Themed Set: The Easter Rising

Add comment May 3rd, 2018 Headsman

“Sixteen Dead Men”
by W.B. Yeats*

O but we talked at large before
The sixteen men were shot,
But who can talk of give and take,
What should be and what not
While those dead men are loitering there
To stir the boiling pot?

You say that we should still the land
Till Germany’s overcome;
But who is there to argue that
Now Pearse is deaf and dumb?
And is their logic to outweigh
MacDonagh’s bony thumb?

How could you dream they’d listen
That have an ear alone
For those new comrades they have found,
Lord Edward and Wolfe Tone,
Or meddle with our give and take
That converse bone to bone?

When 1,600 brave or foolhardy Irish nationalists seized the center of Dublin on the morrow of Easter in 1916, it should by every right have been a death knell for their movement.

Their rude barricades would only withstand London’s pressure for a few days; the famous headquarters in Dublin’s General Post Office (GPO) was battered to rubble by British ordnance. By the end of the apparent debacle, the cream of Irish Republicanism — including every single man who set his name to a ferocious Robert Emmet-inspired Proclamation of the Irish Republic — had been laid in the earth.

“We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible,” that document read in part. “The long usurpation of that right by a foreign people and government has not extinguished the right, nor can it ever be extinguished except by the destruction of the Irish people.”

In the first days of May, as the leaders of the self-styled “Irish Republic” were fusilladed in Kilmainham Gaol, the words rang downright laughable. An insurrection of poets — comprising, in the words of Joyce Kilmer, “men of literary tastes and training, who went into battle, as one of the dispatches from Dublin phrased it, ‘with a revolver in one hand and a copy of Sophocles in the other.'”**

Yet somehow, impossibly, with weapons that wouldn’t rate a slingshot against the globe’s paramount Goliath — an empire that had lately made short and brutal work of the Boers, and was wasting cannon meat by the divisionfold on the western front — these dreamers’ doomed revolution touched off the chain reaction that would eject Ireland from the empire. One of them was destined to go from a British condemned cell to the the presidency of his country. It’s all just too providential to believe.†

As the eponymous John Dolan notes in Radio War Nerd episode 23,

At the time, when the survivors were being led away to their executions through the smoking ruins of Dublin, people cursed their names … but as they were executed, very roughly and very clumsily because it was a wartime administration and all the good British troops were in Europe … those badly handled executions created a martyrdom, and that martyrdom is something that taps very deeply into Irish culture. It’s a very Shia culture in that way. So the total military failure of the Easter Rising became an effective long-term success.

British troops left the country, or at least most of the country, five years later. And that seems kind of ordinary to us now because British troops began leaving all kinds of countries, without violence sometimes, a half-century later. But you have to remember, in 1916, no one had managed to fight their way out of the British Empire in a century.

There’s a great lecture series on the Irish Revolution (including but not limited to the Easter Rising) here.

Irish nationalists still commemorate the Easter Rising — on the moveable Easter Monday date, rather than the April 24-29 span of street fighting — and still cherish the 16 martyrs made by British guns day after day that May.

Previously covered (and not chronologically contiguous)

* Yeats was an Irish nationalist for whom this political event was intensely personal: Yeats’s marriage proposals to fellow-radical Maud Gonne had been rebuffed repeatedly, until she finally married John MacBride … one of the Easter Rising leaders who would be shot that bloody May.

Yeats has a longer meditation on events in another poem, “Easter, 1916”.

** Foreshadowing 1980s Irish Republicans’ policy: “a ballot paper in this hand and an Armalite in the other”.

† The reader may judge of the Great Man theory, but it certainly did not hurt the Irish cause that future guerrilla genius Michael Collins, arrested when the rebels surrendered the GPO, was not at that time a significant enough figure to be worth the British executioners’ while.

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1941: Harry Gleeson, posthumously exonerated

Add comment April 23rd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1941, Harry Gleeson hanged for murder in Ireland — wrongly, the government admitted in 2015.

Gleeson was the nephew and farmhand of a man called John Caesar, whose County Tipperary property abutted a cottage inhabited by a local prostitute called Moll McCarthy. On November 21, 1940, Gleeson found Moll McCarthy dead on a farm field. Her face had been destroyed by a gunshot; her murder orphaned seven children, many of them the illegitimate progeny of local married men.

Nine days later, Irish police arrested a surprised Gleeson for the murder. He hotly denied their theory that he had availed himself of the victim’s services, and then slain her to prevent his uncle finding out about it.

It was, the Irish Times says in a review of one of the several books about the case, “a definitively Irish murder case: the prosecution claimed that ‘Gleeson was meeting Moll at the field pump, away from prying eyes, and arranging to give her potatoes in exchange for sex.'”

