In the second of three articles, we explore the circumstances surrounding the state-sanctioned executions carried out in Custume Barracks in January 1923.
How the anti-Treaty newspaper Poblacht na h-Eireann described the Mountjoy executions in December 1922 (National Library of Ireland)
‘My Darling Mother, It is now 6 p.m. We are just after being told that we are to be executed in the morning at 8 o’clock. Do not fret for me, as with God’s Holy Will, I will be prepared to meet Him, as it is a grand thing to get timely warning before you die. I hope I will be in Heaven before you receive this sad greeting. Well, welcome be the Will of God. Remember mother, if it is the Will of God that He receives me, I will be always watching over yourself, Dad, Dotie, Pearl, Maud, Eileen, Jim and Josie. Try and bear up mother and please God we will all be together again in the time to come. I am writing to grandma and some of my friends. My companions and I do not bear any malice against those who are going to carry out the deed. Goodbye for the present. Your Loving Son, Tom.’
Those words were written by Thomas Hughes on the evening of 19 January 1923. Hughes, a member of the anti-Treaty IRA, was then a prisoner in Athlone’s Custume Barracks. A few hours later he would, along with four of his comrades, face a firing squad made up of National Army soldiers. He was twenty-one years old.
As Hughes prepared for what lay ahead, did he cast his mind back to another day in Custume Barracks? Eleven months earlier, on 28 February 1922, Hughes was one of the IRA volunteers who marched into Custume Barracks with Commandant-General Seán Mac Eoin. On that day, one of the most remarkable in Athlone’s long history, an Irish army took control of the barracks from British forces. In front of an immense crowd Mac Eoin gave a speech in which he said of the barracks: ‘We have it and we will hold it.’
The handover of power was a clear manifestation of the new reality created by the Anglo-Irish Treaty. But for many of the IRA in Athlone and elsewhere, that reality was merely a shadow of the republican dream. For those such as Hughes, the Treaty was a betrayal and the IRA soon split over the issue. Seán Mac Eoin, the most prominent IRA officer in the midlands, supported the Treaty and he moved quickly to ensure that Custume Barracks stayed under the control of the pro-Treaty side of the IRA that was being transformed into the National Army. Thomas Hughes took up arms against that National Army when the Civil War began in June 1922. Six months later, on 20 December, he was captured.
A month before Hughes was captured, the first of the government-sanctioned executions took place in Dublin’s Kilmainham Jail. In the previous article, we traced the development of the government’s policy and the Army Emergency Powers Resolution adopted by the Dáil in late September 1922, which allowed for military courts and army committees as well as the issuing of death sentences for those found in possession of arms or who had taken part in attacks on the National Army.
The executions of November 1922, inevitably, brought a response from the anti-Treaty IRA. Liam Lynch, anti-Treaty IRA Chief of Staff, sent a letter to the ‘Provisional “Parliament” of Southern Ireland’ warning its members that their lives were at risk unless ‘your army recognises the rules of warfare in future’. Lynch’s words were put into effect on 7 December 1922 when two members of the anti-Treaty IRA shot pro-Treaty TDs Seán Hales and Pádraig Ó Máille as they made their way to the Dáil. Ó Máille was seriously wounded while Hales was killed.
That night, the government held an emergency meeting. Ministers, including Minister for Home Affairs Kevin O’Higgins, sanctioned the execution of four prisoners, each a senior member of the anti-Treaty IRA: Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows, Richard Barrett and Joseph McKelvey. O’Higgins prevaricated for some time – one of the selected men, Rory O’Connor, had been the best man to O’Higgins at his wedding – but he eventually confirmed the decision. The four men were executed by firing squad a few hours later. Those executions were illegal in the sense that the men were not shot under the terms of the Army Emergency Powers Resolution, having been arrested during the battle for Dublin in July 1922, months before the resolution was passed in the Dáil. For the government, the executions served a specific purpose: they were a ‘reprisal’ for the shooting of Hales. They were also, according to an official statement, a ‘solemn warning to those associated’ with the executed men.
After the executions, the government was denounced by its opponents as cruel and as a minion of the British Empire. O’Higgins denied that the government had acted vindictively or that it was seeking to satisfy a foreign power. Instead, he said, the government was motivated by one goal: ‘The thing that was decided on last evening was decided on after the coldest of cold discussions. We may be lacking in judgment, we may be lacking in wisdom … but I do say that from the day the Provisional Government was set up, and from the time we functioned below there in the City Hall, there was not an act done that was inspired by any other motive than the securing of the welfare and the safety and the freedom of the Irish people.’
Those words and those sentiments signalled that the government would not abandon its policy of executions. Instead, the government expanded the campaign across the country. On the day before Thomas Hughes was captured, seven members of the anti-Treaty IRA were executed in Kildare’s Curragh Camp. During the subsequent month, executions took place in Kilkenny, Louth, Tipperary and Carlow. On 20 January 1923, Athlone’s Custume Barracks would join the list of execution sites.
It was for the possession of arms ‘without proper authority’ that Thomas Hughes, Michael Walsh, Hubert (Herbert in some accounts) Collins, Martin Burke (Bourke in some accounts) and Stephen Joyce were sentenced to death. Joyce prepared by writing a letter: ‘Dear Sister Julia, Just a few lines bidding you the last farewell … We have been to see a priest and will hear Mass in the morning and receive the Body and Blood of our Saviour. Tomorrow morning at 8 a.m. will be the happiest hour of my life. I know this will come as a terrible shock to you. I fear your heart will break. I ask you not to grieve for me, for it must be God’s holy will that I should sacrifice my life for Ireland…’
‘Life is sweet’ said Martin Burke in a letter to his brother but, still, he was prepared to die. ‘Poor Tom Hughes is by my side’, he wrote, ‘a soldier to the last’. Burke finished with the words: ‘Goodbye until we meet in the happy land beyond the skies…’ So, with letters written, the five condemned men faced their final hours. The culmination of those hours will be the focus of our final article.
A version of this article was originally published in the Athlone Advertiser
Dáil Éireann debates; University College Dublin Archives – Richard Mulcahy Papers and Ernie O’Malley Papers; Irish Independent, Freeman’s Journal, Offaly Independent, Poblacht na hÉireann, Westmeath Examiner and Westmeath Independent. For further detail, see John Burke’s, Athlone 1900-1923: politics, revolution and civil war (The History Press, 2015); Colm Campbell, Emergency Law in Ireland, 1918-1925 (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1994); Liam Cox, Moate - County Westmeath: A History of Town and District (Alfa Print Ltd, 1981); Michael Hopkinson, Green against Green: the Irish Civil War (Gill & Macmillan, 2004); Uinseann MacEoin, Survivors (Argenta Publications, 1987); William Murphy, ‘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); Patrick Murray, Oracles of God: The Roman Catholic Church and Irish Politics, 1922-1937 (University College Dublin Press, 2000); and Eleven Galway Martyrs (Tuam Herald, 1985).
Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 08/01/2023