The Ellis Quarry killings, 10 July 1921

Published in Features, Issue 1 (January/February 2016), Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 24

WHAT WAS THE CONTEXT OF ONE OF THE MOST CONTROVERSIAL INCIDENTS OF THE WAR OF INDEPENDENCE?

By Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc

The night before the truce that ended the War of Independence, four British soldiers—Harold Daker, Henry Morris, Alfred Camm and Albert Powell—were abducted by an IRA unit in Cork. Word soon reached Connie Neenan, an IRA officer in the 2nd Battalion Cork City Brigade, that four captured soldiers were facing execution. He and a comrade went in search of them in the hope of securing their release:

‘About 1.30am we gave up and shortly after, we met some men . . . [who] had been told that the soldiers had been shot . . . I just could not believe it . . . our efforts had been in vain, the soldiers had been executed and we had been unable to prevent it.’

The next morning, just hours before the ceasefire, the soldiers’ bodies were found at Ellis Quarry on the outskirts of the city. Each of them had been blindfolded and shot in the head. A British soldier photographed the bodies in situ and the killings soon featured prominently in anti-IRA propaganda.

Pointless unprovoked murder?

The incident has repeatedly been presented in academic work, popular histories, newspaper columns and on TV as pointless unprovoked murder committed by Republicans in the knowledge that they would never be brought to account owing to the impending ceasefire. In The IRA and its enemies Peter Hart cited it as an example of the IRA’s ‘dirty war’ and later suggested that Republicans ‘made a point of killing as many enemies as possible up until the last minute [before the Truce]’. In the Irish Times Kevin Myers cited the killings as an example of the IRA’s exploitation of the announcement of the Truce for a ‘Summer Sale of murder, guaranteed without legal consequence’. Eoghan Harris suggest-ed in the Sunday Independent that the shootings were the result of IRA ‘blood lust’. The killings also featured in Eunan O’Halpin’s TV3 documentary In the name of the Republic.

Stories about these killings became part of the folklore of Cork and were embellished to emphasise that the soldiers were boys who left their barracks to go shopping for sweets. In The year of disappearances Gerard Murphy cited the killings as an indicator of the IRA’s ‘degradation’, claiming that those killed were ‘teenage soldiers who had gone out to buy sweets in view of the impending Truce’. Local historian Richard Henchion described the killings as ‘evil’ in Land of the finest drop and claimed that the soldiers were buying sweets when they were spotted by IRA Volunteers playing billiards in a nearby hall. According to Henchion, all four soldiers were shot by one republican, and he implied that Connie Neenan was responsible:

‘While Neenan by his own words clears himself of involvement . . . the traditional story is adamant that he was in the hall that night playing billiards . . . His version has never been accepted by the non-aligned general public.’

Context

Despite the significant attention paid to these killings by several authors, none of them have questioned the assumption that they were sparked by the advent of the Truce. Nor have they researched the context in sufficient depth to know that there were direct links between the Ellis Quarry killings and the killing of an IRA Volunteer by British forces the previous night. Now, recently released material from the Military Archives not only exonerates the chief suspect, Connie Neenan, but also identifies those responsible.

There is no evidence to support the claim that the soldiers left their barracks specifically to go sweet-shopping. Though one of the soldiers may have had a bag of sweets when captured, the earliest account of the shootings from Walter Phillips’s The Revolution in Ireland (1923) states that the soldiers ‘were being “treated” by a friendly publican in celebration of the Truce’. The probability that the soldiers were drinking when captured has been erased from the more recent, highly emotive accounts, which emphasise their supposed innocence and childlike demeanour. The soldiers were not teenagers—all four were in their twenties. Nor were they particularly naive ‘raw recruits’. Henry Morris, for example, was a Great War veteran with seven years’ service, who had been wounded twice and had survived a gas attack on the Western Front.

