50 Years Ago


September 1948 was to prove an eventful month for Republicans. The atmosphere in the 26 Counties became further relaxed when on September 7 the head of the Dublin government made an important announcement in Ottawa while on a visit to Canada.

He told the press that the External Relations Act 1936 was to be repealed. Under this legislation and in spite of the 1937 Constitution diplomats accredited to and by the 26-County State had their documents addressed to or signed by the king of England.

The net result of this repeal would be that the 26-County State would be described in law as a republic and that the state would no longer be a member of the British Commonwealth.

The next issue of the Sunday Independent had a banner front-page headline “Status to be Declared a Republic”. Clann na Poblachta had advocated this and the Labour Party was known to be favourable but it was a surprise to have Fine Gael propose the like.

Also in September a formal General Army Convention of Óglaigh na hÉireann took place. It was the first such convention since April 1938 and it marked a turning-point in the fortunes of the Republican Movement.

Bell gives a feeling of the times: “Tobin’s long journeys had borne fruit.” (John Tobin was of course IRA organiser and a native of Dungarvin, Co Waterford.)

“In a great many areas a nucleus had been reformed and some units were solid, parading and recruiting. The North had been brought back into the net although everyone was still very quiet. The old faithful had been activated and it was hoped they would act as lodes to a new generation.

“But in many places the old were no longer faithful. Elsewhere the faithful were ineffectual. (Some of the good old areas had grown too old to be good. Some villages simply had no young men, for the old ones held on to the farm and the young ones went to England.)

“Parishes and counties that had ten years before produced hundreds of militant Republicans now were populated with safe men uninterested in adventures or young men unaware of the Army’s existence or bitter men all too familiar with the immediate past of the Army.

“Despite everything GHQ estimated that there were two hundred real activists at work and hundreds more on the fringe.” Besides contact had again been established with Clan na Gael in America. It was no longer a “great reservoir of strength but rather a handful of small clubs which could send some little encouragement and less funds.”


The developments at this 1948 Convention and the decisions made at it will be described in future articles in this series. Suffice it to say for the present that it laid the foundation stone for the following fifteen years of Republican activity.

Further in September fifty years ago came the handing over to relatives and comrades of the bodies of the Republicans executed from 1940 to 1944 by the 26-County State and buried in prison yards. This event and the subsequent funerals affected Republican morale greatly and also enlightened public opinion as to what really happened in the 26 Counties behind the cloak of wartime censorship.

Seán Fitzpatrick, Secretary of the National Graves Association, approached Seán Mac Eoin, the Minister for Justice, in the six-month-old Coalition Administration. It was 24 years since the first Free State government had released the bodies of the 77 Republicans it had executed by firing squad in 1922-23.

On that occasion Major-General Seán Mac Eoin of the Free State army stood at the main gate of Athlone military barracks supervising the hand-over of twenty of the 77. It was October 1924.

Seán Fitzpatrick made the approach “as one IRA veteran of the Black-and-Tan War to another”. The Coalition Administration agreed and on Saturday, September 11 the first body was released – that of Comdt Richard Goss of Dundalk.


Full military honours were accorded as the cortege made its way from Portlaoise prison through the streets of Dublin and on to Dundalk. The coffin was draped in the Tricolour with Goss’s Sam Browne belt on top and escorted by a Republican Guard of Honour.

Many hundreds of IRA Volunteers and old comrades marched behind. At St Patrick’s Cemetery, Dundalk a bugler sounded the Last Post and a firing-party fired three volleys over another Fenian grave.

On the following weekend the remains of the other five executed Republicans were handed over. From Portlaoise came the body of George Plant and from Mountjoy those of Paddy McGrath, Tom Harte, Maurice O’Neill and Charlie Kerins.

Military honours were again rendered and huge crowds of people participated in Dublin, Lurgan, Tipperary, Tralee and Cahersiveen, Co Kerry.

Ministers of the 26-County government Seán MacBride and Noel Browne attended the Requiem Mass in Dublin for Paddy McGrath.

Later, Brian O’Higgins addressed the assembled thousands at McGrath’s grave in the Republican Plot in Glasnevin Cemetery. He said that all six men “were condemned to death as criminals, as outlaws, as enemies of Ireland”.

He continued: “Today (1948), that judgement and verdict is reversed, even by those men who were and are their opponents, and they have been acknowledged to be what we have always claimed them to have been – true comrades of Tone and Emmet, of Mitchel, of the Fenians, and of all the heroic dead of our own day and generation (1916-23).”

