I suppose most Irish born & some Irish Americans know the basic story of the executed leaders of the 1916 Rebellion. I just wonder if we know what happened to the bodies of those leaders and the disgraceful actions by the British Government.
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 FÃ¡il-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 two-year-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.
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 honor. It is time to give them at long last the rituals their sacrifice so richly deserves.
“Many suffer so that someday all Irish people may know justice and peace.” Theobald Wolfe Tone