Edited and compiled by: Gerry Cody
A firing party assembled on December 29, 1922 in the exercise yard of Kilkenny Military Barracks. At 8.15am, on command, a volley of shots rang out. Commandant Mooney stepped forward, examined the bodies, and confirmed that Republican volunteers John Murphy and John Phelan, members of the 5th Battalion Kilkenny Brigade Irish Republican Army, were dead.
The divisive and calamitous Civil War had impacted Kilkenny in a major way. The genesis of this conflict lay in the signing of the Treaty on December 6, 1921, which created the Irish Free State. Michael Collins believed this decision offered “the freedom to achieve freedom” and persuaded a majority of the Dáil into ratification. Éamon De Valera rallied the anti-Treaty side. The scene was set for the catastrophe that would have a generational impact on the Irish political landscape.
On February 7, 1922, Brigadier General George Dwyer swung into action. A pro Treaty supporter and a close friend of Michael Collins, he took charge of Kilkenny Military Barracks from the withdrawing Devonshire regiment. This site was subsequently a focal point of National Army operations until hostilities ceased in June 1923.
Overall command of the National Army in Kilkenny fell to the safe hand of Tipperary native General John Prout. He had gained extensive military experience as an officer in the American army during WW1. Prout proved a moderate and capable leader. There was praise for his handling of pre-Civil War attacks in Kilkenny City by anti-Treaty forces on May 2 and 3, 1922. Prout ensured these sorties did not escalate into full scale war.
The anti-Treaty ‘Irregular Forces’ were locally led by Commandant Brennan. He had commandeered six strategic locations: the RIC Barracks; Wilsdon’s, John Street; St Canice’s Tower; The Workhouse area; Kilkenny Jail; and Kilkenny Castle. A two day gun battle ensued. Concerted military action saw the rebels defeated. Occupation of the Castle ended when a National Army armoured car was driven through its gates. The resultant assault saw Kilkenny Castle retaken. The Noreside attempt to ignite a war had failed.
Nationally, the occupation of the High Court by anti-Treaty forces caused consternation. This group ignored a Government ultimatum to evacuate. On June 28, bombardment of the High Court by the National Army ignited the Civil War. The ‘band of brothers’ forged in the fire of 1916 and strengthened between 1919 and 1921 was torn asunder. Much bloodshed followed as family, neighbours and friends diverged over Free State and Republican sympathies.
Michael Collins assumed control of the National Army on July 11, becoming its first Commander in Chief (C in C). Confrontation lines got clearly drawn. The media, largely controlled by pro Treaty editors, were directed to refer to ‘the Irish Army’ or ‘the National Army’. Their opponents were always to be called ‘Irregulars’, ‘armed men’ and so forth. The success of this propaganda campaign is emphasised by a report in The Kilkenny People in July 1922: “The National Army conducted a successful assault on Waterford City taking the city with minimum loss of life and forcing the retreat of the irregular forces”. The same report noted: “Government forces would pay for supplies”. The ability to pay was important because Irregular forces had neither the money nor the ability to pay suppliers for food, fuel, vehicles and any other items.
The results of the June 16 General election in Carlow Kilkenny gave overwhelming support to pro Treaty Sinn Féin. They garnered 86% of the vote and won all four seats. Anti-Treaty Sinn Féin secured only 14% and failed to have a candidate elected. Allied to the support of the banks and the Church, strong leadership and resounding victories achieved by General Prout in the early stages of the Civil War ensured Kilkenny was perceived by General Headquarters as a secure pro Treaty county. The hearts and minds of the people supported the National Army.
These early setbacks forced the anti-Treaty side into guerrilla warfare, even though such tactics were ill suited to their purpose. County Kilkenny lacks the requisite forests, woodland, mountainous areas or large tranches of ground cover necessary for hiding places. If you cannot, during guerrilla warfare, fight and hide, you cannot survive.
Initially, though, these tactics seemed successful. Throughout August, National Army casualties mounted. The rebel approach gained further credence when Callan, Thomastown and Mullinavat fell to Republican forces under the command of Dan Breen.
But the intensity began to take its toll. Both sides were prolifically involved in ambushes, demolition of roads and railways, seizure and destruction of lands, individual killings, and so called ‘unofficial executions’. Kilkenny swung in chaos.
Continuing their campaign, Republican forces mounted a number of military operations throughout the county. John Murphy and John Phelan were members of an active service unit that carried out a raid on Sheestown House, on the city’s periphery. The unit carried off goods to the value of £189. The raid was reported to the authorities by Lt Col Shee, the owner.
