Image - Left to Right: Peter Cassidy, James Fisher, John Gaffney, Richard Twohig. Credit: Kilmainham Gaol Archive.

Left to Right: Peter Cassidy, James Fisher, John Gaffney, Richard Twohig. Credit: Kilmainham Gaol Archive.

Image - Kilmainham Gaol. Credit: © RTÉ Photographic Archive/Cashman Collection.

Kilmainham Gaol. Credit: © RTÉ Photographic Archive/Cashman Collection.

When the smoke cleared, it was obvious that three of the four men were dead.

James Fisher, John Gaffney and Richard Twohig.

Peter Cassidy lay among them, shot but unconscious.

The raw young officer in charge of the Firing Party got so confused, he wanted to call an ambulance for the wounded man.

Someone stepped up and reminded him of what they were all there for.

The officer composed himself, drew his revolver and shot Peter Cassidy dead.

Cassidy, Fisher, Gaffney and Twohig, members of the anti-Treaty IRA Dublin Brigade, average age 19-and-a half, lay dead on the flagstones of the Women's Exercise Yard of Kilmainham Gaol, on the morning of the 17th of November, 1922.

Their crime was possession of revolvers when captured on the streets of Dublin a few days before.

They were the first prisoners to be killed under the Provisional Government's new execution policy.

In seven months, 81 men would be executed under the new plan.

The majority were young, rank-and-file members of the anti-Treaty IRA, known to the Free State as the Irregulars.

Men were shot right up to the end of the war.

The new Irish Free State constructed a legal framework within which to execute its enemies – then ignored the law when it suited the government, so it could kill prisoners in revenge for the actions of other men.

When the pace of executions was not fast enough, the State changed the rules in favour of the Prosecution.

When it was considered the impact of the executions was not being felt across the country, the State took the show on the road, a travelling cavalcade of death, coming soon to a barracks near you.

Some men died in agony, having to be shot several times after untrained firing squads botched the executions.

By the end of the war, hundreds of men were in custody as hostages, sentenced to death but execution deferred, as a warning to Irregulars still fighting.

With the killing over, the state enacted laws retrospectively protecting its own servants from any sanction.

Ten years later, with political power about to transfer to the losers of the Civil War, the outgoing administration ordered the destruction of records of the executions.

But consider this:

The new Irish State was by late 1922 unable to press home its initial victories against the anti-Treaty IRA and was on the verge of bankruptcy and extinction.

Swept from the conventional battlefield in less than two months, the anti-Treaty IRA had set out to destroy the infrastructure of the infant state.

Image -
Image -
Image - Blown-up bridges, derailed trains, demolished waterworks – by late 1922 the IRA's onslaught against the country's vital infrastructure was the greatest threat to the Free State. Credits: The National Library of Ireland.

Blown-up bridges, derailed trains, demolished waterworks – by late 1922 the IRA's onslaught against the country's vital infrastructure was the greatest threat to the Free State. Credits: The National Library of Ireland.

The IRA had lost the support of the majority of the people of Ireland.

The IRA leadership was preparing a campaign to kill or burn out of their homes TDs, Senators, Judges, newspaper Editors and proprietors.

The government of the new state looked into the near future and foresaw anarchy, ruin, and war without end – unless and until the British, unable or unwilling to tolerate such armed chaos on their border, sent the troops back in.

Far more than any of the battlefield engagements, the executions defaced and haunted Irish life for two generations.

This is the story of what became open state policy, to wage war on a second front by executing prisoners in numbers the British never attempted, brushing aside attempts to accord their captured enemies the protected status of Prisoners of War.

How did we get there?

'I am against shooting down unarmed men'

So wrote the Army Commander-in-Chief Michael Collins, two weeks before his death in August 1922. He was writing to The Local Government and Finance Minister WT Cosgrave, aware that pressure was growing in government circles for a new policy of capital punishment for those captured in possession of weapons or bombs.

But even his resolve was hardening in response to how the Civil War was going. The initial sweeping victories against the anti-Treaty IRA in July had encouraged a belief that armed rebellion could be swiftly stamped out, without the need for the death penalty for prisoners.

