Death in December … 90th anniversary of Curragh executions
With much of the attention regarding the struggle for Irish independence looking ahead to the centenary of the 1916 Rising, events in Kildare 90 years ago this December bring into sharp focus the tragedy of the subsequent civil war (1922-23). Curragh historian Robbie Doyle has a particular interest in the story of the Kildare men who were executed in December 1922 on one of the darkest days of the civil war which had turned brother against brother. His grandfather-in-law Eamon O’Modhráin was an anti-treaty activist and comrade of the men who were captured by Free State troops and executed for being in possession of arms. Copies of letters written by the men hours before their execution have been handed down in the O’Modhráin family and Robbie Doyle has put their poignant sentiments in context to relate the story of that winter of internal strife in Kildare ninety years ago.
Men and women who had fought side by side against British rule, turned their vitriol and their weapons on each other in a bitter conflict that began with the occupation of the Four Courts in the summer of 1922 by forces opposed to the signing and ratification of the anglo-irish treaty signed the previous December.
The outbreak of the civil car forced pro and anti-treaty supporters to choose sides. Supporters of the treaty came to be known as pro-treaty or Free State Army, legally the National Army. The objectors called themselves Republicans but were more commonly known by the Free State government as “irregulars.”
Although most of the fighting took place in Dublin and around Munster, County Kildare was insulated from the bitter divide. The occupation of the Curragh Camp by the Free State Army after British withdrawal made operations difficult for the small column of anti-treaty fighters who operated in the vicinity of Kildare town.
Eamonn O’Modhráin from Ballysax, who had commanded the 6th Battalion of the IRA’s Carlow Brigade (South Kildare/West Wicklow) during the War of Independence (1919-21), objected strongly to the signing of the treaty and was immediately arrested and imprisoned for much of the year-long conflict. However, many of his anti-treaty comrades took up arms against the Free State and operated a guerrilla style war in the environs of Kildare town, concentrating their efforts on disrupting the vital railway network in the district.
In late 1922, the Leinster Leader reported that a column of irregulars were operating in the vicinity of Kildare town, derailing or stealing train engines which would subsequently be used as an obstruction, thereby blocking the line. It was also reported that on November 25th, this anti-treaty fighters had mounted an audacious ambush of Free State troops close to the Curragh Camp.
On December 13th, ten men, allegedly of the same column, were surprised at a farmhouse beside Moore’s Bridge (close to the Curragh Racecourse) by Free State troops. Having been found in possession of rifles, a quantity of ammunition and other supplies, the men were arrested and brought the short distance to the Curragh Camp. During the arrest, one of the captured, Thomas Behan, was killed although the cause of his death remains disputed to this day.
In the following days, seven of the men were tried before a military court and found guilty of being in possession of arms without authority. The Free State government had, only weeks earlier, decreed that such an offence was punishable by death, an attempt by the government of the new state to quell the mounting violence and assert is authority. The executions were duly carried out by firing squad on the morning of December 19th at the Curragh military detention barracks. Although the Free State sanctioned 77 official executions of anti-treaty prisoners during the war, this combined execution of seven men was the largest carried out anywhere in the country – a tragic statistic from County Kildare’s otherwise low key involvement in the nationalist struggles of the period.
The day before their execution, the seven men were allowed to write letters to their families and loved ones. Each letter is a tragic but poignant memorial to the men as they came to terms with their fate. Typed copies of some of the letters were sent to their ex-commander, Eamonn O’Modhráin.
Nineteen year-old Paddy Bagnall wrote to his uncle that he and his comrades were “all to go West together… but it is all for the best, and I hope it sets old Ireland free.” Bagnall finishes a remarkably composed letter for one so young by stating that he was dying happy and bids “good-bye old Kildare.”
Thirty four year-old Paddy Nolan penned a heartbreaking final letter to his mother and father. He hoped that they would bear his death with “the Courage of an Irish Father & Mother.” He tried to ease his mother’s worry by writing that the chaplain in the Curragh, Father Donnelly, had told him that he would go straight to Heaven.
However, the saddest words are often the simplest and Nolan signed off by telling his family that he “had a few pounds in his suit case” and that they could have them and anything else in the house belonging to him. A shorter letter to his younger brothers and sisters asks that they remember him and his comrades on Christmas morning, only a few days away. He also asks that they be good children and always obey their parents.
The other letters written by the men on the eve of their deaths are similar in composition and sentiment to Bagnall’s and Nolan’s. Each is also a terrible reminder of the bitter conflict that scarred a fledgling nation during its turbulent progression from a British colony into an independent nation.
A memorial to the men is located in Market Square in Kildare town. The seven executed were Stephen White (18), Abbey Street, Kildare; Joseph Johnston (18), Station Road, Kildare; Patrick Mangan (22), Fair Green, Kildare; Patrick Nolan (34), Rathbride, Kildare; Bryan Moore (37), Rathbride, Kildare (Leader of the column); James O’Connor (24), Bansha, Co. Tipperary and Patrick Bagnall (19), Fair Green, Kildare.
Regardless of the sides taken during the civil war, the seven men believed they were dying for the cause of Irish freedom and independence. For that reason, their sacrifice in the dark days of December 1921 is worthy of recognition and commemoration in the month of its 90th anniversary.
Acknowledgement: Many thanks to Robbie Doyle for generously sharing the contents of the executed men’s final letters. Series no: 308.
Liam Kenny remembers the seven men from Kildare who were executed in December 1922 in his Looking Back series, no. 308