The verifiable facts are that the soldiers left their post at Cork Jail, were unarmed and travelled on foot. At 8pm they were captured by seven IRA volunteers patrolling the Western Road in search of an informer. The only surviving account of the executions by a participant is a report sent to IRA GHQ, which does not explain their motives nor offer any rationale to justify the killings: ‘We held up four soldiers (2 Royal Engineers, 2 Staffordshires) and searched them but found no arms. We took them to a field in our area where they were executed before 9pm.’

Like most contemporary IRA reports, it was signed with the author’s rank (Captain H Company, 1st Battalion, Cork City Brigade) but not his name, which made identification difficult. The recent release of the IRA Organisation and Membership Files, however, enables us for the first time to identify all IRA officers at the time of the Truce. The captain of H Company who wrote this report and ordered the executions was Dan Hallinan, a 36-year-old plasterer from Bishopstown, Cork. Not only does the identification of Hallinan exonerate Neenan but it also suggests a definite motive for the shootings.

Motive

The night before the Ellis Quarry killings, British soldiers captured IRA Volunteer Denis Spriggs at his home in Strawberry Hill, Cork. Spriggs, a twenty-year-old plasterer, was asleep when the raiders struck. He was unarmed and surrendered immediately when confronted. Spriggs was taken to Blarney Street, where he was shot dead by the British soldiers. The official British account claims that Spriggs was killed ‘while attempting to escape’. The officer leading the raid, however, Lt. d’Ydewalle, had a history of involvement in the killings of unarmed prisoners and the likelihood is that Spriggs’s killing was premeditated and deliberate.

The soldiers who killed Spriggs were members of the South Staffordshire Regiment. Two of the soldiers killed at Ellis Quarry the following night were also South Staffordshires. Hallinan appears to have known Denis Spriggs personally. As well as being members of the same IRA battalion, both men worked as plasterers and were involved in the Cork Plasterers’ Union. All previous multiple shootings of off-duty British soldiers in Cork were reprisals to avenge IRA Volunteers killed in British custody. These facts suggest that, far from being a pointless and unprovoked murder, the Ellis Quarry killings were a direct reprisal for the killing of Spriggs.

The bodies of four British soldiers—Harold Daker, Henry Morris, Alfred Camm and Albert Powell—abducted and executed by the IRA hours before the truce came into effect at noon on 11 July 1921. (Imperial War Museum)

The bodies of four British soldiers—Harold Daker, Henry Morris, Alfred Camm and Albert Powell—abducted and executed by the IRA hours before the truce came into effect at noon on 11 July 1921. (Imperial War Museum)

Following the Ellis Quarry killings, Dan Hallinan was expelled from the IRA and exiled from Cork. He enlisted in the Civic Guard, but was later expelled from the guards for indiscipline and resumed his previous trade as a plasterer. In the 1930s he was charged with theft of trade union funds, declared bankrupt and imprisoned. Although it was widely known that Hallinan and those responsible for the Ellis Quarry killings adopted a pro-Treaty stance during the Civil War, the incident was exploited for anti-Republican propaganda. Neenan recalled that a priest in Cork exploited the incident when giving sermons condemning the anti-Treaty IRA:

‘I told him straight out that he lionised our [Free State] opponents although he knew perfectly well that those who shot the four soldiers were members of that very opposition of ours. Still the priest continued his accusations that we were all murderers, bank robbers and common criminals.’

Whilst Hallinan’s role in this controversial incident has only just come to light, the information linking the South Staffordshire Regiment to the killing of Spriggs and the Ellis Quarry killings has been available for decades. By focusing inordinately on IRA killings in the pre-Truce period and regurgitating contemporary propaganda without verifying facts or establishing context, generations of writers have unwittingly produced a biased history of the last days of the War of Independence and a narrative that ensures that those killed in eleventh-hour IRA attacks are remembered whilst those killed by British forces in equally contentious circumstances are all but forgotten.

Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc’s Truce: murder, myth and the last days of the Irish War of Independence has just been published by Mercier Press.

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