There is a popular saying in politics sometimes attributed to Ronald Reagan ‘When you’re explaining,…
Fr Colm Gaynor was a Catholic curate in Birr in the years 1922–37. Originally from Tyone, Nenagh his valuable memoir was published in 2003 and included with that of Sean Gaynor and Eamonn Gaynor. The book was published by Geography Publications as Memoirs of a Tipperary family: the Gaynors of Tyone, 1887–2000. It is available from Offaly History Centre to buy or to read at Bury Quay, Tullamore.
The three young Tullamore men were William Conroy (20), Patrick Cunningham (22) and Colm Kelly (18) and they were executed by the Free State military in the grounds of Birr Castle on 26 January 1923. They were from poor families in the town and had no one of influence to speak for them. It is said that a fourth young man was allowed to go free.
Writing later to the Military Service Pensions Board about the execution of three men, Sean McGuinness, brigade O/C and on the Republican side said :
The three had been expelled from their IRA active service unit for some minor misdemeanours. McGuinness wrote that the men returned to Tullamore, where they “remained unemployed and I presume penniless and without a smoke”. He claimed they were executed by the Free State for a “few minor robberies”, though the court records show they were summarily executed for armed robbery. McGuinness suggested that “their crime was nothing compared with that of the great betrayal of the Republic by the authority responsible for the killing of these three youths”.
Such was the legacy of bitterness understandably arising from the Civil War.
Philip McConway in his valuable article on ‘Offaly and the Civil War executions’ in Offaly Heritage 5 states that for Offaly there were 23 people fatalities during the War of Independence and a minimum of 22 in the Civil War. In all 81 were executed by the Free State government between November 1922 and May 1923. Of this number six had connections with Offaly.
The three young boys were not members of the IRA while the two men executed the following day at Roscrea, Joseph Byrne and Patrick Geraghty, were members of the IRA with Byrne from Cruith, Croghan and Patrick Geraghty from Rochfortbridge. The sixth person, Thomas Gibson, was from Cloneygowan and was executed for alleged ‘treachery’.
Fr Gaynor to the right
The Gaynor memoir traces the lives of three members of the Gaynor family of Tyone near Nenagh in County Tipperary. The subjects are Fr Pat Gaynor born 1887; Sean Gaynor his step-brother born 1894 and Eamonn Gaynor, son of Sean, born 1925. Their lives encapsulate the twentieth century in Ireland and their respective memoirs, written with an honesty and integrity common to all three, pull back the veil of silence. Pat Gaynor, educated at St Flannan’s and Maynooth, provides a revealing account of Maynooth in the early days of the twentieth century as the young priest, influenced by the Sinn Féin philosophy of Arthur Griffith, confronted the cautious establishment which included the future Cardinal Mannix. Ordained for Killaloe diocese in 1911, Pat Gaynor served his formative years on the mission in Glasgow. In 1917 he was elected to the Supreme Executive of Sinn Fein and was prominent in the anti-conscription campaign. He presents fascinating insights on local town notables in Nenagh from the old regime who attempted to manipulate the young men of Sinn Féin. He also claims that some of the medal festooned patriots had less than heroic war campaigns. Appointed curate in the west Clare parish of Mullagh, Fr Pat helped establish Sinn Féin courts which incarcerated offenders in the open air prison on Mutton Island. A firm supporter of the Treaty he retired from active politics influenced perhaps by the harrowing experience of having to administer the last rites to three young boys sentenced to death by a military court in Birr during the Civil War. His account of their sad last hours serves to temper the glorification of violence. A curate in Birr until 1937 he was again transferred to west Clare, where he died as parish priest of Kilmihil in 1949.
The harrowing letter from Columb Kelly to his mother Rose Kelly before being executed at Birr Castle on the 26 January 1923. Courtesy Rosaleen Monaghan. From Maurice Egan’s blog on Offalyhistoryblog, 16 Jan. 2021.
