The incident in Context
By July 1921 the Irish War of Independence had come to an end and neogitations in the months that followed would culminate in the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December of that year. Following its ratification by the Dailshortly after in January 1922 however there was much debate and division throughout the country. By April 1922, just two months before the outbreak of Civil War, the tangible elements of these divisions could be seen as the IRA had been split into pro and anti-treaty factions. While a somewhat constrained peace existed between both parties, each attempted to assert their dominance by occupying various barracks and buildings in defiance of one another. The pro-treaty IRA in the form of the National Army, had their HQ in Beggars Bush Barracks Dublin, but by early April its counterpart, the anti-treaty IRA, had occupied the Four Courts, making it their de facto HQ. Elsewhere throughout the country similar scenarios played out and in county Wexford the National Army occupied the former RIC barracks in Enniscorthy while the anti-treaty forces, who absconded from Kilkenny barracks while training for the national army, occupied the town’s courthouse a short distance away.
While tensions were high though both sides in the town practised constraint, which remained in place until the outbreak of civil war later that year. This somewhat peaceful period in county Wexford though was not free of casualties and in April two republican deaths are recorded. The first was a Daniel Byrne who was tragically killed when an explosive device he was attempting to disarm in Gorey barracks acciedntaly went off. It had been left behind by the vacating RIC the previous month and Daniel, who was an explosive expert, had been called upon to make the device safe. In an ironic twist of faith this device was the same which he had manufactured less than a year earlier to be used by the north Wexford flying column in an ambush at Inch, a few miles outside the town. It had been retrieved by the RIC following the ambush and was left behind after their departure where it remained until discovered by the IRA when they took over the building. The second casualty was Henry O Connor who was killed early in the morning on the 27th of April 1922.
Recounting the Past
Just 20 years old at the time of his death Henry came from a large family of 10 children and resided with his parents in Hospital Lane Enniscorthy. According to his pension file he held the rank of intelligence officer, serving with Fianna Eireann since 1918 and throughout the War of Independence. This was youth organisation often seen as the boy scouts of the IRA, undertaking scouting operations carrying messages and other activities. Henry worked with the Enniscorthy cooperative agricultural society limited, having served his time as a sawyer, but left to join the national army in early 1922 where he served in Dublin and then Enniscorthy. He eventually left and joined the anti-treaty IRA stationed in Enniscorthy courthouse.
On Wednesday evening the 26th Of April 1922 he received a pass to leave the courthouse between the hours of 7 and 10p.m. While returning that night he met Thomas Dwyer, who was the brigade quartermaster of the Fianna Eireann, just across the street from the courthouse entrance . In conversation he learned the Fianna were preparing to raid houses near Ferns for arms and instead of returning to the courthouse he decided to join them. The raiding party then left Enniscorthy in two motorcarsm, first calling to the home of the Chapman family in the townland of Crory. Next they proceeded to the home of Thomas Lewis at Tombrackwood a short distance away. Here the raiding party broke into two, one attempting to gain entry through the front and the other, which O Connor was part of, going around the back. In an effort to gain entry Henry banged the back door of the house with the butt of his rifle. During this it was reported a loud bang was heard and it was then found that he had been hit and fatally wounded. His comrades, placing him inside one of the cars, brought the wounded Henry to Ferns where he was attended to by a father Gaul. They later returned to Enniscorthy courthouse where O’ Connor’s lifeless body was placed inside the on the morning of Thursday the 27th of April.
His remains were waked in the courthouse before being conveyed to the cathedral’s mortuary chapel the following day, Friday the 28th. The coffin, which was covered by a large republican flag, was carried by members of the courthouse garrison to the Cathedral, flanked on either side by an armed guard of honour. Burial took place the next day, Saturday the 29th with the funeral procession proceeding from the Cathedral, across Lymington Road (now Parnell Road), down John Street and passing by the courthouse where the remains were saluted by the occupying IRA garrison. Members of Fianna Eireann were also in attendance together with the women of Cumann na Mban, whom carried a large number of wreaths, and members of F. and G companies of the North Wexford Brigade.
