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  Last Letters of Kilmainham Civil War Executed

The stark plaque, with its simple statement gives no details about the event it commemorates. We know these were the first executions of the Civil War, but why were these men executed?

During the Civil War (1922-1924) the Free State Government passed the Emergency Powers Act, under which it became a capital crime for a civilian to be in possession of a gun. This Act was to lead to the execution of seventy seven people and the imprisonment of many more before the Civil War was over.

The four young men executed on the 17th of November 1922 (James Fisher – the youngest – was only 18 years of age when shot) had been arrested for having, on different dates, ‘possession, without proper authority, of a revolver’.

They were then tried before a military court, in accordance with the provisions of the Act, on the 9th of November, 1922 and executed just seven days later.

Army headquarters issued the following statement to the media on the evening of November 17th:

"James Fisher, a civilian, of Echlin Street, Dublin, was charged, at a Military Court, held upon the 8th day of November, 1922, with having, on October 23rd, possession without proper authority, of a revolver. He was found guilty and sentenced to death. The finding and sentence of the Court were confirmed. The sentence was duly carried out this morning at 7 o’clock.

Peter Cassidy, of 7 Usher’s Quay, was, at a Military Court held on the 9th of November, 1922, charged with having possession without proper authority of a revolver, upon the 27th October, 1922. He was found guilty of the charge and was sentenced to death. The finding and sentence of the Court were confirmed. The sentence was duly carried out this morning at 7 o’clock.

Richard Twohig, 1 Connor’s Buildings (off James’ Street       Harbour), was, at a Military Court, held upon the 8th day of November, 1922, charged with having possession, without proper authority, of a revolver upon the 23rd of October, 1922. He was found guilty of the charge and sentenced to death. The finding and sentence of the Court were confirmed. The sentence was duly carried out this morning at 7 o’clock.

John Gaffney, of 3 Usher’s Quay, was, at a Military Court, held upon the 9th of November, 1922, charged with having possession, without proper authority, of a revolver upon the 27th of October, 1922. He was found guilty of the charge and sentenced to death.

The finding and sentence of the Court were confirmed. The sentence was duly carried out this morning at 7 o’clock".

This announcement was carried in the following day’s newspapers, including the Irish independent and The Freeman’s Journal.

Peter Cassidy and John Gaffney were neighbours and lifelong friends. They went to the same school together, and then joined Na Fianna, (the Republican youth movement). During the War of Independence they both served in H Company, 3rd battalion Irish Republican Army.

Both young men worked in Dublin Corporation’s lighting department. Being opposed to the Treaty, they ‘remained in arms’ and were captured on October 27th, 1922.

Just two weeks after their deaths, on November 30th, the Executive Council of the IMETU passed a resolution to pay ‘mortality benefits’ to the families of Peter Cassidy and John Gaffney, who had been members of the union. In the union’s history it is recorded that the men “were not prominent personalities in the conflicts of the time, and are not now widely remembered, but they served their country as they saw it and they will be numbered amongst those who made the ultimate sacrifice”.

James Fisher and Richard Twohig also hailed from within The Liberties area of Dublin – an area with many proud Republican historical associations, including Lord Edward Fitzgerald and Robert Emmet over a century before.

All four of these men faced their imminent death bravely, as their last letters home show. (James Fisher’s last letter to his mother may be seen in the Kilmainham Gaol museum on the first floor).

The executions appear to have come as a surprise to many, and questions on the matter were raised in the Dáil by Thomas Johnson, Labour T.D. for Co. Dublin.

It was with something in the nature of a shock that one read that four men had been  executed under the authorisation that the Dáil gave to 

the military courts some time ago” he said. He “wished to have some more satisfactory explanation of why those men lost their lives” than was contained in the “bald announcement" in the morning’s papers.

He went on to say that it was almost two months since the powers given to the military courts were passed,  but the first information they (i.e. members of the Dáil) got of the trial and sentence of any person by those military courts was that four men had been executed for possession without authority of a revolver. "The possession of a revolver, lawful or unlawful" he said, "did not justify the killing of a man".

The Minister for Defence, replying, said that these men had been captured on the streets of Dublin with loaded weapons at night, waiting to kill others.  The decision to execute them was taken because “people have to be shocked, and people have to take stern measures…”

The Minister for Home Affairs, Mr. O’Higgins, added, in the course of the debate: : “We are absolutely convinced as a Government that unless we take and deal in the strongest  possible way with those people who traverse our streets at night shooting our people and going round the country night and day wrecking railways, robbing the people, taking their lives, destroying the whole fabric of industry and society in the country – unless we take very stern measures we will not throw back the tide of lawlessness, lust and loot that some mad political leaders have stirred up in their train after them in this country.

The situation in which these actions are taken is known to every person here, and thoroughly realised by every person in the country, and everyone who goes round with a loaded revolver in his pocket in the street seeking to take the lives of other men must be made to face the fact that by doing so he forfeits his own life”.

All of this argument, of course, was of no avail to the four young men who had been executed that morning. Their deaths were only the first of 77 to occur under the Emergency Powers Act.

it has been suggested that the real reason for the haste and obbduracy of the Free State Government was that it wished to execute Erskine Childers. He, too, was an opponent of the Free State - indeed, he was head of propaganda for the Republicans. He, too, had been captured with a gun - one given to him during the War of Independence by Michael Collins for his own protection.

Childers was an Englishman, who had served in the British Army with distinction. He wrote "The Riddle of the Sands" to warn the British Governemnt and people of the danger posed by Germany before the First World War.

