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: Joseph O’Sullivan and Reginald Dunne, helping spark the Irish Civil War

14 comments August 10th, 2009 Headsman

(Thanks to Rob at Another Nickel In The Machine, a delectable blog about 20th century London, for this post. It originally ran on Another Nickel October 4, 2008.)

“I do not approve, but I must not pretend to misunderstand” – Eamon de Valera

The arrest of Reginald Dunne and “James Connolly” (Joseph O’Sullivan) in 1922

On December 1921 at 22 Hans Place in Knightsbridge, a treaty was signed between a provisional Irish Government and the British to create what was called the Irish Free State. However only six months later, a few hundred yards away in Eaton Place, an assassination occurred, the reverberations of which could be said to have helped start the Irish Civil War in 1922.

Sir Henry Hughes Wilson in 1918

Sir Henry Hughes Wilson in 1921

At around midday of 22 June 1922, Field-Marshall Sir Henry Wilson unveiled a war memorial at Liverpool Street Station. He made a speech, quoted some relevant Kipling poetry and soon after returned by taxi to his home at 15 Eaton Place in Knightsbridge. Two 24 year old men, Reginald Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan, were surreptitiously waiting for his arrival. They watched while Wilson paid for his taxi before running up to him and killing him in cold blood on the footsteps leading up to his front door. In Dunne’s words:

I fired three shots rapidly, the last one from the hip, as I took a step forward. Wilson was now uttering short cries and in a doubled up position staggered towards the edge of the pavement. At this point Joe fired once again and the last I saw of him he (Wilson) had collapsed.

Joseph O’Sullivan

Reginald Dunne

The Field Marshall had half withdrawn his sword in a futile effort to protect himself but after being shot seven times he fell face first on to the pavement with blood running profusely from his body and mouth. Dunne and O’Sullivan started to run but O’Sullivan had been seriously wounded at Ypres during WW1 (both men had fought for the British) and his wooden leg severely hindered their escape. Dunne and O’Sullivan both attempted to shoot their way out of trouble and shot and injured two policemen and a civilian in the process but were soon surrounded by an angry and hostile crowd and the two men were quickly arrested. They actually had to be protected by the police from a mob who wanted instant revenge for Wilson’s death.

The steps of 36 Eaton Place where the Field Marshall fell fatally wounded.

The killing of Field-Marshall Wilson in Eaton Place turned out to be pivotal in an extraordinarily complex political period of Ireland’s history when a national liberation struggle turned into a civil war. However much of Britain was outraged with the murder and The Times wrote:

Field-Marshall Sir Henry Wilson, the famous and gallant soldier, was murdered yesterday upon the threshold of his London home. The murderers were Irishmen. Their deed must rank among the foulest in the foul category of Irish political crimes.

Six months earlier at 2.20 am 6th December 1921 the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed between an Irish delegation, led by Michael Collins, and the British Government at 22 Hans Place. Incidentally, there is nothing on the outside of the building commemorating the historical event and today, in what is probably one of the most expensive property areas of London, seems to be unused and empty with security boards up in the windows.

22 Hans Place in Knightsbridge and where the Anglo-Irish Treaty was negotiated

Signing the Anglo-Irish treaty in 1922

Michael Collins in London October 1921

11th October 1921

Collins outside Downing Street 1921

The treaty envisaged an independent Ireland that would be known as the Irish Free State but the agreement was hugely controversial, especially back in Ireland. For a start, de Valera, the President of the Irish Republic and who had a difficult relationship with Collins at the best of times, was angry that the treaty was signed without his authorisation (although it was at his insistence that Collins went, with de Valera considering it wrong to be involved in the negotiations if Britain’s King George V wasn’t either). Also controversial was both the British insistence that they continued to control a number of ports, known as the Treaty Ports, for the Royal Navy and that Northern Ireland (which had been created in the Government of Ireland Act 1920) was able to leave the Irish Free State within one month, which of course it duly did.

In April 1922 a group of 200 anti-treaty IRA men had occupied the Four Courts in Dublin in defiance of their Government. Collins, wanting to avoid Civil War at all costs, decided to leave them alone. However after the Field Marshall’s assassination and the subsequent Fleet Street outrage this all changed. It was assumed by the British that Dunne and O’Sullivan were anti-treaty IRA men and after the shock of the Field Marshall’s murder Winston Churchill wrote to Collins threatening that unless he moved against the Four Courts anti-treaty garrison he (Churchill) would use British troops to do so for him. After a final attempt to persuade the men to leave the Courts, Collins borrowed two 18 pounder Artillery guns from the British and bombarded the Four Courts until it’s garrison surrendered. A surrender which almost immediately led to the Irish Civil War with fighting breaking out over Dublin and subsequently the rest of the country.

