Thomas Whelan was one of six men executed in Mountjoy Gaol, Dublin on 14 March 1921. He was 22 years old at the time of his death.
Whelan was born in Gortrummagh near Clifden, Co Galway to John and Bridget Whelan on 5 October 1898, the sixth child of thirteen. He attended national school at Beleek and Clifden, before leaving school at 15 to work on his father’s farm. He moved to Dublin at the age of 18, where he found work as a railwayman, and joined the Irish Volunteers as a member of ‘A’ Company, 3rd Battalion, Dublin Brigade. He lived at Barrow Street, Ringsend, Dublin and worked at a train depot.
He was arrested on 23 November 1920 and, on 1 February 1921, he was charged with the death by shooting of Captain GT Baggallay, an army prosecutor who had been a member of courts that sentenced Volunteers to death under the Restoration of Order in Ireland Regulations on Bloody Sunday (1920).
Whelan was defended at his court-martial by Michael Noyk, through whom he protested his innocence of the charges. As in the case of Patrick Moran, there was eyewitness evidence that Whelan had been at Mass at the time the shooting took place. The prosecution cast doubt on the reliability of the eyewitnesses, arguing that as Catholics they were not neutral. The defence complained that it was unfair to suggest the witnesses “were prepared to come up and perjure themselves on behalf of the prisoner” because “they belonged to a certain class and might hold certain political opinions”. The court did, however, trust the evidence of an army officer who lived in the same house as Baggallay and who had idenfied Whelan as the man covering him with a revolver during the raid. There was also testimony by a soldier who had passed by the house when he heard shots fired. This witness said he saw Whelan outside, attempting to start his motorcycle. Whelan was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death.
In Mountjoy Gaol, he was imprisoned with the writer and activist Ernie O’Malley, who described him:
“… smooth-faced, quiet and brown-eyed with wavy hair; he smiled quietly and steadily. His voice was soft and when he laughed with the others one knew that the fibre was not as hard and that there was a shade of wistfulness about him.”
Another IRA man had named him under torture – possibly thinking that he had an unbreakable alibi – and when Whelan was executed this man lost his wits and remained hopelessly insane.
He was hanged at 6.00 am along with Patrick Moran, the first of six men to be executed that day – the six were executed in twos. A crowd estimated at 40,000 gathered outside the prison to pray as the executions took place. His mother, Bridget, saw him before his execution, and waited outside with the praying crowd holding candles. She told a reporter that she had left her son “so happy and cheerful you would almost imagine he was going to see a football match”.
He was one of a group of men hanged in Mountjoy Gaol in the period 1920-1921 who are commonly referred to as The Forgotten Ten. In 2001 he and the other nine, including Kevin Barry, were exhumed from their graves in the prison and given a full state funeral. He is now buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin. An annual commemoration is still held in Clifden for him.
Photo: Dead man walking, Volunteer Thomas Whelan under arrest.