Four Martyrs: Remembering Joe McKelvey


On the 17th of June 1898 Joseph McKelvey was born in the small town of Stewartstown Co.Tyrone to Patrick McKelvey a member of Britain’s colonial police force at the time the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and Rose O’Neill a post office worker

Interest in the GAA and the founding of O’Donovan Rossa CLG

As a young man Joe McKelvey developed an interest in both the Irish language and the GAA and in 1916 aged only 18  McKelvey alongside other volunteers became a founding member of O’Donovan Rossa GAA Club in West Belfast, a club which is still prominent to this day and each year honours McKelvey through a blitz tournament.

Socialist Republican Ideals

Joe McKelvey did not merely believe in an Ireland free from British rule but a Socialist Ireland where to working class held power. Following the foundation of the Communist party of Ireland in 1921 Joe McKelvey had expressed interest in joining while imprisoned. While in Mountjoy Gaol Joe McKelvey shared a cell with Liam Mellows and it has been stated that the political ideals held by McKelvey influenced notes written by Liam Mellows from the Gaol.

IRA Activity during the Tan War

During the Black and Tan war Joe McKelvey was commander of the Belfast brigade Óglaigh na hÉireann. In April 1920 McKelvey and a unit of Volunteers from the Belfast brigade burnt out the British tax office in Belfast. In July of that year, McKelvey alongside many other Nationalists and Republicans were expelled from their Jobs due to loyalist intimidation.

In August McKelvey helped to arrange a vehicle to move IRA Volunteers  from the 1st Cork brigade to and from Belfast where they would execute RIC district inspector Oswald Swanzy on August 22nd 1920 for his role in killing of IRA Volunteer and Lord Mayor of Cork Tómas MacCurtain. 

Following the execution of Swanzy by the IRA, loyalists carried out reprisals by burning out homes in Lisburn and McKelvey was forced to head for Dublin and lie low.

In March 1921 when the IRA GHQ (General Headquarters) in Dublin decided to reorganize the existing 87 IRA Brigades I Ireland into 16 divisions, McKelvey was appointed by Commander of the Third Northern division which was made up of 3 Brigades from Belfast, the wider Antrim area and East Down. In May of that year, McKelvey and the Third Northern division suffered a significant blow as a number of Volunteers sent to bolster IRA forces in Cavan were captured at Lappanduff hill with one of the young Volunteers Seán McCartney aged 23 been killed in action.

Post Truce activity and the raid on St Mary’s Hall

On July 11th 1921 as a truce was declared the fighting between IRA and British occupation forces ceased in most parts of the country however in Belfast loyalist violence continued against the nationalist population and McKelvey’s forces found themselves significantly short of arms and finances needed to defend against loyalist violence, so much so that he wrote to GHQ highlighting the situation. In March 1922 The B Specials raided St Mary’s Hall in Belfast capturing sensitive material belonging to McKelvey including the details of over 1000 IRA Volunteers from the Third Northern Division. 

Activity during the Counter Revolution

In 1922 as most of the Northern leadership of the IRA sided with the acceptance of the treaty of surrender which had been signed on December 6th of the previous year, McKelvey refused to do so as he saw the treaty for exactly what it was and headed to Dublin to join the Resistance. 

In March 1922 at a convention in Dublin members of the IRA including McKelvey purged the organisation of those who supported the treaty and, following this McKelvey was elected to the Army Executive of the IRA. 

On April 14th Joe McKelvey was part of the IRA forces took command of the four courts in Dublin and on June 18th just 10 days before Free State counter revolutionary forces began to shell the IRA position at the force courts McKelvey was made IRA Chief of Staff replacing Liam Lynch.

Capture and imprisonment by free state forces

On June 28th 1922 at the behest of their masters in London, Free state forces shelled the IRA position at the four courts with 18 pounder guns given and manned by the British. Following two days of fighting a large explosion caused by the shelling destroyed much of the four court’s forcing the IRA to surrender.

Following the surrender, Joe McKelvey like most of his comrades was at the four courts was imprisoned in Mountjoy Gaol in Dublin by the free state. 

Last letter and Execution

At around 3am on the morning of December 8th Joe McKelvey alongside 3 of his comrades who were captured at the Four Courts, Rory O’Connor, Dick Barrett and Liam Mellows were informed they were to be executed that morning following the IRA shooting of Free State politican, Seán Hales.

Before his execution, Joe McKelvey wrote the following letter to his mother

” My Dearest, Dearest Mother, How can I tell you the news I have to let you know. A document has just been read to me  informing me that as a reprisal for the shooting of Seán Hales I am to be executed at 8am this morning. I can honestly tell you that the news hasn’t upset me one little bit, and I only hope I shall face the firing squad with equal equanimity. Liam Mellows, Rory O’Connor and Dick Barrett are, I think, to go along with myself, at least they have been brought out with me. I haven’t yet seen the chaplain but he is to be brought to me however. I feel quite happy and I hope God will accept my sacrifice for himself. I feel very much the fact that it is my own countrymen who sentenced me to death, but I pray God that the deaths of those of us who are to be executed this morning may open their eyes to the dreadful crime of going against their own better natures, against everything they once held dear, and at the bidding of our one enemy, England, waging such cruel and relentless war against the Republic which they would have once died to uphold.
Now, mother, as the time is growing short, and as I want to see my comrades before we go, I must draw to a close. So good-bye, good-bye, dearest heart and God bless and keep you, my mother. Give my heart’s love to all friends. Pray for me dearest.

Your loving son,

That morning at 8am Joe McKelvey alongside his 3 comrades were executed by a free state firing squad.


Despite the execution of Joe McKelvey and his comrades on that December morn the free state once again failed in their attempts to destroy the struggle for an All Ireland People’s Republic. 99 years on the struggle for the Irish Republic lives on and in it so too does the spirt of Joe McKelvey and all those who paid the ultimate sacrifice in the ongoing struggle for Irish Freedom.

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