On June 22, 1922, British Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson unveiled a memorial at Liverpool Street Station in London to the 1,200 men of the Great Eastern Railway Company who had died during the Great War.
Shortly after, he was shot on the doorstep of his home by two London-born veterans of that war, men who had become IRA volunteers – Reginald Dunne and Joe O’Sullivan.
Wilson was the first sitting MP to be killed in Britain since Prime Minister Spencer Perceval in 1812. The facts of his shooting are undisputed, but on whose orders did Dunne and O’Sullivan act?
This question has been relevant for a century.
The shooting could only have been ordered at the highest level – and the highest level was Michael Collins, then Commander-in-Chief of the National Army and Chairman of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB).
The IRB was the secret organization to which Dunne belonged, and the night before the assassination he confided his plans to Sam Maguire in the Mooney pub in Holborn. Maguire was the head of the London IRB and the man who had sworn Collins into the organisation.
Wilson’s death infuriated the British government.
Since April 1922, anti-Treaties IRA members had occupied Dublin’s four courts, in defiance of the Provisional Government, which feared that their protest could lead to civil war in Ireland.
In May, Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera, the leaders of the pro and anti-Treaty factions of Sinn Féin, announced a pre-election pact in which they agreed to field candidates for the June 1922 general election in accordance with their respective positions. strengths of the outgoing Dáil.
The British government believed that the Irish electorate was deprived of a real choice. Acceptance of the treaty was a prerequisite for serving in an Irish government, but the covenant gave rise to the possibility that these conditions could be breached.
A copy of the Official IRA Journal A t-Óglách had been found on Dunne. The newspaper was available on newsstands in Ireland, but it was enough for British Prime Minister Lloyd George to attribute the order for the assassination – wrongly, as it turned out – to the anti-Treaty forces occupying the four Classes.
He wrote to Collins in haste that evening: “Her Majesty’s Government cannot consent to the continuance of this state of affairs, and feel entitled to request you formally to bring it to an immediate end.”
On the afternoon of Wilson’s funeral, Winston Churchill (as Colonial Secretary) said publicly in the House of Commons what Lloyd George had told Collins privately.
The occupation of the Four Courts, he said, was a “flagrant violation and defiance of the Treaty.” If it is not terminated…we will consider the treaty to have been formally violated.
It was the ultimatum that forced the hand of the nascent Irish government.
Wilson’s assassination shocked British society to the core. Three American presidents, a French president, a Russian tsar, Italian and Portuguese kings and dozens of German politicians had been killed in the 19th and early 20th centuries. These assassinations occurred in countries without the British tradition of centuries of parliamentary democracy.
“We are all constantly in mortal danger. You just have to trust God,” said a fatalistic Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, years before his assassination in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 plunged Europe into Europe’s greatest war. history up to this date.
Wilson’s shooting was Sarajevo’s moment in Ireland. Without it there would have been no British ultimatum, no bombing of the Four Courts, no civil war. Michael Collins would have lived, and the story of the new Irish state would have been different.
The impact of Wilson’s assassination has been underestimated, due to the assumption that the Civil War would have happened anyway and that his death only hastened the inevitable.
Yet, as IRA commander Florrie O’Donoghue recalled: “Despite six months of talk of the possibility of civil war, no one allowed themselves to believe that it was inevitable, and no plan existed on both sides to carry it out.”
Wilson’s funeral, four days after his murder, was one of the largest London had seen. Despite heavy rain and a strong wind, thousands of mourners, sometimes 10 deep, lined the road from his home at 36 Eaton Place to St Paul’s Cathedral.
The military motorcade was followed by a fleet of cars carrying wreaths from civil and political institutions around the world. The multitudes observed a “respectful silence that was eloquent,” according to a newspaper account.
“I am an Irishman, born in County Longford,” Wilson had said the month before he was shot, but he was a southern trade unionist who saw the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921 as a sell-out to the “gang of the murder”. , as he called the IRA.
Wilson had been the head of the British army, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS), during the last year of the Great War. According to several of his contemporaries, he was one of the men who won this war. He hated what he saw as British appeasement of Irish nationalists, and after his four-year term as CIGS ended in February 1922, he was elected unopposed as Unionist MP for North Down two days later.
Wilson’s assassins had been seriously injured during the war. Dunne’s kneecap had been broken; O’Sullivan lost a leg at Passchendaele and was fitted with an artificial limb.
O’Sullivan was 25 and Dunne 24, but the younger was the more energetic of the two – a leader of men and the commanding officer of the IRA in London. The son of a British army bandleader, Dunne had been drawn to the nationalist cause through traditional Irish music. O’Sullivan’s father, John, was from Bantry, County Cork and was of “old Fenian stock”, according to Joe’s brother Pat, who also served in the IRA.
Dunne and O’Sullivan had been engaged in acts of destruction, execution and arms smuggling on behalf of Ireland, although no man was born or raised there – unlike Wilson.
Given their disability, the attack on Wilson would amount to a suicide mission. Almost inevitably, they were quickly captured as they attempted to flee the scene.
On July 18, 1922, Dunne and O’Sullivan were sentenced to death at the Old Bailey. Most of the press attention that day was fixed on the wedding a short distance from Louis Mountbatten and Edwina Ashley. The Wilson shooting was as shocking an event in its time as the Mountbatten assassination would be in 1979.
On August 10, 1922, Dunne and O’Sullivan were hanged in Wandsworth Prison. Two days later, their handwritten justification for the murder, smuggled out of prison, was published in the Irish Independent.
Wilson had been appointed military adviser to James Craig’s Government of Northern Ireland in March 1922. Dunne and O’Sullivan held Wilson responsible for the “Orange Terror” – the Belfast pogroms against the Catholic population which began in 1920 and reached a new intensity of violence by summer 1922.
The couple did not act of their own volition, as many assumed at the time. They were seasoned soldiers and understood the importance of the chain of command.
In a letter to IRA GHQ written after the July 1921 truce that ended the Revolutionary War, Dunne said he had tried to instill in his fellow volunteers “strict discipline, secrecy, cheerful obedience to orders and punctuality”.
Nor was the killing of members of the British establishment a rogue enterprise – it had been the policy of the Sinn Féin executive since the conscription crisis of March 1918.
Shortly after, Cathal Brugha went to the House of Commons with a Mauser pistol concealed in his trouser leg to assess the possibility of shooting the Government bench from the visitors’ gallery.
Dunne gathered information on the movements of British cabinet members and was at a meeting before the truce where the possibility of shooting Wilson was discussed.
Joe O’Sullivan recognized the route from Downing Street to Checkers to follow Lloyd George’s movements.
From Collins’ perspective, Wilson was a dangerous enemy of Irish nationalism. Collins was in the Visitors’ Gallery of the House of Commons in late May 1922 when Wilson said that the British government should not hesitate to cross the border to ensure order. Collins also held Wilson responsible for the “worst Armenian atrocities” in Belfast.
Wilson had also made enemies within the British government. Yet Collins miscalculated the depth of discontent in Britain over the tolerance given to the anti-Treaty party by the fledgling Irish state.
The shots that killed Wilson would lead exactly two months later to the shot that killed Collins at Béal na Bláth, leaving Ireland immeasurably poorer for his passing.
Ronan McGreevy is the author of ‘Great Hatred: the Assassination of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson MP’, published Thursday by Faber Editions (€16.99)