Civil War Executions
By: A.J. Mullowney
Eighty years ago, in December 1922, the Curragh Camp was the scene of a terrible tragedy; it was the execution, by firing squad, of seven young men in the Military Detention Barracks, now the Curragh Prison. The full story of the events of the week from 13 December 1922, when the men were arrested, to 19 December 1922, when they were executed, is not now known. All of the people involved are dead, and with them their stories. It appears that all official records of the executions have been lost or destroyed.
The events took place during the Civil War. Successful military operations by the Free State forces had led, by the end of 1922, to the cessation by the anti-treaty side of conventional operations and they had resorted to guerrilla warfare directed against supply lines and communications. The Curragh Camp was occupied by the Free State Army while a small column of Irregulars, as those supporting the anti-treaty side in arms were termed, operated in the vicinity of Kildare town. Most of this small column were railway employees and they largely confined their operations to trying to disrupt the operation
of the railway line in the vicinity of Kildare town. Inside the Curragh Prison
The Leinster Leader of 23 December 1922 reported that a column of ten men had operated against railways, goods trains and shops in the vicinity of Kildare for some time. Five of them had apparently taken part in an attempt to disrupt communications by derailing engines on 11 December. Two engines had been taken from a shed at Kildare and one of them had been sent down the line into an obstruction at Cherryville, thereby blocking the line. It was also alleged that goods trains had been looted and shops robbed in the locality. The same column was also reported to have taken part in an ambush of Free State troops at the Curragh siding on 25 November. On 13 December the men were surprised in a dug-out at a farmhouse at Moore’s Bridge, on the edge of the Curragh plains, by Free State troops. In the dug-out were ten men, ten rifles, a quantity of ammunition, and other supplies. The men were arrested and conveyed to the Curragh. The proprietress of the farmhouse was also arrested and lodged in Mountjoy Prison. Controversy surrounds the circumstances of the death of Thomas Behan, one of the men. One version ha it that his arm was broken when he Wa: being apprehended and he wa~ subsequently killed by a blow of a rifl butt on the head, at the scene of the raid when he was unable to climb on th~ truck that conveyed the men to the Curragh. The official version was thai he was shot when attempting to escape from a hut in which he was detained in the Curragh Camp.
Sometime between 13-1 8 December seven of the men were tried before a military court. They were found guilty of being in possession of arms without authority and sentenced to death. The day before their execution the seven men were ministered to by Father Donnelly, chaplain in the Curragh.
The seven men executed were:
• Stephen White (18)
Abbey St., Kildare
• Joseph Johnston (18)
Station Rd., Kildare
• Patrick Mangan (22)
Fair Green, Kildare
• Patrick Nolan (34)
• Brian Moore (37)
Rathbride, Kildare (Leader of the column)
• James O’Connor (24)
Bansha, Co. Tipperary
• Patrick Bagnall (19)
Fair Green, Kildare
The execution was carried out by firing squad at 8.30 a.m. on the 19th December 1922 in the Military Detention Barracks, Curragh Camp. It was the biggest single execution carried out in the Civil War.
Rest In Peace
The men were allowed to write final letters the night before their execution and some of these were later published in the republican paper Eire, (The Irish Nation) of 31 March 1923. Letters written by Stephen White were not published, but one of them I reproduce here with the permission of his relatives, which is representative of the rest:
HARE PARK PRISON
18th December, 1922,
I am writing this letter, sorry to say it is my last as I am to die at 8.15 to-morrow, Tuesday. I am sorry I cannot see any of you before I go, but, I hope by the time you get this to be with my poor Mother In Heaven, with God’s help. I hope you will all say a prayer for me. I never saw Jimmie since the night we were arrested, but, thank God it is me instead of him that was to go. He will be more use to you than I would, and tell him if ever he gets out, which, with the help of God, he will, to start work and give up this game as it is not worth it.
We have been treated all right since we came here and we were all with the Priest to-day, and will be with him all night. I am sorry I cannot see you all to hid you Good bye “, but, I suppose we will all meet the other side,
I will bid you all a last “Good bye’~ and pray for me.
GOOD BYE, FATHER.
The men were buried in the grounds of the Detention Barracks but their remains were later exhumed and lay in state in the Courthouse in Kildare town before being re-buried in Grey Abbey Cemetery, Kildare in 1924. A gravestone was subsequently erected over their grave and a monument erected in the Market Square, Kildare.
In August 2002 two nephews of Stephen White visited Kildare and the Curragh Camp to revisit the scenes of the episode. Stephen White, a son of the Jimmie mentioned in the letter, from England and Paul White, son of another brother, Michael, from Canada met for the first time in 50 years. They visited the Curragh Prison, Moore’s Bridge, Grey Abbey Cemetery and the monument in Kildare town square. They are anxious to make contact with anyone who has any information regarding the events of 1922 and to establish contact with any relations who might still be living in the Kildare area.
These terrible events of the Civil War affected some local people for many years. Eighty years later it is fitting to remember the episode as a part of our history and to commemorate the seven young men who lost their lives that December day.
Monument in the Market Square, Kildare.
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.
 Official executions
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.
 Unofficial killings
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.
Memorial to the Republican soldiers executed by Free State forces at Ballyseedy, County Kerry.
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.