Irish Civil War: Letters on the Eve of Execution

The Irish Civil War began on April 14th 1922 with the occupation of the Four Courts and several other buildings. The final phase of the War descended into a series of atrocities which left Irish society deeply divided and embittered for decades afterwards.

In January 1923 11 Anti-Treaty prisoners including some Galwaymen were executed (two in Limerick, four in Tralee and five in Athlone). The men executed in Athlone were Martin Bourke (Caherlistrane, Co. Galway); Thomas Hughes (Athlone); Stephen Joyce (Derrymore, Caherlistrane, Co. Galway); Herbert Collins and Michael Walsh (from Derrymore, Caherlistrane, Co. Galway).

Michael Johnson forwarded us copies of letters written by Martin Burke and Stephen Joyce the night before they were executed at Athlone. Martin wrote to his cousin, Kathleen Greaney, of Ballinapark, Headford and Stephen wrote to his sister Julia. The originals belong to Michael’s cousin in New York.

It’s remarkable that the chance discovery of Frank Cunnane’s letter behind a dresser in a cottage in Headford which we posted earlier here has instigated a very rewarding section of this blog. We’ve received photos, mass cards and letters from the period and have been very happy to facilitate the conversation which has arisen. We’re delighted to be able to post the letters below and hope that by posting them we can do some justice to the sacrifice these men made.

The originals below are followed by transcripts (I’ve transcribed misspellings etc. as well).

Martin Burke letter

Custume Bks

Athlone

Friday Night

Dear Kathleen

I suppose you heard my fate before this reach you I would not die without writing to Ballinapark the spot I love best But I bid it Good buy for the last time on New Years Eve. But Goodbuy Uncle, Aunt Delia, Nora, May, Jack and poor Patrick. I’m happy for we got a fair chance we had a Priest and we’ll hear mass in the morning. I’ll see you reading vthis I’ll be singing with angles when you are reading this. I am enclosing my Beads as a keepsake for you. Don’t cry for my sake for I am happy as I write this. I hope you will remember me in your prayers. Remember me as the wild boy of the family.

Good buy all

From your dying cousin

M J. Burke

Stephen Joyce execution letter

Executed Jan 21th 1923

Custume Barracks

Athlone

Jan 20th, 1923

Dear Sister Julia,

Just a few lines bidding you the last farewell on tomorrow morning. My self M. Walsh, M. Burke, H. Collins, Thomas Hughes will meet our death at the hands of Irishmen. Still we are quite happy and contented. We have been to see a Priest we will hear mass in the morning and reveive the body and Blood of our Saviour tomorrow morning at 8 a.m.  (It will?) be the happiest hour of my life. I know this will come as a terrible shock to you. I fear your hearth will break. I ask you  not t o greive for me for it must be Gods holy will that I should sacrifice my life for Ireland. It has been the dreams of my earliest youth the music of the rifles have always been ringing in my ears since the day Ctd. Darcy handed me his revolver and said hold this rather than (point it for your life?). This I was destined (?) to as you know the consequences now tell mother and Father not greive for me for all I ask now is to pray for me. I would not like to hear ye crying when I am among the dead tell all my companions to pray for me Julia I ask you to wear those medals in memory of your dead Brother. God bless and protect you from all danger Good buy now until I see you in Heaven.

From your loving Brother.

Stephen.

16 Responses to “Irish Civil War: Letters on the Eve of Execution”

  1. Tadhg Dooley says:

    In a comment posted below the initial article on the Frank Cunnane letter, I mentioned a pamphlet called “Eleven Galway Martyrs.” This little book, which was released by the Tuam Town Council in 1985, contains transcriptions of the last letters of Hubert Collins (to his brother Joe), Stephen Joyce (to his sister, Julia), Martin Burke (to his brother, Jim), Frank Cunnane (to his mother), Thomas Hughes (to several relatives), and Mickey Monaghan (to his friend, Jim), along with numerous other original documents. It seems to be a quite remarkable compilation, though I’ve actually never read it the whole way through (something I intend to do next week).