The Four Courts siege, Dublin 1922

Sackville Street, Dublin 1922

Meanwhile back in London at the Old Bailey, and before Mr Justice Shearman, Dunne and O’Sullivan were both tried together for the murder of Sir Henry Wilson on 2 July 1922. Dunne stood with his arms folded while the charge was being read while O’Sullivan stood stiffly at attention. When Dunne was asked, “Are you guilty or not guilty?” he replied “I admit shooting Sir Henry Wilson.” “Are you guilty or not guilty of the murder?” the Clerk of Arraigns repeated. “That is the only statement I can make,” was the response. O’Sullivan made a similar reply and after some discussion the plea was treated as one of “Not guilty.”

Towards the end of the trial, which lasted just three hours, the defence Counsel handed the judge a double sheet of blue official paper given to him by Dunne. After perusing the contents Mr Justice Shearman said – “I cannot allow this to be read. It is not a defence to the jury at all. It is a political manifesto…I say clearly, openly, and manifestly it is a justification of the right to kill.”*

Dunne’s hand written statement

Dunne and O’Sullivan were sentenced to death by hanging and sent to Wandsworth gaol where they were both hanged together by the executioner John Ellis on the 10th August 1922.

Less than two weeks later Michael Collins was ambushed and shot dead in his home county of Cork by anti-treaty IRA members.

Commander in Chief Michael Collins in July 1922, two or three weeks before he was assassinated in Cork.

Michael Collins' funeral, O'Connell Street August 1922

The coffin bearing the body of Michael Collins lying in state in the City Hall, Dublin. September 2, 1922 Dublin, Ireland

Michael’s brother Sean Collins

It was never really established whether Dunne and O’Sullivan acted on their own (the assassination seemed pretty badly organised for an official assassination so this was likely) or with the approval and help of Michael Collins. Collins had been a friend of Dunne’s while Sir Henry Wilson was responsible for establishing the Cairo Gang (a group of experienced British Intelligence agents who met frequently at Dublin’s Cairo Cafe) twelve of whom were murdered by the IRA acting under Collins command in 1920. The Cairo Gang killings provoked the British Auxiliaries in Dublin to shoot trapped innocent civilians at Croke Park in not the bloodiest but perhaps the nastiest of the various historical Bloody Sundays.

The infamous Cairo gang

Perhaps the ironic aspect to the story of the murder of Sir Henry Hughes Wilson was that Reginald Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan were both born and bred in London, whereas Field-Marshall Wilson was born smack bang in the middle of Ireland at Ballinalee in County Longford.

A letter sent to O'Sullivan while waiting for his execution

Sinéad O’Connor – She Moves Through The Fair

* The text of Dunne’s intended last statement, as transcribed from the images in this post.

Lord and Members of the Jury. My friend and I stand here before you today charged with the offense of murder; and I have no doubt that, from the evidence placed before you by the prosecution, you will find us both guilty. With respect to the charges of attempted murder, we merely tried, as everyone must know, to try and escape arrest.

The offence of murder is a very serious matter; so much so, that any act which results in loss of human life requires very grave and substantial reason. We have never until now been charged with any crime. As you have heard from the Police Officer, who gave evidence as to our character and our previous records, we have both been in the British Army. We both joined voluntarily, for the purpose of [making Europe safe?] in order that the principles for which this country stood, should be upheld and preserved. These principles, we were told, were Self-Determination and Freedom for Small Nations. We both, as I have said, fought for these principles, and were commended for doing so; and I imagine that several of you gentlemen of this jury did likewise. We came back from France to find that Self-Determination had been given to some Nations we had never heard of, but that it had been denied to Ireland, We found, on the contrary that our Country was being divided into two Countries; that a Government had been set up for the Belfast district, and that under that Government outrages were being perpetrated, that are a disgrace to civilization — many of the outrages being committed by men in uniform and in the pay of the Belfast Government. We took our part in supporting the aspiration of our fellow Countrymen, in the same way as we took part in supporting the nations of the world who fought for the right of small nationalities.

Who was Sir Henry Wilson? What was his policy? And what did he stand for? You have all read in the newspapers lately, and been told, that he was a great British Field Marshal; but his activities in other fields are unknown to the men of the British public. The nation to which we have the honour to belong, the Irish nation, knows him, not so much as the British Field Marshal, but as the man behind what is known in Ireland as the Orange Terror. He was at the time of his death the Military Advisor to what is colloquially called the Ulster Government, and as Military Advisor he raised and organized a body of men known as the Ulster Special Constabulary, who are the principle agents in his campaign of terrorism.

