Sparks Among the Embers: The Battle of Pettigo and Belleek, May-June 1922

‘Difficult and Delicate’

It was not certain if the fighting that broke out near the village of Belleek, Co. Fermanagh, at the end of May 1922 – and which would spread to nearby Pettigo in Co. Donegal – was a last exchange in the past war or the opening of a new one. Actually, many things were unclear, as reports from the ground differed from each other on various points, but enough could be glimpsed through the fog of war for the Irish Times to inform its readers how:

Following the sending of reinforcements to Belleek by the Northern [Irish] Government, there was a conflict between the ‘Specials’ and a large party of civilians on the railway line, near Castlecaldwell [Co. Fermanagh], in Northern territory. Both sides opened fire simultaneously, and an engagement, which lasted for twenty minutes, followed.

The newspaper was being perhaps a bit literal in its terminology as the ‘civilians’ in question were, if not quite professional soldiers, at least combatants from the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Five had been reported killed (with emphasis on ‘reported’ for the total tally of fatalities would fall short of that), with no losses by the ‘Specials’, the armed policemen of the Ulster Special Constabulary who had been sparring with the IRA for the past few months over the newly laid Border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State. By itself the violence was nothing new or even unusual, but what made this skirmish dangerously noteworthy was the escalation that followed, when a police convoy of a Lancia car and three Crossley tenders ventured over their side of the Border on the Sunday evening of the 28th May.

Ulster Special Constabulary riding a Lancia armoured car

Once in Free State territory, the policemen found themselves under attack:

The driver of the Lancia car was shot dead, and his vehicle turned into the ditch. The ‘Specials’ took cover, and, having returned the fire, they managed to escape, but they had to abandon the three motor cars.

Now occupied by IRA forces, the hitherto unremarkable village of Belleek was rapidly becoming a flashpoint for war. But it was the city of Derry – or Londonderry if one prefers – where the danger was most keenly felt, at least by the worthy representatives in the House of Commons who barraged Winston Churchill, as Colonial Secretary, with questions, each seeking to prise a little more sense out of the situation. Did he have any information, asked Major Boyd Carpenter, on the alleged massing of the ‘Sinn Féin forces’ on the Donegal-Fermanagh frontier, and was the Government taking any precautions for the defence of Londonderry, dangerously exposed as it was to this threatened incursion?

The ‘Sinn Féin forces’ – IRA men

If Carpenter was hoping for reassurance, then he was to be disappointed, for Churchill had little to offer save confessed ignorance and bland platitudes:

I have no information beyond what I have seen in the newspapers about the alleged massing of Sinn Fein forces and many motor vehicles on the Donegal borders of Derry, but the Government of Northern Ireland and the Military Commander-in-Chief on the spot may be trusted to take whatever measures are necessary.

NPG x122829; Ronald John McNeill, Baron Cushendun by Bassano
Ronald McNeill, MP for Canterbury

This only stirred rather than soothed the gathered Members of Parliament (MPs). Ronald McNeill inquired if these measures included action against those on the Free State side of the Border, after which Colonel Ashley wanted to know if the British Commander-in-Chief of Northern Ireland was instructed to support the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland without first checking with the British Government. Churchill did his best to stonewall these queries by giving the broadest of answers with the minimum of detail: any Border-crossing by His Majesty’s forces would be a matter of consideration by the Cabinet. As for the Commander-in-Chief, General Cameron could indeed act unilaterally, assuming it was on the Northern Irish side of the border.

When pressed by Captain Craig on the likelihood of the Border being crossed by Irish forces, whether IRA or by the Free State, Churchill could only reply, with a touch of exasperation: “I cannot give an exhaustive account of the subjects which the Cabinet has taken into consideration.”

Winston Churchill

Even Churchill’s promise that the situation would be discussed with Michael Collins and the rest of the Free State leadership scarcely mollified his audience. On the contrary, Captain Charles Craig sounded positively incredulous at the implication of what the other man had just said.

Craig: Are we to understand that these important matters have not been dealt with in the conference with Mr Collins and his colleagues?

Churchill: I am not prepared to say what portion of the difficult and delicate questions of the Irish situation have been discussed between the British representatives and of the Irish Government.[1]

‘A Festering Sore’

In fairness to Churchill, it was too long and strange a tale to easily explain.