    Obviously, the Tuam Town council had access to the letters, or transcriptions of the letters (including Cunnane’s) in 1985. (The Thomas Hughes letters were apparently originally published in the Westmeath Independent on January 17, 1923.) Whether this suggests that all of the “originals” are in fact handwritten copies, I don’t know, but I would recommend this pamphlet to anyone interested in the Tuam Workhouse or the soldiers of the Second Western Division, IRA. I believe it’s available in the National Library. (http://catalogue.nli.ie/Record/vtls000072882). Furthermore, being that the pamphlet was published only 25 years ago, it may still be possible to track down a member of the Tuam Town Council to find out the true provenance of the letters. I’ve been interested in this subject for about an hour now, so I’ll leave it to the experts to follow up if they wish. But I’ll keep coming back to this site to see if there are future developments.

    Thanks for this valuable forum!

  2. Tadhg Dooley says:

    One more follow-up point and then I’ll let this rest for a while. (See other comments at http://www.mooregroup.ie/2009/04/the-tuam-martyrs-april-11-1923/#comments and http://www.mooregroup.ie/2007/09/civil-war-in-connaught/#comments). I’ve been stumbling upon information faster than I can process it, so I apologize for the scattered delivery…

    Nollaig O Gadhra offers the following explanation for how the Cunnnane letter came to be published. (It’s taken from the website http://www.tuamfamilyhistories.com/histgeog/franck_cunnane.htm).

    The chain of custody is something like this: Cunnane writes letter –> Kathleen Talty, a possible girlfriend of Cunnane’s (and the woman who baked de Valera’s “jailbreak cake”), acquires letter (unclear whether she always possessed it, or it was given to her by Cunnane’s mother, or whether perhaps she, like me, had a mere copy of it) –> at Talty’s death, the letter is found in her handbag and given to a friend, Padraig De Bhaldraithe –> de Bhaldraithe has his son type out a transcript, which he provides to the Chairman of the Tuam Old Workhouse memorial Committee (hence the letter being reproduced in Eleven Galway Martyrs) –> de Bhaldraithe sends the “original” to the National Museum where, I gather, it is still kept: http://catalogue.nli.ie/Record/vtls000019675.

    Of course, this is all told more vividly by O Gadhra, whose explanation I’ve pasted below:

    The last letter of Frank Cunnane, also from Headford, and the sixth man to be shot in Tuam, (see pages 83/84 of Civil War in Connacht) to his mother the night before he was shot is perhaps typical of the type, even if it is perhaps better written than some others. But the circumstances in which we gained a copy of this “Last Letter” in the course of researching the Tuam Civil War incidents is also of interest, if only because it has another “British Connection”, that is also a useful national historical footnote.

    The copy of the letter was sent in 1983 to Councillor Frank Glynn of Milltown, who was a Sinn Fein Chairman of Galway County Council in the early 80’s and was also Chairman of the Tuam Old Workhouse memorial Committee. The letter came from Padraig de Bhaldraithe – a relative of Tomas de Bhaldraithe of English-Irish dictionary fame – normally resident in Dublin, but who, like all the De Bhaldraithes, had West Clare and Limerick connections. Padraig de Bhaldraithe explained, that while holidaying in Carrigaholt in West Clare, he had come to know a certain Ms. Kathleen Talty from Rananiska, Kilkee, who was, apparently, the woman who baked the famous cake into which Collins, Harry Boland and friends put the famous key that enabled Eamon de Valera to escape from Lincoln Jail in the Spring of 1919.

    Ms. Talty was, it seems, a teacher of mathematics in Manchester (probably a past pupil of Dev’s at Carysfort?) and it is suggested in the De Bhaldraithe letter that Dev probably stayed with his former pupil – or in a “safe house” provided by her within the Irish community in Manchester, for several days after his dramatic jail-break. In later life, Ms. Talty returned, in retirement, from Manchester to live with her cousin Mrs. Thomas Morrissey, at Tarmon, Kilkee. Mr. Morrissey was a relative of de Bhaldraithe – hence the inside knowledge and the historical insight into the cake she baked for the cause of dear old Ireland, in 1919!

    The De Bhaldraithe letter (of 1983) goes on to explain that when Ms. Talty died, two private and obviously treasured documents were found in her handbag. One was a letter of tribute from Dev in 1919. The other was the last letter which Frank Cunnane wrote to his mother the night before he was executed with five other republicans, by former comrades in Tuam’s Old Workhouse on 11 April, 1923. The Cunnane letter, though written fairly clearly, was in pretty shabby shape after all those years, but De Bhaldraithe went to the bother of deciphering it and then getting his young son to type it out on his “toy” typewriter, before sending the original fragile copy to the National Museum.

