Diarmaid Ferriter: Civil War executions remain ugly legacy of State’s foundation

Narrative of political responsibility and need to face down anti-treaty republicans endures. However, most of the 81 anti-treaty soldiers executed were of low rank

James Fisher and Peter Cassidy will never be household names. They were among the first young IRA men to be executed a century ago this week following ratification of the Public Safety Resolution in September 1922, allowing military courts the power to impose the death penalty. They will always have their place in the republican roll of honour, but command little profile, unlike Erskine Childers, also executed in November 1922, or Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows, Richard Barrett and Joseph McKelvey, executed on December 8th in Mountjoy Prison in reprisal for the killing of TD Seán Hales by the anti-treaty IRA.

Cassidy was a 21-year-old labourer with Dublin Corporation; in 1932 his twin sister Bridget told the government that, after his execution, “my mother fell into bad health with the shock and died 12 months after”. Fisher, aged 19 and working in a Dublin cigarette factory, was one of a family of eight; his sister Kate, who had been active in Cumann na mBan, died in 1923 due to illness that, according to their aunt Rose, was “contracted through her activities”. Rose described in 1933 how, at a time when another two of the Fisher family were in Richmond asylum, she was “struggling to continue to keep the home together”.

Social standing

The leader of the Labour Party, Thomas Johnson, pointedly observed in the Dáil at the time of the first executions that “the disadvantages of youth, social standing and education” were apparent in the failure to grant these men proper legal representation. Contempt, snobbery, absence of due process, fear and ruthlessness were all apparent during 1922-1923. Although the figure of 77 official executions is often used, some historians cite the figure of 81, to include four civilians executed for armed robbery in 1923, or 83, if two others summarily shot by firing squad in Cork and Kerry before the public safety resolution, are included.

A century on, new archival material, especially pension applications, illuminates the class dimensions and intergenerational trauma arising from these executions. But we are also working without all the evidence: historian Breen T Murphy has highlighted an order from Minister for Defence Desmond FitzGerald in March 1932, two days before Cumann na nGaedheal left office to make way for Fianna Fáil: as “Proceedings of Military Courts, including committee of officers, reports on and details of executions 1922-1923 contain information which may lead – if disclosed to unauthorised persons – to loss of life, you are hereby ordered to destroy same by fire.”


Lust for revenge

Nonetheless, legal historian and circuit judge Seán Enright’s 2019 book, The Irish Civil War: Law, Execution and Atrocity, underlines the bypassing of legal safeguards, evidence, access to defence lawyers and procedural fairness as “Military committees quickly became the usual method of trial for anti-treaty fighters”. Childers was executed while his appeal was pending and Enright suggests “the nadir of due process” was reached with the December 8th reprisal executions. But there were many more low points thereafter as the lust for revenge took hold and the ruthlessness and dispensing of rules of war became increasingly righteous. As head of government, WT Cosgrave told a deputation of neutral IRA men in February 1923, “I am not going to hesitate if the country is to live and if we have to exterminate ten thousand republicans, the three millions of our people is bigger than this ten thousand”.

The narrative of high political responsibility, necessary resolve and the need to face down anti-treaty republicans dismissive of public opinion and prepared to kill both soldiers and politicians long endured on the pro-treaty side. In 2014, 94-year-old former taoiseach Liam Cosgrave insisted his father, WT, “had to take very strenuous actions against the irregulars. The actions taken were severe, but they were effective. The result was that the government continued to function effectively and, despite great difficulties, succeeded in restoring order.” The outcome of the June 1922 general election, he also observed, had made clear a majority in support of the treaty. Icy blasts of Civil War politics, however, were less likely from a younger generation: as minister for transport in 2011, Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar told the Dáil “people killed without trial” by Cosgrave’s government “were murdered”.

Many historians accept the executions were effective in damaging republican morale and shortening the war, but it was also a war that anti-treaty republicans, who had honed their own brand of violent piety, never had the resources or support to win, with or without executions. The executions, and the breakdown of discipline and accountability surrounding them, remain an ugly legacy of the foundation of the State. The executed include those who died with what historian Michael Hopkinson described as “grace and heroism”, but what is most striking in looking at the list of the 81 is that most were of low rank on the anti-treaty side. And that was by design, not accident.