The anti-Treaty IRA had tried conventional warfare, and been swept to the verge of defeat. The Chief of Staff Liam Lynch ordered a return to the hit-and-run ambushes of the War of Independence era, except this time the IRA was far better armed than at any time in that conflict.

Image - IRA Chief of Staff Liam Lynch. Credit: Bridgeman Archive.

IRA Chief of Staff Liam Lynch. Credit: Bridgeman Archive.

August turned into the worst month for ambushes. The Free State lost at least 40 men that way, including Michael Collins himself.

There was restraint by the Provisional Government and the National Army in the wake of Collins's killing. There were almost no revenge killings, certainly none of men in official state custody.

But what there was, was something much more deadly: a crystallising in the minds of government ministers that the conflict had moved into a new phase.

They contemplated the IRA's move back to guerilla war and its scorched-earth policy against the sinews of the infant state.

They contemplated the loss of the man who had embodied the new state's determination to face down its internal enemies.

They contemplated the looming catastrophe of their own failure to discharge the ultimate responsibility of all governments, to guarantee the safety of its citizens and maintain security inside its own borders.

Image - Government Ministers contemplated the drastic new measures. Credit: Getty Images.

Government Ministers contemplated the drastic new measures. Credit: Getty Images.

As they sat in silence around the Cabinet table that August of 1922, the Ministers contemplated the stark warnings of the Attorney-General, Hugh Kennedy.

Image - Attorney-General Hugh Kennedy. Credit: National Library of Ireland.

Attorney-General Hugh Kennedy. Credit: National Library of Ireland.

Kennedy told the Cabinet that no challenge to the authority of any state in recent history, on the scale of the anti-Treaty IRA's campaign, had been defeated by anything but 'prompt, effective, vigorous and utterly ruthless action'.

Any delay in crushing that campaign, he said, due to 'a mistaken idea of humanity', would see the rebellion prosper and overwhelm the Government.

The economic crisis was stark. The new state's very first act was to wage war within its own borders. That war, and the running of the country, was costing £40 million a year, of which the Army was consuming £7 million a year. All to be paid for with £27 million in revenue.

The loan from the British government intended to get the new state up and running, was depleting fast.

The IRA's scorched-earth campaign destroyed bridges, railways, public buildings, everything the government needed to keep the economy going.

The war meant that taxes could not be gathered, so the inflows to state coffers were drying up.

Businesses, banks, investors, were all so deterred by the violence and destruction, that confidence in the new state's future, both within and outside the jurisdiction, was draining away.

The danger was that a protracted war would see the administration asphyxiated before the Army could secure victory. That was the IRA plan.

By late August, senior Army officers and government Ministers believed that a gradual suppression of the anti-Treaty campaign, with thousands of its captured enemies simply interned, was impossible, there was no time to lose, the country would be laid waste and bankrupted before anything resembling victory would be secured.

Michael Collins wanted a legal framework set up to establish a system in which military courts could dispense punishment. He persuaded a young Barrister named Cahir Davitt to accept a commission in the Army, and to begin recruiting legal officials.

Among the obstacles faced by the new Irish government in that autumn of 1922, was the serious limit on its power to make laws by which its enemies could be tried for rebellion. It was only a provisional government, there to enact the terms of the Treaty and to oversee the handover of power from the British.

There was still no approved constitution, and a fully-fledged sovereign government could only come into being when one was signed, and that was months away.

National Army Commander-in-Chief Richard Mulcahy stated bluntly that the creation of a system for dispensing punishment right up to the death penalty was essential if he was to maintain Army discipline; if his soldiers believed that internment was the worst that could be inflicted even on men who had killed their comrades, then they would mete out their own version of justice instead.

Image - National Army Commander-in-Chief Richard Mulcahy. Credit: Getty Images.

National Army Commander-in-Chief Richard Mulcahy. Credit: Getty Images.

No laws could be enacted by the Provisional Government unless they were approved by the British King, and no Irish Minister could contemplate asking the Monarch for permission to execute its own subjects.

So, another way had to be found to create a framework of rules within which opponents could be judged.

