Turtle Bunbury

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HISTORY

HEROES AND VILLAINS

GEORGE PLANT (1904-1942) - IRA EXECUTIONER

As he faced his firing squad at Portlaoise Prison that warm spring afternoon in 1942, George Plant pulled a handkerchief out of his breast pocket and briefly rubbed his shoe caps. Turning to one of the prison orderlies, he stoically remarked, ‘Those who live by the gun, die by the gun’. Eighteen months after he shot Michael Devereux dead in Co. Tipperary, Plant was about to become one of the very last people to be executed in Ireland. Despite his Protestant background, Plant had been a prominent member of the Irish Republican Army since the War of Independence. His murder trial at the height of the Emergency was one of the most controversial in the history of the state. Put simply, de Valera’s government wanted Plant dead.

George Plant was born in 1904, the second son of Albert and Kathleen Plant, a devout Church of Ireland couple who ran an 80-acre farm near Fethard, Co. Tipperary. In 1911, following the death of three of George’s siblings in infancy, Albert Plant turned to alcohol, abandoned his family and returned to his native Co. Wicklow. Kathleen Plant took it upon herself to raise her six surviving children and run the farm at St. Johnstown, aided by her two oldest sons, Jimmy and George.

One Sunday in 1916, the two young brothers were arrested by the police, taken in for questioning and beaten up. It was alleged that they had knowledge of the whereabouts of two local Republicans.[i] The incident left them with a burning hatred of the law.

In 1918, George and Jimmy joined Fianna Éireann, the youth section of the Irish Volunteers. During the War of Independence, George Plant served with the 7th Battalion of the IRA’s highly active Third Tipperary Brigade. [ia] The young Protestant won particular recognition for his skills as a frontline soldier. He was also reputed to have been the battalion’s “executioner”, suggesting that he was the man ordered to orchestrate the killing of miscellaneous spies and informers during this unhappy period.

During the Civil War, the Plants joined with the majority of their fellow Brigade members and took the anti-treaty, Republican side.[ii] Towards the end of the war, George was arrested and imprisoned in Templemore but managed to escape.

Following the Free State’s victory, the Plants fled to Canada where they found work on the wheat fields. George also became involved in smuggling operations across the US border, presumably alcohol at a time of Prohibition.[iii] In 1929, they were summoned back to Ireland and ordered to carry out an armed raid on the Bank of Ireland in Tipperary town. Together with IRA gunman Patrick Keogh, they got away with £930 in notes and coins.[iv] However, two days later, the Civic Guards surrounded the Plants farmhouse in St Johnstown and arrested the three men. Kathleen Plant was present in Tipperary Courthouse when the Judge sentenced her two sons to seven years penal servitude. A commentator noted that the brothers seemed ‘unmoved by the sentence’ and ‘smilingly shook hands with their solicitor before they left the dock’.[v]

The Plants were released under a general amnesty when de Valera came to power in 1932. George returned to America where he became an avid supporter of the up-and-coming IRA leader, Seán Russell. In April 1938, Russell was appointed IRA Chief of Staff. Plant returned to Ireland soon afterwards, presumably keen to play his part in Russell’s campaign to bomb Britain.

There were many in the Fianna Fail party who were unhappy that Plant was back in Ireland. [va] Having served twenty-five years as an IRA gunman and executioner, Plant had intimate knowledge about several members of the Republican elite who now occupied ministerial positions in de Valera’s Fianna Fail cabinet. Precisely what he knew is unlikely to ever be revealed. Shortly after his execution, a journal written by Plant came into the possession of Canon Hazelton of Fethard. However, the clergyman deemed its contents so politically explosive that he cast it onto a fire.

