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  • Writer's pictureStephen Callaghan

The National Army's Accidental Killing of Edward Donoghue. Offaly's Youngest Civil War Victim

Updated: Jun 11, 2023

Today we have a special guest author post, we welcome Dr Philip McConway, who has researched the brief life of Edward Donoghue, Offaly's youngest victim of the Irish Civil war.

Play Outside Birr Workhouse

Birr Workhouse was a temporary barracks for the National Army in 1922, before they moved to more secure accommodation in Birr Castle during the Civil War.

At 1.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 29 August 1922, a sentry was sitting on a seat outside the gate of Birr Workhouse, then occupied by the National Army. A local youth Edward Donoghue, aged 12, had a long stick and began playfully hitting the sentry. Edward was popular among the garrison. He was habitually in the vicinity of the gate, enthralled by the military’s presence.

The sentry, rifle in hand, jumped up to pretend to catch the stick. He apparently forgot a round was in the rifle breech. A shot suddenly went off. Edward collapsed, mortally wounded from a bullet which pierced his heart and exited his left axilla. There were no witnesses to the accidental shooting. Distraught, the sentry threw down his rifle. Hearing the shot, another boy came on the scene. The sentry sent him for a priest. When a doctor arrived Edward was dead, the body still warm.

The scene of the tragedy. The entrance to Birr Workhouse where Edward Donoghue was playing when he was accidently killed by a rifle bullet fired by a National Army sentry.

Edward was the eldest son of Thomas Donoghue, a labourer living at Sandymount, Birr. Thomas was an ex-Leinster Regiment drummer soldier who fought in the Boer War and Great War. He was a member of the local Catholic Young Men’s Society (C.Y.M.S.) band.


The following day the coroner, Dr William Meagher from Ferbane, held an inquest at St Brendan’s Hospital, Birr. The unnamed sentry, who has yet to be identified, appeared distressed and gave his evidence in a low voice. Edward’s father said he knew nothing about the tragedy only what he had heard. He thought the sentry could not help what had happened.

The garrison’s commander, Captain Hugh Kenny, also testified. Dr Meagher asked if, on sentry duty, it was necessary to have a rifle ready to fire. Captain Kenny replied that in the manipulation of the bolt a shot might go off. He explained how this could be prevented, but said that a soldier might forget that the rifle contained a bullet in the breech. Military headquarters had, he said, issued orders that a soldier who caused the death of a comrade or a civilian through carelessness was liable to be tried by court-martial for manslaughter.

The General Order, dated 27 April 1922, noted: ‘When necessity demands that rifles should be carried ready for action magazines should be charged, but there should be no round in the breech, the time taken to draw back the bolt and load the rifle being only a fraction of a second. No round should be placed in the breech without a definite order from the Officer in charge of the party.’ Captain Kenny did not disclose if he had given the sentry such an order. Dubiously, the officer did not think carelessness resulted in Edward’s death. The coroner concurred.

Dr Meagher claimed this was the fourth inquest held under similar circumstances within a short period. He did not specify what incidents. He was the coroner at the inquest of National Army Lieutenant Christopher McCann, accidentally killed in Banagher on 8 August 1922. IRA Volunteer Francis Dolan died after he was accidentally shot in the stomach in Ferbane on 9 July 1922. Dr Meagher rendered medical assistance to Dolan. While not attributing Edward’s death to military recklessness, he thought that more care should be exercised handling a rifle, ‘which was not an instrument with which liberties could be taken.’

Jury's Verdict and Funeral

The jury declared that Edward’s death was an accident, caused by shock and haemorrhage from a bullet penetrating his heart. The foreman expressed sympathy with the Donoghue family, as did Dr Meagher and Captain Kenny on behalf of the Birr garrison. The jury added a rider, recommending Edward’s parents to the consideration of the military authorities. By this they meant adequate compensation should be awarded.

At the largely attended funeral, about fifty soldiers and a similar number of schoolchildren followed the remains, which were saluted at the workhouse by the military guard who presented arms. The Offaly Chronicle reported the ‘truly gracious act’ was appreciated ‘as an expression of sincere sorrow.’ At Clonoghill cemetery four officers carried the coffin on their shoulders to the grave. Fr Patrick Gaynor officiated at the graveside. In his memoir (c. 1946), deposited in the National Library and published posthumously in Memoirs of a Tipperary family: the Gaynors of Tyone, 1887-2000, the priest made no reference to Edward’s death.

Seeking Compensation

Edward’s father sought financial redress. Local solicitor, J.J. Kennedy, wrote to Kevin O’Higgins, the Minister for Home Affairs (Justice). Kennedy did not receive a reply. On 16 December 1922, writing to Richard Mulcahy, the Minister for Defence and National Army Commander-in-Chief, Kennedy noted: ‘…it is a very hard case. I would strongly ask you that his [Edward’s] father should receive some compensation for the loss of the boy, as although the shooting was quite accidental, it was great carelessness that caused the lad’s death.’

Support from William Davin, Labour Party TD

William Davin, TD

On 7 June 1923, William Davin, the Labour Party TD for Leix-Offaly, highlighted Edward’s death in Dáil Éireann. He asked Mulcahy to compensate Edward’s parents. Mulcahy replied that after the circumstances were ‘carefully considered,’ a grant of £10 (the equivalent to about £450 today) would be paid. The Minister of Finance approved the ex-gratia payment. The Department of Defence was not legally required to pay compensation. The National Army refused to admit liability.

Department of Defence file on Edward’s accidental death, compiled in response to parliamentary questions by William Davin, the Labour Party TD. Courtesy of the Military Archives

Speaking in the Dáil on 12 June 1923, Davin suggested to Mulcahy ‘…who is not a hard-hearted man’ that the sum of £10 was ‘ridiculous.’ Edward’s parents unsuccessfully appealed. In the Dáil, on 1 August 1923, Davin requested that Mulcahy substantially increase the payment. Despite demands for a review, the military adhered to their original decision. The Donoghue family subsequently resided at No. 5 Leinster Villas, Crinkill. In 2017 the historian Stephan Callaghan located Edward’s unmarked grave.

Edward’s unmarked grave in Clonoghill cemetery, Birr. Photographed in 2017.

Dr Philip McConway is an independent historian. He is looking for more information on Edward and other Civil War fatalities in Offaly.

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