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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1921: Richard and Abraham Pearson, the Coolacrease killings

2 comments June 30th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1921, an Irish Republican Army detail detained Richard and Abraham Pearson at their farm in rural County Offaly.

While the Pearson brothers watched in horror along with their mother, three sisters, and other family members, the Republicans readied the kindling to fire the family house. Then, Richard and Abraham were executed by an IRA firing detail.

The shooters were inexperienced as executioners and nobody delivered a coup de grace, so the Pearson brothers took hours to bleed to death from their assortment of debilitating torso wounds; Abraham did not expire until the next morning, some 14 hours later.

It might perhaps be said that few places exemplify like Ireland after its dirty war of independence Faulkner’s bromide that the past is never dead, and it’s not even past.

The Irish network RTE exhumed these once-past Killings at Coolacrease in a 2007 broadcast —

— claiming that the evangelical Protestant Pearsons were essentially targeted by neighboring Catholics on grounds of sectarian bigotry and/or an interest in pinching their 341 acres. (The surviving Pearsons emigrated to Australia and their land was indeed broken up and distributed.)

This line, whose upshot obviously impugns Irish Republicanism, occasioned a furious counterattack from that sector arguing that the Pearsons were punished for a much more prosaic reason: that they had shot at and wounded IRA volunteers who were setting up a roadblock by cutting down trees at the perimeter of the Pearson farm.

The family patriarch, William Pearson, was away at the time and later filed for compensation from London, noting that “I was always known as a staunch Loyalist and upholder of the Crown. I assisted the Crown Forces on every occasion, and I helped those who were persecuted around me at all times.” “Crown Forces” in this instance would have been the hated paramilitaries, the Black and Tans, who pack their own upshots.

Extrajudicial executions might perhaps rate among the inevitable casualties of a tooth-and-claw war over the nation’s destiny, but so too are the clash of interpretive meanings given them by later generations. Even eighty-odd years later, the urgent need to confute RTE’s “revisionist” gloss on the Pearson executions led almost immediately to a book of essays by Republican historians.

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1921: William Mitchell, Black and Tan

1 comment June 7th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1921, Great Britain hanged one of its own paramilitaries in Ireland. William Mitchell was, in fact, the only member of the reviled Black and Tans executed during the Irish War of Independence.*

This long-obscure case has been brought back to light by author D.J. Kelly, whose just-published Running With Crows: The Life and Death of a Black and Tan is a fact-based novel about William Mitchell’s execution.

Was Mitchell hanged for political expediency? Did he even commit the murder for which he stood condemned?

Kelly was kind enough to talk with Executed Today about exhuming a dead soul.

ET: What led you to take an interest in this hanging?

DJK: A third cousin of mine, who shares my interest in family history research, asked me to help her verify her late father’s claim that they were related to a Black and Tan who had been hanged for murder.

I knew that the ‘Tans’ were temporary policemen recruited in England from ex-combatants of The Great War and sent to Ireland to bolster the ranks of the beleaguered Royal Irish Constabulary during the Irish War of Independence. It took me no time at all to discovered that only one Black and Tan — indeed only one member of the entire British Crown Forces — had been executed during that conflict, and that indeed he shared a surname with my cousin.

However, I could find only the briefest of mentions of him in any accounts of that bitter struggle for Ireland’s freedom. It took me and my cousin two years to track down the elusive official case papers, to establish exactly who Mitchell was, and to tell his hitherto untold story. To date however, we still have not established a firm link with my cousin’s family.

The Black and Tans are of course still notorious in Ireland and elsewhere. In this book you’re complicating their story quite a bit, making at least this one Tan a sympathetic character. What sort of audience reception has Running with Crows had? Do you find there’s a lot of resistance to the story you have to tell? For that matter, did you have any misgivings to overcome in writing it?

You are right about their notoriety. The ‘Tans’ were bored, drunk and indisciplined during the short period of their service in Ireland. They were also poorly managed and allowed to run amok, robbing and assaulting the Irish population. There is no evidence however to support the popular myth that they included a greater number of criminals than has any police force before or since. They were disillusioned and battle-hardened men who were unable to find employment back in the ‘land fit for heroes’.

Book CoverIronically, one lone reviewer of my book has accused me of not making Mitchell sympathetic enough. It was not my intention though to create sympathy for this flawed and tragic man or to turn him into a folk hero. However, whilst I do not think he was the most honourable of men, I am not persuaded he deserved to hang.

