Ahead of a special commemoration at Clooney Cemetery at 1pm on Sunday, January 23, at which he will be the guest orator, Dr Tomás Mac Conmara writes about the controversial Civil War executions of Clare republicans, Con McMahon and Paddy Hennessy.
Readers of the Clare Champion on 3rd March 1923 were informed of the outcome of a Clare GAA Convention, held over the previous week. It was announced that the new County Secretary of the GAA in Clare, a position of some significance, was twenty-three-year-old, P.V. Murphy, better known as Vincent, from Knockanimana, outside Ennis. No reference was made to the man he replaced.
Five weeks earlier, when it carried a brief report on eleven Anti-Treaty IRA prisoners, executed by the Free State on 20th January, the Clare Champion referred to two men shot in Limerick as ‘C McMahon’ and ‘P. Hennessy’, with no elaboration on their identity.
The men, both from Clooney, were IRA Volunteers, Con McMahon and Patrick (better known as Paddy) Hennessy. The latter, when he faced a Free State firing squad at 8am on 20th January, was County Secretary of Clare GAA. It was his death, that resulted in the above GAA Convention.
Hennessy had been elected County Secretary in January 1922 to replace Tom McGrath at a meeting attended by Meelick IRA officer, Austin Brennan.
A year later, Brennan with his brother Michael, was seen in Limerick jail, overseeing the selection Hennessy and McMahon for execution. Such was the brutal intimacy of a Civil War that would see former comrades face each other in an ever-worsening conflict that outstripped in its savagery, even that of the previous War against the combined British forces.
While public reporting of the GAA Convention of January 1923, made no reference to Paddy Hennessy, oral tradition indicates that the meeting had witnessed tense exchanges after Fr. (later Canon) Mick Hamilton, refused to accept a motion of sympathy to the family of Paddy Hennessy.
That led to the formation of an Anti-Treaty GAA Board, which survived for almost two years, making Clare, the only county in Ireland with two GAA County Boards. Although the polarisation within Clare GAA would officially end in 1924, the divisions resulting from the Civil War would endure, often just beneath the surface.
The experience of Hennessy and McMahon and the way in which their names were dealt with in the press, is also a striking example of the enigmatic relationship between the privately remembered and publicly addressed memories of the Irish Civil War.
By the time of their executions, both Paddy Hennessy and Con McMahon were experienced and senior republican figures. Culturally, both had been also active within the county and were recognised for their contribution to in particular, Gaelic games.
By 1923, Paddy Hennessy was a Captain in the Clooney IRA Company of the 1st Battalion, Mid Clare Brigade. In addition to his role as County Secretary, he was also noted as a hurler with some skill.
In early 1914, as Clare hurlers resolved to mount a serious challenge on the championship, Hennessy was on a Mid Clare hurling selection. The Mid Clare side who faced a South Clare outfit, contained many players who later that year, would represent their county at the highest stage, including the Power brothers, Amby and Joe, as well as Willie Considine and Séamus Spellissy from Ennis.
The match was part of a tournament organised by the Quin Temperance Society in order to help prepare for the Munster Semi-final against Limerick. Had Hennessy been successful in making the Clare hurling panel in 1914, he would have played on an All-Ireland winning team, with men like Tom McGrath, who in the Civil War took the opposing side and who he had replaced as County Secretary.
Hennessy’s Commanding Officer in Clooney was twenty-seven-year-old, Con McMahon, who had been one of its most active Volunteers since 1917. McMahon had participated in several attacks on the British forces, including the capture of Ruan Barracks, where he was one of three section commanders.
The Clooney IRA, who almost exclusively took an Anti-Treaty position, had been introduced to the severity and gravity of the Civil War when one of their comrades, Joe Considine, was shot dead in the first exchange of gun fire at the Four Courts in Dublin on 28 June 1922.
At the funeral that followed, both Con and Paddy were present, with Con’s image captured in a photograph, at the head of his comrade’s coffin, casting a look of resolute determination. He likely knew at that moment, that the following period would see tremendous tension, violence, and possible death. So, it became, as the Civil War took on an increasingly hostile and deadly nature.
McMahon, Hennessy and the Clooney IRA, maintained an active presence during the Civil War, blowing up Latoon bridge just weeks after Considine’s death. On 19th August, they were involved in attacking Crusheen Free State barracks, before blowing up Caherlohan Bridge.
