Ireland’s Sarajevo: The Assassination of Sir Henry Wilson

Ireland’s Sarajevo: The Assassination of Sir Henry Wilson The scene of the crime, with the bullet scarred front door, and the two culprits under arrest. The assassination as depicted by the Illustrated News.
Great Hatred: The Assassination of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson MP by Ronan McGreevy (Faber, £16.99/€19.99)

Sir Henry Wilson, Ulster Unionist MP at Westminster and former Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS), was shot dead by two English-born Irish Republicans – Reginald Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan – outside his home in London on June 22,  1922, exactly a century ago yesterday.

The assassins were almost immediately apprehended, and later convicted of his murder and executed. Their bodies were reinterred in Deansgrange cemetery in Dublin in 1967, though without much fanfare. Like the Invincibles who killed Lord Frederick Cavendish, Wilson’s assassins have never been admitted to the pantheon of Irish patriotic martyrs. The assassination is the subject of this fascinating new book by The Irish Times journalist Ronan McGreevy.


Wilson, a scion of a minor Anglo-Irish landed family with Ulster forebears, was born in Co. Longford in 1864. He was a professional soldier for all but the last four months of his adult life. His military career was largely as a staff officer, though he saw action in Burma in the mid-1880s and later in the Boer War. Sidelined in the early years of WWI, he emerged as a key figure in the war effort after Lloyd George became prime minister in late 1916. He was appointed CIGS, the top job in the British army, in February 1918. McGreevy records that he “was one of the four men who won the war, according to many of his contemporaries” – the others being Lloyd George, the French President Clemenceau and Marshal Foch of France (with whom Wilson, a lifelong Francophile, had a close personal and working relationship).

Wilson was, however, a rabid unionist – who despised Irish nationalism and did not hide his contempt for Asquith and the Liberal government because of their efforts to introduce Home Rule for Ireland in the years before the outbreak of WWI. He openly sympathised with the Ulster resistance to Home Rule, and surreptitiously connived in the so-called Curragh Mutiny in 1914 – when officers based in the Curragh indicated that they would refuse to coerce Ulster into the Home Rule settlement. He should have been appointed CIGS later in 1914, but Asquith blocked his promotion because of his involvement in the Curragh incident. Asquith described him as “the poisonous tho’ clever ruffian Wilson”. He would later fall out with Lloyd George over the negotiations leading to the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921. “We do not speak to murderers,” he told Lloyd George.

Three days after Wilson retired as CIGS in February 1922, he was elected unopposed as Unionist MP for North Down. From his election until his death four months later, he was a firm – and, in speech, an aggressive – defender of the new Northern Ireland government in its efforts to establish its writ over the disaffected nationalist minority within its jurisdiction. In March 1922 he was formally appointed military advisor to the Northern Ireland government. He thus became identified with the harsh security measures introduced by the Northern Ireland government and with the sectarian violence directed against the Catholic population in Belfast and elsewhere in Northern Ireland. He did, in fact, recommend in private a more moderate and less sectarian approach to the security problem, but his public pronouncements were far from moderate. As McGreevy points out, “nobody was more to blame for the perception of Wilson in nationalist Ireland than Wilson himself”.

McGreevy’s controversial conclusion in this study is that Wilson’s killing was most likely ordered by Michael Collins in 1922 – that is, after the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty that brought the War of Independence to an end. He did not, however, have the authority of the Provisional Government – of which he was chairman – for this or for his support of other republican efforts to undermine Northern Ireland at its birth. He was rather acting as president of the secretive Supreme Council of Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). The assassins, Dunne and O’Sullivan, were IRB men. Both had served in the British army, and had been wounded, in the First World War. They were accordingly accustomed to the discipline of military service, and McGreevy has no difficulty in dismissing on this basis the idea that they acted on their own accord – the view of most previous authors who have studied the assassination, notably Rex Taylor and Keith Jeffery.


McGreevy comments that “the statesman Collins found it hard to shake off the secret-society leader Collins”.

The British government, however, believed – “on no evidence other than an educated hunch”, to quote McGreevy – that the militant anti-Treaty republicans who had rejected the authority of the Provisional Government and were occupying the Four Courts building in Dublin were responsible for Wilson’s assassination.

They insisted that the Provisional Government should take action against them, or else the British themselves would intervene. So began the Irish Civil War. Civil war would probably have happened in any event in Ireland in 1922, but the assassination of Henry Wilson was the spark that ignited the conflict.

McGreevy alludes to the crime as “Ireland’s Sarajevo”, drawing a parallel with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the outbreak of the First World War.