The colonial era was a dark time for the world. During this time, many nations in Europe plundered the resources of distant lands, committed acts of genocide, enslaved thousands of innocent people, destroyed priceless artefacts in the name of “heresy”, and broke virtually all of the Ten Commandments while claiming to do all these things in the name of God.
When people think of the colonies, what usually comes to mind is Africa, Asia, and the New World. Yet, in fact, England’s oldest and longest running colony was somewhere much closer to home. They ruled it with a brutality that would serve as a model for other colonial powers, as well as for Britain’s newer colonies. They committed all of the usual atrocities, and did so for hundreds of years.
This did not take place in an exotic far away place occupied by primitive people. It took place in Ireland. All of the usual colonial crimes were perpetrated during the occupation. Among the many crimes that took place, the longest running one was the taking of political prisoners. Starting with the construction of Kilmainham Gaol in 1796, most of Ireland’s political prisoners who were not sold into slavery were held there. Others were sent to concentration camps in England and Wales.
The most contentious political prisoners to be held were those who took part in the Easter Rising of 1916. Of the approximately 1,800 men who were rounded up and imprisoned without trial, to be held for an indefinite term, just fewer than 20 of them were singled out as ringleaders to be executed. Of them, only Eamon de Valera was spared the bullet due to his American citizenship.
Actually one of the others who was executed should have been spared under the same criteria, however it appears those in charge may not have been aware of Tom Clarke’s citizenship, or that they dismissed it as insignificant. Eamon de Valera was more fortunate, and would later go on to become President of Ireland.
These men, being the few to actually receive any kind of trial at all, were tried in a hastily drummed up and arguably illegal court martial. The leaders of the Easter Rising were sentenced to death despite the fact that they had obeyed the rules of warfare and committed no crimes that a legitimate international criminal court would have found them guilty of. This was in sharp contrast to the conduct of the British, who committed multiple war crimes during the conflict.
The main complication in determining the legality of the trials and executions was that the alliance of the rebels with Imperial Germany could be interpreted as an act of treason. However, since none of these men were British subjects at the time of their trial, it was technically impossible for them to have committed treason against Britain. The crucial fact remains that they had formed, even if only for a few days, the Republic of Ireland, and had held its territory long enough for its independence to be recognised under international law.
Kilmainham Gaol had always been a place used for the illegal detention of political prisoners, but by incarcerating the leaders of the Easter Rising there in 1916, the British brought it finally under international scrutiny. It was the worst move they could have made, and it’s what led to the downfall of British rule in Ireland. By creating martyrs, they raised the profile of the rebel leaders almost to the verge of sainthood as far as the predominately Catholic population was concerned.
Thus, when a new group of leaders were ready to step up alongside Eamon de Valera, including no less a person than Michael Collins, they were able to sow the seeds of a wider revolution in the hearts and minds of the people. This could be achieved merely by reminding the masses of the unrestrained murder of civilians by the British occupation force, and the sacrifice of the lives of those heroic men who had become martyrs in the struggle for a free and independent Irish Republic.