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What You Need to Know About the Assassination of Sir Henry Wilson

Great Hatred by Ronan McGreevy is a book about the assassination of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson in 1922 during a truce and while a peace treaty was being ratified. McGreevy concludes that Michael Collins authorized it as commander of the IRB.
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March 13, 2023 02:46 EDT
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Great Hatred: The Assassination of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson MP by a journalist of The Irish Times Ronan McGreevy was enjoyable. Wilson, assassinated on June 22, 1922, was on his way to a cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street and walking toward his office at the Ministry of Munitions.

The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), which later became the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and the UK had agreed to a truce in July 1921, which was in effect in June 1922. A constitution for the Irish Free State, based on the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921, agreed between Irish and British delegations, including Michael Collins and David Lloyd George, had been ratified on June 16, 1922, a week before the assassination of Henry Wilson. 

Revered in England, Disliked in Ireland

People in Ireland disliked Wilson, but people in England revered him. He was considered a key figure in the allied military strategy, credited with saving France in World War I.

Wilson was born and raised on a large farm in Currygrane near Ballinalee in County Longford. His family had come to Longford from Ulster in an earlier generation, and Wilson felt like an Ulster man more than a Longford man. 

The men who killed Henry Wilson were Reginald Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan. They were native-born Londoners of Irish ancestry and active members of the IRB. In London, they grew up in Irish culture.

Theories Surrounding the Assassination 

At the time of the assassination, the IRB’s supreme commander was Michael Collins, president of the Provisional Government of the Irish Free State. Members of the IRA had opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the provisional government and occupied the Four Courts in Dublin and other strong points around the country. 

The occupation was an unsustainable situation for the new state from a law-and-order point of view. When news of the assassination broke, British government circles assumed the anti-treaty forces ordered it. McGreevy dismisses this theory. 

Another theory suggests the IRB had a standing order to assassinate Wilson, which was not withdrawn despite the truce and the treaty. McGreevy does not believe this theory either. He says O’Sullivan and Dunne were scrupulous followers of military discipline who would not have acted on a freelance basis without clear, current orders.

The author concludes Collins authorized the assassination as commander of the IRB. Why might Collins have issued such an order? There is no written evidence, as the IRB was a secretive society and left no paper trails.

Involvement in Northern Ireland Politics

Wilson, who had retired from the Army, had become a military adviser to the Northern Ireland (NI) Government. He had become a Unionist MP. 

NI security forces had colluded in attacks on Catholics. Wilson was not involved in Northern Ireland for much of the period. His political opinions were well-known and bigoted. In 1914, as a serving soldier, he had conspired with the Tory opposition to block Home rule.

Collins’ top role in the IRB is hard to reconcile with his presidency of the Provisional Government of the Irish Free State. But this account is one aspect of this multilayered story. The events do not seem to justify authorizing an assassination during a truce in 1922 with a peace treaty being ratified.

McGreevy gives a sympathetic account of the Wilson, Dunne, and O’Sullivan families and their changing fortunes. He explains the shifting politics of the time and the links between the Wilson family and their Longford neighbor, General Seán Mac Eoin, “The Blacksmith of Ballinalee.” Reading this book, I am reinforced in my view that once the gun is introduced into Irish politics, it is difficult to get it out again.

[Conner Tighe edited this article.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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