On a spring evening in 1942 in the North Dublin suburb of Clontarf, a tragic shooting led to the deaths of Una Ennis (aged 19) and her boyfriend John Prendergast (aged 30).
Nearly seventy-five years later, here is the story retold for the first time online. We understand this is a sensitive topic for the two families concerned and hope the chain of events can be recounted in a compassionate, factual way.
Una Ennis was born in 1922, worked as a typist and lived at Whitefields Lodge with her family in the grounds of Phoenix Park. Her father, retired Major-General Thomas Ennis, was superintendent of the Park.
A little bit about his background.
Thomas Ennis (1892-1945) joined the Irish Volunteers in 1914, fought in the G.P.O. during the 1916 Easter Rising and was interned in Frongach, North Wales. Upon returning home, he helped re-organise his Irish Volunteer company from 1917 onwards. He was active with E Company, 2nd Battalion, Dublin Brigade, IRA between 1919 and 1922 during which he was a founder-member of Michael Collin’s ‘Squad’.
As Oscar Traynor’s second-in-command during the burning of the Custom House in 1921, he was was shot twice in the leg and badly wounded. Joining the Free State Army in February 1922, he was in command of Government Troops as they battled anti-Treaty IRA volunteers during the Battle of Dublin (28 June to 5 July 1922) marking the start of the Cvil War. He resigned from the Free State army in May 1924 and later became superintendent of the Phoenix Park.
His brother Peter Ennis was also a veteran of the 1916 Rising and War of Independence. He became Chief of the Republican Police and during the Civil War was Chief Superintendent of the State’s Intelligence Department (Oriel House). At the foundation of the Garda Síochána, he became the first superintendent in the Detective Branch and retired from the force in 1941.
John ‘Jack’ Gerald Prendergast was born on 11th May 1911 to parents Thomas and Margaret (nee O’Sullivan). They lived at Dock House, Spencer Dock, North Wall where Thomas worked as a lock keeper.
He was known to his friends as ‘Jack’ but also ‘Sean’ or ‘Jimmy’.
Prendergast enrolled at University College Dublin (UCD) to study engineering in 1930 but left in his first year to join the Civil Service.
Several newspapers reported that he traveled to Spain and fought with the International Brigades in the Civil War for a period of three years. More on this later.
Prendergast returned Dublin and to college in 1939 and became chairman of the College Engineering Society. At the time of the shooting, he was about to take his final year exams.
On Sunday 12th April 1942, John Prendergast left his home in North Wall at 12.45pm. His father said he “appeared to be in normal spirits” (Irish Independent, 14th April).
Maureen Ennis, sister of Una, said that John Prendergast called to their house in the Phoenix Park about 3pm and stayed for an hour. Maureen had known Prendergast “for some time” and “knew that he was keeping company” with her sister. She believed the couple “appeared to be in the best of spirits” (Irish Examiner, 14 April)
The couple probably took a bus or a tram some of the way to Clontarf where they were spotted walking together about 5pm. It’s a distance of over 9km and it’s unlikely they would have been able to walk it in an hour.
They were seen stopped and talking together on the Howth Road near the junction with St. Lawrence’s Road.
Witnesses then heard two shots ring out.
John had taken out a Luger ‘Peter the Painter’ pistol from his coat and shot his girlfriend Una through the heart killing her instantly. He then turned the gun on himself and a bullet pierced his left chest.
An eye-witness Miss Mary Hogan, 2 Fleming Road, Drumcondra saw Sean “stagger towards the girl and let himself down on the path beside her”.
Another witness, unnamed, told The Irish Times (13 April 1942):
I heard a shot, looked around, and saw a man staggering – apparently it was the second shot. The man fell, and then I saw the woman lying on the pathway near him. I ran over, and saw that both of them were finished. A gun was lying beside them. It was a parabellum a German make which was used a great deal during the ‘Black and Tan days’.
Passerby placed the girl’s handbag under her head and an ambulance was called for from a nearby house.
In an eerie sense of coincidence, Oscar Traynor, Thomas Ennis’ former IRA comrade, was passing in his car immediately after the shooting. Traynor, the then-Minister of Defence, was on his way home from a semi-final football match. He saw “two people lying on the ground with a cluster of people around them” (Irish Times, 13 April). He immediately stopped his car to see if he could be of any assistance. It is unknown whether he knew the girl was his old comrade’s daughter.
Officers from the Detective Branch, Dublin Castle arrived on the scene and took charge of the gun and spent shells. Two unexploded cartridges were found in Prendergast’s coat pocket.
The couple were rushed to Jervis Street hospital but were pronounced dead on arrival.
It was later revealed that Una’s parents did not approve of John and did not give their blessing for any possible engagement.
At the subsequent inquest, John’s father Thomas Prendergast said his son’s health had not been good since he had returned from fighting in the Spanish Civil War. In The Irish Examiner (14 April 1942), he was quoted as saying his son “was worried that he could not gain weight” and that he suffered from depression and a bad case of pleurisy.
The verdict returned by the jury was that Prendergast “was of unsound mind” when he killed his girlfriend Una and himself. The coroner offered his deepest sympathies to both families.
Una’s funeral took place on 14th April 1942. Mass was celebrated by Rev. John Meagher at the Church of the Nativity, Chapelizod followed by burial in St. Fintan’s Cemetery, Sutton.
Amongst those in attendance were W.T. Cosgrave T.D.; Joseph McGrath (businessman and politician); Michael MacDunphy (secretary to the President); Lieutenant-General Daniel McKenna and Lieutenant-General P. MacMahon.
John’s funeral took place on 15th April 1942. Mass was celebrated by Rev. J. Doherty at St. Lawrence O’Toole’s Church at Seville Place, North Wall followed by burial at Glasnevin Cemetery. It was noted in the newspapers that “many University students attended”.
All in all it was a dreadful affair. Two young lives ended on a quiet suburban road.
Jack Prendergast and Spain
A number of newspaper reports reported that Jack Prendergast fought in Spain.
The Irish Times (13 April 1942) wrote : “During the Spanish Civil War, he fought for the Basques on the side of the Government, and reached the rank of Captain in the International Brigade”. The following day’s edition wrote : “How a young Dublin student, a former member of the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, shot his sweetheart on the Howth Road, was told yesterday”.
The Irish Press (14 April 1942) reported that his father told the subsequent inquest that “except for a visit to Spain (he) had always lived in Dublin” and that his ‘Peter the Painter’ pistol had “been brought home from Spain”.
April 2017 Postscript :
After delving into Irish and Basque archives, I have written a full account of Jack Prendergast’s experience fighting with the Basque army in the Spanish Civil War.