T.P. O’Connor, who was an Irish Parliamentary Party MP in the House of Commons, wrote a letter to Sir Reginald Brade, the Permanent Under-Secretary of State for War, on 6 June, 1916, requesting assistance with having a death sentence commuted for a young man from Belfast who had taken part in the Easter Rising. In the letter, O’Connor states that Joe Devlin, a fellow member of the Irish Parliamentary Party, had reached out to him initially “with a very strong and urgent plea on the grounds of wisdom and urgency with regard to a young man from Belfast who is under arrest as a Sinn Feiner and who he says may be executed by the end of this week.”
There are two major questions raised by the contents of this letter. Who is the man in question that Joe Devlin and T.P. O’Connor are working so hard to save? Why would Joe Devlin have reached out to T.P. O’Connor for assistance with this matter?
Further investigation into Joe Devlin’s actions in the aftermath of the Rising shows that he was working to have a death sentence commuted for Sean MacEntee. Sean MacEntee was in command of the Dundalk based Irish Volunteers. His men had moved south to fight in Dublin during the Rising and members of the battalion killed two men while commandeering vehicles for their journey. MacEntee fought in the GPO for the rest of the week and was arrested when the garrison surrendered. Being arrested with the GPO battalion would not have been enough to sentence MacEntee to death, but his position as a high ranking officer combined with the actions taken by his men earlier in the week that resulted in the deaths of two civilians, likely contributed to his sentence.
The question is then, why was Joe Devlin working to help save MacEntee’s life. Sean’s father, James MacEntee, was a Nationalist member of Belfast Corporation and a close friend of Joe Devlin. It is expected that upon hearing his son had been arrested and would possibly be executed for his actions, that James would reach out to Devlin for assistance in saving his son’s life. T.P. O’Connor was also working closely with the British government in the wake of the Rising to keep members of the government in Britain abreast of the state of public opinion in Ireland. Devlin likely reached out to O’Connor in hopes that he could use his influence to assist in the matter of saving Sean MacEntee’s life.
MacEntee’s sentence was commuted to life in prison thanks in part to the assistance of T.P. O’Connor and Joe Devlin, as well as testimony from witnesses that were present when the civilians were killed. The civilians testified that MacEntee had not ordered anyone to fire and worked to regain control over his men after the shootings. MacEntee was released from prison with the last of the Republican prisoners in a period of general amnesty in June 1917. He went on to fight in the Irish War of Independence, as well as in the Irish Civil War on the anti-treaty side. He was interned in Kilmainham Gaol during the Civil War. After his release, he became active in politics and was a founding member of the Fianna Fáil party in 1926. MacEntee would serve in the Dáil until 1969. When MacEntee passed away on 10, January 1984, at the age of 94, he was the last surviving member of the First Dáil. MacEntee led a long and active life that he dedicated to serving Ireland. Were it not for the actions of T.P. O’Connor and Joe Devlin in 1916, Ireland may have been deprived of one of its greatest politicians.
1. Bureau of Military History, Witness Statement 1052, Sean MacEntee.