The New Zealander who became front page news during the War of Independence

The Battle of Tralee, which was reported in newspapers internationally.

New Zealander Hori Morse served as an Auxiliary in Tralee, Co Kerry, during the War of Independence, when the town was international news. In 1921, he began an affair with a married woman and would himself become a front-page story, says Ryle Dwyer

LITTLE has been written about what happened to the Auxiliaries after they left Ireland in 1922. One of those men did hit the headlines abroad over a torrid love affair that he began with an older, married Irish woman, while he was based in Tralee, in 1921.

She abandoned her husband and three children to live with him in Australia.

They travelled about, living in a tent, while he was on the sheep-shearing circuit. But it was not happily ever after.

She became disillusioned after a couple of years and was persuaded by her sister to return to her family in Ireland.

Her jilted lover retaliated by murdering her.

Hori Morse was born in Wanganui, New Zealand, on March 2, 1897. During World War One, Morse went to flying school in Christchurch, and qualified as a pilot in May, 1918.

He was promptly commissioned as a lieutenant in the Royal New Zealand Air Corps, and was sent to Britain in August, 1918. But he didn’t fight, because the war had eneded.

After being demobbed in July, 1919, he enrolled in University College London for a two-year course in engineering, but soon quit in search of adventure in Ireland.

Morse joined the newly formed Auxiliary Division of the Royal Irish Constabulary. He was stationed with H Company, when it was sent to Tralee in November, 1920.

Tralee was probably the most troubled spot in Ireland at the time. The Black and Tans had been imposing a reign of terror on the town, in retaliation for the seizure of two colleagues on the night of October 31, 1920.

The two men had been killed and buried, and their bodies were never found.

The Tans burned out the county hall, as well as a number of homes and business premises. They refused to allow any businesses, or even schools, to open in Tralee for the first nine days of November. This terror made international news in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and even in Japan.

Details of ‘the siege’ of Tralee were reported on the front pages of daily newspapers from Boston to California.

These included eminent newspapers like the New York Times, Boston Globe, Washington Post, Montreal Gazette, and the Oakland Tribune, as well as more remote dailies, like the Chattanooga News, El Paso Herald, Tulsa World, Arizona Republican, Manitoba Free Press, and Medicine Hat News.

Newspapers in at least eighteen different American states carried front-page news of the events in Tralee.

Forty-nine Australian newspapers had similar front-page reports.

The Truth newspaper’s front-page story on killer Hori Morse, who trained to be an architect while in prison.
The Truth newspaper’s front-page story on killer Hori Morse, who trained to be an architect while in prison.

New Zealand newspapers did not carry Tralee news on their front pages, but the town was mentioned in 170 separate reports on inside pages during the relevant two weeks.

Even in Tokyo, the English language Japan Advertiser carried front-page reports about Tralee in the first ten days of November. Questions were also asked about Tralee in the House of Commons, in the UK, on seven days during the siege, which was finally lifted on November 9, 1920.

The following week, Tralee was back in the international news, with reports that the Auxiliaries were ambushed at Ballymacelligott, while escorting a Pathé News film crew.

The cameramen reportedly filmed the incident, and this was released to great fanfare, as the first ambush ever filmed live.

The clip was quickly exposed as a fraud, however, because the filming was obviously staged on Vico Road, near Dalkey, County Dublin.

Moreover, as the clip was ending, a supposedly dead rebel in the background could be seen rising and dusting himself off.

As a result of that ‘fake news,’ some historians made the mistake of thinking the reports about Tralee the previous week had also been false. But the siege had been very real.

Tralee was a traumatised town in mid-November, when Morse arrived with H Company of the Auxiliaries. He did not write about the war in Kerry, other than to say that he was issued with a Smith & Wesson revolver that he used to extricate himself from trouble.

Thereafter, he always called that gun ‘my friend’.

After the truce was agreed in July, 1921, Morse went for a three-week break to Llandudno, in Wales, where he met Hilda Emily Hunter, who was to become the early love of his life. Five years older than him, she was married with three young children, in Coleraine, but the meeting with Morse was love at first sight for both of them.

They went out together that night and went bathing together the next morning.

