As of the 2018 release from the Military Service (1916-1923) Pensions Collection (MSPC) files relating to 73 of the 81 executed between 17 November 1922 and 30 May 1923 during the Irish Civil War are now available. Files of any type relating to the remaining 8 Civil War executions remain to be found.
This post will look mainly at the background to the creation of these files, their purpose and the type of material contained within. It will concentrate on those files created under the Army Pensions Acts and will very briefly consider some of that information and the insights provided and questions raised by these files.
The genesis for the files relating to Erskine Childers (DOD/A15296-E4; DOD/2/15983 (A/7627) and DOD/P/387) and Peter Cassidy (MD31236) differ from those for the other 71. Childers’ files were Department of Defence files created in the context of his arrest and execution and its aftermath. The file relating to Cassidy was created as the result of an application for the posthumous award to him of a Service (1917-1921) Medal by his sister.
The files relating to the other 71 were created as a result of applications under the Army Pensions Acts from relatives of the deceased seeking allowances or gratuities as their dependents. Thus the files relating to Childers and Cassidy, and the information and documentation contained within them, differ greatly from the rest.
Applicants claiming as dependents under the Army Pensions Acts had a number of hurdles to cross. There was no automatic reward from the Fianna Fáil government which brought in the Army Pensions Acts of 1932 and 1937 that facilitated most of the claims relating to the executed and to the Republican dead generally. Firstly applicants had to prove they were eligible relatives under the legislation. Eligible relatives were as follows: mothers of the deceased; fathers of the deceased over 60 years of age; a widow of the deceased who had not since remarried; a son under the age of 18; an unmarried daughter under the age of 21; a brother who was either under 18 years of age or permanently invalided; a sister who was unmarried and under 21 years of age or unmarried and permanently invalided; and grandparents. Any other type of relative – step mothers, aunts, uncles, cousins etc. – was not eligible. Also excluded were mothers if the deceased child was illegitimate.
Eligible relatives had further hurdles to cross:
- Deceased had to have been a member of one of the organisations specified under the Act – Óglaigh na hÉireann (IRA), Irish Volunteers, Citizen Army, Na Fianna Éireann, Hibernian Rifles or Cumann na mBan.
- Death had to have arisen either while on, or as a result of, active service for the organisation.
- Death could not been due to negligence on the part of the deceased. Finally the applicant(s) had to be able to prove dependency on the deceased.
All of these qualifying criteria had to be investigated and approved in the case of each individual applicant and their deceased relative by the Military Service Registration Board (MSRB) and the Army Pensions Board (APB) before a recommendation for an award to be granted was issued by the Minister for Defence to the Minister for Finance and his Department for final approval. Only then was the allowance or gratuity paid out. Nor was Finance’s approval a formality. Indeed, from the evidence on the files in the Collection generally, these politically sensitive and emotive dependents’ applications were a source of much friction between the Departments and their respective ministers in the 1930s and beyond.
The MSRB would contact references provided by the applicant to verify the deceased’s membership of the required organisation(s), their service, and the circumstances surrounding their death. If the applicant resided within the State the Army Pensions Board would, initially through Customs and Excise officers, and later through local Social Welfare officers, as well as occasionally through an officer of their own such as Thomas Markham, Secretary of the Army Pensions Board and himself a veteran of the struggle, interview the applicant, investigate the circumstances and means of the family/families of the applicant and deceased, and ascertain the degree of dependency, if any, of the applicant(s) on the deceased. If the applicant(s) resided outside the jurisdiction clergymen, policemen or other officials of that state might be requested by the Army Pensions Board to provide the necessary information. Alternatively the relevant Irish Legation or Consulate might handle matters.
In the case of applications from Northern Ireland, unsurprisingly, officers or employees of that State were bypassed. Sympathetic Roman Catholic clergymen or private citizens were instead approached to carry out the interviews/investigations.
The APB would also, where an applicant’s invalidity was in question, oversee and/or organise the necessary medical investigations and examinations.
The documentation created as a result of these investigations is what makes up these files. However a few further points of explanation and clarification need to be made at this stage. Firstly it was not possible to source all of the documentation created in all of the 71 cases. Potentially significant documentation remains to be sourced for 5 applications. Secondly, if an application was found to fail any of the qualifying criteria, investigations into the other qualifying criteria might not always proceed.
All that said significant and compelling documentation and information has been found in the vast majority of the 71 cases. Previously unknown information regarding the deceased and their families are now available to researchers for the first time.
The remainder of this post will look very briefly at just some of this information regarding the executed. The number of cases among the 71 where an award was made; their occupations; the rank/position within the anti-Treaty forces of the executed; the units the deceased served with; and the places of birth or residence given for them on the files.
