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Henry Phelan: First Garda murdered

Unarmed and drinking lemonade with colleagues in Mullinahone off-duty, the first garda murdered was shot in the face, possibly mistake for his brother

The Garda is in trouble, morale is low and there are numerous investigations into alleged incompetence and cover-ups. Village has been to the fore in detailing these delinquencies.  The purpose of this article is something different: to highlight through a not untypical case the extent of the duty and the dangers of service. 

Overall, 88 gardaí have been killed in service, 23 by individuals or groups associated with the IRA/dissident republican paramilitary and terrorist groups, this being the most common cause of death apart from accidents.

The most recent death was that of Garda Tony Golden, who was murdered in October 2015, while attending a domestic dispute, by dissident republican Adrian Crevan Mackin, who also shot and critically injured his partner before taking his own life.

This article looks at the first Garda murder. In 1922.

The War of Independence was ended by a truce on 11 July 1921 and the Anglo-Irish Treaty was ratified by Dáil Eireann early in 1922. Agreement was also reached by the British and the newly formed Provisional Government to disband the Royal Irish Constabulary, and in February 1922 a meeting was held at the Gresham Hotel Dublin to establish a police force to replace it.

The Civic Guard was formed on 22 February 1922 and renamed the Garda Síochána on 8 August 1923.

The Civic Guards were initially armed and trained at the Royal Dublin Society Showgrounds, Ballsbridge, Dublin and transferred from there to Kildare Military Barracks on 25 April 1922, and later to Collinstown before returning to the former RIC headquarters in Dublin’s Phoenix Park. Following a mutiny in Kildare the first commissioner, Michael Staines, TD tendered his resignation on 18 August and he was succeeded by General Eoin O’Duffy in September. Dublin Castle and nearby Ship Street Barracks was taken over by the Civic Guards on 17 August 1922. Following the accidental death of Charles Eastwood the Civic Guard became unarmed. Later that month the Gardai moved to Collinstown, County Dublin, and then to the Phoenix Park RIC Depot.

The Civic Guard was then sent out among the people.

The bitter civil war was still raging and the deployment of thousands of government-backed gardaí was certain to cause unrest, particularly in areas that were still controlled by republicans. The assurance that the Garda were above politics and concerning themselves only with criminal matters failed to impress the anti-Treaty IRA and their supporters. Dozens of barracks were attacked in the first months and it seemed only a matter of time before a garda would find himself on the wrong end of an IRA bullet. Henry Phelan would be the unfortunate victim after a tragic encounter in Mullinahone.

Henry Phelan was born in 1899 neat Mountrath in County Laois. He was the youngest of a family of nine children but his father had died, forcing his widow and children to manage the farm alone. As Henry grew older he became interested in nationalism, eventually following the well-worn path of many of his generation to serve in the IRA during the war of independence. After the truce Phelan considered membership of the Civic Guard. He applied and was quickly accepted into the force, undergoing a short period of training in the Curragh. He qualified and was amongst the first detachment of twenty-six gardaí sent to the old RIC barracks on Parliament Street in Kilkenny City on 27 September 1922. At the end of October, along with twelve of his colleagues and a sergeant, Phelan was transferred to the town of Callan.

Just after 3 pm on Tuesday, 14 November 1922, Phelan, along with two colleagues, garda Irwin and garda Flood, were granted an afternoon’s leave from their superior officer, a Sergeant Kilroy. The men had decided to cycle the five miles to Mullinahone. The trip was a recreational one and the guards’ intention was to buy a sliotar and hurleys for a new team that garda Phelan was attempting to set up in the Callan district. Like much of the county of Tipperary, Mullinahone was supposedly under the command of the government at that time but realistically the anti-Treaty IRA held great power in the area. Phelan and his colleagues decided to go to the village nonetheless.

The gardaí succeeded in their mission of purchasing the goods, afterwards deciding to go to Miss Mullally’s licenced premises and general grocers on Kickham Street. The men ordered and were given a couple of glasses of lemonade which they finished quickly. Just then, three armed men rushed into the premises. The first of the intruders produced a revolver, while the man directly behind him held a rifle level with his hip. The first man fired a shot in the direction of the three men from a distance of about three or four yards. It hit garda Phelan in the face and he fell heavily onto the pub’s floor. The belated order was then given by the second man “Hands up”.