She invited him to the house where she and her sister, Doris Halden, were holidaying.

“I practically spent the next three weeks in Mrs Hunter’s company,” Morse later testified.

“She told me she had no use for her husband.”

“I received a letter from her, when I returned to Ireland,” he added.

“I replied, and we continued corresponding.”

“She came to Tralee, as my cousin, and stayed two weeks,” Morse noted. “I met her, by arrangement, in Dublin, six weeks after her visit to Tralee, and we stayed a couple of days.”

“We stayed at the Shelbourne Hotel together, as Mr and Mrs Morse,” he added.

“I gave her a wedding ring there, and we each swore a solemn oath, on the Bible, to be true to each other as man and wife.”

At Christmas, 1921, as the Auxiliaries were packing to leave Tralee, Morse went to Coleraine, and stayed with Hilda, her husband, and three children for a fortnight.

A few weeks later, while supposedly visiting her sister, Doris Haldane, in Stockport, near Manchester, Hilda travelled to Dublin to be with Morse.

They spent ten days, posing as husband and wife in Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire).

“Mrs Hunter and I arranged to meet on the Barrabool, which was sailing for South Africa, and we left England in May, 1922,” he added. Hilda was supposedly heading for Australia to look for land that her wealthy husband might purchase.

She was accompanied by her sister and by friends on the first leg of the journey to Cape Town, South Africa.

After a brief stay there, Hilda sailed on to Sydney, and her friends then returned to Britain. Morse then took the next boat to Sydney, where Hilda met him.

They stayed there for a week or two, pretending to be cousins, before Morse headed to Kallara, sheep-shearing. She joined him as his wife and they travelled around, living in a tent.

“We were very happy,” he said. “We went to different places during the shearing season, with the rest of the gang, and returned to Sydney just before Christmas, 1922.”

Hori Morse, who was an Auxiliary in Tralee, and who later shot dead his lover
Hori Morse, who was an Auxiliary in Tralee, and who later shot dead his lover

Upon their return, they told people they got married in Bourke.

They lived together in Sydney, for the next year, until December 21, 1923, when she suddenly left him.

With the help of local police, he traced her to nearby Manly, where she was working as a nurse maid with a wealthy family. She had been joined by her sister, Doris Halden.

Morse met up with Hilda several times in the following few weeks, until one day, when he received a telegram stating that she had gone to Tasmania, and would let him know her plans when she settled there.

He suspected her sister had persuaded her to return to her husband and family in Ireland. The sisters sailed from Sydney on the White Star liner, SS Medic, which was due to call at Tasmania and then at Adelaide, before going on to South Africa. Morse took a train to Adelaide, hired a car there, and met the ship, when it docked at the Outer Harbour on February 24, 1924.

He boarded the ship and quickly found Hilda and persuaded her to go into Adelaide for a meal. He promised to have her back before the ship sailed, that afternoon.

On leaving the ship, Morse pleaded with her to stay with him, but she declined. As they talked, he said she asked what he had in his pocket.

“ ‘My friend’,” he replied. “I was in the act of taking my revolver from my right pocket to show her.”

“When I take my revolver from my pocket, it is my practice to draw the hammer back with my thumb to prevent it catching in my pocket,” he said.

“I suppose I did so on this occasion. Just as I seemed to have the revolver from my pocket, it went off. I did not fire it intentionally.”

“Oh, Digger!” she said.

“I threw out my left arm and caught her,” he said. “I could see she was hurt.”

“I determined to get her to the car and seek medical assistance as soon as possible,” he added. “I carried her across the railway lines and laid her down on a heap of cinders and ran for the car.”

Some men gave chase. “It’s quite all right,” he told them. “My wife is very ill, and I want to take her to the hospital in this car.”

He drove back to where he left her. “Good God, she’s dead,” he said, looking at the body. She had been shot in the heart.

“I bent over and kissed her,” he later testified. “I would rather the bullet had struck me than her. I realised that I had killed the woman I loved.”

“I felt I could not live, and determined to end my life,” he added. “I again drew my revolver from my right-hand pocket and fired to shoot myself, but missed. I fired again, holding the gun against my body.”

