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 Co 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. The socialist Keir Hardie asked in the House of Commons if the British government would intervene on behalf of Erskine Childers and his co-accused; the answer was no. This was a rare foreign notice of the executions policy. At the time the Commons was debating its legislation on the proposed Constitution of the Irish Free State.
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 an illegal act, as the four Republicans had been captured before the Dáil passed the legislation authorising executions.
One of the poignant aspects of the incident was that O’Connor and Kevin O’Higgins were 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, Co Laois. W.T. Cosgrave’s home was also burned and an uncle of his was assassinated.
Photo: Plaques in Glasnevin’s Republican Plot recording the names of 77 of the 81 Irish Volunteers officially executed by the Free State between November 1922 and May 1923.