Far left – Joe O’Sullivan; Reggie Dunne, near left, Mugshots taken at the time of their arrest.
On Thursday 22nd June 1922, Reginald Dunne, the second in command of the London brigade of the IRA, and Joseph O’Sullivan, a long-term IRA volunteer, carried out the assassination of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson. This event was by means an isolated one but was pivotal to the extraordinarily complex political and military machinations of the frenzied period of 1921-2, which saw the national liberation struggle morph into a civil war leading to the establishment of the Free State and the division of the 32 counties of Ireland into two countries.
An election in 1918 had seen the vast majority of Irish seats in the UK parliament won by Sinn Fein representatives. A war of independence resulted as the British government resisted. By the end of 1921, a Treaty had been signed giving southern Ireland Dominion status within the Empire. (Analogous to the position Canada and Australia had.) Michael Collins (1890-1922), who had played a key role in the military offensive against the British in the war of independence, had been the key figure in the negotiations of the Treaty that sought to end the conflict. In January 1922 he became the first Prime Minister of the putative Irish Free State, provided for in the Treaty.
But the transition was by no means plain sailing, amongst other issues the exact position of the border required by the Treaty and the election of local councillors in gerrymandered constituencies in the north gave rise to tensions. Nearly 500 Catholics were murdered and tens of thousand ejected from their homes in the north in brutal fashion by Orange mobs, with active police connivance.
Amongst the many atrocities, police, without provocation, shot three unarmed Catholic youths. The subsequent British government cover up outraged Collins, who now secretly developed a strategy for aiding the northern Catholics and destabilising Unionism, whilst being supposedly neutral and friendly to the British government. Underground agents and arms were directed north in vast amounts.
Wilson was the man in charge of resisting this shadowy offensive. He had been enthusiastically associated with every violent verbal and physical attack on nationalists over the previous period and was now even critical of the Treaty as bending over backwards. Born in County Longford, he had been Chief of the British Imperial Staff and was now Unionist M.P. for North Down. He had accepted appointment as official security advisor to the Northern Government on the organisation and control of the Special Constabulary. He had also become an influential and vocal critic of the Treaty and of conditions in Ireland.
In many respects – charm, deviousness and organisational ability – Wilson was, ironically, a mirror image of Collins, but, in contrast, was a convinced imperialist. Also and in retrospect most commentators portray Wilson as a much smaller man, and not only physically, than the charismatic and personally brave Collins. Wilson’s nasty and sectarian speeches had inflamed the Northern situation and Collins’ defensive northern policy now led directly to Wilson’s assassination.
His name had been on the IRA’s active death list since June 1921, although the truce had caused action to be put on hold. His death can only be understood against the backcloth of the terrible reprisals that were now the lot of the Catholics in the north. Eamon de Valera was to say, in his characteristically ambiguous manner, of the murder, “life has been made hell for the Nationalist minority in Belfast … I do not approve but I must not pretend to misunderstand”. [`Michael Collins’ Tim Pat Coogan p373] Collins is known to have been very angry at the northern pogroms and vowed, “We’ll kill a member of that bunch.” He certainly publicly held Wilson as personally mainly responsible for the atrocities against Catholics. It did not help that Wilson was also prone to making highly offensive personal remarks about Collins.
Wilson was shot on the doorstep of his London home on the afternoon of 22 June. Both Dunne and O’Sullivan had revolvers. Wilson was returning to his home in Easton Place, having just unveiled a war memorial at Liverpool St station. He had paid his taxi driver, and was feeling for his keys, when the two men came up behind him, pulled out revolvers and shot him down. Wilson’s arm was wounded by the first two bullets, it was rumoured that he then half drew his sword before being shot down in a hail of a further seven bullets as a consequence, an ironic suggestion, since it was meant to mythologise his death as being in action – precisely what his assassins would have claimed for themselves. Whatever the actuality, Wilson was shot in the left forearm, twice in the right arm, twice in the left shoulder, in both armpits, and twice in the right leg. Both armpit wounds had fatally pieced Wilson’s lungs.
Reggie Dunne was a Commanding Officer in the London Brigade of the IRA and had attended St Ignatius College in Tottenham in north London and at the time of the assasination he was at St. Mary’s College teacher training college, which supplied Catholic men to serve as teachers in Catholic schools throughout the country. [Information from Des O’Grady.]
Joe O’Sullivan was a long-term activist, born and lived in London all his life, he was a clerk in the Ministry of Labour in Whitehall. His mother, Mary O’Sullivan (nee Murphy), had died in November 1920 at the age of 60 (she had 13 children, two of whom died as small children). The eldest brother John had also died only recently – early in 1922. He had been employed as the chief electrician of a railway company and was killed whilst working on a bridge in Lincolnshire. The loss of his mother and brother had badly affected Joe. (His father John died in 1942.) It is believed that Joe O’Sullivan had a connection with the staunchly Republican O’Sullivans of Gurrranreagh, near Kilmurry. Certainly, a sister of his was married to a John O’Brien of Poulavone, Ballincollig, County Cork. (Intriguingly, John O’Brien was Dunne’s nom de guerre – O’Sullivan’s was James Connelly! It was in these names that they were charged.)
