By Wayne Sugg
On 8 December 1922 IRA Volunteers Rory O'Connor, Dick Barrett and
Joe McKelvey were taken from their cells in Mountjoy Jail and
executed by a Free State firing squad in reprisal for the IRA's
assassination of government member Sean Hales and the injuring of
his colleague Pádraig O'Maille the previous day.
The execution of these four Republicans was carried out under the
Army Emergency Powers Bill. This bill, known as the `Murder
Bill' by republicans, was passed by the Free State regime on 15
October after being proposed by Richard Mulcahy, Minister for
Defence and seconded by Eoin McNeill, Minister for Education.
The bill gave military courts a wide range of powers including
that of execution for offences such as possessing arm or aiding
and abetting attacks on Free State forces.
The first time the new powers were used to their full effect was
on 17 November when four young Volunteers, James Fisher, Peter
Cassidy, John Gaffney and Richard Twohig were executed in
Kilmainham Jail for possession of arms. These first executions
were believed by republicans to prepare the way for the execution
of Erskine Childers who, as Director of Propaganda, had been a
thorn in the Free State's side since the outbreak of the Civil
Childers had been captured on 10 November at his cousin Robert
Barton's house in County Wicklow. He was convicted by a military
court of the unlawful possession of a handgun, a handgun which
had been given to him the year before by Michael Collins.
Childers was executed on 24 November.
In response to the first executions IRA Chief of Staff Liam
Lynch, issued a general order on 30 November authorising IRA
units to target members of the Free State regime who voted for
the Army Emergency Powers Bill and other supporters of the Free
State government. The only TD shot dead under this general order
was Seán Hales, who was shot dead by Volunteer Owen Donnelly of
the Dublin Brigade.
The fact that Mellows, O'Connor, Barrett and McKelvey were
singled out for the state's reprisal surprised people on both
sides in the conflict. None of these men had been active in the
war since the surrender of the Four Courts garrison where they
had all been members of the Executive Coucil. Rory O'Connor and
Liam Mellows had actively tried to prevent Civil War through the
army unity talks in May. Whoever selected the men significantly
chose one from each province: McKelvey (Ulster), Barrett
(Munster), Mellows (Connaught), O'Connor (Leinster); and ensured
that all were members of the IRB.
The morning after Hales' death a cabinet meeting unanimously
authorised the execution of the four men; Kevin O'Higgins TD and
Joe McGrath TD were the last to give their consent.
A 20-strong firing party carried out the executions, ten
standing, ten kneeling. In charge of the firing party was Colonel
Hugo McNeill, nephew of Eoin McNeill and Colonel Hugh Gunn ( who
had been a personal friend of McKelvey's). Rory O'Connor died
instantly, as most of the fire was aimed at him. At one stage
his clothes burst into flames which caused hysteria amongst the
firing party. When the firing subsided murmuring was heard from
one of the men lying on the ground. It was Joe McKelvey, badly
injured. He called on McNeill to shoot him. McNeill fired two
shots into McKelvey, one to the chest, and one to the head.
Some of Ireland's most active military leaders during the Tan War
now lay dead, gunned down by men who they had once stood side by
side with during that struggle. These shameful acts, which would
continue throughout the Civil War, took place 75 years ago this