(Reading time main section: 5 mins.)
In atrocious weather conditions, Irish Republicans of a number of organisations and of none gathered at the Liam Mellows monument in Finglas today (Sunday 4 December 2022) to honour four Republicans executed by the Irish State in 1922.
Liam Mellows, Rory O’Conor, Joe McKelvey and Richard Barrett were all prominent IRA Volunteers during the War of Independence and rejected the Anglo-Irish Agreement to create a subservient state in a partitioned country.
The Irish State chose the four prisoners in retaliation for the assassination of Seán Hales TD, himself shot in retaliation for Free State executions of Republican prisoners. By coincidence or intent, each one of the four had been born in a different one of Ireland’s four provinces.
THE COMMEMORATION EVENT
A part of the commemoration marched with colour parties, led by lone piper, from Finglas village to the Mellows Monument.
Ado Perry chaired the event, one of a series of Irish Civil War commemorations in Dublin organised by Independent Republicans, which group also erected commemorative panels in various locations around the city, often marking the location where Free State troops killed an IRA Volunteer.
Three colour parties attended the event and a list of all the known Republican victims of the Free State was read out.
Sean Óg, accompanying himself on guitar, sang Brian Ó hUigínn’s Soldiers of ‘22 and James Ryan’s Take It Down From the Mast, two of the best-known of a very limited number of songs about the Irish Civil War. A number present joined in on the chorus of the second song:
Take it down from the mast, Irish Traitors,
It’s the flag we Republicans claim;
It can never belong to Free Staters,
For you’ve brought on it nothing but shame.
Mags Glennon gave a speech on behalf of the organisers but it was difficult to make out its content (kindly supplied since and given in full in Appendix.
The main speaker advertised for the event was John Crawley, who has found recent fame in Republican circles with the publication of his biographical book The Yank, about his enlisting with the US Marine Corps and attempting to pass on his military skills to the Provisional IRA.
It was a shame that the volume of the PA was only turned up at around the last quarter or so of his speech. Despite the limited audibility of most of it, the attendance endured the rain and stood there in good order1.
Ado Perry thanked speakers and musicians for participation and all for attendance, making special mention of the colour parties. He announced that the event commemorative event would be at Kilmainham Jail early in January.
A lone piper played a lament and swung into the national anthem, Amhrán na bhFiann. Representatives of the National Graves Association addressed the crowd briefly before the event finally concluded and the wet and the weary headed home or to a warm pub or restaurant.
A local resident assured us that the sun does sometimes shine in Finglas. I assured him I believed him as I had seen some photographs to verify it.
The weather really was atrocious, raining almost non-stop and on one occasion during the event, lashing down heavily upon the gathering. One had to feel sympathy for the men and women of the three colour parties, who had to endure the downpour without the shelter of even an umbrella.
Indeed this reporter felt the need to break his bicycle journey away from the event for a bowl of hot soup in a nice eatery across the motorway bridge in Finglas village, before pushing on to my destination in the Glasnevin area.
BACKGROUND: THE FREE STATE
The State that came into existence in 1922 was a creation of those forces that accepted Dominion status within the British Commonwealth instead of an Irish Republic, accepting also the partition of Ireland for the first time with six counties becoming a British colony.
While the pro-Treaty position had a majority of votes in the Irish parliament, a large part of the civilian population and the vast majority of the fighters (Irish Volunteers, Cumann na mBan, Na Fianna) rejected the Treaty and their representation left the Government in protest.
Although Anti-Treaty forces had occupied the Four Courts in Dublin, the Civil War was started by the Free State military, shelling the Republican occupants with artillery on loan from the British military and going on to use British transport and weapons to defeat the Republicans.
Rory O’Connor, Joe McKelvey, Richard Barrett and Liam Mellows were already in jail when Seán Hales was killed and could not be considered guilty by any stretch of causality; nevertheless they were executed on 9th December 1922.
From Century Ireland:
In a statement issued by the National Army’s General Headquarters, the latest round of executions are explained as a ‘reprisal for the assassination…. of Brigadier Sean Hales, TD, and as a solemn warning to those associated with them who are engaged in a conspiracy of assassination against the representatives of the Irish people.’
