Ireland’s Wars: The Execution Policy

When it comes to the Irish Civil War, there is little more evocative in the popular memory than the provisional government’s formal policy of enacting executions of captured republicans. We have discussed the course of the conventional war, the death of Michael Collins, the National Army’s COIN operations in general and more focused ways, but so much of the pro-Treaty experience of the war comes back to the powers handed to the military to summarily judge and then shoot IRA members deemed worthy of shooting. Beginning in November 1922 and continuing all the way to the summer of the following year – after the war had ended – the list of executions is not even the totality of the issue, as it does not include the multitude of informal executions that occurred throughout the period, some of which I will cover in greater detail later. The question is why the provisional government thought this policy necessary, if the argument they presented had any legitimacy and what kind of effect on the war the executions actually had.

First, a little background. The death of Collins may not have resulted in enormous reprisals in the short-term, but its impact on the provisional government leadership was significant. Kevin O’Higgins, the Minister for Home Affairs, perceived by many as being the true driving force of government policy, was particularly vehement that a harsher stance had to be taken against the IRA: that they should be treated as criminals engaged in unlawful rebellion against the legitimate ruling power, and not as lawful combatants. The bounce back of the republicans in the period of August to October, the increasing casualty count for the National Army and the major coups signified by the temporary taking of places like Kenmare, Ballina and Clifden, all contributed to others lining up behind O’Higgins’s thinking.

The Public Safety Bill gave the National Army wide-ranging powers to punish individuals as it saw fit, up to the point of a sentence of execution. The offences for which this may be possible were wide-ranging too: possession of unlicensed firearms or explosives, looting property, arson and “aiding and abetting” attacks on the forces of the provisional government. The first charge was particularly important, as it widened the net to include not just Volunteers in arms, but anyone who was willing to help them store ammunition or explosives. The terms of the Bill would later be expanded still further to include those found guilty of carrying messages for the enemy, for desertion from the National Army or aiding in escape attempts.

The laws were of course controversial, and produced significant debate at the time (albeit this was somewhat neutered owing to the limited opposition in the Dail). W.T. Cosgrave certainly expressed something resembling reluctance, but was swept away at the insistence of men like Richard Mulcahy, whose dual role of Minister of Defence and head of the armed forces gave him feet in both sides of the decision. Despite cries of dictatorship and tyranny coming from the likes of the Labour Party, the provisional government stuck to its course.

Why was it thought necessary? As stated, the nominal reason is that it was deemed an appropriate punishment for those engaged in open rebellion against the state, but speaking more practically it was probably hoped that it could tie into the larger counter-insurgency policy and prove a deterrent to republicans taking up arms or for sympathisers to aid them. In essence, it was the gloves coming off: an attempt at intimidation dressed up as law and order. An offer of amnesty for IRA Volunteers made in early October has been largely ignored, so the executions were, for some, the logical next step.

Did the policy have legitimacy? Well, if we consider the provisional government the rightful government of the country, then that government has the right to decide its laws and punishments, especially for those deemed to be in military conflict with the state. Obviously if you consider the pro-Treaty side to be in anyway illegitimate, then they had no right to be enacting such capital punishments. This is a matter of perception, and isn’t something I will comment too much on. For myself I do feel that the provisional government had greater legitimacy than their opponents, but I also believe capital punishment to be among the very worst powers that a state can proscribe for itself.

The first formal executions took place in Kilmainham Gaol on the 17th November when four IRA men belonging to Dublin units were shot on charges of being in possession of unauthorised weapons. The youngest, James Fisher, was only 18, and had been arrested less than a month before. A much more high-profile execution followed a week later on the 24th, when Erskine Childers faced the firing squad in Beggars Bush Barracks. Childers had spent the Civil War, despite his obvious anti-Treaty leanings, doing little of any practical use to the cause, at least partly because he was deemed untrustworthy owing to his birth: one witness at the time has testified to the common sobriquet for Childers as being “that damned Englishman”. Despite National Army belief that Childers was one of the main minds behind anti-Treaty propaganda campaigns, it seems as if Childers was relegated to a minor staff role of little import.

He was arrested while on his way to a meeting with Eamon de Valera in early November. Nine days later his trial took place. The charge was possession of an unauthorised firearm, a pistol that Childers insisted had been a gift from Michael Collins. Despite the origin, Childers was found guilty and sentenced to death. When he faced the firing squad, he allegedly gave them advice on how best to shoot him, and committed a promise from his 14-year-old son – also Erskine, a future Irish President – to make peace with those who had signed his death warrent.

