Who killed Noel Lemass, the brother of former taoiseach Seán Lemass, in 1923?

A review of the evidence suggests a Free State intelligence officer as the most likely culprit

In October 1923 the body of Noel Lemass was found in a mutilated and tortured condition on the Featherbed Mountain in Co Dublin.

The brother of the then-future taoiseach, Seán Lemass, had been beaten to death and his teeth knocked out.

Noel Lemass, an anti-Treaty officer, was abducted on July 3rd, 1923 as he walked along Wicklow Street in central Dublin after lunch with a friend at the Wicklow Hotel. Though his disappearance happened after the “dump arms” order which ended the Civil War in May 1923, his death is and was regarded as unfinished business from that war.

The Irish Times was one of the organisations which campaigned at the time for the truth about Lemass’s death to be revealed. “Dublin has now returned to virtually normal conditions and the kidnapping of a man in broad daylight in one of the city’s busiest streets ought to be impossible,” the paper opined.


Who killed Noel Lemass? A review of all the evidence by the late Supreme Court judge Adrian Hardiman pointed to Captain James Murray of the Free State Army intelligence department.

Before his death in 2016, Mr Justice Hardiman was commissioned by the Lemass family, which includes the Haughey family, to carry out a review of evidence related to the case.

The inquest into Lemass’s death found that the “armed forces of the State” had been “implicated in Lemass’s removal and disappearance”.

Moreover, according to two witnesses, Captain Murray had openly boasted about killing Lemass and dumping him in the Poulaphouca river. When the coroner requested that Captain Murray attend the inquest and give evidence, the Army refused to release him saying that he was already in military custody by them for other crimes.

In June 1925 Captain Murray was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of Joseph Bergin, a military policeman, on December 13th, 1923. Bergin, it is alleged, had been on the side of the anti-Treaty prisoners in jail. Murray protested that he was acting under orders from the head of military intelligence Colonel Michael Costello.

In a statement given to gardaí, Murray made the extraordinary admission that: “I thought that the job was one of the usual unofficial executions.”

Murray was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. He was reprieved but died of Tuberculosis in Portlaoise Prison in 1929. He was only 30.

In 1927, former Free State minister Joe McGrath won a celebrated libel action against an author named Cyril Bretherton who had named him as the man responsible for Noel Lemass’s death. The £3,700 award, a colossal sum at the time, allowed McGrath to set up the hospital sweepstakes and become one of the new State’s first indigenous millionaires.

In his review, Mr Justice Hardiman concluded that it remains a possibility that McGrath, in his status as head of the Free State’s military secret service, ordered the killing of Lemass and that Murray carried it out.

Mr Justice Hardiman suggested that documents related to Murray’s life might be interrogated even at this remove and that the transcript of his trial lists a number of unofficial executions including possibly that of Lemass. There is also a number of secret files related to an interrogation of Murray at St Bricin’s Military Hospital which are worthy of further analysis.

Mr Justice Hardiman also suggested that Lemass was the inspiration for Samuel Beckett’s first novel in the French language, Mercier et Camier, which was a prelude to his most famous work Waiting for Godot. The reference to the “grave of a nationalist, brought here in the night by the enemy and executed” is to Lemass.

Seán Lemass famously never spoke about his brother and was always anxious to move on from the Civil War. “Terrible things were done on both sides,” he said in 1969, the year before he died, “I’d prefer not to talk about it.”

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times