Paddy McGrath: a 1916 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 Eamon De Valera in 1940.

On 16th August 1940, Irish Free State police, led by an ex-IRA member Denny O’Brien, stormed 98a Rathgar Road in Dublin. De Valera’s government had put in place a slush fund from which rewards were paid based on the results of arrests and raids on the IRA (for the slush fund see Bowyer Bell’s The Secret Army). This obviously encouraged competition, a certain amount of recklessness and the inevitable temptations created by a financial inducement. As 98a Rathgar Road was known to be used by the IRA and had been under observation, O’Brien decided to raid the house before someone else beat him to it (and any reward money).

In the ensuing gun battle in Rathgar Road, two branch men were killed, Sergeant McKeown and Detective Hyland, and a third wounded. Evidence presented by the police to the Military Court (eg Irish Independent, 21/8/1940) was that police were stationed at the front and rear of the house. Having been delayed gaining entry to the front door, they were then shot at once they got into the house. The police had also fired shots but whether police had entered from the rear before the front, or the exact sequence events isn’t really clear. Three men managed to escape from the house, although Thomas Harte, from Lurgan, was wounded. He was captured by the police along with a senior IRA officer Paddy McGrath who had broken free but returned to assist Harte. A third man, Tom Hunt, got away.

According to Donnacha Ó Beacháin (in Destiny of the Soldiers), despite comments offered in court on the use of various weapons during the raid there were no autopsies held on either McKeown or Hyland. An internal inquiry into the shooting was reportedly suppressed by Gerry Boland, the then Minister for Justice. Nevertheless, McGrath and Harte were tried by the Military Court. Anyone found guilty by the Military Court received an automatic death penalty with no right of appeal. Without an autopsy or forensic evidence, there was no attempt to establish who had fired shots beyond statements offered by the police involved (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 August and re-affirmed its decision while postponing the execution 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. 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, still had a bullet in his chest from a shooting by the British in 1920, was shot along with Thomas Harte, and interred in an unmarked prison grave. 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).

In 1966, on April 10th De Valera laid a wreath in Kilmainham to those executed in 1916 at an event marking the open of the museum there. To coincide with De Valera’s event, Sinn Féin held a commemoration (according to the Irish Independent, accompanied by contingents of Welsh, Scottish and Breton nationalists) at Paddy McGrath’s grave in Glasnevin.

There’s a lot more on the ‘Second Civil War’ (as it was called by Dev’s Justice Minister, Gerry Boland) in the Belfast Battalion book.

You can read more articles and follow the Treason Felony blog here on Facebook.

An earlier version of this post was published in 2016.

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


6 thoughts on “Paddy McGrath: a 1916 veteran executed by De Valera

  1. Very interesting. But please change to black on white – old people find it almost impossible read white on black.


    1. I’ve changed it (as I have been thinking about it for a while). It’ll take me a while to go through and check older posts to make sure they all changed to black/white okay). Hope its easier to read now.


  2. Hi how can I share this on Facebook

    On Sun 15 Mar 2020, 11:52 The Treason Felony Blog, wrote:

    > admin posted: ” 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 par” >

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There’s a couple of options – click on the Facebook link on the bottom of the post, copy the link (the url in your browsers address line) and add it to a Facebook status or you can go to the Treason Felony Blog’s Facebook page and find and share the post.


  3. No surprise there. I recently wrote an article for the local paper in which I named Dev as a Machiavellian duplicitous coward who lost his nerve in Bolands Mill during 1916 and then spent the rest of the War in the Waldorf Astoria in New York.


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