As a criminal case, it involved that brew of tunnel vision preoccupation with the wrong guy and outright cheating to nail him that frequently characterizes errant convictions. But there may have been a political undercurrent besides.

Gleeson was defended by former Irish Republican Army chief of staff Sean MacBride,* and it’s been hypothesized that the barrister’s political affiliations critically unbalanced the case for at least a couple of important reasons:

  • A prejudicial court and jury perhaps gave their verdict as much against MacBride as against Gleeson. (The jury issued its conviction alongside an unsuccessful application for clemency.)
  • MacBride himself might have pulled some punches from the defense bar in view of the possibility — as charged by Kieran Fagan in The Framing of Harry Gleeson — that McCarthy was actually murdered for informing on IRA men.
A few books about Mary MacCarthy and Harry Gleeson

* MacBride’s father John “Foxy Jack” MacBride hanged in 1916 for his role in the Easter Rising.

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1942: Tom Williams, IRA martyr

2 comments September 2nd, 2017 Headsman

Irish revolutionary Tom Williams was hanged at Belfast’s Crumlin Road Gaol on this date in 1942.

A plaque at 46 Bombay Street in Belfast marks the home Tom Williams shared with his grandmother.

The 19-year-old Belfast Catholic had been the chief of a six-man Irish Republican Army team that mounted an Easter Sunday attack intended to divert Northern Ireland’s Royal Ulster Constabulary from preventing Republican marches to commemorate the Easter Rising. The attack killed an RUC officer, and all six IRA men were arrested and sentenced to death.

As the acknowledged leader, Williams alone paid that forfeit; the five others all had their sentences commuted. (Notably, their number included 21-year-old Joe Cahill, who was destined for an illustrious career in the movement; he would go on to co-found the Provisional IRA in 1969, and to become a prominent exponent of the peace process in the 1990s.)

“Tom Williams walked to that scaffold without a tremor in his body. The only people who were shaking were us and the hangman,” his priest said later that day. “I’ve one other thing to say to you. Don’t pray for Tom Williams, pray to him, for at this moment Tom is a saint in heaven.”

That’s about the size of Williams’s place in the Republican memory. After the prison was closed, Williams was reburied with honors (Gerry Adams attended) in 2000. He’s commemorated in a ballad.

Tom Williams (Irish republican) from REBELS OF IRELAND on Vimeo.

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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.

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1944: Charlie Kerins, IRA Chief of Staff

Add comment December 1st, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1944, the Irish Free State hanged Irish Republican Army Chief of Staff Charlie Kerins.

The IRA had been sorely pressed in these war years by the Special Branch, and the inroads of counterintelligence help explain why Kerins himself took such a prominent position in the IRA at the tender age of 24.

And it also explains how he ended up on the gallows at Mountjoy Prison.

Key to the Special Branch’s campaign was the recruitment of Irish republicans — men like Denis O’Brien, a veteran of the Civil War turned police spy whom Kerins and two mates ambushed and shot to death in his driveway on the morning of September 9, 1942.

As one might expect, this incendiary assassination redoubled state pressure against the IRA. Living on the run under assumed names, Kerins managed to dodge arrest until June 1944. But when captured, he knew how to comport himself from implacable precedent of forerunners like Kevin Barry.

Kerins refused to recognize with a defense the legitimacy of the court that tried him; indeed, so reluctant were the authorities to make a martyr of Kerins that they paused proceedings for six hours with his conviction cinched to give Kerins the opportunity to save his neck by applying to submit to mercy. Kerins wasn’t the submitting type.

“You could have adjourned for six years as far as I am concerned,” Kerins sneered when the session reconvened. “My attitude to this court will always be the same.”

In the words of a verse he wrote to a friend just before his hanging —

What, said Cathal Brugha, if our last man’s on the ground.
When he hears the ringing challenge if his enemies ring him round.
If he’d reached his final cartridge — if he fired his final shot.
Will you come into the empire? He would answer, I will not.

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1920: Gerald Smyth, Royal Irish Constabulary officer

Add comment July 17th, 2016 Headsman

Royal Irish Constabulary officer Gerald Smyth was executed by an Irish Republican Army hit team on this date in 1920.

A true child of empire, born in Punjab and veteran of the First World War where he had lost the use of one arm, Smyth had been assigned to Ireland during the bloody Irish War of Independence. One year’s time out from this post, almost to the day, Great Britain threw in the towel by agreeing to a truce that led to Irish self-government (and Irish Civil War).

