1922: Joseph O’Sullivan and Reginald Dunne, helping spark the Irish Civil War

(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The Field Marshall had half withdrawn his sword in a futile effort to protect himself but after being shot seven times he fell face first on to the pavement with blood running profusely from his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

SinĂ©ad 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.

On this day..