The dead of 1916

16 Dead Men: The Easter Rising Executions

by Anne-Marie Ryan

(Mercier Press, €12.99/£10.25)

Felix M. Larkin

This is a much better book than its somewhat emotive title would lead one to expect. Its author, Anne-Marie Ryan, was, for many years, a guide in Kilmainham Jail – one of the top 10 tourist attractions in Dublin – and it comprises relatively dispassionate accounts of the lives of each of the 14 Easter Rising rebels executed within the jail and of the other two, Roger Casement and Thomas Kent, who were executed elsewhere.

A competent, brief introduction outlining the events leading up to the 1916 Rising complements these mini-biographies.

Ms Ryan emphasises the complicated national and religious identities of many of the executed rebels, two of whom – Clarke and Connolly – were born outside Ireland. Some had had close links with institutions of the state they later rebelled against: Connolly and Mallin were former British soldiers, and Casement had been in the British consular service.

Some, like Clarke and Daly, had deep roots in the Irish republican movement, while others – including Padraig Pearse and MacDonagh – were late converts to radical nationalism.

She also explains that execution was not necessarily indicative of having played a major role in the rising. Some – notably, Willie Pearse and O’Hanrahan – were simply unlucky to have been tried at an early stage, before the adverse effects of the executions on public opinion became apparent and the military were instructed to moderate the severity of the sentences for all except the most senior rebels.


Nor is the story of the “16 dead men” the whole story of the rising. As Ryan points out, a significant few – for instance, de Valera and Countess Markievicz – had leadership roles but, for various reasons, escaped execution. Other leaders were killed in action, notably, The O’Rahilly, Seán Connolly and Michael Malone.

In all, 64 rebels died in action during the rising and there were 132 fatalities among the army and police (many of them Irishmen) and 230 civilian deaths. We should not forget these victims as we remember the 16 who were executed.

Thomas Kent of Cork is probably the least known of the 16 and the book’s chapter on him is, therefore, particularly valuable. Although there was little rebel activity in Cork during Easter Week 1916, the RIC had orders to arrest prominent sympathisers and so raided the Kent family home. Thomas and his brothers resisted arrest and a member of the RIC was shot and killed. Kent was duly tried by court martial and executed in Cork.

His namesake among those executed in Kilmainham, Éamonn Ceannt, is, likewise, little known today although as a member of the Military Council of the IRB, he played a key role in planning the rising and signed the proclamation. A clerk in Dublin Corporation, he was a talented uilleann piper and in 1908 travelled to Rome with members of the Catholic Young Men’s Society who were participating in an athletic competition there.

They were received by Pope St Pius X; Ryan records that Ceannt marched three times around the papal audience chamber playing O’Donnell Abú on his pipes for the Pope.

Despite its terrible title, this book is popular history at its best. It neither glorifies nor denigrates the “16 dead men”, but rather presents them as real human beings with individual life stories which converge in Easter Week 1916 with fatal consequences for themselves – and for many others.