Rory O’Connor was born in Dublin in 1883. He was educated at St. Mary’s College and Clongowes Wood College, Dublin with his close friend, Kevin O’Higgins. After College, he worked as a railway engineer in Ireland, then moved to Canada in 1911 to work as a railway engineer. He became active in the Fenian Brotherhood and returned to Ireland in 1915 at Joseph Plunkett’s request. He joined the Ancient Order of Hibernians and served in the GPO in the Easter Rising as an intelligence officer. He was wounded during reconnaissance at the College of Surgeons and was interned after the surrender. After internment, he threw his support to Sinn Fein and during the War of Independence (1919-1921) became IRA Director of Engineering and a close associate of Michael Collins.
He disagreed with the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 that established a 26-county Irish Free State, because it denied the 32-county Republic which he had sworn to achieve. On 26 March 1922, he and other anti-treaty IRA officers held a convention in Dublin, in which they rejected the Treaty and repudiated the authority of Dail Eireann – the new Irish Parliament. O’Connor became Chairman of the Military Council of the dissident IRA, known as the Irregulars. On 13 April 1922, O’Connor, with 200 Irregulars under his command, took over the Four Courts building in Dublin in defiance of the new Irish government. They hoped to provoke British troops, who were still in the country, into attacking them. They felt that such an act would re-start the war with Britain and reunite the pro- and anti-Treaty IRA against their common enemy. O’Connor and his men remained in Four Courts under truce conditions with the Free State while Michael Collins tried desperately, but unsuccessfully, to persuade O’Connor to leave the building.
On 22 June Sir Henry Wilson was assassinated in London by two IRA men and Lloyd George wrote an angry letter to Collins to get the IRA men out of the Four Courts or he would. Collins knew that surrendering military authority back to the British would destroy the new Irish Free State in its infancy and put Ireland under the Crown again. Then on 26 June, the Four Courts garrison kidnapped Ginger O’Connell in reprisal for the arrest of an anti-treaty officer. Ginger O’Connell, who had returned from America after serving in the Fighting 69th Regiment, was a general in the Free State Army. The British moved artillery into place and told Collins to use it or they would. Collins had no choice but to shell the Four Courts with the British artillery. O’Connor surrendered after two days, but not before much of seven centuries of Ireland’s historical and genealogical records, stored in an archive known as the Public Record Office, were destroyed much to the horror of future historians. O’Connor was arrested and sent to Mountjoy Prison. That shelling sparked a Civil War as fighting broke out around the country between pro- and anti- treaty factions, dividing old friends and families alike.
One family divided was Sean Hales and his brother Tom. Both were members of the IRA during the War of Independence and both were against the treaty. Sean, however, was persuaded by Michael Collins to join the pro-Treaty side and voted for the Treaty while his brother voted against it. In June, 1922, Sean was elected to the new Dail as a pro-Treaty Sinn Féin delegate while his brother Tom organized the ambush that killed Michael Collins two months later on 22 August. Collins’ death threw both sides into a senseless frenzy of tit-for-tat revenge killings. After Collins’ death, the Free State government declared that IRA Irregulars were conducting an unlawful rebellion against the legitimate Irish government and enacted Martial Law to end the violence. On 27 September, the Free State set up military courts allowing for the execution of men captured bearing arms against the state.
On 17 November, five Irregulars who had been captured with arms in Co. Wicklow were shot by firing squad in Dublin. Two days later, three more Irregulars were executed. On 24 November, Robert Erskine Childers, acclaimed author and secretary to the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations that created the Free State, was executed. He had been captured on 10 November in possession of a pistol – a pistol which, ironically, had been given to him by Michael Collins before the split in the movement. This should have at last demonstrated the senselessness of the hostilities. However, in response to the executions, on 30 November, Liam Lynch, Chief of Staff of the Irregular IRA, ordered that members of the Dail be shot on sight. On 6 December 1922, Sean Hales was shot and killed by Irregulars as he left the Dáil and another Delegate, Pádraic O’Máille, was badly wounded. Hales’ killing was a reprisal for the Free State’s execution of anti-treaty prisoners. Then, in revenge for Hales’ killing, four dissident republican leaders, who were held in custody, were to be executed. On 8 December 1922, Rory O’Connor, with Liam Mellows, Richard Barrett and Joe McKelvey, captured in the Four Courts, were executed by firing squad. The execution order was given by Kevin O’Higgins, who less than a year earlier had Rory O’Connor as Best Man in his wedding! The men in the accompanying photo are (l to r) DeValera, O’Higgins and O’Connor. When O’Connor was buried, he had a treasured souvenir which was sewn into the hem of his pants, buried with him. It was a gold engraved coin given to him by Kevin O’Higgins for being his Best Man! Such was the insanity and bitterness of the division caused by the Treaty that England had forced on the Irish and which partitioned Ireland. Brother Hibernian Rory O’Connor and the other executed Republicans were subsequently seen as martyrs by the Republican movement.
Today, from the distance of all the years since, it is still difficult to comprehend the differences held by the belligerents who walked their own roads toward the common goal of a free and united Ireland. And, in December 1922, a number of Irish patriots – bitter rivals, though former comrades – met once more in Tir na n’Og.