Brutal State executions remembered

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The centenary of the execution of four young rebels by the Irish Free State has been marked in Kilmainham Jail.

John Gaffney, James Fisher, Peter Cassidy and Richard Twohig were all executed on 17th November 1922 as the pro-Treaty Free State forces ruthlessly sought to tighten their grip on power.

One hundred years on, Kilmainham jail has put together an exhibition, ‘I am to die for Ireland: Civil War Executions in Kilmainham Gaol’, about the four prisoners who were first to be executed.

“They were four young working-class men literally from the parish,” curator Brian Crowley said. “They were all from around the James’ Street area.”

Ranging in age between 18 and 21, one morning they were marched out against a wall in Kilmainham Jail and shot by a firing squad.

“There had been a lot of talk about the fact that the Free State was going to start executing their enemies on the anti-Treaty side,” Mr Crowley continued.

“A comrade of theirs... describes [in a letter] how they were having breakfast together and then the four men were taken away and he said the next he knew about it was reading about their execution in the evening papers that Friday.

“It all happened very, very quickly. None of their families were allowed to come and see them and say goodbye.”

Prior to their executions, they were allowed to write “absolutely heart-breaking” letters to their mothers.

“One in particular that always gets me is James Fisher’s because at that stage there’s almost nearly a tradition of last letters after 1916 and there’s kind of an attitude you’re supposed to adopt where they say they’re happy to die for Ireland and it is a great thing to be so prepared for your death.

“But James Fisher - and Peter Cassidy - they keep returning to ‘If only I could see you again’ or ‘If only you could have been here with me’ or ‘We could have said goodbye properly.’

“Essentially, in these letters what you see is a boy who wants his mother and that’s something that most people can relate to.”

In total, there were 81 state executions during the Civil War, in addition to a number of war crimes by Free State forces.

Floral tributes were left by the many descendents of the four men who visited last week to mark the centenary of their execution.

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