London assassination a landmark in Irish history
Irish History

London assassination a landmark in Irish history

Henry Wilson

The gunning down of a British army officer had far-reaching consequences for Ireland

On June 22, 1922, British Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson unveiled a memorial at Liverpool Street station in London to the 1,200 men of the Great Eastern Railway Company who had died in the Great War, 1914-1918.

Two hours later he was gunned down on the doorstep of his home at 36 Eaton Place by two Great War veterans, men who had become IRA volunteers — Reginald Dunne and Joe O’Sullivan.

Both men were London-Irish. Dunne was the son of a British bandmaster; his mother’s family was from Co. Monaghan. O’Sullivan was from an “old Fenian family”, according to his brother Pat, who like his younger brother, joined the IRA during the War of Independence.

The O’Sullivans were from west Cork. John O’Sullivan, Joe’s father, got a job as a master tailor in London as did Pat O’Sullivan. “Our house in London was always a place of call for any of the men on the run,” Pat recalled in his application to the Irish state for a pension.

“Why bring my family into it, not to boast, no, but to help you form a true picture. From 1919 on my whole life onwards was devoted to the fight for freedom; I will always be satisfied in my conscience that I did my duty for Ireland.”

They were part of the Irish diaspora living in Britain who decided to fight for the country of their ancestors against the country of their birth.

Dunne, an only child, was attracted to Irish nationalism through traditional music. Britain was the “enemy country” and he exhorted his grieving parents to live in Ireland which they did after his death.

In a letter to Rory O’Connor, then the officer commanding in Britain, Dunne revealed how he felt slighted as a second generation IRA volunteer.

“There is moreover a certain amount of scorn for men born over here. Some of these latter class have very little to interest them materially in our cause. They have everything to lose, on the other hand, and in many cases their own parents are against them. These men are fighting because of the blood that’s in them. Many of them are sensitive about their London accents and manners.”

O’Sullivan told his father: “The felon’s cap is the noblest crown an Irish head can wear.”

His father had no doubt that his son did the right thing. “I feel you know of my loss for which I have no regrets as it was done for the love of his faith and for Ireland. He removed a dirty Orange dog.”

The recent release of the Irish Military Service Pensions Collection (MSPC) has revealed for the first time just how prevalent the IRA was during the War of Independence. Dunne and the O’Sullivan brothers were able to use their London accents and wound badges to enter British army barracks and steal cartloads of weapons for the IRA.

Wilson was the first sitting MP to be killed in Britain since the prime minister Spencer Perceval in 1812.

“I am an Irishman, born in County Longford,” Wilson had declared in the month before he was shot, but he was a southern unionist who regarded the Anglo Irish Treaty of December 1921 as a sell-out to the “murder gang”, as he called the IRA.

Wilson had been the head of the British army, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS), in the final year of the Great War. According to many of his contemporaries, he was one of the men who won that war.

After his four-year term as CIGS ended in February 1922, he was elected unopposed as a unionist MP for North Down two days later.

Wilson had been appointed military adviser to James Craig’s Northern Ireland government in March 1922. Dunne and O’Sullivan held Wilson responsible for the ‘Orange terror’ — the Belfast pogroms against the Catholic population which began in 1920 and reached a new intensity of violence by summer 1922.

Both men had been severely wounded in the war. Dunne’s kneecap had been shattered; O’Sullivan lost a leg at Passchendaele and was fitted with an artificial limb.

Given their disabilities, the attack on Wilson would be tantamount to a suicide mission. Almost inevitably, they were quickly captured as they tried to flee the scene and hanged on August 10, 1922.

The facts of his shooting are not in dispute, but on whose orders were Dunne and O’Sullivan acting?

This question has been pertinent for the last century.

The shooting could only have been ordered at the highest level — and the highest level was Michael Collins, then commander-in-chief of the National Army and president of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB).

The IRB was the secret organisation to which Dunne belonged, and on the night before the assassination, he confided his plans to Sam Maguire in Mooney’s pub in Holborn. Maguire was the head of the London IRB and the man who had sworn Collins into the organisation.

Wilson’s death infuriated the British government.

Since April 1922, anti-Treaty IRA members had occupied the Four Courts in Dublin, in defiance of the Provisional Government, which feared that challenging them would lead to civil war in Ireland.

In May, Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera, the leaders of the pro- and anti-Treaty factions of Sinn Féin, announced a pre-election pact in which they agreed to field candidates in the general election of June 1922 in accordance with their respective strengths in the outgoing Dáil.

The British government believed the Irish electorate was being deprived of a real choice. Acceptance of the Treaty was a prerequisite for serving in an Irish government, but the pact gave rise to the possibility those terms could be violated.

A copy of the official IRA newspaper An t-Óglách had been found on Dunne. The paper was available in news-stands in Ireland, but it was enough for British PM Lloyd George to pin the order for the assassination — erroneously, as it turned out — on the anti-Treaty forces occupying the Four Courts.

He wrote to Collins post haste that evening: “His Majesty’s government cannot consent to a continuance of this state of things, and they feel entitled to ask you formally to bring it to an end forthwith.”

This was the ultimatum that forced the hand of the nascent Irish government.

The Wilson shooting was Ireland’s Sarajevo moment. Without it, there would have been no British ultimatum, no shelling of the Four Courts, no Civil War. Michael Collins would have lived, and the history of the new Irish state would have been different.

The impact of the Wilson assassination has been underestimated, because of the assumption that the Civil War would have happened anyway and his death only hastened the inevitable, but no war is inevitable.

From Collins’ perspective, Wilson was a dangerous enemy of Irish nationalism. Collins was in the visitors’ gallery of the House of Commons in late May 1922 when Wilson declared that the British government should have no hesitation in crossing the Border to secure order. Collins also held Wilson responsible for the “worse than Armenian atrocities” in Belfast.

Wilson had made enemies too within the British government. Yet Collins miscalculated the depth of unhappiness in Britain about the toleration afforded to the anti-Treaty side by the fledging Irish state.

The shots that killed Wilson would lead on exactly two months later to the shot that killed Collins at Béal na Bláth, leaving Ireland immeasurably the poorer for his passing.

Ronan McGreevy is the author of ‘Great Hatred: the Assassination of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson MP’, published by Faber (€16.99). He is a former Irish Post journalist.