Mary Lou McDonald and family reflect on execution of great-uncle during Civil War

Members of her family attended a centenary commemoration at the Garden of Remembrance

On the morning of December 19th, 1922, seven men were executed at a building known as the Glasshouse in the Curragh Camp.

The seven who were captured were found to be in “possession without proper authority” of weapons, which was a crime punishable by death under laws passed during the Civil War by the Free State government.

The seven men had been discovered in a hideout at Mooresbridge on the edge of the Curragh on the night of December 13th. An eighth man was beaten to death on the spot.

One of the seven was James O’Connor (24) from Bansha, Co Tipperary. “I am going to Eternal Glory tomorrow morning with six other true-hearted Irishmen,” he wrote in his last letter to his mother.


James was grand-uncle of Sinn Féin president, Mary Lou McDonald. Her grandmother Molly Hayes was James O’Connor’s sister.

At the end of Sunday’s commemoration in the Garden of Remembrance, Ms McDonald, her mother, Joan, and cousin Paul McKiernan had a family photograph taken beside a wreath laid by the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Tanáiste Micheál Martin at the Children of Lir statue.

The families of the 81 people executed by the Free State government during the Civil War have had to live with a century of silence.

“In our case, our great-grandmother would have gotten word just days before Christmas that James had been executed. That doesn’t go away after one generation or two. It becomes the story of the family,” Ms McDonald said.

“I feel this is a very emotional time,” said her mother. “Emotions ran high on all sides. It was a dreadful time. It was a war that could have been and should have been avoided.

“It’s very sad and very heartbreaking. My mother didn’t talk very much about it as a child. She did say a few things about how her mother suffered. She went to collect his things at the Curragh Camp. They were thrown out as though he was just nothing. It was just horrible and very cruel.”

Mr McKiernan said those on both sides of the Civil War were “truly committed to their cause. There was no greed involved. There was no personal gain. They gave of themselves completely selflessly.

“What is moving from their final letters is a deep faith and a lack of bitterness. The kindness showed by the army chaplain at the Curragh to the seven that were executed that is reflected in those letters.

Ms McDonald said it has taken a century for a public conversation to take place around the men who were executed and those who died on both sides.

“It is a necessary and a healthy thing. It is also for us, as a family, the first moment that there has actually been a very public recognition of what happened by the Government, by Fianna Fáil and by Fine Gael, the old Civil War parties.

“That’s a good thing and a necessary thing. I remember my grandmother spoke very little about it. It was too hard for them to talk about it. I also know that they didn’t feel safe at a point in time talking about it.

“It is fantastic that this has happened. It’s been necessary. From here, we go on deepening our understanding of these things. They have a contemporary application in terms of the North and the journey that Irish people, all of us, have to travel to complete reconciliation. It can be done though. There is no doubt.”

As Sinn Féin president, she believes that the Government should apologise for the extrajudicial executions carried out by Free State forces during the Civil War and correct the Dáil record in relation to the Ballyseedy massacre in which eight republican prisoners were tied to a landmine and blown up in Co Kerry in March 1923. The official account says the eight men were blown up by a landmine they had planted themselves but the reality is that it was made by Free State soldiers to kill them.

“There is a very legitimate ask there be an apology and not a changing of the record of the Dáil but just an addendum to correct the record of the Dáil. We know that it is not currently correct as what happened,” she said.

“This isn’t about finger-pointing or blame. This is about clarity so that the families of prisoners, who were executed.”

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times