The executions took place at 9.20 am. The prisoners were marched blindfolded to the rear of the Mountjoy Prison buildings with three clergymen in attendance. They were shot by firing squad and their bodies were subsequently interred within the grounds of the prison.
Commenting on these developments, the Irish Times has editorialised that the ‘Free State Government has committed itself to an act of ‘reprisal’ which eclipses in sudden and tragic severity the sternest measures of the British Crown during the conflict with Sinn Féin.’
The first executions carried out by the Free State took place on 17 November 1922, and then continued a week later with that of Erskine Childers.
On the last day of November, the number of those executed increased to eight when three Dubliners – Joseph Spooner (21), Patrick Farrelly (21), John Murphy (19) – were killed at Beggars Bush Barracks.
The three men were captured on 30 October after an attempt was made to blow up Oriel House, the headquarters of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID)2.
Following the deaths of Spooner, Farrelly and Murphy, the leader of the Labour Party, Thomas Johnston, called for an end to executions as a method of punishment. Mr Johnston, speaking in the Dáil on 30 November, stated:
‘We have been told pretty frequently during the last few weeks that it is the intention of the ministry to re-establish the reign of law, and we were told yesterday, as we have been told frequently, that unless this kind of thing is done anarchy will prevail. I want to make the charge that this kind of trial, this kind of sentence, is, in fact, anarchy. It is not law. It is anarchy- lynch law once removed.’
By the time the Civil War ended, the Free State had formally executed around 80 Irish Republicans (many more than had the British occupation 1916-1921) and at least another 20 killed as surrendered fighters or kidnapped, sometimes tortured, then taken somewhere and shot.
Post-Civil War, the class nature of the State became even clearer: led by a foreign-dependent capitalist class, handing over healthcare and education to the Catholic Church, upon the institutions of which it leaned heavily for social control of the masses.
The foreign dependency was at first on the British who helped create the State but subsequently first the USA and then the EU have been added to the list of economic masters. This is the inheritance of the Anglo-Irish Agreement and of the victory of the Free State in the Civil War.
APPENDIX (reading time approx 11 minutes):
SPEECH BY MAGS GLENNON FOR INDEPENDENT REPUBLICANS GROUP
Today we gather to remember and honour Liam Mellows, Rory O’Connor, Joe McKelvey and Dick Barrett, four dedicated volunteers who were executed without even the pretence of a trial by a Free State regime bent on revenge and determined to use any methods to defeat the principles and spirit of Irish Republicanism.
In this case the brutal elimination not just of key IRA military leaders but also the articulate political voices who could expose the betrayal of the revolutionary republican ideals by the Free State.
As the Civil War grew increasingly bitter in the autumn of 1922 the Free State implemented the Public Order Act, allowing for summary execution from anyone caught in possession of weapons. Kevin O Higgins stated that “what was needed to put down the Irregulars were more local executions, and we should just kill them anyway”.
It is important to recognize the context in which these four brave men met their deaths. They were murdered to ensure the supremacy of the Free State elite who felt it was their right to betray the principles of the 1916 Rising and the Democratic Programme of the 1st Dail.
The prosperous catholic and moderate nationalist class had seen their Home Rule party practically eliminated in the 1919 election. Mass campaigns against conscription, transport strikes against British militarism as well as sporadic strikes and workers Soviet revolts worried what Mellows called ‘the state in the country people’.
The political interests of the prosperous middle class catholic merchants, professionals and big farmers were well served by acceptance of the British Treaty, which would ensure they held social, economic and political power in the new Free State. They cared not for partition or royal oaths as they had achieved their Home Rule.
The Free State elite saw the role of working people, many of whom had been at the forefront of the war, was to retreat once more to the slums and to obey their masters.
The democratic and egalitarian basis of a Republicanism expressed in the founding documents of the struggle promised a radical and democratic future, appealing in particular to working people in Dublin who had been fighting since the Lockout of 1913.