Dunne and Sullivan being arrested
Joe O’Sullivan’s brother, Patrick, was in County Cork during 1920-22 as an active IRA Volunteer. Patrick O’Sullivan and another brother Alyosius were gassed during the First World War. Patrick was only saved by an Australian priest after he had been tagged as beyond hope by the army medics. Apparently, he said that the English left him to die because he was Irish. This may be possible, if it was after the Easter Rising, as there was a certain amount of anti-Irish sentiment about, but it may simply have been that the medics were overwhelmed by the weight of casualties. After the war he went to live in Cork, where he got married. During 1920/21 his house was attacked by the Black and Tans and his wife was badly assaulted. She was heavily pregnant at the time and lost the baby and was never able to have children after that. All this family suffering provided more than enough motivation for Joe O’Sullivan to be prepared to be one of the team to assassinate Wilson, if he believed that he was a prime mover behind similar events being perpetrated in the North of Ireland during 1922. [Information from Mike Boulton]
If Joe had a close connection with the Gurranereagh O’Sullivans, it was there that the 3rd Brigade Flying Column under Tom Barry had retreated and rested after a famous victory in the war of independence at Crossbarry in March 1921. This O’Sullivan home was a busy place, always with lots of visitors engaged in movement activities. Figures of note regularly hiding out, or receiving sustenance, included Tom Hales, Brigade Commandant of the Cork No. 3 Brigade, dressed in his officer’s uniform, and Sonny Donovan, a dispatch rider. When on the run, de Valera called on the O’Sullivans and seemingly may have had a private conversation with Joe.
Joe O’Sullivan was certainly a stalwart of the struggle; though he was critical of anti-Treaty activities he remained friendly and helpful to all active service units of the IRA, being particularly anxious to maintain unity amongst nationalist forces. It seems that his loyalty to Collins and his anxiety to demonstrate a need for unity were key factors in his involvement in the assassination.
Like Dunne, Joe O’Sullivan was also an ex-World War veteran and had lost a leg at Ypres. This made it difficult for him to flee the scene once Wilson was killed. He must have surely always known that this would be so and he had thus carried out the act, expecting execution for the cause of Irish unity. Dunne was equally heroic; he could have run from the chasing crowd and escaped but decided to stay with O’Sullivan. The mood was especially ugly and led to a fracas during the course of which a policeman was shot.
The killing shocked the British public. A newspaper had the headline “Hang the butchers of Wilson”. The Times – then virtually the mouthpiece of the British Government wrote: “Field-Marshall Sir Henry Wilson, the famous and gallant soldier, was murdered yesterday upon the threshold of his London home. The murderers were Irishmen. Their deed must rank among the foulest in the foul category of Irish political crimes … In horror it has not been approached since Lord Frederick Cavendish and Mr. Burke fell victim of Fenian hatred more than a generation ago. Like the Phoenix Park murders, it will arouse deep and lasting indignation. A crime like this rouses the righteous wrath of a nation.” [Times 23.6.22]
In Belfast, Sir James Craig adjourned the Northern Parliament, having declared, “Sir Henry Wilson laid down his life for Ulster.” Lady Wilson let it be known that no one (even on the British side!) who had negotiated the Treaty would be welcome at her husband’s funeral. All the British ministers were assigned armed bodyguards and the public gallery in the House of Commons was closed. The cabinet almost went into shock.
It seems that the assassination was intended to help heal the breach between nationalists who were for and against the Treaty. But it is still, even now, not absolutely certain who gave the order for the assassination of Wilson nor when it was given. Reginald Dunne had been a friend of Michael Collins in the London Irish Republican Brotherhood organisation, many years before. Dunne and Collins are known to have had a meeting in Dublin the month before the assassination. Reggie Dunne was known to have been friendly with the occupiers of the Four Courts, the heart of the legal establishment in Dublin, who were anti-Treaty republicans. It is possible that Dunne was acting in tandem with both the Four Courts occupiers and with Collins by planning an act that would provoke a reaction from the British that would in turn unite both factions of the IRA, resulting in a resumption of the war to achieve a 32 county republic. [“The Irish Civil War” Tim Pat Coogan]
The assassination did indeed lead to a fierce response from the British Government. That very day, Lloyd George sent an urgent letter to Collins mainly concerned with the occupation of the Four Courts. This was but one example of a fading of Free State authority as outright Republicanism seemed possibly to be in the ascendant; albeit this was a hugely significant example (imagine the Old Bailey being occupied by revolutionary forces whilst law and order collapses everywhere!).
