There can be no doubt that the response of the British government to the Rising contributed measurably to the further alienation of Irish public opinion. On 26th April 1916, it had introduced martial law and next day appointed Major-General Sir John Maxwell as Commander-in-Chief of troops, Ireland. He had full authority to restore order, put down the rebellion, and punished its participants. Maxwell never doubted that its leaders should be court-martialled and those most prominent executed.
General Maxwell was also determined that, in order to crush militant nationalism, those who had surrendered with them, and their suspected supporters, should be arrested and their arms seized in a nationwide sweep by soldiers, supported by police. General Maxwell quickly signalled his intention “to arrest all dangerous Sinn Feiners”(1), including “those who have taken an active part in the movement although not in the present rebellion”(2), reflecting the popular belief that Sinn Fein, a separatist organisation that was neither militant nor republican, was behind the Rising.
In total, the security forces arrested 3,430 men and 79 women and of these 1,841 were sent to England and interned there. Meanwhile, those thought to have organised the insurrection had been held back in Ireland for trial 190 men and 1 woman named Countess Markievicz. In 90 cases the court’s verdict was ‘Death by being shot’. All signatories of the proclamation were executed. The executions started on May 3rd in Kilmainham Jail with the execution of Patrick Pearse was the first to be singled out for execution, he was not allowed to see his mother or brother before his execution, Thomas MacDonagh and Thomas Clarke .
The second day is the executions of William Pearse brother of Patrick Pearse, Edward Daly, Michael O’Hanrahan, and Joseph Plunkett whom married Grace Gifford in the prison chapel hours before his execution. On the following day John McBride was executed alone refused to be blindfolded before his execution. Then on May 8th Eamonn Ceannt, Michael Mallin, Sean Heuston and Conn Colbert were executed. On the last day of execution May 12th Sean MacDiarmada and James Connolly who is tied to a chair due to his broken ankle were executed. Sir Roger Casement was tried in London for high treason and hanged at Pentonville Prison on 3 August.
In addition to the 15 executed, 97 others of those tried by court-martial were sentenced to death. Alarmed by the shift taking place in public opinion in Ireland and by the outrage expressed in the House of Commons by members of the Irish Parliament Party, most notably Lawrence Ginnel and John Dillion, Prime Minister Asquith travelled to Dublin on 12 May the day where James Connolly and Sean MacDiarmada were executed, in spite of a telegram from Asquith to General Maxwell saying that there were to be no further executions except under special and exceptional circumstances.
Maxwell, presumably, considered that MacDiarmada and Connolly had played such leading roles that they could not be reprieved. There were no further executions, the sentences of the other 97 being commuted to terms of imprisonment. The predictable effect of these measures was to increase public sympathy, both for the rebels and their goals. During May, the police authorities noted even amongst moderate nationalists a growing ‘wave of resentment,’ prompted by the feeling that ‘unnecessary severity had been deployed’.
Symptoms of the change in attitudes included the following: the increasing frequency of memorial masses for the executed rebels; the growing sales of photographs of them; the setting up of aid funds for their families; the appearance of songs and ballads celebrating their actions; the ubiquity of republican flags and badges; the sight of young men marching military style at Gaelic football matches, and the shouting of rebel slogans anywhere people gathered anonymously together, such as at railway stations.
Moreover, there were ominous signs that militant nationalists were reorganising, reflected in a rise in arms thefts and hardening of attitudes towards the police. The release of many who had been interned after the Rising – far from earning public gratitude – fuelled resentment, as it was seen as providing evidence that the arrests had been made ‘without just cause’. Already in mid-June 1916, Maxwell predicted that in a General Election the moderate nationalist Irish Parliamentary Party would probably be replaced.
He was right; in December 1918, it was swept aside by Sinn Fein. Some survivors of the Rising went on to become leaders of the independent Irish state and those who died were venerated by many as martyrs. Their graves in the former military prison of Arbour Hill in Dublin became a national monument and the text of the Proclamation was taught in schools. ‘I and my fellow signatories believe we have struck the first successful blow for Irish freedom. The next blow, which we have no doubt Ireland will strike, will win through. In this belief, we die happy. ‘