The truth behind the murder of Sean Hales
An astonishing encounter during the run of Ulick O'Connor's play 'Execution', premiered in the Peacock in November 1985, brought a dramatic twist to an 80-year-old mystery. In his diaries, Ulick has recorded the moment when past and present meshed
Monday, November 11
AT THE Peacock tonight I am approached by a little man with a trilby hat. He is dressed very neatly and has a rich Dublin accent. He looks a little grim and I think he might be someone who wants to get me into a corner over the merits of the play. He says he wants to have a chat with me.
"What about?" I ask, somewhat irritably.
The little man begins to tell his 80-year-old secret. Had it been revealed at the time, it might have changed the course of Irish history.
IN MY diary, among entries like these covering the year of 1985, is the record of a remarkable series of encounters. During the run of Execution, my play for the Abbey Theatre about four reprisal executions on December 8, 1922, I met along with actors playing key roles in the drama several of the key figures of the era.
Sean MacBride, General Michael Costello, Peadar O'Donnell; one by one they visited. Their arrival sparked inevitable fascination. Actors pressed for details accents; character; heights; ages. For myself it was a chance to gather interpretation, for rarely have the ethics of an event been as hotly disputed as these.
In 1922, on December 8, four former allies of the new government of the Irish Free State were executed. Rory O'Connor and three other men were shot dead in reaction to the killing of TD Sean Hales. It was made clear that the executions were as a reprisal, as the four men were in prison at the time of the killing of the TD and had nothing to do with it. Rory O'Connor and Liam Mellows had been members with Michael Collins of the General Headquarters staff of the IRA during the War of Independence. The fourth man to be executed, Joe McKelvey, was Officer in Command of the 3rd Northern Division of the Volunteers in the same period.
When I wrote Execution, the events surrounding the shootings seemed so surreal that I thought the only way I could convince an audience they actually happened was to use descriptions given to the Dáil by members of the cabinet who took the decision that morning to have the prisoners executed.
The speeches were given by actors who took the roles of cabinet members and those of the opposition who argued against the executions. For the four prisoners also in the cast, I constructed dialogue with the help of people who had shared cells with them on that fateful night.
The effect of the production was devastating. On the first night there were people crying. Some of the audience said it could never have taken place. But the factual basis of the play was unchallengeable. It ran longer than any new play at the Peacock up to then.
The question posed the morality of reprisal, the killing of innocents as a deterrent is one which has surfaced again and again during the 20th century. Hiroshima, Dresden, Lidice and now in Afghanistan: today it is once more an issue.
In the events of Mountjoy 80 years ago, it is clear the government of the Irish Free State were faced with an appalling choice. There was evidence to have them believe the whole cabinet was going to be assassinated, that the Dáil would be unable to convene and that the recently established democratic parliament would fall apart.
To emphasise the enormity of their choice they selected four of their best friends for execution. What happened was a Greek tragedy, enacted in real life.
Wednesday, October 16
Rehearsal Room, Abbey
TODAY Peadar O'Donnell and Sean MacBride came in to the rehearsal. Sean MacBride is the only person to have won the Nobel Peace Prize and the Lenin Peace Prize, while Peadar O'Donnell is a socialist republican and one of Ireland's finest novelists and short-story writers. Sean had been imprisoned in December 1922 and shared a cell with Rory O'Connor. It was from this cell that he said goodbye to Rory as he was taken out to be executed. On the same night Peadar O'Donnell's cellmate had been Liam Mellows.
Sean told me that on the night they came to take Rory out for his execution both of them thought Rory would be sent to the Seychelles, which was what the British were doing with people who were giving them trouble at that time.
Rory had two golden guineas on him which had been given to him as a present by Kevin O'Higgins six months before, when Rory was best man at O'Higgins's wedding. Sean suggested he sew them into the pockets of his trousers in case they could be of use to him to bribe warders in foreign prisons so he might escape.
Rory O'Connor, after his execution, was buried with those guineas in his possession. They had, in effect, been given him by the same Minister for Justice who had consented to his execution order.Friday, October 25
TODAY I walked around the Dublin Castle yard trying to find the record office. There seems to be nobody there. One feels enveloped by the atmosphere of an imperial past and I think that some of the characters who are in my play probably suffered in the Castle yard at the hands of the then occupiers. A lot of the stones look as if they would have been good to bounce Paddies' skulls off.
Inside, I look up the cabinet minutes for December 7, 1922, to see what they had to say about the awesome decision taken that night. I find, to my astonishment, a number of totally insignificant matters dealt with, but no reference whatsoever to the executions. All debate about them must have been excised.
November 8 - Opening Night.
SEAN MacBride arrives, looking very well, with Catriona; Peadar O'Donnell and Norah Harkin. Also Douglas and Dorothy Gageby. Hundreds of pictures taken as we're sitting around together. I've never seen, in my life, so many photographers wanting to get stuff.