I was indeed wary of uncovering this controversial case, especially as folks in Ireland, my own relatives included, are still sensitive and emotional about the events of the 1920s. The accepted view is that the old IRA were the heroes and the ‘Tans’ were the baddies. Few people realise however that at least a quarter of the Black and Tans were Irishmen, as indeed was Mitchell. However, I am delighted to have received highly positive reviews, from ‘both sides of the divide’, that is from an IRA re-enactment group as well as from supporters and historians of the Royal Irish Constabulary. Moreover, a theatrical production company, based in the town where the murder took place, and where people still remember and sympathise with the murdered magistrate’s family, has adapted my book to a stage play, which will debut there on 15 June at the Dunlavin Arts Festival. They have also kindly invited me to hold an author talk at the festival on the 16th June.

William Mitchell was hanged for killing a magistrate named Robert Dixon. Who was Robert Dixon and why was he a target during the war?

Robert Gilbert Dixon was an Anglo-Irish gentleman; a gentleman farmer who acted as an auctioneer at the local livestock auctions and who served as a district magistrate on the local circuit. He and his wife were descended from noble and philanthropic English forebears, and indeed Robert Dixon was respected in his community for his generosity shown both to his neighbours and to the police.

During the conflict though, both magistrates and police were viewed by the Nationalists as instruments of the occupying power (the British) and as such were prime targets for assassination by the IRA. Dixon’s murder was not a political killing however. He was shot dead, and his war hero son seriously wounded, during the course of a robbery at his home.

This post-war era saw the erosion of the class system and marked the beginning of the end for ‘the old order’. Socialism was gaining popularity and the working classes were shrugging off the idea that they should ‘know their place’. The awful loss of life, mainly through mis-management of the war, meant that many had lost respect for, and indeed were resentful of, the privileged classes. A truce was now imminent in Ireland and so the ‘Tans’, who were being paid per day what the regular Irish constables earned in a week, saw their lucrative employment coming to an end, and meanwhile, in Dunlavin, the Dixon family were conspicuously wealthy …

Coming at last to the main character here, who was William Mitchell? Why was he serving in the Black and Tans, and why did he end up at the end of a noose?

Contrary to what some commentators on the conflict have written, Mitchell was not English but Irish. He was a Dublin-born former professional soldier, who had served King and Empire, both in India and in the trenches of the Western Front. He was the son of Joseph Mitchell, a London-born soldier; a respectable man who had fought in the Boer War and who had married a Dublin Protestant girl.

Another myth, that of the privileged position of those in the ‘Protestant ascendancy’ in Ireland, is dispelled by William Mitchell’s impoverished upbringing in Dublin’s Monto district, which was not only Ireland’s, but indeed Europe’s, biggest slum and red-light district. William Mitchell was a man who did not respect authority — some might say, with good reason. When two masked intruders forced their way into the Dixon household and killed the magistrate during a bungled robbery, and when one of the ‘Tans’ shot himself dead at the local barracks the following day, it was believed the dead ‘Tan’ was the shooter, and so Mitchell was then arrested as his accomplice.

This hanging occurred just as London was determining to wind things down in Ireland; later that June, Prime Minister Lloyd George proposed peace talks. As a political sop, how important domestically within Ireland was William Mitchell’s execution in June 1921? Did it even register? Had he been spared, would that have affected at all the progress towards a truce?

Ah, you have put your finger on the nub of the issue.

As ill-disciplined and unruly as the temporary constables were, there was another arm of the Black and Tans which was far more undisciplined. The Auxiliaries were demobilised officers who had been engaged ostensibly to act as an officer cadre for the temporary constables but who had instead formed themselves into hit squads and set about abducting, torturing and killing suspects without due process of law. It was the Auxiliaries who were identified with some of the worst atrocities of the conflict, including the destruction of whole villages and towns and even of the murder of the mayor of Cork.

Several Auxiliaries had been tried for murder but acquitted, usually because crucial prosecution witnesses had ‘disappeared’. One indicted auxiliary, who was a decorated war hero, but most likely also a psychopath, and was head of the self-designated ‘murder squad’ based in Dublin Castle, was facing his second murder trial. By April 1921, the world’s press were united in condemning the British administration in Ireland for letting loose this uncontrolled ‘pseudo gendarmerie’ upon the Irish population. The number of Republicans who would be executed would run to two dozen, yet thus far, no member of the British Crown Forces had been convicted for any atrocity.

The Americans and the heads of the Commonwealth nations were demanding fair play. The British public were revolted by the way the conflict was being managed and now no less a personage than King George V stepped into the arena and demanded that Lloyd George‘s government show even handedness in the way it dealt with both rebel and law enforcer. Another acquittal was fully expected in the trial of the twice-tried Auxiliary, who had carried out his grisly and murderous duty on behalf of his government, but then along came the hapless Constable Mitchell, a ‘difficult’ Irishman who had allegedly killed, not an Irish rebel, but a magistrate; an Englishman and a representative of the establishment.

The outcome in the April trial of the Auxiliary, whose defence costs (equating in today’s values to £17,600) were met from the personal funds of Hamar Greenwood, Chief Secretary for Ireland, was an acquittal, as expected.

