On 6 December 1922, the Irish Free State came into being, a year after the signing of the Anglo-Irish treaty.
On 7 December 1922, the Free State deputy Seán Hales was shot dead, and his friend and fellow deputy Pádraig Ó Máille was injured. The IRA were blamed for the killing. It is possible that this was the case – the Civil War was still ongoing, and anti-treaty military leader Liam Lynch had declared that executions of IRA men would be revenged by targeting of Free State deputies – but there are some odd features about the case. Hales, suspecting British involvement in the killing of Michael Collins, was demanding an investigation, which was refused by the Free State government. The night before his killing, Hales was refused a billet at one of the city’s barracks by Free State Chief of Staff Richard Mulcahy. Pádraig Ó Máille’s son Eoin (who died in recent years) expressed his belief that the Free State government or military were involved in Hales’s killing, saying that they, and not the IRA, knew of Hales’s movements on the day he was killed. Others have pointed out that no-one was charged with the killing, neither were there any suspects. However, British soldiers were seen in the area shortly before the shooting, and there was even a photograph taken of Hales and Ó Máille minutes before the shooting.
The Free State government improved the occasion by executing four anti-treaty prisoners the following day in an action generally accepted as judicial murder. The four were key men in the War of Independence – Liam Mellows, Rory O’Connor, Richard Barrett and Joseph McKelvey. Rory O’Connor led the anti-treaty forces in the Four Courts, while Mellows had been a TD for Galway, led the Galway Volunteers in 1916 and developed links with Indian nationalists in the US. Some of his letters were published by the Provisional (soon to be Free State) Government while he was in prison and promoted as “communist”, possibly an indication that his murder was premeditated. The Free State had also executed Erskine Childers a few days earlier, and the list of important figures left alive was growing shorter.
The Irish Civil War became more and more brutal from this point. The winter of 1922 was one of the lowest points in the country’s history. As a reprisal for the killings, the IRA murdered O’Higgins’s father. Ironically, Kevin O’Higgins held out against the killings of Mellows, O’Connor, McKelvey and Barrett, but was overruled by his cabinet colleagues. It has since been reported that Richard Mulcahy and Eoin MacNeill were the trigger-happy policicians who proposed and seconded the motion. MacNeill’s son Brian was an anti-treaty soldier who was murdered by Free State forces in the course of the Civil War.
Here are a few pages of interest in tribute to the executed men. http://burnsmoley.com/text/mellowes.php is the best page I can find on Liam Mellows – a very complete account of his life. His writings while in Mountjoy Jail in the months leading up to his execution are well worth reading. (Note: if this page is down, try the Internet Archive.)
Here is a listing of a small collection of Rory O’Connor’s papers.
And an account of the executed men and the background to their killing from a lecture by Brian O’Higgins in 1936: http://irelandsown.net/fourmartyrs.html