Sir Nevil Macready

Even as Crown and Irish personnel exchanged bullets outside Belleek, the birthday of King George V was being observed elsewhere in the country by a military review in the Phoenix Park, Dublin, the first such event since 1914. While it was almost certain to be the last, given the withdrawal of British forces as per the Treaty, it was still a fine display: cavalry and artillery on the right of the line, with infantry on the left, and the music bands taking up the centre. After an hour of the standard military maneuvers, General Sir Nevil Macready, Commanding-in-Chief of the forces in Ireland, stood by as the various units – the Royal Horse Artillery, the Royal Engineers, the 14th Leicestershire Regiment, the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, the 24th Infantry Brigade and others – marched past for his inspection, each displaying their regimental colours.[2]

Although a seasoned professional, Macready could not help but be moved by the sight, particularly of the old pensioners from the Royal Hospital, adorned in their medals, and the boys of the Royal Hibernian School, their red tunics adding a dash of colour to the otherwise khaki formations: two time-honoured institutions Macready guessed would not survive the passing of the old order for very long.[3]

British soldiers in 1922, preparing to evacuate from Dublin

But Macready had little time for melancholy. News of the latest trouble did not surprise him overly; for all his disdain of everything Irish, a feeling nurtured from years of trying to untangle the politics of the place, he was perceptive enough to grasp the potential for trouble at the Border, “a festering sore in the relations between the two parts of Ireland,” as he put it.

The area around Pettigo and Belleek in particular:

…is one of the geographical anomalies of the border link between Northern and Southern Ireland. A triangle some sixteen miles at the base, and seven from base to apex, it is cut off on the south by Lough Erne and the River Erne from the rest of County Fermanagh to which it belongs, and in order to enter it either from the North by the railway or main road, or from the direction of Garrison in the South, it is necessary to cross into Donegal for short distances, which in itself will always be sufficient to start trouble.

As if that was not enough, “a few snipers on this hill could effectually prevent any movement in the village.”

Pettigo map
Map of the Pettigo-Belleek Triangle, from the Belfast News-Letter (10 June 1922)

From the reports Macready received, “a few armed scallywags on the Pettigoe [alternative spelling] Triangle” were exploiting this small but strategically significant position. Macready assumed that the rascals in question were of the anti-Treaty IRA, which was at least easy to understand; after all, the Anti-Treatyites rejected the new rapprochement between Ireland and Britain, determined as they were to resume the previous war. But what made things trickier was how the Free State authorities, who were supposed to be as opposed to the Anti-Treatyites as the Anti-Treatyites were to the Free State, “were not too happy because they knew that men whom they claimed as their adherents were not entirely unconnected with all the trouble on the border” or so Macready suspected.

Michael Collins

Michael Collins, Chairman of the Provisional Government and its de facto decision-maker, exemplified this slipperiness in Macready’s view, being “a thorough Irishman” in having “lots of arguments that the fault was not his,” an effect mollified somewhat by the ironic twinkle in the eye. The British general did give Collins credit for taking “no offence at having things put plainly before him” and the Corkonian had been equally direct with Macready for the past few months.

What he wanted, what he needed, were two things, Collins told Macready repeatedly: barracks and guns. With British forces withdrawing out of the former, Collins wanted his partisans to replace them before the Anti-Treatyites could. Guns were also a critical factor in the unbalanced Irish equitation, of which Republicans currently had the advantage, but Collins believed if he was given more, thousands would be signing up in support of the Free State.

“Eventually Collins received all the arms he asked for. It would be interesting to know the number of rifles, revolvers and machine guns now scattered about Ireland,” Macready later wrote. “The result would, I think, be startling.”[4]

If only Macready had known…

Mauser pistol, owned by IRA man Vinnie Byrne (now in the National Museum of Ireland)

The Army of the North?

One morning, back in April 1922, anti-Treaty IRA men stationed in Birr, Co. Offaly, saw several small vans passing by, their number plates from Tyrone and Derry recognisable even underneath the grime and dust of the road. The vehicles stayed overnight, left early, and returned later that evening. It was clear from how the vans pressed down on their wheels that they now were carrying a considerable load – of weapons, guessed the onlookers, who remained none the wiser as to the bigger picture.[5]

Similarly perplexed was Todd Andrews, one of the garrison members at the anti-Treaty command post in the Four Courts, Dublin. While busying himself with clerical work, Andrews became aware of the lorries swapping weapons between the Four Courts and the Pro-Treatyites’ own base in the Beggar’s Bush barracks. Why, Andrews did not know. He saw no paperwork relating to the oddity and heard only rumours:

It transpired that our arms were intended for an ‘Army of the North’ to be created by combining pro and anti-Treaty forces with the object of mounting an attack on the recently formed Six County regime…Collins and [Liam] Lynch were the originators of the idea of an Army of the North. The exchange of arms was designed to prevent the identification of weapons which had been supplied by the British to the Provisional Government in the event of capture.[6]

