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John Dillon savages British government response to Rising
Soldiers stop and search a car after the recent disturbances in Dublin. This was one of the many aspects of government policy criticised by John Dillon in his speech. Photo: National Library of Ireland

John Dillon savages British government response to Rising

Westminster, 12 May 1916 - An emotional, dramatic speech from John Dillon MP, a member of the Irish Parliamentary Party, dominated proceedings in the House of Commons in London yesterday.

Mr Dillon savaged the policy of the British government in Ireland, condemning in particular the executions of rebels, the holding of secret military trials, the continuation of martial law, and the wholesale searches and arrests being carried out across the country.

A chromolithograph of John Dillon by Carlo Pellegrini, published in Vanity Fair 7 May 1887. (Image: © National Portrait Gallery, London) 

The full text of Mr Dillon’s speech and his exchanges with Prime Minister Herbert Asquith can be read here. However, for the purposes of brevity we reproduce some of the more remarkable passages from Mr. Dillon’s contribution to debate played out before a noisy and hostile House of Commons.

‘It is the first rebellion that ever took place in Ireland where you had a majority on your side. It is the fruit of our life work. We have risked our lives a hundred times to bring about this result. We are held up to odium as traitors by those men who made this rebellion, and our lives have been in danger a hundred times during the last thirty years because we have endeavoured to reconcile the two things, and now you are washing out our whole life work in a sea of blood.’

While critical of the actions of the rebels, Mr. Dillon expressed admiration and pride in the manner in which they had conducted themselves and he lambasted the British authorities for the callousness and stupidity with which they had handled them.

‘...I say I am proud of their courage, and, if you were not so dense and so stupid, as some of you English people are, you would have had these men fighting for you, and they are men worth having. ... ours is a fighting race ... The fact of the matter is that what is poisoning the mind of Ireland, and rapidly poisoning it, is the secrecy of these trials and the continuance of these executions ... I do not think Abraham Lincoln executed one single man, and by that one act of clemency, he did an enormous work of good for the whole country... why cannot you treat Ireland as Botha treated South Africa... victims of misdirected enthusiasm and leadership..’

‘[Rebels showed] conduct beyond reproach as fighting men. I admit they were wrong; I know they were wrong; but they fought a clean fight, and they fought with superb bravery and skill, and no act of savagery or act against the usual customs of war that I know of has been brought home to any leader or any organised body of insurgents.’

On the subject of the ongoing executions, Mr. Dillon urged the Prime Minister to intervene and stop them immediately.

‘[...] I do most earnestly appeal to the Prime Minister to stop these executions ... it is not murderers who are being executed; it is insurgents who have fought a clean fight, a brave fight, however misguided, and it would be a damned good thing for you if your soldiers were able to put up as good a fight as did these men in Dublin - three thousand men against twenty thousand with machine-guns and artillery [Heckled and responds] ... we have attempted to bring the masses of the Irish people into harmony with you, in this great effort at reconciliation - I say, we are entitled to every assistance from the Members of this House and this Government.’

[Editor's note: This is an article from Century Ireland, a fortnightly online newspaper, written from the perspective of a journalist 100 years ago, based on news reports of the time.]

RTÉ

Century Ireland

The Century Ireland project is an online historical newspaper that tells the story of the events of Irish life a century ago.