West Cork’s Hales Family: Giving All for Irish Freedom

Seán Hales, a TD (member of the Dáil Éireann) from County Cork, and Padraig Ó Maile, a TD from County Mayo, emerged from the Ormond Hotel along the north bank of the Liffey River in Dublin at about 2:30 PM on December 7, 1922. Just the day before, the Free State had been formally established by an Act of the British Parliament. They intended to board a hackney cab and make the short ride to the Dáil Éireann.

The Irish people were embroiled in an increasingly brutal Civil War. Hales needed no reminder that many such wars are often “brother against brother.” Seán was from one of the most staunchly Republican families in West Cork, but he had taken the pro-treaty side in the Civil War. He had three brothers, Tom, William, and Robert, who were fighting with the IRA on the anti-treaty side. Or at least they had been. In the last three months, all three had been captured by Free State forces.

As they walked to the cab, Hales and Ó Maile were under the watchful eye of a member of the IRA’s Dublin No. 1 Brigade. Hales began to climb into the cab as the man rushed forward, pulling a pistol and opening fire at the two men and then running down the street. Both men were hit, but Ó Maile’s wound was less serious. He screamed at the driver, John Kennedy, to “GET AWAY!” and quickly drove off. They reached the nearby Jervis Street Hospital in minutes, but it was too late. Seán Hales was dead.

It was barely over three months since the Free Staters had buried their leader, Michael Collins. Seán’s brother, Tom, had commanded the Republican group that ambushed and killed him at Béal na Bláth, less than 10 miles from Brandon. Now, two TDs had been wounded, with one dead on the streets of Dublin. This war between former comrades was about to get even more vicious.

The Hales family, of Knocknacurra, Ballinadee, Bandon Co. Cork, was heavily involved in the nationalist and then Republican movements of the late 19th and early 20th century. Robert Hales, a farmer, and Margaret (nee Fitzgerald) Hales were fluent Irish speakers, something that was often an indication of nationalist principles at the time. They made sure their children learned the language as well. Robert was a very successful farmer, one of the earliest to use threshing machines and a steam tractor in the area. He was also a successful horse and cattle breeder. The family was well off and thus had much to lose by becoming involved in the coming struggle for freedom.

Robert had been involved with the opposition of the landlord system in Ireland and supported nationalist William O’Brien. The couple would have nine children who came into adulthood in the turbulent period as nationalism spread throughout Ireland. Their first was Bessie in 1874, followed by Anne (1878), Hannah (1879), Seán (1880), Donal (1884), Robert (1886), Madge (1890), William (j1891), and Tom (1892).

Most of the children were members of the GAA (GAA crest, right), with Seán, Robert, and Tom being excellent athletes and local champions. They also joined the Gaelic League. Membership in both organizations was often an indication of Republican leanings. All of the children but the two eldest daughters would be deeply involved in the coming freedom struggle. The price the family would pay for their service to Ireland would be immense.

Long before the Easter Rising, the Hales brothers showed they were ready to oppose the government physically. On May 20, 1907, Seán and the teenage Tom led a group of friends in rescuing two of their father’s cows from the Bandon pound. It was not done without a fight, as the rescuers’ wooden clubs bested police batons. Seán was arrested the next day and served a two-week sentence.

Unsurprisingly, the young Hales brothers and sisters became involved with the nationalist organization that sprung up around the island in the first two decades of the 20th century. The youngest brother, Tom, first joined the Irish Volunteers, the military group that would fight the War of Independence, when it began recruiting in Cork in 1913. Seán, Bob, and William soon joined as well. Donal was then in Italy but would also work for the Republican movement during the war. Sister Madge would also be involved in helping the cause, though she did not join the Cumann na mBan. Seán, Tom, William, and possibly Bob joined the secretive Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB).

In 1915, Seán Hales asked Terence MacSwiney, Vice-O/C of the Cork Brigade (left), to allow Ballinadee to form their own company. He claimed they could eventually muster 100 men, “nearly all over six feet.” The request was granted, and though he may have exaggerated their recruit’s height, they would ultimately come close to the 100-member level. It is an indication of the esteem in which the Hales’ youngest brother, Tom, was held by Seán and others that he was appointed the C/O of the company. Overall, however, the company seemed to be a family enterprise.