In mid-September, General Mulcahy detailed the powers he believed his Army would need to restore order.

Two weeks later, the Army Emergency Powers Resolution was drawn up for debate in the Dáil the next day.

Under the authority of the Army Council, it provided for a system of military courts and committees, with the powers to impose penalties ranging from penal servitude to the death sentence for anyone convicted of unlawful possession of arms or explosives.

The Labour Party Leader Thomas Johnson quickly emerged, alongside former Cabinet Minister Gavan Duffy, as providing the closest thing to parliamentary interrogation of the evolving policy on executions.

Image - Labour Party leader Thomas Johnson. Credit: © RTÉ Photographic Archive/Cashman Collection.

Labour Party leader Thomas Johnson. Credit: © RTÉ Photographic Archive/Cashman Collection.

Image - Gavan Duffy. Credit: Collection & image © Hugh Lane Gallery.

Gavan Duffy. Credit: Collection & image © Hugh Lane Gallery.

He declared in the Dáil that the new powers being created and given to the Army were creating what would effectively be a military dictatorship, powers that the still-ramshackle Army was in no shape to wield.

The opposition protested, but the Resolution was voted through by the Dáil. There was no anti-Treaty vote against the Resolution; those TDs were absent from the House, some dead, some in custody, many of them in the ranks of the anti-Treaty IRA.

The Resolution was passed by 48 votes to 18.

Amnesty offered, offer ignored

In early October, with little fanfare or comment, a government notice appeared in the newspapers.

It was signed by the Chairman of the Provisional Government (in effect the Prime Minister), WT Cosgrave.

It offered amnesty and a pardon for anyone in the ranks of the anti-Treaty IRA who would give up any arms and explosives in their possession to the Army, vacate any buildings occupied by them, return any stolen property and cease to have any part in the war.

The deadline for acceptance was the 15th of October.

Sunday the 15th of October came and went. Its not recorded how many, if any, anti-Treaty IRA members took up the offer. Suffice to say it had no effect whatsoever on what was to come.

Considering what was to unfold, the first weeks of the new era passed almost as an anti-climax.

In the first two weeks of November, the first cases under the Emergency Powers Resolution were heard. Twelve cases were heard, yet despite the draconian new legislation, only one sentence was confirmed and came into effect, imposing a term of 12 months' hard labour. Yet these cases involved the possession without authority of a revolver, for which the sentence was supposed to be death.

A threshold crossed; four men dead

Two days later, the false calm was shattered.

At 7am on November 17th, just two days after Richard Mulcahy was explaining to the Dáil why there had been no capital sentences handed down yet, four young IRA men were led from their cells in Kilmainham Gaol.

They were:

James Fisher, John Gaffney, Peter Cassidy, and Richard Twohig.

They had been found guilty of possession of loaded revolvers, waiting, it was claimed, in ambush positions on a Dublin street when captured a few nights earlier.

They were brought into the Female Exercise Yard, put side by side against the wall, and shot.

The first anyone outside the authorities knew of the deaths, was when they were announced in the evening newspapers. As would be the normal practice, families of the condemned men were not informed until after the sentence had been carried out, and most families learned of the prisoners' fate from newspaper reports.

There had been almost nothing for two weeks, then four men shot side by side in one morning.

Two facts stood out. Their youth –the eldest was 21, the youngest 18 – and their rank-and-file status in the IRA. None of them was anything but a footsoldier.

What impact on the war would the deaths of 4 such ordinary men have?.

In fact, it was their very ordinariness that marked them for death.

The government intended all the executions to have maximum impact, both on the IRA and on the public, to convince everyone that this government was deadly serious about winning this war.

The best way to achieve that, the government believed, was to reach the anti-Treaty rank and file in every corner of the country, men exactly like those executed. The goal of the first executions was to have these men identify with the dead, to imagine themselves against that wall. Shooting men with records and distinctions from 1916 or the War of Independence would allow the rank and file to think of the executions as something remote, unlikely to happen to them.

The targeting of rank-and-file Irregulars carried a risk.

