A History of Ireland in ten Englishmen (7): General Sir John Maxwell – The Man Who Lost Ireland?

people_maxwellIf we want to characterise the stereotypical picture of the English in Ireland, then General Sir John Maxwell might do as well as any of the others.

The record of the governance of Ireland under the union was never one of the brutal suppression the Republican tradition likes to depict. It might be a more telling criticism to say that most its hallmarks were a mix of indifference, ignorance and ham-fistedness. When roused to creativity, some important and remarkable reforms could emerge: from Catholic Emancipation, to university education, the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, or Land reform. Much of this was, of course, was in response to political pressure from Irish nationalism. It was also, though, often done in the face of furious opposition from Irish Unionism, especially in the north, and took genuine political courage.

The Janus face Ireland was held to present to Westminster often brought a familiar cocktail of response: a mix of conciliation and coercion, in which the neither was effective, the conciliation raising expectations it did not fulfil, and the coercion alienating Irish opinion. The reaction to the Easter Rising of 1916 saw both, but in a very specific order.

As we all know, the coercion came first.

General Sir John Maxwell was from a Scottish family, born in Liverpool in 1859. He had a pretty conventional career for a senior army officer of his time: Sandhurst, decorated junior officer, a notable role in the Sudanese War. It was there that he developed a notable string to his bow, that of military governorship. In his time he had military governor of Nubia, then Omdurman, the Pretoria and the Western Transvaal. He was also the commanding officer of British forces in Egypt, twice.

After a brief spell on the Western Front in 1914, he returned to Egypt. Frustrated, he asked for a recall. Thus, he found himself in Britain in April 1916. When the rising came, as governments have throughout history, the initial reaction was outrage: think nowadays of a terrorist outrage. Maxwell arrived four days after the outbreak of the rising, given somewhat unclear powers of martial law. Maxwell moved with the oft seen certainty of the military man in a complex situation. To put it simply: he got it wrong.

Understanding Maxwell needs some context. This was just past 18 months into the most terrible war, at that point, in human history. Russia was buckling under the German onslaught. By April 1916, the French were at breaking point at Verdun; a new offensive on the Somme, in part to relieve the French, was being planned. More than 200,000 Irishmen were serving in the army (around 30,000 would be killed). The rebels’ Proclamation of the Republic spoke of ‘our gallant allies in Europe’. In Dublin, many saw the rebels as traitors, especially in the vicinity of the famous post office. According to Maxwell at the time, there were 440 army casualties, 106 killed; civilians died too. Then, there were civilians, perhaps some 400 killed.

Maxwell came with what seems to have been the task of clamping down, hard. In the circumstances, Maxwell’s reaction is kind of explicable. That made no difference to history. It was still wrong. The initial military reaction was inevitable: the Dublin Metropolitan Police were unarmed and had to withdraw. But after the surrender, Maxwell was determined to shoot. He was persuaded to use courts martial, rather than simple summary justice. This made the business harder, and longer. Asquith got cold feet pretty quickly; it seems even Maxwell recognised the effect the executions were having, though he does seem to have been determined, in military fashion, to carry on.

There were other reasons why the politics of Ireland were transformed. The 15 executions ordered by Maxwell (and Roger Casement’s hanging) did turn the rebels from venal traitors or foolish boys into fully-fledged martyrs: the strong Catholic Irish nationalist tradition of martyrdom had ploughed this ground well before. Just as importantly, 3,400 men were arrested: many of them gleaned from out-dated and dusty old police files and nothing to do with the actual rising.

After coercion, all too characteristically, an unsuccessful attempt at conciliation followed. The attempt to revive Home rule under Lloyd George the following year was ill starred. Meanwhile, the war ground on, and this led the government to bite the latest in a series of politically unpleasant bullets. Conscription had been introduced into Great Britain in 1916, but not in Ireland; in 1918, the government legislated to allow for conscription in Ireland.

The measure was similar to so many attempts at coercion in Ireland, which either didn’t work, or (as in the case) were not implemented: its real impact was political. Searching for an explanation for the Easter Rising, the press and government latched onto Sinn Fein, who actually had nothing to do with the rising, and little political hold in 1916. The two years after the rising transformed Irish politics. With the proposal to impose conscription, Sinn Fein (and thus, then, by political implication, the rebels) found themselves on the same platform as the two great pillars of nationalist politics: the Church, and the old super-structures of the Irish Parliamentary Party.

Maxwell did not, thus, lose Ireland. But had the sixteen men not died, what then?

Maxwell left Ireland shortly after, a political liability. He had no real connection to Ireland, and it seems he saw it through the lens of a colonial military governor and in the form as one strand of Irishness: the terrible rebel. As Eunan O’Halpin put it, no other British officer may well have done differently. But, he still got it wrong.


There is an excellent RTE documentary on Maxwell and 1916.

Eunan O’Halpin writes on Maxwell in The Irish Times here.

Can you believe the presiding general of the courts martial was called Blackadder?

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