    De Bhaldraithe further states that Ms. Talty was familiar with many of the leaders of the independence struggle at the time, and believes she helped Liam Mellows to escape to America after 1916. In the case of Cunnane, he suggests, however that he may even have had the status of a “boyfriend” – which would explain why this teacher of Maths. who never married, ended up with the letter Frank Cunnane wrote to his mother, the night before he was shot.

    The relationship of the Cunnane family to Ms. Talty is not clear, but the fact that she ran a “safe house” in Manchester (where “big fish” De Valera laid low after escape from Lincoln Jail) raises the possibility that Frank Cunnane may also have been in England at some stage. As part of the “England Campaign” along with Seamus O Maille? Cunnane had 12 brothers and sisters and some relatives of these might have further information? That Dev should have his jail-break cake baked for him by a teacher of Mathematics, from County Clare in Manchester is only one other insight into the complexities of the British-Irish relationship that surfaced in research into the darker days of the Civil War in Connacht, a few short years later.

  3. Ed Coyle says:

    I think Thomas Hughes last letter is in the possession of a local family in Athlone, a letter to his girlfriend it is I think. Does anyone know? A book publ a few years ago “The Kept the Flag ‘a Flying” recounts some of this episode and has a picture of Thomas’s funeral cortege.

  4. Hi
    Thanks for sharing these amazing letters from such strong and devoted men. I myself am in possession of a similar letter that led me to write a book which I subsequently dedicated to one of the 77 executed men – James O’Rourke of the Dublin Brigade, executed in Beggar’s Bush Barracks in March 1923.
    You can find the book via the website link attached to this comment.
    I think that you’re doing a great job keeping the memory of these men and the ultimate sacrifice they made, alive.

    Best regards
    T.S. O’Rourke

  5. Ed Coyle says:

    In a book Eamon De Valera and the Banner County, a Kevin J Browne chronicles Eamon DeValera’s links with Clare and basically what he did was (presumably) read up every newspaper report he could find on the ‘Chief’s’ visits and political workings in the Banner County, all which began in 1917. The main body of the book has a small reference to the prison escape as he was nominated to go forward as an MP while in jail and there’s a brief reference to his prison escape.
    But the forward, by Thomas P. O’Neill, has a bit more on this. He refers to the 1966 Presidential election which ‘Dev’ won rather narrowly. Following this election win he intended to pay a visit to the county after his election win. O’Neill goes on: ‘With that election over the visit to Clare turned into a tour of thanks for the support which the Banner County had given him through almost half a century of public life. It was to be a nostalgic tour, meetings with old friends took place in all corners of the county—none was so poignant than that at Querin with Kathleen Talty who in 1919 had baked a cake with a key in it which led to his escape from Lincoln Jail. Those who accompanied him, his faithful secretary Marie Ni Cheallaigh, his aide Col. Sean Brennan, and others were moved to witness the years being spanned in a touching and unrehearsed meeting.’
    Now we’ve three locations for this Miss Talty. But, I’ve some research done. In the 1901 and 1911 Census the Talty family are listed living in Tarmon but Kathleen is not listed, she’s probably gone having emigrated, or in a boarding school somewhere perhaps. The mother’s name is Catherine, she’s aged in her 50s. In both those census, both Rahaniska (I gather it’s not ‘Rananiska’ as given above) and Tarmon are the ‘St Martins’ DED in Co Clare, Taltys turn up in both locations. I can find those DEDs awfully difficult to work with.
    So apparently by 1966 she was still alive, there’s no Morrissey listed in either census for Tarmon or Rahiniska. I’ve forebears who came from Tarmon, it seems some of them what I gather were fierce Anti-Treaty (Cuman na Ban?) people but they did not follow Dev into Fianna Fail, that’s what we’re told, there was a spilt away from Dev. It’s highly likely that the area was a pro-Dev ‘hotbed’ and it led to him getting safe houses in Manchester through his Co Clare connection.

  6. Ed Coyle says:

    I’ll reply to here again and soon.
    (It’s gone ‘quiet’ in here)

  7. Kathleen Talty
    Miss Talty having trained as teacher at Sedgley Park College, Manchester, seecured an appointment at St Mary’s School, Haslingden, Lancs. (18 miles north of Manchester) where she taught up to the time of her death in 1960.
    She died in the local hostpital – Rosendale General – and her remains were returned to her native Co Clare.

