Categories
Irish Civil War

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/

© Brenda Malone. This work is original to the author and requires citation when used to ensure readers can trace the source of the information and to avoid plagiarism.

https://libguides.ucd.ie/academicintegrity/referencingandcitation

Sources and general reading used in the creation of these articles are listed on the Further Reading page.

Categories
Irish Civil War

Limerick tax roll, Four Courts Explosion, 1922

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Though the Four Courts on Dublin’s Inns Quay was one of the main buildings occupied by the Irish Volunteers in 1916, it escaped the destruction that devastated the city centre. It wasn’t so lucky six years later, when it was occupied by Republican Forces opposed to the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, and destroyed on 30 June 1922 in a massive explosion that rocked the city and saw the start of a bloody civil war.  It was also home to the Public Record Office, and this burned fragment of a 1737 tax roll from Askeaton, Co. Limerick, was presumably picked up on the streets afterwards, and donated to the museum in 1937.

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On 6 December 1921, the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed, bringing an end to the War of Independence and establishing the Irish Free State, a self-governing dominion of the British Empire. Opinion within Sinn Fein was immediately split, with the pro-treaty members believing this to be a step towards a fully independent state in a situation where continuing the war with England would lead to complete defeat, and anti-treaty members viewing the terms, which included retaining the Oath of Allegiance to the British Crown and the separation of Northern Ireland from the south, as unacceptable.  Tensions grew, and on 16 April 1922 about 200 men under the command of Rory O’Connor occupied the Four Courts in the hopes of creating a situation which would make the Treaty unviable and restart the fight for an all-Ireland Republic. From there high profile assassinations and kidnappings were carried out, including the murder of Field Marshall Sir Henry Wilson on 22 June.

The pro-treaty candidates won the majority vote in the 1922 general election, and formed a Provisional Government led by Michael Collins.  Under increasing pressure from Britain to crush the rebels, the Free State forces received two 18 pounder artillery guns and other weapons and set up a cordon around the Four Courts area. At 4.07 in the morning of Wednesday 28 June the shelling of the building began from across the Liffey, now officially seen as the beginning of the Civil War. Dan Breen, a member of the 3rd Tipperary Brigade and author of ‘My Fight for Irish Freedom’ wrote that the headlines in the British newspapers the following morning read ‘Collins shells the rebels; Collins makes good’.

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Two days into the fighting there was a large explosion in the western end of the complex, destroying it and the large central dome of the Courts.  The western block housed the Public Record Office, and was used by the Republican forces to store munitions. This explosion led to the eventual evacuation and surrender of the garrison.

Patrick Kelly, a Lieutenant in the anti-treaty I.R.A. describes the moment of the explosion from his position around the Capel Street area in his witness statement to the Bureau of Military History. ‘At this point there was a terrific explosion and a column of smoke and flame shot several hundred feet in the air. The Four Courts had blown up. The explosion shattered windows all around us and debris of all sorts fell into the street’.

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Cumann na mBan had also splintered over the Anglo-Irish Treaty, when it adopted a new constitution taking an anti-treaty stance in 1922. Officer Annie O’Brien remained with the anti-treaty faction, and was staying with friends in Kildare when news of the fighting in Dublin reached her. She made her way back, determined to take up her position at a First Aid post. She describes coming down Winetavern Street and watching a Free State soldier loading a shell into an 18 pounder gun, who then ordered them out of the danger zone. ‘We went down along the south quays as far as the Metal Bridge, but it was manned also. Just then the shell was fired at the Four Courts and we saw the dome collapse and our hearts nearly collapsed too when we thought of all our friends there. We saw a shower of papers rising from the building. We thought none of the garrison could have survived. The shop where we were standing shook from the terrific blast’.

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Geraldine O’Donell, the proprietress of O’Donell’s Nursing Home on Eccles Street was inside the Four Courts caring for the wounded when the explosion occurred. She reported that from quite early in the fight the garrison were tunnelling an escape route, fearing they would be trapped, and that just as the tunnel was practically finished the explosion took place that destroyed the dome. She speculated that it was caused by a shell that touched off the ammunition stored there.

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It is unclear what actually caused the explosion. Reports vary from the building’s fires reaching the store of explosives, a Free State shell hitting the store, and the rumour that the Republican forces deliberately mined the area. We will probably never know the exact cause, but we know that nearly a thousand years of irreplaceable Irish archives were lost on this day as they burned and scattered across the city. 18th and 19th century census records, court records, military, parish and legal records which would have been such an important resource for historians, researchers and other members of the public will now never be studied.  Ernie O’Malley, in his book ‘The Singing Flame’, describes seeing ‘leaves of white paper; they looked like hovering white birds’.  This fragment of a tax roll from Askeaton was one of those leaves of white paper, and its partial remains give us a hint of what was lost in the mere seconds of the explosion that destroyed the Four Courts that day.

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© Brenda Malone. This work is original to the author and requires citation when used to ensure readers can trace the source of the information and to avoid plagiarism.

https://libguides.ucd.ie/academicintegrity/referencingandcitation

Sources and general reading used in the creation of these articles are listed on the Further Reading page.