The executions during the Irish Civil War took place during the guerrilla phase of the Irish Civil War (October 1922 - May 1923) This phase of the war was bitter, and both sides, the Government forces of the Irish Free State and the Anti-Treaty Irish Republican Army (IRA) insurgents, used executions and terror in what developed into a cycle of atrocities. From November 1922, the Free State government embarked on a concerted policy of executing Republican prisoners in order to bring the war to an end. Many of those killed had previously been allies and in some cases close friends (during the Irish War of Independence 1919-1921), of those who ordered their deaths in the civil war. In addition, government troops summarily killed prisoners in the field on several occasions. The executions of prisoners left a lasting legacy of bitterness in Irish politics.
The use of execution by the Irish Free State in the civil war was relatively harsh compared to the British record. In contrast with 77 official executions by the Irish Free State government, the British had executed only 24 IRA volunteers and the IRA had condemned to death a few dozen enemies during the 1919-21 War of Independence.One of the reasons for the draconian Free State policy from October 1922 was the death of Michael Collins, the commander of Free State forces in an ambush on 22 August. Collins had hoped for a speedy reconciliation of the warring Irish nationalist factions, demanding that Republicans must 'accept the People's Verdict' but then could 'go home without their arms... We want to avoid any possible unnecessary destruction and loss of life. We do not want to mitigate their weakness by resolute action beyond what is required'.
After his death, however, the Free State government, led by W. T. Cosgrave, Richard Mulcahy and Kevin O'Higgins, took the position that the anti-Treaty IRA were conducting an unlawful rebellion against the legitimate Irish government and should be treated as criminals rather than as combatants. O'Higgins in particular voiced the opinion that the use of martial law was the only way to bring the war to an end.
Another factor contributing to the executions policy was the escalating level of violence. In the first two months of the Civil War (July-August 1922), Free State forces had successfully taken all the territory held by Republicans and the war seemed all but over. However, after the Anti-Treaty side resorted to guerrilla tactics in August-September, National Army casualties mounted and they even lost control over some of the territory taken in the Irish Free State offensive. The town of Kenmare, for example, was re-taken by Anti-Treaty fighters on 9 September and held by them until early December.
Legal basis for the executions:
On 27 September 1922, three months after the outbreak of war, the Free State's Provisional Government put before the Dáil proposed legislation on setting up military courts - in effect instituting martial law for the duration of the conflict. The legislation, commonly referred to as the Public Safety Bill, allowed for the execution of men captured bearing arms against the state and aiding and abetting attacks on state forces.
A motion was put to the Dáil by the Minister for Defence on 26 September to amend the army's Emergency Powers Order, that stated:
"(IV.) The breach of any general order or regulation made by the Army authorities; and the infliction by such Military Courts or Committees of the punishment of death, or of imprisonment for any period, or of a fine of any amount either with or without imprisonment, on any person found guilty by any such Court or Committee of any of the offences aforesaid;"
This motion was amended and approved by resolution of the Dáil, after considerable debate. The Republican, or Anti-Treaty, members had refused to take their seats in the Parliament and the opposition to the measures was provided by the Labour Party, who likened the legislation to a military dictatorship. W. T. Cosgrave, the head of the Provisional Government, told the Dáil in response, "although I have always objected to the death penalty, there is no other way that I know of in which ordered conditions can be restored in this country, or any security obtained for our troops, or to give our troops any confidence in us as a government".
The final version, passed on 18 October 1922, stated:
"(4) The breach of any general order or regulation made by the Army Council and the infliction by such Military Courts or Committees of the punishment of death or of penal servitude for any period or of imprisonment for any period or of a fine of any amount either with or without imprisonment on any person found guilty by such Court or Committee of any of the offences aforesaid. Provided that no such sentence of death be executed except under the countersignature of two members of the Army Council".
The Order was strengthened in January 1923 to allow execution for many other categories of offence, including non-combatant republican supporters carrying messages, assisting in escapes, using army or police uniforms, and also deserters from the National Army.
After the Civil War the government also felt the need to pass the Indemnity Act, 1923, which stipulated that all sentences passed on military prisoners taken by the Provisional Government's forces, before the passing of the Act, were retrospectively "valid". Two Public Safety Acts were also passed in 1923.
Other social pressures:
Soon after the passage of the resolution, several other pressures were brought to bear on republican fighters.
On 3 October, the Free State had offered an amnesty to any Anti-Treaty fighters who surrendered their arms and recognised the government. However there was little response.