July, August and September 1922 saw the most intense phase of fighting within County Clare, resulting in several fatalities across the county. The deaths in action of republican fighters including John McSweeney, Patrick O’Dea, John O’Gorman, Michael Keane and Patrick Keating, damaged morale within the Anti-Treaty IRA, particularly in west Clare.
When Peadar O’Loughlin, one of the Mid Clare IRA Brigade’s most experienced officers died in the McCormack home at Tullaha, Kilfenora, following an earlier wounding, the impetus for fighting in that area largely evaporated with his last breath.
The period also saw the killing of several Free State soldiers from outside the County within Clare, including Cadet Thomas Brown who was shot dead at Clonderlaw Bridge near Kilrush and Patrick Comber, who died after an ambush on the Red Cross Ambulance he was driving as part of a Free State cortege, near Ennis.
Martin O’Loughlin from Pound Lane, Ennistymon was badly wounded in his own local area, while serving with the Free State forces in late August 1922. He died eight months later in a Dublin hospital. In 2010, I spoke to his son, Paddens O’Loughlin, who was born only months before his father’s death. Paddens lamented that his father was shot in the head during an ambush by Anti-Treaty IRA.
The summer of 1922 also saw much of the Anti-Treaty leadership in Clare arrested. Pat Houlihan, a staff officer of the 1st Western IRA Division and one of East Clare’s most active Volunteers, was arrested in September 1922, a month after his comrade, Seán Moroney had been captured by Free State forces in Tulla.
Arrests continued through July and escalated in August, September and October. During one enormous sweep undertaken by Free State forces, dozens of arrests took place in Ennistymon, Kilrush, Moyasta, Ennis and Kilmaley.
By late 1922, such had been the aggressive actions against republicans in Clare, the Irish independent joyfully carried the report of a “Visitor to Clare” that “the whole of Clare is now entirely cleared of irregulars”.
Their removal of republican leaders from the conflict in the county, reduced the capacity of Anti-Treaty forces within Clare and also elevated those senior IRA men still at liberty as targets, including McMahon and Hennessy.
Special legislation came into force on 15th October 1922 which allowed the Free State Army Council to impose the death penalty for a wide range of offences, including possession of arms or material assistance to republican forces.
Exactly a week later, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church issued a Pastoral Letter, putting its support behind the policy of executions, throwing its immense weight behind the Free State.
After what one newspaper called the ‘iron hand methods of exterminating the rebel element’, those on the republican side, found themselves increasingly isolated.
Early in the conflict, Piaras Beaslaí, the Free State’s Director of Publicity coined the term ‘Irregulars’ as a derogatory term for the Anti-Treaty IRA, which publicly challenged their legitimacy. Subsequently, this description was used almost excusably in the press across Ireland, when referring to republicans.
It is worth noting that in the press coverage of the Pastoral letter, no mention was given to the Military courts or the legislation allowing for the death penalty.
In November and December 1922, as the horrors of executions began, most executed prisoners had been held in Kilmainham and Mountjoy Gaols in Dublin. However, from January 1923, Kevin O’Higgins, then Minister for Justice, strongly argued that executions should be carried out in every county, in order to maximise their impact.
Higgins’ desire led in January 1923, to a diffusion of death, and the execution of thirty-four republican prisoners in Dundalk, Roscrea, Carlow, Birr, Portlaoise, Roscrea, Athlone, Tralee and of course, Limerick.
This would be the greatest number of executions carried out in a single month during the Civil War. The number for January alone exceeded the number executed by the British during the entire War of Independence (twenty-four).
As 1923 had dawned, the Anti-Treaty IRA found themselves increasingly isolated. While support was still available, the turning of the state and church machinery against them, cowed many of the community from offering support, even when they may have so desired.
In addition, the Anti-Treaty forces were vastly out armed by the Free State. While it was estimated that the republicans began the war with as little as 6,780 rifles, the Free State had received delivery from Britain of 27,400 rifles, as well as 249 machine guns, by late 1922.
On the first day of 1923, an ambush on an Anti-Treaty IRA column by Free State forces at Kyle, County Wexford, led to the death of one IRA fighter. Three days later, a column of sixty-five Anti-Treaty fighters from Cork and Kerry, under Tom Barry, attacked Millstreet, Cork, under cover of darkness, using machine guns. Two Free State soldiers were killed and several more wounded.
With the war continuing to intensify, the Free State recommenced its policy of executions on 8th January, when five men were executed in Kilmainham, for their role in an ambush on Free State forces in near Leixlip the previous December.
In Dundalk prison, five days later, three more were executed, this time charged with the possession of arms. Outside, Free State troops fired on supporters of the prisoners, who had assembled to say the rosary.
