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The Drumboe Martyrs

Charlie Day, Sean Larkin, Daniel Enright and Timothy O'Sullivan

An Phoblacht

March marks the anniversary of the ending of the Civil War, a period, that can be described as probably one of the saddest and most tragic chapters of Irish history, witnessing many unnecessary deaths, in particular a series of callous executions of those opposed to the Treaty. The signing of the Treaty of 1921 merely served to be a burden of unfinished business for the generations in the following 80 years as the Treaty and Saorstát Éireann fell far short of the 32-county Republic so many men and women had made the ultimate sacrifice for. The irony of this period was that this time the war was against former comrades who were now prepared to accept partition forming part of the Free State a dominion, oath bound to the British monarchy and circumscribed by military guarantees to Britain. Comrades who fought shoulder to shoulder through years of struggle against a common enemy were now pitched in battle against each other in a war that divided families and friends in succeeding generations. Many of the finest men and women of a generation that had shown enormous talent and patriotic commitment were to meet their end in the Civil War, adding to the toll of our dead in 1916. An example of the divisions wedged between families was an incident involving Thomas Brady, a member of the IRA No.1 Dublin Brigade who took over the Four Courts on 13 April 1921. After three months of occupation and some intense fighting, the garrison was forced to surrender following the destruction of the Four Courts on 30 June by Free State Forces. Upon leaving the building Thomas Brady was arrested by his brother, a soldier of the Free State Army. A summation of the sadness and tragedy were the executions in December 1922 of Liam Mellows and Rory O'Connor. The latter had less than a year earlier, officiated as best man at the wedding of Kevin O'Higgins, the man who ordered the execution of his friend. In all, approximately 4,000 lives were lost in the Civil War between June 1922 and May 1923. Officially, there were 77 executions carried out by former comrades at various sites around the country, between 17 May 1922 and 2 May 1923, a further indication of the bitterness wedged between families, friends and comrades. County Donegal set the scene for the execution of four men in the grounds of Drumboe Castle near Stranorlar in March 1923, while another man, Hugh Gallagher from Derry, was shot while trying to escape from Drumboe Castle in December 1922. Following the outbreak of the Civil War in June 1922, Charlie Daly, O/C 2nd Northern Division, tried to halt the spread of the conflict between republicans and free state forces, but following an intensified campaign by Free State forces against republican garrisons, he had no option but to defend the republic in arms.

Sinn Féin's Pearse Doherty speaks at the Dumboe Martyrs Memorial in 2016

It was the hazards of the guerrilla struggle, firstly against the British and later against Free State forces, that brought together Comdt Gen Charlie Daly from Firies, Co Kerry; Brig Comdt Sean Larkin of Ballagherty, Co Derry; and Lieuts Dan Enright and Tim O'Sullivan, both from Listowel, Co Kerry. The small force of republicans in Donegal held out for a brief period before being compelled to withdraw to the mountains. On the night of 2 November 1922, following a tip-off from an informer, Free State forces from Falcarragh surrounded two houses belonging to John and Frank Sharkey at Mennabul, Dunlewey, in the shadow of Errigal mountain. There they found Charlie Daly, Sean Larkin, Dan Enright and Tim O'Sullivan along with six other men. The men were arrested before being taken to Drumboe Castle, where they were held for five months. On 18 January 1923 they received their sentence from a Military Court. The four young men were sentenced to death by firing squad. On the morning of 14 March 1923, some six weeks before the end of the Civil War, the four, Charlie Daly (26), Sean Larkin (26), Dan Enright (23) and Tim O'Sullivan (23), were marched from their cell at Drumboe Castle to an improvised firing range about 300 yards up a gently sloping field in the woods at Drumboe. It was at this spot that the four men were executed by a Free State firing squad and their bodies were thrown into a ready-made grave. In either late August or early September 1924, under the cover of night, the remains of the four men were disinterred from their dark and lonely graves at Drumboe and removed to Athlone Military Barracks. This was carried out without communication to the dead men's families. The following month, Free State forces admitted to disinterring the bodies of the men and notified their families that the remains would be released to families from Athlone's Custom Barracks. The bodies of all 77 men executed during the Civil War were released from prisons and military barracks around the country. The bodies of the Drumboe martyrs were received by family and relatives before being reinterred in their final resting places in their home counties of Derry and Kerry. The devotion of these men to their republican principles was never more evident than on that cold March morning in 1923, when the executors' volley rang out in the woods of Drumboe.

This article was first published in An Phoblacht in 2003

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