The Government and Army knew from the first moments of the Civil War that many men on both sides were reluctant to fire on each other, unable to understand what it was that was supposed to make men of very similar backgrounds and upbringing, suddenly become mortal enemies.

If that was true of armed men facing each other, how on earth could one group of these men be expected to put another, unarmed and condemned group up against a wall, and coldly shoot them dead, orders or no orders?.

Observers at the executions that November morning remarked on the youth of both the officer and the men of the firing squad, and at their obvious discomfort at what they were about to do.

In the end, the discipline overcame the revulsion, and the soldiers did their job.

A threshold had been crossed.

The execution of Erksine Childers

Erskine Childers was as far from the rank-and-file as could be imagined. Before he had taken the side of the anti-Treaty cause, he had been Secretary to the negotiating team that signed the Treaty in London less than a year earlier. He had opposed the signing, and for this, and his (wrongly) perceived senior role in the anti-Treaty cause, he was deeply resented by his former comrades on the government side.

Image - Erskine Childers. Credit: Getty Images.

Erskine Childers. Credit: Getty Images.

On his way to Dublin from Cork in November 1922, he stopped at his Cousin Robert Barton's home in Annamoe in County Wicklow. At dawn on the 11th, Army troops acting on a tipoff crept into the house and surprised Childers. As he was overpowered, a small pistol was taken from his hand. The pistol was a .32 automatic, given to Childers by Michael Collins during the War of Independence.

Image - Erskine Childers' pistol. Credit: Military Archives. Ref 111 Pistol Spanish Destroyer Serial 10169.

Erskine Childers' pistol. Credit: Military Archives. Ref 111 Pistol Spanish Destroyer Serial 10169.

Despite later claims that the gun was no more than an ornamental toy, the .32 was in fact a weapon easily concealed but lethal at close quarters. Perfect for a man on the run in the War of Independence, but now in a very different conflict, it would be enough to have him executed.

He was tried at Portobello Barracks, charged with unlawful possession of a weapon, found guilty, and sentenced to death.

A formidable legal team – of a kind not available to the rank-and-file Republicans executed during the war – assembled to defend Childers.

Their arguments- that Childers should be tried as an officer of the anti-Treaty forces, not as a civilian, that he should be protected from death by Prisoner-of-war status, that no intent to fire on the soldiers during his arrest could be proved – were dismissed by the senior judge in the Court of Appeal, Master of the Rolls, Charles O'Connor.

He ruled that the government's legitimacy to act was confirmed in law and in fact, despite its provisional status.

In a state of war, such a government must preserve the peace by force if necessary, against all attempts to overthrow it.

No civil court had jurisdiction over the actions of military authorities during wartime.

Erskine Childers had himself helped create that state of war, that rendered any civil court unable to intervene in his case.

In his defence of the government's right to execute Childers, Charles O'Connor cited the Roman maxim:

"Suprema Lex, salus populi".

"The safety of the people is the highest law".

Childers' legal team attempted to mount an appeal. It was as they were trying to get the case listed before the Court of Appeal that they discovered that, in the early hours of that very morning, he had been shot by firing squad at Beggar's Bush Barracks.

He had been shot as soon as there was light enough for the firing squad to see its target. While they waited for the sun to come up, Childers had smoked cigarettes with the members of the firing squad, and shook each of their hands.

There were fifteen men in the firing party. Only five rifles were loaded, and they were given to the most experienced men.

Yet still, once again there was farce.

Frank Holland, the officer guarding Childers in his last hours, reported that the Medical Officer at the scene would not certify that Childers was dead. Yet the officer in charge of the execution would not do his duty and administer the coup de grace. Another officer had to step forward and finish the job.

'No mercy?' Double standards

The government was accused of letting its hostility to Childers for his opposition to the Treaty and his (wholly exaggerated) role in the anti-Treaty cause, define its response to his capture.

Appeals for clemency were brushed aside. Ernest Blythe claimed he and the rest of the Cabinet believed that 'no mercy' could be shown to Childers. Having shot four 'ignorant, ordinary young fellows' just a week before, he wrote, they could not reprieve a man of Childers' stature.

Image - Ernest Blythe. Credit: Getty Images.