The most high-profile day of executions can probably be considered as the 8th December, when Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows, Joe McKelvey and Rory Barrett went to their deaths in Mountjoy Gaol. These killings were less a judicial exercise and more a naked retaliation: it came a day after the death of pro-Treaty TD Sean Hales, shot down by IRA gunmen outside the Dail (another TD, Padraic O Maille, was shot but survived). Hales was killed as revenge for Childers and the others, and the circle rapidly turned around. As has been well-remembered, O’Connor had been the best man at Kevin O’Higgins wedding in barely a year previously: now O’Higgins signed O’Connor’s death warrant. The executions that day stunned many, and provoked the biggest storm of protest, but the shootings did not stop.

In total, there would be 79 men executed by firing squad. At O’Higgins’ instruction the executions were undertaken in different parts of the country to maximise their impact on opinion. Save for a few weeks in February when the pro-Treaty leadership attempted – without success – to initiate another round of amnesties, they happened consistently all the way up to May 1923. Among the executed were three members of Patrick Mullaney’s flying column captured at Pikes Bridge (sentenced to death for desertion from the National Army) and Charlie Daly, the one-time leader of the anti-Treaty IRA in Donegal, whose death occur ed over the objections of the local National Army commander Joseph Sweeney. The others were a mix of IRA Volunteers, officers, National Army deserters or civilians deemed to have crossed the line in their sympathies with the IRA cause. The majority were quite young – 11 of them at least were teenagers – and many went to their deaths a week or less after being arrested after what can be described as only a cursory examination and military court procedure.

A number of high-profile anti-Treaty figures escaped the firing squads for various reasons. Sometimes it was as simple as knowing the right person in local commands who could confirm a supposed deserter had applied for a the right to leave before being arrested. For others reputation could prove fortuitous: Ernie O’Malley may have avoided execution owing to his role during the War of Independence and general popularity. Still others dodged death by essentially turning their allegiance and giving information to the pro-Treaty side, or by aiding with efforts to end the war from captivity: one very notable Cork-based IRA officer provides the best example, and we will cover that in time. A large number of anti-Treaty prisoners were sentenced to death, but many of these sentences were commuted. Not even 1% of IRA prisoners would end up executed, though this would be of little comfort to those that were.

And those numbers do not include “unofficial” executions of course. Captured IRA men were shot out of hand all over the country during the Civil War. Incidents like that on Ben Bulben we have already covered, and there are other, more infamous, incidents still to come. Some of these deaths could be put down to “in the moment” surges of emotion – which does not excuse them, only help to explain them – but there were other incidents. CID in Dublin became darkly known as an organisation adept at vanishing IRA Volunteers, informants and sympathisers, killing them as a punitive measure after brutal interrogations, and then dumping the bodies in public spaces. The number of such killings countrywide is impossible to ascertain, but almost definitely went into triple figures.

I suppose the really crucial question is if the execution policy worked. Did it contribute to ending the war sooner than it otherwise did? It is impossible to say with any certainty. During the War of Independence British executions of captured Volunteers were undoubtedly a disaster in the larger PR battle, but the Civil War was somewhat different. Perhaps the threat of such punishments influenced the feelings of the people when it came to deciding to offer any support to the anti-Treaty side, perhaps it helped to convince some of the IRA in arms to lay down those arms and go home. It certainly didn’t have much of an effect on the IRA’s leadership, especially the “war” faction of Liam Lynch. For them, the executions simply made them dig in on their opposition to the National Army, and only engendered greater hatred. It was easy to paint the pro-Treaty side as cruel and unworthy of allegiance, though it was less easy to convince people to give that argument a full hearing. Assassinations of TD’s did cease, for the rest of the Civil War anyway, though attacks on their homes did continue.

What cannot be denied is the legacy of bitterness and recrimination that the policy left in Ireland, and those feelings would long outlast the Civil War itself. Decades later, the institution of executions during this period would still be a major factor in determining the leaders of the nation, and the popular remembrance of this entire period is synonymous in many ways with what occurred in various prisons and gaols across the country. It is a topic that we will return to, in part, at a later time. For now, we must move forward with our examination of how the Civil War was fought. It’s time to focus on a sometimes little-noticed, but vital aspect of the conflict: the republican campaign to disrupt and destroy the Irish railway system, and the National Army efforts to stop them.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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10 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Execution Policy

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