On the afternoon of November 14, 1922 (nine months after its foundation) Henry Phelan became the first member of the new Civic Guard (later renamed An Garda Síochána) to be killed when he was shot in a quiet pub in Mullianahone, Co Tipperary whilst on a simple errand to get a hurling ball for a team he was starting where he was stationed in Callan.
He was twenty-one years of age at the time but the circumstances behind his killing and the identities of those involved have never been clear. Today almost ninety years later very little is actually known about young Phelan’s own background and his death is a subject that many in the Mullinahone and Callan areas are still very slow to talk about. A new documentary however due to be aired next weekend has looked into the Laois native’s life both before and after he joined the force and also examines some of the theories concerning why he may have been targeted.
Born on Christmas Day in 1900 Henry Phelan got his early education at Paddock National School which he attended until he was fifteen years of age. According to current principal Sean Mullaney who managed to dig up records from the time, “his attendance was a mixture. In the early days he seemed to miss a lot of days but then later on his attendance was pretty ok.” During the War of Independence it was known that he had been a member of the volunteers but which unit was never fully established. Now Castletown historian Mike Rafter reveals that he was in the Mountrath Volunteers after coming across a statement from a comrade testifying to this.
The original Civic Guard application form that Henry Phelan filled out in his own hand writing together with the required letters of recommendation from his local parish priest and his IRA commandant are also featured in the documentary. According to Garda Jim Herlihy from Cork “it strikes you straight away the absolutely beautiful handwriting in great script altogether.” Phelan’s first posting was in Kilkenny city and after a short time he was transferred to Callan in South Kilkenny.
On the day he died he had travelled with two colleagues (Irwin and Flood), to the village of Mullinahone. After purchasing the sliotar the three men entered the public house of Mrs Bridget Mullally when according to reports three men walked in. One produced a revolver killing Phelan instantly. No one was ever charged and over the years it was thought he had been mistaken for his brother who had served in the RIC in Co Tipperary.
“There’s RIC connections in terms of his older brothers, two older brothers Martin and Daniel joined the RIC,” explains his grandnephew Daniel Phelan but according to Jim Herlihy “he had three brothers in the Royal Irish Constabulary” and none of them served in the Premier county. He goes onto explain however that he could have been mistaken for a former RIC man from Kilkenny who had the same name as one of his brothers.
The documentary also includes a visit to the pub where the shooting occurred and will reveal possible clues and suspicions regarding the identity of his killers. Others interviewed are Mullinahone residents Michael Larkin, Ricky Sheehan, Bernadette Lynch, Hubert Scott together with Callan historian Philip Lynch and present-day descendants of Garda Henry Phelan still residing in his native Mountrath. Newspaper accounts, eyewitness statements, findings of the inquest and details of the subsequent trial of two men accused afterwards will also be incorporated.
The revealing two part documentary entitled ‘A Boy of Good Character: The Story of Garda Henry Phelan’ was produced, presented and researched by Tipp Today producer Tom Hurley and was made with the support of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland & Tipp FM. Part one is due to be aired on Tipp FM radio on Sunday next May 20 at 6.30pm with part two the following week.