By all accounts, the Hales did a very good job organizing, training, and equipping their company. Every member of the company donated money to help buy arms. The company was so well regarded that a group of them were sent to be part of the honor guard for the funeral of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, where Padraig Pearse gave his famous oration. Tom Hales commanded the group and was able to meet and talk with the ill-fated Pearse.

On Easter Sunday 1916, the Ballinadee company mustered with orders to march to Kerry. They planned to meet the arms shipment coming into the Banna Strand with Roger Casement. However, as happened in other parts of the island, Eoin MacNeill’s order canceling the rising caused chaos. Tom was put in charge of several companies, including the Ballinadee company under Seán for the march to Kerry. They had nearly reached Macroom when Tomás MacCurtain and Terence MacSwiney arrived with news of MacNeill’s order. Tom wanted to ignore the order and continue, but the majority voted to turn back.

On Monday, with word arriving of the fighting in Dublin, Tom and Seán bristled under the orders to take no action. Seán nearly defied orders to attack two local Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) barracks but was dissuaded by Tom. Days went by with no action despite news of the continuing battle in Dublin. As an indication of how well-armed the Ballinadee company then was, Tom offered the Brigade 40 to 50 Lee-Enfield rifles wiith ammunition at one point. During the War of Independence, few companies were ever that well-armed.

The abortive rising proved to be a disaster for the Hales family. The Volunteers around the island were ordered to stand down and surrender their arms. The Hales resisted disarming their company, but most were lost or surrendered by members of the company in the coming weeks. The RIC arrested Robert and William in a raid on the family home, along with Terence MacSwiney. Seán was on the run for several days, then was arrested in Knocknacurra. Only Tom managed to avoid arrest. The brothers were all sent to Richmond Jail in Dublin.

All three arrested brothers were eventually moved to Frongoch Internment Camp in Wales. While collecting all the Volunteer prisoners in one place may have saved the British money, it would prove to be a miscalculation in the years to come. The camp has since then been called “The University of Revolution.” Most of the future leaders of the Volunteers’ military organization were there. Ideas on strategies and tactics for the coming war were exchanged, and relationships were developed. Seán already knew Michael Collins, but at Frongoch, their relationship became more robust.

Below: Recreation inside the huts at Frongoch. (W.J. Brennan-Whitmore, "With the Irish in Frongoch" [1917])

By early 1917, the Frongoch prisoners had all been released. The Hales brothers and other local prisoners were welcomed back as heroes. They immediately immersed themselves in the growing republican movement. The brothers and their father joined Count Plunketts’s Irish League.

The Volunteer Company in Ballinadee became disorganized in the Hales brothers’ absence. They soon had it back in shape, but many of the previous members did not rejoin. Across the island, however, the British threat to institute conscription in Ireland swelled the Volunteer’s ranks. By mid-1917, Tom was C/O of the new Bandon Battalion, and Seán commanded the Ballinadee Company again.

In May 1918, the RIC arrived at the Hales farm in force to arrest the brothers as part of the bogus “German Plot” that accused Irish Republicans of assisting the Germans. Only Seán was there, and as they tried to handcuff him, he resisted, and he was so strong they were unable to accomplish it. As this was going on, the Hales’ 13-year-old cousin, Michael Fitzgerald, got away from the house and got word of the raid out to Tom and William.

(Below: Members of the Essex Regiment and RIC Constables in Bandon.)

They rushed back to the farmhouse with their sister Madge and friends Mick and Cornelius Flynn. The four men moved around in the woods, attempting to look like a large number of Volunteers. Madge went to the house trying to convince the Constables they were outnumbered and surrounded. Two of the twelve there put down their arms and resigned. Another would resign later. Given later events, they probably did not regret that decision over the next few years.

During this confusion, Seán slipped out of the house and escaped. In July, Tom and William had another close call in a raid on the house, barely escaping with the RIC opening fire on them. The island was slipping further and further toward open rebellion, and Irish Volunteers and IRB were preparing for it. In January 1919, Tom was appointed C/O of the new 3rd (West) Cork Brigade, and Seán moved up to C/O of the Bandon Battalion. William was made head of the Ballinadee IRB.