Eventually got in to the play. The Mulcahys, Risteard and Sean (sons of General Richard Mulcahy, Chief of Staff, Volunteers 1919-21), were there and were quite charming. There had been a mischievous and untrue rumour put around the town that the play was an attempt to downgrade their father, but I think it was courageous of them to come, a chip off the old block, or perhaps chips off the old block.
Went over to Rory Furlong, Brendan Behan's step-brother, and Christy O'Neill who had been interned in the Curragh during World War II with his brother Mattie. Christy feels the play came down too heavily on the side of the Free State. He wanted the argument to be made against the Free State. I said I wasn't interested in arguing, I had just dealt with the facts.
Rory was delighted.
"Game ball, oul' son."
Monday, November 11
AT THE Peacock tonight stands the little man with the trilby hat. Introductions over, and my irritation put aside, I become the captivated listener as he tells me his story.
The little man says he knows who shot Sean Hales, the TD whose death was the cause of the executions.
"How do you know?"
"I was the Intelligence Officer for the anti-Treaty forces during that time and I took the official report from the man who had just shot him. It was about an hour or two after it happened."
I was dumbfounded. It has always been accepted that the killer was someone who had received a direct order from the Dublin Brigade (anti-Treaty). So firm was this belief that Noel Lemass (brother of Sean Lemass, later Taoiseach) was shot illegally by the Free State army in June 1923 after the Civil War ended, as it had been thought (wrongly) he was responsible.
I told the little man I would see him after the show and agreed a precise meeting place if by any chance I should miss him. I left the theatre hotfoot and bought a school copybook in a newspaper shop in Abbey Street. Then I came back and waited in the foyer of the Peacock to collar the old chap as he came down the stairs from the theatre.
As soon as I had him seated I asked him to tell me who was the killer who had made the report to him. He said it was a young man called Owen Donnelly who came from Glasnevin.
"Who ordered him to do it?" I asked.
"No one gave him an order," he said. "At that time the general orders issued by Liam Lynch were for anybody to shoot TDs or Senators if they could." He said Donnelly was a rather girlish-looking, fair-haired fellow who had been a very good scholar in O'Connell Schools. The little man said he had also been at O'Connell's with Donnelly. Donnelly was of a good background. His brother was a chemist in Cork and his father was a civil servant in the Custom House.
He (Sean Caffrey was his name) was in the main room of the Intelligence Centre when Donnelly came in shortly after the killing, on the afternoon of December 7, 1922. I asked Caffrey what was his reaction when he heard Sean Hales had been killed.
"I was delighted," he said and then gave a little chuckle, as if reminiscing over something which he particularly enjoyed.
"Donnelly was carrying on the fight," he said. "There are no rules in war. The winner dictates the rules."
I shivered. He said Donnelly was five feet seven in height. He said he (Caffrey) had been Adjutant of an ASU (Active Service Unit) and was now a retired civil servant from the Department of Local Government and lived in a pleasant suburban road in Dundrum.
Caffrey is an unusual little man. When I offered him free tickets for the Abbey he said he didn't need them. He said he had a pension and he was a confirmed theatre-goer.
What one finds extraordinary is what people can do in a war and then, afterwards, be able to justify to themselves. I think it's an attitude so difficult to grasp in peacetime; how Ireland actually got her freedom, and the calibre of the people who survived to hold on to it.
After I left Sean Caffrey I took down the script of the play and reread the last passage in it, the description of the officer on guard of what actually happened at the execution of the four men on the morning of December 8, 1922. I thought of the enormity of civil war, a fight against brothers, and how even an understandable mistake can have the most terrible consequences. Execution, after all, is just a word, a cipher for death. The reality, as the officer's description shows, was an altogether more shocking history.
Officer on Guard: At 7.30am the prisoners were brought out with the chaplain into the prison yard. They were placed against the prison wall. The four prisoners were blindfolded, although Rory O'Connor specifically asked not to be blindfolded. Joseph McKelvey said: "Goodbye, boys, and God bless everybody."
At 8am the officer in charge of the firing squad gave the order to fire. The majority of those in the firing squad aimed at Rory O'Connor. We had detailed five members to fire at each prisoner but this didn't happen. Rory O'Connor fell dead immediately. There were so many bullets in him that his clothes went on fire. None of the other prisoners were dead after the first volley. Two of them were on the ground. I walked over and gave them the coup de grace by revolver.
While I was doing this, Joe cried to the Medical Officer: "For Christ's sake, kill me, Doc."
The doctor, seeing that I was standing in a daze, pulled me away from the other men and grabbed me by my Sam Browne belt and pulled me down until I was close to Joe McKelvey, who said: "Another one."
I then shot him in the chest through the paper target. But it wasn't enough and he repeated: "Another one." This I gave him, and I was satisfied he was dead.
Ulick O'Connor is preparing a sequel to his best-selling Diaries 1970-1981, 'A Cavalier Irishman'. The new volume will cover 1981-2001