Four Martyrs: Remembering Rory O’Connor

At 8am on December 8 1922, Commandant General Rory O’Connor, Irish Republican Army was led before a firing squad in Mountjoy Gaol and executed by the Free State Administration, doing the work of British Imperialism to suppress the All Ireland Republic proclaimed in 1916. With this execution the Free State put down one of the keenest military minds in the Republican ranks and one of the greatest threats to its very existence. Rory O’Connor was an uncompromising Revolutionary Soldier who unflinchingly stood by the Republic and his oath to uphold it, and was prepared to wage a war against British Imperialism and the Free State Counter Revolution until the Republic of 1916, the People’s Republic, was reestablished. That is why he was executed.

Born on Kildare Street in Dublin in 1883, O’Connor was well educated and went to university at University College Dublin to attain a Bachelors of Engineering and a Bachelors of Arts. While at UCD in 1905, O’Connor became involved with the Young Ireland Branch of the United Irish League, a section of the divided Home Rule Movement, where he met two men who would become his closest Friends and comrades, Tommy Dillion and Joseph Mary Plunkett. With these three on the committee of Young Ireland and advocating a fuller form of Independence, it became too radical for the League who attempted to get them to tone their message down. They failed and the young radicals would eventually break with the League in favor of a Revolutionary path to freedom.

Following Graduation in 1910, O’Connor worked first for the Great Midlands Railway, before emigrating to Canada to work on the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway and afterwards the Canadian Northern Railway. During this time, he was responsible for the laying of some 1,500 miles of railroad. O’Connor’s civilian career was to be short lived as in 1915 he returned to Dublin at the request of Plunkett, who was by now a key member of the Revolutionary Movement and a leading member of the Military Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the council charged with planning a Republican uprising against British rule in Ireland.

Once back in Ireland, O’Connor took up positions in the IRB and its open mass military organisation, the Irish Volunteers, and was appointed to Plunkett’s Command Staff which operated from his family estate at Larkfield, near Kimmage. Tommy Dillion was also a member of the command staff and in order to give cover to their revolutionary activities O’Connor and Dillion established the Larkfield Chemical Company. On the face of it, the company produced aspirin, but in reality, O’Connor and Dillion were producing explosives on Plunkett’s orders to stockpile in advance of the Rising.

O’Connor would often test these explosives, and others that had been liberated by the Volunteers at lands owned by Dublin corporation at Vartry Reservoir in Roundwood County Wicklow, which provided a safe haven from prying British eyes.

In January 1916, as preparations for the Rising escalated, Plunkett appointed O’Connor as his director of engineering, with a staff that included Tommy Dillion, George and Jack Plunkett, Fergus Kelly, Con Keating and Michael Collins. While the main role of this engineering dept was the manufacture of explosives and the training of the near 90 Republican Volunteers based at Larkfield and known as the Kimmage Garrison, O’Connor’s skills also led to him being part of some important events in the lead up to the Rising.

Due to his association with Plunkett and Larkfield, O’Connor was in close contact with other members of the Military Council, and it was for this reason that he was chosen to be involved in the distribution of the information contained in the ‘castle document’ an intelligence document smuggled out of Dublin Castle by a Republican sympathiser that detailed plans by the British to forcibly disarm the Volunteers.

With the outbreak of the Rising at Easter 1916, O’Connor was an Intelligence Officer attached to the Republican Headquarters at the GPO. While moving between the Garrisons he was twice shot and injured, the first when he was grazed on the head when a bullet passed though his hat, and the second, when he was shot in the ankle and required hospitalisation, ending his active involvement in the Rising.

Moved from the Hospital to a nursing home to recuperate, O’Connor was missed in the round-up of Republicans by the British and was in a position to be a key man on the ground for the reorganisation of the IRA and the wider republican movement.

