Story Behind 1923 Anti-Treaty Fighters, Executed In Roscrea Co. Tipperary.

Following the killing of the Cork born Irish revolutionary, Michael Collins in an ambush at an isolated area known as Béal na Bláth, on August 22nd 1922, the Free State provisional government, under the new leadership of Mr W. T. Cosgrave, Mr Richard Mulcahy and Mr Kevin O’Higgins, took the stance that the Anti-Treaty IRA were conducting an unlawful rebellion against a legitimate Irish government.

Left-right: Richard Mulcahy, Mr Kevin O’Higgins, W. T. Cosgrave & a hand gun used during Tipperary civil war period.

Mr Kevin O’Higgins had voiced the opinion that the use of martial law was the only way to bring this civil war to an end. So by imposing capital punishment for anyone found in possession of either firearms or ammunition; without a lawful reason, Republican fighters would now be treated as criminals rather than as army combatants, thus introducing martial law for the duration of the then conflict.

To this end, on September 27th 1922, the Irish Free State’s Provisional Government put before the Dáil the Army Emergency Powers Resolution, proposing legislation to try suspects by military court martial.

It should be noted that on October 3rd, 1922 the legitimate Free State government offered an amnesty to any Anti-Treaty fighter who surrendered their arms and recognised the government. This amnesty offered, sadly saw little response.

A final version, of the motion, first put to the Dáil, by then Minister for Defence, Mr Richard Mulcahy, on September 26th, was passed on October 18th 1922, which stated: “The breach of any general order or regulation made by the Army Council and the infliction by such Military Courts or Committees of the punishment of death or of penal servitude for any period or of imprisonment for any period or of a fine of any amount either with or without imprisonment on any person found guilty by such Court or Committee of any of the offences aforesaid. Provided that no such sentence of death be executed except under the countersignature of two members of the Army Council”.

This new legislation, referred to as the “Public Safety Bill”, which empowered military tribunals with the ability to impose penal servitude of any duration, or the death penalty, for a variety of offences including; aiding/abetting attacks on state forces; persons found in possession of arms, ammunition or explosives, without the proper authority; looting; the destruction of public or private property, and arson.

A supportive Catholic Hierarchy issued a pastoral letter condemning Anti-Treaty fighters (known as ‘Irregulars’). The letter stated that: “All who are in contravention of this teaching, and participate in such crimes are guilty of grievous sins and may not be absolved in Confession nor admitted to the Holy Communion if they persist in such evil courses”.
Devout Roman Catholics saw this pastoral letter as a powerful social pressure being applied and at an opportune time for the then Provisional Government.
Same pastoral letter would serve to understand and indeed excuse the close connection developed in later decades between Church and State.

This Order was later strengthened in the following month of January, 1923, allowing execution for several other categories of offences not previously clearly identified. These included non-combatant Republican supporters carrying messages; assisting in escapes; using army or police uniforms; together with desertion from the existing National Army. It further stipulated that all sentences passed on military prisoners, taken by Provisional Government forces before the passing of the Act, were retrospectively remain valid.
January 1923 also saw this policy of executions being further extended throughout 10 Irish counties, namely; Tipperary, Dublin, Louth, Carlow, Kerry, Limerick, Westmeath, Waterford, Offaly and Laois, each county serving as the location for such executions.
Kevin O’Higgins had got it right; soon afterwards the anti-Treaty IRA recognised that prolonging their campaign would only further inevitably result in further executions of their imprisoned fighters.

Executions during the Irish Civil War took place during the guerrilla phase of the Irish Civil War (June 1922 – May 1923). By the first two months of the Civil War (July–August 1922), Free State forces had successfully taken all the territory held by Republicans and the war seemed all but over. However, the loosing Anti-Treaty side moved to using guerrilla tactics in August–September, and National Army casualties began to mount.

Many people today, appear to forget that during this phase of the war both sides; the Government forces of the Irish Free State and the Anti-Treaty Irish Republican Army (IRA) insurgents, both used executions and terror in what developed into a cycle of atrocities.

From November 1922, the Free State Government justified embarking on a policy of executing Republican prisoners in order to bring the war to a successful end.

Tipperary Executions

On January 15th 1923 four men were executed by firing squad for the illegal possession of arms and ammunition, at Ross Cottage, Borrisoleigh, Co. Tipperary, on December 23rd 1923.
The four men; Mr Frederick Burke, Curnaboola, Ileigh, Borrisoleigh, Co. Tipperary, aged 28; Mr Patrick Russell, Summerhill, Borrisoleigh, Co. Tipperary, aged 26; Mr Martin O’Shea, Garrangrena, Borrisoleigh, Co. Tipperary, aged 22, and Mr Patrick McNamara, Killarey, Ballina, Killaloe, County Clare, aged 22, were all executed in Roscrea Castle Barracks, Roscrea, Co. Tipperary.

Mr Frederick Bourke, a farm labourer had served with the IRA from 1919 onwards.
Mr Martin O’Shea, who helped out on his family’s small farm and worked as a casual labourer for the local Council, had served with the Irish Volunteers and IRA from 1917 onwards.
Mr Patrick Russell, was a farmer’s son had also served with the Irish Volunteers and IRA from 1917 onwards.

