On this day in 1916, the last execution of the Rising leaders took place in the bleak Stonebreakers’ Yard of Kilmainham. But few know that their bodies were flung into a pit, without respect or honour. It is time, says our columnist, to give them, at long last, the rituals their sacrifice so richly deserves


by Fiona Looney

Photo captions: Sombre: James Connolly and the grim yard at Kilmainham Gaol

IT IS the second cross that draws the eye. In the bleak surroundings of the Stonebreakers’ Yard in Kilmainham Gaol – a quadrangle whose cold, grey walls tower so high that the sun never hits the gravelled ground – two simple black crosses, at either end of the oblong space, vie for the attention of the visiting, backpacked public.

The first, at the higher end of the yard, marks the obvious place of execution.

It was here, between May 3 and May 12 in 1916, that 14 leaders of the Easter Rising were shot by members of the Sherwood Forest regiment, the unit of the British army that had suffered the greatest losses during the uprising.

Pádraig Pearse was one of the first to be executed. Seán Mac Diarmuid, shot on this day in 1916, was the last to stand at the spot now marked by the first cross.

But there was another execution that day. James Connolly, Commandant of the Dublin Brigade, had been shot in the ankle in the GPO and septicemia had set into the wound.

A doctor who had treated him at the first aid station set up in Dublin Castle in the wake of the fighting in the city centre assessed that by May 12, the 47-year-old Scot had no more than a day or two left to live.

But he was executed, nonetheless. Taken by ambulance to Kilmainham Gaol, Connolly was stretchered into the Stonebreakers’ Yard through the gate at the opposite end from the execution site. Here, just 20 odd yards short of his designated last post, it was judged that Connolly was too weak to make that final journey.

So they tied him to a chair, just inside the gate, and shot him right there. He was the last of the 1916 leaders to be executed in Kilmainham Gaol and it is his cross that brings up the most goose pimples in a chilling place where the sun never shines.

If the story of James Connolly and the other executed leaders of 1916 still resonates almost a century later, it is perhaps surprising that so few people know what happened next.

Ask any sixth class child in the country about the Rising, and they’ll tell you about Connolly tied to a chair – but ask most Irish people what happened to Connolly’s body and those of the other executed leaders, and less is known.

What happened was this: the bodies of the men were thrown onto the back of a truck and taken to Arbour Hill prison, where they were dumped, without rite or coffin, into a pit and had quicklime poured over them. Some of the men’s families had requested that their executed bodies be released to them – Major General Sir John Maxwell, the Commander in Chief of the British forces in Ireland, made a decision not to concede to their wishes for fear that the men’s graves might become a place of pilgrimage or, worse, a rallying point for further insurrection.

We do not have a great record where the mortal remains of our patriot dead are concerned.

More than a century before the 1916 Rising, after a sentence of death had been passed on him during his trial for treason, Robert Emmet made one of the most famous speeches in history, instructing that ‘when my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then and not till then, let my epitaph be written’.

But by the time Ireland ‘took her place’ and joined the United Nations in 1955, Emmet’s remains had long been lost.

Opinion has been divided as to whether the orator’s final resting place was in the vault of a now demolished church in Dawson Street, another in Aungier Street or in a family vault in Glasnevin.

With the exact location still a mystery, Emmet’s epitaph was never written.

ALTHOUGH the remains of the Rising’s leaders were not mislaid, in death, they scarcely fared much better than Emmet. None is commemorated in epitaph; the mass grave in Arbour Hill is unmarked and identifiable only by its proximity to a wall listing the names of the executed men, alongside the reproduced words of the Proclamation of the Republic. Aside from being the location for an annual Fianna Fáil-organised commemoration ceremony, Arbour Hill is remarkable for little else.

There is no eternal flame, no individual tributes to the executed men. It is unloved and rarely visited. Several Dublin tourism websites suggest that visitors to the capital bypass the cemetery at Arbour Hill altogether, on the basis that there is so much to do, and so little time to do it.

The majority of the men executed for their part in the Easter insurrection were deeply committed Catholics – only Connolly was an avowed atheist – and while that might sit uneasily in a modern context, there is no doubt that their Catholic faith meant a great deal to the executed men.

Contemporary reports from the occupied sites during the Rising tell of the Rosary being said almost continuously. One account has a passing Finnish sailor, who found himself caught up in the fighting, joining in with the Rosary as it was recited in Irish. Confessions were heard before battle, the Last Rites were administered to the fallen in the GPO and beyond.

