When civil blood made civil hands unclean...

It was a black, bleak time in Irish history. The Civil War effectively ended on April 30 when the cease-fire and “Dump Arms” order of the new IRA Chief of Staff, General Frank Aiken, came into effect.

Aiken, who later spent several years as a Fianna Fáil Minister and Tánaiste, had succeeded to the leadership of the losing Republican side in the Civil War after the death of General Liam Lynch only a few weeks previously, on April 10, 1923.

It had been always for some time that the vastly better equipped and financed army of the Irish Free State had clearly won the war in the field. One of the most controversial and drastic methods used by the three-man Army council of that Army, which operated at arm’s length from any sort of political control, was the policy of executing prisoners taken in the field for possession of arms or ammunition.

This power was given to the Army by the inter-regum “Provisional Parliament” in the new Leinster House 26 county chamber in October, 1922 ever before the Irish Free State came legally into existence on 6 December, 1922. As soon as the state was founded on that date, the new government descended into more drastic measures by simply executing prisoners who had been in jail since the surrender of the Four Courts the previous July, without any trial of any sort, and on a few hours notice, for offenses committed outside the prison with which they could not possibly be connected.

The execution of Rory O’Connor, Dick Barrett, Liam Melowes and Joe McKelveey on the 8th December, 1922 has therefore become part of the Republican lore of martyrdom.

The reality is that the policy of sentencing Republican prisoners of war to death and then delaying their execution and then holding them as “hostages” against the behaviour of their supporters outside the jails, continued into the early months of 1923.

The policy consisted of shooting small numbers from specific counties of IRA Command areas in an increasing litany of blood that stretched out from Dublin throughout Leinster and Munster up to the end of January, 1923.

Then there was a lull in February before the horrific “tragedies of Kerry” at Ballyseedy and other locations in March that were further compounded by the execution of three Kerrymen and a Derryman at Drumboe, Donegal on 14 March 1923.

The Donegal executions were also the first by the Free State in Ulster. Connacht had also escaped relatively unscathed, although five members of the IRA Western command were executed in Athlone on 20 January. Then on 11 April, some six other Western Command Volunteers - the largest batch since before Christmas - were executed in Tuam, the capital and very heart of Connacht in an incident that is as sad and was as futile as the other acts of blood-letting that took place in Tralee and Ennis towards the end of the war and indeed three days after the cease-fire came into effect in the case of Clare.

There have always been different rumours and “spins” put on the Tuam execution of Seamus Ó Máille, Oughterard, Frank Cunnane, Kilcoona, Headford; John Newell, Winefort, Headford; John Maguire, Cross, Cong; Michael Monaghan, Clooneed, Headford, and Martin Moylan, Farmerstown, Annaghdown, who were shot in the Old Workhouse in Tuam on the morning after Liam Lynch was shot.

The saddest and most futile bloodletting in the Irish Civil War came at the end in Clare. For while two Clare volunteers, Patrick Hennessy and Cornelius McMahon, had been shot in Limerick on 20 January 1923, the last three executions were”controversial” in a county that had seen more than its share of bloody “controversy” in the previous few months, because it is claimed that three IRA volunteers involved: Edward Greaney Reginald Hathaway, a former British soldier who had thrown in his lot with the cause of the Republic during the War of Independence and volunteered again “to defend that Republic” when the Civil War came along, and James McInerney had only surrended from their safe cave hideout after they were assured that they would not be shot if they surrended.

And while McInerney’s execution in Ennis on April 26 brought the savage nature of the Civil War home to Clare people in a special way, it had been hoped that this total of seventy five by new native Irish Free State government in six short months, would mark the end of the nightmare.

It was not to be, because, on May 2, Chris Quinn and William Shaughnessy were shot in Ennis, thus bringing the grand total of blood to seventy seven - three days after the formal cease-fire had been announced by General Aiken and brought into operation on 30 April, 1923. That “77” slogan became a popular rallying-call for Republicans of the Fianna Fáil variety in later years.

By some sort of mathematical curiosity several Fianna Fáil electoral victories ended up in their winning 77 seats in Dáil chambers that consisted of 138 of 147 members while even Jack Lynch’s 84 seats in the new 166 member Dáil was won in the year 1977!

There is also a theory that the decision to execute some Republican prisoners in nearly every county and in each Free State Army Command area was part of a military strategy by the three-man Army Council, then in charge and operating at arm’s length from any responsible political authority.
They wanted to involve the entire local army structure, so that after the war there would be a shared responsibility for whatever was done, and more importantly, so that nobody could claim “we were only obeying orders”.

As I wrote in Civil War in Connacht (Mercier Press 1999), “Free State apologists claim that the decision to execute ‘was the fault’ of those who remained active outside the prisons. Republican apologists suspect that certain members of the Free State command in the west had also to be forced to taste execution blood and half a dozen executions in an area like Tuam would frighten all but convinced Republicans that the cause was not worth the risk.

Some Republicans even go so far as to suggest that the line-up in the Free State firing squad in Tuam was interesting, that some people were brought in from Mayo - to spread the fear and the involvement of all - including some officers of northern origins. Be that as it may, the reality was that by mid April 1923 the Civil War was almost over and the ceasefire announcement came into force on 30 April 1923.

Courtesy of the Clare Champion