This insightful history argues that the killing of an Anglo-Irish field marshal was ‘Ireland’s Sarajevo’
In Peaky Blinders, there is a veiled reference to the IRA assassination of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson. Renamed Henry Russell in the TV drama, he is shot by gang leader Tommy Shelby (played by Cillian Murphy) at the behest of Winston Churchill, who wants to frame Ireland’s anti-treaty forces. “The bullets I fire this afternoon,” Shelby predicts, “will be the starting gun for the Civil War in Ireland.”
As Ronan McGreevy shows in his intelligent and insightful book, the true story is rather different. “[This] was Ireland’s Sarajevo,” he argues, drawing a parallel with how World War I was triggered by the killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The author makes a powerful case that without Wilson’s death “Irish history would have been significantly different”.
The murder itself was fairly straightforward. On the morning of June 22, 1922, Wilson unveiled a memorial to the 1914-18 war dead at Liverpool Street station in London. It was a proud moment for him, since as head of the British army he had helped devise a strategy that finally forced Germany’s surrender.
Unfortunately for Wilson, his arch-imperialist attitude to Ireland had made him a marked man. Since the war, he had become a Unionist MP for North Down and a security adviser to Northern Ireland’s new government, constantly warning that the Irish were incapable of governing themselves. He was disgusted by the Anglo-Irish Treaty in late 1921, calling it “a shameful surrender to the pistol”.
Wilson could never be accused of doing any such thing. As a taxi dropped him off at his Belgravia home at about 2.30pm, he found two armed IRA men waiting for him. According to one report, he drew his sword and advanced on Reggie Dunne and Joe O’Sullivan shouting, “You cowardly swine!” This was probably a Daily Mail invention, but either way, he suffered six gunshot wounds and died almost instantly. The killers almost did too when a mob set upon them, but instead they were arrested, put on trial and sentenced to hang.
By then, their actions had already cost many more lives. Within hours of Wilson’s demise, a deeply shaken prime minister David Lloyd George and Churchill, the colonies secretary, were staring at the murder weapons on the cabinet table in Downing Street.
On the basis of little more than a hunch, they convinced themselves that the crime was organised by anti-treaty republicans who had been occupying Dublin’s Four Courts since April 16. Lloyd George sent an ultimatum to the provisional Free State government led by Michael Collins: bomb those diehards out or we’ll do it for you. The Big Fellow obeyed, setting in train a series of tragic events that included his own assassination.
McGreevy’s painstakingly researched narrative highlights the complex nature of national identity, since Wilson was an Anglo-Irishman with a country estate in Longford and an accent to match. Dunne and O’Sullivan were London-Irish and had fought bravely for the Allies in World War I. O’Sullivan lost a leg at the Battle of Passchendaele and must have known that shooting Wilson was a suicide mission.
A portrait of Wilson hung in the Northern Ireland prime minister’s office for many years, but he is not much remembered today. Dunne and O’Sullivan’s bodies were returned to Ireland for IRA funerals in 1967, but their hopes of becoming famous martyrs never materialised. All three, McGreevy concludes, were victims of a “great hatred” as WB Yeats called it in the poem that gives this fine book its title.
One mystery still remains: who gave Dunne and O’Sullivan their orders? In the final chapter, McGreevy points an accusatory finger at Collins himself. The Irish Times journalist suggests that he was playing a dangerous game, supporting the treaty in public while privately still operating as an IRA leader and trying to strangle Northern Ireland at birth. If so, it backfired badly.
Tantalisingly, a fellow researcher claims to have seen a classified document in the Irish Military Archive that may one day prove Collins’s guilt once and for all. As theories go, it’s less imaginative than the Peaky Blinders version, but a lot more convincing.
History: Great Hatred: The Assassination of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson MP by Ronan McGreevy
Faber & Faber, 464 pages, trade paperback €23.80; e-book £7.19