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Monday, January 30, 2023

Irish Free State: The west Belfast man executed 100 years ago

A young republican from west Belfast was among four prisoners executed in Dublin as the new Irish Free State government tried to assert its authority 100 years ago.

On 8 December 1922, Joe McKelvey, 24, and three other men were shot dead at Mountjoy jail by a firing squad.

It was only two days after the Free State had been established.

McKelvey was later buried at Milltown cemetery and there is now a mural to him on a wall beside the Falls Road.

He had been opposed to the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty which set up the Free State and had been imprisoned for fighting against it.

The treaty split republicans.

Even though it gave 26 counties in Ireland a measure of independence for the first time, it fell short of the 32-county republic which was their ultimate aim.

Joe McKelvey

Family photo

McKelvey was in the original Irish Republican Army (IRA) and was part of the anti-treaty force that occupied the Four Courts in Dublin as tensions erupted in the summer of 1922.

When the occupation was ended, he was detained and brought to Mountjoy jail.

His execution in December that year came the day after a pro-treaty member of the Dáil (Irish parliament) Seán Hales was shot dead in Dublin.

The decision to execute McKelvey and three other IRA leaders – Liam Mellows, Rory O’Connor and Dick Barrett – was a direct response.

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Prof Marie Coleman, a historian from Queen’s University in Belfast, believes it was a telling moment in the civil war.

“We often think of the civil war being a southern affair but there was a strong northern connection and probably one of the most significant of those connections was the execution of the anti-treaty IRA man Joe McKelvey in December 1922,” she said.

“It was very controversial at the time because the legal basis of it was murky to say the least and all the (Free State) government succeeded in doing was creating four republican martyrs.

“Nevertheless the execution policy continued and in total in the civil war, 81 republicans were executed.”

Joe McKelvey mural

McKelvey’s grave in Belfast’s Milltown cemetery is close to that of his father, Patrick, who fought for Britain in the World War One.

The proximity of the two graves was discovered in 2014 by the local historian Tom Hartley, who is a former Sinn Féin lord mayor of Belfast.

Mr Hartley said in the early 1920s, McKelvey had been a well-known republican in Belfast.

“He was also in the senior leadership of the IRA. From reading about him, he appears to have been a very charismatic figure,” he said.

“All that combined to make him a figure who is remembered historically and who is particularly remembered by Belfast republicans as one of their own.”

The decision to execute McKelvey, Mellows, O’Connor and Barrett was agreed by the ministers in the Free State government.

O’Connor had been a close friend of Kevin O’Higgins, minister for justice. Indeed, the previous year he had been the best man at his wedding.

The civil war tore many friendships apart, and some families too.

The wounds were slow to heal and the bitterness continued long after the fighting stopped in 1923.

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