Ernest Blythe. Credit: Getty Images.

Those arresting Childers claimed he had been brandishing his pistol with intent to use it against them.

Yet a few days before, during an Army raid on the IRA Assistant Chief of Staff Ernie O'Malley's hideout in Dublin, he had shot and killed one of the soldiers. O'Malley was badly wounded in the shootout.

Here was an actual, as opposed to a perceived, leading figure in the anti-Treaty cause, who had fatally shot one of his pursuers.

On the face of it, this was an open-and-shut case for execution.

There was never a move to execute O'Malley; his wounds meant that production of the medical certificate needed to declare him fit to stand trial was delayed and delayed, until the end of the war meant the threat of execution was lifted.

What was the difference between the two men?. One was hated by the Free State government for his opposition to the Treaty, and supposed leading role in the Civil War, the other had the 'right' record in the War of Independence.

Yet more inconsistency was shown a few days after Childers' execution, when four more rank-and-file Irregulars were convicted of possession of guns and bombs in the vicinity of an ambush of an Army patrol in Dublin.

According to the new policy, Joseph Spooner, John Murphy, Patrick Farrelly and James Mallin should all have been executed, as had been the men at Kilmainham.

Spooner, Farrelly and Murphy paid the ultimate price.

Mallin's sentence was commuted to five years' penal servitude. The ostensible reason for clemency was his youth at 18.

That had not saved James Fisher at Kilmainham.

The difference between the two men?. James Mallin was the son of Commandant Michael Mallin, a Citizen Army officer executed after the 1916 Rising.

James Fisher had no such lineage to save him.

It was also an unstated policy to not execute anti-Treaty TDs captured in arms.

A warning

On the 27th of November, the Speaker or Ceann Comhairle of the Dáil Michael Hayes received a chilling warning from IRA Chief of Staff Liam Lynch.

The bitterness and anger in Lynch's words foretold what was about to happen.

" are now pretending to try IRA prisoners before your make-believe courts. You have already done to death five after such mock ceremonials.

You now presume to murder and transport the soldiers who had brought Ireland victory when you, traitors, surrendered the Republic twelve months ago".

The letter continued with a threat against not only the members of the Provisional Government, but every elected member of the Oireachtas who voted for the Resolution "by which you pretend to make legal the murder of soldiers" back in September. All were considered "guilty".

Lynch's letter concluded with a promise to use "very drastic measures to protect our forces".

It could have been even more blunt had Eamon de Valera's suggested wording been included:

"We therefore give you notice that we have given orders that for each soldier of the Republic whom you execute or equal number of your body are to be shot at sight".

In the depths of Lynch's bitterness towards the new Dáil and its members, he even extended his threats to the Labour Party TDs, even though its leader Thomas Johnson was the effective leader of principled and passionate parliamentary opposition to the executions policy.

Johnson's reply to Lynch:

"The Parliamentary Labour Party is responsible for its actions to the organised workers of Ireland, and to them alone".

The threats to Ministers or TDs from the IRA were not new; WT Cosgrave was warning his fellow Ministers back in August, before Collins was killed and long before the execution legislation was drafted, that they were all "on the list to be shot".

What was new was Lynch's determination to do something about it.

On November 30th, he issued to the IRA what became known as his "Order of Frightfulness": a publication of the list of all the Ministers and TDs who voted for the September Resolution, with the clear implication that this was a list of those to be killed.

Image - Liam Lynch's Death-list: the 'Murder Members' poster. Credit: Image courtesy of

Liam Lynch's Death-list: the 'Murder Members' poster. Credit: Image courtesy of

'Take them out and shoot them'

On December 6th, with the signing into law of the 1922 Constitution, the Irish Free State came formally into being, emerging from the chrysalis of Provisional Government status into fully-fledged existence.

One day later, two TDs, Sean Hales and Pádraig Ó Maille, who was also Deputy or Leas Ceann Comhairle of the Dáil, were getting on to a horse-drawn taxi outside the Ormonde Hotel to return to the Dáil after lunch.

A group of men approached the taxi. They drew pistols and opened fire on the two men. Both Hales and O'Maille were hit.