In America, Plant had worked closely with Bill Quirke, now one of Ireland’s leading Senators and a key advisor to de Valera. While on the run from the authorities during the 1920s, Plant spent time with both Frank Aiken and Gerry Boland, now Ministers of Defence and Justice respectively. It is rumoured that the orders which George and Jimmy Plant received to rob the Tipperary bank in 1929 came directly from Aiken. [vb]

Plant’s alliance with Russell posed a considerable problem for de Valera. The Taoiseach had already publicly broken with the IRA and was determined to preserve Irish neutrality. However, Russell’s ‘Sabotage Britain’ campaign - and his ongoing negotiations with Nazi Germany - were severely testing Anglo-Irish relations.[vi] There was a very real risk that Churchill might send the British Army into Ireland. Russell, Plant and the entire IRA organization needed to be brought to heel urgently. [vii]

As it happened, Russell’s extremist agenda collapsed when he was taken ill on board a German U-boat and died on 14th August 1940. However, the Irish Government remained determined in their resolve to stamp out the IRA.

Ten days after Russells death, the Special Branch swooped down on an IRA gathering at 22 Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Amongst the men they arrested was Michael Devereux, a 24-year-old lorry driver from Wexford who was Quarter-Master of the IRA’s Wexford Brigade.[viii] Devereux was questioned for three days by Detective Dinny O’Brien and then released without charge. Shortly afterwards, the Gardai ‘discovered’ a major IRA arms depot in Wexford. This was almost certainly a deliberate Gardai tactic to make it look like Devereux had talked and to thus sew the seeds of doubt within the IRA organization.[ix]

Stephen Hayes, the new IRA Chief of Staff, promptly ordered Devereux’s execution. Two men were selected for the job – George Plant and Michael Walsh of Kilmacow Co. Kilkenny.[x] Plant reputedly questioned the order at some length but, ever the soldier, ultimately proceeded to follow his orders.

Devereux was summoned to a meeting with his battalion commander Tom Cullimore in a field outside Wexford on 19th September 1940. When he got there, he was met by Plant and Walsh who, spinning an elaborate tale about how they had ‘bumped off’ Cullimore, persuaded Devereux to escort them to an IRA safehouse in Grangemockler, Co. Tipperary.

On the evening of Monday 23rd September, Devereux advised his young wife that he had been summoned to a meeting in Wexford and set off into the cool autumn night in his black ‘Baby Ford’.[xi] That was the last time Mary Devereux saw her husband alive.

Devereux, Plant and Walsh lay low for the rest of the week, during which time they were joined by several other IRA men. Convinced that he was now a prime suspect for Cullimore’s “murder”, Devereux agreed to bury his car beneath a hayrick on a nearby farm.[xii]

Devereux met his end on the slopes of Gortnapisha Hill on the night of Friday 27th September, while making his way to another safe-house with Plant and Paddy Davern, a former colleague of Plants from Civil War days. Plant suddenly drew a handgun, pointed it at Devereux and accused him of being an informer. Devereux denied the accusation but he was to be given no chance of a fair trial. Plant shot him point blank in the forehead with a .45 calibre bullet. Plant and Davern buried the body in a nearby gully, covered it with stones, ferns and moss, and disappeared into the hills.

Nine weeks later, Plant was arrested while cycling near Enniscorthy and brought before the Special Criminal Court. Nobody knew of Deveruex’s fate at this point but Plant was convicted with possession of incriminating documents, with membership of an illegal organization and with having refused to account for their movements. He remained behind bars for the rest of his life.[xiii]

On 10 February 1941, Radio Éireann broadcast an SOS on behalf of Mary Devereux seeking information on the whereabouts of her husband. As the hunt for Devereux intensified, the IRA hierarchy began to crack. On 30 June 1941, Stephen Hayes, the Chief of Staff, was arrested by his own IRA comrades and accused of being an informer. He managed to escape on 8 September and sought custody from the Gardai.

Shortly after Hayes turned to the Gardai, a bedraggled stranger arrived at Paddy Davern’s house in Grangemockler claiming the IRA had sent him to shift Devereux’s car to a better hiding place. Davern duly took the stranger to the scene of the crime, and started talking about that fateful night. When a local farmer arrived and began to question the stranger, the man whipped out a pair of revolvers, covered the two men and backed away. It is widely believed the stranger was Detective Dinny O’Brien.[xiv]

A day after the strangers’ visit, the army were sent in to scour the countryside for Devereux. Davern was arrested and interrogated and Devereux’s decomposed body was found on 27th September 1941, exactly a year to the day after he was shot dead.

