Archive for February 7th, 2017

1940: Peter Barnes and James McCormack, the last IRA men hanged

Add comment February 7th, 2017 Headsman

“The two that swung in Birmingham, with ordered step
From off the gallows floor.”

-Brendan Behan

On February 7, 1940 — Ash Wednesday, as it happened to be — Peter Barnes and James McCormack became the last Irish Republican Army men executed by the British

They were condemned by the outraged British after a then-shocking terrorist bombing that has largely vanished from the historical memory, subsumed by the simultaneous outbreak of World War II.

Although it was neither the first nor the last strike in the 1939-1940 campaign of Irish Republican attacks on English soil aimed at forcing London to relinquish control of Northern Ireland, the five-pound bicycle-mounted bomb that ripped apart Broadgate on August 25, 1939, might have been the one that most hardened British hearts against the authors.* Five people were killed in the explosion and some 70 injured; the scene resembled a war zone.**

The resulting investigation — explored in great detail here — never laid hands on the man who actually planted this bomb, eventually revealed to be Joby O’Sullivan.

Many years later and near his death, O’Sullivan claimed that the bomb was supposed to be parked at the Coventry police station; other reports have it destined for an electrical station, and the decision to abandon the ticking bicycle in a crowded street a freelance cock-up by O’Sullivan. Maybe. What is known is that on August 24, London police had busted an IRA plot to place explosives at Westminster Abbey, Scotland Yard, and the Bank of England — all timed to explode at the very same moment as the Coventry package, 2:30 the next afternoon. Had that coordinated fourfold bombing occurred, it would have rated one of the bloodiest and most spectacular terrorist events in history.

But the single blast that did take place was more than enough to bring down the crown’s fury.

Five faced trial for their lives, even though no hand among them had actually set the Coventry bomb. In Ireland and many other places, this latter stipulation made the entire affair an outrageous injustice, especially if one takes as a given that the bomb was not meant to hit civilians. We leave that interesting question of justice to the reader’s consideration, but it must be understood that our hanged men were certainly party to the IRA’s bombing project. The accused, for a trial that December, were:

  • Barnes, an IRA operative in London who had delivered bomb components to Coventry
  • McCormack, part of an IRA cell in Coventry who had rented the house where the bomb was constructed
  • Joseph and Mary Hewitt, and Mary’s mother Brigid O’Hara, Irish immigrants who had taken on McCormack as a lodger

Little evidence could be produced against Hewitt family, who appeared to be quite innocent of their tenant’s intentions. The latter three were cleared of all charges, and then vengefully deported.

McCormack kept stoically silent during the trial, rising only at his sentencing to announce “that the part I took in these explosions since I came to England I have done for a just cause. As a soldier of the Irish Republican Army I am not afraid to die, as I am doing it for a just cause. I say in conclusion, God bless Ireland and God bless the men who have fought and died for her.”

Barnes, whose role on the far end of the supply was even more remote from the final detonation, said as he would maintain to the end, “I am innocent and later I am sure it will all come out that I had neither hand, act or part in it.”

The pair hanged together in Birmingham’s Winson Green Prison. The return of Barnes and McCormack’s remains from that gaol’s unmourned yards to Irish soil soon became a running national demand; the remains were finally repatriated (to great fanfare) in 1969.

Amid the patriotic encomia, civil war veteran Jimmy Steele gave an address on the occasion of the republicans’ reburial critical of the Sinn Fein leadership — an address that is often considered a milepost en route to the imminent (December 1969) splitting-away of the Provisional IRA.

* And in a less justifiable expression, against the Irish generally; Coventry’s Irish immigrant populace faced an immediate racist backlash.

** A chilling preview, for the next year Coventry was devastated by German planes — one of the cities hardest hit by the Reich’s bombing campaign.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Ireland,Milestones,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Terrorists

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