Execution of four IRA leaders illustrated the extent of Civil War bitterness

Government opted for official reprisal for the murder of Sean Hales TD

In his play, Executions, first staged in 1985, the playwright Ulick O’Connor dramatised a historical narrative of the four IRA leaders executed as a reprisal on the orders of the Irish government on December 8th 1922.

O’Connor later explained the appeal of creating such a work, given these executions “still influenced the national psyche”.

There were at least 81 people executed by the Provisional Government and later when it became the government of the Free State. The executions began on November 17th, 1922 and continued until May 30th 1923.

The best known and most infamous executions were those of four men on the December 8th in Mountjoy Jail. They were Rory O'Connor, Liam Mellows, Joe McKelvey and Richard Barrett, prominent IRA leaders, who had publicly opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty. All four had been imprisoned by the National Army shortly after the defeat of the IRA's Four Courts garrison at the beginning of the Civil War.


They were not the first republicans to be executed, nor the first high-profile (Erskine Childers had been shot by firing squad over a week before).

What makes these executions a particular flashpoint of historical controversy is not only were they of dubious legality but because they were in response to an event not one of the men were involved in.

On the previous day, December 7th, Seán Hales, an elected TD and former prominent Cork IRA leader, was assassinated in Dublin by members of the anti-Treaty IRA. Hales had been due to attend a sitting of Dáil Éireann. Lynch had issued an order for the IRA to assassinate members of the Dáil, such as Hales, who had voted for what he termed the 'Murder Bill'. This was a reference to the Army Powers Resolution passed by the Dáil that September.

The resolution allowed for the introduction of military courts of tribunal and introduced the brutal, draconian executions policy against anti-Treaty Irish republicans on the part of the Free State government.

Close to midnight on December 7th, the Free State cabinet had an emergency meeting in order to determine a response. Richard Mulcahy, both minister for defence, and commander-in-chief of the National Army, asked the cabinet to acquiesce to a collective decision on the executions of the four named prisoners as a reprisal for the death of Hales.

One-by-one, the cabinet agreed, the final vote being that of Kevin O’Higgins, minister for home affairs. O’Higgins was in a deep moral quandary, he and Rory O’Connor had been close friends within the revolutionary movement before the split over the Treaty, the latter even being his best man at his wedding the previous year. O’Higgins is said to have asked, ‘Is there no alternative?’ but he soon gave his agreement. Early that morning, the four IRA leaders were taken from their cells in Mountjoy Jail and brought to a holding area. O’Connor suspected they were to be deported and had quickly sewn into his coat two gold guineas O’Higgins had given him as a gift. There, each were instead given the following typed notice:

“You are hereby notified that, being a person taken in arms against the government, you will be executed as a reprisal for the assassination of Brigadier Sean Hales TD . . . 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.”

Rory O’Connor was the best known of the four. His background suggested an unlikely revolutionary, the product of a Clongowes education and the son of a prominent civil servant in the former British administration.

He has risen in the ranks of the Volunteers and became the IRA’s director of engineering. He also masterminded several prison escapes and IRA operations in Great Britain. He was the first of the IRA’s general headquarters staff to oppose the Treaty.

He gained notoriety in March 1922 when at an improvised press conference a reporter asked were the anti-Treaty IRA going to set-up a military dictatorship.

“You can take it that way if you like” was O’Connor’s flippant response.

Liam Mellows was also a well-known figure, an elected TD and a prominent veteran of the Easter Rising. Mellows was the IRA’s director-of-purchases by the time of the Civil War.

At the Mass the four attended in the prison before their execution, the devout Mellows initially refused the Eucharist, given the Catholic bishops’ pastoral condemning the activities of republicans. Mellows wrote to his mother shortly before his death, in one particularly moving passage, he urged “no thought of revenge or reprisals animate Republicans because of our deaths. We die for truth”.

The two other men were perhaps less known publicly, but well known and respected among the republican ranks. The Belfast-born Joseph McKelvey was a prominent figure among the northern IRA, had even briefly been the anti-Treaty IRA’s chief-of-staff. Meanwhile Richard Barrett was a much-liked and capable leader of the West Cork IRA. In one account, Barrett was said to have sung while the four marched out to the prison yard.

The firing squad of ten were to have specific targets, but in one account it was said most turned their rifles on the much-hated Rory O’Connor, whose coat was said to have gone alight due to the sheer amount of gunfire. In the meantime, both the wounded McKelvey and Barrett had to be finished off with a coup de grace from the senior National Army officer nearby.

On the same day in Dáil Éireann, a robust debate on the events of that morning followed. The leader of the opposition, Thomas Johnston of the Labour Party, having condemned Hales's killing, added the reprisal executions on the part of the government, were "murder most foul, bloody and unnatural".

Richard Mulcahy, minister for defence in the Free State cabinet and commander-in-chief of the National Army, robustly defended the government’s action, even though not one of the executed IRA leaders had been involved in Hales’s killing. Mulcahy reminded the Dáil that the anti-Treaty IRA were under orders to target all those who voted on the Army Powers Resolution in the very parliament in which they now sat.

Another notable contribution came when Kevin O’Higgins stood to speak. O’Higgins argued, “all government is based on force . . . we are not able to devise any other weapon to meet the situation that exists here except force”.

Perhaps his most famous words came at the end when, on becoming emotional, he made reference to his former close friendship with O’Connor: “Personal spite, great heavens! Vindictiveness! One of these men was a friend of mine.”

Nonetheless, the effect of the executions carried their own grim logic, arguably having the desired psychological effect on the anti-Treaty IRA. While the conflict continued to see extraordinary violence, the mass shooting of politicians Liam Lynch ordered never followed.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, O’Higgins, emerged as one of the most capable and formidable members of the government. Ironically, despite his reticence at signing the execution order, O’Higgins became the government figure most publicly associated with the Civil War executions.

In 1925, on one public platform in Sligo, O’Higgins shouted down a group of hecklers making reference to the executions, “I stand by the 77 executions – and 774 more if necessary”.

Yet, republicans never forgot, or forgave.

On July 10th, members of the IRA's Dublin Brigade shot O'Higgins dead while he was walking to Mass in Booterstown. (However, decades later, the republican veteran Harry White, revealed in his memoir the action was not sanctioned by IRA leadership).

O’Higgins’s youngest daughter, Sister Mary Kevin, recently passed away in March 2022 at the age of 99. To her final years, she still recalled a vivid memory of gunfire near her family on the fateful day and her mother crying, “they got him”.

The most immediate impact in the aftermath was upon de Valera, who condemned the IRA's actions, leading his new Fianna Fáil party into Dáil Éireann and taking the much-loathed oath of allegiance.

In Irish public memory, the four republicans, especially Mellows, remain celebrated and eulogised by their latter-day ideological adherents. O'Higgins's historical legacy meanwhile remains mixed, though he is the only government minister ever assassinated in the history of the State. His grave in Glasnevin cemetery has fallen into despair and is no regular site of pilgrimage.

A relief of his side-portrait was added to the Collins-Griffith cenotaph in front of Leinster House, yet a memorial plaque installed at the site of his death in 2012 was damaged by persons unknown and later permanently removed. Many it seems, a century later, still neither forget nor forgive.

Gerard Shannon is a historian from Skerries, Co Dublin. He is currently writing a biography on the former IRA chief-of-staff Liam Lynch, forthcoming from Merrion Press