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The killing of Eileen Quinn

The killing of Eileen Quinn

‘Legalised illegality’ by Crown forces



Eileen Quinn was shot dead by Auxiliaries while sitting outside her house on 1 November 1920. Gerard Quinn assesses the incident and praises the actions of solicitor Dr AD Comyn at the subsequent Military Court inquest.

November 1920 – 100 years ago this month – marked some of the most intense violence in the Irish War of Independence. A dreadful spiral of atrocity followed by reprisal had set in, seemingly on all sides.

Often forgotten were the heroic actions of many solicitors, doctors and indeed coroners around the country in the face of the mounting violence.

The killing of Eileen Quinn

The killing of Eileen Quinn

This story revolves around the killing of Eileen Quinn, who was shot by the Auxiliary Division of the Royal Irish Constabulary (ADRIC) on 1 November 1920 outside her quiet and peaceful home near Coole Park in Galway.

At the time, the British Government had opted not to introduce martial law in the country. To do so would have attracted the opprobrium of world opinion. Instead, it opted to militarise the police, the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), with the Black and Tans and later the Auxiliaries.

To militarise a police force is usually a fatal mistake in any democratic polity, since any remaining links of trust that may survive between the community and the forces of the State are usually irretrievably broken. Ireland was no exception.

Two days earlier

The story begins two days earlier, on Saturday 30 October 1920. About 30 Volunteers ambushed five RIC men on bicycles near Castledaly in Co Galway. The RIC men were transporting rifles between stations.

One was wounded and one was killed – Constable Timothy Horan. He was in his early 40s and married with three young children. Local clergy were asked to preach against the killing, and did so on Sunday 31 October.

The following day, Monday 1 November, Eileen (aged 24, with three young children of her own and one on the way) was sitting outside her house, facing the main Gort to Galway road. D Company of the ADRIC (billeted in Lenaboy Castle in Galway) had travelled in two trucks from Galway to Gort earlier that day and had apparently fired several shots indiscriminately in Gort’s main square.

Later in the afternoon, D Company (with some RIC) started back toward Galway. At around 3.30pm, they reached Eileen’s house, about 5km outside Gort. Most accounts agree that two trucks either slowed down or stopped, and that several shots were fired from at least one truck. Eileen was hit in the groin and bled to death over the next several hours.

Deliberate aim

Another account, written several years later, is more graphic and recounts an Auxiliary man kneeling down to steady his rifle and take deliberate aim at Eileen, who was sitting just yards away. Her killing was widely seen as a reprisal for the death of the RIC man two days before.

There are copious newspaper accounts of the killing. She was attended to by two local doctors – Dr Sandys and Dr Foley – at great danger to themselves. They managed to stem the bleeding somewhat, which gave her a few more hours of life. A surgeon was sent for in Galway, but he could not procure a motorcar due to the turmoil in the area.

The chief constable of the RIC in Gort came, but refused to take a statement from Eileen. She apparently told him that she “knew who did it”. Most take this to mean that she could identity the shooter in a line-up. No doubt fearing for his own safety, the chief constable adamantly refused to take a statement.

The local priest, Fr Considine, also attended her while she lay dying. She communicated extensively with him and informed him of all the circumstances surrounding her shooting. She died later in the evening. Her husband Malachy was distraught, as were her three young children, all of whom were under the age of four.

Approximately three weeks later, two brothers in their early 20s (Patrick and Henry Loughnane) were brutally tortured and killed by the same company of Auxiliaries not far from Eileen’s house. This, too, was largely seen as a reprisal action. It fell to their 17-year old sister (Nora) to identify the bodies.

Ancient institution

Normally, when a death like Eileen’s happens, the local coroners are apprised. Coroners’ inquests are an ancient institution dedicated essentially to ‘truth-telling’ about the cause of death. Having this truth is crucial for the families concerned. Further, the truth may trigger the criminal process, and is thus central to the rule of law. And, indeed, the truth may serve a higher political purpose to help change policies and processes in order to avoid harm in the future.

A lesser-appreciated feature of this-period was that the Restoration of Order in Ireland Act 1920 (section 1.3(f)) allowed for the suspension of coroners’ inquests. Regulation 80 was adopted under the Restoration of Order in Ireland Act in August 1920. It stipulated that the operation of coroners should be suspended in several (but not all) counties, and replaced by Military Courts of Inquiry. 

These Military Courts of Inquiry were based on models developed under successive Army Acts dating back to the 1870s. It is probably fair to say that the intent was to distort or hide the truth, and thus create additional breathing space for the actions of the Auxiliaries and Black and Tans.

Extreme distress

Eileen was buried on Thursday 4 November 1920. A Military Court of Inquiry into her death was convened on the same day as her funeral, which must have caused extreme distress for her husband. It was convened in the formidable and intimidating Gort RIC barracks – one of the largest in the country.

Under regulation 80, Military Courts of Inquiry had three members – all military personnel. By tradition, if not by law, coroners had to be either a solicitor or a medical doctor. There was no requirement that the military members of these Courts of Inquiry had to be either legally or medically qualified.

The public and the media could be excluded from part or the entirety of the process. The rules of evidence were relaxed to allow for material that might otherwise be excluded.

