The upcoming centenary of the start of the Irish Civil War in June 1922 will see a number of key events, such as the destruction of the old Irish Public Record Office, marked in different ways. Commemorations are often as interesting for what is ignored as what is remembered. As such, it will be interesting to see what the attitude will be to one of the events that triggered the Provisional Government’s assault on the Four Courts – the assassination of the Longford-born Ulster Unionist MP, Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson.
Will he be remembered in the Westminster Parliament (where he is one of only nine sitting MPs ever to have been assassinated), in his former constituency of North Down (where he represented the Ulster Unionist Party between February and June 1922), or in his home county of Longford? For any group planning a commemorative event, Ronan McGreevy’s new account of the assassination is an invaluable source.
Any commemoration of Wilson is likely to be low-key, and this is a measure of how memory of him has faded over a century. His esteemed military career and the circumstances of his death led to the first biographical study by Charles Callwell in 1927, commissioned by Wilson’s widow to highlight his achievements. Although, as McGreevy notes, Callwell’s reliance on Wilson’s diaries served “only to damn its subject’s reputation as an intriguer and gossiper”. Keith Jeffery’s 2006 biography dealt more with Wilson’s life as a soldier and politician, whereas McGreevy, and before him Rex Taylor in 1961, focus on the particular circumstances of his death.
A considerable number of new sources have become available in the intervening 60 years since Taylor’s account, and McGreevy draws very effectively on those, such as the Irish Military Archives’ Bureau of Military History and Military Service Pensions Collection, to provide fascinating detail on the assassins, Reginald Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan, and the impact of their deaths. By focusing in this level of detail on the perpetrators as well as the victim, we are given a very rounded view of the whole event.
This becomes clear immediately in the engaging first chapter, which opens with an account following Wilson from the unveiling of a war memorial to railway war veterans at Liverpool Street Station back to the fatal encounter at his home in Belgravia. The reader then follows the movements of Dunne and O’Sullivan, and for this reader one enduring question about the assassination – why was a one-legged man sent on the mission? – is answered clearly by the explanation that O’Sullivan was needed to identify Wilson, a frequent visitor to the Ministry of Labour Office where O’Sullivan worked as a clerk.
The account of the assassination itself is followed by a reconstruction of the assassins’ failed attempts to flee, hampered by O’Sullivan’s wooden leg, and their eventual capture. The focus on Dunne and O’Sullivan is enhanced by discussion of their own first World War service and by a final chapter charting the campaign to repatriate their remains, which was achieved finally in 1967.
A sub-plot of this book is the way in which Wilson’s assassination epitomises the very different experiences of first World War veterans. Chapter 3 finds Wilson searching for a role in the post-war world, initially overseeing the massive task of demobilisation of the armed forces and subsequently reacting to events in Ireland which took a turn far from what he would have deemed ideal.
Readers might be surprised to learn that Wilson did not approve of the execution of Kevin Barry, although this was on strategic rather than humanitarian grounds, and the view was expressed in private to General Sir Nevil Macready. This was typical of Wilson’s penchant to appear less hardline in private correspondence than in his public pronouncements, a duplicity that also characterised his time as security adviser to the new northern unionist regime in 1922.
This is also the tale of the two other war veterans – Dunne and O’Sullivan – raised in England, scarred by war (physically in O’Sullivan’s case and most likely mentally in Dunne’s) and radicalised by their Irish background and British policy in Ireland after 1916. This aspect of the narrative draws well on McGreevy’s extensive work to date on Irish involvement in the first World War.
Wilson's relationship with Ireland was complicated to say the least. Although born in Longford, he had a much closer political and religious affinity to Ulster
The gripping opening sets the scene for a fast-paced and well-structured narrative which, having established the tale of the assassination, takes us back to Wilson’s family background in Ulster and Longford and through his military career. His significance as an adviser during the first World War, in unifying allied command towards the latter stages of the conflict, is recognised. This helps us to understand the regard with which he was held in British society at the time of his death, illustrated by the size of the attendance at his funeral.
Wilson’s relationship with Ireland was complicated to say the least. Although born in Longford, he had a much closer political and religious affinity to Ulster. His support for Ulster – as a soldier taking the side of the Curragh “mutineers” in 1914, as a security adviser to the new Northern Ireland government during the worst communal violence of 1921-2, and briefly as a unionist MP – explain clearly why any major commemoration of his life and death, outside of staunch unionist circles in Ulster, is highly unlikely.
McGreevy’s conclusion asks the “whodunit” question that most readers will seek an answer to – who ordered the assassination? The plausibility of the four main theories, some previously examined by Peter Hart, are considered on all their merits. McGreevy also adds another significant question, the answer to which in some way might help understand the first question, of cui bono? Wilson’s death sparked the Irish Civil War (though likely another spark would have been found if not this one) and led to great loss for the families of the victim and the assassins. Was Irish republicanism’s “great hatred” of Henry Wilson worth the cost of his assassination?
Marie Coleman is Professor of Twentieth Century Irish History at Queen’s University Belfast.