WT Cosgrave famously described the urban and rural poor as the ‘sweepings of the workhouses’ and desired that they emigrate as quickly as possible. The original Sinn Fein of Arthur Griffith had supported the employers in 1913 but piggy backed to prominence on the back of the 1916 Rising.
The elimination of men like Mellows – Brugha and Childers were already dead – was to ensure the political head was cut off the Republican movement.
The execution of military commanders like O Connor, Barrett and McKelvey was to send a message to all provinces that the IRA rank and file would suffer similar deaths to their commanding officers.
The terror Dublin had suffered in 1922 was intensified across the south in 1923 with dozens of young volunteers (many just boys) disappeared, tortured, shot at roadsides and dumped behind ditches. Yet Fine Gael still today parrots rubbish about republican ‘violence’, to cover up the savage war crimes on which they built their Free State.
We must all openly question the narrative being put forward by the Free State establishment today, completely ignoring the centenary of the Civil War. Remembering the deaths and honouring the lives of the republican volunteers has been carried out by their families and small local Commemoration groups.
Any further publicity would reveal the betrayal of the democratic and revolutionary principles of Republicanism which the Free State attempted to wipe out in the Civil War. We must rededicate ourselves to the revolutionary, internationalist and anti-imperialist traditions of Irish Republicanism.
As we work to advance these ideas in our communities, we must reject the conservative and xenophobic brands of nationalism, whether orange or green, that seek to deflect the blame for our social and economic problems away from the establishment figures benefiting from and promoting such conflict.
We remember today the sacrifice made 100 years ago by Liam Mellows, Rory O Connor, Joe McKelvey and Dick Barrett. May they rest in peace and their ideas and example form the basis of a strong, principled and united Irish Republicanism into the future. Beir Bua!
SPEECH BY JOHN CRAWLEY, MAIN SPEAKER AT EVENT
At 3:30 am on Friday, the 8th of December 1922, IRA volunteers Liam Mellows, Rory O’Connor, Dick Barrett, and Joe McKelvey were informed they were to be summarily executed by the Free State government in retaliation for the killing of Sean Hales, the previous day.
Hales had voted for the ‘Murder Bill’ permitting the execution of those bearing arms in defence of the Irish Republic.
The Free State made great play of the fact Hales was a T.D. even though the first T.D. slain in the Civil War had been shot by Free Staters when they killed Cathal Brugha, who presided over the first meeting of Dáil hÉireann in January 1919 and had served as Minister for Defence. Free Staters had murdered Harry Boland T.D. in August, and of course, Liam Mellows was a T.D.
Captured as part of the Four Courts garrison the previous June, these four IRA volunteers had been in prison since then. They held no responsibility for IRA operations on the outside.
Those Free Staters who hadn’t the resolve to stand by the Republic demonstrated vicious zeal in proving to the British they had the cruelty to murder those who did.
They attempted to justify these killings by claiming they were implementing the will of the Irish people who approved the Anglo-Irish Treaty under Britain’s threat of immediate and terrible war if it were not ratified.
But it was not the will of the Irish people that led to the bombardment of the Four Courts the previous June with artillery provided by the British army. It was the will of British Prime Minister Lloyd George and Winston Churchill.
The firing squad that shot Rory, Liam, Dick, and Joe that cold December morning was manned by Irishmen who had all served in the British army. They carried rifles and wore uniforms supplied by the British government.
The Free State government called its armed wing the National Army, but it was no national army.
It was an exclusively 26-County force set up under Article 8 of the Anglo-Irish Treaty to fight the only war they ever engaged in – the war to overthrow the Irish Republic. Had it been a national army, the British government would never have permitted it to exist.
Bernard Law Montgomery, who became a Field Marshall during the Second World War and had commanded British forces in Cork during the Irish civil war, wrote in 1923:
‘We [the British Army] could probably have squashed the [IRA 1919-21] rebellion as a temporary measure, but it would have broken out again like an ulcer the moment we removed the troops…
The only way, therefore, was to give them [the Irish] some form of self-government and let them squash the rebellion themselves; they are the only people who could really stamp it out, and they are still trying to do so and as far as one can tell they seem to be having a fair amount of success.’
