The Civil War entered a new and more brutal phase in the conflict with the passage through the Dáil on September 27th, 1922 of emergency legislation known as the Public Safety Bill.
It proposed military courts with the power to pronounce capital punishment on anti-Treaty forces. Requiring only the signature of two army officers, the legislation gave military courts the right to impose a sentence of death, imprisonment or penal servitude on those found to be guilty of a range of offences.
Supporting its enactment, WT Cosgrave, the president of the Dáil, declared that the Public Safety Act was necessary to protect the fledgling State declaring that “if murderous attacks take place, those who persist in those murderous attacks must learn that they have got to pay the penalty for them”.
Eighty-one republicans would be executed as a result of this legislation during the course of the Civil War.
Extrajudicial killings by government forces in the field of battle continued with both sides in the conflict conducting appalling acts of terror and brutality against former comrades that would leave a lasting imprint on the Irish political landscape for many years to come.
A low-intensity violent and bitter guerrilla campaign by republicans was met by an equally bitter response from government. On November 17th, 1922 four IRA men became the first to be shot by firing squad in Dublin.
A week later on November 24th, prominent anti-Treaty leader Erskine Childers was executed at Beggars Bush Barracks following his capture at his Wicklow home in possession of a small pistol given to him by Michael Collins.
Three other republican prisoners were executed in Dublin on November 30th. In retaliation for the executions, TD Sean Hales was shot dead on December 7th by the IRA in response to IRA Chief of Staff Liam Lynch’s order that any TD who had voted for the bill be shot.
Reacting to the Hales killing, four senior anti-Treaty leaders captured following the bombardment of the Four Courts in June 1922 were executed on December 8th.
The Public Safety Act came a week after the killing of six anti-Treaty IRA men in Co Sligo.
On a cold Autumn morning in late September 1922, four members of the anti-Treaty IRA’s 3rd Western Division made their way up the slopes of Benbulben mountain on the Sligo/Leitrim border seeking refuge from advancing Free State government forces.
The four, IRA Divisional Adjutant Brian MacNeill, Brigadier Seamus Devins, Lieutenant Paddy Carroll and Volunteer Joseph Banks were part of an IRA anti-Treaty unit under the command of MacNeill and Liam Pilkington that had engaged in a relentless conflict with Free State forces since the early days of the Civil War.
Dublin native Mac Neill was the son of provisional government minister of education Eoin Mac Neill, and two of his brothers were Free State army officers. During the 1921 Truce Brian Mac Neill was dispatched by IRA GHQ to take command and reorganise the Sligo units of the IRA. Despite his family’s support of the Treaty, Brian Mac Neill sided with his IRA unit in Sligo in their opposition to the terms of the settlement.
While a co-ordinated military offensive, including a series of sea borne landings in Cork, Kerry and Mayo, had resulted in Free State forces capturing large swathes of anti-Treaty occupied strongholds across Munster and Connaught during the summer of 1922, large areas of Sligo and north Leitrim remained firmly in IRA hands.
Despite many attempts at regaining control of the region, Pilkington and Mac Neill’s men successfully resisted government forces. The capture by republicans in July 1922 of the Free State forces prized possession, the ‘Ballinalee’ armoured car not only caused embarrassment to government forces but wreaked havoc in military engagements across Sligo.
Such events prompted Commander of Free State forces General Richard Mulcahy to put strong pressure on General Sean Mac Eoin, his Western Command leader, to bring a quick and decisive end to the Civil War in Sligo. In an attempt to finally take control of the region, McEoin deployed experienced and war-hardened troops to the northwest in early September. It was these troops who finally dislodged IRA forces and forced MacNeill and his comrades to retreat towards the labyrinth of hidden caves on the nearby mountainside.
As the four IRA men reached the top of the mountain, in the early morning mist, they saw a figure in the distance signalling the group to join him. Unfortunately for them, the signaller was not an ally, but Free State Commander Captain Charlie McGoohan who disguised himself as an IRA member by wearing a civilian cap. McGoohan had gone ahead of his 60 unit to lure the men towards him.
Led into a trap, the IRA unit was ordered to surrender, disarmed and immediately identified. Accounts unearthed in the Military Archives indicated that after surrendering, the four men were disarmed and McGoohan ordered the formation of a firing squad to shoot the prisoners.
When most of the troops refused to follow orders, McGoohan told them that “it did not matter as he had a Lewis gun that would do the work”.
The men were then taken away a short distance and shot dead by a small group of soldiers under the command of McGoohan. Realising what was about to happen, Brian MacNeill, attempted to escape but was shot a short distance from where the other three were killed.
Almost immediately attempts were made by Free State forces to conceal what happened. Various contradictory accounts were circulated including a report that the men were killed while retreating from an ambush.
Later that morning, two other IRA men, Captain Harry Benson and Volunteer Tom Langan were also intercepted by Free State forces and killed on Benbulben. When the bodies of both men were recovered at the bottom of a mountain ravine, Benson’s body contained bullet wounds to the head and shins, while Langan’s body had seven bullet wounds and a bayonet wound.
The funerals of all the men attracted large crowds. As the funeral cortèges passed through Sligo, Free State troops saluted their former comrades. Brian MacNeill’s was taken to Dublin for a private family funeral and his body was borne by his two Free State army officer brothers and former comrades to the family plot in Kilbarrack cemetery.
Votes of sympathy were passed by local organisations including Sligo County Council to the family of Devins, a local TD and county councillor, and his comrades who had died “in a fight which they thought was right”.
There may well have been a later victim of this tragic incident. Fourteen years after he was executed, his widow Mary took her own life. Her pension file suggests she had suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of her husband’s death.
Dr Patrick McGarty is author of Leitrim, The Irish Revolution: 1912-23 published by Four Courts Press