On 10 October, the Catholic Hierarchy issued a statement condemning the Anti-Treaty fighters, ending with: "All who in contravention of this teaching, participate in such crimes are guilty of grievous sins and may not be absolved in Confession nor admitted to the Holy Communion if they persist in such evil courses." In effect this meant that the unrepenting guilty would be excommunicated, and could not expect a church burial or to pass on to heaven. In a population that was 90% Catholic and considered very observant, this gave a clear moral message at an opportune time for the Provisional Government.
On 15 October, directives were sent to the press by Free State director of communications, Piaras Béaslaí to the effect that Free State troops were to be referred to as the "National Army", the "Irish Army", or just "troops". The Anti-Treaty side were to be called "Irregulars" and were not to be referred to as "Republicans", "IRA", "forces", or "troops", nor were the ranks of their officers allowed to be given.
From now on, the Free State, equipped with legislation, the support of the Church and of much of the Press was prepared to treat the Republican fighters as criminals rather than as combatants.
The first executions and reprisals:
On 17 November, in the first use of the powers enacted under the Public Safety Act, five Anti-Treaty IRA fighters who had been captured with arms in county Wicklow were shot by firing squad in Dublin. On 19 November, three more Anti-Treaty IRA men were executed, also in Dublin. On 24 November, Robert Erskine Childers, an acclaimed author and secretary to the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations that had created the Irish Free State was executed. He had been captured on 10 November in possession of a pistol, which ironically had been given to him by the Pro-Treaty leader Michael Collins before the split in the Republican movement. Childers was the Republican head of propaganda and it was widely speculated that eight low ranking Republicans were shot before Childers so that it would not look as if he had been singled out for special treatment.
In response to the executions, on 30 November, Liam Lynch, Chief of Staff of the anti-treaty IRA, ordered that any member of Parliament (TD) or senator who had signed or voted for the "murder bill" should be shot on sight. He also ordered the killing of hostile judges and newspaper editors. On the same day, three more Republican prisoners were executed in Dublin.
On 7 December, Anti-Treaty IRA gunmen shot two TDs, Seán Hales and Pádraic Ó Máille, in Dublin as they were on their way to the Dáil. Hales was killed and O'Maille was badly wounded. After an emergency cabinet meeting, the Free State government decided on the retaliatory executions of four prominent Republicans (one from each province). Accordingly, on 8 December 1922, the day after Hales' killing, four members of the IRA Army Executive, who had been held since the first week of the war - Rory O'Connor, Liam Mellows, Richard Barrett and Joe McKelvey - were executed in revenge. This was arguably an unlawful act, as the four Republicans had been captured before the Dáil passed the legislation authorising executions. Later on the same day the Dáil debated the executions and approved by a vote of 39-14. One of the poignant aspects of the incident was that O'Connor and Kevin O'Higgins were formerly close friends, and O'Connor had been best man at O'Higgins' wedding just a few months previously. Historian Michael Hopkinson reports that Richard Mulcahy had pressed for the executions and that Kevin O'Higgins was the last member of cabinet to give his consent.
Seán Hales was the only TD to be killed in the war. However, Republicans continued to attack elected representatives in reprisal for executions of their men. On 10 December, the house of TD Sean McGarry was burned down, killing his seven year old son. In addition, homes of Senators were among the 192 burned or destroyed by the IRA in the war. In February 1923, Kevin O'Higgins' elderly father was murdered by Republicans at the family home in Stradbally. W.T. Cosgrave's home was also burned and an uncle of his was assassinated.
In all, the Free State formally sanctioned the execution of between 77 and 81 anti-treaty fighters during the war. Republican historian Dorothy Macardle popularised the number 77 in Republican consciousness, but she appears to have left out those executed for activities such as armed robbery. Those executed were tried by court-martial in a military court and had to be found guilty only of bearing arms against the State.
After the initial round of executions, the firing squads got underway again in earnest in late December 1922. On 19 December, seven IRA men from Kildare were shot in Dublin and ten days later, two more were shot in Kilkenny. Most of those executed were prisoners held in Kilmainham and Mountjoy Gaols in Dublin, but from January 1923, Kevin O'Higgins argued that executions should be carried out in every county in order to maximise their impact. Accordingly, in that month, 34 prisoners were shot in such places as Dundalk, Roscrea, Carlow, Birr and Portlaoise, Limerick, Tralee and Athlone. From 8-18 February, the Free State suspended executions and offered an amnesty in the hope that anti-treaty fighters would surrender. However, the war dragged for another two months and witnessed at least twenty more official executions.
Several Republican leaders narrowly avoided execution. Ernie O'Malley, captured on 4 November 1922, was not executed because he was too badly wounded when taken prisoner to face a court martial and possibly because the Free State was hesitant about executing an undisputed hero of the recent struggle against the British. Liam Deasy, captured in January 1923 avoided execution by signing a surrender document calling on the anti-treaty forces to lay down their arms.
