Rebel executions, property losses and lots of letters

Early May brings the centennial of the pivotal second act of the 1916 Easter Rising drama: the executions of 15 rebel leaders between 3 May and 12 May in Dublin. Sir Roger Casement was hanged 3 August 1916 in London.

Captain E. Gerard, a member of the British army in Ireland in 1916, described the Dublin executions two decades later, quoting an attending medical officer who “got so sick of the slaughter that [he] asked to be changed. … [Among the rebels,] three refused to have their eyes bandaged … they all died like lions. The rifles of the firing party were waving like a field of corn. All the men were cut to ribbons at a range of about 10 yards.”

The executions turned public opinion against the British and set the stage for the third act of the independence narrative, the Anglo-Irish War that began in 1919. Before that violence erupted, however, Irish men and woman, and British government officials, set about dealing with the immediate aftermath of the Rising. Many wrote letters about their experiences of Easter Week, some filed claims for property damage.

Among many Easter 1916 websites to appear online for the centennial, two are particularly compelling for their searchable access of original material.

Property Losses (Ireland) Committee, provided by the National Archives of Ireland, offers 6,567 digitized files consisting of “applications for compensation on a standard application form from individuals and businesses for damage to buildings and property, including loss of personal property sustained as a direct result of the fighting, or subsequently as a result of fire and looting. A number of applications have further correspondence and police reports attached.” The files are searchable by surname, location, business or words in the text. While most of the damage occurred in Dublin, the files trace back to property owners and other interested parties in other parts of Ireland.

Letters of 1916: A Year in the Life, is a project of Maynooth University and other supporters. It contains images and transcriptions of hundreds of searchable letters from 1 November 1915 to 31 October 1916.  As such, the letters connect “thousands of lives commenting a myriad of topics including the Easter Rising, literature and art, the Great War, politics, business, and ordinary life. Letters of 1916 adds a new perspective to the events of the period, a confidential and intimate glimpse into early 20th Century life in Ireland, as well as how Ireland was viewed abroad.” The database is searchable by word, subject category and month written.

One of my favorite examples is this 3 September 1916 letter to the sister of Michael Joseph O’Rahilly, known as ‘The’ O’Rahilly,’ who died in the fighting of Easter Week. The letter writer describes a recent aviation demonstration:

The first day of the flying was a complete success. The papers represented pretty accurately what took place.  … [It] was an unexpected treat I would not have missed it for the world. I changed my mind on the subject at once. The flying machine has come to stay. The number of people, motors, carriages, was unique — never such a sight in holy Ireland before.

Many more glimpses of life in Ireland 100 years ago can be found on these two great websites. Search away!