Irish republicans commemorate ‘Four Martyrs’ on centenary of their execution

One hundred years ago, during the Irish Civil War, the executive council of the British dominion of the Irish Free State executed four Irish republicans on December 8, 1922

December 14, 2022 by Peoples Dispatch
Four Martyrs - Ireland
From the commemoration of ‘Four Martyrs’: (from the left) Rory O’Connor, Richard Barrett, Joe McKelvey, and Liam Mellows (Photo: via Workers’ Party of Ireland)

The centenary of the martyrdom of four anti-treaty republican fighters – Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows, Richard Barrett, and Joe McKelvey was commemorated by progressive and Republican organizations in Ireland this past weekend. The four were executed by Irish Free State forces on December 8, 1922 and posthumously venerated as the ‘Four Martyrs’.

On Sunday, December 11, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald participated in a commemorative event held in County Wexford to honor the martyrs. Groups including the Communist Party of Ireland (CPI), Workers’ Party of Ireland, Connolly Youth Movement (CYM), and Éirígí also marked the centenary and paid tributes to the four.

Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows, Richard Barrett, and Joe McKelvey were part of the anti-treaty section of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which opposed the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on December 6, 1921, following the Irish War of Independence (1919–1921) fought between Irish Republicans and British Crown forces. The treaty had led to the proclamation of the Irish Free State, a dominion of the United Kingdom, and eventually led to the partition of Ireland. As part of its terms, six counties in Northern Ireland became part of the United Kingdom. Radical members of Sinn Féin and sections within the Irish Republican Army (IRA) viewed the treaty as a compromise that betrayed the cause of Irish freedom from British colonialism. The anti-treaty IRA resolved to continue the fight against the British and determined to strive for liberation and reunification of Ireland.

On April 14, 1922, around 200 volunteers from anti-treaty IRA occupied the Four Courts complex in Dublin to challenge and defy the Anglo-Irish Treaty 1921 and the pro-treaty provisional government of the Irish Free State, which was attempting to implement the treaty. The occupation lasted until June 28, 1922, when the forces of the provisional government attacked the building and dislodged the occupiers.

Rory O’Connor was a railway engineer, and served as the director of engineering of the IRA during the Irish War of Independence. He became the chairman of the Republican Military Council and participated in the occupation of the Four Courts. He was the spokesperson of the occupiers of the Four Courts complex. When it was later ambushed in June 1922 by the forces of the pro-treaty provisional government, most of the occupant rebels, including O’Connor, were arrested. 

Liam Mellows was a popular politician from Sinn Féin who had participated in the Easter Rebellion in Ireland against the British in April 1916 and was an elected member of the First Dáil (1919–1921), the parliament of the revolutionary Irish Republic. 

Richard Barrett was a prominent commandant of the IRA during the war of independence, and later joined the anti-treaty faction and was arrested. 

Joe McKelvey was a member of the IRA executive, even becoming its Chief of Staff for a short while, and was regarded as among the hardliners of the anti-treaty republicans. He helped command the occupation of the Four Courts.

The Irish civil war was a bloody and violent conflict. O’Connor, Mellows, Barrett, and McKelvey, who had been in Mountjoy Prison since the ambush of the Four Courts, were executed in part as a response to the execution of a pro-treaty parliamentarian, Sean Hales, by anti-treaty militants on December 7, 1922. 

While addressing the commemoration on Sunday at the burial site of Mellows in County Wexford, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said that “in his final hours Mellows wrote to his beloved mother. He asked to be laid to rest ‘in some quiet place’ in Castletown. And so here we are. And so here we stand—the generation that Mellows foretold, standing at his quiet place. Here we stand for Irish Freedom.”

On December 12, Graham Harrington from the Communist Party of Ireland (CPI) told Peoples Dispatch that “the execution of the Four Martyrs was a particularly vicious event in the counter-revolution that engulfed Ireland in 1922–23. Over 77 republicans were executed by the Free State in the so-called civil war, proving that the Irish ‘gombeen’ or comprador class was as brutal as its imperialist masters. Liam Mellows believed in an Irish Republic that would truly cherish the children of the nation equally, and attempted to bring the Communist Party of Ireland’s social program to the republicans. The result of the counter-revolution was partition, the smashing of people’s movements, and a misogynist state run by the Catholic Church.”

Meanwhile Micky McCorry, president of the Workers Party of Ireland, said in a statement that “we are now moving ever closer to the end of the two statelets on this island and towards national unity. This may not happen today or tomorrow but the days of the two backward states on this island are numbered.”