Other IRA members at the time, remember O’Connor being the driving force in this re-organisation. While for some heads were down, for O’Connor it was business as usual. He was passionate in his assertion that the war wasn’t over, and it was their duty to the Republic to reorganise another round in the fight. O’Connor was centrally involved in the establishment of the Prisoners Aid Committee, fundraising for the dependents of Republican POWs, and in 1917 was one of the key organisers of the Funeral of Muriel MacDonagh, widow of executed 1916 leader Tom MacDonagh and a Revolutionary Republican in her own right, which say 4,000 Republicans march behind her coffin to Glasnevin in a defiant show of strength.

O’Connor was politically astute, and while he viewed himself as a revolutionary soldier and not a politician, he played a key role in the Republican Movement taking over Sinn Féin and in Sinn Féin adopting a Republican constitution in 1917. Maintaining his close links with the Plunkett family, O’Connor was one of the central organisers of Count Plunkett’s Election Victory in the 1917 Roscommon bye-election, which in the wake of the Rising gave a clear demonstration that the Irish People stood firmly behind the Republic.

With the threat of Conscription in 1918 it was agreed that O’Connor and the engineering dept would establish an company of engineers directly answerable to GHQ that would be responsible for widespread sabotage and special operations if conscription was introduced. Known as the 5th Dublin Battallion or the Engineering Corps, this unit would go on to play a very important role in the Tan War, remaining active for IRA Special operations.

O’Connor was present at the Establishment of the Irish Republic on January 21 1919 by the Revolutionary Dáil Éireann, and play a major but widely unknown role as the IRA’s Director of Engineering during the Tan War, attached to GHQ, the leading body of the IRA throughout the war. Under O’Connor, plans for sabotage were drawn up across the country targeting bridges, electricity supply, services to British Barracks, and the destruction of Railways. Though initially based in Dublin, O’Connor greatly expanded the role of the Engineers through a a two week-long course was set up for budding engineers from other IRA units in the country, with O’Connor, Jack Plunkett and Liam Archer acting as lecturers. “In time, we developed training in the use of explosives and demolition of rails and bridges and the mining of roads,” Archer recalled.

A key area of the Engineers work would also be prison breaks, something O’Connor would grow to excel at, earning himself the unofficial title of O/C of Escapes. Some of the sensational escapes that O’Connor is said to have played the lead role in organising include the escape of Robert Barton from Mountjoy in March 1919, the subsequent mass escape of 20 IRA POWs from Mountjoy later the same month, and the daring escape of 6 IRA Volunteers from Strangeways Prison in England in October 1919.

O’Connor now moved to target British Imperialism on its own soil. With Strong IRA Units in Manchester and Liverpool, O’Connor instigated plans to bring the war to England through a sabotage campaign. The campaign commenced with the setting of fires by the IRA in Liverpool in November resulting in the complete destruction of 14 cotton warehouses and 4 large timber yards, and during the operation the IRA opened fire on members of the Police who tried to interfere.

Arrested in 1920, O’Connor was held first in Arbor Hill before being sent to the Curragh Military Prison. Keen to return to the war, O’Connor masterminded his own escape from the curragh, walking out dressed as a tradesman and buying a return ticket to Lucan, giving the impression he had nothing to fear from ant search for an escaped POW. From Lucan, O’Connor took a tram back to the City and attended a meeting of the GHQ staff. On March 14 1921, O’Connor attended an IRA gathering in Dublin to much celebration as the rank and file received the news of the Director of Engineering’s escape.

In 1921, O’Connor became suspicious of the role being played by Michael Collins and the IRA Intelligence Dept, believing that Collins was using his contacts in Dublin Castle to make overtures to the British Government designed at compromising the movement. O’Connor was an uncompromising Revolutionary Republican and had began to pick up on sections of the leadership looking for compromise with Britain, something he would never accept.

Militantly opposed to first the truce, and then the treaty, Rory O’Connor asserted that Collins and Griffith should be arrested for treason on their return from the negotiations in London. O’Connor argued that the Republican Movement should immediately expel those members who were seeking comprise and instead continue the war for National Liberation until victory.

