Field Marshal Henry Wilson was known as the “Orange Terror” by members of Sinn Fein, the political party of Irish nationalism and republicanism.
In his capacity as military adviser to the Parliament of Northern Ireland, Wilson raised and organized the Ulster Special Constables to root out and crush the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
To the Irish Catholics and Free Staters of Belfast, Wilson was a hated symbol of British oppression. In the spring of 1922, he was marked for death by Michael Collins, head of the Irish Provisional Government.
A career in the military
Wilson was born in Currygrane, Edgeworthstown, County Longford, in what later became the Republic of Ireland. He attended Marlborough College, working tirelessly toward a career in the military — a goal apparently derailed after he failed to gain admission to Woolwich and Sandhurst.
In 1882 Wilson was commissioned in the Longford Militia (then the Sixth Battalion, Rifle Brigade) and later the 18th Royal Irish Regiment. His rise through the ranks was steady if not spectacular. During the Boer War, Wilson was named to the headquarters staff after distinguishing himself under the command of Major-General Neville Lyttelton.
In 1913, the year before war broke out on the continent, Wilson was promoted to major-general. Impressed with his gruff, plain-speaking manner, Prime Minister David Lloyd George named Wilson chief of the Imperial General Staff in February 1918.
A year later he was made a field marshal.
Elected to Parliament
Throughout his career in public life, Wilson was an uncompromising foe of the Sinn Fein movement, a Protestant who advocated drastic military measures against them. He expressed these views on more than one occasion following his election to Parliament as a conservative member from North Downe in February 1922.
In May he toured war-torn Northern Ireland where he delivered several incendiary speeches against the Sinn Fein and advised the government on the policing of the new frontier. Wilson returned to London the next month, not knowing that Michael Collins had issued secret orders to Sam Maguire, the chief spy in London for the IRA, to kill the field marshal by whatever means necessary.
On June 22, 1922, Wilson appeared in full-dress uniform on Liverpool Street, London, for the dedication of a memorial. When the ceremony ended he returned to his home by cab. After paying the taxi driver, Wilson turned toward his residence. Before he could enter, two men accosted him with pistols.
Sensing the danger, Wilson drew out his sword and prepared to do battle with the assailants but he was cut down in a hail of gunfire. Wilson died a short time later in his home.
Taken into custody
The two IRA assassins were cornered after they had turned their guns on a police detective and a passerby. The two men were quickly subdued and taken into custody. They were identified as Reginald Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan, both 24, recruited from the ranks of the military by the IRA.
O’Sullivan lost a leg during the war, while Dunne had attained the rank of lance corporal. Nothing in their past suggested they were members of any criminal group. They had acted purely out of political conviction.
The two men were tried at the Central Criminal Court for murder. Ballistic evidence was overwhelming.
The prisoners were found guilty and hanged on August 10, 1922. Before he died on the gallows, Dunne wrote a statement to the British courts that read, “The same principle for which we shed our blood on the battleground of Europe led us to commit the act we are charged with. You may by your verdict find us guilty, but we will go to the scaffold justified by the verdict of our conscience.”