They Died in December

Rory O’Connor was born in Dublin in 1883.  He was educated at St. Mary’s College, Clongowes Wood College, and University College, Dublin.  With his College of Science diploma, he emigrated to Canada in 1911 to work as a railway engineer.  He became active in the Fenian Brotherhood and returned to Ireland in 1915 in answer to an IRB call.  He joined the Ancient Order of Hibernians, fought in the 1916 Easter Rising and was interned after the surrender.  After internment, he quit the IRB on the grounds that a secret movement could not gain popular support and threw his support to Sinn Fein.  During the subsequent Irish War of Independence (1919-1921) he became Director of Engineering of the IRA and a close associate of Michael Collins.

O’Connor did not favor the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, which established an Irish Free State, because it abolished the Irish Republic declared in 1916, which he had sworn to uphold.  On 26 March 1922, he and other anti-treaty officers of the IRA held a convention in Dublin, in which they rejected the Treaty and repudiated the authority of Dail Eireann – the new Irish Parliament.  O’Connor became Chairman of the Military Council of the dissident IRA, known as the Irregulars.

On April 13, 1922, O’Connor, with 200 Irregulars under his command, took over the Four Courts building in the center of Dublin in defiance of the new Irish government.  They hoped to provoke the British troops, who were still in the country, into attacking them.  They felt that this action would re-start the war with Britain and re-unite the IRA against their common enemy.  Michael Collins tried desperately to persuade O’Connor and his men to leave the building but it was to no avail.  The British told Collins to get them out, or they would step in and remove them.  Collins knew that surrendering military authority to the Crown would make a mockery of the treaty and destroy the new Irish Free State in its infancy.  Rory O’Connor and his men remained in Four Courts under truce conditions with the Free State until members of the Four Courts garrison kidnapped JJ ‘Ginger’ O’Connell, a general in the Free State Army.  The Brits moved artillery into place and told Collins to use it or they would.  Collins had no choice but to shell the Four Courts with the borrowed British artillery.  Rory O’Connor surrendered after two days of fighting, was arrested and sent to Mountjoy Prison.  This incident sparked the Irish Civil War – as fighting broke out around the country between pro- and anti- treaty factions, dividing old friends and families alike.

One family divided was Sean Hales and his brother Tom.  Both were members of the IRA during the War of Independence and both were against the treaty.  Sean, however, was persuaded by Michael Collins to join the pro-Treaty side and he voted for the Treaty, while his brother voted against it.  In June, 1922, Sean was elected to the new Dail as a pro-Treaty Sinn Féin candidate.  Then, during the tragic Civil War, Michael Collins was killed in ambush on 22 August throwing both sides into a senseless frenzy of tit-for-tat revenge killings.  After Collins’ death, the Free State government declared that the Irregular IRA were conducting an unlawful rebellion against the legitimate Irish government and that martial law was the only way to end the violence.  On September 27, 1922, the Free State enacted legislation to set up military courts allowing for the execution of men captured bearing arms against the state.

On 17 November, five Irregulars who had been captured with arms in Co. Wicklow were shot by firing squad in Dublin.  On November 19, three more Irregulars were executed. On 24 November, Robert Erskine Childers, acclaimed author and secretary to the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations that had created the Irish Free State, was executed.  He had been captured on November 10 in possession of a pistol, which ironically had been given to him by Michael Collins before the split in the movement.  To many, this at last demonstrated the senselessness of the hostilities  In response to the executions, on November 30, Liam Lynch, Chief of Staff of the Irregular IRA, ordered that any member of Parliament who had voted for the “murder legislation” be shot on sight.

On 6 December 1922, Sean Hales was shot and killed by Irregulars as he left the Dáil and another TD (Teachta Dála – Assembly Delegate) Pádraic O’Máille was badly wounded.  Hales’ killing was declared to be in reprisal for the Free State’s execution of anti-treaty prisoners.  In revenge for Hales’ killing then, four republican leaders, whom the Free State held in custody, were selected to be executed.  On December 8th, 1922, Rory O’Connor and three other republicans (Liam Mellows, Richard Barrett and Joe McKelvey) captured with the fall of the Four Courts, were executed by firing squad in reprisal for the killing of Free State TD  Sean Hales. The execution order was given by Kevin O’Higgins, who less than a year earlier had Rory O’Connor in his wedding party.  When O’Connor was to be searched upon his capture at the Four Courts, he hid a treasured souvenir which he later had sewn into the hem of his pants and which was eventually buried with him.  It was the gold souvenir coin given to him by Kevin O’Higgins for being his Best Man!  Such was the irony and the bitterness of the division that the Treaty caused.  Brother Hibernian Rory O’Connor and the other executed republicans, were subsequently seen as martyrs by the Republican Movement.

It took years for the rift to heal and today, from the distance of all the years in between, we can understand the differences held by the belligerents who walked their own roads toward the common goal of a free and united Ireland.  And, in December, 1922, two Irish patriots – rivals, though former comrades – met once more in Tir na n’Og.

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