The “execution” — assassination — that we mark this date was consequence of an event called the Listowel Mutiny, which occurred in June 1920.

The account for this event is quite incendiary, and it bears mentioning that it hails from a Republican newspaper, Sinn Fein’s Irish Bulletin. In it, former policeman Jeremiah Mee explains the circumstances of his own departure from the constabulary: Smyth had arrived at the Listowel barracks to deliver his demoralized constables an ukase directing an aggressive shoot-on-sight policy, to take the fight to suspected militants.

Sinn Fein has had all the sport up to the present and we are going to have the sport now … I am promised as many troops from England as I require, thousands are coming daily. I am getting 7,000 police from England [Smyth is referring here to the influx of Black and Tans -ed.] …

Police and military will patrol the country at least five nights a week. They are not to confine themselves to the main roads but take across the country, lie in ambush, and when civilians are seen approaching shout “Hands up.” Should the order not be immediately obeyed, shoot, and shoot with effect. If persons approaching carry their hands in their pockets and are in any way suspicious looking, shoot them down. You may make mistakes occasionally and innocent persons may be shot, but that cannot be helped and you are bound to get the right persons sometimes. The more you shoot the better I will like you; and I assure you that no policeman will get into trouble for shooting any man and I will guarantee that your names will not be given at the inquest.

The constables gaped at this directive until Mee retored, “By your accent I take it you are an Englishman and in your ignorance forget that you are addressing Irishmen.” Then he removed his cap, belt, and bayonet: “These too are English. Take them as a present from me and to hell with you — you are a murderer!”

Mee quit on the spot, and 13 of his comrades quit with him.

This Listowel Mutiny reached its narrative closure a month later when that IRA team burst into Cork smoking room where Lieutenant-Colonel Smyth was relaxing and startled him with the revengeful taunt, “Colonel, were not your orders to shoot on sight? Well you are in sight now, so prepare.”

Smyth’s murder in turn further escalated tensions in war-torn Ireland, helping contribute to an outbreak of sectarian pogroms days later that saw thousands of Catholics driven out of the city and/or work in Belfast.

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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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1920: Bloody Sunday in Ireland

4 comments November 21st, 2010 Headsman

Sunday, Nov. 21 in 1920 was “Bloody Sunday” in Ireland, a date begun with the IRA execution of British agents in Dublin, and concluded with three IRA men killed in British custody.

Thirty-one people lost their lives on this 1920 Bloody Sunday, a signal event of the Irish War of Independence; the thirteen of them who were British intelligence officers or assets targeted for an en masse morning liquidation suffices to qualify the affair for these grim pages.

“Executions”, assassinations or otherwise, the killings were ordered by Irish revolutionary Michael Collins in the escalating dirty war between his Irish Republican Army and the Black and Tans dispatched by London to crush the IRA.

My one intention was the destruction of the undesirables who continued to make miserable the lives of ordinary decent citizens. I have proof enough to assure myself of the atrocities which this gang of spies and informers have committed. If I had a second motive it was no more than a feeling such as I would have for a dangerous reptile. By their destruction the very air is made sweeter. For myself, my conscience is clear. There is no crime in detecting in wartime the spy and the informer. They have destroyed without trial. I have paid them back in their own coin.

-Michael Collins, on the executions

There were a couple of hitches in the plan: most particularly, that out of an initial list of 50 targets, Collins had been forced by his own government to trim to 35 … and then his hit teams “only” actually managed to get about a third of them.

And, of course, it drew a British rampage that day, most famously at a football match at Croke Park* concluding when Dirk McKee, Peadar Clancy and Conor Clune were killed that evening in a British police station — “trying to escape.”

But in all, the day was a coup for the Republicans, who crippled British intelligence in Dublin and gave any future recruits grave reason to think twice about the engagement, while reaping a public relations bonanza both domestic and international from the indiscriminate English response against civilians.

Occurring as it did while the fight for Ireland everywhere intensified — and that fight culminating in Ireland’s independence** — 1920’s Bloody Sunday is a sacred day for Irish nationalism.

Just to be clear, however, this is not the Bloody Sunday of U2 “Sunday Bloody Sunday” fame, which was an altogether different bit of carnage in 1972. “Bloody Sunday” actually has a disturbingly populous Wikipedia disambiguation page, with at least four Ireland-related entries and others from Turkey, Canada, South Africa, and points beyond.

* An England-Ireland rugby match in that stadium in 2007 grabbed headlines for its associations this date; you can see the respective anthems played before a respectful Irish crowd here.