The Anti-Treaty side called a ceasefire on 30 April 1923 and ordered their men to "dump arms", ending the war, on 24 May. Nevertheless, executions of Republican prisoners continued after this time. Four IRA men were executed in May after the ceasefire order and the final two executions took place on 20 November, months after the end of hostilities. It was not until November 1924 that a general amnesty was offered for any acts committed in the civil war.
In highlighting the severity of the Free State's execution policy, however, it is important not to exaggerate its extent. The Free State took a total of over 12,000 Republicans prisoner during the war, of whom roughly 80, less than 1% were executed. How those who were executed were chosen from the others captured in arms is unclear, however many more men were sentenced to the death penalty than were actually shot. This was intended to act as a deterrent to anti-Treaty fighters in the field, who knew that their imprisoned comrades were likely to be executed if they kept up their armed campaign.
In addition to the judicial executions, Free State troops conducted many extrajudicial killings of captured Anti-Treaty fighters. Such activity was perhaps inevitable in a war that was defined by killings and reprisals on both sides. However, from an early point in the war, from late August 1922 (coinciding with the onset of guerrilla warfare), there were many incidents of National Army troops killing prisoners.
In Dublin, there were a number of killings carried out by the new (police) Intelligence service, the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), which was headed by Joseph McGrath and was based in Oriel House in Dublin city centre. By 9 September, a British intelligence report stated that "Oriel House" had already killed "a number of Republicans" in Dublin. In a number of cases, Anti-Treaty IRA men were abducted by Free State forces, killed and their bodies dumped in public places; republican sources detail at least 25 such cases in the Dublin area. There were also allegations of abuse of prisoners during interrogation by the CID. For example, Republican Tom Derrig had an eye shot out while in custody.
County Kerry, where the guerrilla campaign was most intense, would see many of the most vicious episodes in the civil war. On 27 August, in the first such incident of its type, two anti-treaty fighters were shot after they had surrendered in Tralee, county Kerry. One of them, James Healy, was left for dead but survived to tell of the incident. Republicans also killed prisoners. After their successful attack on Kenmare on 9 September, the Anti-Treaty IRA separated National Army officer Tom "Scarteen" O'Connor and his brother from the 120 other prisoners and shot them dead. There were a steady stream of similar incidents after this point in County Kerry, culminating in a series of high profile atrocities in the month of March 1923.
Also in September, a party of nine anti-treaty fighters was wiped out near Sligo by Free State troops. Four of them, (including Brian MacNeill, the son of Eoin MacNeill) were later found to have been shot at close range in the forehead, indicating that they had been shot after surrendering.
The Ballyseedy Massacre and its aftermath:
March 1923 saw a series of notorious incidents in Kerry, where 23 republican prisoners were killed in the field (and another 5 judicially executed) in a period of just four weeks.
The killings were sparked off when five Free State soldiers were killed by a booby trap bomb while searching a republican dug out at the village of Knocknagoshel, county Kerry, on 6 March. The next day, the local Free State commander authorised the use of Republican prisoners to clear mined roads. Paddy Daly justified the measure as, 'the only alternative left to us to prevent the wholesale slaughter of our men'. National Army troops may have interpreted this as permission to take revenge on the anti-treaty side.
The following day, 6/7 March, nine Republican prisoners were taken from Ballymullen barracks in Tralee to Ballyseedy crossroads and tied to a landmine which was then detonated, after which the survivors were machine-gunned. One of the prisoners, Stephen Fuller, was blown to safety by the blast of the explosion. He was taken in at the nearby home of Michael and Hannah Curran. They cared for him and, although badly injured, he survived. Fuller later became a Fianna Fáil TD. The Free State troops in nearby Tralee had prepared nine coffins and were surprised to find only eight bodies on the scene. There was a riot when the bodies were brought back to Tralee, where the enraged relatives of the killed prisoners broke open the coffins as a statement of contempt for the Free State and its troops and in an effort to identify the dead.
This was followed by a series of similar incidents with mines within twenty four hours of the Ballyseedy killings. Five Republican prisoners were blown up with another landmine at Countess Bridge near Killarney and four in the same manner at Cahersiveen. Another Republican prisoner, Seamus Taylor was taken to Ballyseedy woods by National Army troops and shot dead.
On 28 March, five IRA men, captured in an attack on Cahersiveen on 5 March were officially executed in Tralee. Another, captured the same day, was summarily shot and killed. Thirty two anti-Treaty fighters died in Kerry in March 1923, of whom only five were killed in combat Free State officer Niall Harrington has suggested that reprisal killings of republican prisoners continued in Kerry right up to the end of the war.
