The IRA murder of Sir Henry Wilson sparked events of dire historical consequence
On June 22, 1922, British Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson unveiled a memorial at Liverpool Street station in London to the 1,200 men of the Great Eastern Railway Company who had died in the Great War.
Shortly afterwards he was gunned down on the doorstep of his home by two London-born veterans of that war, men who had become IRA volunteers — Reginald Dunne and Joe O’Sullivan.
Wilson was the first sitting MP to be killed in Britain since the prime minister Spencer Perceval in 1812. The facts of his shooting are not in dispute, but on whose orders were Dunne and O’Sullivan acting?
This question has been pertinent for the last century.
The shooting could only have been ordered at the highest level — and the highest level was Michael Collins, then commander-in-chief of the National Army and president of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB).
The IRB was the secret organisation to which Dunne belonged, and on the night before the assassination, he confided his plans to Sam Maguire in Mooney’s pub in Holborn. Maguire was the head of the London IRB and the man who had sworn Collins into the organisation.
Wilson’s death infuriated the British government.
Since April 1922, anti-Treaty IRA members had occupied the Four Courts in Dublin, in defiance of the Provisional Government, which feared that challenging them would lead to civil war in Ireland.
In May, Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera, the leaders of the pro- and anti-Treaty factions of Sinn Féin, announced a pre-election pact in which they agreed to field candidates in the general election of June 1922 in accordance with their respective strengths in the outgoing Dáil.
The British government believed the Irish electorate was being deprived of a real choice. Acceptance of the Treaty was a prerequisite for serving in an Irish government, but the pact gave rise to the possibility those terms could be violated.
A copy of the official IRA newspaper An t-Óglách had been found on Dunne. The paper was available in news-stands in Ireland, but it was enough for British PM Lloyd George to pin the order for the assassination — erroneously, as it turned out — on the anti-Treaty forces occupying the Four Courts.
He wrote to Collins post haste that evening: “His Majesty’s government cannot consent to a continuance of this state of things, and they feel entitled to ask you formally to bring it to an end forthwith.”
On the afternoon of the Wilson funeral, Winston Churchill (as secretary of state for the colonies) told the House of Commons in public what Lloyd George had told Collins in private.
The occupation of the Four Courts,he said, was a “gross breach and defiance of the Treaty. If it is not brought to an end... we shall regard the Treaty as having been formally violated.”
This was the ultimatum that forced the hand of the nascent Irish government.
Wilson’s assassination profoundly shocked British society. Three American presidents, a French president, a Russian czar, Italian and Portuguese kings and scores of German politicians had been killed in the 19th and early 20th century. These assassinations happened in countries without the British tradition of centuries of parliamentary democracy.
“We are all constantly in danger of death. One must simply trust in God,” said a fatalistic Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, years before his assassination in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, plunged Europe into the greatest war in history up to that date.
The Wilson shooting was Ireland’s Sarajevo moment. Without it, there would have been no British ultimatum, no shelling of the Four Courts, no Civil War. Michael Collins would have lived, and the history of the new Irish state would have been different.
The impact of the Wilson assassination has been underestimated, because of the assumption that the Civil War would have happened anyway and his death only hastened the inevitable.
Yet, as IRA commander Florrie O’Donoghue remembered: “Despite six months of the talk of the possibility of civil war, no one had allowed himself to believe it to be inevitable, and no plans existed on either side for conducting it.”
Wilson’s funeral, four days after his murder, was one of the largest London had seen. Despite heavy rain and a high wind, thousands of mourners, at times 10 deep, lined the route from his home at 36 Eaton Place to St Paul’s Cathedral.
The military procession was followed by a fleet of cars carrying wreaths from civil and political institutions across the world. The multitudes observed a “reverent stillness which was eloquent”, according to one newspaper account.
“I am an Irishman, born in County Longford,” Wilson had declared in the month before he was shot, but he was a southern unionist who regarded the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921 as a sell-out to the “murder gang”, as he called the IRA.
Wilson had been the head of the British army, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS), in the final year of the Great War. According to many of his contemporaries, he was one of the men who won that war. He detested what he saw as British appeasement of Irish nationalists, and after his four-year term as CIGS ended in February 1922, he was elected unopposed as a unionist MP for North Down two days later.
Wilson’s assassins had been severely wounded in the war. Dunne’s kneecap had been shattered; O’Sullivan lost a leg at Passchendaele and was fitted with an artificial limb.
O’Sullivan was 25 and Dunne 24, but the younger man was the more forceful of the two — a leader of men and the officer commanding the IRA in London. The son of a British army bandmaster, Dunne had been attracted to the nationalist cause through traditional Irish music. O’Sullivan’s father John was from Bantry, Co Cork and came from “old Fenian stock”, according to Joe’s brother Pat, who also served in the IRA.
Dunne and O’Sullivan had been engaged in acts of destruction, execution and gun smuggling in the name of Ireland, though neither man had been born nor reared there — unlike Wilson.
Given their disabilities, the attack on Wilson would be tantamount to a suicide mission. Almost inevitably, they were quickly captured as they tried to flee the scene.
On July 18, 1922, Dunne and O’Sullivan were sentenced to death at the Old Bailey. Most press attention that day was fixed on the marriage a short distance away of Louis Mountbatten and Edwina Ashley. The Wilson shooting was as shocking an event in its day as the Mountbatten assassination would be in 1979.
On August 10, 1922 Dunne and O’Sullivan were hanged in Wandsworth Prison. Two days later their handwritten justification for the killing, smuggled out of jail, was published in the Irish Independent.
Wilson had been appointed military adviser to James Craig’s Northern Ireland government in March 1922. Dunne and O’Sullivan held Wilson responsible for the ‘Orange terror’ — the Belfast pogroms against the Catholic population which began in 1920 and reached a new intensity of violence by summer 1922.
The pair did not act of their own volition, as many assumed at the time. They were seasoned soldiers and understood the importance of the chain of command.
In a letter to IRA GHQ written after the Truce of July 1921 which ended the War of Independence, Dunne said he had tried to instil in his fellow volunteers “strict discipline, secrecy, cheerful obedience to orders and punctuality."
Neither was the assassination of members of the British establishment a rogue endeavour — it had been the policy of the Sinn Féin executive going back to the Conscription Crisis of March 1918.
A short time afterwards, Cathal Brugha visited the House of Commons with a concealed Mauser pistol down his trouser leg to assess the possibility of firing at the government front bench from the visitors’ gallery.
Dunne collected information on the movements of members of the British cabinet, and was at a meeting before the Truce where the possibility of shooting Wilson was discussed.
Joe O’Sullivan reconnoitred the route from Downing Street to Chequers to track the movements of Lloyd George.
From Collins’ perspective, Wilson was a dangerous enemy of Irish nationalism. Collins was in the visitors’ gallery of the House of Commons in late May 1922 when Wilson declared that the British government should have no hesitation in crossing the Border to secure order. Collins also held Wilson responsible for the “worse than Armenian atrocities” in Belfast.
Wilson had made enemies too within the British government. Yet Collins miscalculated the depth of unhappiness in Britain about the toleration afforded to the anti-Treaty side by the fledging Irish state.
The shots that killed Wilson would lead on exactly two months later to the shot that killed Collins at Béal na Bláth, leaving Ireland immeasurably the poorer for his passing.
Ronan McGreevy is the author of ‘Great Hatred: the Assassination of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson MP’, published by Faber on Thursday (€16.99)