Paddy McGrath: an Easter Rising veteran executed by De Valera

Paddy McGrath

It is well known that those who saw service during the Easter Rising in 1916 and were executed, were summarily tried by a military tribunal, shot, then buried in unmarked graves. What is less well known is the last such execution of an Easter Rising participant was that of Paddy McGrath, ordered by De Valera’s Fianna Fáil cabinet in 1940.

Despite being founded long after both events, according to the party’s plans to commemorate 1916:

It would be logical that an organisation that was so connected to the Rising and the War of Independence would commemorate its own history.

If that is the case, it might want to revisit its treatment of at least one participant, Paddy McGrath. On 16th August 1940, Special Branch officers, led by Denny O’Brien, stormed 98a Rathgar Road, guns blazing, hoping to get reward money from a slush fund used to encourage similar raids against known IRA bases. In the ensuing gun battle, two branch men were killed, Sergeant McKeown and Detective Hyland, and a third wounded. An IRA staff officer, Thomas Harte from Lurgan, was wounded and captured along with a senior IRA officer Paddy McGrath who had broken free but returned to assist Harte (eg see the account given in Bowyer Bells The Secret Army).

According to Donnacha Ó Beacháin (in Destiny of the Soldiers), there were no autopsies held on McKeown or Hyland. An internal inquiry into the shooting was reportedly suppressed by Gerry Boland, the Minister for Justice. Nevertheless, McGrath and Harte were tried by the Military Tribunal, which could only impose a death penalty, and, had just had its right of appeal removed. Without an autopsy or forensic evidence, there was no attempt to establish who had fired shots (and the suppressed internal inquiry was claimed to have identified that McKeown and Hyland were killed by ‘friendly’ fire). Regardless of the lack of due process, McGrath and Harte were condemned to death four days after the shooting, on 20th August. De Valera’s Fianna Fáil cabinet met the next day and confirmed the sentence. It met again on the 23rd and re-affirmed its decision while postponing the decision for a few days (Harte’s family in Lurgan were never even formally advised of his death sentence). On 4th September, De Valera convened his Fianna Fáil cabinet yet again and, despite the fact that no attempt had been made to identify who had actually shot McKeown or Hyland, and, presumably, through Gerry Boland, aware of what was being suppressed from the internal inquiry, they decided that McGrath and Harte should be executed two days later on 6th September 1940.

Paddy McGrath, a veteran of the Easter Rising, a Frongoch internee, who still had a bullet near his heart from a shooting by the British in 1920, was shot along with Thomas Harte, and interred in an unmarked prison grave, just as were the Easter Rising leaders 24 years beforehand. This time, though, the executions had been ordered by De Valera and his Fianna Fáil cabinet.

Their remains were finally released for formal burial in 1948, the 150th anniversary of the 1798 rebellion. Speaking at McGrath’s burial, Brian Ó’ Higgins was scathing:

Make believe and insincerity have been loudly vocal on the battlefields of ’98 this summer. Those who condemned to death the IRA of their own generation, have been praising the IRA of 150 years ago…

Neither is the case of McGrath and Harte unusual among the executions carried out in the 1940s. No court would realistically uphold almost any of the death sentences imposed by De Valera’s Military Tribunal. Notably, another 1941 execution has recently been revisited and is to be overturned due to prosecution failures (indeed some Fianna Fáil TDs had campaigned for it). Perhaps, among the Fianna Fáil events for 2016, should be a campaign to address its ‘history’ and overturn Paddy McGrath’s sentence, and others, for lack of due process.

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Some other popular articles:

List of Belfast IRA O/Cs from 1924 to 1969

The speech that split the IRA, July 1969

Belfast and 1916

11 thoughts on “Paddy McGrath: an Easter Rising veteran executed by De Valera

  1. J McGuiness of Pinkerton St was my great uncle. His brother, my grandfather was married to Gerry Adams great aunt, sister to Gerry’s grandfather.


  2. Did he ever talk about D Company in North Queen St (my mother is one of the Steeles – she grew up in Carntall St and Templar house) – my granny never moved far from it – she lived in Pinkerton Walk until she died in the 1990s.


  3. They moved too Birmingham years ago. I do recall Steele’s from around there, but I thought it was Bruslee way. I think one of them was called Emmanuel.


    1. All the Steeles around there are related (my grandfather Dan and one of his brothers, Bill, had kids – Jimmy moved to Falls and they’d two brothers in the States – the rest of the Steeles are their cousins and their families).


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