THE ASSASSINATION OF SIR HENRY WILSON
Painting of Sir Henry Wilson by Sir William Orpen (1919).
The 22nd June 1922 marks the anniversary of one of the most controversial episodes of the Troubles in Ireland with the assassination of the staunchly Unionist Sir Henry Wilson outside his home in Belgravia, London. Born in County Longford, Wilson was a friend of Churchill and the Northern Ireland Government’s adviser on security. His assassins were Reggie Dunne, deputy head centre of the London branch of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (under Sam Maguire, of the celebrated cup) and one-legged Joe O’Sullivan. Both men were captured, convicted of murder and hanged six weeks later.
The historian Tim Pat Coogan described the assassination as ‘one of the most indefensible, inefficient and hopelessly heroic deeds of its kind’.
Precisely how involved Sam Maguire was remains unclear. Dunne and O’Sullivan may have been acting of their own accord. They may have been following an order given by Collins some time previously. In 1953, Joe Dolan, one of Collins’s former intelligence staff, stated that Collins had given this order to Maguire who he in turn passed it on to Dunne and O’Sullivan. Coogan also believes the order was given directly by Collins and delivered via Peg ni Braonain, a young Cumann naBan member.
However, Collins denied giving the order. His supporters generally agree that he gave the order but, amid the excitement of the Treaty and ensuing debates, he either forgot or failed to cancel it. His detractors hold that Collins simply lied to save his skin, disowning Dunne and O’Sullivan in the process.
Britain demanded vengeance for Sir Henry’s death. Dunne and O’Sullivan appear to have been acting in support of the anti-Treaty forces who, headed up by Rory O’Connor, had been occupying the Four Courts since mid-April. Six days after Sir Henry’s assassination, under pressure from London, Collins ordered the Free State Army to bomb the Four Courts, thus igniting the Civil War. Sam Maguire was not the only person to be horrified by the Civil War that erupted afterwards.
The memorandum pictured about Dunne and O’Sullivan is held at the Imperial War Museum in London.
Thanks to Turtle Bunbury for permission to reproduce his text from www.facebook.com/Wistorical
N.B. Orpen knew the Wilson brothers as a student in Dublin, one was nicknamed ‘Drop-eye Wilson’ and the other (Henry) was known as ‘Rake-faced Wilson’.
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