The Groom Who Had His Best Man Shot

Article excerpt

Byline: by Turtle Bunbury

AS HE listened to the firing squad take their positions, Rory O'Connor must have wondered once again how everything had gone so terribly wrong. Beside him, Liam Mellows was kicking away the gravel beneath his feet in order to attain a steadier foothold.

Blindfolded, O'Connor could not see Mellows or Dick Barrett or Joe McKelvey, the three men destined to die alongside him. He heard Fr Piggott, the army chaplain, step forward to give the men their final absolution. And then the priest stepped aside.

'Slan libh lads,' said Mellows, as the order was given.

And then came the deadly volley. O'Connor, Mellows and Barrett died instantly. But to the ever-lasting horror of some members of the firing party, McKelvey remained conscious.

'Give me another,' implored the Ulsterman. A shot rang out. 'Another.' Colonel Hugo MacNeill, nephew of Eoin MacNeill, stepped forward and delivered the coup de grace.

The execution of O'Connor and his three comrades on December 8, 1922, has long been one of the most controversial moments of the Civil War. This week, the emergence of a new photograph purporting to depict O'Connor standing alone before a five-strong firing squad, and without a blindfold, has had phones hopping on Joe Duffy's Liveline radio show.

However, it now appears that the rather faded photograph is a fake, created as anti-Treaty propaganda soon after the execution in order to enhance the legend of martyrdom that was swiftly growing around the four dead men.

The scene depicted in the photo is nothing like that described by Fr Piggott, the first chaplain of the new Free State Army, who was personally chosen by O'Connor to give him and his comrades their Last Rites.

Fr Piggott confirmed that the four men were executed together by a firing squad of 20 men, ten standing and ten kneeling.

Propaganda or not, the new photograph highlights the extraordinary horrors of the Civil War, which ripped through the heart of the fledgling Irish Free State just 90 years ago. It also stands as a reminder of how this bloody conflict was not drawn up on geographical lines, like the American Civil War, but was fought on the basis of trenchantly held personal beliefs.

Among all the friendships torn asunder by the Civil War, few ended more dramatically than that of Rory O'Connor and Kevin O'Higgins, the then minister for justice who gave the order for O'Connor's execution.

Remarkably, just over a year earlier, O'Connor had stood as O'Higgins' best man at his wedding.

The two men became friends during the War of Independence. Born in 1883, O'Connor was the older man by nine years but both had been educated at the Jesuit-run Clongowes Wood. They had also both studied at University College Dublin.

The execution of O'Connor would haunt O'Higgins for the rest of his life. As it happened, he was not destined for a long life, either -- he was killed by an assassin's bullet less than five years later.

Rory O'Connor was born in Dublin in 1883, the son of John and Julia O'Connor. Armed with his College of Science diploma from UCD, he emigrated to Canada in 1911 and spent four years there working as a railway engineer.

He became active in the Fenian Brotherhood and, in 1916, was among those who returned to Ireland in answer to a summons by the Irish Republican Brotherhood in advance of the Rising.

He was wounded in the Rising and subsequently interned. Upon his release, he broke with the IRB, maintaining that its policy of secrecy would preclude the movement from gaining popular support.

In 1918, he became the IRA's Director of Engineering and during the ensuing War of Independence he worked closely alongside Michael Collins, overseeing the teams who blew up railway lines, bridges and barracks.

In 1919, he became Director of Operations for the IRA offensive in England, destroying numerous vital warehouses and orchestrating several jail breaks. …