One hundred years ago this month, the Free State government in Dublin approved an emergency measure to allow the executions of IRA prisoners. 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 War.
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, began 100 years ago this month.