Three teens were among 7 IRA ‘irregulars’ executed in the civil war 90 years ago in Kildare. A historical article by Robert Doyle (for thewildgeese.com)
‘We are to be shot in the morning, 19th December at 8.15...We are dying happy anyway, so good-bye old Kildare.’ -- Paddy Bagnall, from Hare Park Prison, Curragh Camp, December 18, 1922
With much of the attention regarding the struggle for Irish independence being on the upcoming centenary of the 1916 Rising, events in County Kildare 90 years ago this past December bring into sharp focus the tragedy of the subsequent Civil War.
Men and women who had fought side by side against British rule, turned their vitriol and their weapons on each other in a bitter conflict that began with the occupation of the Four Courts in the summer of 1922 by forces opposed the signing and ratification of an Anglo-Irish Treaty.
The outbreak of the Civil War forced pro and anti-treaty supporters to choose sides. Supporters of the treaty came to be known as ‘pro-Treaty’ or Free State Army, legally the National Army. The objectors called themselves “Republicans,” but were more commonly known by the Free State government as “Irregulars.”
Although most of the fighting took place in Dublin and around Munster, County Kildare was no different in terms of the bitter divides. The occupation of the Curragh Camp by the Free State Army after British withdrawal made operations very difficult for the small column of Irregulars who operated in the vicinity of Kildare town.
Eamonn O’Modhrain from Ballysax, who had commanded the 6th Battalion of the IRA’s Carlow Brigade (South Kildare/West Wicklow) during the War of Independence, objected strongly to the signing of the Treaty and was immediately arrested and imprisoned for much of the year-long conflict. However, many of his former command took up arms against the Free State and operated a guerrilla- style war around Kildare Town, concentrating their efforts on disrupting the vital railway network in the area.
In late 1922, The Leinster Leader reported that a column of Irregulars were operating in the vicinity of Kildare, derailing or stealing train engines, which would subsequently be used as an obstruction, blocking the line. It was also reported that on November 25th, this column took part in an ambush of Free State troops, audaciously close to the Curragh Camp.
On December 13th, 10 men, allegedly the same column, were surprised at a farmhouse beside Moore’s Bridge (close to the Curragh Racecourse) by Free State troops. Having been found in possession of rifles, a quantity of ammunition and other supplies, the men were arrested and brought the short distance to the Curragh Camp. During the arrest, one of the captured, Thomas Behan, was killed although the cause of his death remains disputed to this day.
In the following days, seven of the men were tried before a military court and found guilty of being in possession of arms without authority. Unfortunately for the convicted, the Free State government had, only weeks earlier, decreed that such an offence was punishable by death. The executions were duly carried out by firing squad on the morning of December 19th at the Military Detention Barracks. Although the Free State sanctioned 77 official executions of anti-Treaty prisoners during the war, this combined execution of seven men was the largest carried out -- a tragic statistic in County Kildare’s history.
The day before their deaths, the seven men were allowed to write letters to their family and loved ones. Each letter is a tragic but very poignant memorial to the men, composed as they each came to terms with their fate. Typed copies of some of the letters were sent to their ex-commander, Eamonn O’Modhrain.
Nineteen-year-old Paddy Bagnall wrote to his uncle that he and his comrades were “all to go West together ... but it is all for the best, and I hope it sets old Ireland free.” Bagnall finishes a remarkably mature letter for one so young by stating that he was dying happy and bids “good-bye old Kildare.”
Paddy Nolan, 34, penned a heartbreaking final letter to his mother and father. He hoped that they would bear his death with “the Courage of an Irish Father & Mother.” He tried to ease his mother’s worry by writing that the chaplain in the Curragh, Father Donnelly, had told him that he would go straight to heaven.
However, the saddest words are often the simplest, and Nolan signed off by telling his family that he “had a few pounds in his suit case” and they could have them and anything else in the house belonging to him. A shorter letter to his younger brothers and sisters asks that they remember him and his comrades on Christmas morning, only a few weeks away. He also asks that they be good children and always obey their parents.
The other letters written by the men on the eve of their deaths are similar in composition and sentiment. Each is also a reminder of the conflict that scarred the fledgling Irish nation during its progression from a British colony into a sovereign country.
The men were buried in the grounds of the Detention Barracks, but their remains were later exhumed and lay in state in the courthouse in Kildare Town before being reinterred in Kildare’s Grey Abbey Cemetery, in 1924. A gravestone was subsequently erected over their collective grave and a monument erected in the Market Square, in Kildare town.
The seven executed were Stephen White, 18, Abbey Street, Kildare; Joseph Johnston, 18, Station Road, Kildare; Patrick Mangan, 22, Fair Green, Kildare; Patrick Nolan, 34, Rathbride, Kildare; Bryan Moore, 37, Rathbride, Kildare (leader of the column); James O’Connor, 24, Bansha, County Tipperary; and Patrick Bagnall, 19, Fair Green, Kildare.