One hundred years ago today Patrick Hennessy wrote his final letters before he was executed the following morning with his friend and fellow IRA man Con McMahon. Joe Ó Muircheartaigh looks at the bravery of the Clooney man’s words, who at the time of his death was secretary of the Clare County GAA Board.
It wasn’t until the last Wednesday of October in 1924 that Patrick Hennessy and Con McMahon were given the dignity of a proper burial — a resting place among their own people in Clooney, over 21 months after they had been executed in Limerick Gaol by an Irish Army firing squad.
The bodies of the two volunteers had been kept at the gaol after their execution, with one theory being that the Bishop of Killaloe, who was a staunch supporter of the Cumann na nGaedheal government headed up by his personal friend, WT Cosgrove, refused to allow the bodies to be buried on consecrated ground in Clare.
It would not have been out of character, while it would be in keeping with the pastoral letter issued by the Irish hierarchy in October 1922, which forbade access to sacraments to those republicans who were active in the Civil War.
However, when the bodies were finally released to relatives on 28 October 1924, even if Bishop Fogarty dared object, nothing was going to stop the Hennessy and McMahon families from bringing their loved ones home.
“The bodies of Cornelius McMahon and Patrick Hennessy of Carrahan were at Limerick handed over to relatives for re-interment at their native place,” reported The Freeman’s Journal.
“A crowd assembled outside the barracks where the remains had lain and numbers of young men proceeded to carry out military evolutions.
“A warning by the military was ignored, with the result that five of them, named Blake, Bray, Dorgan, Kelly and Slattery were taken into custody. The remains were removed by motor to Carrahan,” the report added.
When they were buried the following day, The Last Post was played while Sinn Féin TD for Clare, Brian O’Higgins delivered the graveside oration. “Con McMahon and Paddy Hennessy died for Ireland,” he said.
“Whenever you tell their story of their fight and sacrifices for Ireland to the young children of Clare, do not forget to tell them always that they fought and died for Ireland.
“These two young Clooney soldiers, and their comrades in all the graveyards of Ireland, shall be for all time the true leaders of our race, because as long as we have these grades in our trust, as long as we have Irish hearts and minds, we can never forsake the cause for which they fought and died,” he added.
For the families, it brought some closure, for the nightmare 21 months following their arrest, court-martial and execution. This nightmare began on Tuesday, January 16 1923 when both men were arrested.
The official statement from the headquarters of the Irish Army Western Command in Limerick, which was headed up by Clareman, General Michael Brennan, said, “Con McMahon and Patrick Hennessy arrested at Carrahan, were charged before a committee of officers with being implicated in the destruction of the railway at Ardsollus on Sunday 14th; with being in possession of article looted from Ardsollus Station on the same date and with being in possession of ammunition”.
“Both prisoners were found guilty and sentenced to death. The sentence was carried out this morning at 8 o’clock in Limerick,” the communique added.
That’s 100 years this Friday morning, January 20 2023 — with the letters that Patrick Hennessy wrote on the eve of his execution being a graphic and poignant reminder of his thoughts in the last hours of his life.
One letter is addressed to ‘my darling Jennie, Pady (sic), Vincent & Joe’ — this could be Con McMahon’s sister and brothers, Jane, Patrick, Vincent and Joe.
“Myself and Con were tried by court-martial, found guilty and sentenced to death on the most frivolous evidence,” he wrote.
“We were tried at midnight on Wednesday night — called from our cells when we were asleep, got no chance to defend ourselves, our lives were sworn away. I forgive them from the bottom of my heart, for there is a God to judge them on the last day as well as there is to judge me.
“Me and Con are in separate cells. Fr McCready came to see us here tonight and gave us his blessing; Jennie darling do not shed tears for us. If you do, let them be tears of joy for we are going straight to Heaven. I know it is God’s will. He put us into this world for to take us away again,” he added.
Continuing, he said, “Our death will do more in the eyes of the world than if we lived forever. Say goodbye to our chums. Sure everybody must die someday, we know that, but they can’t kill our spirit, that shall be free. They can only take the life from our body. I feel in good cheer, and I think I will be able to face the terrible ordeal.”
Hennessy’s second letter was to “John and all the boys” and was discovered by then Clooney NS principal Frances O’Halloran before her retirement in 2000.
“We are dying for Ireland still true to the Republic to the last,” he wrote. “Money would not buy us. I am leaving my cigarettes to be divided among the Clare section 17 boxes. A cigarette to each one will go a long way. It will only be a little token in remembrance of me.
“Distribute them as far as they will go and say a prayer for me. I think it is your voice I hear singing, as for me I am in the best of cheer, and expect to face death like a soldier. I forgive my enemies even those who swore my life away. I forgive them from the bottom of my heart for there is a God to judge them as well as me, seeing that we have to die someday it is a thing no one can avoid.
“Fr. Mick Brody, Quin came to see Con and myself tonight (Tuesday). I am in right good cheer knowing that I am going to heaven. They can only kill my body my spirit will still live, though the cold and silent grave will fold her arms to receive me back to mother earth from which I came.
“Say goodbye to all the boys for me. It is goodbye for evermore on this earth. But we will all meet in heaven. Do not shed tears for me. If you do, let them be tears of joy for there is joy in my heart tonight knowing that I will be with god tomorrow night,” he added.
Patrick Hennessy was just 29 years of age; Con McMahon was just two years his junior at 27. They wouldn’t be the only Claremen executed in 1923, while the deaths of the two GAA men would have far-reaching consequences for Gaelic Games in County Clare.
The commemoration takes place at 1pm, Sunday, January 22