Honoured Guest – Frank McNally on the exemplary death of Major Compton-Smith

An Irishman’s Diary

When Frank O’Connor wrote his famous short story Guests of the Nation in 1931, he was almost certainly thinking about events a decade earlier, 101 years ago this week, at a bog in north Co Cork.

O’Connor’s fictionalised tale describes the fate of two British soldiers shot in reprisal for the execution of IRA prisoners.

At Barrahaurin Bog, by contrast, there was only one soldier killed. But the manner of his death left a profound impression on those involved, and on many who were not there.

Maj Geoffrey Lee Compton-Smith was born in 1889 in South Kensington, London, close to where, a generation later, the Irish Treaty delegation would be based during the peace talks he did not live to see.


He was decorated for gallantry during the first World War. Then, newly married, with an infant daughter, he was sent to Ireland in 1919, based near Buttevant as an intelligence officer.

On April 16th, 1921, after four Cork IRA men had been sentenced to death, he was kidnapped and held hostage, his captors switching safe houses several times before bringing him to a shed at Barrahaurin, in the mountains north of Donoughmore, where he spent his last 11 days.

The major’s fate was sealed on April 28th, when the IRA prisoners were executed. Two days later, IRA battalion leader Jackie O’Leary informed his hostage that he too must be shot, a decision Compton-Smith accepted with stoicism.

In a last letter to his wife, he said he would die “like an Englishman and a soldier”. And by all accounts he did. Taken to the bog where his open grave awaited, he was given the usual cigarette and told his captors that when he threw it to the ground, it would be their signal to fire.

Before that, he had presented O'Leary his watch. He also wrote a farewell letter to his regiment, leaving them the cigarette case and saying: "I should like my death to lessen rather than increase the bitterness which exists between England and Ireland."

His final letter was to his senior officer, Lieut-Gen Strickland, and included a generous assessment of their IRA as idealists, "doing what they earnestly believe to be right".

I am indebted for these and other details to Saoirse Ní Shiochain’s fine essay in the September/October 2018 issue of History Ireland, which also mentions at least one human frailty to which Compton-Smith was prone.

The touching farewell letter to his wife notwithstanding, Ní Shiocháin independently uncovered a secret that contributed to his demise. He had been having an affair with a nurse in Cork's Victoria Barracks, a fact known to the IRA, and was on the way to visit her when captured.

In O’Connor’s story, the dignified death of Pte Belcher makes a deep impression on his captors. So did Compton-Smith’s on his. But the accounts also soon filtered up to Dublin and beyond.

Later that year, during the Treaty debates, his memory was invoked by IRA Chief of Staff Richard Mulcahy, as paraphrased in The Irish Times:

“I do not like the Treaty very much, [Mulcahy] said, but what is the alternative? Because we cannot trust the politicians of England must we take the responsibility of killing-in-self-defence the Compton-Smiths of England?”

As the IT summarised, this was “the first admission by Sinn Féin that England produces honourable men”.

Michael Collins too was profoundly affected by the officer's death and before his own demise in West Cork the following summer, had been assisting the family's attempts to find the grave.

Compton-Smith remained among the “disappeared” of the Troubles for another four years. Then in March 1926, Garda searchers found the body, still easily identifiable because of the preserving effects of peat.

In an advertisement only The Irish Times would print, his father had offered a reward of £500 for information on its whereabouts.

He originally intended to have his son’s remains returned to England but instead, disillusioned with officialdom there, left them to Cork, where they were reburied in the old British Military Cemetery.

According to Ní Shiocháin, the funeral was carried out with "with great dignity": the new Free State Army escorting the body to Penrose Quay, where the handed it to British forces from Spike Island, and then sounded the Last Post as the coffin was taken by boat to Whitegate.

In another posthumous tribute, John Lavery painted Compton-Smith's portrait. Lavery had first mentioned the possibility to Collins and intended it as a gift to the widow. In the event, she never collected it. Maybe she had heard about the nurse.

Whatever the reason, like the man himself, the painting too is now a permanent guest of the nation, at Dublin’s Hugh Lane Gallery.