Signs of Division
While a tragic incident the events which unfolded shortly afterwards serve best to demonstrate the divisions that existed in the country at the time as separate inquiries were held by both pro and anti treaty forces. In Enniscorthy courthouse Anti-treaty forces held an investigation into the incident, calling upon the county coroner, Dr. W. O. Lawlor from Bunclody, to hold the inquest. When he attended the courthouse however, he told the jury present that he had received instruction from the town’s pro-treaty IRA, stationed in the barracks, not to hold such an inquest. He explained that he was an official of Wexford County council, was paid by them and from them he must take his orders. He further stated that he did not wish to side with either of the opposing parties and wouldn’t hold an inquest until he had received instructions from the county council. In the coroner’s absence the anti-treaty IRA decided to proceed with a military inquiry instead, overseen by a brigade officer and two commandants. The inquiry found that the ‘deceased died from shock and haemorrhage caused by a bullet accidentally discharged from a rifle’. Throughout the inquiry emphasis was placed on the Fianna holding responsibility for organising the raid and not the IRA.
A second military inquiry was held in Enniscorthy barracks by Pro-treaty forces. During this John Chapman of Crory recalled the raid that took place on his home with his nephew Edward, who also resided in the house on the night, also recalling his experience. During this it transpired that once the raiders left the house it became known that £8 10 shillings was missing. Interestingly later that night though what were described at ‘2 respectably dressed men’ called to the home inquiring about any missing moneys. Upon being made aware that there was they courteously made amends, giving John Chapman £10 which he insisted was too much, offering £1 in change back to the strangers. They courteously declined however telling him that any additional money could cover the damage caused to the door during the raid. In contrast to the first group these men made a delightful impression as John stated ‘the men that came the second time were very nice young fellows, particularly the young fellow that spoke to us. I don’t think he was in the first crowd.’ These men may have been Fianna or IRA members who returned to ‘rectify’ any wrong undertaken by the previous.
Following the recollection of the first raid the second was recalled. Thomas Lewis of Woodlands Ferns described to the inquiry how he was told by his wife, at about half twelve that night, there was knocking on the front door. Next the raiders then decided to go around to the rear of the house and he recalled hearing thumping on the back door with what sounded like the butt of a rifle or a sprong handle. At this point both he and his wife were becoming very nervous and decided it was best to get up. Thomas’s brother, who was described as being in a delicate state of health, resided in the same house. When Thomas checked on his brother he was told by him that he had heard a shot outside and that one of the raiders had been hit. Throughout the incident the raiding party did not gain entry into the house and the only communication between both consisting of Thomas’s wife asking what is it they wanted from inside the house to which it was alleged they replied ‘we will soon let you know’. Almost immediately after this a motorcar could be heard racing away from the premises with those inside the house unaware that Henry O Connor had been shot. They family, shaken by the experience, eventually made their way back to bed. The next morning Thomas recalled going outside to see if anything had been taken and finding outside a comb, cap and a spent cartridge.The pro-treaty inquiry, similar to that of the anti-treaty IRA, found that Henry O’Connor died ‘…from shock and haemorrhage, caused by a rifle bullet accidentally discharged by one of a raiding party at Mr. Lewis’ Woodlands Ferns.’.
For both enquiries a Dr. Bowen examined the body and stated that due to the position of the wound the bullet could not have come from O’ Connors rifle. In addition to this one of the raiding party, Thomas Dwyer, on the way back to Ferns inspected the deceased rifle and found no empty cartridge inside. Neither inquiry gave an indication or suggestion of whom may have been responsible for firing the shot that killed Henry O Connor. Several persons were named as having taken part in the raids that night including Owen Nolan, H.Connors, John Cardiff, Tom Doyle, Ned Earle, Walter Sutton, Thomas Dwyer and Joseph Dunbar. Of these only Thomas Dwyer and Walter Sutton were alleged to have been with O’ Connor at the rear of the building when the shot was fired. Both men’s testimonies recall having heard a shot during or immediately after the banging on the rear door. Regarding the uncertainty surrounding the incident it leaves to question did the shot come from the rear of the house by someone perhaps hidden or unknown to the raiding party? The person responsible for the shot that night was never known and it appears to remain much the same 100 years on.
Tradgedy Strikes Again
Unfortunatly tragedy struck the O’Connor family again, less than a year after Henry’s death, when his brother John, who had returned home from Liverpool and joined the anti-treaty IRA, was killed in an engagement between Free State forces and Bob Lamberts’ flying column, at Crory near Kyle. Several years their father, under the military pensions scheme, was awarded a ‘partial dependant’s gratuity’ due to his son Henry’s death. Henry’s grave is still visible today in St. Mary’s cemetery Enniscorthy and serves as a reminder of the events of 100 years ago that shaped the Ireland in which we live today.
New Ross Standard, 5th June 1922, p2
New Ross Standard, 5th June 1922, p5
Pensions File DP7242 (Henry O Connor). Avaliable at militaryarchives.ie