In an application of Kevin O’Higgins desire to see executions spread across the country, Munster saw its first executions on 15th January, when in Roscrea, four men, including Patrick McNamara from Ballina were put to death by firing squad in the courtyard of the town’s 13th century castle.
The destruction of railways had been a key strategy of the Anti-Treaty IRA, in their attempt to undermine the functioning of the Free State government.
The Great Southern and Western Railway (GSWR) reported that over the final six months of 1922, at least 375 lines had been damaged, forty-two engines derailed, 258 bridges demolished, and eighty-three signal cabins destroyed.
At Ard Sollus Railway station, near Quin on 13th January 1923, the IRA tore up over forty rails and cut down Signal Cabin posts, before burning several wagons.
The following day, a unit, which included Con McMahon and Paddy Hennessy, removed stationery and cash, before a further signal pole was cut, and 120 feet of railway line torn up. In Clare, at the same time as the attack on Ard Sollus, rail destruction was reported across the county at Miltown Malbay, Quilty, Lahinch, Doonbeg, Ennistymon and elsewhere.
Following the action on Ard Solus, Hennessy and McMahon, the latter’s brother Vincent, as well as Jack Darcy, a native of Cooraclare, made their way deep into the townland of Lassana, where they sheltered in a dugout, known to the republican movement in Clooney.
There, they were supported by trusted families and contacts, including the Ireton family. As the men settled in the dugout, inside the Ireton home, twenty-nine-year-old Mary Ireton, was in the final moments of labour. Her son Patrick would be born later that morning.
While all this was taking place, unknown to the hiding republicans, Free State forces were making their way towards Lassana and their position. It is evident that they had been given accurate information regarding their whereabouts.
Patricia Hayward, the daughter of Patrick Ireton, the baby born that same morning, who has researched the episode over seventeen years, has detailed elsewhere how her uncle Patrick ‘Bo’ Ireton, witnessed the capture of the four republicans, while taking a walk.
During the arrest, it is apparent that Paddy Hennessy made a bid to escape and was shot and wounded in the leg. The Free State forces claimed that fifty-two rounds of .303 ammunition were found in their possession.
However, days later, Hennessy wrote to his younger sister Theresa, claiming that ‘there was nothing on us but afterwards the military found stuff in a cock of haw and charged us with it, but we are innocent.’
On the same day that the men were arrested, in the west of the county, twenty-year old, Patrick Nugent, a native of Clonmoher in Bodyke, died after he was shot in the neck, when a party of Free State forces he was attached to, was ambushed by Anti-Treaty IRA men in Kilmihil, while searching for billets in the area.
Nugent had joined the Free State army in July 1922 and had been posted to Tulla, Clifden and Connemara in Galway before his death in Kilmihil. In the days that followed, six Free State soldiers were killed, while the derailing of a railway line near Ardert in Kerry resulted in a train crash and the death of two drivers.
With thousands of republicans interned, it was not over duly concerning for their families, that the men had been taken into custody. However, they were not aware that, with the extension of executions to regional counties, it seemed necessary to draw that death into the counties of Limerick and Clare.
By selecting Clare men, imprisoned in Limerick, it was perhaps hoped that an impact would be felt across both areas, among Anti-Treaty activists and supporters. Michael Brennan, who controlled the 1st Western Division which included county Clare and South Galway, was the most powerful Free State officer operating in the area.
His animosity towards many of the Mid Clare IRA Officers had been well known, and reciprocated. During the War of Independence, there had been significant tension between Brennan and Frank Barrett, who in the Civil War, became one of the leading figures in the Anti-Treaty side.
With that hostility carrying itself forward into the Civil War, it can be suggested that men under Barrett’s ostensible command in the Mid Clare IRA, may have been higher on the list of potential candidates for execution.
In Limerick Prison on 19th January 1923, Limerick Volunteer Peter O’ Farrell recalled seeing the Brennans, Michael and Austin, in the prison yard. The following morning as Farrell remembered, the Brennans ‘had two of the Clare columns executed’.
Hennessy and McMahon were charged with the destruction of Ard Sollus Railway Station. They were court-martialled by military tribunal in Limerick and were also found guilty of having illegal arms and ammunition, with McMahon’s charge including the ‘depriving a member of the Garda Siochana of their uniform’.
They were informed late on 19th January that they were to be put to death the following day. At 8.00am, Con McMahon and his comrade Paddy Hennessy were taken from their cells and executed by firing squad at Limerick Jail.