The remaining two gardaí were horrified but complied with the command. The shooter then asked the shocked policemen if they had any arms. They replied that they did not. The second raider, who was still pointing a rifle at Irwin and Flood, seemed just as surprised by the shooting as the two gardaí and he asked his compatriot “What are you after doing; why did you fire?”. The first man muttered something inaudible and placed the revolver back in its holster. The third man was still standing at the door and said nothing during the altercation. Garda Flood begged the men to allow him to come to the aid of the stricken Phelan, who was still lying on his face and hands. They replied “You may”. They then left as garda Irwin went for help. The local doctor came swiftly but could not be of any assistance as Phelan was already dead. He had not spoken after the shot and died almost instantly.

Word spread quickly about the first member of the Civic Guard to be killed in the new State. Phelan’s body was laid out in Miss Mullally’s but later that night removed from Mullinahone to Callan by motor car. The locals were already aware of the senseless shooting and large crowds awaited the hearse. The garda’s remains lay in the barracks through Tuesday night and early Wednesday and “they were visited by throngs of people and fervent prayers were offered up for the repose of his soul”. A large crowd gathered to mourn at the garda’s funeral in Callan as all the businesses and houses closed and drew their blinds. Several gardaí carried the coffin before the cortege travelled the forty-two miles onwards to Mountrath where Henry Phelan man was buried in his home parish.

The inquest into the death was held at on Thursday, 16 November. It heard that Phelan had died instantly after being shot in the jaw. A deeply affected Miss Mullally appeared in the stand and outlined the events of the day, agreeing to write down the name of the man she believed had carried out the shooting. A verdict of murder against persons unknown was announced. It would be at this point that the government took the gloves off in the civil war against the IRA. Three days after garda Phelan’s death, four anti-Treaty IRA soldiers became the first people to be executed by the Irish State after being found to have guns in their possession illegally. The executions accelerated from then on, 81 republicans being executed in the course of the civil war alone.

As for the actual shooting of Henry Phelan, it would be almost two years before anyone was detained. In August 1924 local houses suffered surprise raids. Two local republicans were finally arrested by gardaí and Military Police and charged with the killing. The first was James Daly, a labourer and ex-British soldier from Coolagh, four miles from Callan. The second man was named Philip Leahy and was a farmer’s son and native of Poulacapple, just inside the County Tipperary border. Neither Daly nor Leahy was alleged to have fired the shot but both were described as “aiders and abettors” to the crime.

The prisoners, described as having a respectable appearance, appeared before the District Court in Kilkenny three days later. Neither man would participate in the trial, however. Both sat facing away from the judge and refused to take their hats off their heads or stand up, merely stating that they refused to recognise the courts. This was in spite of the gardaí present forcibly removing their headgear and admonishing them for not respecting the process. A superintendent told the court that the men had told gardaí that they had nothing to do with the crime when arrested. It was also mentioned that neither man was accused of murder and that although the name of the man thought to have fired the shot was known, he was not before the court at that present time as the Garda were unable to locate him.

Garda Flood entered the witness box and reiterated his version of events on that fateful day. He would not conclusively identify the prisoners, however. Garda Irwin was similarly unable to definitively place the defendants at the scene of the crime. No other real evidence was forthcoming and the men were acquitted.  The perpetrator would never be brought to justice, in spite of the fact that Miss Mullally had been able to identify him. It is alleged he fled to the US.

It was speculated in later years that Phelan, the only garda killed during the civil war, was mistaken for his brother, an RIC officer, or for another man who had served in the police who had the same name as his brother. Other accounts claim that local people were unaware that the gardaí were unarmed, due to the lack of communication into the town in those troubled times, and that the raiders had gone in to procure arms before the gun had gone off accidentally. Either way, the shooter had allegedly been spirited away to America in the aftermath of the crime, never to face justice for the act. The shooting of the young garda was extremely unpopular, locally and nationally, however. He had been unarmed and posed no threat to the gunmen.

Less than one month after his death, a general order by the IRA was circulated instructing volunteers not to fire on unarmed gardaí. Nevertheless, four other gardaí would be killed in County Tipperary within the next decade. 

Colm Wallace has written a book, ‘The Fallen: gardaí killed in service 1922-1949’, about 21 gardaí killed in the line of duty in the Irish Free State; History Press, City Quay, Co. Dublin.