Liam Lynch

Though Andrews had no other first-hand encounters with this clandestine ploy, Seán Lehane and Florence O’Donoghue did. As well as guns, Liam Lynch, as Chief of Staff of the anti-Treaty IRA, would be sending men like Lehane, a Corkman with considerable guerrilla experience, who was appointed O/C of this dispatch force. Andrews told of the ‘Army of the North’ in his 1979 memoir, but Lehane had done so earlier in March 1935, as part of his application to the Military Service Pensions Board. The information Lehane provided would not have been available to the general public at the time of Andrews’ autobiography but what Lehane wrote matched that of Andrews in regard to the need for secrecy on Collins’ part:

Both parties – Republican [anti-Treaty] and Free State forces – were to co-operate in giving us arms and supplies, but General Collins insisted on one thing, that activities were to be in the name of the IRA [as opposed to the Free State], and that we were to get arms – rifles – from Cork No. 1 Brigade and that we would return rifles instead to Cork 1 from those rifles handed over by the British. The reason for these stipulations was to avoid embarrassment for General Collins in dealing with the British Government in case a rifle fell into the hands of the British.[7]

Florence O’Donoghue

Unlike Lehane, O’Donoghue was not among those selected for this mission. He was, however, a close confidant of Lynch and, as his former commander’s biographer, O’Donoghue would write in detail about the Chief of Staff’s actions at this crucial time. O’Donoghue had considerable respect for Collin as well and, to him, this secret pact between the two leaders represented:

…a clear objective that revived the old bond of brotherhood, a naturally shared desire to strike at the common enemy which was devoid of the heartache attaching to so many of their decisions at the time. They had, each for the other, a regard that went deeper than friendly comradeship.[8]

Which may indeed have been true. But instructions given to Lehane by Lynch hint at how the parties involved were not being entirely forthright with each other, for all the talk of brotherhood bonds and shared desires.

Lehane and the rest of the expedition force were to:

…to get inside the border wherever, whenever. To force the British general to show his real intention that was to occupy Ballyshannon, Sligo and along down [that direction].[9]

In other words: to start the War of Independence all over again. This would suit Lynch and the rest of the Republicans perfectly, wrecking as it would the Treaty beyond repair; the Free Staters, not so much, since they were only intending to fight the British where they still were in Ireland, not encourage them to return to areas already vacated. If Collins was pulling the wool over Macready’s eyes, then Lynch seems to have been intending to do the same to Collins.

‘You Are Our Enemies’

Joe Sweeney

That is, if we take the above sources at face value and assume Collins was entirely committed to the whole ‘Army of the North’ plan. Andrews, Lehane and O’Donoghue were all Anti-Treatyites, while no contributions have been made on the subject by Free State voices. The closest historians have is Joe Sweeney, the O/C of the pro-Treaty Donegal IRA, and his attitude towards the Anti-Treatyites in his territory was notably frigid.

“We thought Joe Sweeny and Co. would support us,” remembered one.[10]

They thought wrong. Sweeney had no problems sending revolvers and drill purpose rifles over the Border to Derry, even if the latter type were of doubtful quality as even he admitted. After all, Derry was out of his jurisdiction and thus someone else’s problem. When “Collins asked me what I thought of the prospect of a fight in the North when I handed over the drill purpose rifles,” Sweeney was not against the idea per se, but told Collins: “I wouldn’t take any joy in it nor would I send in any more.”

At other times, Sweeney’s indifference could curdle to contempt: “I had no use for the North as I thought they were no good.” Contrary to the claim that Collins was working hand in hand, even if under the table, with Republicans, Sweeney “got no encouragement from Collins, or from GHQ about helping the North, nor had I any instructions to back them up.”[11]

Seán Lehane

In fairness to Sweeney, the Anti-Treatyites who set up base in Donegal did not make for particularly easy roommates; at times, they acted more like an invasion force than allies, as a Free State convoy found when driving through Newtowncunningham on the 4th May 1922. Anti-Treatyites opened fire, inflicting grievous casualties: three killed and five wounded. Writing to the press a week later, Lehane did his best to put his side in the best light, arguing that the whole messy business could have been avoided had Sweeney been more receptive to his earlier overtures at the Free State headquarters in Drumboe Castle:

I pointed out what I feared would be the outcome of the continued aggression of his forces, and made it quite plain that there were sufficient enemies of Ireland in Ulster, and that we ought to be friends.