Image - Sean Hales TD, on a Sidecar Taxi similar to the one he was riding in when killed. Credit: The Hales Family.

Sean Hales TD, on a Sidecar Taxi similar to the one he was riding in when killed. Credit: The Hales Family.

Image - Padraic O'Maille TD. Credit: The National Library of Ireland.

Padraic O'Maille TD. Credit: The National Library of Ireland.

Sean Hales had not voted for the September Resolution, having been absent from the Dáil that day, and his name did not appear on Liam Lynch's list. O'Maille's name was on the list.

O'Maille was wounded. Sean Hales was killed.

Image - Sean Hales' funeral. Credit: The National Library of Ireland.

Sean Hales' funeral. Credit: The National Library of Ireland.

After the shooting, the IRA claimed the intention was to kill O'Maille, not Hales.

Such nuances were lost on the government. Elected politicians had been targeted and shot. Anyone whose name was on Lynch's list could now expect to be killed at any time.

The Cabinet and the Army reacted within hours.

How to respond?. How to send an unmistakable signal, to show that by the move from verbal threats to assassination, the anti-Treaty leadership had crossed a line, and there was no going back?.

In this case, shooting rank-and-file prisoners would achieve nothing. Those who paid the price would have to be men whose names would echo across the land.

Men like the senior officers of the Four Courts garrison, in prison since early July.

Men like Rory O'Connor, Liam Mellows, Joe McKelvey and Richard Barrett.

Image - MARKED FOR DEATH: Rory O'Connor, Joe McKelvey, Liam Mellows, and Richard Barret.

Credits: The National Library of Ireland, Military Archives, Getty Images, the Barret Family.

MARKED FOR DEATH: Rory O'Connor, Joe McKelvey, Liam Mellows, and Richard Barret. Credits: The National Library of Ireland, Military Archives, Getty Images, the Barret Family.

In the overnight Cabinet meeting to decide on the response, the names of these men were put forward for execution. According to Minister Ernest Blythe, the Army had already put the names forward for consideration by the Cabinet.

Richard Mulcahy was Minister for Defence and Army Commander-in-Chief. He was the link between the two.

There was consensus around the Cabinet table about the names. Kevin O'Higgins held out the longest against the arguments, before relenting:

'Take them out and shoot them'.

Image - Kevin O'Higgins. Credit: Getty Images.

Kevin O'Higgins. Credit: Getty Images.

Around 3am, the four men were roused from sleep in their cells and brought to a Holding Area. A short typewritten note was read to each of them. They were to be shot later that morning, December 8th, at 8am.

The reason was bluntly stated:

' a reprisal for the assassination of Brigadier Sean Hales a solemn warning to those associated (with) you who are engaged in a conspiracy of assassination against the representatives of the Irish people'.

It was signed by Richard Mulcahy, Commander in Chief of the Army.

No trial, no inquiry, no family to be informed before execution.

They were told to write their final letters.

The four men were brought out to the prison yard, and lined up to face the Firing Squad. Liam Mellows was seen to steady his feet by shuffling the gravel, as if steeling himself for the impact of the bullets.

The four men fell, but at least one was still alive after the volley fire. Joe McKelvey, badly wounded and in agony, had to call out twice for bullets to finish him off.

There may have been others among the four, still alive. After the initial volley, between 9 and 12 single shots were heard by people in other parts of the prison.

In the official statement issued to the Press announcing the executions, there was that word again, the same word as used when the prisoners were being informed of their fate that same morning:


The execution of the Four Courts officers in Mountjoy were revenge killings. They were shot for the crimes of others.

Much is made of the fact that they were executed without a trial.

What could they have been put on trial for?.

The men had committed no crime.

They had been in custody months before the execution resolution was even considered.

Their killing is the clearest example of the ruthless pragmatism that governed the executions policy, a policy not designed for pure punishment –if that was the aim, every prisoner captured in arms after October 15th would have been shot – but to spread fear and dismay in the ranks of the anti-Treaty IRA, and to show the Irish people the lengths the Free State was prepared to go to prosecute the war.

Image - IN MEMORIAM. Credit: Military Archives.