The Free State unit, the Dublin Guard, and in particular their commander Paddy Daly, were widely held to be responsible for these killings. They, however, claimed that the prisoners had been killed while clearing roads by landmines laid by Republicans. When questioned in the Dáil by Irish Labour Party leader Thomas Johnson, Richard Mulcahy, the National Army's commander-in-chief, backed up Daly's story. A military Court of Enquiry conducted in April 1923 cleared the Free State troops of the charge of killing their prisoners.
It has since emerged, however, that the prisoners were beaten, tied to explosives and then killed. At Cahersiveen, the prisoners were reportedly shot in the legs before being blown up to prevent them escaping. Two Free State officers, Lieutenants Niall Harrington and McCarthy (who both resigned over the incidents) later stated that not only were the explosives detonated by the Free State troops, they had also been made by them and laid there for this purpose. Documents released in late 2008 show that the Free State Cabinet was aware that the Army's version of events was flawed. An investigation concluded that the prisoners had been killed by a party of National Army soldiers from Dublin known as the 'visiting committee' and that those at Cahersiveen had been beaten and shot before being blown up.
What exactly prompted this outbreak of vindictive killings in March 1923 is unclear. While the National Army troops in Kerry were clearly enraged by the killings of their comrades at Knocknagoshel, a total of 68 Free State soldiers had been killed in the county and 157 wounded up to that point. A total of 85 would die in Kerry before the war was over. Why the deaths at Knocknagoshel prompted such a savage response remains an open question. However, it has never been proven that the National Army atrocities of March 1923 were authorised by the Free State government or the National Army high command.
In addition to the bloody events in Kerry, two similar episodes took place elsewhere in the country in the same month.
On 13 March, three Republican fighters were judicially executed in Wexford in the south east. In revenge, Bob Lambert, the local Republican leader, had three National Army soldiers captured and killed.
On 14 March at Drumboe Castle in County Donegal, in the north west, four anti-Treaty IRA fighters, Charles Daly (26), Sean Larkin (26), Daniel Enwright (23), and Timothy O' Sullivan (23), who had been captured and held in the castle since January, were summarily shot in retaliation for the death of a National Army soldier in an ambush.
The end of the war:
Even after the war had ended in May 1923, Free State troops continued killings of anti-Treaty fighters. For example, Noel Lemass, a captain in the anti-Treaty IRA, was abducted in Dublin and shot by Free State forces in July 1923, two months after the war had ended. His body was dumped in the Dublin Mountains, near Glencree, where it was found in October 1923. The spot where his body was found is marked by a memorial erected by his brother Seán Lemass - a future Taoiseach of Ireland. There are no conclusive figures for the number of unofficial executions of captured anti-treaty fighters, but Republican officer Todd Andrews put the figure for "unauthorised killings" at 153.
Arguably the Government policy of executions did help to end the Civil war. After the executions in reprisal for the killing of Seán Hales, there were no further attempts to assassinate members of Parliament. The Anti-Treaty leaders were also aware that continuing the war would mean exposing their prisoners to further executions. This was probably a factor in Frank Aiken calling a halt to the anti-Treaty campaign in April 1923.
There is no doubt that the executions and assassinations of the Civil War left a poisonous legacy of bitterness on both sides of Irish politics. The Free State's official executions of 77 Anti-Treaty prisoners during the civil war was recalled by Fianna Fáil (the political party that emerged from the anti-Treaty side in 1926) members with bitterness for decades afterwards. In the minority hardline Irish republican tradition, those IRA members executed in the civil war became martyrs and were venerated in songs and poems. (For example, the Republican ballad Take It Down From The Mast).
As a result of the executions in the civil war, many Republicans would never accept the Free State as a legitimate Irish government, but rather as a repressive, British-imposed state. This attitude was partially alleviated after 1932, when Fianna Fáil, the party who represented the bulk of the Republican constituency, entered government peacefully and introduced a new constitution in 1937. The Free State officially became the Republic of Ireland in 1949.
Kevin O'Higgins, whom republicans felt was most directly responsible for the enactment of the Public Safety Act, with its sanction of executions, himself fell victim to assassination by the IRA in 1927 - becoming one of the last victims of the Civil War era violence in Ireland. Richard Mulcahy became a leader of Fine Gael but never became Taoiseach in 1948 because of his role in the Civil War.
The 2006 film The Wind That Shakes the Barley climaxes with an Anti-Treaty guerilla being executed by a firing squad commanded by his own brother, who supports the Free State. This was inspired by the case of Sean and Tom Hales who were both leaders, but on opposing sides of the war.