On Yellow Road in Whitehall, a small memorial amidst terraced houses honours the victims of an atrocity. This memorial marks the spot where the bodies of Alfred Colley and Seán Cole were found on 26 August 1922. Cole was a 19 year old electrician, while Colley was a 21 year old tinsmith. They were both members of Na Fianna Éireann, the republican boy-scout organisation, and were killed because of their political affiliations. It happened mere days after the death of Michael Collins at Béal na Bláth, yet unlike that event it has been largely forgotten.
While history has recorded that seventy-seven political opponents were executed by the Free State during the Civil War (the figure now appears higher),the number of unofficial killings was significantly higher still. Bob O’Dwyer’s study Death Before Dishonour, a labour of love drawing on primary source materials, points towards a figure of more than 120 such killings, with some bodies discovered in ditches and back alleys. There is no denying that the bitterness of this Civil War cast a long shadow over the new state. Dr. Noel Browne remembered the bitterness that still existed in the 1940s, on his entering the Dáil:
I recall my shock at the white-hot hate with which that terrible episode had marked their [older TD’s] lives. The trigger words were ‘seventy-seven’, ‘Ballyseedy’, ‘Dick and Joe’ and, above all, ‘the Treaty’ and ‘damn good bargain!’. The raised tiers of the Dáil chamber would become filled with shouting, gesticulating, clamoring, suddenly angry men.
The stories that (almost) got away:
In recent years, family researchers and historians alike have devoured the Witness Statements of the Bureau of Military History. These first-hand accounts of the Irish revolution have proven to be invaluable (though flawed) sources, providing first hand testimonies of key events like the 1913 Lockout, the Easter Rising and the subsequent War of Independence. We have drawn on them quite extensively, for example in this piece on looting during the 1916 Rising. The Bureau was established with the explicit brief to “assemble and co-ordinate material to form the basis for the compilation of the history of the movement for Independence from the formation of the Irish Volunteers on 25th November 1913, to the 11th July 1921.”
Some republicans refused to engage with the BMH in any form, believing it to be a project tainted by association with the Free State. Crucially, the BMH stopped short of seeking reminisces of the Civil War, no doubt fearful of opening old wounds. In spite of this however, there are still some references to the Civil War from participants who insisted on discussing those events, which have thankfully been included in the digitisation of the memoirs. One such republican to discuss the Civil War was Alfred White of Na Fianna Éireann. He talked of the deaths of Colley and Cole in the aftermath of events in Cork, describing what happened as murder:
The unfortunate death of Michael Collins from a stray bullet removed the one man who would have had the strength to control them, and sharpened by their desire for vengeance. Their first victims were two unarmed Fianna boys, Seán Cole and Alf Colley, whom they captured at Newcomen Bridge (the military uniforms were clearly seen by witnesses under the disguise of trench coats), brought away in a car and murdered.
He was not alone in linking the deaths of the young activists to events in Cork. Frank Sherwin, another prominent member of Na Fianna who later served as an Independent TD, detailed in his memoir how he felt histories of the Civil War overlooked these connections:
Several books have been written about the Civil War. They deal largely with events leading up to the attack on the Four Courts and the fighting up to a period when Collins was killed, but they gloss over the remainder of this tragic event. When Collins was killed the ‘Terror’ began.
Sherwin, like White, did not mince his words. To him,”murder gangs” were to blame, while “men were found riddled with bullets all around the outskirts of the city. All over the country, similar murders took place and went on not only for the duration of the war but for months after it ended.”
The Oriel House Gang:
While the republican press presented Colley and Cole as ‘boys’, they were senior figures in Na Fianna. Colley held the rank of Vice-Brigadier of the Dublin Brigade, while Seán Cole was a Commandant. Most sources suggest they had joined the organisation in 1917 and 1918 respectively, in the period between the Rising and the outbreak of the War of Independence. Their senior positioning within the body would have made them political targets, but to whom? The task of monitoring and neutralizing political opponents fell largely on the shoulders of the CID (Criminal Investigation Department), based at Oriel House, a building which stands on the intersection of Westland Row and Fenian Street.
As Eunan O’Halpin has noted in his study Defending Ireland: The Irish State and its Enemies since 1922, the behaviour of the CID during the Civil War was “highly controversial”:
Allegations soon surfaced not only of widespread ill-treatment of suspects, but of killings – a British army intelligence resume of 9 September  spoke of the “murder of a number of prominent republicans…Certain of these…are laid to the door of Oriel House”
Oriel House was a somewhat doubtful institution, and a good many suggestions were made that its methods were too like the worst we hear of the American police. However, the American police operate under peace conditions, whereas Oriel House at the time was carrying on under war conditions, and if investigators were sometimes somewhat tough with prisoners, I should say that the circumstances were such that tough methods were not only excusable but inevitable.
Padraig Yeates, author of the masterful A City in Civil War: Dublin 1921 – 24, has detailed the manner in which the CID became “probably…the most effective counter-insurgency unit working for the Free State.” Under the stewardship of Joe McGrath, the body operated on multiple fronts, with a “Protective Officers’ Corps that was dedicated to guarding Ministers, important government supporters, public buildings and some commercial premises.” There was also a “Citizens’ Defence Force…which included about a hundred British ex-servicemen as well as former IRA Volunteers and some women.” The CID utilised informers and agents in the ranks of the IRA, and unsurprisingly the building was physically attacked on multiple occasions. In the autumn of 1922, four mines were planted in the basement of the CID building, though only one exploded. Simultaneously to this, republicans opened fire on the building, firing “fifty or sixty rounds”, but leaving when the CID returned fire.
A little before six o’clock a large motor car came from the direction of the city at high speed, traversed Puckstown Road and turned into Yellow Lane. Five or six men wearing trench coats and hats, which they had pulled down over their eyes, sat in the car. There was some commotion in the vehicle and two men appeared to be struggling frantically to escape from it, but the others prevented them from doing so. A few people at the cross roads, attracted by this unusual occurrence, stood watching the men, when one of them drew a revolver, and in a threatening manner ordered them off.
Funerals went to Glasnevin Cemetery. Soldiers in green uniforms marched, with arms reversed, after bands playing the ‘Dead March’, following their dead. Our men were buried quietly; women mostly as mourners. The CID were nosing for men. Cumann na mBan girls in uniform, some with eyes shut and faces screwed to one side, fired a volley over graves with revolvers or automatics.”
So today let us carry from these graves a message of hope to Ireland. We will carry no bitterness for their murderers. We of the Fianna still stand by the old chivalrous ideals of the Gael. We will say, as our two martyrs would say, in the words of Christ, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Further centenaries may prove more challenging that the one just passed.