Ned McGinley, National President
This is an article to remember as we think back to 1916 and the Rising.
“Echoes Of The Risings Final Shots”
(A manuscript found in the Capuchin Archives in Church Street in
Dublin offers a new perspective on events during the Easter Rising
of April 1916, writes Benedict Cullen.)
Between April 30th and May 4th, 1916, Father Columbus Murphy, a
Capuchin priest, was called on to help and administer to the
prisoners in Kilmainham Gaol prior to their execution. The
following is based on a portion of Father Columbus's manuscript
between these dates.
The day after the surrender of the Four Courts on April 29th, there
was still confusion in North King Street about whether this was a
truce or a surrender. To clarify, Father Columbus went to the Four
Courts in an effort to retrieve Pádraic Pearse's note, which had
led to the surrender there of Comdt Ned Daly. Failing in this
effort, Father Columbus crossed the river to Dublin Castle to see
if someone there had the note.
He met Capt Powerscourt and explained to him that he needed the
document to convince the Volunteers in the North King Street area
that the Rising was over. The officer suggested he should go in
person to Pearse at Arbour Hill detention barracks and ask him to
rewrite the surrender note.
A two-seater army car was then provided to take Father Columbus to
headquarters to ask Gen Maxwell's permission to see Pearse. As the
car passed through James Street, a dangerous zone still manned by
the South Union Volunteers, the Capuchin stood up in the car so
that the Volunteers would see him clearly and allow the car to
At headquarters, Gen Maxwell received him courteously. Father
Columbus asked to be allowed to see Pearse. Having consulted some
officers Maxwell said: "Very well! I will grant your request."
"May I also see the other prisoners?" asked the priest.
"Yes," replied the general.
Gen Maxwell deplored the loss of life and property which had
"Oh, but we will make those beggars pay for it," he said.
"But," replied Father Columbus, "the blood of martyrs is the seed
"Are you backing them up then?" queried the general. Concluding
that prudence was the better part of valour, the priest said
Handing the written permit to Father Columbus, the general said: "I
hope, Padre, you will make good use of it to prevent further
The priest was taken by army car to Arbour Hill barracks.
Presenting his permit to the governor, he asked to speak to Comdt
Pearse. The sarcastic reply came back: "I believe there is a man
here who calls himself that!"
The governor accompanied Father Columbus down the right wing to the
door of Pearse's cell.
The cell door was opened. Pearse was seated with his head bowed and
sunk deep into his arms, resting on a little table. He looked a
sad, forlorn, exhausted figure. Disturbed by the opening of the
cell door, he slowly raised his head. He had the vacant, dazed look
of someone waking from sleep. Then, recognising the Capuchin habit,
he got up quickly, stretched out his hand and said: "Oh, Father,
the loss of life, the destruction! But, please God, it won't be in
The priest explained briefly why he had come, and asked Pearse to
rewrite the document. Pearse agreed, saying his one wish was to
prevent further loss of life and property.
In the governor's office, Pearse wrote:
In order to prevent further slaughter of the civil population and
in the hope of saving the lives of our followers, the members of
the Provisional Government present at headquarters have decided on
an unconditional surrender, and commandants or officers commanding
districts will order their commands to lay down arms.
- P.H. Pearse, Dublin, 30th April 1916
Shaking hands with the priest, Pearse said: "Hurry, Father, as time
is precious and perhaps there are lives depending on it."
The next time Father Columbus saw Pearse was shortly before his
At about 10 p.m. on Tuesday, May 2nd, a motor car drove up to the
friary in Church Street carrying two soldiers who told Father
Columbus that Father Aloysius Travers OFM Cap was required at
Kilmainham Gaol. Within minutes the car drove off with Father
About a half an hour later Father Columbus answered the door again.
Two policemen handed him a written message that had just been
phoned through to the Bridewell. The note read: "Please tell the
Franciscan Fathers at Church Street that the two men they wish to
see at Kilmainham Detention Prison should be seen by them tonight."
Father Columbus consulted his superior, who agreed that Father
Columbus should go. Fortunately, he had gone only a short distance
when the car, which had collected Father Aloysius earlier,
returned. It had gone to pick up Mrs Pearse, but the sniper fire
had been so fierce that it had had to turn back without her.
Father Aloysius, feeling the cold in the open car, had decided to
pick up some extra clothing. Availing of the car, Father Columbus
accompanied his confrčre to Kilmainham Gaol.
When they arrived, they were shown into a little room. There,
Father Columbus was informed that three men were to be shot at
daybreak. He was also told that one of them, named MacDonagh, had
asked for a Father Aloysius.
"Father Aloysius is here," said Father Columbus. "But who are the
"Pearse and Clarke," replied the governor.
Father Aloysius went to see Thomas MacDonagh. Father Columbus went
into Thomas Clarke's cell, where he remained for about an hour.
Clarke told him that the three men had been court-martialled early
that morning, but that sentence had not been passed on them until
after 5 p.m. He also said that he had received no food since
breakfast-time and that he would like something to eat. At Father
Columbus's request, one of the soldiers went to get a couple of
biscuits and a tin of water. Grateful for the biscuits, Clarke gave
his Volunteer badge to the priest as a souvenir.
