Decency of IRA man stopped cycle of killing during World War II
A garda's murder 75 years ago could have led to even more bloodshed but for an act of humanity
The murder of Detective Sergeant Denis O'Brien, near his Dublin home on September 9, 1942 had severe repercussions, leading to the execution of Charlie Kerins, the young leader of the IRA. It might also have had further horrific consequences, were it not for the intervention of one those wanted for the murder.
Kerins, who was born in Tralee on January 23, 1918, joined the IRA in 1940. He rose precipitately within its ranks, largely due to the efficiency of the security forces.
After Eamon de Valera came to power in 1932, Ned Broy was appointed Garda Commissioner and given the task of recruiting some former Republicans to combat the danger of a Blueshirt coup d'etat. These recruits - dubbed 'Broy Harriers' -later turned their attention to the IRA when it sought to collude with Nazi Germany during World War II.
Those Broy Harriers who had fought on the Republican side during the Civil War, were easily able to get inside information on the IRA. Denis O'Brien had fought in 1916 and was one of the Republicans occupying the Four Courts at the start of the Civil War. He remained active in the IRA until 1933, when he joined the Broy Harriers and became the bane of active Republicans.
Around 10am on September 9, 1942, O'Brien was driving from his home in Ballyboden, Co Dublin, when a bullet shattered his windscreen. The attack was witnessed by a 12-year-old neighbour - Justin Keating, who later served as a cabinet minister in the 1973-77 coalition government.
"I was less than 20 yards away and frozen by surprise and fear," Keating recalled in his book Nothing is Written in Stone. O'Brien jumped from his car and prepared to shoot at his assailants. "Behind his back and in my full sight, a man stood up with what I now know was a sub-machine gun," Keating added. "I could see the bullets hitting my friend. I could see him fall." He was killed by a shot in the head. Keating was the only witness.
Gardai circulated details of eight Republicans they wished to question - Kerry men - Michael Quille, of Listowel, and Charlie Kerins and Tadhg Drummond, both from Tralee.
The IRA was in turmoil at the time. Six different Chiefs of Staff were jailed between June 1941 and October 1942. A month after the O'Brien murder, Kerins was appointed Chief of Staff. He had been in the IRA less than two years.
Michael Quille was arrested in Belfast and handed over to gardai at the Border. He was charged with O'Brien's murder before the Special Criminal Court in January 1943. Sean MacBride, supported by Noel Hartnett and Con Lehane, defended Quille and secured his acquittal.
Kerins remained at large until the early hours of June 17, 1944. He was arrested by Detective Sergeant Pat O'Connell while asleep in an upstairs room of the home of Dr Kathleen Farrell, at 50 Upper Rathmines Road. Guns and ammunition were found under his bed.
Kerins went on trial before the Special Criminal Court on October 2, 1944. He refused to recognise the court, or to be legally represented.
He was given time to consider whether he wished to obtain legal representation. "You could have adjourned for six years as far as I am concerned," he told the court in rejecting the offer. He was duly found guilty and sentenced to death.
It was only then that he accepted legal representation from those who had successfully defended Quille. They might well have been able to undermine the prosecution case at the original trial, but now it was too late for Kerins.
"Having contemptuously refused assistance, he could not now rely on the fact he had not been represented," Mr Justice O'Byrne ruled, and the Court of Criminal Appeal rejected his appeal on November 15, 1944.
Permission to appeal to the Supreme Court was refused. The Taoiseach was determined to make an example of Kerins by executing him as a criminal, rather than shot as a soldier by a firing squad- like the five other IRA men executed during the years of World War II.
Tom Pierrepoint, the elderly British hangman, was brought over from England to hang Kerins in Mountjoy jail on December 1, 1944. It was the last of his 25 Irish hangings.
Young Keating was very upset by the execution. "I loathe the death penalty," he later explained but added, rather pointedly, "I do believe the verdict was correct."
The IRA decided to retaliate by killing Detective Sergeant O'Connell for arresting Kerins. Tadhg Drummond, who had been third on the wanted list for the O'Brien murder, quietly warned Con Kennedy, the Town Clerk in Tralee, that the IRA planned to murder him in his home at 28 Sandford Avenue, off the South Circular Road, a few weeks later on Christmas Eve.
Kennedy's wife had been reared in the same house as her aunt, Drummond's mother. They were more like sisters, hence, the warning.
O'Connell was given the information on the understanding he would use it only to protect himself and his family. He sent his family to Tralee for Christmas, while he moved into Dublin Castle. His next-door neighbour reported that a group of men had called to his house at 10pm on Christmas Eve. O'Connell and his family lived within Dublin Castle until he retired in the 1960s.
Drummond had provided a service to both human decency and his IRA colleagues.