1922: Four anti-Treaty Irish Republicans

Add comment December 8th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1922, Irish Republicans Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows, Richard Barrett and Joe McKelvey were shot.


Stagey-looking fake propaganda photo of Rory O’Connor’s (very real) Dec. 8, 1922 execution.

These four were militant foes of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, which was to the Troubles as the Apple of Discord was to the Trojan War.

Furious at the betrayed dream (and, briefly, reality) of a united Irish republic, they were among those who occupied central Dublin’s Four Courts in April 1922, hoping to draw Britain into a counterproductive intervention.

It was a move straight from the playbook of tragic guerrilla-cum-statesman Michael Collins … except that Collins was on the other side in 1922. Collins, then Chairman of the Provisional Government for the new Irish state (and negotiator of the hated treaty) spent that spring trying to convince the Four Corners occupiers to back off, but also not intervening to force their garrison out.

Noninterference came to an end after some other Irish militants assassinated British Field-Marshal Sir Henry Wilson in June 1922. London put the political screws to Michael Collins, leading to the anomalous sight of the onetime anti-British revolutionary turning British-lent artillery against Dublin republicans.


Times change.

The Four Courts guys, imprisoned from July, would provide an even more poignant illustration of Ireland’s heartbreaking house-divided history.

For it was the Provisional Government’s Minister of Justice Kevin O’Higgins who ordered the executions — a man who had once been so tight with the executed Rory O’Connor that O’Connor was in his wedding party. (Where they toasted the Easter Rising martyrs.)

What could turn men so tight against one another? On December 7, anti-Treaty gunmen killed Sean Hales, an IRA man whom Collins had brought over to the pro-Treaty side. In a ruthless reprisal, Higgins approved the summary execution of his former comrades.

According to the official announcement* — which was bitterly denounced as lawless by the Free State’s Labour parliamentarians —

The execution took place this morning at Mountjoy Gaol of the following persons taken in arms against the Irish Government: — Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellowes, Joseph McKelvey, and Richard Barrett, as a reprisal for the assassination on his way to Dail Eireann on December 7 of Brigadier Sean Hales, T.D., and as a solemn warning to those associated with them who are engaged in a conspiracy of assassination against the representatives of the Irish people.

Bloody ironies would stack one upon the other. The rest of Sean Hales’s family had remained staunchly anti-Treaty, and publicly denounced the executions.

Sean’s own brother Tom Hales had famously withstood British torture in 1921. But Tom is even more famous for a different deed: in August 1922, Tom Hales led the republican column that ambushed and killed Michael Collins.

Many more bodies lay ahead.

* Quoted in the December 9,1922 London Times, along with some of the opposition firestorm that ensued in the Dail. “Mr. Cathal O’Shannon, shouting indignantly at the Government, said they were not fit to govern, and described the executions as the greatest crime, without exception, committed in Ireland in the last ten years. ‘You have no authority,’ he said, ‘to execute these men. You murdered them.'”

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1922: Robert Erskine Childers, for carrying the gun of Michael Collins

3 comments November 24th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1922, Robert Erskine Childers was shot by the Irish Free State for carrying a gun its founding colossus had gifted him.

Many Irishmen were executed on either side in this terrible time, but Childers cuts a unique figure among them.

To begin with, he wasn’t all that Irish — “that damned Englishman,” fellow Republican turned Civil War enemy Arthur Griffith called him. The London-born son of a British scholar and an Irish mother, Childers was a lifelong Protestant, itself an anomaly since Irish nationalism mapped (and still maps) strongly to Catholicism.

You’d think he’d be a loyal man of the empire. Early on, that’s just what he was.

In his twenties, Childers volunteered for the Boer War, and he would later say the rank savagery and underlying injustice of England’s war “changed the whole current of my life and made me a Liberal and a Nationalist.” (Source.)

Laying down the sword, Childers took up the pen and wrote several books of military history. (Long since into the public domain, at least two can be read free online: War and the Arme Blanche, German Influence on British Cavalry.) He also wrote a novel, The Riddle of the Sands, that has a (debatable) claim as the first spy novel. Riddle has never gone out of print since it was published in 1903, though it is also available free online.

Both in fiction and nonfiction, Childers’ warnings against the German challenge to British hegemony were prophetic, but he was himself becoming a man divided. 1914 saw him running German guns to Irish nationalists aboard his yacht Asgard … and then signing up for the royal navy when World War I erupted.

The British crackdown on the Easter Rising during the war completed his radicalization; he moved to Dublin and turned his eloquence against the British.

Here, Childers was swept into the tragedy of the Irish War of Independence, and the civil war that followed it; though both were in the delegation that produced the contentious Anglo-Irish Treaty, Childers broke with Michael Collins over it and backed the IRA nationalists who fought the Irish Free State.

After Collins’s assassination, emergency laws promulgated the death sentence for anyone caught armed without authorization. Childers was a writer, not a partisan, but he was arrested in early November with a small sidearm — a gift Michael Collins had given him, back when they were on the same side. It was a time of bloody justice, and they threw the book at him.

Childers knew as well as Collins had that the internecine conflict would have to end. He checked out with awe-inspiring forgiveness; summoning his 16-year-old son to prison the night before his execution, Childers extracted a promise that the boy would find everyone who signed his death warrant … and shake their hands. (Young Erskine Hamilton Childers eventually became President of Ireland.)

Childers himself likewise shook the hands of his own firing squad, one by one. His last words (reported in a number of slightly different variations) were lightheartedly addressed to them:

Take a step or two forwards, lads. It will be easier that way.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Gallows Humor,History,Intellectuals,Ireland,Martyrs,Notably Survived By,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Power,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Shot,Soldiers,Treason,Wartime Executions

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