My Lord and Members of the Jury, I do not propose to go into details of the horrible outrages committed on men, women and children of my race in Belfast and other places under the jurisdiction of the Ulster Government. Among Irishment it is well known that about 500 men, women and children have been killed within the past few months, nearly two thousand wounded, and not one offender brought to justice. More than 9000 persons have been expelled from their employment; and 23,000 men, women, and children driven from their homes. All the big cities of this country and even those of Northern France are now receiving these refugees. Sir Henry Wilson was the representative figure and the organiser of the system that made these things possible.

At his suggestion and advice the Ulster Parliament passed an Act authorising the [purging?] of political opponents and this power is now exercised and enforced by the Courts in Ulster.

There is and can be no political liberty in a country where one political party outrages, oppresses, and intimidates not only its political opponents, but persons whose religious opinion differ from those of the party in power. The same principle for which we shed our blood on the Battle Field of Europe led us to commit the act we are charged with.

My Lord and Members of the Jury, you can condemn us to death today, but you cannot deprive us of the belief that what we have done was necessary to preserve the lives, the homes, and the happiness of our countrymen in Ireland. You may by your verdict find us guilty, but we will go [to] the scaffold justified by the verdict of our own Conscience.

Dunne truncated his statement to “cut out the patriotic adjectives I feel inclined to use under the present circumstances” (as well as his specific delineation of the atrocities of Henry Wilson and the Ulster government). -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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1916: James Connolly, socialist revolutionary

9 comments May 12th, 2008 Sem

On this date in 1916, James Connolly was tied to a chair and executed by firing squad along with Sean Mac Diarmada.

James Connolly: Irish revolutionary.

Connolly was born to Irish immigrant parents in Scotland. His first experience in his ancestral home of Ireland was during his stint in the British Army where, stationed in and around Cork, he had the opportunity to witness firsthand both the poor treatment of the native Irish by the British forces as well as the grave disparities between the landowning and peasant classes. When he returned home to Scotland, he fell in with the socialist crowd and quickly rose through the ranks to become one of the movement’s leaders. He actively participated in socialist organizations in several countries and joined the ranks of the Industrial Workers of the World.

A variety of circumstances brought him back to Ireland, where he led Irish socialists in seeking rights for the working class, joining the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union in 1912. He went on to head the union two years later when the General Secretary, “Big” Jim Larkin, left for a speaking tour. In this capacity, he found a crowd for his increasingly open talks of revolution. Frustrated by what he saw as the unwillingness of the bourgeois Irish Volunteers, Connolly spoke persistently about sacrificing his own life in the name of economic freedom for Ireland, starting The Workers’ Republic journal, then printing his treatise The Re-Conquest of Ireland in 1915. Connolly headed just one revolutionary faction in Ireland at the time. Not wishing to have their festivities spoiled by Connolly, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, another revolutionary paramilitary group, decided to invite him to their Easter party.

The General Post Office in Dublin after the uprising.

The Easter Rising, which had little support from the Irish public at the time, began on April 24, 1916. Connolly led the Dublin Brigrade, which held the Dublin General Post Office, and so was in essence a sort of Commander-in-Chief during the uprising. Six days later, the Easter Rising came to a close with a surrender to British troops; its leaders, who had issued a proclamation of Irish freedom, were quickly sentenced to death by firing squad in the courtyard of Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin.

Injured during the fighting, Connolly had only been given a few more days to live by the doctors that attended him at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham. Unable to stand on his own due to his injuries, he was tied to a chair in order to face the firing squad.

The rapidity and brutality of the executions shocked the Irish public and the conditions of Connolly’s death were most shocking of all. After the executions, the corpses of the 15 put to death (killed between May 3 and May 12) were placed into an unmarked mass grave. The Irish people, previously largely indifferent to the republican rantings of the revolutionaries, angrily regarded British action against the leaders of the Easter Rising, granting legitimacy to the rebellion.

The death of Connolly and the other leaders of the six-day siege presaged the final revolution that led to a free Irish state. Two of Connolly’s cohorts in the Easter campaign were Eamon de Valera and Michael Collins; within a half dozen years, the two* expanded revolutionary tactics through Sinn Fein that forced the British to the bargaining table, meetings that would give rise to the bitterly partitioned Ireland of today. Connolly is still regarded as one of the greatest Britons, though he spent his life fighting the British, and the Irish have celebrated his memory through several songs.

* While de Valera and Collins were regarded as the primary players in Irish statehood, the Easter Rising included dozens of revolutionaries who would spend their lives fighting for Irish independence.

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