In this edition Mullingar-based historian Jason McKevitt discusses the state-sanctioned executions which took place in Mullingar’s Columb Barracks in March 1923: the second occasion in which executions took place in Westmeath during the Civil War, following on from those that occurred in Athlone’s Custume Barracks two months earlier.
The old military prison in Columb Barracks, Mullingar (Jason McKevitt)
Following the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty by the British government and Irish plenipotentiaries in December 1921, a great division within Sinn Féin and the Irish Republican Army/Óglaigh na hÉireann occurred, leading to the establishment of both pro-Treaty and anti-Treaty elements. Two young proud republican soldiers, Captain Michael Greally aged 27, from Scramogue, County Roscommon and Adjutant-General Luke “Leo” Burke aged 26, from Keady, County Armagh, upon perusing the Anglo-Irish Treaty, grew vehemently opposed to it, resulting in both men siding with anti-Treaty republicans. This division was mirrored across Ireland, sadly culminating in a bloody and tragic Civil War that began in June 1922.
By February 1923, with the Civil War at its height, both men were serving as members of the anti-Treaty IRA in Oldcastle, County Meath, as well as living and working at Graces Shop in the town. Whereas the pro-Treaty forces could depend on both financial support and military supplies from the British government, the same could not be said for the anti-Treaty IRA. As such, a plan to raid financial institutions such as banks was viewed as a way to raise much needed funds to support their war effort. Thus, at 11am on Tuesday 27th February 1923, both Luke Burke and Michael Greally and two other unknown men, simultaneously carried out bank raids on both the Northern Bank and the Hibernian Bank in Oldcastle.
Having carried out the raids and made their escape, word was conveyed by telephone to Free State government forces with a view to apprehending those involved. Both men were arrested shortly afterwards in the Crossdrum area of Oldcastle. Upon arrest, they initially provided false names: Michael Creely of Athenry, County Galway, and Henry Keenan of Newcastle, County Down. Although no weapons were discovered, they were found to be in possession of £385.10s. 11d, deemed to have been taken during the bank raids.
Although both men were brought back to Oldcastle, it was then decided to transport them to the more secure location of Columb Barracks, Mullingar. While in the barracks both men, as prisoners of the Irish state, were placed in prison cells before facing a military court-martial under the Army Emergency Powers Resolution and Public Safety Resolution 1922. The court-martial in Columb Barracks concluded with the verdict of guilty and the sentence of death by firing squad being imposed on both men. On Monday 12th March 1923, both Michael Greally and Luke Burke, having spent almost two weeks incarcerated on ‘Death Row’ in Columb Barracks, were notified around 10pm that they were to be executed the following morning at 8am. In their last letters to their families and friends, mere hours before the executions, both men spoke of their service to Ireland as members of the Óglaigh na hÉireann/IRA with Michael Greally poignantly stating that they would, ‘die as True Soldiers of the Republic, dying true to our oath, true to Ireland and true to the dead’.
It was recorded within the Westmeath Examiner newspaper on the 17th March that, at 8am on the morning of the executions, Rev Fr J.P. Kelly, Administrator, Mullingar and Rev Fr J. Finnegan, Bishop’s Secretary, having spent the previous four hours praying and officiating at the final Mass with both men in the Garrison church, dashed forward to attend to their remains, as soon as the final fatal volley of shots was fired. While it may be accepted that the remains of both men were immediately buried near to the barracks military hospital block, many ex-soldiers who subsequently served at Columb Barracks, state that they were informed years later that the remains of both men were initially buried in the garden area between the garrison church and Chelsea House.
Corridor to the ground floor cells of the military prison, Columb Barracks (Jason McKevitt)
With the ending of hostilities and thus the Civil War in May 1923 the government of the Irish Free State sought to rebuild the country and also to instil a sense of peace amongst the population. Over a year later in October 1924, the government under pressure from the public and the families of those executed, ordered that all remains would be exhumed and returned to their respective families and that these ceremonies must be low key and not to be used as occasions of propaganda by Irish republicans. The government set the date of Tuesday 28th October 1924 for the handing over of the remains of the eighty-one official prisoners executed by the Irish state, including those of Michael Greally and Luke Burke.
On Wednesday 29th October 1924, Commandant Skehan, writing from Columb Barracks, informed his superiors at Collins Barracks, Dublin, that the remains of Luke Burke were handed over yesterday to his brothers, John and Peter Burke, at 12:10pm and that the remains of Michael Greally were handed over to his brothers at 1.05pm. He concluded by stating that the soldiers on guard duty in the barracks turned-out and paid their respects (salute) to the remains of each executed man as they left Columb Barracks for the final time.
The Funeral Mass of Captain Michael Greally was held at Curraghroe Chapel, County Roscommon with his burial taking place at Clontuskert Cemetery to the sorrowful music of the Boyle Brass band. A guard of honour of Volunteers from Cumann na mBan and Sinn Féin stood by the coffin of Captain Michael Greally, as his comrades from the IRA fired a volley of shots over his coffin draped in the Irish tricolour before it was lowered into his second and final resting place. Adjutant-General Luke Burke had a more low key funeral due to it being held at St Patricks Church, Keady, County Armagh, which was part of what was now termed Northern Ireland, with his comrades and family, including his fiancé Lilly Robinson, in attendance.