Fr Gaynor wrote of the shootings at Birr in this eyewitness account:
In Tullamore, where several rebel volunteers were captured, three youths were released from prison on parole. By ill chance they were tempted soon afterwards to hold up a few farmers who were on their way home from town in the dusk of the evening. They demanded money at the point of a gun (a useless weapon I think) and procured in all, about eighteen shillings. They were arrested and, at a court-martial in Roscrea, were identified by the farmers whom they had held up and were sentenced to death, all three, for robbery under arms and for breaking parole. At the time, the Irish Government had decided to put down violence and, by way of warning everybody in Offaly County, the Tullamore youths were sentenced to death in Roscrea, were brought to Ross [Birr] castle in Birr (then held by Free State Troops) for execution. Dean Ryan [the parish priest of Birr] was fiercely indignant at the procedure, the more so since he was asked to provide one of his curates as Chaplain to give the condemned men last rites of the Church. He decided to appoint two chaplains for the ordeal. Fr Michael Dinan and myself (exempting Fr Michael O’Connor for reasons of his own). On the eve of the executions, Fr Dinan and myself spent an hour or two with the prisoners: one was eighteen and the others were about twenty years of age. They were very resigned and to all appearances, were not in the least afraid. We heard their confessions and arranged that I should offer Mass for them in one of the rooms of the Castle next morning at six o’clock and would give them Holy Communion. I did not advert then that I was saying Mass in the great Protestant stronghold of Birr: my mind was totally absorbed by the tragedy the three young Irishmen were being put to death for theft of eighteen shillings, and by duty of giving them the last Sacraments. I did not let myself visualise the coming horror of the executions. I felt only the familiar presence of death and tried to keep ice-cool; my one great fear was that I might break down and cry like a child and might break as well those poor lads amazing courage and self-control.
The gate keep at Birr Castle
After Mass, Fr Dinan and I had breakfast with them; we tried to chat quietly and naturally to be kind. I took last messages for their relatives in Tullamore, including a shy message from the tallest boy to a girl friend, and forwarded them that same day. (I was very pleased at his request: it showed that he felt at ease with me. That boy’s high courage sustained his comrades.)
Another view of the gate keep at Birr Castle in course of an Offaly History tour.
At a quarter to eight the officer-in-charge came to their room and asked them if they had any last request. Two of the boys (the tallest and the youngest boy) said they would like some lemonade and the third asked for a bottle of stout. After this final treat, they were led away to one of the little twin towers at the archway beside the Castle and were taken upstairs to be blindfolded and to have pieces of white cloth pinned over their hearts. The firing squad then took up position just inside the archway (between it and the Castle) some rifles loaded with live cartridges, others with blanks, so that the soldiers would not know who among them had fired the fatal bullets. Fr Dinan and I stood near at hand, oilstocks opened. Three chairs were placed, backs to the East, opposite the firing squad, and at eight o’clock the blindfolded youths were helped down the stairs from the eastern tower and were placed in the chairs and were tied to them. The tallest boy – without any air of bravado – asked to be let face the firing-squad standing: there was not even a tremor in his voice and his comrades were equally calm and brave. On being told that he must sit in the chair, he obeyed without a word. Next moment a silent signal was given by the officer-in-charge and the shots rang out: two of the boys seemed to be unconscious, if not dead, but the third boy fell sideways and the chair toppled over and he lay moaning and twitching on the ground. Fr Dinan and I rushed over to give him Extreme Unction, but were told to wait; then three young officers advanced and placed revolvers against the boy’s temples and fired one each to end their agony. I anointed two, with all haste and Fr Dinan anointed the other boy. All my attention was fixed on my own part in the tragedy. But while I live I will remember how serenely they faced death: how resigned they were – poor victims of mischance! – making atonement for a boyish prank without a word of complaint. They were laid to rest in three graves, which had been dug some fifty yards outside the archway, east of avenue. (Later their remains were taken back to Tullamore). I read the burial service and when the graves were filled, Fr Dinan and I walked away, scarcely speaking a word; at his suggestion we kept on walking down past the Church towards Seffin: people who met us glanced hastily away, as if death walked by our side; I could almost see the pall of gloom which hung over the town of Birr.
May these boys rest in peace; may their example give me courage in my last hour.
Their names were William Conroy, Patrick Cunningham and Colm Kelly.
The date of execution was January 26th 1923.
The memorial stone at Birr Castle erected in 2003. The bodies of the boys were buried in the grounds of Birr Castle Demesne but brought back to Tullamore for waking and burial in early November 1924.
 Ronan McGreevy, Irish Times, 26 Jan. 2020; Philip McConway, ‘Offaly and the Civil War executions’, Tullamore Tribune, 25 December 2017; Philip McConway, ‘Offaly and the Civil War’, Offaly Heritage 5 (Tullamore, 2008), pp 251–74; Maurice Egan, ‘What If? 1919-1923: Columb Kelly, executed at Birr during the Civil War. By Maurice G. Egan in https://wordpress.com/post/offalyhistoryblog.wordpress.com/8910. Michael Keane, ‘Dependency claims for the Civil War executed in the Military Service (1916–1923) ‘in Pensions Collection, History Ireland, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 26; Lisa Shortall, ‘Sources for the study of the revolutionary period in King’s County/Offaly (1912-1923)’ in Offaly Heritage 9, (2016) pp 281–319.