Arts

New book explores executions and the law during dark days of Irish civil war

The outbreak of civil war in Ireland following the signing of the Treaty led to the fledgling free state adopting the draconian policy of executing 'irregular' anti-Treaty combatants. In his new book, Seán Enright examines this dark period of Irish history

A National Army armoured car fires on the Hammam Hotel, where anti-treaty forces had barricaded themselves, in central Dublin in 1922 during the Irish civil war. Photograph from The Irish Civil War, Law Execution and Atrocity
Seán Enright

AFTER civil war broke out in June 1922 the pro-treaty side believed the conflict would be wound up in a few weeks; however, the anti-treaty campaign developed into guerrilla warfare to make the country ungovernable by blowing up bridges and railway lines and attacking the infrastructure of the new state.

The hard fighting was driving Michael Collins onwards and only two weeks before his death, he wrote to the new provisional government in Dublin, suggesting "special punishments" for those found in arms. Everyone knew what that meant.

In the emerging six-county state in the north, possession of arms was already being firmly dealt with. At Downpatrick Assizes Walter Cullen of Ballymaghary got seven years penal servitude and ‘15 strokes of the Cat’ and there were many other young men from the north who got the same sentence.

South of the border, policy was developing more slowly but into a much more draconian response. Curiously, the first execution was entirely unauthorised. National Army Private Barney Winsley was shot by firing squad for selling arms to anti-treaty fighters.

In Dublin the new government of the 26 counties had come around to the view that executions were necessary to bring the conflict to an end and stem the tide of gunpoint robberies. The final straw was unexpected and mundane: the economy.

The Irish Civil War, Law Execution and Atrocity, by Sean Enright

The new government was operating on a loan from Westminster that was fast running out. The fear driving events was that the state would become bankrupt and be plunged into chaos and that Britain might once again send in the troops. With no police force and the justice system under strain, the Dail called in the National Army to set up military courts to try men captured with arms and execute where necessary. Elaborate regulations were drawn up to ensure fairness. Trials and executions soon followed.

A weeks later, Sean Hales TD was murdered and the new military courts were largely replaced by trial by army committee which were not bound by the laws of evidence or procedural fairness such as a defence lawyer. These committees sat in secret: the public and press were not admitted and there was no appeal. How quickly any semblance of due process had evaporated.

This book tells the tale of the execution policy in a forgotten war. The major challenge in writing it was to find reliable sources. The press was heavily censored, the trial records destroyed and the civil war became a taboo subject for decades. A great deal has been pieced together from National Army Records, memoirs and a handful of trial documents that survived the cull.

The execution policy

By the end of the war 83 prisoners had been executed. The evidence suggests that it was the policy of the National Army to execute the rank and file: most held little or no rank and most were in their early 20s or still teenagers. Anti-treaty TDs captured in arms were never executed and nearly all high-ranking prisoners were spared.

Michael Collins was commander of the National Army at the outbreak of the war

The evidence suggests the emerging strategy of the National Army was to amass a bank of prisoners under sentence of death: the figure reached 400 by the end of the war. All of these men became hostages for the good conduct of others. When attacks on the National Army took place, the generals fixed on prisoners most closely connected with the attackers and executions followed.

The case of the Drumboe prisoners was a case in point. The eight men concerned were captured near Gweedore in the early stage of the war and were tried and convicted for arms offences and became hostages for the good conduct of Donegal.

With the war all but over, four men, the officers, were executed in reprisal for the shooting of a National Army soldier. Three of the four remaining prisoners were from the north west. These ‘no rankers’ remained under sentence of death and although they declined to sign a note of surrender, they smuggled out a letter to the press calling for an end to the war.

They added "we think it not fair to hold us responsible for the actions of those we disclaim". They would have to wait many weeks to learn their fate.

In the chaos of war, the fate of prisoners was driven by chance. Some avoided the firing squad simply because the local National Army commander was against the execution policy. Some cheated executions by escaping or swapping identities with interned prisoners and disappearing into one of the huge internment camps at the Curragh.

A handful of prisoners survived because they had been too badly wounded to be tried or, in the case of Patrick Cuddihy from Waterford, because his case papers were lost.

1922-23 was a time of small wars all over Europe but the Irish civil war still casts the longest shadow.

:: The Irish Civil War, Law Execution and Atrocity, by Seán Enright, is published by Merrion Press and is available in bookshops and online.

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