1900-1919 | Ireland | Martial law



The following day martial law was extended to the whole of Ireland.
Public domain via Parliament.uk
The following day martial law was extended to the whole of Ireland.
Public domain via Parliament.uk

[ 25 April 1916 ]

In response to an uprising by Sinn Feiners in Dublin, the British authorities declared martial law in the city and Dublin County on Easter Tuesday 25 April 1916. Two days later, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith announced in the House of Commons, to loud cheers, that martial law had also been extended ‘over the whole of Ireland.’1 He added that ‘with regard to censorship, a military censor is obviously necessary.’2 The right to civil trial was also abolished. As the Aberdeen Press and Journal explained to its readers – ‘Charges are simply framed without technicalities’ and though there was no right of appeal, ‘sentence of death and penal servitude must be referred to (army) headquarters for confirmation.’ This reflected the fact that ‘theoretically, martial law may be said to be the will of the military commander.’3

161 civilians in Dublin were tried before a field general court martial, in which three officers with no legal training acted as judge and jury. Fourteen of the defendants were executed. It was not until seven months later, that Crown law officers belatedly ruled that the trials had been illegal. By that time the government was faced with other uncomfortable truths. Asquith had reassured the public that the court transcripts would be published, but General Sir John Maxwell, commanding British forces in Ireland, and other senior army officers were strongly opposed to any such transparency.

They feared that publication would reveal the lack of significant evidence supporting many of the convictions. Sir Reginald Brade, the permanent under secretary of state for war, explained in a War Office memo that there were ‘one or two cases in which the evidence was extremely thin.’ He knew that much of it had been based on questionable British intelligence and that many of the defendants had little opportunity to defend themselves during the hearings. The trials of at least two of those executed, Tom Clarke and Con Colbert, didn’t even last ten minutes. Inevitably, the government decided to keep the public in the dark and the court records were only finally released in 1999.4


  1. ‘Martial Law all over Ireland,’ The Globe, 27 April 1916, p. 1. and ‘Martial Law Throughout Ireland,’ The Western Daily Press, 28 April 2016, p. 5. Martial law had actually been extended across Ireland on 26 April, but was only announced in parliament by Asquith on the 27th.
  2. ‘Martial Law all over Ireland,’ The Globe, 27 April 1916, p. 1.
  3. ‘Martial Law: What the step taken in Ireland Means,’ The Aberdeen Press and Journal, 28 April 1916, p. 4.
  4. Britain Barton, ‘Courts Martial and Executions,’ in John Crowley, Donal O Drisceoil and Mike Murphy (editors), Atlas of the Irish Revolution, Cork University Press, Cork, 2019, p. 277 and p. 280.

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