‘The felon’s cap is the noblest crown an Irish head can wear’

Reginald Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan were hanged a century ago for the assassination of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson MP

The Anglo-Irish Treaty stipulated that the Irish Free State could not have its own navy for its own defence and the seas around Ireland would be protected by the Royal Navy.

Yet the British raised no objection when two commandeered passenger steamers, the Arvonia and Lady Wicklow, left Dublin on August 7th, 1922 with 636 Free State troops on board.

At 2am the following morning they landed at Passage West outside Cork city. A Royal Navy escort led the ships through the minefield.

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Further down the coast 380 men were landed from the Alexandra and the gunboat Helga, which had achieved notoriety during the Easter Rising when it shelled rebel positions into oblivion. The landings took the anti-Treaty soldiers by surprise in their Cork redoubt.

On August 10th Treaty forces entered Cork city. The anti-Treaty forces fled the city, leaving a trail of destruction behind them.

There was much cheering as General Emmet Dalton’s men paraded through the city. The fall of Cork city meant the end of conventional fighting with combatants facing each other in the open. It ought to have been the end of the war. Government forces had captured the cities of Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Waterford.

On the same morning the two men whose actions had started the Civil War were hanged at Wandsworth Prison in London. Reginald Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan went to their deaths serene in their belief that they had done the right thing in assassinating Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson MP on June 22nd, 1922.

The death of the Irish-born former head of the British army on the doorstep of his London home prompted an ultimatum from the British government to its Irish equivalent — deal with the anti-Treaty rebels occupying the Four Courts or it would do so.

Faced with the possibility of reopening hostilities with Britain or confronting the rebels, the Provisional Government opened fire on the Four Courts six days after the Wilson shooting, thus beginning the Civil War.

Dunne and O’Sullivan were sentenced to death on July 22nd, 1922 after a trial lasting just a day. Coincidentally it was also the day Louis Mountbatten married Edwina Ashley at Westminster Abbey. Mountbatten’s killing in 1979 would be as controversial in its day as Wilson’s was in 1922.

Despite a petition which garnered 45,000 signatures and a plea from many prominent people for clemency, including George Bernard Shaw, the British government was unmoved and determined to hang the two men.

Dunne and O’Sullivan spent their last days preparing for death and setting their affairs in order.

He requested that all traces of his involvement with the British army during the first World War be destroyed and that Hail Glorious St Patrick be sung as they were being hanged

Unassuming to the last, O’Sullivan’s single-page will, written in his expansive handwriting, left everything to his father, “that he shall give certain of my effects to my brothers and sisters at his discretion”.

Dunne, by contrast, left a detailed list of instructions parcelling out every possession. His violin, blackthorn stick, fountain pen, numerous books, photographs and religious items were allocated to named individuals. He requested that all traces of his involvement with the British army during the first World War be destroyed and that Hail Glorious St Patrick be sung as they were being hanged.

Though at the time the most notorious prisoners in Britain, they were not without their supporters. “It was a good day for Ireland the day yourself and your hero of a companion went out and laid the second Cromwell dead at your feet. You need not be afraid to meet your God for what you did,” an Irish cousin wrote to O’Sullivan.

Dunne and O’Sullivan were British-born veterans of the first World War turned Irish nationalists. Dunne, an only child, requested his parents move to Ireland and leave the “enemy country” as he described Britain, though he and his parents were born and raised there.

Dunne was Jesuit-educated at St Ignatius College in London. A former teacher Fr Richard Magan SJ believed Dunne had been inspired by the teachings of St Ignatius Loyola on the morality of assassination. “To kill a king who tyrannizeth is so far from treason that it should rather be esteemed as an act of justice and zeal, being agreeable to nature, law, scripture and the practice and precepts of holy men.”

Dunne and O’Sullivan met their deaths ‘with the same unflinching demeanour they manifested at the trial’, according to an eyewitness

Sullivan quoted the valedictory republican ballad The Felons of Our Land to his father in his final letter: “Although I die in the eyes of this country a felon, remember the ‘felon’s cap is the noblest Crown an Irish head can wear’ and how many of our noble countrymen have gone the same way as Reg and I.”

Hundreds gathered outside Wandsworth Prison for the execution. Dunne and O’Sullivan met their deaths “with the same unflinching demeanour they manifested at the trial”, according to an eyewitness reporter from the Press Association.

Two days later their posthumous justification for the Wilson shooting was published in the Irish Independent. They had killed Wilson because they held him responsible, as military adviser to the Northern Ireland government, for the “Orange terror” — the pogroms against Catholics in the North.

“Among Irishmen it is well known that about 500 men, women and children have been killed within the past few months, nearly two thousand wounded, and not one offender brought to justice. More than 9,000 persons have been expelled from their employment and 23,000 men, women, and children driven from their homes. Sir Henry Wilson was the representative figure and the organiser of the system that made these things possible,” the pair wrote.

Dunne and O’Sullivan were buried in a plot in Wandsworth Prison. In 1967 their remains were removed from the prison and reburied in Deansgrange Cemetery, Dublin.