By May 1923, the Free State Army would have 58,000 men who were armed, equipped, and uniformed by the British government.
Of this number, more than 30,000 were Irishmen who were former British soldiers, approximately 3,000 were IRA deserters who had defected from the Republic, and the remaining 25,000 had no prior experience on either side.
James Connolly had written in 1915, ‘When a foreign invader plants himself in a country which he holds by military force his only hope of retaining his grasp is either that he wins the loyalty of the natives, or if he fails to do so that he corrupts enough of them to enable him to disorganise and dishearten the remainder…The chief method of corruption is by an appeal to self-interest.
The self-interest of the Free Staters lay in the opportunity to achieve managerial control of a state with the pay, pensions, patronage, and prestige that went with it. A state whose parameters had been determined by a Tory-dominated cabinet committee that consulted nobody in Ireland except unionists.
Contrary to what partitionist propagandists would have us believe, the Treaty was not the result of a decision that had to be taken for pragmatic reasons in the face of overwhelming odds that any rational person in Ireland could recognise and accept.
Nor was the Dáil split down the middle. The Treaty passed by only seven votes in January 1922. Had the vote been taken before the Christmas recess, as many had expected, the Treaty would almost certainly have been rejected.
Unfortunately, the Christmas break gave powerful pro-Treaty interests like the Catholic Church, big farmers, big business, and an assortment of gombeen men the opportunity to wear down the resolve of a number of T.D.s.
Liam Mellows presided over an IRA convention held in the Mansion House in Dublin in March 1922. The IRA voted more than 80% against the Treaty and passed a resolution declaring, ‘That the Army reaffirms its allegiance to the Irish Republic…’
Cumann na mBan voted overwhelmingly against the Treaty by 419 votes to 63, and the vast majority of the active IRA units in the field also rejected it.
In a letter to his mother written shortly before his execution, Liam Mellows declared, ‘I die for the truth.
That truth was spoken by James Connolly at his court martial in 1916 when he said, ‘The British Government has no right in Ireland, never had any right in Ireland, and never can have any right in Ireland . . .’
That truth was also spoken by Pádraig Pearse while inspecting Irish Volunteers at Vinegar Hill in Wexford in the early autumn of 1915 when he said, ‘We, the Volunteers, are formed here not for half of Ireland, not to give the British Garrison control of part of Ireland. No! We are here for the whole of Ireland.’
As has been shown so many times in Irish history and is being demonstrated today in a different context, in a revolutionary struggle, the choice one often confronts is whether to do what counts or to make what you can do count.
To do what mattered proved too daunting for many Free Staters, so they made the Treaty count, saved their skins, opened career paths, and shifted the goalposts from the 32-County Irish Republic to a 26-County Dominion of the British Empire moulded by British strategic interests.
In 1948 Fine Gael Taoiseach John A. Costello declared that the Irish Free State would become the Republic of Ireland – a republic that would tell the world Ireland is Ireland without the Six Counties.
In the future, when any Dublin politician would proudly assert, ‘I stand by the Republic,’ they were referring exclusively to the twenty-six-county Republic of Ireland announced by this former Blueshirt in 1948, not the thirty-two-county Irish Republic proclaimed in 1916 and ratified by the First Dáil in 1919.
Again today, Britain is attempting to shape the political environment to suit its strategic interests. Just as in Liam Mellows day, former comrades who swore they would lead us to the Republic are leading us in the opposite direction.
All talk of the Republic is now gone because the Republic was never on the negotiating table in 1998. We no longer hear Ireland referred to as our country but as this island. Our country is one nation. This island has two.
Great play is made about the potential of a united Ireland as outlined in the Good Friday Agreement. We had a united Ireland during the Famine. We had a united Ireland when the Republic was proclaimed in 1916. We had a united Ireland when the United Irishmen was formed in 1791.
So what did the 28 Protestants who founded the Irish republican movement mean by a United Ireland? Not territorial unity, which already existed, but the only unity that matters and the unity the British would never countenance – a unity of Irish citizens across the sectarian divide.