** Leading, of course, to further assassinations, including Michael Collins’s own, and the internecine Irish Civil War.

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1922: Seven Republican guerrillas in the Curragh of Kildare

13 comments December 19th, 2008 James Durney

(Thanks to author and historian James Durney for the guest post, an excerpt from On the One Road: Political Unrest in Kildare 1913-1994. -ed.)

Seven men were executed in the Glasshouse, in the Curragh Camp on December 19 in the biggest official executions of the Civil War. They were Patrick Bagnall and Patrick Mangan, Fairgreen, Kildare; Joseph Johnston, Station Road, Kildare; Bryan Moore and Patrick Nolan, Rathbride, Kildare; Stephen White, Abbey St. Kildare and James O’ Connor, Bansha, Co. Tipperary. These seven men, along with Comdt. Thomas Behan were found in a dug-out at Mooresbridge, on the edge of the Curragh, on the night of December 13. They were under the command of Comdt. Bryan Moore, 38, a veteran IRA officer, and comprised a section of the 6th Battn. Column. They were armed with rifles bought from a soldier stationed in Naas Barracks.

A detachment of troops from the Curragh searching a farmhouse at Mooresbridge, about one-and-a-half miles from the Curragh Camp, “found the proprietress in possession of a fully loaded Webley revolver.” A subsequent search disclosed a dug-out underneath a floor. The dug-out was surrounded by National soldiers who called on the men to come out. Eight men were in the dug-out, which was also found to contain 10 rifles, a quantity of ammunition, one exploder, a roll of cable and food supplies. When they surrendered Tom Behan was struck with a rifle butt and had his arm broken. When the captives were ordered into the back of a truck Tom Behan could not climb aboard because of his broken arm. He was struck again on the head with a rifle butt and died at the scene. Behan was a veteran IRA man and at the time of his death was Intelligence Officer, 1st Eastern Division. The Free State authorities claimed that Behan was shot while trying to escape through a window in the Glasshouse (so called because of its roof), issuing a statement saying: “One of the party of men arrested when trying to make his escape from the hut in which he was detained at the Curragh, ignoring the warning of the sentry to desist, was fired on and fatally wounded.” Mick Sheehan was in the Glasshouse at the time and thought it highly unusual that an experienced volunteer like Tom Behan would try to escape through such a small window. It was only years later that he found out the truth. The Glasshouse was a small stone and brick military prison up the hill where the military usually housed their own prisoners. It consisted of two floors enclosed within a twelve foot high walled enclosure with cells for 64 prisoners. During the Civil War, and after, it was used as a punishment block for Republican prisoners.

The remaining seven men were executed by firing squad on the morning of December 19. The following official report was issued from Army Headquarters, GHQ, on that evening: “Stephen White, Abbey Street, Kildare, labourer; Joseph Johnson, Station Road, Kildare, railway worker; Patrick Mangan, Fair Green, Kildare, railway worker; Patrick Nolan, Rathbride, Kildare, railway worker; Brian Moore, Rathbride, Kildare, labourer; James O’Connor, Bansha, Tipperary, railway worker; Patrick Bagnel, Fair Green, Kildare, labourer who with others, were arrested at Rathbride, Co. Kildare, on the 13th inst., were charged before a Military Committee with being in possession, without proper authority, of – 10 rifles, 200 rounds of ammunition therefor, 4 bomb detonators, 1 exploder.

“They were found guilty and sentenced to death. The sentence was duly executed this morning, 19th inst., at 8.30 a.m.”

This stone at Grey Abbey commemorates the seven IRA men. Image courtesy of Mario Corrigan.

They were all veteran IRA men and belonged to a column of ten which operated against railways, goods trains and some shops in the vicinity of Kildare. Five of them were on the derailment of engines at Cherryville on December 11 when they made a serious attempt to dislocate the whole railway service on the Great Southern and Western Railway Line. Two engines were taken out of a shed at Kildare and sent down the line by Cherryville. One engine ran out of steam and did no harm, while the other overturned and blocked the line for a considerable time. The column was also responsible for an ambush on National troops at the Curragh Siding on November 23 when a large party of troops were returning to Dublin after escorting prisoners to the Curragh Internment Camp. On their return journey the troops were fired on at the Curragh Siding and two were wounded. In the confusion a policeman was accidentally shot by a National soldier. Father Donnelly, chaplain to the troops, administered to the seven volunteers before their executions. They were shot one by one and were buried in the yard adjacent to the Glasshouse.

The last letters from the seven men were printed in the Republican paper Eire. /The Irish/ /Nation/. James O’Connor of Bansha wrote to his mother: “I am going to Eternal Glory tomorrow morning with six other true-hearted Irishmen.” Patrick Mangan wrote to his mother: “I am to be shot in the morning. I fought for Ireland and am sorry I could not do more… I have made my peace with God and was never so happy as tonight.”