He apparently tried to shoot himself in the heart, but the bullet went through his left lung, exiting through his back and embedding in a door behind him.

He was taken to hospital, where he survived. He was then charged with Hilda’s murder, and his trial was over in less than a week. He claimed the killing was accidental, but the jury convicted him of murder, and he was sentenced to hang on July 5, 1924.

Morse’s story was front-page news throughout Australia.

A petition with 22,000 signatures was promptly presented, calling for clemency. The death sentence was duly commuted on July 2, to life in prison at the Yatala Stockade, where he became a model prisoner.

Morse had previously begun taking a course at Sydney Technical College, and he wrote to the college seeking to resume the course by correspondence.

He asked to be permitted to avail of a 50% reduction in fees, accorded to those not earning a journeyman’s wages.

Three of his lecturers agreed to pay his fees, but he would not hear of this. He insisted on paying, even though he only received £4 per annum in prison.

On hearing the story, the prison superintendent paid Morse an advance.

Morse studied architecture in prison and earned honours in his examinations, thereby further enhancing his image with the press. “When Morse is released, he will leave South Australia’s famous prison, perhaps the most amazing character ever to be housed within its grim walls, or the walls of any penitentiary in the Commonwealth,” the Brisbane Truth observed in a front-page feature article.

“Here is a man compelled to spend his life behind prison bars, studying within the grim shadow of gaol walls, succeeding in an almost incredible fashion against students enjoying glorious liberty and with few worries.”

In August, 1934, Morse was duly released for good behaviour, after serving ten years.

He returned to his native New Zealand, and settled in the Wigram area of Christchurch.

He got married on January 14, 1941, and fathered two sons. Morse died on April 10, 1983, at the age of 86. Morse Road, in Wigram, was named after him in 2001.

  • Ryle Dwyer is author of Tans, Terror and Troubles: Kerry Real Fighting Story 1913-1923.

The New Zealander who became front page news during the War of Independence

Reaction to execution saw constables killed

THE siege of Tralee was sparked by an IRA order from Dublin to mark the forthcoming execution of Kevin Barry on Monday, November 1, 1920, by killing as many of the crown forces as possible over the weekend. At least 18 men were wounded throughout the brigade area— eight of those fatally.

Two constables — James J. Coughlan and William Muir — were seized in Ballylongford and mistreated horrifically for a few days, before their release was ordered. Muir apparently never overcame his ordeal, because he committed suicide the following month.

The four IRA companies in Tralee were mobilised on Saturday night to take up ambush positions. Paddy Paul Fitzgerald was placed behind the RIC barracks with seven men. A young scout informed him “that two Tans” were trying to chat up two young women nearby.

“Patrick O’Connor and I approached the two Tans with revolvers drawn,” Fitzgerald recalled. “I called on them to put up their hands; they complied at once.”

They were Constable Ernest Bright, 34, a Londoner, and Patrick Waters, 24, a four-year RIC veteran from Loughanbeg, near Spiddal, County Galway. Thus, he was not a Black and Tan.

“We took them prisoners and handed them over to a section of our men located near the Dingle-Tralee railway tracks,” Fitzgerald continued. Brigadier Paddy Cahill ordered that the two prisoners be killed.

Two other men were wounded in ambushes elsewhere in Tralee that night — Bert Woodward, a naval radio officer, was shot in the chest, while Constable Daniel McCarthy of the RIC was shot in the knee.

The Tans reacted with fury, burning down the County Hall in Tralee that night. Brigadier Cahill actually ran a cinema in the building.

When there was no sign of Waters or Bright by next day, the Tans assumed were being held hostage. They implemented a reign of terror in Tralee for the next nine days in an effort to secure the release of the two constables.

Their determination could only have been strengthened by word of the savage mistreatment of the Ballylongford constables.

Neither Bright nor Waters were ever found. They are the only police from the conflict in Kerry still missing.

Fitzgerald, who first took them prisoner, believed they were buried near the canal in Blennerville. The area was carefully searched without success.

William O’Sullivan, one of the men to whom the two constables were handed over, happened to live beside the canal, where he was the lock keeper. He told his grandson that the two men were buried in his family crypt in Clogherbrien graveyard on the outskirts of Tralee.


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