The Hales family was so enmeshed in the Irish War of Independence that even Donal, living in Genoa, Italy, contributed. Michael Collins brought him into the IRB arms smuggling efforts. Madge was a conduit from Donal to Collins and also became part of Collins’ network of covert agents.

The family made another contribution to the coming fight in 1919 when they helped recruit the man who was, arguably, the best Flying Column C/O of the war: Tom Barry (left). Barry served in the British Army in WWI, and his father was an RIC Constable until he was ten. However, he immersed himself in Irish history since returning home from the war. Barry enrolled in Skerry College, Cork City, where he met Bill Hales. It was a fateful meeting that profoundly affected his life and Irish history.

Barry’s independent study of Irish history may have laid the groundwork for his joining the Republican movement, but meeting Bill Hales put the process into overdrive. Barry was invited home by Bill one night and became a frequent guest after that. Around their hearth, elder Robert regaled Barry with stories for the ’98 Rising, the United Irishmen, the “Great Hunger,” the Fenians, and the Land League.

It may well have been Barry’s developing relationship with the Hales that resulted in the RIC picking him up on the streets of Bandon one day in the late spring or early summer. They treated him roughly, and it was another case of an overzealous punishment leading to negative results for the Crown, much like the post-Easter Rising. He approached West Cork Brigade intelligence officer Seán Buckley about joining the Volunteers shortly after this incident. A British Army veteran with a family RIC connection was naturally suspect, but his Hales family connection helped get him enlisted. The rest, as they say, is history.

With the massive victory of Sinn Fein in the 1918 elections and the forming of independent Dáil Éireann on January 27, 1919, the shooting war began. One of the earliest organized ambushes was in the 3rd Brigade area was by the Kilbrittain Company in Rathclarin, though none of the Hales were directly involved. One Volunteer and one British soldier died, but the success of all Volunteer ambushes, especially early on, was judged by the capture of arms and ammunition. They captured five rifles and 200 rounds of ammunition for them.

It took months for the Volunteers in Cork and elsewhere to obtain enough arms and training to engage the Crown forces seriously. The war would not begin in earnest until 1920. On February 27, 1920, Tom led an attack on the Mount Pleasant RIC barracks while Seán led an attack on the Timoleague Barracks. These were the first attacks in the Brigade area that were officially sanctioned by the GHQ in Dublin. Both failed for various reasons, as many such early attacks on RIC barracks did, but both barracks were soon abandoned. This was also happening in much of rural Ireland, as the RIC was stretched too thin to defend all of them.

The main military opposition to the Volunteers in West Cork would come from units of the Essex Regiment under Major A.E. Percival (right). Nearly every member of the 3rd Brigade who wrote anything about Percival after the war would show their disdain for him by mentioning how he was the man who later surrendered Singapore to the Japanese, the largest surrender of British troops in history. Percival’s personal papers were later found to be full of references to the Hales brothers. And men of the regiment composed a song to the tune of “When Irish Eyes are Shining” that included these lines:

When Irish eyes are smiling
At the boys, they love the best.
And the Irish Shins are sighing.
For their palls who’ve all gone west
When the ghosts of Hales and Hurley
Are wailing through the night
Then, the lilt of Essex laughter
Will echo with delight

On July 27, 1920, the British scored one of their greatest victories over the Hales family. RIC Detective Sgt. William Mulhearn, the chief intelligence officer of the RIC in West Cork, had been assassinated two days earlier. The crown forces were out for revenge and raided numerous locations, including the home of Volunteer Charlie Hurley, the Vice C/O of the Brigade. Tom Hales and Brigade Quartermaster Pat Harte were there when they were surrounded and captured. What followed their capture became one of the most infamous incidents of the war.

In later newspaper reports, Hales described having his hands tied and arms strapped and being hit repeatedly in the face, and having his vision fading from blood loss. At the barracks, they were put up against the wall, and Capt. Campbell Kelly lined up several riflemen as if to execute them. He attempted to get Hales to hold up a small Union Jack flag. He was able to realize what it was and refused. Kelly then pressed it into the hand of Harte, whose nose had been broken by rifle butt to his face and was, according to Hales, “too far gone to recognize it.” Harte held it up as a photographer took the infamous photo you see below.