On March 31 1923 Eire (The Irish Nation) printed the last poignant letters from Bryan Moore, Patrick Bagnell and Paddy Nolan under the title ‘Last letters of “executed” soldiers of the IRA.’*

Letter of Bryan Moore to his Brother.

Hare Park Prison, 18-12-22.

Dear Pat, – I am about to die for the Cause of Ireland as many did before. Pray for me and get the children to pray for me. I’ve just had the priest and will see him again in the morning at 6.30 and receive Holy Communion. He says we are to be envied the deaths we are about to meet, as we shall go straight to Heaven.

Do all you can for Father and Mother. Tell Mary and Kathleen to say a prayer for me every night,

Bryan.

Letter of Bryan Moore to Mother and Father.

Hare Park Prison, 18-12-22.

Dear Mother and Father, – I am about to be executed in the morning and I wish to bid you good-bye, and to ask you to pray for me and the rest of the boys.

I had the priest this evening and will see him again to night. I am resigned to die. God comfort you both.

Tell Johnny to pray for me. – Your loving Son.

Bryan.

Letter of Bryan Moore.

Hare Park Prison, 18-12-22.

Dear Johnny, – Good-bye, and be good to Father and Mother. Pray for me. – Bryan.

P.S. – You can do a man’s part by looking after Father and Mother. Tell them not to worry for me, as I am better off. God bless you.

Dear Annie, – Good-bye. God bless you. Pray for me.

Bryan.

Letter of Patrick Bagnall to his Uncle.

Hare Park Prison, 18-12-22.

Dear Jimmy, – I hope you and Willie are well. Tell all the boys and girls I was asking for them. I am writing to my sister and father. I am to be shot in the morning, 19th December, at 8.15. Mind Mary and do what you can for her. I know this will nearly kill her. We had a priest who heard our confessions. We are all here, seven of us – Johnston, Mangan, White, Moore, Nolan, Connor, and I. We are all to go “West” together, so don’t forget to pray for us. I know you and Willie will be sorry, but it is all for the best, and I hope it sets old Ireland free. We are not afraid to die.

Tell them all in Kildare I was asking for them. Don’t forget Harry Moore. We are dying happy anyway. So good-bye old Kildare, good-bye Jimmy and God bless you. I will meet you in Heaven. Tell Tom Byrne I was asking for him. – Your loving nephew, Paddy Bagnall.

The priest’s name and address is Father_____, Curragh Camp, a very nice man: you can write him if you want to. He said we will die like men anyway.

Letter of Paddy Nolan to his Father and Mother.

Curragh Camp Prison, 18-12-22.

Dear father and Mother, – I am writing my last few lines to you. I am to be executed to-morrow morning, and I hope you will bear it with the courage of an Irish Father and Mother. I am proud to die for the Cause I loved and honoured, and for which I give up my young life.

Six more of my comrades are to be executed. We have all been to confession and Holy Communion. Father ______ told us we would go straight to Heaven, so do not worry.

Dearest Mother, there are a few pounds in my suitcase, you can have them, or anything else in the house belonging to me.

Loving Father and Mother , good-bye for ever, – Your fond and faithful Son.

Paddy.

Father _____, Curragh Camp, sends his sympathies and prayers.

Letter of Paddy Nolan to his Elder Brothers and Sisters.

Curragh Camp Prison, 18-12-22.

My Dear Brothers and Sisters.

Now that I’m about to part from this world, I ask you for one favour – be kind and good to Father and Mother, and never dishonour the Cause for which I die – a Free and Independent Ireland. I bear no ill will to any person. Fond Sisters and Brothers, pray for me. Good-bye forever.

Paddy.

Letter to his Young Brothers and Sisters.

My Dear little ones, – I, your fond brother about to pass out of this world, ask you loving little ones to offer up your innocent prayers for me and my comrades on Christmas morning. Be good children, and always obey your parents and do everything in your power to make them happy. God bless you little ones. Good-bye for ever. – Paddy.

The executions caused a lot of bitterness locally. Both Mick Sheehan’s uncles, who had taken the pro-Treaty side, left the National Army. One, Capt. Patrick Kelly, who had served in the Republican Police, resigned his commission and went to the Civic Guards.

* The last letter of 18-year-old Stephen White, which seems not to have been printed at the time, can be read on this history of the day’s executions. -ed.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guerrillas,Guest Writers,History,Ireland,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Shot,Soldiers,Terrorists,Wartime Executions

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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.

On this day..

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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