One hundred years ago: The last person to die in the War of Independence

Hannah Carey was shot dead outside the Imperial Hotel in Killarney on July 11th, 1921

Arthur Griffith arriving at the Mansion House on July 11th, 1921, after the truce is declared. Photograph: National Museum of Ireland

Arthur Griffith arriving at the Mansion House on July 11th, 1921, after the truce is declared. Photograph: National Museum of Ireland

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At 11.45am on July 11th, 1921, Hannah Carey left the Imperial Hotel in Killarney, where she worked, to observe street happenings, after two British soldiers were shot as they walked down the town to order goods.

Just moments after she stood on College Street, a Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) officer driving a Crossley Tender came around the corner firing his weapon. A stray bullet hit Ms Carey in the throat.

She was the last person to be killed in the War of Independence before the truce came into operation at midday on July 11th. Others, though, died from wounds sustained in the war after the truce.

According to research by Kerry historian Owen O’Shea, Carey, who was 48, lay dying for two hours on the floor of the hotel on College Street, where she worked as a waitress.

Despite the intervention of two local doctors, she succumbed to her injuries. As she stumbled off the street after being shot, she mumbled to her employer, “I am done”, before collapsing to the ground.

The unmarried native of Killarney has been a “minor footnote in the history of the War of Independence”, he says. Not a photograph of her survives.

Locals called her a “most harmless woman”. She was one of 98 women who died in the War of Independence.

Her tragic death occurred a few minutes after the last attack of the war when Sgt Charles Mears and Sgt Clarke-Messing of the Royal Fusiliers were shot near Killarney Town Hall. The two officers were on their way into town to buy supplies for the local barracks. Mears died from his wounds a day later; Clarke-Messing survived.

Escalating attacks

As most of the country remained quiet in expectation of the truce coming into force, Kerry IRA volunteers in No 2 Brigade under commanding officer Humphrey Murphy escalated attacks on British soldiers.

On the night prior to the truce, four British soldiers and three IRA volunteers were killed in a shoot-out in Castleisland. Many were angry that such an ambush had taken place with the truce in sight. One local called it a “complete fiasco”.

That night, too, four British soldiers were abducted by seven members of an IRA unit in Cork. Their bodies were found the following morning in Ellis Quarry outside Cork city. They had been blindfolded and shot in the head, according to Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc, author of Truce: Murder, Myth and the Last Days of the Irish War of Independence.

This was a shocking episode which remains controversial to this day. Why would the Cork City Brigade resort to such ruthlessness with the truce in sight? It appears the killing was in response to the abduction and murder of IRA volunteer Denis Spriggs on July 8th by British soldiers.

One of the last incidents in the War of Independence took place in Castlepollard, Co Westmeath.

Many IRA units were exhausted, thousands of men were in jail and ammunition was running low. Others, though, wanted one more crack at the British before hostilities ceased.

Among them were men in Westmeath under the command of Seán Boylan, the father of the former Meath football manager. Boylan snr sent word that every RIC barracks in his area was to be attacked on the day of the truce.

Only one major assault occurred as a result of his command. Men from the second and third battalions attacked Castlepollard RIC barracks which had a garrison of 40 constables.

An account of the attack states that it began at 10.30am on July 11th. The men took up position in a wood near the barracks at a distance of about 120 metres. The attackers were armed with four rifles, shotguns and 100-150 rounds of ammunition apiece. They raked the outside of the barracks with bullets. When midday came, “we gave them a royal salute until the bell rang the Angelus, and we went off”, according to James Maguire, the brigade commander in Mullingar, who led the raid on Castlepollard.

Ending conflict

Three days prior to the truce Eamon de Valera telegraphed British prime minister David Lloyd George stating he was ready to meet him. De Valera’s letter expressed the belief that “the desire you express on the part of the British government to end the centuries of conflict between the peoples of these two islands, and to establish relations of neighbourly harmony, is the genuine desire of the people of Ireland.

“I have consulted with my colleagues and secured the views of the representatives of the minority of our nation in regard to the invitation you have sent me.”

Lloyd George agreed it would be impossible to conduct negotiations in an atmosphere where the violence continued and ordered his troops and police to “suspend active operations against those who are engaged in this unfortunate conflict”.

The news of the ceasefire and imminent truce was greeted with jubilation in many parts of the country. The public were tired of war, having endured it in its various forms since the summer of 1914. That evening Gen Nevil Macready, the officer commanding British forces in Ireland, arrived at the Mansion House. A few days previously he might have been expected to have been shot had he ventured out without an escort. Instead he was cheered to an echo by the huge crowd assembled outside the Mansion House. He went in to discuss truce terms with de Valera, Cathal Brugha, Robert Barton and Eamonn Duggan – the latter two would take part in the Treaty negotiations.

Macready had come to the conclusion that the “whole manhood” of Ireland had turned against the British and “unless you can kill the whole blooming lot”, Britain would have to come to terms.

It was fortunate the truce came when it did for the IRA, with so many men in jail and so many brigades short of weapons, though, equally, the fact they had brought the British to the negotiating table at all was a tribute to their tenacity.

Many did not expect the truce to hold. The ranks of the IRA swelled during the late summer with the recruitment of what was disparingly called “Trucileers” who were “under the bed” to use republican parlance during war.

There was much distrust between the two sides but the truce held, leading to the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921.