The beating continued late into the night. Hales was told Kelly and five other officers were going to “try” him. With his hands still tied and arms strapped, he continued to refuse to answer their questions and was beaten with a cane, then had his fingertips crushed with a pair of pliers. By the time they were done, Hales had most of his teeth knocked out. Hales was then dragged out of the room, and Harte brought in for more of the same. In the morning, they were subjected to another faux execution and then shipped off to prison. Hales spent the rest of the war in Pentonville Prison in England. Madge visited him in January 1921and and said that, “his mouth is destroyed … He cannot speak as his tongue catches in the broken teeth.” Harte had a mental breakdown and never recovered, dying in Richmond Asylum in Dublin in 1924.

The notorious beatings administered to the two men would, in some ways, have the same effect as the execution of the Easter Rising leaders. Both were designed to dishearten the Republican movement but had the opposite effect. Not only did it incense members of the Republican movement, but it was also an embarrassment to the British government when Hales’ account was published. 

The Irish came up with many of their own songs during the war as well. The song “The Men of Barry’s Column” included the lines:

The Essex Brutes who tortured Hales
They scoured the land to fill their jails
Though their ugly deeds would pale
The cheeks of Irish Mothers

The war was over for Tom, but the rest of the family would fight on. In late September, the brigade officers, including Seán, attended a training camp in Clonbouig in anticipation of forming a brigade flying column. It was run by the new brigade training officer, Tom Barry, who would command that column and become one of the most famous Irish soldiers of the war. Seán, Bob, and William, now “on the run, would all spend time serving in the column.

(Below: A burned Crossley Tender at Kilmichael.)

One or more of them would be present at most of the major actions in West Cork other than the Kilmichael Ambush. On October 22, Barry and the flying column made their first successful ambush on Crown forces at Toureen, with Seán commanding a section of the column. The British suffered five killed, four wounded, and six soldiers surrendered. Significantly, given later accusations about the Kilmichael ambush, the six were released. The soldiers were told to inform Percival that if the torture and murder of prisoners by the Essex Regiment continued, the men of his regiment might not be treated as humanely in the future.

March 1921 was a very eventful month for the Hales family. Early in the month, Crown Forces, who had already burned down the Hales family barn, burned their farmhouse. The masked men gave the family five minutes to get out and began burning before they were all out. Madge wrote to her brother Donal, “Out of all my father’s and mother’s life long gathering, nothing is saved but what I took with me in my arms. “ With one son in jail, three facing possible death on active duty in the field, and their home and everything they owned destroyed, Robert and Margret Hales anguish must have been nearly impossible to endure.

The brothers would get a measure of revenge for the destruction of the farmhouse and the torturing of their brother later that month. All three brothers were together in one of the most famous actions of Barry’s flying column on March 19 at Crossbarry. They were all in Section A, commanded by Seán, on the west flank of Barry’s line. They helped rout the first unit to arrive in Crossbarry, soldiers of the hated Essex Regiment, torturers of their brother.

(Left: A map of the Battle of Crossbarry. Click on it for a larger view)

At the beginning of 1921, the British government officially sanctioned the destruction of civilian property in retaliation for Irish attacks. The most famous of those was the burning of a large portion of Cork City in December 1920. The ambush that set off the burning of Cork City at Dillon’s Cross was done in part as an attempt to kill Capt. Kelly, who had tortured Tom Hales.

The Irish Volunteers had no real way to stop attacks like the burning of the Hale’s farmhouse. The Crown forces were mechanized and thus could quickly bring in large numbers of soldiers or constables to punish Irish civilians without much resistance. A different way had to be found to convince the British government that burning the homes and businesses of the Irish people was a bad idea. The solution the Volunteers came up with was to begin burning the large mansions and estates of the Anglo-Irish gentry in retaliation.

Another late-war policy was designed to convince the British to stop executing Volunteer prisoners. This also involved the Anglo-Irish gentry, in this case, capturing some of them and holding them hostage with the threat of executing them in retaliation for any further executions of Volunteer prisoners.