Two weeks later, George Plant was charged with Devereux’s murder. His divisional commander Joseph O’Connor was simultaneously charged with giving Plant the order. Both men pleaded ‘not-guilty’.[xv] The original trial collapsed after two days when the three key witnesses, including Davern and Walsh, refused to give evidence.

The court had no option but to issue a ‘nolle prosequi’ which should have meant the end of the trial. However, both men were then rearrested on 30th December under Emergency Order 41F and Justice Minister Boland transferred the case to a Special Military Court with Free State Army officers sitting as ‘judges’. Davern and Walsh were now also charged with Devereux’s murder.

The second trial began in Collins Barracks on 12th February 1942. Dr. Séan MacBride, the defendant’s barrister (and later Minister for External Affairs) argued, in vain, that it was unconstitutional to try a person for the same crime twice. However, the greatest controversy surrounds the issuing of a second Emergency Order by the government which basically bent the rules of evidence to ensure the men were convicted. Davern had stated that his original statement was made while he had a Gardai revolver pressed into his back. Under the new Order, such statements were still admissible as truth, irrespective of the fact they were made under duress. As the Gardai denied there had been any coercion on the two men, the statements were therefore taken as fact.[xvi]

O’Connor was acquitted because of a lack of evidence. The other three men were found guilty and sentenced to death. Perhaps reluctant to give the new IRA too many martyrs, the government subsequently commuted Davern and Walsh’s sentences to life imprisonment. Both were released in early 1946, having served four years in prison.

However, Plant, the man who killed Devereux, was not so fortunate. While McBride tried to argue that Plant was simply a soldier obeying his orders, the judges deemed that the trigger-happy Protestant was a menace to society and that his death must serve as a warning to all other IRA gunmen.[xvii] The fact that Plant had once been closely connected to so many government ministers does not appear to have been mentioned.

Just one week after the death sentence was passed, Plant was shot by a six-man firing squad in Portlaoise Prison. According to McBride, ‘he sat up reading the night before his execution and went to his death wearing his best suit.’ As he left the cell, Plant tossed his sweater to a fellow prisoner, remarking that it wouldn't keep him warm much longer.

Much bitterness surrounded the manner in which Plant’s family were treated. Neither his aged mother nor his young wife were allowed to visit him after he was found guilty. When he requested to see his baby son, he was told he could only do so from behind a screen. Plant declined the compromise. His family heard about his execution from a brief broadcast on national radio. An official telegram arrived later that day. Censorship laws also ensured there were was no mention of it in The Irish Times. The family were further dismayed by the execution as they had been led to believe, incorrectly, that Senator Quirke, a Fethard native, had been close to securing a reprieve for Plant.

In accordance with normal procedure, Plant was buried in Portlaoise Prison. Six years later, a coalition government granted permission for his body, along with those of five other executed IRA members, to be reinterred elsewhere.[xviii] Plant’s coffin lay overnight in Christ Church Cathedral – the first time anyone had been accorded that honour in over 200 years – before making its way to Co. Tipperary, draped in the Tricolour, with an IRA guard of honour at its side.[xix] On Sunday 19 September, he was re-interred beneath in St Johnstown churchyard. A Celtic Cross was later erected over his grave. Plant remains a martyr for Republicans to this day and is commemorated every Easter with a graveside oration by prominent Sinn Fein members.[xx]

George’s widow Mary (nee Mackey), a native of Mooncoin, moved to New York, married again and ran a bar in the Upper West Side. In the early 1990s, she returned to Ireland and died in Bantry where her only son George Plant Jr runs a transport company.

George's sister Elizabeth Plant, known as Lil, died in 1992. Amongst those who attended her funeral, albeit against the wishes of many, was the Republican priest Father Paddy Ryan.

George’s brother Jimmy moved to London where he died in 1978. George's niece - daughter of his younger brother Ned - inherited the Plant farm at St. Johnstown and sold it to Richard Henry, spokesman for the Coolmore estate.

