Carved Chessman, Liam Mellows’ Execution, December 1922

The last post on the blog looked at Arthur’s Griffith’s note announcing the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921 and the subsequent civil war between Pro and Anti-Treaty forces in Ireland, which lasted from June 1922 until May 1923. During this conflict the Irish Free State government forces, or Pro-Treaty side, officially executed 77 members of the Anti-Treaty Republican forces. The most well known of these was the execution of Liam Mellows, Joe McKelvey, Robert Barrett and Rory O’Connor on 8 December 1922.

This wooden chess piece was carved by Liam Mellows in Mountjoy Jail where he was interned after his capture after the fall of the Four Courts at the end of June. It found its way into the possession of a Mr John Finerty of New York, who returned it to Eamon de Valera during one of his terms as Taoiseach between the early 1930s and the end of the 1950s. De Valera in turn presented it to the National Museum of Ireland.

 

 Liam Mellows was born in Manchester to Sarah Jordan of County Wexford, and British Army officer William Mellows. He grew up in Wexford, and became a nationalist and socialist at an early age, joining both Fianna Éireann and the Irish Republican Brotherhood.  In November 1913, at the age of 21, he was one of the founding members of the Irish Volunteers. During the 1916 Rising, he led the garrison in Galway in a series of attacks on Royal Irish Constabulary barracks, after which he escaped to America where he was arrested and interned in New York. He was released in 1918 and returned to Ireland, where he was elected for Sinn Fein to the First Dáil in the 1918 General Election, representing Galway East and North Meath. He also became the IRA’s Director of Supplies during the War of Independence.

 

Mellows was a vocal opponent of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, believing that it undermined the principle of the Republic which had been fought for. On 14 April 1922 an Anti-Treaty Republican garrison, led by Rory O’Connor and including Mellows, Dick (Richard) Barrett and Joe McKelvey, took the Four Courts.  The siege lasted over two months, ending when Free State Forces bombarded the building, forcing a surrender on 30 June. Some escaped and continued the fight on the city streets, but Mellows, McKelvey, Barrett and O’Connor were taken captive and interned in Mountjoy as prisoners of war. 

However, after the killing of Michael Collins in August 1922, the new leaders of government introduced a policy of execution on the basis that, as the Treaty had been ratified by the people in the June elections, the opposing forces were rebelling against the legitimate government of Ireland.  The majority of the official executions began to take place in November. As a reaction to this, on 7 December Sean Hales, the pro-Treaty Sinn Féin TD for Cork, was shot and killed by Anti-Treaty republicans as he left the Dáil.

At 3.30am on 8 December, Mellows, McKelvey, Barrett and O’Connor received the following message, signed on behalf of the Army Council by General Richard Mulcahy.

You are hereby notified that, being a person taken in arms against 
the Government, you will be executed at 8 a.m. on Friday 8th December as a reprisal for the assassination of Brigadier Sean Hales T.D., in Dublin, on the 7th December, on his way to a meeting of Dáil Éireann 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.

At 8am that morning, the four men were led into the yard of Mountjoy Jail and shot.

 

Mellows’ chess piece is one of the many emotive objects in the National Museum’s Historical collections. When it arrived in the museum it was in a box labeled by the donor ‘Chessman – first of set started by Liam Mellowes in Mountjoy – completion of which was interrupted by his execution’. The piece is small, just over an inch high, but every groove and scratch Liam carved can be clearly seen. It’s almost impossible to hold this object without wondering what he was thinking and feeling when he was making it.  The executions of 8 December were not the first so he must have known his death was a possibility. However, he had been in prison since July and had not yet been tried in a court for his part in the siege of the Four Courts. This chessman should have been the first of a set of 32 pieces, and I wonder if he thought he would have the time to make the full set. His choice to carve a pawn may have some meaning, though it may also be completely coincidental.

 

 

The decision to execute Mellows, McKelvey, Barratt and O’Connor as a reprisal for the killing of Sean Hales on 7 December was sudden, and the men were told they were to die less than five hours before the event.  Mellows took this time to write a number of last messages to loved ones. At 5am he wrote to his mother Sarah Mellows, starting with the lines ‘The time is short and much that I would like to say must go unsaid. But you will understand: in such moments heart speaks to heart’. His letter goes on to reinforce his belief in the pre-Treaty vision of the Irish Republic, and his wish that his fellow Irishmen will once again be united in this vision. 

 

 

1916 Letters Project

Trinity College Dublin are currently running a project titled ‘Letters of 1916: Creating History’, with the aim of creating a digital archive of letters written from Ireland between 1 November 1915 to 31 October 1916. This will include letters held in public collections as well as those held privately. If you wish to contribute to this project by providing a digital image of a letter you own, or by transcribing a letter, click here – http://dh.tcd.ie/letters1916/

 

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