IN MEMORIAM. Credit: Military Archives.

'You murdered these men'

The government was assailed in the Dáil that very day. Labour TD Cathal O'Shannon:

"You did not give these men a trial at all; you had no authority from this body, or from any body in Ireland, to execute these men. You murdered these men".

Labour leader Thomas Johnson, called the executions "most foul, bloody and unnatural".

He said that any hope that the birth of the new state a few days earlier would begin a rehabilitation of the acceptance of the rule of law, was gone.

"I am almost forced to say that you have killed the new state at its birth".

Gavan Duffy asked:

"Where is this Corsican vendetta to end?".

Government Ministers were equally vehement in their replies.

General Mulcahy:

"The action that was taken this morning was taken as a deterrent action – taken to secure that this country shall not be destroyed and thrown into chaos by the toleration of any group of men acting together for the destruction, one by one, or in groups, of those single representative people that are the keystone of our government and society here".

The President of the Executive Council WT Cosgrave, finished the debate for the government:

"...there is a diabolical conspiracy on foot.....There is only one way to meet it, and that is to crush it and show them that terror will be struck into them".

Image - Army Commander and Minister for Defence, Richard Mulcahy. Credit: Getty Images.

Army Commander and Minister for Defence, Richard Mulcahy. Credit: Getty Images.

Image - President of the Executive Council WT Cosgrave. Credit: Getty Images.

President of the Executive Council WT Cosgrave. Credit: Getty Images.

The Dáil retrospectively approved the executions by a vote of 39-14.

There were no further attempts on the lives of TDs during the war.

'The Free State is on the verge of collapse'

Liam Lynch now ordered that the IRA reprisals should extend to civilian supporters of the Free State, and not just those directly involved in the war.

"...all Free State supporters are traitors and deserve the latter's stark fate, therefore their houses must be destroyed at once".

Attacks began immediately on the homes of civilians associated with the Free State.

The 10th of December was a terrible day.

TD Sean McGarry's home was burnt to the ground. His 7-year-old son Emmet died of burns suffered in the blaze, and his wife was injured.

On the same night as the burning of McGarry's house, the same fate was suffered by the homes of the Postmaster General, the Assistant Secretary to the Government, and the head of the pro-Treaty Cumann na Saoirse women's group.

The home of the Chief State Solicitor was destroyed two nights later.

Lynch was delighted. He wrote to Eamon de Valera, who opposed the burnings:

"The Free State is on the verge of collapse and the burnings are an important part. The IRA wishes to fight with clean hands but the enemy has outraged all the rules of warfare....the burning order must be rigidly enforced".

January 1923 would see attacks on the homes of newspaper Editors and proprietors. When that did not yield the desired results, the campaign extended to income tax offices, hotels, theatres and cinemas.

Changing the rules

Far from the Government and Army pausing the executions, plans were afoot to increase the pace of shootings, and to deepen their impact.

Provision was now made for many of the trials of captured anti-Treaty fighters to be conducted by military committees as well as military courts.

The essence of this was that the most 'difficult' cases, where the facts of the case were disputed, would be heard by courts. Where it was claimed by the Army that there was no doubt about the facts of the case, it would be heard by committee.

These committees had even fewer rules of procedure and fewer recourses to defence for the accused than the courts, and Army officers got to decide in which cases the facts were disputed.

The definition of "possession" of weapons was widened; it could now include knowledge of or control over weapons that had been concealed or discarded.

Home Affairs Minister Kevin O'Higgins fretted that the impact of the executions on the anti-Treaty rank and file was waning. While the executions were confined to Dublin, he said, men reading of them in Wexford, Waterford or Galway, might as well have been reading a novel or a history book, for all the effect it would have on them.

The Army needed to take the Executions Show on the road.

O'Higgins declared that from now on, more and more executions would take place near where the prisoners had been captured, in their home areas, to bring home to the anti-Treaty men that the reach of the authorities was deep, long, and implacable.

One case embodied the new approach.

On the 12th of December, 9 Irregulars were captured in a raid on a hideout at Rathbride, County Kildare. In the hideout were rifles, ammunition and bomb components.