The united Ireland defined by the Good Friday Agreement is not a republic. It envisions a polity where the sectarian dynamic remains intact and the cleavage in national loyalties between Ireland and Britain is constitutionally enshrined.
Consequently, many supporters of this strategy propose a continuing and symbolic role for the British royal family as an institutional point of reference for the loyalties of those who would prefer to see themselves as a civic outpost of Britain rather than as equal citizens of a national democracy within an all-Ireland republic.
Debates and discussions are taking place on changing the Irish national flag, discarding the Irish national anthem, and re-joining the British Commonwealth. Instead of breaking the connection with England, we are being relentlessly conditioned into becoming more closely incorporated into a British sphere of influence on a national level.
When former comrades meet and greet British royalty in Ireland, they are sending out an unambiguous message that Ireland is not one nation but two. That Britain has legitimacy in Ireland and a role to play in influencing the political trajectory of our country.
Our goal as IRA volunteers was to break the connection with England. Not to convince the rest of Ireland to re-join the British Commonwealth.
There are many happy clappy euphemisms being employed to describe the Ireland of the future. A shared island, an agreed Ireland, and a new Ireland. Who in their right mind could be against the concept of sharing and new and agreed arrangements?
When we drill down into it, however, we see the trap being laid for us by the British government. A shared island means we share in Britain’s analysis of the nature of the conflict, we share in the colonial legacy of sectarian apartheid, and we share in the imperial project of divide and rule.
We do this by recognising Ulster unionists as the British presence in Ireland with the right to have their Britishness enshrined in law. Republicans know that unionists are pro-British, but we do not accept they are the British presence.
The British presence is the presence of Britain’s jurisdictional claim to Ireland and the civil and military apparatus that gives that effect. England invaded Ireland hundreds of years before the plantation of Ulster. They claimed sovereignty here long before a single unionist set foot on Irish soil. What was their excuse, then?
An agreed Ireland has come to mean the two traditions agreeing to disagree in peace and harmony about the constitutional source of Irish sovereignty and the legitimacy and extent of British influence in constraining Irish democracy.
A muddled and subversive belief that the conquest and colonisation of Ireland share reciprocal legitimacy with its struggle for independence.
The new Ireland we are being asked to work towards is not new. It is predicated on all the old divisions. Divisions that Britain nurtured to retain the sectarian dynamic and resultant cleavage in national loyalties as this policy of divide and rule is the key to their control in Ireland.
It is designed to prevent us from developing the national cohesion required to achieve a 32-County republic. To make us permanently susceptible to British influence and manipulation.
During the Dáil debates on the Anglo-Irish Treaty, a persistent theme was that a pro-treaty vote was a vote for peace, with the resulting implication that those who stood firmly for the Republic were out for war. Liam Mellows replied:
‘If peace was the only object, why, I say, was this fight ever started? Why did we ever negotiate for what we are now told is impossible?
Why should men have ever been led on the road they travelled if peace was the only object? We could have had peace and could have been peaceful in Ireland a long time ago if we were prepared to give up the ideal for which we fought…’
Today those who stand resolutely for the Republic are accused of being against the peace process. Few republicans are against peace, but many are rightly critical of a process that cannot lead to the republican goals for which countless patriots sacrificed their lives.
A united Ireland rooted in British/Irish identity politics cannot be a republic. That is why the British government is all over this. It is their best opportunity to retain maximum influence in Ireland with a minimum footprint when the demographics eventually prove incontestable.
No one has been preparing more diligently to shape the strategic architecture of a future united Ireland than the British government.
One hundred years ago this week, Liam Mellows, Rory O’Connor, Dick Barrett, and Joe McKelvey were dragged from their cells and murdered in cold blood because they stood for what weaker and more personally ambitious Irishmen could not summon the courage to defend any longer.
We honour them today. We remember with pride all Ireland’s patriots from their day to this who never forgot who they were or what they represented.
Long Live the Irish Republic!
1Thanks to Independent Republicans for posting a copy of his speech and that by Mags Glennon on their behalves.
2And Free State torture headquarters.