Capuchin priests and Vincent de Paul nuns ministered to the wounded and dying on the streets all week.

After it was all over, Joseph Mary Plunkett was famously, poignantly, married to Grace Gifford in the hours before his execution, the couple exchanging vows in front of a Catholic priest at the tiny chapel in Kilmainham Gaol.

Another of the leaders, Michael Mallin, on the night before his execution on May 8, wrote to his family, telling his baby son: ‘Joseph, my little man, be a priest if you can.’ The twoyear-old Joseph Mallin did indeed become a Jesuit priest. At 98 years of age, he is the last surviving child of any of the Easter Rising leaders.

In Kilmainham Gaol, all the men to be executed were visited by priests from the nearby Capuchin Friary on Church Street, and were given Confession and Communion. Even James Connolly received Communion – his first religious observance since his wedding in 1890.

A priest was allowed to witness the executions in the Stonebreakers’ Yard but crucially, was prevented from giving the Last Rites or anointing the bodies of the executed men, in accordance with Catholic practice.

There were no clergy in attendance at Arbour Hill when the bodies of the men were dumped, without ceremony, in their quicklime pit. It may not seem such a sin of omission today, but these were deeply religious and devout men, many of whom compared their own sacrifices to those of the early Christian martyrs.

For them to be laid to rest without any of the funereal rituals of their beloved Catholic Church was a further abomination – both to their memories and to their grieving families. Fast forward 85 years, to one of the most extraordinary – and poignant – events of our recent history. On October 14, 2001, ten hearses carrying ten coffins travelled in cortege to the Pro Cathedral in Dublin. The remains of Kevin Barry, executed at the age of 18 in 1920 for his part in the War of Independence, as well as nine of his comrades, all of whose bodies had been interred in a plot at Mountjoy Jail, were received into the Church and belatedly granted the State funerals they were denied at the time of their deaths.

After a moving ceremony, the Forgotten Ten’s remains were re-interred in the Republican Plot in Glasnevin Cemetery, where most of the fallen of the struggles for Irish independence are buried. Amongst them, crucially, is Roger Casement, also granted a State funeral and re-interred at Glasnevin 49 years after he was hanged and buried at Pentonville Prison in London.

Casement was the last man to be executed for his part in the Rising.

THERE is no expiry date on rite and ritual, and clearly, there is precedent for moving our republican dead. In the case of Pearse, Connolly and the other leaders of 1916, there is, admittedly, a practical problem caused by the use of quicklime in their mass grave – it is unlikely that any significant physical remains could now be identified in the Arbour Hill plot.

But on the basis that their blood, spilt in the name of Irish freedom, once seeped into that soil, it is surely worth removing even that, and presenting it, even symbolically, for proper funeral rites in a Catholic church.

The stately Republican plot in Glasnevin – recently renovated ahead of the centenary of 1916 – has long been a focal point for remembering those who gave their lives in the struggle for Irish freedom.

Michael Collins, Michael Mallin’s hot-headed young aide-de-camp in the GPO, is buried there. Ninety years after his assassination, his grave still bears fresh flowers, paid for by an admirer in France and renewed once a week by a local florist. Countess Markievicz, whose death sentence for her leading role in the Rising was commuted because of her gender, is there, as is Éamon de Valera, a leader spared execution. Major John MacBride’s widow, Maud Gonne, and James Connolly’s widow and three of his children are also interred in the vast plot, among many, many more of those who are connected with the fight for Irish independence.

We shall, no doubt, hear of many plans, schemes and dreams over the coming four years, before we mark the centenary of the Easter Rising. Some will be poignant; some will be poorly judged. But surely, the most significant gesture that this State could make in honouring the memories of the fallen leaders of 1916 would be to belatedly right the grievous wrong done to them at their execution.

The leaders of 1916 did more than any other group in history to open the gates to Irish independence. They deserve to be commemorated by more than just song, story and schoolbook.

They deserve a State funeral, and the religious rites denied them upon their death. They deserve to be buried amongst their comrades. It was in Glasnevin Cemetery, after all, that the spark for the Easter Rising was lit in 1915, with Pádraig Pearse’s incendiary oration at the graveside of the old Fenian, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa.

‘The fools, the fools, the fools!’ said the idealistic young poet and schoolteacher, ‘they have left us our Fenian dead.’ Now, almost a century later, it is up to us – the beneficiaries of their most extraordinary sacrifice – to right the old wrongs and honour the most celebrated Fenian dead of all.