‘The Winter Sleep of Captain Lemass’
by Harry Clifton
The life of the country
Hardened against you
Like frost, and a new front
Opened—brother against brother,
Choice against choice,
Disputing the high ground. Your eyes,
Blindfolded, beheld the ideal State
As the real one steadied itself
To annihilate you.
How to survive it, the force of exclusion,
The freezing out of the soul
At the site of its own execution?
In the high cold, in the light snow
Of the Dublin mountains, a fox
Made its own tracks
And vanished ….
A single shot—
A hundred years of travelling echoes,
Family history, unmarked plots.
Noel Lemass was a member of the 3rd Battalion, Dublin Brigade. He along with his younger brother Seán (later Ireland’s fourth Taoiseach) took part in the Easter Rising where he fought at the GPO. He was employed as an Engineer in Dublin Corporation. When the Civil War broke out both he and his brother took the Anti-Treaty side and both fought together at the Four Courts.
After the fall of the Four Courts, Noel was imprisoned but managed to escape and make his way to England. Noel Lemass returned to Ireland in the summer of 1923 when the cease-fire had been declared and went back to his former employers at the Dublin Corporation, hoping to resume his work there. He offered the town clerk, John J. Murphy, if he would forward a letter to the authorities that he planned to write, “stating that he had no intention of armed resistance to the Government”.
In July 1923, two months after the Civil War ended, Noel was kidnapped in broad daylight by Free State agents outside MacNeils Hardware shop, at the corner of Exchequer and Drury Street. Three months later, on 13 October, his mutilated body was found on the Featherbed Mountain near Sally Gap, twenty yards from the Glencree Road, in an area known locally as ‘The Shoots’. It was likely that he was killed elsewhere and dumped at this spot.
Excerpt from the Leitrim Observer 20/10/1923:
“The fate of Mr. Noel Lemass, who disappeared in the streets of Dublin three months ago, has now been definitely established. On Friday night his decomposed body was found on the side of the Featherbed Mountain, twenty yards from the Glencree Road… The body was clothed in a dark tweed suit, light shirt, silk socks, spats and a knitted tie. The pockets contained a Rosary beads, a watch-glass, a rimless glass, a tobacco pouch and an empty cigarette case. The trousers’ pockets were turned inside out, as if they had been rifled. There was what appeared to be an entrance bullet wound on the left temple, and the top of the skull was broken, suggesting an exit wound.”
Noel was shot at least three times in the head and his left arm was fractured, his teeth had been brutally forced from his jaws and his right foot was never found.
Meeting two days later, Dublin Council passed a strongly worded vote of sympathy with his family. Describing their fellow employee as an “esteemed and worthy officer of the Council who had been foully and diabolically murdered”, the Council adjourned for one week as a mark or respect.
It was believed by many that a Free Stater Captain James Murray was behind the murder as it was withheld by the court during the inquest.
In this nervous and highly militarist political climate the abduction of Noel Lemass in broad daylight was an unpleasant throwback to recent events. The Irish Times, which represented Ireland’s business communities and supported Cumann na nGaedheal, described Noel Lemass’ funeral on 17 October 1923 as: “ranking with some of the largest seen in the city in recent years”. The hearse was preceded by the Connolly Pipers’ Band and followed by members of the Cumann na mBan, Women’s Citizens Army, Sinn Fein Clubs, Prisoners’ Defence League, many recently released prisoners, representatives of various bodies and numerous well-known Republicans including George Noble Plunkett (father of Joseph Plunkett), Constance Markievicz and Maud Gonne.
Noel Lemass joined the movement in 1916 and was wounded in O’Connell Street in that year, and in 1917 he assisted in reforming the organisation and served in it right up to the time of his death. He was one of the typical young men in the Republican movement, animated by one great motive – the desire for freedom.
In 1932, Seán Leamass (then Minister for Trade and Commerce) led the pilgrimage to the monument. Four years later, several hundred people traveled by bus and motor car to the ‘sequestered spot in the Dublin Mountains’ where the body of Noel Lemass was found.
Every year saw hundreds descend on the remote spot to pay their respects.
The oration in October 1965 was given by 80-year-old Jack Clarke (IRA) who attended the first commemoration in 1932.
A letter to The Irish Times in July 1996 let readers know that the original memorial had been badly damaged by vandals over the years and a complete replacement was the only option. To mark the 75th anniversary of the death of Captain Noel Lemass, the cross was re-erected and around 250 people attending a ceremony at the spot in 1998.
Noel Lemass was 26 years old at the time of his death. He is buried in Glasnevin cemetery.
Notably, another tragic death within the Lemass family, which took place in January 1916, two-year old, Herbert Phelan, the son of John T and Frances Lemass of 2 Capel Street, and therefore a younger brother of Seán and Noel Lemass died in Temple Street hospital from laceration of the brain. The wound was caused by a revolver bullet accidentally fired in the family living room at 2 Capel Street by Herbert’s 16-year-old brother, John (Seán was known as John or Jack within the family).
Photo: In proud and loving memory of Captain Noel Lemass, 3rd Batt Dublin City Brigade I.R.A. who died so that the republic might live. His murdered body was found on this spot 13th October 1923.