in Easter week (though a different figure, 64, is given in the introduction); but there is no list of the 116 British soldiers, 16 policemen or 250+ civilians who died in the fighting. The problem with focussing your light very closely on one particular corner of the scenery, as Barton has done here, is that the rest of the stage gets distorted, or lost in the shadows. This is an interesting book about an important set of documents, but it does not give us a full picture.
Tags: bookblog 2007, world: ireland
Subscribe
  • Post a new comment

    Error

    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded 

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.
  • 15 comments