Mitchell’s swift trial a couple of days later, by court martial (so no right of appeal) attracted little publicity. He went stoically to the scaffold, leaving behind him a 23-year-old widow and a seven-week-old baby daughter.

Political events moved fairly swiftly thereafter, so it is hard to judge whether his execution had much effect on the progress of Ireland’s achieving independence. The focus of public attention was taken up next with the internal struggles leading up to the Civil War. It seems Mitchell’s execution had little effect in the grand scheme of things.

So, did Mitchell kill the magistrate? Was he even present at the crime scene or was he a sacrificial lamb, slaughtered to offset criticism of Lloyd George’s administration in Ireland? I have presented all there is to know of this man’s life and death, as found in his military and police records, trial transcripts etcetera, and whether or not he killed the magistrate for whose murder he was hanged, or whether this was an awful miscarriage of justice, I leave for the reader to judge.

What happened to Mitchell’s family afterwards? And all these years later, what do the descendants think about their ancestor’s execution, and about the work you did with it?

I felt I could not let Mitchell’s story end with his execution. Since this is a novel closely based on a true and tragic story, I felt the reader would want to know what happened next. I know I certainly did, so I continued my research, and my narrative, to recount what had happened to many of the players in the story, and this may be found in the book’s epilogue.

Mitchell’s baby daughter lived into her nineties, always believing her father had died a hero in the course of his police service. Her respectable and courageous widowed mother did not want her little girl to grow up with any sort of stigma. Other family members knew of Mitchell’s fate however. When I tracked down his living descendants, I was cautious of the sensitivities surrounding my exposing Mitchell’s history. However, the family were keen for the full story to come out, and moreover they provided me with photographs of Mitchell, for which I am most grateful, as they enabled me to put a face to a man who hitherto had been simply a statistic.

This is not the end of the Mitchell story, however. His mortal remains (which are amongst the few still buried within the precincts of Dublin’s Mountjoy Gaol) will one day be exhumed when planned re-development of the gaol is commenced. When that day comes, my cousin and I will press for his re-interment in a local cemetery. Mitchell may not warrant the hero’s funeral accorded the Republicans who have all be disinterred from Mountjoy, but I believe he deserves at least a Christian burial.

* Still also known as the “Black and Tan War”.

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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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1920: James Daly, Connaught Rangers mutineer

1 comment November 2nd, 2010 Headsman

The British Empire administered its last execution for mutiny on this date in 1920 — that of Irish Private James Daly of the Connaught Rangers.

A Dublin cemetery preserves a monument to Daly and his comrades.

You can take the Irishman out of Ireland, but not Ireland out of the Irishman. Something like that.

Daly was shot in Dagshai prison, India, but the reason for his death was that old familiar of his homeland’s history: nationalism.

Half a world away, London was playing the bad guys in the Irish War of Independence.

It was a conflict uniquely suited for dividing comrades; little wonder that it also divided comrades in arms.

Having lately bled for His Majesty in the War to End All Wars, plenty of Irish enlistees were nonplussed to see troops deployed to their own neighborhoods, Black and Tans shooting up their friends and family.*

From June 1920, a number of Irish Connaught Rangers “grounded arms” for their brethren in Eire, refusing to serve Britain while British troops occupied Ireland. One thing led to another, and a group (led by Daly, and his brother William) ended up trying to rush an armory to recover its weapons, opposed by other Rangers who remained loyal to the crown.

Fourteen death sentences were handed down for this show of indiscipline, but Daly’s was the only one actually carried out. The Rangers were disbanded two years later with the formation of the Irish Free State. And everyone lived happily ever after.

* Connaught Rangers had been used (without incident) to suppress the Easter Rising in 1916.

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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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1920: Kevin Barry

4 comments November 1st, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1920, 18-year-old Irish Republican Army Section Commander Kevin Barry was hanged in Dublin’s Mountjoy Prison for the murder of English Private Harold Whitehead in an IRA ambush just six weeks prior to the execution.

Denying the authority of the British (civilian) court, the young medical student went undefended, insouciantly reading the newspaper in court as the government built its case against him. His was the first execution of the Irish War of Independence, and stoked Irish nationalist sentiment on the island and abroad.

Refused a request to be shot as a soldier, Barry nevertheless went jauntily to his fate, his bearing making great gains for IRA recruitment and fixing his own name in the firmament of Irish independence martyrs. Britain’s insistence on treating him as a murderer rather than a prisoner of war was widely received as an insult to the movement he represented.

It was not until 1989 that Barry’s short life received a biographical treatment, Kevin Barry and His Times, by the hanged man’s nephew. But a 1920’s song celebrating Barry has survived since that time as a popular hymn of Irish Republicanism.

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