In January 1922, even before the treaty of surrender had been formally accepted by traitors to the Republic, O’Connor called a meeting of senior IRA members at number 71 Heytesbury Street, Dublin to prepare to organise in defence of the Republic even if that meant fighting former comrades along with the British.

Those at the meeting included Liam Mellows, Ernie O’Malley, Liam Lynch and Seamus Robinson. Those at the meeting all agreed that the treaty could never be accepted by Republicans, but differed on how the IRA should respond, with Lynch insisting on Unity, whereas O’Connor was clear a break with the traitors must be made in order to defend the Republic. O’Malley and Robinson both strongly backed O’Connor, while Mellows believed unity should be maintained as he was convinced the IRA would never endorse the treaty.

Mellows was O’Connor’s closest revolutionary ally and comrade forming a combined political and military outlook in defence of the Republic and O’Connor was willing to put his approach to the test. While Mellows approach won the day at the meeting, the IRA leaders continued to do all they could to win the support of the movement for the Republic and not the treaty. O’Connor and O’Malley continued to press the need for an Army Convention to reorganise the IRA to continue the fight and were soon supported not only by Mellows, but bySean Russell, Michael McCormick, Oscar Traynor Seamus O’Donovan and Tom Maguire.

On January 10 at a meeting of IRA officers in his home in Monkstown, Dún Laoghaire, O’Connor was elected Chair of the Republican Military Council. At a second meeting 10 days later, a temporary IRA GHQ staff was established with Lynch as Chief of Staff and O’Connor as Director of Engineering. It was agreed that an IRA convention should be called without delay, to elected a new executive.

In March 1922, O’Connor stepped into the Public forum as the leader of the Republican Military Council, in an effort to rally the defence of the Republic. He called a press conference in advance of the scheduled IRA convention at which he stated in truth that he spoke as a representative of 80 per cent of the IRA. Questioned by reporters, O’Connor was clear that the treaty of surrender could never be accepted by Republicans, and that the fight to defend the Republic must continue. O’Connor asserted, ‘the Republic still exists. There are times when revolution is justified. The army in many countries has overturned Governments from time to time. There is no Government in Ireland now to give the IRA a lead, hence we want to straighten out the impossible position which exists.’

He was then asked by a journalist present, ‘Do we take it we are going to have a military dictatorship, then? O’Connor responded, ‘You can take it that way if you like’. The journalist continued ‘Then the [IRA] convention won’t make for peace? To which O’Connor defiantly declared, ‘It will make for the liberty of the country, I believe. The Treaty section is going off the straight road and into the bogs to get freedom. We hold that is wrong.’

Rory O’Connor was making clear just days before the Convention, that the IRA would remain on the high road to the Republic.

Four days later, on March 26 1922, the IRA convention began in the Mansion House in Dublin and was attended by over 220 delegates from across the country. The Convention rejected the treaty and upheld the Republic proclaimed in 1916. It also elected a temporary executive of 16 people and ajorned until April 9 1922.

On the April 9, when the convention reconvened, it adopted a new constitution decalring its alleigence to the All Ireland Republic and elected a 16 person executive consisting of Liam Lynch (Cork), Frank Barrett (Clare), Liam Deasy (Cork), Tom Hales (Cork), Tom Maguire (Mayo), Joseph McKelvey (Belfast), Liam Mellows (Galway), Rory O’Connor (Dublin), Peadar O’Donnell (Donegal), Florence O’Donoghue (Cork), Sean O’Hegarty (Cork), Ernie O’Malley (Dublin), Séumas Robinson (Tipperary), Joe O’ConnorSean Moylan (Cork), and P.J. Ruttledge (Mayo). When the Executive met, it elected Liam Lynch as new IRA chief of staff and appointed a seven-member Army Council. Barry’s Hotel in Gardiner Row was made IRA headquarters.

