On October 28th in 1922, a shot rang out through the small village of Mullinahone, in County Tipperary. That shot, and the resulting death it caused, is widely considered to be the first assassination of Ireland’s bitter Civil War – but even now, very little is known about the killing, the victim, or the perpetrators.
What we do know is that the victim was a rookie police officer named Henry Phelan. There are many theories about why he was targeted – but his background is largely unknown. In the war for Independence he was a Volunteer, and to be considered for the newly formed Garda Síochána, Henry had produced letters of recommendation from his priest and his IRA commander. He was athletic and he had a great fondness for hurling – which is why he was in Mullinahone to begin with. Phelan was there to buy sliotars, or hurling balls, for a team he was about to start in Callan, where he was stationed. After he picked up the balls, Henry wandered into Mrs. Bridget Mullally’s public house, and shortly thereafter, three other men entered, pulled a gun, and killed him right there in the pub.
Phelan was the first officer to die since the formation of the Civil Guard, which had replaced the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) just a few months before. The RIC had been accused of corruption, violence, bias, and worse; they were hated in the area. The Garda was designed to ease tensions and to be a gentler, more equal and fair police force, which may have been what attracted Henry and others like him to the new organization. He did have older brothers that had been in the dreaded RIC, and it’s possible that one of them was the intended target, even though they had not been stationed in the area. On the other hand, there was a man in the area who had been in the RIC, and who had the same name as one of the other Phelan brothers. If he was supposed to be the target, then Henry was killed because of a case of doubly mistaken identity. After all, he was not one of his brothers, nor did he share a name with a former RIC man. He was just extremely unlucky and in the wrong place at the wrong time.
We may never know for sure why he was shot, but he has had the unfortunate distinction of being remembered as the first death of the Irish Civil War ever since. He will always be remembered by the Garda Síochána as well, for being the first of their ranks to die.