Speech at the Launch of the ‘Digitised Versions of the 1916 Leaders’ Courts Martial’
Richmond Barracks, Dublin, 22 September 2016
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A Dhaoine Uaisle,
I am pleased to be here in Richmond Barracks with you today at the launch of the digitised versions of the 1916 leaders' courts martial records. May I thank Catríona Crowe for her kind invitation and all of you for that generous welcome.
Is áit é Dún Richmond a bhfuil dlúbhaint aige le scéal na hÉireann agus ár niarrachtaí le neamhspleáchas a bhaint amach. Is anseo, taobh thiar de na mballaí móra seo, a chaith go leor dóibh siúd a throid san Éirí Amach a laethanta deiridh sular cuireadh chun báis iad, agus cuireadh go leor eile chuig campaí géibhinn sa Bhreatain Bhig agus Sasana ón áit seo chomh maith.
[Richmond Barracks is a place deeply embedded into the story of Ireland’s struggle for independence. It was here, behind these great walls, that so many of those centrally involved in the Rising spent the final days of their lives and where so many more awaited a sentence that would transport them to prison camps in England or Wales.]
It was here that they were lined up to be tried in a bleak little room without legal representation and without adequate rights to speak on their own behalf. There can be no doubt that the courts martial were not merely deficient in process but were, indeed, a great affront to that principle of justice, disregarding correct procedure in a determination to secure the execution of the rebels involved in the rising.
The courts martial were held in secret, the prisoners were not made aware of their legal rights and, as described in the words of Seán Heuston, had “no intimation of the nature of the charge” that was to be brought against them. The accused were denied a defence, and granted just minutes to offer their version of events.
Although the law of the day required that a Judge Advocate General provide an independent review of any court martial related to a capital offence, in their cases this did not happen. Instead, the courts martial were reviewed by Second Lieutenant Alfred Bucknell who, far from being an impartial reviewer, identified himself with the prosecution.
While a death sentence could only be passed by court martial if it could be proved that the accused was “assisting the enemy” and while there was no evidence of the defendants ‘assisting Germany’, the fact that aid was sought and, even if apprehended, received from Germany was invoked to impose death sentences on the 1916 leaders.
Ninety death sentences were passed at that time by Officers who, we must remember, had no legal qualification and indeed had simply been chosen for the task on the basis of availability. As we know, fifteen of these sentences were carried out.
It was here at Richmond Barracks that the proceedings of these Field General Courts Martial were recorded, leaving valuable documents which for so long, were kept secret and were inaccessible to the general public. It is appropriate, therefore, that we gather here to mark and celebrate this granting of universal access to this material, often poignant and deeply affecting, that will allow all Irish citizens and their visitors a new understanding of the courts-martial of the 1916 leaders.
The documents provide moving and valuable insights into the proceedings; imparting a human dimension that can so often be missed from conventional factual historical accounts.
Thomas McDonagh’s statement that he fully co-operated with British soldiers after the surrender, or the image of Seán McDiarmada unable to walk after surrender because of polio contracted five years before, indicate a dignified sadness that echoes across the years. They, and the many other images captured in these records, remind us that the leaders of 1916 were human and wounded agents of our freedom, not abstract or mythical characters; and they enable us to have a profound appreciation of the real and human sacrifices that they and their families made in order that future generations might inhabit a free and independent state.
As a nation, we have been engaging in a programme of commemorations relating to the seminal events in Irish and European history that took place between 1912 and 1922. The rich and diverse programme of activities allows for the full complexity of that decade, and its implications for the century that followed, to be explored and commemorated.
The Ireland 2016 Centenary Programme has invited all citizens at home and abroad to actively engage in a diverse range of historical, cultural and artistic activities, all designed to facilitate reflection, debate and indeed celebration of a shared heritage.
The response of citizens to these initiatives has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic. It has, indeed, been uplifting to see so many people coming together in a spirit of civic pride to mark and honour both the seismic moment that was 1916, and the great courage of those who in many different ways played their important role in that rich chapter of our history.
One hundred years on, we can view that time through the prism of informed historiographies which allow a broader and deeper view of the complex events leading up to the Rising. This year has been an important reminder of how the preservation of archival material is crucial, not only for historians but for all of us who wish to engage with our shared past; to fully understand our history in its complexity; and to gain an appreciation of the consequences of the past, for our present and our future.
Without the careful preservation and cataloguing of such documents, critical elements of our shared history would be lost forever. The digitisation of such material brings immense added value, ensuring that important records and information will be conserved and can be widely shared and made easily accessible to all.
Earlier this year I attended the presentation of an Oral History Collection to our National Museum on Kildare Street. That collection comprises many personal stories about the characters and events of 1916. These oral versions of our past greatly enrich our ability to engage with our history and can often add detail, connections and a human dimension to the men and women of 1916, where contemporary records can often fall short. It is a collection that draws us deeply into the story of 1916, reminding us of how individual stories are such critical elements of the whole.
I spoke, on that occasion, of how the late Tony Judt, the great historian and political commentator has spoken of the importance, in any given society, of supplying ‘the dimension of knowledge and narrative without which we cannot be a civic whole’; and of how availablility of collections such as the Oral History, and, of course, these important records which we celebrate today play a critical role in enabling and preserving a clear, reliable, and inspiring narrative of our nation.
In April, I attended the official opening of the new building of the Military Archives in Cathal Brugha Barracks. At the time I spoke of how the digitisation of the Witness Statements collected by the Bureau of Military History is a greatly significant Government initiative during this Decade of Commemorations.
All of these events mark very important steps towards a democratisation in an inclusive way, of historical research, giving universal access to the first-hand accounts from previous generations, and enabling us to appreciate more fully the experiences, the motivations, the hopes, and sometimes the suffering and disappointment too, of our forbearers.
Today, and thanks to the generosity, expertise and commitment of Universities Ireland and the National Archives, we mark yet another step forward in allowing all citizens to actively participate in the search for, and creation of, enhanced historical knowledge. The availability of on-line records of the 1916 leaders' courts martial is a key event in our ongoing endeavour to make available to all citizens opportunities to engage in historical research.
These historic and personal documents and images of the executed leaders will be of invaluable benefit in enabling us to garner a sense of some more aspects of the lives of the men and women behind the Rising of Easter 1916. This new website, which contains digital images of the files of the fifteen leaders who were court-martialled and executed, includes statements of prisoners to the court martial, official confirmation of their deaths and those important last letters to loved ones which speak so powerfully of the stark reality of the prisoners' last moments, and their willingness to fight for a cause they believed worth dying for.
Mar fhocal scoir, is mian liom gach rath agus beannacht a ghuí orthu siúd a riabh baint acu le togra na leaganacha dhigitithe d’armchúirt Chinnirí 1916 a chur i gcríoch. Is mian liom buíochas ar leith a ghabháil le Universities Ireland a chuir maoiniú ar fáil leis na íomhánna dhigiteach a cheannacht, agus leis an Chartlann Náisiúnta a dhéanann sárobair ag cosaint agus ag cumhdach scéal ár náisiún.
[In conclusion, I would like to extend my appreciation and congratulations to all those involved with the digitisation of these 1916 leaders' courts martial records. I particularly commend Universities Ireland who so generously provided the National Archives with the funding to purchase the digital images, and the National Archives who play such a vital role in safeguarding and protecting the narrative of our nation. ]
May I thank you for the provision of this valuable new resource of knowledge, enabling us to deepen our understanding of an important moment in Irish history, which would impact so profoundly on public opinion, changing the course of our future and indelibly stamping the Ireland we inhabit today.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.