Luke Burke and Michael Grealy, known as Mullingar’s ‘two forgotten martyrs’, were executed on 13 March, 1923. An oration delivered by historian, author and activist, Peter A. Rogers in Keady on Sunday for the Luke Burke Centenary Commemoration.
The hostilities that broke out in late June 1922 widely recognised as the civil war, in which Adjutant-General Luke Burke and his anti-Treaty comrade, Volunteer Michael Grealy lost their lives, is better known to traditional Republicans as the War in Defence of the Republic. Traditional Republicans correctly identify it as such because this is what it actually was. A conflict fought by faithful Republicans to uphold the right of the Irish people to self-determination, expressed through the ballot box in the all-Ireland General Election of November 1918. This phase in Irish history was one of the most divisive periods for the Irish people and especially within Republicanism itself.
A small but influential group within the broad Republican family had fallen into the trap of the age-old British tactic of divide and conquer. Even those who should have known better succumbed to the British threat of a return to “immediate and terrible war”. By surrendering our country’s sovereignty, these quislings demonstrated a total disregard for the sacrifice of men like Luke Burke who had fought the British crown forces to a stand-still for almost three years to help establish that Republic. It appears these deceitful traitors’ appetite for power, far out-weighed their loyalty to the Irish people’s newly born Republic.
They forfeited our people’s resolve to govern themselves in a sovereign all-Ireland Republic, only to accept dominion status within the British Empire for 26-Counties and partition our country. They recklessly proceeded with a strategy of dismantling the Republic, despite the consequence of confrontation with the majority of their former Republican comrades who had rejected any compromise on the true Republic by an overwhelming majority at the Army Convention on 26th March 1922.
With an outbreak of hostilities growing throughout the early months of 1922, this caused enormous turmoil within the Republican forces throughout the country, and nowhere more than in the area of the 2nd Northern Division where Luke Burke was Adjutant-General of the Cookstown Battalion Staff.
The 2nd Northern Division which covered Derry, Donegal and Tyrone was predominantly anti-Treaty, and since January of 1922 this I.R.A. Division had been instrumental in carrying out the instructions of the ‘Michael Collins/Liam Lynch pact’ - This was for Republican flying columns, located along the border, to carry out armed raids against British forces inside the occupied Six Counties. Many leading officers from the Munster Executive I.R.A. had been sent north to help coordinate and assist the 2nd Northern Division with these attacks, in an attempt to destabilise the North.
For the first six weeks of the conflict, this Division area saw little or no military engagements between Free State and Executive I.R.A. forces despite the Free State having military bases in county Donegal. With the death of Michael Collins on 22nd August 1922, things changed utterly for Luke Burke and his Republican comrades carrying out these military operations across the border.
Richard Mulcahy became Commander-in-Chief of the Free State army, and without notice broke the pact with Republicans, giving immediate orders to forcefully put a stop to these military incursions into the North as it was antagonising the British government. Immediately Free State forces began detaining anti-Treaty Volunteers involved in this activity. They took a vicious approach to hunting down those who had gone on-the-run to avoid capture. Luke Burke was picked up in Donegal on 28th August.
With the anti-Treaty forces still strong in the midlands, the Free State was extremely fearful of transporting these anti-Treaty prisoners, by road or rail, from county Donegal to the newly opened internment camps in county Kildare. Instead they opted to transport them by sea around the coast to Dublin in one of their newly acquired deep sea vessels. Luke was among over 150 Republican prisoners transported from county Donegal to Newbridge military barracks in early September.
The first instinct of every prisoner of war is to try and escape, true to form he didn’t disappoint. Within six weeks of his detention, Adjutant-General Luke Burke was among 112 Republican prisoners’ who escaped from Newbridge barracks on 20th October. This was the largest ever breakout of prisoners in the history of the 26-County state. Luke and a few others made their way to Dublin, connected up with Executive I.R.A. personnel and was temporarily billeted in safe houses in the Coomb area.
With Luke now on-the-run, the anti-Treaty Executive I.R.A. network got him a job in Grace’s Shop in Oldcastle, County Meath. In fact this was the same shop Volunteer Michael Grealy had been working in for a number of years. By now Luke Burke was already using the alias, Henry Keenan from Newcastle, County Down, as he was aware the Free State authorities were on the look-out for him after his jailbreak.
He immediately befriended Grealy and became active with the anti-Treaty Executive forces in Oldcastle. On 27th February 1923 both Luke Burke and Michael Grealy were captured, near Oldcastle, after a botched armed raid on the town’s two banks to raise funds for use by the Executive I.R.A. in the ongoing conflict. When captured, Luke gave his name as Henry Keenan, Grealy also gave a false name and address.
Since November 1922 the Free State had embarked on a ruthless campaign of executions against anti-Treaty prisoners. Over the course of the conflict, as many as 84 prisoners were murdered after being tried by military tribunal, it is also estimated that at least another 70 were killed in summery executions by members of the Free State forces.
Luke Burke and Michael Grealy were executed by firing squad in Mullingar military barracks on the morning of 13th March 1923 after receiving kangaroo justice at military tribunals. Following the executions, all reports given to the media by the Free State authorities included the false names and addresses given by the men at the time of their capture. The true identity of the men did not become known until days after the event, with updates being given to the media. To indulge in further brutality, both men’s remains were not returned to their families until 25th October 1924. Luke Burke’s remains was accompanied home to Keady by his fiancé, Lily Robinson and re-interred here in the Burke family plot.
It appears that the alias imposter, Henry Keenan from Newcastle, County Down, has actually outlived Luke’s real identity for almost 100 years. Almost every publication in relation to the incident in Oldcastle and that of the two men’s execution contains his alias, this is even true of articles written within the past ten years. To exacerbate the tragedy of Luke’s death, it appears he didn’t just loose his life at the hands of a Free State firing squad, these psychopaths along with their highly paid revisionists have persisted with a false narrative to remove this honourable man’s name from the history books. We must be extremely critical of the shameful way the reputation of these two men has been tarnished by deceitful peddling of mis-information and innuendo over the years, whether it be intentional or not.
Myself being from the Mullingar area didn’t know much about the two executed men until being encouraged by Sean McCabe from Oldcastle, to research the information published in my book about “Mullingar’s Two Forgotten Martyrs” in 2018. So if I could find out the truth about these two Executive I.R.A. Volunteers, others could certainly have done the same.
Claims are being made in the 26 Counties that we have moved out of civil war politics, but traditional Republicans recognise that no utterance of an apology will ever come from the Free State regarding these atrocities’, even as former anti-Treaty personnel came to power, no apology was ever contemplated. This in itself tells its own story of how the self-indulgence with power easily transforms those of little ideological commitment. One hundred years on, even a small gesture to commemorate these men’s memory has remained far from their agenda.
It’s certainly true that nobody owns the memory of any Irish patriot but we in the “Friends of Burke & Grealy Historical Committee” unashamedly stand here today to honour and acclaim Luke Burke and his brave comrade, Michael Grealy, to be among Ireland’s most gallant heroes.