In 10 of the 71 cases the applications were unsuccessful. For 8 of these 10 the claim fell either through an inability on the part of the applicant to prove dependency, or because the applicant was ineligible. In the other two cases, those in respect of Luke Burke (DP903) and Michael Grealy (DP1835), the deceased were judged not to have been “…killed while engaged in military service…” In other words the actions that led to their arrest and executions were not officially sanctioned IRA actions. Traditionally of course neither Burke nor Grealy have been regarded among the 77 Republican executed.
Interestingly the files reveal that question marks also hung over the cases of William Conroy (DP147), Patrick Cunningham (DP3916) and Columb Kelly (52APB4023) of 1 Offaly Brigade – all executed on 26 January 1923 at Birr Castle and traditionally seen as part of the “77”. Statements on William Conroy’s file from former Offaly IRA officers Sean McGuinness and Michael Galvin indicate that all three were suspended and awaiting IRA court-martial in relation to alleged indiscipline at the time of their arrest. Indeed McGuinness goes even further and states that the three “…committed a couple of minor robberies…” during this suspension which led to their arrest and executions. In any case their activities and IRA memberships were recognised and awards were granted to their dependents. Meanwhile, not even strong representations from Roscommon Fianna Fáil T. D. and former IRA member P. J. O’Dowd, nor a note from a departmental official forwarding O’Dowd’s verbal comment to him that Michael Grealy’s activities had been “…unofficial but authorised…”, could persuade the MSRB in Grealy’s case.
Information regarding the deceased’s occupation had to be produced to allow the question of dependency to be fully investigated. The evidence produced indicates that the executed came from a wide range of backgrounds and included farmers, farm labourers, civil engineers, clerks, apprentice tinsmiths, insurance agents, blacksmiths, blacksmiths helpers and railway engine cleaners to name but a few.
We also receive an interesting, though not definitive insight into the relative ranks or positions within the anti-Treaty forces held by those executed (See Table 1). The information regarding rank/position and unit membership is as certified by the MSRB for the time of their capture and/or death or, in the cases of Childers and Cassidy from other sources of verification on their files. Luke Burke and Michael Grealy, whose service and membership were not certified for the time of their deaths, are listed as civilians. Both did have some IRA service – Grealy’s was recognised up to the Truce and Burke’s service was recognised for 1922. “Active Service Unit Member” is the term used by the MSRB for 6 individuals at the time of their capture and/or execution even though the IRA nominal rolls in the MSPC show more than one of them holding officers rank at least at Company level at the outbreak of the Civil War outside of the Active Service Unit (ASU). Where certification or verification for a rank or position was not found on the file the individuals are listed as “Unknown”.
What is instantly notable is that, even excluding the ASU members, a clear majority – 43 – held Non Commissioned Officer (NCO) rank or lower while those at Company officer level and above accounted only for 19 of those included in the collection. Even were all ASU members, the unknown and the remaining 8 for whom files have not been sourced, found to be officers, which is very unlikely, the fact would still remain that the majority of the executed came from the “other ranks”. Given that there was no shortage of troublesome mid ranking and senior IRA officers available for execution in the internment camps and prisons at the time, it is to say the least interesting that this should be so.
The breakdown of the executed by place of birth, location of execution and IRA Brigade is of interest – see Tables 2 and 3. Unit designation is as certified by the MSRB and is shown by Brigade where possible. Executions took place in 17 counties of individuals from 21 of the 32 counties. The high numbers of those executed who were either originally from, or served with IRA units in counties Kerry, Dublin or Galway is perhaps not surprising. It is interesting that Offaly and Kildare are so highly represented while counties such as Mayo and Sligo are completely absent. Especially given the casualties inflicted on and difficulties posed to Government forces by IRA units and individuals from those two counties.
The case of English born British Army deserter Reginald Walter Stenning is of special interest. Stenning had no obvious connection with Ireland. Liam Mellows (DP10200) too was born in England but he had Irish parents and was brought up in Ireland. Incidentally Stenning is one of seven executed who, according to material on their files, were former British servicemen. The others are: Patrick Mahony (DP2943), Thomas Murray (DP8396), John Murphy (DP8258), Michael J. Fitzgerald (DP3451), Thomas Gibson (DP1720) and Erskine Childers.
These are just brief illustrations of the type of information that can be found in the files of the Civil War executed and indeed in the files of casualties from all the conflicts of the revolutionary period. There is much in these files for researchers and academics to grapple with for some time to come and to prove that the MSPC is an essential source for any serious student of the Irish Revolution.
A version of this article first appeared in History Ireland Issue 26 (March/April 2018): volume 26.