24 April 2016
One-hundred years ago today, the Easter Rising began in Ireland. It set in motion a series of events that led to the formation of the Irish Free State. Greg Denieffe found a rowing link to the Rising, which he shares with HTBS on this historic day.
Maxwell: Who is next on the list for court martial?
Wylie: Someone called de Valera, Sir.
Maxwell: Who is he? I haven’t heard of him before.
Wylie: He was in command of Boland’s Bakery in the Ringsend area.
Maxwell: I wonder if he would be likely to make trouble in the future.
Wylie: I wouldn’t think so, Sir, I don’t think he is important enough. From all I can hear he is not one of the leaders.
Maxwell: All right then. Stop now, except for the public trials, and come up and dine tonight. I have another job for you.
Like Easter itself, the anniversary of the 1916 Rising in Ireland is a movable feast. This year, the centenary was celebrated over the weekend of 27 and 28 March, to tie in with the Easter weekend. To say that Ireland was in ‘proclamation’ overdrive would be an understatement. The actual date of the commencement of the Rising was Easter Monday 24 April 1916.
It is said that if you want to know the facts ask a historian but if you want to know what if felt like ask a song-writer. Failing that, ask a poet, a playwright or even a diarist; anyone but a historian. So, dear readers, I am getting my apology in early for this factual essay. If you want to know how Dubliners felt at this defining moment in Irish history, I recommend W. B. Yeats’s poem “Easter 1916” and Sean O’Casey’s play The Plough and the Stars and if you want to understand the aftermath and how Britain scored their biggest own goal in their treatment of Ireland, there is no finer book than León Ó’Broin’s W. E. Wylie and the Irish Revolution 1916-1921 (1989), a work based on Wylie’s memoirs.
William Wylie was born in Dublin in 1881, but grew up in Coleraine. He was educated at Coleraine Academical Institution and studied law at Trinity College, Dublin, before being called to the Irish bar in 1905 and becoming a King’s Counsel in 1914. From 1915 to 1918, he was a lieutenant in the Territorial Army, serving with the Trinity College Officer Training Corps in Dublin, where he took part in the defence of the university and its environs during the 1916 Rising. After the Rising, Wylie was appointed to act as prosecuting counsel at the courts martial of the captured leaders.
Whilst at Trinity, he was a keen cyclist and it was his success in winning his heat and finishing runner-up in the final of the half-mile bicycle handicap in College Park on 16 June 1904 that saw him immortalised in James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922):
Bang of the lastlap bell spurred the halfmile wheelmen to their sprint. J. A. Jackson, W. E. Wylie, A. Munro and H. T. Gahan, their stretched necks wagging, negotiated the curve by the College Library.
Later in the novel, Gerty MacDowell fantasizes about marriage with his brother Reggie:
Yes, she had known from the first that her daydream of a marriage has been arranged and the wedding bells ringing for Mrs Reggy Wylie T. C. D. (because the one who married the elder brother would be Mrs Wylie) and in the fashionable intelligence Mrs Gertrude Wylie was wearing a sumptuous confection of grey trimmed with expensive blue fox was not to be…
When the Rising began on Easter Monday, Wylie was on holiday in Kerry. He arrived back in Dublin 48 hours later and the following day he reported to the Trinity OTC for orders. By then the threat to the college was over. Nevertheless, he was awarded an engraved sword (one of seven awarded to officers) and an engraved silver cup similar to the one pictured above. These were gifts of the business community from Grafton Street, College Green and the neighbouring areas for saving that part of the city from destruction.
Despite being formed in 1899, it was not until 1921 that the Irish Amateur Rowing Union appointed its first president. That honour was bestowed on the Right Honourable Mr. Justice Wylie of Bann Rowing Club. During his presidency which lasted until 1925, he presented the Wylie Cup to the IARU for the encouragement of inter-University rowing in Ireland, which at that time consisted of the well-established Dublin University Boat Club and the fledgling University College Dublin Boat Club. It is these tangible links to the sport of rowing that permits me to avail of the generous house rules that allow articles on ‘Hear The Boat Sing’ when they have only tentative links to our sport.
(Below testimonies of my own good taste):
Both the above menus are laden with signatures: the 1940 one is signed by C. J. Gannon after whom The Gannon Cup (the annual boat race between Dublin University and University College, Dublin, Boat Clubs) is named. As a Captain with the Royal Army Medical Corps, he served for a time in Egypt and then in India, going subsequently to Burma, where he was killed in 1944. The 1945 menu is signed by all the members of Queen’s University Belfast Boat Club, who won both the maiden and junior eights which allowed QUBBC claim their first ‘Wylie’. It is also signed on the front by D. B. Taylor, who in 1948 became the centre of attention when he was selected in the Irish eight to race at the Olympic Games. His eligibility to represent Ireland and the use of that name were the subject to objections by the British Olympic Council and the International Olympic Committee. You can read the full story in two earlier posts on ‘Hear The Boat Sing’ called 1948 Olympics And The Thin Green Line, Part 1 and Part 2.
For those not aware of the turbulent period in Irish history that is covered by Ó’Broin in his book, a visit to the Creative Centenaries website page interactive timeline 1912-1922 is advisable. Amongst important events described in the book is the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence (1919-21) but sadly not the resultant Irish Civil War (1922-23) that followed when there was a split over the treaty that had lead to the political partition of Ireland.