According to the official report issued after their execution, Frederick Bourke, Martin O’Shea and Patrick Russell were tried and convicted, on January 2nd 1923, for being in possession of arms and ammunition and for the armed hold up of a Mail Car at Ross Cottage, Borrisoleigh, Co. Tipperary.

The bodies of the executed were not handed back to family members until the middle of 1924. Ugly scenes would accompany the handover of the bodily remains of those executed in some areas, as military displays and the discharging of weapons at re-interments were totally banned.

The pro-Treaty government remained unapologetic about their execution policy during the Civil War; as did the Anti-Treaty Irish Republican Army (IRA) insurgents; the former maintaining that they had simply done what was necessary in order to save the new Irish state.
Anti-Treaty Irish Republican Army (IRA) insurgents refused to support some of its members, latter who had been executed for basic armed robbery crime, while endorsing as martyrs others that were executed.

In typed and handwritten communications sent to Fianna Fail TD Mr Andrew Fogarty (April 1879 – April 1953) on some 10 years later on November 11th 1933 to his home in Cashel; [latter a farmer, first elected on the 15th count to the 5th Dáil, as a Fianna Fáil Teachta Dála (TD) in 1927], we learn the strong feelings with regards to failure to get compensation for the living, destitute family members of those executed. One such communication came from within the local Borrisoleigh, Fianna Fáil Club.

To Andy Fogarty, (TD)
Co. Tipperary

Borrisoleigh Fianna Fáil Club

November 11th 1933

A Chara,
Just a few lines in connection with the claims of the mothers of Russell, Bourke and O’shea, who were executed by the Cosgrave Government on January 15th 1923 at Roscrea Military Barracks. We are sure there’s no need for us to put before you the necessity of having the claims of these three poor women attended to immediately.
Perhaps it would be well to give you an outline of the happenings that led up to the execution of those young men. They were under orders from their Commanding Officer to hold up the Mail Car at least twice per week & it was during the progress of one of these searches at a place called Ross Cottage, Borrisoleigh, that they were surrounded by ‘Crown Forces‘.
They put up a most desperate fight for about three hours, and it was only when their supply of ammunition became exhausted that they were reluctantly compelled to surrender.
Then after a time in prison the government decided to put them against the wall and there and then ended the lives of three gallant young men.
In conclusion we would ask you to make a strong appeal to the government on behalf of these three old widowed mothers and to see that they get a reasonable amount of Compensation. We do not propose to suggest to the government the amount they should pay. but we do suggest that they should consider every aspect of their claims. They should consider very carefully the loss of these fine young fellows to their poor widowed mothers and above all they should consider the large pensions they are paying to some of the men that were responsible for their executions,
We would ask you to see that those claims are attended to immediately, as the poor old women are very old and feeble.

Thanking you in anticipation.
Yours Faithfully,
Borrisoleigh Fianna Fáil Club.

(Timothy Shanahan. Sec.)

The recipient of the above communication, Tipperary TD Mr Andrew (Andy) Fogarty*, forwarded the letter, shown above, to the Department of Defence, together with his own representations, clearly indicating the strength of local feeling within the Borrisoleigh area, since the three executed men were under orders at the time of their capture. The reference ‘captured by Crown Forces’ in the letter, above, is possibly a deliberate insult aimed at the then operating Pro-Treaty forces.

* In the 1948 General Election, the same long serving Fianna Fail TD for Tipperary, Mr Andrew Fogarty lost his seat. In other correspondence we learn that a presentation was organised and subscriptions collected amounting to donations of £542-4s-0.

The names on the list of contributors includes Sean Lemass (£25); Dan Breen, (Tipperary £10); WJ Magner (£10); together with many more TDs and Senators including a number of clergies.
Many of the subscribers included were from Thurles, Co. Tipperary. Amongst them were Mr Bill Dwan, Holycross, Thurles (£10); Mr J, Hogan, Liberty Square, Thurles, (£10); Mr James Maher, Parnell Street, Thurles, (£5-5s-00p); Mr Dan Brady, Archerstown Mills, (£5); Mr J. Hanafin, Corner House, Parnell Street, Thurles (£5); Mr J.P Carrigan, Solicitor, Thurles, (£5); Mr Pierce Moloney, Racecourse, Thurles, (£2-2s-00p); and Mr P.J. OMeara, Solicitor Thurles, (£2-2s-00p).

In respect of the 3 executed Borrisoleigh natives; claims made by their mothers seeking compensation, received a partial dependents’ gratuity of £112.10.00 (one hundred and twelve pounds and ten shillings sterling) in 1934, under the Army Pensions Acts in respect of their sons, possibly helped by a serious threat by the Borrisoleigh, Fianna Fáil Club to resign and distance themselves from the Fianna Fáil political party.

[In the case of the fourth executed man, namely Mr Patrick McNamara; a file relating to a request by a John McNamara, with an address at Killarey, Ballina, Killaloe, County Clare, for an application form to make a claim in respect of his unnamed brother, executed on January 1923, most likely relates to the Patrick McNamara executed in Roscrea Castle Barracks; however, the individual allegedly executed is not named in the documentation]


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