The form of the report of an inquiry was determined by the Army Acts. The acts stipulated that such reports should contain the names of the military officers presiding, the name of the deceased, a summary of the evidence presented (the bulk of the report), and one brief paragraph setting out the ‘verdict’ of the Military Court. They usually ran to six pages – no more.

There was no space for a deliberative weighing of the evidence – just a conclusory few sentences at the end. Interestingly, variants of these military courts seem to have been used in Kenya, Malaya and the Palestine Mandate, as well as in Ireland.

Courageous solicitors

Eileen’s husband was allowed to attend throughout. Evidence was taken from several RIC men, as well as from the doctors and the priest who attended Eileen. Fortunately, the family was very ably represented by Dr AD Comyn, a solicitor based in Loughrea. Several courageous solicitors around the country like Dr Comyn attended these Military Courts to seek justice for the families.

The Crown sought to exclude evidence from Fr Considine about the lengthy conversation he had had with Eileen as she lay dying. Dr Comyn strenuously objected, and the priest’s evidence was admitted. (There is some evidence to the effect that the Auxiliaries marched up and down the corridor outside the room where the proceedings were taking place. If so, this was presumably done to intimidate those giving evidence.)

Several RIC men gave evidence. One testified to the fact that, while he himself didn’t shoot, he heard shots ring out from the truck he was travelling in. He asserted, as did the other RIC witnesses, that it was not unusual for ‘precautionary shots’ to be fired, especially when coming to a dangerous bend on the road or a forested area from which an ambush might be launched.

Interestingly, Eileen’s house is situated on an entirely straight stretch of road for about 1km on either side, with little or no afforestation. The military members of the tribunal had discretion to do a site visit. If they had exercised that discretion, they would have seen that the threat of ambush was a pure fiction. No Auxiliary gave evidence – nor was one compelled. It is not known how long the tribunal sat, but it couldn’t have been for more than two to three hours.

Death by misadventure

The verdict, when it came, was ‘death by misadventure’ as a result of necessary ‘precautionary shots’. This added insult to injury and caused a furore in Irish, American, British and Australian newspapers. One Irish newspaper labelled the verdict ‘legalised illegality’.

It led to a debate in the House of Commons, where Sir Hamar Greenwood stoutly defended the behaviour of the Auxiliaries, as well as the verdict. Presumably because of the weight of public opinion, the Government made an ex gratia payment to Eileen’s husband.

An extensive file exists that details an internal legal debate in HM Treasury about which theory of liability should be adopted, in the hope of limiting the precedent value of the payment.

Eileen was my grandmother. Her son, Alfred, then aged three, and who was a witness to her killing, was my father. Although there are copious newspaper accounts of the hearing before the Military Court of Inquiry, no copy of the actual report can be found.

Under the Army Acts, six copies had to be made by law. Presumably, any official copies still in the possession of the Crown were transferred to London after independence. However, even a trip to the National Archives in London did not reveal any copy of the report (although it did reveal several others).

Lessons learned

One hundred years on, what should we make of all of this? First of all, four people lay dead in close proximity to one another in the month of November 1920. Eileen Quinn, the Loughnane brothers, and Constable Horan all left behind distraught families. All conflicts have real human costs that reverberate through the generations. In war, and on the ground, there are no real winners.

Secondly, one cannot but be impressed with the two doctors, Fr Considine, and especially Dr Comyn, the family solicitor. They often went out of their way and indeed courted extreme danger because of their sense of duty. Many families were deeply indebted to them.

Solicitors are not just technical ciphers of the law – they were (and are) socialised to take the rule of law seriously, even if it means great personal risk. (Indeed, it would be fitting if some way could be found of remembering and honouring all the professionals, including the legal professionals like Dr Comyn, 100 years on.)

Thirdly, the events of November 1920 certainly place the work of coroners into sharp relief. They are indispensable institutions devoted to truth-telling. They deserve to be cherished and supported, not least because it is hard to see the rule of law and indeed democracy function without them.

‘Moral repair’

Last, while the events of November 1920 are still raw and vivid, occurring just 100 years ago, we owe our freedom to that generation. But we are not condemned to see the world as they did. Time and space has given us the luxury of being able to rise above the heated emotions of the day.

The pathbreaking work of Linda Radzik on the concept of ‘moral repair’ (see Making Amends: Atonement in Morality, Law, and Politics) and the more recent work of Martha Minow on forgiveness in life and in the law (When Should Law Forgive) are as good a place as any to begin.

Remembering is a key part of ‘moral repair’.

Over this past year, there has been a major art exhibition dedicated to Eileen (The Uncertainty of History: Remembering Eileen Quinn, by Bernadette Burns), an RTÉ documentary (Reprisals – The Eileen Quinn Story, by Orla Higgins), and some public talks, for example, the Coroners’ Society of Ireland.

We remember, too, the heroic work of Dr AD Comyn, solicitor, and many other solicitors like him, who insisted on the rule of law, even in tumultuous times.

Gerard Quinn holds the Wallenberg Chair of Law at the Raoul Wallenberg Institute (University of Lund) and a research chair at the University of Leeds. He is a former external examiner at the Law Society of Ireland.