Last February, Dr. Ivan Nelson, archivist of The Lady Victoria Boat Club, summarised Wylie’s involvement in the prosecutions. His article for the Irish Rowing Archive can be found here. It is remarkable that a man involved so directly in obtaining death sentences of many of the leaders could not only survive in Ireland, but thrive there. This was mainly due to Wylie’s well known opposition to the way the men were tried. He did not agree with the policy of shooting of the leaders of the Rising (Wylie referred it as ‘The Rebellion’), which began on Easter Monday, 24 April 1916 and ended five days later. He did not agree with Field General Courts Martials, or with the absence of defence counsel or a judge advocate. In addition, he felt that there was too much speed and secrecy in the trials.
If fact, as well as prosecuting William T. Cosgrave, he made a speech for his defence after Cosgrave requested that he do so. Cosgrave served as the first President of the Executive Council (prime minister) of the Irish Free State from 1922 to 1932 and then handed over power to Éamon de Valera leader of Fianna Fáil. de Valera had rejected the treaty in 1922 and plunged Ireland into civil war.
Wylie prosecuted four of the seven signatories of The Proclamation: Thomas J. Clark, Thomas MacDonagh, Patrick Pearse and Eamon Ceannt; all seven signatories were executed by firing squad along with eight others leaders. Later in the year, Roger Casement was hanged for treason bringing the total executed to 16. By then the tide of opinion had turned in favour of those seeking independence by force and a guerrilla war against Britain soon followed the December 1918 General Election.
Éamon de Valera’s name is writ large in all that happened during the 1916 Rising, the 1918 General Election, the War of Independence, the rejection of the Treaty and the Civil War. However, it could have been all so different if Wylie hadn’t underestimated his potential ‘to make trouble’ in the future.
One of the more interesting prosecutions carried by Wylie was that of William Corrigan, a Dublin solicitor who, before the Rising, was a colleague and friend of his. On 5 May 1916, Wylie came across Corrigan in a corridor of Richmond Barracks where the solicitor was waiting for his turn in the dock.
The following is an extract from an article by Conor Gallagher in The Irish Times published on 5 May 2014:
Before the Rising, Corrigan had briefed Wylie in several cases but the dynamic was now very different. “My God, Corrigan, what are you doing here?” Wylie exclaimed when he recognised the bloodied head of his former instructing solicitor.
Corrigan replied that he was next to be tried and asked if he had any chance. Wylie responded that the previous three defendants had been sentenced to death but that he would do his best for his colleague. As Seán Enright writes in the marvellous ‘Easter 1916: The Trials’, Wylie ended up prosecuting the case. Despite this, he gave an impassioned speech in favour of his friend and also examined Corrigan in his own defence.
After the trial, presiding officer, Brig Gen Charles Blackader sensed something was off and commented to Wylie that he “seemed in earnest about that man”.
“In earnest!” Wylie replied. “I should just think I was! He is a solicitor and before this show started, I got a case from him to advise one of his clients. There was a cheque for five guineas with it which I haven’t cashed yet and, if you execute, that cheque might not be met, so I was very much in earnest.”
According to Wylie biographer Leon Ó’Bróin, this was met by a stunned silence before the officers broke down in laughter.
“All right, Wylie, your five guineas is safe,” Blackader said. “We’ll recommend a reprieve.”
Corrigan was sentenced to death with a recommendation to mercy. His sentence was commuted to five years of penal servitude. He was sent to a prison in England but, before departing, he told his brother Michael to see Wylie to thank him for saving his life. Wylie recalled that he met his “bold Willie Corrigan” again on Parliament Bridge in 1919, the day after his return from a British prison.
“You’re still at it I hear,” Corrigan said to him. “Well if Mrs Wylie is anxious, tell her not to worry, for if orders are issued to do you in, I’ll probably hear of it and I’ll give you a ring.”
“What a country,” Wylie later wrote in his memoir.
After serving in the offices of the Adjutant-General and the Attorney-General of Ireland, Wylie became Law Adviser to the Irish Government, 1919-1920. He was appointed a Judge of the Supreme Court of Judicature of Ireland in 1920 and of the High Court of the Irish Free State in 1924, serving as a Judicial Commissioner to the Irish Land Commission until his retirement in 1936.
Wylie held a number of appointments on public and private bodies, including the Dublin United Tramways Company, merged later into the Great Southern Railway, later Córas Iompair Éireann. He was chairman of the Irish Railways Wages Board, 1922-1944; vice-chairman of the Irish Betting Control Board, 1930-1945; president of the Royal Dublin Society, 1939-1941, and chairman of its Executive Committee, 1937-1960; vice-chairman of the Irish Red Cross Society, 1939-1946; and was associated with various organisations in the fields of charity, hunting, racing and show-jumping. He died in 1964 at the age of 83; he had disagreed with de Valera over many aspects of his policy, but during a severe bout of illness in 1960, de Valera phoned him several times to give him his good wishes and say how much he appreciated his great work for Ireland. Perhaps even in de Valera, a terrible beauty was born.
* From W. B. Yeats’ reflective poem “Easter 1916” (23 September 1916) more famous for lines like “All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born” and “Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart”. The line used as the title to this essay is followed by several more describing how easily and quickly things change but despite these changes some things remain; “The stone’s in the midst of all” representing the lingering presence of those executed. Often overlooked lines, but on reflection this metaphor for how there’s something permanent left behind of people’s actions, not only those of the leaders of the Rising but of those affected by it, can be appreciated in Wylie’s contribution to the Irish legal profession, his influence in the trials of Cosgrave, Corrigan and de Valera and his legacy to Irish culture and sport.