Sir Henry Wilson executed
By Aengus O'Snodaigh
Often in history, and in politics, plans are overtaken by events.
This could be said of the execution by two IRA Volunteers of the
British military advisor to Sir James Craig's Stormont parliament
in 1922. Shot dead on the steps of his home, his death has been
associated with the Free State's decision to attack the
republican garrison in the Four Courts, thus setting the Civil
War in train in earnest.
On 22 June 1922 two London IRA Volunteers walked up behind Sir
Henry Wilson as he returned to his Eaton Square home after
unveiling a war memorial in Liverpool Street Station, and fired
the fatal shots. Two policemen were also shot as the Volunteers
tried to make good their escape. They were then surrounded by a
hostile crowd and arrested by other policemen.
Reginald Dunne and Joseph O'Sullivan were both former British
army soldiers, O'Sullivan having lost a leg at Ypres, and during
the Tan War they were active in England for the IRA. Following
the Treaty Dunne leaned towards the pro-Treaty side (Cumann na
mBan members in London sent him white feathers) and was firm
friends with Michael Collins. Both men are believed to have been
members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood; this has added to
the speculation as to who ordered Wilson's execution.
Though Collins was heavily implicated no proof was forthcoming.
Was it an independent operation? A joint operation aimed at
reuniting IRA (Dunne had been in Dublin visiting Collins and Rory
O'Connor in the Four Courts a week earlier)? Was it a GHQ or an
IRB operation? Or a provocative act to get Collins the carte
blanche to attack the Four Courts garrison?
No organisation ever claimed that the men were operating under
their orders. The State backed demands for repatriation and
reinterral of the bodies of the two men after their execution. At
their graveside a day after their reinterral on 7 July 1967 three
men with revolvers fired a volley.
Sir Henry Wilson was a British army Field Marshal from a unionist
background who during the Tan War set up the spying team, the
Cairo Gang, which was wiped out by the IRA's Squad on a Sunday
morning in 1920. He was not in favour of unofficial military
reprisals but, he once said, ``if these men ought to be murdered
then the government ought to murder them''. He threatened to
resign if Kevin Barry was not hanged.
MP for Down after 1921 he was Sir James Craig's parliament's
military advisor with £2 million at his disposal to carry out
whatever measures were necessary ``regardless of consequences''. He
was believed by republicans at the time to be directly
responsible for setting up the B Specials and the
anti-nationalist pogroms of 1921-'22.
Very few in Ireland grieved after him, but the Free State cabinet
reacted like lackeys. The British predictably decided on a policy
of retaliation, laying plans for a military attack on republican
positions in Dublin with tanks, howitzers and aeroplanes. It
issued an ultimatum to the Free State government that ``the
ambiguous position'' of the IRA and Four Courts occupation could
no longer be tolerated.
The invasion was cancelled at last minute. Ships en route to
Dublin had to be recalled. All copies of a proclamation prepared
for the invasion were later destroyed in case its contents ever
leaked out. While officially no actions were carried out,
reprisals against nationalists did happen.
The British need not have gone that far. Their demand that
Collins bring the open rebellion in Dublin ``to an end forthwith''
was already underway. With Griffith calling Wilson's shooting an
``anarchic deed'', the cabinet decided to attack the Four Courts at
The leader of the anti-Treaty side Eamonn De Valera said:
``The killing of a human being is an awful act, but as awful when
the victim is the humble worker or peasant, unknown outside his
own immediate neighbourhod, as when the victim is placed in the
seats of the mighty and his name known in every corner of the
earth. It is characteristic of our hypocritical civilisation that
it is in the latter case only we are expected to cry out and
express our horror and condemnation...
``...I do not know who they were who shot Sir Henry Wilson, or why
they shot him...
``I know that life has been made a hell for the nationalist
minority in Belfast and its neighbourhood for the past couple of
``...I do not approve but I must not pretend to misunderstand.''
Dunne and O'Sullivan were tried at the Old Bailey on 18 July and
sentenced to be hanged in Wandsworth Prison on 16 August.
Collins, who said to General Joseph Sweeney that ``it was two of
ours that did it'', attempted a rescue attempt. Joe Dolan and
later Tom Cullen were sent to London by him, whereas the IRA sent
several Cork Volunteers over, including Frank Cremins and Billy
Aherne led by Dinny Kelleher.
The Cork Volunteers talked of schemes to capture the Prince of
Wales at Bournemouth, and of capturing his sister and using her
as a hostage, but neither scheme got off the ground. A plan was
also hatched to blow up the van carrying Dunne and O'Sullivan
from Brixton prison to their trial, but again nothing resulted.
The split within the IRA in London, the outbreak of the Civil
War, and the decline of Collins's old intelligence system,
rendered such plans more difficult. Many of Collins's old IRB men
in London by that time had returned to Ireland: there were
apparently no friendly warders in Brixton.
In the end no escape effort was attempted, and pleas for
reprieves were turned down. Dunne and O'Sullivan were hanged on
10 August 1922.
In a speech which Reginald Dunne prepared, but was not permitted
to deliver from the dock (reprinted in the Irish Independent 21
July 1922), he said:
``...We took our part in supporting the aspirations of our
fellow-countrymen in the same way as we took our part in
supporting the nations of the world who fought for the rights of
small nationalities... The same principiles for which we shed our
blood on the battle-field of Europe led us to commit the act we
are charged with.
``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 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 consciences.''
IRA Volunteers Reginald Dunne and Joseph O'Sullivan executed Sir
Henry Wilson in London 75 years ago this Sunday.