I really enjoyed reading “Great Hatred, the Assassination of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson MP” by Irish Times journalist Ronan McGreevy.
Henry Wilson was assassinated on 22 June 1922 outside his London home.
A truce in hostilities between the IRB/IRA and the UK had been agreed in July 1921 and was still in force in June 1922.
A constitution for the Irish Free State, based on the Treaty of December 1921 agreed between Irish and British delegations including Michael Collins and David Lloyd George, had been published on 16 June 1922, a week before the assassination of Henry Wilson.
Wilson was disliked in Ireland, but he was revered in England. He was considered there to have been a key figure in the allied military strategy that saved France in the Great War.
Henry Wilson had been born and raised in Currygrane, near Ballinalee in Co Longford, on a large farm. His family had come to Longford from Ulster in an earlier generation, and Wilson felt himself to be an Ulster man more than a Longford man. David Trimble came from similar Longford stock.
The men who killed Henry Wilson were Reginald Dunne and Joseph O Sullivan.
Both were native born Londoners of Irish ancestry, and had been active members of the IRB. In London they grew up in deeply Irish culture.
The Supreme Commander of the IRB, at the time of the assassination, was Michael Collins, who was simultaneouslyalso President of Provisional Government of the Irish Free State.
Meanwhile, IRA members opposed to the Treaty and to the Provisional Government, had occupied the Four Courts in Dublin, and other strong points around the country. This was an unsustainable situation for the new state, from a law and order point of view.
When news of the assassination broke, the immediate assumption in British government circles was that it had been ordered by these anti Treaty forces. McGreevy dismisses this theory.
Another theory was that there had been a standing order from the IRB to assassinate Wilson, and that this had not been withdrawn, notwithstanding the truce and the Treaty. McGreevy does not believe this theory either.
He says O Sullivan and Dunne were scrupulous followers of military discipline who would not have acted on a free lance basis, without clear and current orders.
The author concludes the assassination was actually authorised by Michael Collins himself, in his capacity as commander of the IRB. There is no written evidence of this , as the IRB was a highly secretive society, and left no paper trails.
Why might Collins have issued such an order?
Wilson, who had just retired from the Army, had taken on a role as military advisor to the Northern Ireland (NI) Government. He had recently become a Unionist MP.
During this time NI security forces had colluded in attacks on Catholics. Apparently Wilson was not involved, and was noteven in Northern Ireland for much of the period. Wilson’s political opinions were, however, well known and highly bigoted. In 1914, as a serving soldier, he had colluded with the Tory Opposition in an attempt to block Home Rule .
But none of these things would seem to rise to a level that would justify the authorisation of an assassination, in 1922during a truce, and while a peace Treaty was in course of ratification.
Collins’ top role in the IRB is very hard to reconcile with his Presidency of the Provisional Government of the Free State.
In this short review, I have focussed on one just one aspect of this multilayered story.
McGreevy gives a sympathetic account of the Wilson, Dunne and O Sullivan families, and their changing fortunes. Heexplains the shifting politics of the time, and of the friendly links between the Wilson family, and their Longford neighbour, General Sean McEoin, “The Blacksmith of Ballinalee”.
Reading this book, I am reinforced in my view that once the gun is introduced into Irish politics, it is very hard to get it out again.