On April 14, 200 members of the IRA led by O’Connor seized the four Courts in Dublin as a new Republican headquarters and several other buildings across Dublin city. The purpose of the action was to defiantly defend the Republic, provoke the British to attack and therefore destroy the treaty of surrender. Although Lynch was the Chief Of Staff, it was O’Connor who was firmly in charge of the IRA and the developing Military situation in Dublin. He was backed most closely in these efforts by Liam Mellows, Ernie O’Malley and Joe McKelevy, the four of them forming a de facto leadership of the Republic.  In the months that followed, McKelvey was elected the Chief Of Staff of the IRA with O’Connor remaining Director of Engineering, Mellows as Quartermaster General and Ernie O’Malley as the Director of Operations.

In May, O’Connor publically advocated that the position that Republicans should take should be to boycott the free state elections. Committed to Revolutionary Republicanism, O’Connor stated that the expression of popular will was not to be found through parliamentary channels. 

On July 28 1922, on the orders of the British Government, Michael Collins ordered the new free state army to launch a war to supress the All Ireland Republic. Britain provided the guns and manpower for an all-out attack on the Four Courts. Bombarded by British guns, the Four Courts fell  on July 30, but the Battle of Dublin and the war in defence of the Republic raged on.  O’Connor, who had been wounded in the fighting was captured along with Mellows, McKelevy O’Malley and many of the other Republican leaders. O’Malley quickly made good his escape, but O’Connor, Mellows and McKelvey were imprisoned in Mountjoy by the Free State.

Despite being captured, O’Connor continued to communicate with the Republican leaders on the outside and particularly Ernie O’Malley, advocating a return to guerrilla warfare across the country advocating burning down of Free State government departments or the seizure of public mail. Should police be assigned to guard postmen on their rounds, then even better, for they could be robbed for their guns. Munitions was an issue at the forefront of his mind, “I suppose you have Chemists working anyway I will send formula for incendiary bombs,” he wrote, while recommending the services of a Trinity student who had previously volunteered his technical skills to the Four Courts. O’Connor there was the chance of equipment still being inside their former stronghold, unscathed from the fire and overlooked by the Free State and should be investigated.

 Being in prison did not diminish his commitment to the Revolution and he immediately began to plan an escape from Mountjoy that would see the Republican leadership return to the outside. Plans for a tunnel out of the gaol with O’Connor and other members of the IRA executive including Tom Barry, Mellows and McKelvey acting as an escape committee and overseeing the work themselves. With Tunnels in A wing and C wing being discovered, the Escape Committee then requested the IRA commence tunnelling from the outside. This was begun from a house close by and by December 7 1922 had gun under wall of the Gaol and reached the exercise yard.

In the small hours of that morning, O’Connor, Mellows McKelvey and Dick Barrett were taken from their cells and informed they were to be shot at dawn as a reprisal for the execution by the IRA ot the Counter Revolutionary Sean Hales. Fearing an assassination campaign would bring down the Free State, the leadership of the Counter Revolution selected the Four Republican leaders for execution to symbolically represent the four provinces of Ireland, but materially to remove the IRA of uncompromising Revolutionary Political and Military Leadership, a Leadership most capable to rebuild the All Ireland Republic.

At 8am Commandant General Rory O’Connor was shot by the Free State firing squad. He went to his death as a Revolutionary soldier of the All Ireland Republic, the People’s Republic as outlined in the 1916 Proclamation and the 1919 Democratic Programme. 99 years after his execution the struggle for which he gave his life continues unfinished, and the Revolutionary contributions of Rory O’Connor continue to inspire all those who remain committed to the establishment of the All Ireland Republic. Through his example, Rory O’Connor made clear that it is the Revolutionary path alone that will lead to the Republic and that the Revolutionaries of each generation must continue to be uncompromising in their resistance against imperialism, continuing the fight against all odds to win the People back to the Republic. 99 years after the execution of Rory O’Connor, this generation of Republicans must not be found wanting. The struggle continues.

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