The Hale brothers got another measure of revenge for their home’s destruction while enforcing these policies. On June 21, Seán commanded an operation to capture the Earl of Bandon at his home just outside of Bandon, Castle Bernard (right). Though the original plan was only to capture the Earl, when they could not locate the family, Seán, with the burning of his family home still fresh in his mind, decided to burn the castle. “As the bird has flown, we will burn the nest,” Seán allegedly said.

After they lit the fires, they discovered the family and the Earl was taken hostage. No more executions of Volunteers took place in Cork over the following two weeks before the truce agreement on July 11. Lord Bandon was released unharmed the following day.

The British would deal one last violent blow to the Hales in the war’s final weeks. On June 26, soldiers of the Exxex regiment abducted a young man who worked on the Hales farm, John Murphy of Cloghane. Though he was a member of the Volunteers, that was likely unknown to the soldiers. At 10 PM that night, his body was found near Knocknacurra off the Kilmacsimon road. The soldiers had beaten and perhaps tortured him, then shot him. Perhaps he was tortured in hopes he would assist in capturing one or more of the brothers and killed because he wouldn’t. No one will ever know.

(Below: Headline from "The Day," New London, Connecticut, December 6, 1921)

The Treaty that divided the Irish people and led to the civil war also divided the Hales family. Seán and Madge, perhaps influenced by their close connections to Michael Collins, supported the Treaty. Tom, who was finally released from prison in England after the Treaty, Robert and William, opposed the Treaty. To this day, people debate the merits of the Treaty and the possible outcome of rejecting it. What is not debatable is how tragic the following years of the Civil War would be for Ireland and for the Hales.

Most of the leaders of the Republican movement in Cork opposed the Treaty. So it shocked many when Seán, who was elected to the Dáil in the 1921 elections, spoke in favor of the Treaty in the famous debates leading up to the vote. He intimated that Ireland could obtain their Republic by doing what the English had done when they failed to honor the Treaty of Limerick. “The day is coming when we will pay that back … Ireland’s destiny is to be a Republic.”

After the Treaty was ratified, Seán and Tom both spoke at rallies for and against it, respectively. The Civil War began in earnest in June 1922. The fighting in Cork was a literal “Brother against Brother” fight, as Seán commanded Free State troops there and Tom commanded Republican troops. They would be closely involved with the most famous event of that war, the killing of Michael Collins.

On the day Collins was killed, August 22, 1922, Republican leaders, including Tom Hales, were meeting near Béal na Bláth. Getting word that Collins had passed through the area, they voted to set up an ambush for his return. Though Tom opposed it, he commanded it.

(Right: The historical marker at Béal na Bláth)

Seán met with Collins that day at Lee’s Hotel in Bandon. The two friends enjoyed a warm reunion, and Seán warned Collins that the local roads were dangerous for him. Collins assured Seán he’d be fine and that “Twill soon be over.” Sadly, for both Colins and Seán, that was true.

Tom started disbanding the ambush after 7 PM when Collin’s convoy arrived. Like others there, he had seen someone go down in the road, but none knew who it was at the time. When word reached a meeting of the Republican leaders later, Liam Deasy recalled that for himself and Tom, “our sorrow was deep and lasting.” They grieved for their friend and also because they expected, correctly, that the war was about to get much more brutal.

IRB member and TD Piaras Beaslaí had been with Collins when word of the Essex Regiment's brutal treatment had been smuggled out in 1920, “He was beside himself with rage and pity, and, as he told me afterward, could not sleep that night for thinking of it," he recalled later. Such was the heartbreak of the Civil War that men who fought together and still cared so much for each other and who all still believed Ireland's destiny was to be a republic were killing each other over how to achieve it. 

On September 27, the Dáil passed emergency legislation known as the Public Safety Bill that allowed the government to execute Republicans if they were armed when arrested. Liam Lynch, the IRA Chief of Staff, then ordered the killing of any TD who had voted for this “Murder Bill.” Seán had not been present when it was passed, but he would pay the price of this escalation.

(Left: Seán Hales funeral card)

It could be that Ó Máille was the real target of the fatal attack described at the start of this article, as he had voted for the bill. Frank Henderson, head of the IRA Dublin Brigade, was so distraught that Hales was killed that he had his priest son say a mass for him for the next sixteen years.