He went on: “The only shame to be thought of in connection with them is that Irishmen slew them and slandered them, as Irishmen had slain and slandered the men of 1922, for the crime of being faithful soldiers of the Republic of Ireland.

“Let us remember that shame only as an incentive to action and conduct that will make recurrence of it impossible ever again.”

He concluded by saying that the All-Ireland Republic of 1916 and 1919 had been suppressed “by falsehood and force and it is suppressed at this present moment.

“Against that force and falsehood against the unjust and unlawful suppression, the men we honour today did battle onto death. Their blood cries out for only one vengeance – the restoration of the suppressed Republic of Ireland.”

Speaking at the grave of George Plant at St Johnston, Fethard, Co Tipperary John McGrath thanked “the ministers of George Plant’s religion” for their assistance during the preparation for that day’s ceremony.

“The signal honour bestowed by them on this dead soldier in permitting his remains to lie overnight in Christchurch Cathedral in our capital city, an honour they have not given to any member of the Protestant religion for over two centuries, is not one to be readily forgotten. Let us never be unmindful of that honour.”


Also released at that time were the last letters of the six Republican leaders to their relatives and friends. These letters had been suppressed for fear they might have stirred up the spirit and given inspiration in “dark and evil days”.

Some of these letters have been reproduced in booklets commemorating the 50th anniversary of their deaths. One which has not been made available publicly since 1948 was from Paddy McGrath – 1916 Veteran and hero of the Black-and-Tan War who carried a British bullet from those times near his heart until a Free State bullet killed him.

Writing to his sister on August 21, 1940 he said: “I did hope to make a statement yesterday on behalf of Tom Harte and myself, but I did not wish to make it until after we were sentenced. We did not get that opportunity so this is roughly what we wished to say.

“You are all Irishmen – most of you are soldiers. We, too, are Irishmen and soldiers. Now that you have done what you believe to be your duty we wish to say that we have also done what we believe to be our duty.

“We regret that these two Irishmen (the dead Special Branch police) should have lost their lives in conflict with their fellow Irishmen just as we much regret but with a greater depth of feeling that the two great Irishmen and Christians – Tony Darcy and Jack MacNeela – should have lost their lives (on hunger strike).

“It is not to you men here before us, nor to the members of the Detective Branch that we should address ourselves but to those two men and their immediate associates who are primarily responsible for the deaths of those four Irishmen.

“It is by their misdirecting of you, their obedient servants, those things have come about. The day those men decided to brand as criminals, us, the soldiers of the Irish Republican Army and their former faithful comrades, they made a grave error.

“It is unjust and unchristian to brand those who do not agree with you as criminals.”

An editorial in An t-Éireannaigh Aontuigthe – the United Irishman, October-November 1948, summed up the position: “To face death in such circumstances for a free Ireland, when through deliberate misrepresentation of facts the movement seeking that ideal has been robbed of popular support, requires courage and fortitude of a high standard.

“It requires something more. It requires that those making the supreme sacrifice have a clear and concise idea of the object in view, and a firm conviction of the moral truth and righteousness of the cause which they die to serve.”

“Have they died in vain?,” it asked. “Most emphatically no . . . those men have helped to ensure the continuity of the struggle, have given to those who remain, to those who will follow after them, the inspiration, the courage and hope that will sustain them . . .”

And so it has been, generation after generation by men such as those six who gave their lives in the effort to make Ireland’s claim effective, that claim that has never been surrendered or abated – not even in the darkest hour.


Those six executed Republican leaders re-interred fifty years ago were: Lieut-General Patrick McGrath (Dublin), Adjutant-General; Staff-Captain Thomas Harte (Lurgan), GHQ Staff; Comdt Richard Goss (Dundalk), OC North Leinster-South Ulster Division; General George Plant (Tan War Veteran, Tipperary), OC South-Eastern Division; Staff-Captain Maurice O’Neill (Cahersiveen), GHQ Staff and Comdt-General Charles Kerins (Tralee), Chief-of-Staff.

All were Volunteers of Óglaigh na hÉireann, the Irish Republican Army. Suaimhneas síoraí go raibh acu.

(More next month. Refs. An t-Éireannaigh Aontuighthe – the United Irishman, Oct-Nov 1948 and The Secret Army by J Bowyer Bell.)

Starry Plough

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