Of the many mysterious incidents of the troubled times of a century ago, the assassination in a Dublin hotel of Castlebar-born Captain Patrick McCormack long remained the most controversial.
His killing took place on the morning of November 21, 1920, a day that ended in the reprisals by the British Army at Croke Park in what has gone down in history as Bloody Sunday.
Patrick McCormack was born into a well-connected Castlebar family in 1877; his father owned the Commercial House on Main Street; his uncle was Rev Dr McCormack, Bishop of Galway; he was first cousin to the wealthy merchant family, the Feeneys.
As a young man, he was active in the south Mayo and Galway hunts, he was a noted amateur jockey and an acknowledged equestrian expert. As a veterinary surgeon, he took up duty with the Department of Agriculture, before joining the British Army, being posted as Captain of the Veterinary Corps in Kildare. From there, he was seconded to the Royal Army Veterinary Corps in Egypt, where he quickly furthered his reputation as an outstanding jockey, and as a member of the Turf Club elite in Alexandra.
At the end of the war, McCormack left the British Army to take up a senior position with the Egyptian racing authorities. But it was a connection that would lead to his tragic death on a visit home to Dublin on what was a horse-buying mission, but which the IRA, rightly or wrongly, suspected otherwise.
Dublin in the 1920s was a hotbed of political and counter-intelligence intrigue, where Michael Collins’s renowned intelligence network was pitted against that of Dublin Castle. To that end, it was known that a crack team of undercover British spies had been dispatched to Dublin to undermine the influence of Collins.
But it did not take long for the identities of the spy ring to come to the ears of Collins’s handpicked agents, and so a list of 14 spies was drawn up, all to be executed at their hotels or lodging houses by an IRA hit squad on the morning of November 21.
It was Captain Patrick McCormack’s misfortune to have been staying in the Gresham Hotel, from where he had travelled extensively to attend race meetings and to purchase racehorses for his Egyptian employers. And crucially he been registered on the hotel guest list as Captain McCormack.
In any event, when a group of gunmen burst into his bedroom on Sunday morning, where McCormack was having breakfast and reading The Irish Field, he was shot five times and left dead on his bed.
News of the killing came as a huge shock in McCormack’s native Castlebar, all the more so the implication that he was a British spy. The sequel to this allegation was that his mother wrote to Richard Mulcahy, new Minister for Defence, asking for an admission that the killing of her son had been a mistake. Her son, she said, was no traitor, and his name had been dishonoured by the accusation that he was a British spy, a charge made all the more hurtful because she herself was a relation of Michael Davitt.
It was a request that led to the extraordinary admission by both Collins and Mulcahy accepting that Captain McCormack had no connection with the British spy ring, with Collins instructing that a letter be sent to Mrs McCormack confirming that ‘there is no evidence whatever that your son was a Secret Service agent’, and describing his death as a mistake.
Captain McCormack had booked a passage back to Egypt for himself, his wife and small daughter. Instead, he was laid to rest in Glasnevin Cemetery, with official British records describing him as ‘ex-Captain Patrick McCormack’.