The trial of civilians by military courts—Ireland 1921

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 5 (Sept/Oct 2012), Reviews, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 20

The trial of civilians by military courts—Ireland 1921Seán Enright (Irish Academic Press, €60) ISBN 9780716531333

The trial of civilians by military courts—Ireland 1921
Seán Enright
(Irish Academic Press, €60)
ISBN 9780716531333

Seán Enright is a practising judge on the English legal circuit, with close family links to Ireland. He brings his legal training to bear in an examination of the court proceedings and findings of the military courts set up following the declaration of martial law in the eight southern counties covered by the 6th Military Division. In total he examines the findings of nearly 50 cases. The book is divided into four well-defined parts.In part I Enright deals with the background to martial law and its relationship to civil law. He also examines the state of law in Ireland in 1920 and the impact of events on the lives of many resident magistrates (RMs). The RM was generally the face of British justice most visible to the ordinary people of Ireland. By 1920, however, the holders of what were once comfortable sinecures were in the front line, and a number of RMs paid with their lives. Enright also explains that the new military courts were divided into two tiers: a lower one, which dealt with petty crime, and an upper tier, for the more serious categories of crime. It was this tier that dealt with the cases examined by the author. The first part also deals with one of the earliest cases handled under the new legislation, ironically the trial of Temporary Cadet Vernon Hart for the murder of Canon Magner and Patrick Crowley near Dunmanway in December 1920.Part II deals with the cases of men who were sentenced to death under the military courts. In total, fourteen men were executed in the 6th Division area—thirteen in Cork and one, Thomas Keane, in Limerick. In some of these cases executions were carried out before due process had been fully exhausted. In the case of one prisoner, Patrick Casey, the execution was carried out before any due process could even be contemplated. The case of Patrick Casey is probably the most controversial of the whole period, yet it has largely been overlooked up to now. Casey was captured on Sunday 1 May 1921 at Shraherla while firing on a party of military that had surrounded the IRA unit to which he was attached. Casey was captured at about six o’clock on a Sunday evening, taken straight to Victoria Barracks in Cork and tried by court martial on the following morning. Having been found guilty, he was executed at 6.30 on that Monday evening, just over 24 hours after his capture. Seán Enright examines each of the various cases in a most methodical and professional manner.In part III he deals with 30 cases, in some of which the death sentence was given only to be commuted at a later stage. Among these are the cases of Tom Malone and Seán Moylan, the most senior IRA men to be tried under the courts. In Malone’s case, he gave his proper name when arrested but, fortunately for him, British intelligence did not make the connection between Tom Malone and ‘Seán Forde’, the alias under which he had been operating. Seán Moylan was captured near Kiskeam on 16 May 1921. In the period between his capture and his trial he was elected a member of the second Dáil and, while it has never been officially stated, the British were reluctant to execute elected representatives. Moylan was visited in prison by senior counsel Albert Wood, who convinced him that his case should be defended, as it would have implications for other prisoners. When the case came for trial, however, Wood challenged the jurisdiction of the court and he eventually withdrew when this challenge was over-ruled. As there were a number of landmark cases pending, including some appeals to the House of Lords, the military court appears to have taken a pragmatic approach and Moylan was sentenced to fifteen years’ penal servitude instead of execution. This obviated the probability of the death sentence being overturned.In part IV Enright analyses the military court trials and some of his findings are fairly stark. Ultimately, the concept of trial by military court was found to be illegal when a challenge, by John Joe Egan from Ennis, ended with the master of the rolls, Sir Charles O’Connor, issuing a writ for the arrest of Generals Macready and Strickland, along with Brigadier Cameron, for refusing to obey writs of habeas corpus. This startling development has rarely been aired by historians studying the period. The fact that the most senior military officers serving in Ireland in 1921 had to be issued with warrants for their arrest before they conformed to the dictates of the civil courts indicates how close to mutiny these same officers were operating.In summary, Enright’s is an outstanding and unique work and an invaluable addition to what has been written about the Irish War of Independence. For the first time a trained legal person has examined, in great detail, the legal aspects of trials by military courts in the martial law area and has written about them in straightforward prose, devoid of legal jargon.  HI

Tom Toomey holds an MA in local studies from the University of Limerick and is the author of The War of Independence in Limerick 1912–1921.

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