But he changed sides and took up the Irish cause. It was he, of course who brought in the guns during the famous Howth Gun Running, and he was Minister for Propaganda during the War of Independence - a role he filled admirably.

By supporting the Anti-Treaty side during the Civil War, however, his former colleagues on the Free State side became his implacable enemies. When he was captured with a gun, his fate was sealed.

The only problem was that he was an Englishman and the Free State government feared English reaction to what might be seen to be a sectarian act. A precedent was needed, and these four men became that precedent

Only seven days later, Erskine Childers was executed at Beggars’ Bush Barracks.

James Fisher was buried in the Republican Plot, Glasnevin, and the other three were later re-interred there.  At the time of their deaths James Fisher was just 18 years old, while John Gaffney was 20, and Peter Cassidy was 21.

James Fisher’s father was still alive, as Mr. J.B. Fisher is noted as his next of kin, while for the others their mothers are listed.

Each of these men wrote last letters home from Kilmainham Gaol. James Fisher’s letter, as noted already, is on display in our museum. Each letter bears reading, if only to see how the men approached their imminent deaths.

These executions took place in what had been the Female Exercise Yard. They were the first official executions carried out by the nascent Free State Government  during Ireland's Civil War.... another 73 were to follow all over the country. Of course, many hundreds of unofficial executions were to be carried out by both sides in what was to become a very bitter war over the next few months

They were, thankfully, the last ever executions to be carried out in Kilmainham gaol.

But, of course, the most significant executions, in the Gaol and this country's history, had already taken place in the Stonebreakers' Yard in Kilmainham Gaol six years earlier.

Mícheál Ó Doibhilín

For assistance in compiling tis article I am grateful to Paul O’BrienLiz Gillis and Kilmainham Gaol Archives

Photographs of the four men are courtesy and copyright of Kilmainham Gaol Archives.

This article is based on one of the same title that appeared in "Sentences" - the unofficial inhouse journal of the guides of Kilmainham Gaol in 2006.

The Letters 

Dear Mother, 

Just a few lines to wish you a last and fond good-bye. I am going to die for Ireland at 7 o'clock, as I have been sentenced to death by the court.

Dear Mother, do not worry over me, as I am proud to die for Ireland. I have the priest with me, he is preparing me to meet my God. He will give you some prayer books and beads which I sent you with my last and best love. Tell my father, Bud, Jim, Paddy, and Dan, and all at home not to fret over me, as I am going to a happier place, thank God.

John Gaffney and two other fellows are to die with me. Tell all my friends and relations to pray for me that my soul shall be in peace. Dear Mother, be brave and bear up the cross you have to carry, it is all for dear old Ireland; think of the Blessed Virgin, and she will help you along. Dear Mother, I will finish now as I have no more to say. Hoping to meet you all in Heaven.

From your loving & proud son.

       (Signed) Peter Cassidy.

P.S. Tell all the boys and girls at the Quay to pray for me. Dear Mother, I die a happy death. I had confess-ion. Dear Mother, get a Mass said for me and one for the Holy Souls in Purgatory 

Dear Mother,

I am now awaiting the supreme penalty at 7 o'clock in the morning but I am perfectly happy, because I've seen the Priest and I am going to die a good Catholic and a soldier of the Irish Republic. Don't worry or cry for me, but pray for the repose of my soul and my three comrades. I asked to see you, but they say that they would see what they could do.

Ask all my friends and comrades to pray for me and Dick and my two comrades. Mother I would just love one look at all the faces at home, your's above all, but seemly that is denied me. I get everything I want now, which as you know is the usual stunt. Mother, my heart grieves for one look at your dear face; but please God I will meet you and them all in heaven. I picture how this will effect you, but Mother don't fret, for remember I am happy. The Priest here is going to get me to hear my confession, and I will receive at the altar in the morning.

Lord Jesus give me courage in my last moments. If I had only got told of my sentence I would have been well prepared before now. Oh Mother if I could only see you, just again. Don't fret Mother because I am happy.

To my Mother I dearly love, Goodbye, Goodbye, Goodbye. We will meet again in Heaven please God, Mother. God strengthen you in this ordeal Mother. I am to die for Ireland.

          (Signed) J. B. Fisher. 

Dear Mother,

I am writing this letter to you, and hope to the Sacred Heart of Jesus you will bear it like a brave woman. It is to let you know 1 have been tried and sentenced to be shot on Friday morning at 7 o'clock.

Dear Mother, you are not to worry, and thank God and His Blessed Mother for giving me such a time to repent. Oh, it is a great thing to know when you are going to die so as to have time to repent.

Dear Mother, we had a priest here with us, a nice young gentleman, he will pay you a visit and let you know how brave I was, and I hope he will find you the same. All you have to do is to pray for me, and I will pray for you and all the family, and particularly father. Dear Mother, I am just after receiving yours and Ciss' loving letter, and am glad you and all the family are well, and I hope you are not begrudging me to God, but be brave like all other mothers, and I will take the call bravely.

  God bless you all.

       From your fond son,

             (Signed) J. Gaffney 

From your son, Dick, to my loving Mother I am in the best of spirits. Long live Ireland. God bless you, Mother, and the children. Goodbye. Ireland first, and Ireland last, and Ireland over all. I hope Ireland will be free soon. I send home the mouth organ to you for Paddy, if they will send it. The men over me were all right. I had nothing to say about them.

       (Signed) Dick Twohig

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