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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1798: Henry Joy McCracken

1 comment July 17th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1798, Henry Joy McCracken was hanged by the British for that year’s Irish Rebellion.

The Belfast Presbyterian and cotton trader co-founded the republican Society of United Irishmen in 1791, and spent that revolutionary decade trafficking in ideas that the British crown did not approve at all.

He got busted in 1796 for his radical politics, but ill health prompted his release from prison shortly before the misfortunately ill-organized rising.

McCracken led an attack on Antrim — he dated his call to arms with a French Revolution-esque calendar reboot, “the first year of liberty” — but lost the fight and was captured a few weeks later.

He spurned offers of clemency in exchange for informing on his comrades and was parted at the gallows from his sister, Mary Ann McCracken — herself one of Ireland’s best renowned social reform activists. (She lived to the ripe old age of 96, a furious anti-slavery activist to the end.)

Say what you will about those Irish Republican revolutionaries, they know how to commemorate a body in song:

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1922: Seven Republican guerrillas in the Curragh of Kildare

14 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.

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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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1803: Robert Emmet, “let no man write my epitaph”

2 comments September 20th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1803, Irish nationalist Robert Emmet was hanged and posthumously beheaded, a day after his trial for treason against England.

The well-to-do scion of a Protestant family, Robert Emmet followed his older brother into the Republican ferment of the time and led an unavailing uprising in Dublin on July 23, 1803.

Captured a month later when he romantically recklessly moved his hideout closer to his beloved Sarah Curran.*

Emmet won his great laurels in the annals of Irish Republicanism with a stirring “Speech from the Dock” addressed to the courtroom the day before he died. Or better to say that it was addressed in a courtroom, for knowing that his death sentence was a foregone conclusion, the real audience was posterity and a wider world.

Emmet found that audience with one of the great orations of the 19th century.

This clip is a truncated version of a longer speech not set to paper by Emmet, so no single definitive version exists. Versions can be found at this Irish history site, and at SinnFein.ie.

I have but one request to ask at my departure from this world — it is the charity of its silence! Let no man write my epitaph: for as no man who knows my motives dare now vindicate them. let not prejudice or ignorance asperse them. Let them and me repose in obscurity and peace, and my tomb remain uninscribed, until other times, and other men, can do justice to my character; when my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then, let my epitaph be written. I have done.

On the strength of such sentiment — and the public’s learning of his love for Sarah Curran — the 25-year-old became iconic in death. Robert’s own death inspired the mandatory Irish patriotic ditty, “Bold Robert Emmet”:

But that sundered love between Emmet and Sarah Curran — who broken-heartedly accepted another proposal and moved to Sicily — was at least as stirring to the Romantic imagination. Washington Irving dedicated a short story to the lost romance; Emmet’s friend Thomas Moore made Curran the subject of a poem (beware: link opens an auto-playing audio file).


Anti-British terrorist Robert Emmet has a statue on Washington, D.C.’s Massachusetts Ave, and probably an entry on the no-fly list.

* 19th century Irish poet Thomas Moore paid her tribute in “She Is Far From the Land”:

She is far from the land where her young hero sleeps,
And lovers are round her, sighing:
But coldly she turns from their gaze, and weeps,
For her heart in his grave is lying.

She sings the wild song of her dear native plains,
Every note which he lov’d awaking; —
Ah! little they think who delight in her strains,
How the heart of the Minstrel is breaking.

He had liv’d for his love, for his country he died,
They were all that to life had entwin’d him;
Nor soon shall the tears of his country be dried,
Nor long will his love stay behind him.

Oh! make her a grave where the sunbeams rest,
When they promise a glorious morrow;
They’ll shine o’er his sleep, like a smile from the West,
From her ow lov’d island of sorrow.

Part of the Themed Set: Counterrevolution.

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