With thanks to Pat O'Donnell, Michael Moroney, Jasper McCarthy, Michael Purcell, Joe Kenny, Kieran Fagan, the Fethard Historical Society and Cleona Ní Chrualaoi from Midas Productions.

FOOTNOTES

[i] The two Republicans were Sean Hayes and Dan Breen. The Plants certainly knew Hayes, a local farmer, who they would have met at a blacksmith’s forge in Fethard. They did not know Breen, the man who later fired the opening shots of the War of Independence.

[ia] Another Protestant in this battalion was explosives expert George Hayden.

[ii] As part of Michael Sheehan’s Flying Column, they were involved in the so-called ‘Ambush on the Grey Ghost’, an attack on an armoured Lancia which, fitted with railway wheels, patrolled the railway line between Clonmel and Thurles. Local lore holds that nobody was actually hurt in the ambush and that both sides repaired to a nearby pub together afterwards.

[iii] At one point they were deported from Mexico to Ireland but returned to North America and were variously sighted in Toronto and Chicago.

[iv] The raid took place on 18th April 1929. The bank’s sub-agent was former rugby international George Killeen and, as The Irish Times put it, ‘had the odds not been so against him [ie: the Plants and Keogh were armed], there can be little doubt as to how matters would have gone’. Patrick Keogh was a motor mechanic from Pallas Green, Co. Limerick.

[v] The Plants were charged with robbing the bank and robbing the getaway car, kidnapping the car owner and possessing an illegal quantity of weapons. They were handcuffed and conveyed to Limerick prison, before a well publicised court case ensued in, especially when detail of the kidnap of William Thornhill, the garage proprietor emerged. The brothers were sentenced to seven years penal servitude. Mrs Plant, their mother was present. The Irish Times correspondent noted that the Plants were ‘unmoved by the sentence’ and ‘smilingly shook hands with their solicitor [J.G. Skinner] before they left the dock’.

[va] It is said that the Fianna Fail party were afraid of Plant, not just because of what he knew but because he was such a livewire. One imagines the pub went rather silent when he walked through the door. On other occasions, George is said to have shot a cow, for the hell of it, and a cockerel that was annoying him.

[vb] Pat O’Donnell recalls seeing a letter at St Johnstown which de Valera wrote to ‘dear George’, urging him to return to Ireland to help the cause, but the date of this letter is unknown and nor is its whereabouts.

[vi] In May 1940, Russell went to Berlin to purchase arms from Hitler’s Nazi elite. Wexford man Stephen Hayes, who later played a prominent role in the Devereux Case, was appointed Chief of Staff in his absence. Sixteen years earlier, Russell had ventured on a similar expedition to Communist Russia with no less a man than Gerry Boland, brother of Harry, the Minister of Justice when Plant was executed. They went to purchase arms for de Valera’s Republican troops during the Civil War.

[vii] De Valera had learned a hard lesson from the case of Patrick McGrath, the IRA hunger striker whom he released in 1939, only for McGrath to return to extremism.

[viii] Michael Devereux from Maudlintown, Co. Wexford was working as a lorry driver for the Shell-Mex Company. Devereux was the quartermaster of the Wexford IRA Brigade, a position some said he only held because of his access to a lorry. He was frequently to be seen on the roads of Counties Wexford, Killkenny, Tipperary and Wicklow, as well as Dublin City where he often delivered messages for the IRA.

[ix] In fact, this was almost certainly part of a deliberate Garda policy to generate a culture of doubt within the IRA. Whenever suspected IRA members were released from custody, the Gardai made it look like each man had struck a deal and informed. Devereux’s case was not the only time the Gardai ‘discovered’ a depot shortly after a suspect was released. In fact, they often knew about such depots long before they made an arrest. The tactic sewed seeds of distrust in the movement to such an extent that Stephen Hayes, the IRA Chief of Staff, was later condemned as an informer.

An IRA spy in the Gardai called James Crofton later ‘confirmed’ that Devereux had talked, but this too has been called into question.

