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24 September 2014
Wars and Conflict - Witnesses

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John L. O'Sullivan
CURIOUS JOURNEY: An Oral History of Ireland’s Unfinished Revolution,
by Kenneth Griffith and Timothy O’Grady,
(Mercier Press, 1998).

Image of an IRA flying column

An IRA flying column ©

This is something that I haven’t spoken about much. A war in any shape or form, it grows on you. When you are involved in active operations, it means you have to be disciplined and you have to face every circumstance as it comes. The decisions aren’t always your own. This occasion I’m telling you about, I have never given it for publication to anybody, but I suppose our years are getting few and, as you say, it will give people an idea of the kinds of things we had to face and what we had to do about them.

During the height of the war, two members of the Essex Regiment were seen wandering around Bandon. At that time every stranger was under observation and people reported them to our command and they were captured. They claimed to be deserters, and while they said they were prepared to join our column and fight with us, they said they’d rather be sent back to England. Now we couldn’t be sure what they were and they were taken to column headquarters to be interrogated. During the interrogation one of them said to the column commander – that was Tom Barry – he said he had a brother in the barracks in Bandon and that this brother wanted to get out too. This fellow thought the brother would be willing to work with us, and the idea of getting arms from Bandon barracks was discussed. So arrangements were made and it was fixed up that members of the column would meet the brother at a particular place outside Bandon. Tom Barry was one of the men who was to go that night, but he was taken suddenly ill – he had a heart attack – and Captain John Galvin, Jim O’Donoghue, who was brigade assistant adjutant and Joe Begley were appointed to meet this fellow – I think he was a sergeant in the Essex Regiment. Well they went to the rendezvous and they were immediately pounced on by a section of the Essex Regiment. And they were given a terrible time, every bone in their body was broken before they were shot through the head. Somehow or other they were set up.

Now all during this time, the two others, the fellows who said they were deserters, were being held here in this house, my house here. They stayed here during the day and we had to shift them to another place at night. One of them was only nineteen or twenty and the other was older, maybe thirty or forty. My mother, God be good to her, she was a very motherly kind of person, and to her they were just people who were away from home, and she did her best for them. They had the same treatment, the same food as ourselves, maybe better. And we got on well with them too. We used to play cards with them at night.

Then after this murder of our people the order came through that the two prisoners were to be executed. They knew too much, they had talked with Barry and other people at our headquarters, and it was thought they might be intelligence officers, as often happens in war when deserters go over to the enemy. We couldn’t hold them as prisoners because that would be too dangerous, and the whole thing was looked at from every angle and it was decided to execute them. I wasn’t there for this decision myself, but I can see now, looking back, that it was the only decision that could be made.

So anyway, we were told we were to dig a grave in a particular place. My brother came back home here for a pick and shovel and whatever was necessary. My mother was waiting – as she did whenever we were out, as all mothers do in troublesome times, when things were happening, when people who went out at nightfall never came back again, either killed in an ambush or taken prisoner or something – and she saw the pick and shovel going out and she probably sized up the situation and she said to my brother, ‘Listen, Pat, don’t ever do anything you’ll be sorry for.’ Well at that age – at any age – your mother is very important to you, and I can remember the weight of this thing on our minds as we were walking down the road with these two prisoners. We told them we were sending them off by boat and all the time we were wondering what would we do about it. Finally I said to my brother, ‘We’ll have to get it postponed.’

So we took them up to the spot where the execution was supposed to be, and Moss Twomey was there – he was one of the officers in charge and he was a great friend of mine – and I said, ‘They can’t be shot tonight.’ He said, ‘It’s very tough, but we have our orders and it must be done.’ ‘Well,’ says I, ‘it can’t be done, for I’m bringing these fellows home or I’ll be dead myself. I’ll shoot the man who tries to stop us.’ And I’d have done it too. But Twomey marched us up to the grave and just as we got there he said, ‘About turn, quick march, take them back home. You’ll get instructions where to take them tomorrow.’

Image of British soldiers in Kildare Street, Dublin

British soldiers on guard duty in Kildare Street, Dublin ©

So we brought them back home again, and the next night we were ordered to bring them out again. We were told then that they had to be shot, and the punishment we got for disobeying orders the previous night was that my brother and myself were appointed to the firing squad. My brother argued with them and said only one of us would do it, and it was settled that it would be him, because he was older. I think that a man that is in a firing squad should be a veteran who's had some experience of war. The revulsion of taking a human life goes very deep in a person, if he's been reared in a family. So anyway the commanding officer -–he was a different man from the night before – he said to the two prisoners, ‘Now men,’ he said, ‘unfortunately we have to execute you. It won’t be possible under the circumstances to get you a minister of religion, but we’ll give you time to say your prayers and make your peace with God.’ One of them said, ‘We have no prayers to say.’ ‘Haven’t you a soul?’ said the commanding officer. ‘I have,’ he said and he lifted up his boot and he tapped at the bottom of it like that. ‘That’s all the sole I have,’ he said. I’ll never forget the blooming thing in my life. He faced it without a whimper. A man that could say that, you know now, before his death, and facing the bullet he must be a tough man. He was no ordinary solder. Now the likes of us, fighting for our country, we might face something like that. But an ordinary rank and file soldier in the British army hadn’t that kind of commitment. They were shot there, anyway, the two of them together and buried on the spot.*

*This episode was later transformed by Frank O’Connor into a short story which following an account of the execution concludes: ‘I stood at the door, watching the stars and listening to the shrieking of the birds dying out over the bogs. It is so strange what you feel at times like that that you can’t describe it. Noble says he saw everything ten times the size, as though there were nothing in the whole world but that little patch of bog with the two Englishmen stiffening into it, but with me it was as if the patch of bog where the Englishmen were was a million miles away and even Noble and the old woman, mumbling behind me, and the birds and the bloody stars were all far away, and I was somehow very small and very lost and lonely like a child astray in the snow. And everything that happened to me afterwards, I never felt the same about again.’ Tom Barry, who wrote briefly about the incident in his book Guerrilla Days in Ireland, betrayed no sentiments whatsoever about it: ‘One of the oldest ruses in war is to send spies, posing as deserters into enemy lines. The classic example is, I think, the American Civil War, when hundreds of these pseudo-deserters were discovered as spies by both armies and dealt with as such…. The two British spies (from the Essex Regiment) were brought to Kilbree, Clonakilty, and there they were executed.

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