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The Assassination of Percival Lea-Wilson

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Percival Lea-Wilson.

Percival Lea-Wilson.

On June 15, 1920, Percival Lea-Wilson, a district inspector with the Royal Irish Constabulary was gunned down in the street in the town of Gorey, County Wexford. His death appears to have been the final chapter in a drama that began four years earlier.

The 1916 Easter Uprising

In April 1916, a group of men the Irish call patriots and the British called rebels issued a proclamation. In part, it said “In every generation the Irish people have asserted their right to national freedom and sovereignty; six times during the past three hundred years they have asserted it in arms. Standing on that fundamental right and again asserting it in arms in the face of the world, we hereby proclaim the Irish Republic as a Sovereign Independent State, and we pledge our lives and the lives of our comrades in arms to the cause of its freedom, of its welfare, and of its exaltation among the nations.”

With that they declared Ireland to be free of British control and seized several public buildings, setting up their headquarters in the General Post Office in the centre of Dublin. The British Army arrived and, on Easter Monday, the shooting and shelling started.

It was all over by the next weekend; the poorly armed and trained Irish were no match for what was one of the world's most powerful armies at the time. Some of the defeated republicans surrendered, handed over their weapons, and were assembled under guard on a patch of grass outside the Rotunda Hospital.

The Humiliation of Tom Clarke

About 250 men were guarded by soldiers under the command of Captain Lea-Wilson. Among the republicans was Tom Clarke, 58, a veteran of the Irish independence struggle and the leader of the Easter Uprising. Tom Clarke's signature was the first one on the Proclamation of the Republic.

Liam Tobin was another of the men held on the Rotunda Green. Christopher Power quotes him in his 2014 book Visitations of Vengeance. Tobin recalled how Lea-Wilson forced the captured men to lie on the grass, nobody was allowed to stand up: “I remember that evening that those of us who wanted to relieve ourselves had to do it lying on the grass alongside our comrades. There was nowhere to go and we had to use the place where we lay.”

Joseph Sweeney was also among the men herded onto the Rotunda Green. His experience was recorded by Kenneth Griffith and Timothy O’Grady, in their 1998 book, Curious Journey.

“We were kept there all night and a British officer amused himself by taking out some of the leaders. He took out poor old Tom Clarke and, with the nurses looking out of the windows of the hospital, he stripped him to the buff and made all sorts of disparaging remarks about him.”

That officer was Capt. Percival Lea-Wilson, who had called the uprising a “monstrous betrayal” of the British Empire. On May 3, 1916, Tom Clarke was executed by firing squad.

Captain Frank Henderson was another British officer present on the Rotunda Green. Later, he said “The conduct of many of the British officers during the night can only be described as savage. In particular, Captain Lea-Wilson was brutal.”

Another man who witnessed the bullying ridicule of Tom Clarke was Michael Collins.

Tom Clarke.

Tom Clarke.

“My comrades and I believe we have struck the first successful blow for freedom, and so sure as we are going out this morning so sure will freedom come as a direct result of our action . . . In this belief, we die happy.”

— Message from Tom Clarke via his wife Kathleen on the morning of his execution.

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The Rise of Michael Collins

Since he was a teenager, Michael Collins had joined the struggle for Irish independence. He took part in the Easter Uprising as a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). Along with many others, he was imprisoned until his release in December 1916.

As soon as he got out of prison, he began organizing for the IRB and rose through the group's ranks.

There was an election in Ireland in December 1918 and the pro-independence party Sinn Féin won a clear majority. The new government declared independence from Britain and Michael Collins was appointed to the cabinet.

The guns came out again and Collins was put in charge of a group of men tasked with assassinating agents of the British government. One of the people on his list of targets was Percival Lea-Wilson.

Michael Collins in 1921.

Michael Collins in 1921.

The Death of Percival Lea-Wilson

After the Easter Uprising, Lea-Wilson left the British Army and joined the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). This was a para-military police force whose job was to enforce British government policy in Ireland.

By June 1920, Lea-Wilson was the district inspector of the RIC based in Gorey, County Wexford. On the fifteenth of that month, as was his habit, he walked to the railway station to meet the 9:35 a.m. train and pick up his mail and morning newspaper.

As he walked home, he passed a broken down car with some men tinkering under its hood. The men stopped their repair efforts and opened fire on Lea-Wilson.

He was hit by two bullets that simply wounded him and he tried to run away. The attackers pursued him and he fell down.

The final bullet was delivered as he lay on the ground. The man who fired the fatal round was Liam Tobin, who later claimed that as he and others were mistreated by Lea-Wilson on the Rotunda Green that “I registered a vow to myself that I would deal with him at some time in the future.”

That evening, Michael Collins announced to friends in the Wicklow Hotel in Dublin “Well, we finally got the bastard.”

The Foggy Dew

Bonus Factoids

  • In December 1922, the Constitution of the Irish Free State came into effect and the country severed its ties to the United Kingdom.
  • Michael Collins was Chairman of the Provisional Government of the Irish Free State during the transition to full independence. He was ambushed and killed in August 1922 by a faction of the republican movement that felt Collins and colleagues had conceded too much to Britain in independence negotiations.
  • Liam Tobin remained active in Irish politics for the rest of his life, which ended peacefully in 1963 at the age of 68.

Sources

  • “The Easter Rising, Irish Rebellion of 1916.” Robert McNamara, ThoughtCo, November 18, 2019.
  • “Joseph Sweeney.” BBC, undated.
  • “Settling Old Scores from 1916.” Wexford People, December 21, 2014.
  • “Michael Collins (1890 – 1922).” BBC History, 2014.
  • “Retribution and Attribution – An Irishman’s Diary on the Assassination of Percival Lea-Wilson and a Caravaggio Masterpiece.” Ronan McGreevy, The Irish Times, June 14, 2020.
  • “Michael Collins Gets Revenge 100 Years ago in Wexford.” Pauline Murphy, irishcentral.com, May 26, 2020.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor

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