On December 13, John and Patrick Murphy along with John Phelan found themselves arrested at the Murphy family home in Barronslands, Bennetsbridge. The three men were brought, under escort, to Kilkenny Military Barracks. Quickly, over the following days, General Prout convened a Court Martial Board, in accordance with rules and procedures defined by Judge Advocate General Cahir Davitt. The officer in charge of legal advice for the trial’s conduct was Commandant Joseph Mooney.
Prior to December 22, the three officer Court Martial Board found John Murphy and John Phelan guilty of being in possession of arms and ammunition without authority and of taking part in a recent raid when £189 worth of property was taken. They were sentenced to death. This sentence was ratified by two members of the Army Council, abiding by the rules governing the conduct of a Court Martial at that time. However, General Davitt, in his witness statement, recalls: “When the proceedings in the case of Phelan and Murphy came to me for advice as to confirmation, I found them to be unsatisfactory. I cannot now remember what was wrong; but I know that, while technical, it was sufficient to induce me to advise against confirmation. My advice was not adopted, however; the findings and sentences were confirmed.”
Remarkably, the recommendation of General Davitt, senior legal advisor to the military authorities, was completely overruled. This scenario possibly attempted to ensure the Emergency Powers Act was seen as an effective deterrent. Choosing Kilkenny, a safe county under National Army control, to test public reaction to executions might be viewed as a wise choice by the authorities. Executions in Dublin were having little effect ‘down the country’ and so these decentralised executions impacted on a local community much more.
On the evening of December 28, John Murphy and John Phelan were informed that they were to be executed the following morning. They both took the opportunity to write a final letter.
From the condemned cell, in the fading light, John Murphy wrote: “Dear mother, do not be downhearted, God is good, I do hope the news won’t cause too much trouble, so cheer up and keep a brave heart.” John Phelan addresses “All My Comrades of the Irish Republic” and begins: “Goodbye to all, I am meeting the finish without any fear and still true to the Republic. Thank God I have received all the rites of the church and die at peace with all men.”
These men showed courage and fortitude in accepting their fate. The next morning, they were accompanied by Fr Kavanagh, Administrator of St John’s Church, and by Fr Drea CC, Army Chaplain. John Murphy and John Phelan were executed. After Commandant Mooney confirmed the deaths and signed the certificates, the two Republican volunteers were buried in an unmarked grave within the Barracks walls.
Fr Drea visited the families and handed over the letters. Both men asked that Fr Drea be afforded the utmost respect, even though he wore the uniform of the National Army. Their communications make clear that neither man bore any ill will towards the National Army. Also patent is their undiminished belief in a 32 county Irish Republic.
The vagaries of life are strange and fleeting. October 1924 saw the remains of John Murphy and John Phelan returned to their families during a military ceremony on the Barracks Square in Kilkenny. They had a massive funeral and were interred in St Mary’s Cemetery in Thomastown. The graveside oration was given by Republican TD Martin Shelley.
Today, as Kilkenny displays a measure of maturity and compassion in acknowledging our brothers and sisters that perished on foreign battlefields, a question must be asked: is it not time to revisit the story of John Murphy and John Phelan, men who still lie in unmarked graves? It is said that your memory perishes twice: first, when you die; second, when the last person that remembers you dies. John Murphy and John Phelan have been forgotten far too long.
Let us not forget to remember. Throughout our land, Civil War casualties are honoured with memorial gardens and specially commissioned sculptures. Not so for Republican Army volunteers John Phelan and John Murphy. No headstone or plaque marks their final resting place.
As the legacy engendered by the Civil War slowly dissipates, perhaps 2021 is an opportune time for a mature society to remember them. Doing so might go some way towards making our political institutions more agreeable and more inclusive.
The Kilkenny Observer is currently researching files and papers with Larry Scallan on how both Mrs Phelan, wife of John Phelan, and Mrs Murphy, mother of John Murphy fared when they applied for pensions from the Irish State. The outcome makes interesting reading and The Kilkenny Observer will publish that story in the near future
The Kilkenny Observer newspaper wish to thank Steven Scallan for his contribution and research to this article. We also acknowledge the help and advice received from former Commandant at James Stephens barracks, Larry Scallan. The Kilkenny Observer thank Kilkenny Military Barracks for access to the area for photographic purposes.