A cell in the military prison, Columb Barracks, Mullingar (Jason McKevitt)
During the 1930s, many of those who served during the revolutionary period, and the families of those who died in service, applied for army pensions or related compensation as financial reward for service provided. The mother of Michael Greally made such an application in a very heartfelt manner for financial assistance from the Irish state in 1933 as did the father of Luke Burke, Mr Francis Burke. However, the Irish state, deemed that both menwere not engaged in the military service of Óglaigh Na h-Éireann when they were arrested, instead they would view them as being mere bank robbers out for their own personal gain. This came as a great blow to both the Greally and Burke families as well as casting an everlasting dark shadow upon the memories of both men.
It may be proposed that the main reason for this position was that, because of the unpopularity of bank raids, the Executive of the anti-Treaty IRA between October 1922 and February 1923, had begun a process of ordering its local units to cease such practices. However, the possibility of those orders not being received or fully understood by local republicans during the height of extreme hostilities was highly possible.
Over the decades since their executions, the families and supporters of both men have sought justice and to right the wrongs bestowed upon them and to their memories. Today, one hundred years later, as our country enters a new historical epoch, lets us reflect, honour and remember both Captain Michael Greally and Adjutant-General Luke Burke, executed at Columb Barracks on the 13th March 1923, thus becoming the last two people to be executed in Mullingar.
Jason McKevitt B.A. (HONS), PDIP (SE), HDIP (FED)
Memorial for Luke Burke and Michael Greally at the market Square, Oldcastle, County Meath (Jason McKevitt)
File: DOD A/13245, Military Archives; Burke, Luke, File no: DP903. Ref No: II/RB./673. Military Archives; Correspondence between Mr McGowan, Department of Defence and Comdt O’Donoghue, Directorate of Intelligence, 1924 File: DOD A/10856; Greally, Michael, File no: DP1835. Ref No: II/RB./47, Military Archives; Handing over of Bodies of executed men-Mullingar, 29th October 1924, File: DOD A/13245, GS312, Military Archives; Irish Independent, ‘The following was issued by GHQ last night’, 28th February 1923; Letter from Colonel Aodh MacNeill, D.A.A.G. Dublin Command, 8th May 1923, File: DOD A/13245, Military Archives; Meath Chronicle, ‘Oldcastle Bank Robbery’, Saturday 3rd March 1923 pg. 1; Meath Chronicle, ‘For Ireland - Memory of the Dead - Republican Commemoration at Mullingar’, Saturday 5th July 1924; Greally, Michael, File no: DP1835. Ref No: II/RB./47, Military Archives, Dublin; Quartermaster Generals Office, accounts-exhumations of executed irregulars, 18th December 1924, File: DOD A/13245, GS312, Military Archives; Roscommon Herald, ‘An Executed County Roscommon Man - The Late Captain Michael Greally IRA, Scramogue, Public Funeral’, 1st November 1924; Westmeath Examiner, ‘Death Penalty in Ireland: Two men Executed in Mullingar’, Saturday 17th March 1923; Westmeath Examiner, ‘Men who were executed in Mullingar: relatives take the bodies’, Saturday , 1st November 1924.
For more detail, see: Breen Timothy Murphy, The Government’s Executions Policy during the Irish Civil War, 1922-1923 (Unpublished PhD Thesis, Maynooth University, 2010); Century Ireland: 1913-1923, Bank raids and robberies increase amidst Irish political instability Bank raids and robberies increase amidst Irish political instability | Century Ireland (rte.ie); Crowley, John, O’Drisceoil, Donal and Murphy (Eds), Mike, Atlas of the Irish Revolution, (Cork, 2017); Dorney, John, Rough and Ready Work-The Special Infantry Corps, The Irish Story: Irish History online https://www.theirishstory.com/2015/10/15/rough-and-ready-work-the-special-infantry-corps/; Dorney, John, Today in Irish History 27th September 1922, The passing of the Public Safety Act, in The Irish Story: Irish History Online, Today in Irish History 27 September 1922, the Passing of the Public Safety Act – The Irish Story; Fanning, Ronan, A Will to Power: Eamonn De Valera, (London, 2015); Foster, Gavin, Locating the ‘Lost Legion’: ‘IRA Emigration and settlement after the Civil War’ in the Atlas of the Irish Revolution, edited by John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil and Mike Murphy, with associate editor John Borgonovo (Cork University Press, 2017); Houses of the Oireachtas, TDs & Senators, Dr. Patrick Joseph O'Dowd – Houses of the Oireachtas; Kenneally, Ian, ‘The return of the Dead’, Westmeath County Council Westmeath County Council (WCC) Council News (westmeathcoco.ie); McElhatton, Shane, Today Marks 100 years since the end of the Civil war, Today marks 100 years since the end of the Civil War (rte.ie); Murphy, William, ‘Imprisonment during the Civil War’ in the Atlas of the Irish Revolution, edited by John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil and Mike Murphy, with associate editor John Borgonovo (Cork University Press, 2017); Rogers, Peter A, Burke & Greally “Mullingar’s Two Forgotten Martyrs”, (Great Britain, 2018); RTE History: A Defiant gathering: The 1922 IRA Convention, A defiant gathering: the 1922 IRA Convention (rte.ie)
Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 27/07/2023