    Miss Talty taught me in this elementary school approx. 1944-45.

    She is perhaps remembered best in Haslingden as the person who prepared numerous people – young and old – for their first Holy Communion, or their Confirmation.

    Most Sundays found here at St Mary’s Church seated close to the memeorial tablet to Michael Davitt of the Land League.
    The Davitts were parishioners at the church 1850-1870.
    I’m sure Miss Talty was aware of this though she exercised discretion during her long stay in Haslingden.

    I hope this is helpful to you.
    John Dunleavy
    (Author of ‘Haslingden Catholics 1815-1965.’

  8. Ed Coyle says:

    Are you sure we’ve the ‘right’ Ms Talty?
    The book I have says Kathleen or Cathleeen Talty welcomed Dev upon his tour of Clare in 1966, she was I gather a maths teacher, the Ms Talty you make reference to above was a primary school teacher.
    Am going to return to it and will reply again.

  9. Ed Coyle says:

    This site and page gone awfully quiet…

    Hello, anyone reading these pages?

    Am not subscribing a posting if no-one is reading anything.

  10. declan says:

    Hi Ed – thanks for the comment – This post has had over 1000 views since it was published and gets an average daily viewership of 5 people over the past few months – not exactly the New York Times, but busy enough nonetheless for a blog post on a small business website… You should bear in mind that this is a business blog and not a forum on the Irish Civil War – we are delighted that the subject continues to interest people and that a few of our posts are consistently creating conversation, including this one – so rest assured – people are still reading and interested in this subject.

  11. Ed Coyle says:

    It’s ‘not exactly the New York Times’ as you comment. But I still wonder at this apparent dearth of interest in here, it’s 90 years now since these Civil War executions. Am pleased to say that in Athlone (at least) the five executions have been recognised. One: a wreath placed t the Old IRA memorial in Custume Place naming Thomas Hughes placed there I believe by Republican Sinn Fein. And second, the local paper Westmeath Independent report that a poem was posted up near Custume Barracks by an anonymous writer remarking upon Hughes death and the fact it was 90 years since the shootings and the writer claims that Gen Sean McEoin must take the blame for these killings.

  12. Declan says:

    Hi Ed – Most of the readers and commentators on these posts appear to be related in some way to the men – so there’s a clear interest from that area of things. But the general public don’t seem to be too aware or interested in the subject. I imagine that over the next few years, as we approach the centenaries of the Rising, WOI and Civil War interest will increase.

  13. Christopher Roche says:

    My grandfather had left Ireland when as I put it the country was under one flag the wrong one. he left in 1894 we still do not know where he was born after 20 years of trying to find out but John Patrick Roche was a good name and so was my own fathers Maurice Patrick. I have always taken a keen interest in my Irish side and the struggle for independence. I may have had relations involved in that struggle I don`t know. my roots could be in Louth or Kerry still looking but at least interested in Irish history.

    Remembering the brave boys all.

    Chris

  14. Hello, My mother Josie Finlay was a sister of Thomas Hughes bogginfin Athlone.
    Tom’s last letters were donated to the National Museum about 5 years ago.
    I have The Eleven Galway Marthyrs And Civil War in Connacht 1922-1923 by Nollaig o Gadhra.
    They are my prized possesions. Would love to read the letter to Tom’s girlfriend as mentioned above by Ed. The week after the 90th anniversary poem . I sent the Westmeath Independant
    photographs of the Hughes Family. They did a lovely artical about Tom . The headline read
    Josie (94) is last surviving sibling of executed Athlone man. That was Feburary 16th. 2013.
    Sadly Mam passed away a few weeks later.
    loved reading the above.
    Anne

  15. Helen Taylor says:

    Hello Anne! Helen here, Bill Taylor’s youngest daughter! I’m pretty certain dad still has a copy of the letter Tom wrote to Pearl. Will ask him tonight. We’ve been trying to get the letters back from the museum for some time as they are not on display and feel they, therefore, should be back in family hands. Will let you know if we have any success.

  16. Hi Helen,
    Thank you , I have copies of Tom’a last letteres it’s the one to his girlfriend I would
    Love to read, I can’t remember her name, Mam, Pearl and Eileen often talked about her.
    Would Billy remember her name.

    Anne.

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