[x] The two men were selected by Joseph O’Connor, Devereux’s Divisional Commander. George Plant was by now a full-time officer in the IRA with the areas of Wexford, Kilkenny and South Tipperary under his supervision. Walsh was the son of a creamery manager from Kilmacow, Co. Kilkenny.

[xi] On Sunday 22nd September, Devereux went to Croke Park to watch Galway’s footballers trounce Kerry in the All-Ireland. The following day, he and his wife attended a funeral in Kilmore, outside Wexford.

[xii] The farm belonged to William Phelan.

[xiii] He was tried alongside with Fritz Langsdorf, of 204 Lr Kimmage Road, Crumlin, who was charged with having assaulted and obstructed a Civic guard and refusing to account for his movements, and Patrick Woods, 16 Buckingham St, Dublin, who was also charged with having incriminating documents, with membership of an illegal organization and with having refused to account for their movements.

[xiv] It is sometimes claimed that O’Brien was acting on information provided by Stephen Hayes, the IRA Chief of Staff. Hayes had come under suspicion as a possible informer in early 1941. In April, he was abducted by two northern IRA men, taken captive, found guilty as charged and sentenced to death. Under duress, he made a statement admitting his guilt, but the statement included many claims that could not be true. Hayes escaped in September and went straight to the Gardai in Rathmines.

Detective Denis O’Brien was shot dead outside his home in Ballyboden, Rathfarnham, on 9 February 1942 by a gang of four including Archie Doyle, one of the men who shot Kevin O’Higgins.

[xv] When McBride requested the men be given two separate trials, it was denied.

[xvi] Sean Mac Bride was amongst many who deemed it one of the worst examples of State intervention in the law. Historian, Tim Pat Coogan described it as 'one of the most distressing chapters of Irish legal history'. ‘An Phoblacht’, the Sinn Fein weekly, declared it ‘a grotesque perversion of justice.’

[xvii] McBride counselled the trial that, ‘from an early age, in other times and circumstances, [George Plant] became closely involved with the physical force movement aimed at the achievement of independence of the country; that by reason of his associations with that movement his life was never a normal one. Anything he did seems to have been done with the conviction that he was carrying out a military duty imposed upon him by reason of his membership of the IRA and such kindred organisations’.

[xviii] Few in Ireland realized such executions had even taken place, such had been the power of censorship during the Emergency. The dead men were Patrick McGrath of Dublin and Thomas Harte of Lurgan (executed September 1940), Dick Goss of Dundalk (executed August 1941), George Plant of Tipperary (executed March 1942), Maurice O’Neill of Kerry (executed November 1942) and was IRA Chief of Staff Charlie Kerins of Tralee (one of Detective Dinny O’Brien’s killers, hanged in Mountjoy in December 1944). All six were given republican funerals.

[xix] Six Church of Ireland bishops are said to have attended the Christ Church ceremony. Many Protestants also came forward with money for his memorial. His re-burial followed an oration by John McGrath who said: thanked ‘the ministers of George Plant’s religion’ for their assistance during the preparation for that day’s ceremony. ‘The signal honour bestowed by them on this dead soldier in permitting his remains to lie overnight in Christchurch Cathedral in our capital city, an honour they have not given to any member of the Protestant religion for over two centuries, is not one to be readily forgotten. Let us never be unmindful of that honour.’

[xx] At a special ceremony to mark the 60th anniversary of his execution, Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, President of Republican Sinn Féin, stated that Plant had been ‘railroaded to death’ and that ‘the principles of refusing double jeopardy and retro-active legislation were breached for a summary trial by drumhead court martial’. The Carrick-on-Suir flute band have also been known to play. The event also includes a reading of the 1916 Proclamation as well as a brief graveside oration by Sinn Fein members like Bernadette Sands-McKevitt (1998), Eamonn Nolan and David Dunne (2009).

[xxi] It is said that Jimmy was even more dangerous than George and a highly skilled bombmaker. He died in London on 27th December 1978.

FURTHER READING

‘George Plant & the Rule of Law – The Devereux Affair 19401942’, Michael Moroney, Tipperary Historical Journal 1988 01 [pp 1-12]

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