Just one year and two days after Ireland achieved a level of independence, four of the men who fought in the War of Independence against British forces are executed by Irish government edict. It was just one more horrible chapter in a vicious civil war fought between erstwhile friends. The Anti-Treaty rebels executed in Mountjoy Gaol in reprisal for the assassination the previous day of pro-treaty TD Sean Hales were Liam Mellows, Rory O’Connor, Joe McKelvey and Richard Barrett.
The men had been in custody for five months and had nothing to do with the killing of Hales. Even among Pro-Treaty TDs the executions evoked horror. By any normal standards the four were simple prisoners of war. The government believed (it now seems incorrectly) that the killing of Hales was the start of an execution campaign against government ministers. In a desperate effort to stop such activity, the decision was taken to take vicious reprisal. Accused of vindictiveness by some of the Dáil critics, Minister for Justice Kevin O’Higgins reacted with passion. “There was never an act done through personal vengeance, and never an act done through hot blood. We have no higher aim than to place the people of Ireland in the saddle in Ireland, and let them do their will, but we will not acquiesce in gun-bullying, and we will take very stern and drastic measures to stop it. Personal spite, great heavens! Vindictiveness! One of these men was a friend of mine.” Rory O’Connor was best man at O’Higgins’ wedding the previous year, where they toasted the Easter Rising martyrs!
Bloody ironies would stack one upon the other. The rest of Sean Hales’ family had remained staunchly Anti-Treaty, and publicly denounced the executions.
During the War, Sean’s own brother, Tom, was captured by the British Army in Cork and was badly beaten and tortured in an effort to make him disclose the whereabouts of prominent IRA figures, including Michael Collins. He never broke, though his co-accused, Patrick Harte suffered brain damage and died in hospital. The torture of Hales and Harte is believed to have influenced a scene in the film ‘The Wind That Shakes the Barley’ in which an IRA officer’s fingernails are pulled out.
But Tom is even more famous for a different deed: in August 1922, Tom Hales took part in the republican column that ambushed and killed Michael Collins in Beal na mBláth.
Photo: Upper Left: Liam Mellows, Upper Right: Rory O’Connor, Lower Left: Richard Barrett, Lower Right: Joe McKelvey