The retaliation was not long in coming. Later that day the government decided to execute four Republican prisoners being held in Dublin, one from each province. When news of Seán’s killing reached the Dáil at Leinster House, President William Cosgrave said, “I need not say that on my own behalf and on the behalf of the House that this an appalling tragedy and that to the relatives of Deputy Hales we tender our sincere sympathy.” Ironically, that included three of Seán’s brothers in Free State custody in Cork.

The Cabinet voted that night to execute Republican prisoners. They were, pictured, top to bottom and left to right: Liam Mellows, Rory O’Connor, Joe McKelvey, and Dick Barrett. The executions were carried out the next day. They had been captured long before the Public Safety Bill passed, so there was no legal basis to execute them. Barrett had been a close friend of Seán. The Hales family unanimously condemned the executions in a letter to the “Cork Examiner.”

The sad and heartbreaking Civil War finally ended in May 2023. Tom served in the Dáil Éireann as West Cork TD for Fianna Fáil from 1933-37. He left the party in protest over De Valera’s policy of internment of IRA members. On January 20, 1966, a monument to Seán was dedicated in Bandon, three months before Tom passed away. Bob Hales unveiled the monument at Crossbary in November 1966.

The Hales family of Ballinadee, Bandon, County Cork, as much as any family in Ireland at the time, illustrates the courage and sacrifice of Irish men and women of that era. Go suífidh siad ar láimh Dé (May they sit at the right hand of God).


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Views: 173

Comment by Joe Gannon on February 1, 2024 at 3:03pm

The funeral card of Seán Hales good friend, Dick Barrett, Below is the notice given to the four Republicans who were executed the night after Seán Hales was killed. They were executed the following morning.

“You ________ are hereby notified that, being a person taken in arms against the government, you will be executed as a reprisal for the assassination of Brigadier Sean Hales TD in Dublin on December 7, on his way to a meeting of Dail Eireann and as a solemn warning to those associated with you who are engaged in a conspiracy of assassination against the representatives of the Irish people”.

Though the notice stipulated that they had been taken "in arms" against the government as a justification for the executions, their arrests had occurred long before the "Public Safety Bill" that authorized the execution for that offense had been passed. 

Comment by Joe Gannon on February 1, 2024 at 3:46pm

The Third West Cork Brigade

We'll raise our voices in Ireland's praise
Glad are our hearts to-day,
For Ireland's sons have proved their worth
In the good old I.R.A.
All parts fought well for Roisin Dubh
But we a record made.
In good old Cork, in famed West Cork,
The Third West Cork Brigade.
At Newcestown we struck a blow
For Ireland and Sinn Fein.
At Ballinhassig next we proved
Our rights we would maintain.
The English foe we twice laid low,
We faced them undismayed.
In good old Cork, in famed West Cork,
The Third West Cork Brigade.
The Black and Tans to Ireland came
To send us to our doom.
Their doughtiest warriors sallied forth
In lorries from Macrom.
But at Kilmichael's bloody fight
Their conquering course was stayed
By good old Cork, by famed West Cork,
The Third West Cork Brigade.
Then at Crosbarry's battlefield
Our gallant boys saw red.
For ten to one the Saxon host
Before our onslaught fled.
And o'er the hills we made our way
While our gallant piper played
In good old Cork, in famed west Cork
The third west Cork brigade

Rosscarbery’s barrack strong and grim
Next fell before our fire
For Black and Tans and RIC
We made a funeral pyre
The echo of our fierce attack
Was heard through glen and glade
In good old Cork, in famed West Cork
The Third West Cork Brigade

Our boys fought well in every fight
we need not call a name
But Commandants Hales and Barry
Are now well known to fame
Napoleon like they led us on
with courage we obeyed
In good old Cork, in famed West Cork
The Third West Cork Brigade.
But in our triumphs we shan't forget
Our comrades brave who fell
Some sleep today in nameless graves
But soon their deeds will tell
In grateful Ireland brave and free
We'll have their names displayed
In good old Cork, in famed West Cork

From "The Indignant Muse" edited by Terry Moylan

Comment by Joe Gannon on February 1, 2024 at 3:53pm

Hales' Brothers video from the Kilbrittain Historical Society


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