The haul of weapons meant the facts were not in dispute. They were tried under the new committee system, under which there were no Defence lawyers, no rules of procedure or evidence. The accused were not allowed to say anything in their own defence.

Seven of the accused were sentenced to death, two were reprieved.

The seven were executed at the Curragh Camp, on the 19th of December:

Stephen White, Patrick Mangan, Brian Moore, Patrick Bagnall, Joseph Johnston, Patrick Nolan, and James Connor.

This was the largest single group executed together in the entire Civil War, and also the first executions outside Dublin.

Image - A photo memorial to six of the seven men executed in the Curragh Camp. Credit: Éire (The Irish Nation) Magazine Vol 1, No. 49, Dec 22 1923.

A photo memorial to six of the seven men executed in the Curragh Camp. Credit: Éire (The Irish Nation) Magazine Vol 1, No. 49, Dec 22 1923.


On the 13th of December, posters suddenly appeared all over County Kerry, one of the most active areas in the country for anti-Treaty operations.

It was the proclamation of a new government policy, that would see hundreds of condemned prisoners kept alive as a guarantee against ambushes or sabotage by their local comrades.

It was an official hostage policy, with no basis in law. Men were to be held accountable with their lives, for the actions of others.

Six weeks earlier, four IRA men had been captured near Tralee, in possession of arms and ammunition. They were tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death.

Richard Mulcahy received the application from his senior officers in Kerry to allow the men be shot.

He had other ideas.

If, as was claimed by the senior Army officers in Kerry, the activities of the Irregulars in the county were tapering off, then perhaps the four men could be used to reinforce that success, by proclaiming a suspension of the executions pending a cessation of anti-Treaty operations.

The conditions were clear: any resumption of ambushes, spying or railway sabotage would mean the sentences would be carried out.

The sentences were never carried out.

The claims of a fall-off in anti-Treaty operations in Kerry were false.

But the hostage idea stuck, and it became official policy.

By the war's end, over 300 prisoners remained under sentence of death.

The policy was cruel and manipulative, it had no grounding in any law, civil or military, but the psychological pressure it exerted, both on prisoners not knowing from day to day when or if they were to die, on their families and their comrades still at liberty, was immense. As 1922 turned into 1923, it would be one of the factors eroding the anti-Treaty will to resist.

Dreadful as December was, January would be worse; more men were executed that month than in any other, in every corner of the land; the range of offences carrying the death penalty would extend even further; the tragedy and violence would touch the families of both Kevin O'Higgins and WT Cosgrave.

To be continued...

Last letters

Many of the men condemned to death took up the offer of writing a last letter to their families.

With no chance of a reprieve, or a plea-bargain, with death often just two or three hours away, and no one in their families even suspecting that they were to die, these letters became the only means of the condemned men coming to terms with what was about to happen to them.

The letters are often very revealing. They show obvious differences in age and education.

Many of the men were so young, the letters are written to their mothers, not wives or girlfriends.

The letters were often formally laid out, with time, place and date, almost as if they wanted the letters to become historical artefacts.

The letters were composed and dignified, mostly devoid of self-pity, anger or despair. The men writing the letters derived great support from (in no particular order), their religious faith, their belief in their cause, and the memories of their families.

What the men could not know, was that they would receive no funeral, they were buried inside prison or barracks walls, and their bodies were only released to the families after the war. This was to be a cause of great bitterness.

Here are some examples.

Image - James Fisher's final letter. Credit: Kilmainham Gaol Archive.

James Fisher's final letter. Credit: Kilmainham Gaol Archive.

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Image - Peter Cassidy's final letter. Credit: Kilmainham Gaol Archive.

Peter Cassidy's final letter. Credit: Kilmainham Gaol Archive.

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Image - Liam Mellows last letter was written three hours before his death. Credit: Capuchin Archive/South Dublin Libraries.

Liam Mellows last letter was written three hours before his death. Credit: Capuchin Archive/South Dublin Libraries.

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Image - Richard Barret's final letter. Credit: The Barret family.

Richard Barret's final letter. Credit: The Barret family.