The Prime Minister also said that evidence had been found on Reginald Dunne connecting the IRA with the assassination and hinting at too free a permit to function being allowed by the Free State government. But it did not state the nature of the evidence found. This seems to have been fairly minimal, being in the nature of a private letter from a jailed republican to one of the assassins, giving details of IRA operational procedures and hinting at Collins’ involvement. (A reference to the leading role of the “The Big Fellow”, Collins’ usual nickname!)
This particularly placed Collins in a difficult position. His northern policy was a secret even from most of the members of his government. The Free State government formally expressed shock and condemnation of the assassination but also went for delay and avoidance. It really seemed for several days that war would break out between Britain and Ireland. The British coalition government – largely led by Liberals – came under great strain over the assassination. The Tories were baying for blood and blamed Lloyd George’s policy of seeking compromise with the likes of Collins for Wilson’s death. It seemed likely that the UK government would fall. Oddly, it was Collins who acted to save it! He had by now calculated that it was necessary for the Free State government to demonstrate internationally its control over the security situation in the south to prevent the British from intervening in the south. From having seemed to be ambivalent about the Four Courts occupation he now saw it as a liability and launched an assault on the Republican forces. Whether Ireland would be a 32 county republic, or a 26 county entity, or revert to colonial status, all now seemed to be hanging in the balance. It was a decisive moment and prompted Collins biographer to acidly note that “in his death Wilson wielded more widespread influence than at any other time in his political career”!! [“Michael Collins” Tim Pat Coogan p375]
It was inevitable that Dunne and O’Sullivan would hang. They were sentenced at the Old Bailey on 18th July. Dunne sought to read a statement into the record but the judge would not allow it to be read, claiming it to be no defence but a political manifesto justifying the men’s right to use violence as a political weapon. Amongst much else, Dunne wanted to tell the open court: “We took our part in supporting the aspirations of our fellow-countrymen in the same way as we took our part in supporting the nations of the world who fought for the rights of small nationalities. … The same principles for which we shed our blood on the battle-field of Europe led us to commit the act we are charged with.”
But it was well understood that the two London IRA men had labelled Wilson as they “man behind the Orange Terror” and would “go to the scaffold justified by the verdict of our own consciences”. [Irish Independent 2.7.22] The much-used phrase about one man’s terrorist being another’s freedom fighter seems apposite. They, and probably Collins, viewed themselves as secret agents in a legitimate army operating in enemy territory, carrying out an act of secret but authorised state policy against an enemy of the people. In subsequent official Irish history, this is exactly how they are viewed by the bulk of the Irish people.
Neither man was to speak of the precise motivation for the act at any point before their execution. Only very many years later would evidence emerge that the two suffered repeated beatings from prison staff before their execution, so severe and so perverse that they would today be considered to constitute torture. It seems virtually certain now that a young girl courier took a written order from Collins to London a week before the assassination. She spoke of this on her death very many decades later but, of course, had never read the letter – so we cannot be certain of its contents. Her only regret was for the two martyrs who died on the scaffold. (Though scholars continue to debate the role of Collins.)
Collins is known to have been looking “very pleased” at hearing of the shooting of Wilson, on the subsequent evidence of one of his generals. He even tried to arrange a rescue attempt for the two assassins. This was something that had been accomplished before but the agent who investigated the possibility on this occasion reported it to be impossible. The Free State government made an official plea for mercy for the two men the day before execution but the Home Secretary rejected this out of hand. Dunne and Sullivan were hanged at Wandsworth Jail on the 16th August. Colleagues of Collins remarked that at this time he seemed listless and dejected and he answered one very close friend’s query as to how he was with the reply: “Rotten”. Perhaps the execution – certainly the assault on the Four Courts – was a kind of last straw for outright Republicans. Collins was himself now assassinated in an ambush near Cork, only days later on the 22nd. He is widely credited with expecting the retaliation and is now revered as a national hero and the founder of the modern Irish army.
The Free State was formally founded in October 1922, when a mutually agreed constitution was adopted. By 1932, Republicans had stormed ahead in Free State elections and increased disconnection with Britain ensued. By 1936 a new constitution was adopted in what would briefly be called Eire. In 1949, the Republic of Ireland was established and accepted by the UK.
Over four decades after the executions, it was Patrick O’Sullivan who first applied to have the remains of the men removed from Wandsworth the prison cemetery in 1966. [Information from Mike Boulton] But it was not until 1968 that the National Graves Association, an independent body devoted to honouring the memory of all those who died in the pursuit of the Irish national identity, negotiated the transference of the remains to Dean’s Grange cemetery in Dublin.
Members of the extended O’Sullivan family interested in connecting with a view to rescuing more family history can contact Owen O’Sullivan at:
Below left – Dunne and Sullivan on the roll of honour; below right – the graves their remains were re-interred in.