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Unionist saved life of 1916 volunteer

(Eamon Phoenix, Irish News)

An IRA leader who faced execution over his role in the 1916 Easter Rising had his life saved by a prominent Ulster Unionist councillor, new documents have revealed.

Belfast-born Sean MacEntee who became a Free State cabinet minister, was sentenced to death for his involvement in Easter week events during which an RIC constable was shot dead by Irish Volunteers.

But historical documents unearthed in a Belfast attic reveal that MacEntee escaped the firing squad due to the direct intervention of Ulster Unionist councillor TE Alexander.

MacEntee – who was born in King Street, Belfast, in 1889 – was a product of the city's Gaelic League. While based in Dundalk he joined the militant wing of the Irish Volunteers in 1914.

His typed memoir describes in detail his early association with the socialist republican James Connolly in Belfast from 1910 and his command of 60 members of the Irish Volunteers in Dundalk during Easter week in 1916.

On Easter Monday MacEntee ordered his men to commandeer a number of cars at Castlebellingham with a view to converging on Tara, Co Meath.

However, two RIC men arrived and he ordered his unit to disarm them. Shots were fired, fatally wounding one of the policemen, Constable McKee, and wounding a British army officer.

MacEntee returned to Dublin where he made his way to the GPO. He was subsequently captured and court martialed by the British with three others on a charge of killing Constable McGee. He was sentenced to death, but the reasons why he escaped the firing squad case never became clear.

But newly discovered papers in Belfast reveal that the republican leader owed his life to the direct intervention of councillor TE Alexander of the Ulster Unionist Party.

Alexander had been motoring north from Fairyhouse races on Easter Monday when he was stopped by Irish Volunteers at Castlebellingham.

The solicitor, who knew the MacEntee family well, told the court martial that MacEntee had exercised a restraining influence over his men.

"But for MacEntee the other men would have behaved badly towards him and the others whom they had stopped", he told the closed military court.

The vital role played by Alexander in his survival was stressed by MacEntee in a letter to Daniel McCrea, the former owner of the documents, dated August 8 1967.

"Tommy Alexander and my father were for many years the best of friends, though possibly not so close as were Tommy and my brother, James," he wrote.

"I myself was greatly indebted to Tommy, not only because of his very favourable and impressive evidence at my court martial, but because of his indefatigable efforts to save me from being executed as, but for him, I would have been."

July 20, 2005

This article appeared first in the March 28, 2005 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News