When Father Columbus had concluded his ministry to Clarke, he went
to see MacDonagh, who, together with Pearse, had already been
attended by Father Aloysius.
"Father," said MacDonagh, "they are going to shoot us after all."
He then said he was looking forward to a visit from his sister, who
was a Sister of Charity at Basin Lane Convent.
Time was passing. The governor told Father Columbus that Tom
Clarke's wife and Willie Pearse were on their way, but that the
visit of MacDonagh's sister, the nun, was out of the question
because of practical difficulties. When MacDonagh was told this he
was so disappointed and upset that Father Columbus promised that he
himself would bring her to the prison if at all possible.
It was now past 2 a.m. An open military car, driven by two Dublin-
born British soldiers, was put at the Capuchin's disposal and he
set out for the convent. Soon after, he was able to return to the
prison with Sister Francesca, MacDonagh's sister, and the Mistress
Father Columbus conducted Sister Francesca to her brother's cell
with only the flickering of a candle to light the way.
Following a brief visit with Clarke and his wife, Father Columbus
left Clarke's cell and met Father Aloysius, who told him that he
had forgotten to bring the holy oils for the anointings after the
shootings. It was now past 3 a.m. and Father Columbus set off again
in the military car to obtain holy oils from Father Tom Ryan in
When he returned to the prison he found that the governor was
anxious to get the nuns to leave, as time was almost up. Sister
Francesca was numbed and dazed with grief. To gain more time she
asked for a lock of her brother's hair as a keepsake. But there
were no scissors. The governor then produced a penknife with a
small scissors attached. It was given to Sister Francesca, but she
could not use it, as her shaking fingers refused to work. A soldier
took it from her, and, cutting a lock of her brother's hair, handed
it to her.
Still she was unwilling to leave. Finally, after she had hung her
rosary beads around her brother's neck, Father Columbus led her
away and supported her down the stairs to the military car outside.
As the car drove away, the firing squad marched up the road to the
When Father Columbus re-entered the prison the governor informed
him that both priests would have to leave immediately as it was now
"We have not finished giving the rites of the church to the men,"
said Father Columbus.
"Do so immediately," replied the governor.
The priest explained that the anointings could only be given after
"Well, in that case," said the governor, "it cannot be done at all
as it is written in the regulations that all except officials have
to leave the prison."
The priests were surprised and indignant, but were unable to change
the governor's mind. Having administered the Sacraments of
Confession and Holy Communion, the priests accepted the ruling, but
lodged a formal complaint. Then they said a last farewell to the
three prisoners without telling them that they would not be present
at the shootings.
As they left the prison the governor told them that they were to
keep the executions a secret. Then it was home to the friary to
celebrate Mass for the repose of the souls of the three executed
The following night, Father Columbus slept soundly until he was
woken shortly before 3 a.m. and told that he was wanted again at
Kilmainham. As he came downstairs he saw Fathers Augustine, Albert,
and Sebastian OFM Cap waiting for him.
At Kilmainham, an excited governor told them that four men were to
be shot at 3.25 a.m., and that there was only a short time left for
the priests to exercise their ministry. He asked that one priest go
to each man adding: "Of course this time you will remain for the
executions and do all that is necessary for them."
To their dismay, the priests realised that none of them had brought
the holy oils. As Father Columbus knew Edward Daly, he went to his
cell. Father Albert attended to Michael O'Hanrahan, Father
Augustine to Willie Pearse and Father Sebastian to Joseph Mary
When he entered Daly's cell, Father Columbus saw a look of relief
and gladness appear on the prisoner's face. The prisoner received
the sacraments of Confession and Holy Communion with great fervour
and prepared for death.
When it was realised that that Holy Communion had not been brought
to J.M. Plunkett, who was in a different wing, Father Columbus went
there and literally gave him the Sacrament as he was being led from
Anxious to see Daly for the last time, the Capuchin rushed back,
only to discover that he had been led out already to be executed.
As the priest proceeded to follow him, the shots rang out.
Father Columbus went back to where the other prisoners stood
chatting with each other, with the priests and with the soldiers.
The whole process was callously informal. The governor said a name
and gave a signal. The prisoner shook hands all round. His hands
were then tied behind his back, and a bandage placed over his eyes.
Two soldiers took up their places, one on either side to guide the
prisoner, and the priest went in front.
When the prisoner reached the outer door another soldier pinned a
piece of white paper over his heart. The procession went along one
yard, then through a gate leading to the next. Here the firing-
squad of 12 soldiers was waiting, rifles loaded. An officer stood
to the left, a little in advance; on the right were the governor
and the doctor.
The prisoner was led in front of the firing-squad and was turned to
face it. The two soldiers guiding him withdrew quickly to one side.
There was a silent signal from the officer; then a deafening
volley. The prisoner fell on a heap on the ground - dead.
After the executions the four friars were driven to the friary at
Church Street, where they celebrated Mass for the repose of the
souls of the executed men.
Dr Benedict Cullen is a retired Oxford don and Capuchin archivist
© The Irish Times
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