A Great Hatred – The Assassination of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson MP by Ronan McGreevy

Faber & Faber, 2022

£16.99, paperback

442 pages, notes, bibliography

b/w photos and index

ISBN 978–0–571–37281–2

On the afternoon of 22 June 1922, Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, the Irish–born former Chief of the Imperial General Staff and Unionist MP for the Northern Ireland constituency of North Down, unveiled a memorial in Liverpool Street Station in London to the 1,220 men of the Great Western Railway Company who died in the Great War. Afterwards, Wilson went to the Travellers Club in Pall Mall and then on to his home at 36 Eaton Place in Belgravia. Waiting for him there were two other veterans of the war, Joseph O’Sullivan and Reginald Dunne. O’Sullivan was a former member of the 3rd (City of London) Battalion, London  Regiment, and had lost a leg at the Third Battle of Ypres. Dunne had served with the 1st Battalion, Irish Guards, and had been wounded in the knee. Though both men had been born in London, they had Irish backgrounds and after the war they joined the London Battalion of the IRA.

When Wilson arrived at Eaton Place, O’Sullivan drew the revolver he was carrying and shot him twice. As he staggered towards his home, Dunne then shot him three times, hitting him in his lungs, left armpit and shoulder. Although seriously wounded and in great pain, Wilson tried to draw his sword, but before he could do so, he collapsed outside his front door. O’Sullivan then finished him off with one final shot.

When they tried to escape, the two assassins were hampered by O’Sullivan’s wooden leg. Though they shot and wounded two policemen and a passer–by, they were eventually overcome by an angry crowd and were arrested. After being tried and found guilty of murder, O’Sullivan and Dunne were hanged in Wandsworth prison on 10 August 1922.

Wilson’s assassination shocked British society. It also proved to be the spark that ignited the Irish Civil War. Now, on the centenary of those events, Great Hatred, the Assassination of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, by the Irish journalist and author Ronan McGreevy has been published.

Not only does McGreevy provide a gripping account of Wilson’s assassination in this book, he also devotes three chapters to the life of the field marshal, his complicated relationship with the country of his birth and his activities in Northern Ireland which earned him the enmity of Irish Republicans. He has also mined a wide variety of sources, including Ireland’s Bureau of Military History and its recently declassified Military Service Pension files to tell the story of Reginald Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan, their post–war radicalisation, and their IRA activities.

According to McGreevy, the killing of Wilson was ‘Ireland’s Sarajevo’ as it led to the outbreak of the Irish Civil War. To support this, he gives a description of the divisions and tense political situation in Ireland at that time, the major role played by Irish political figures such as Michael Collins and the series of events that resulted in a war that pitted comrade against comrade and brother against brother. He concludes by examining the four theories surrounding who, if anyone, ordered the assassination.

A Great Hatred is highly recommended. It will appeal to anyone with an interest in the life and death of Henry Wilson and it will also provide an excellent resource for those interested in the history of twentieth century Ireland.


Review by Gerry White 

This review first appeared in the October 2022 edition of Stand To!