It was just one more harrowing chapter in a vicious civil war fought between erstwhile friends. 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 were executed by Irish government edict.
On the evening of 7 December, in Mounjoy Gaol, Liam Mellows, Rory O’Connor, Joe McKelvey and Richard Barrett, received a notice that they would be executed the following morning. The chilling quality of the announcement has survived the years.
‘You ______ are hereby notified that, being a person taken in arms against the Government, you will be executed at 8 a.m. on Friday 8th December as a reprisal for the assassination of Brigadier Sean Hales T.D. in Dublin on the 7th December, on his way to a meeting of Dáil Éireann and as a solemn warning to those associated (with) you who are engaged in a conspiracy of assassination against the representatives of the Irish people.’
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 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 allegedly took part in the republican column that ambushed and killed Michael Collins in Beal na mBláth.