On the eve of his execution, both men sat down to write to their family and loved ones. Writing to his brother, Patrick Hennessy addressed ‘Dear Sean, and all the boys’ and revealed the following:
‘Ye hardly knew tonight that Con and myself are to be executed at 8 o’clock tomorrow morning. Found guilty on frivolous evidence, of course, our lives sworn away, but we are dying for Ireland still true to the Republic to the last. Money could not buy us.’
Showing remarkable contentment in his decisions and actions, Paddy continued:
‘As for me I am in the best of spirit and expect to face death like a soldier and a true Irishman … Do not shed tears for me, if you do let them be tears of joy, as there is joy in my heart tonight knowing that I will be with God tomorrow. Goodbye comrades for ever more, P Hennessy.’
One of the concealed tragedies and traumas of the Civil War in Clare, can be seen at the bottom corner of Paddy’s last letter. There, Paddy carefully wrote a short note to ‘My Darling Jenny’.
Jenny McMahon herself was an active member of Cumann na mBan and was Paddy’s sweetheart. She was also Con McMahon’s sister, meaning the shots in Limerick jailed ended both the life of her brother and her first love. In a poignant remark, Paddy lamented: ‘Oh, Jenny little did we think that what we did for sport on November’s night when myself and Con drew the saucer of clay that it was to be our fate’.
The latter referred to a well-known Irish Halloween game, in which four saucers are placed in front of a blindfolded person. If one, as Con McMahon and Paddy Hennessy did, drew the saucer of clay, it was said that they would die within one year. Adding to the sense of pathos and trauma within those letters, is the reality that they would only have been delivered to their families over a week after their sons were shot.
Files at the Military Achieves illustrate how Hennessy’s mother Anne suffered terribly in the aftermath of her son’s execution. Her husband John, devasted by Paddy’s execution, spiralled into drinking, leading to a deterioration of his own health and ‘suffered untold sufferings until his death on 8th October 1932’.
The late Nancy Casey, whose mother Mary was Con McMahon’s sister, reflected on her uncle’s death in an interview undertaken in June 2022. Nancy recalled how Con; ‘wrote to all his siblings and put a lock of his hair in a letter to his mother’ and remembered that ‘for years the letters were kept in a special place in the sitting room of our house.’
As experienced by the Hennessy family, the death of Con had a devastating effect, ‘it had a terrible effect on them. They were never the same after.’
Nancy also underlined how Vincent, Con’s brother was present in Limerick prison and heard the shots that ended his brother’s life. According to Nancy, Vincent ‘wasn’t well for a long-time afterwards.’ Nancy Casey remembered often hearing how Con’s last word was ‘have no revenge’.
It would be late October 1924 before the families of Paddy Hennessey and Con McMahon were allowed to collect their remains at Castle Barracks in Limerick.
When they did return to their native county and place, both Bishop Michael Fogarty, as well as the local Parish Priest of Clooney, refused entry to their remains.
Such incidents deepened considerably, what were already raw wounds for those associated. In January 1930, a large committee was formed to erect a monument within Clooney Graveyard to Hennessy, McMahon and Joe Considine, which would form the site of regular republican commemorations over the following nine decades.
In 1933, twelve-year-old Pat O’Halloran was present when nationally renowned republicans came to Clooney to honour the three republicans:
“Oh yes! I was at it! …. You had Maud Gonne, you had Molly McSwiney, Madge Daly and you had Brian O’Higgins that delivered the oration … he had a fine delivery and articulated very clearly.
“His pronunciation was perfect! They all contributed, mostly in Irish. They all contributed a short contribution to the cause and to the men they were honouring. Oh, there was a huge crowd, and it was a beautiful fine day, Easter Sunday, 1933.”
For O’Halloran these were events that would mean more in later life. In April 1933, his eyes were fixed on the half-crown he had received from an elegant looking woman who had spoken in Clooney.
“I think I was the very youngest who was at that commemoration as a matter of fact. I got a half crown from her [Maud Gonne McBride] as being the youngest and I have it to the present day. I think for the fact that I being the youngest member, she figured out and that’s why she gave me the token. I got a hole drilled in it and a chain in case I’d lose it!”
Over the years, commemorations continued. In some years, no words were said over their graves. In others many stood around and invoked the memory of those men as the patterns of interest fluctuated. For decades, Sinn Féin in Clare led the public remembering. Privately, they were never forgotten. In the centenary year of their execution, it would benefit us all to know their story.