But Sweeney was having none of what the Corkman was offering:

Sweeney told me he did not recognise me; that my army was an unofficial army, and that anyhow, I did not belong to the county. I replied that an Irishman was not a stranger in any part of his native land. At this stage his adjutant interjected, ‘You are our enemies.’[12]

After the Newtowncunningham debacle, it was hard to see how the two rival IRAs could be anything else. “This clash finished what we set out to do for it finished any hope of our relationship with the Provisional Government improving, for they were getting worse,” recalled Mossy Donegan, another Corkonian. “When we looked for help from the Free State it was refused.”[13]

And yet that was not quite the case.

A Free State officer, looking rakish with his Tommy gun

Fighting alongside the Anti-Treatyites, men who were threatening the peace of his county, was probably the last thing Sweeney either wanted or anticipated at the end of May, but that is more or less what happened in the Pettigo-Belleek Triangle. At the time, though, the picture Sweeney presented was a straightforward one: all aggression had been from the British, with the Free State the sole victim of it. Particularly deplorable was “the British shelling of Pettigo resulting in the deaths of three of my men [emphasis mine].” If there had been “any serious and deliberate invasion of Northern territory” – the closest Sweeney got to admitting the possible presence of Anti-Treatyites in the area – it “was not an act of my men.”[14]

“Absolutely False and Malicious”

Needless to say, the British report on the fracas, released on the 6th June 1922, aimed its finger squarely in the opposite direction:

As a result of the continuous aggression on the part of the so-called Free Stater troops in what is known as the ‘Pettigo Salient,’ which resulted in three casualties (one of them in Pettigo) to the military during the last week, it was decided that the ‘salient’ should be occupied by Imperial [British] troops.

These ‘three casualties’ were not named or identified. Special Constable Dobson, however, received that dubious distinction, being “shot dead when in Ulster territory, half a mile from the border” and definitely not while “taking an active part in the operations.” It had been in response to sniping, aiming down from the high ground around Pettigo (the same vantage point Macready identified), that British forces opposite the village used artillery guns on the 4th June, firing half a dozen shells. After this thunderous prelude, British troops advanced on both flanks, leading to a running battle amidst hedges and ditches that lasted from about 11 o’clock to 4 in the afternoon.

Pettigo, Co. Donegal (aerial shot)

As the Irish Free State issued its own review immediately after, the authors had the opportunity to counter the other’s points. Shelling had not been in response to Dobson’s death, for the Special Constable was killed after the artillery rounds. The claim that British soldiers on their side of the Lough Erne had been fired on from the Free State-owned end was “absolutely false and malicious”, as was the accusation that British soldiers moving towards Pettigo, but still in British-held territory, had been targeted on the morning of the 4th June.

All aggression had been on the part of Crown forces, as an earlier incident on the Wednesday of the 31st May demonstrated:

A scout reported two Crossley tenders and one armoured car on the Kesh road, coming towards the border. Orders were sent out to the post covering the Kesh road not to fire unless they were attacked. Before the order reached the post a person in one of the tenders, dressed in a khaki coat and black trousers, got out of the tender, placed a Lewis gun on the fence, and opened fire on another post of ours, which guarded the left flank of Pettigo, and on our territory. The post covering the Kesh road immediately opened fire on the Lewis gunner. The men in the tenders were all dressed in black, except the one man in the khaki coat. The tenders and armoured car immediately retreated.

Not only was the restraint of the Free State soldiers emphasised but also how “there were no other Irish troops in the district then or now.”[15]

The ‘no other’ were presumably a reference to the anti-Treaty IRA, a distinction Dublin was keen to draw. As we shall see, this was not quite the case, though discerning what else was true and false is not an easy matter. Each army claimed the mantle of ‘defendant’ while pointing to the opposition as ‘attacker’, when, really, the statuses of both sides were what could be diplomatically described as ‘fluid’.

British soldiers behind a barricade in Northern Ireland (in this case, Belfast, 1922)

After all, “for a considerable period prior to the British attack, intermittent fighting had been going on between out [sic] forces and the Ulster Specials and Volunteers along the Donegal-Tyrone-Fermanagh Border,” wrote J. Murray, one of the IRA participants, five years later in 1927. He added, in one of the more honest statements from that period: “It would be difficult to relate all the circumstances that led to the fighting.”[16]

‘Anything Could Happen’

By the end of the twelve days of hostilities, from the opening skirmish on the 28th May to the fall of Belleek by the 8th June, three men were dead on the Irish side, although not necessary on that of the Irish Free State, contrary to Sweeney’s insistence: Patrick Flood of Pettigo, and Bernard McCanny and William Kearney of Drumquin, Co. Tyrone. None were initially named in the newspapers and, when two of them were made public, through the British military inquiry in Enniskillen, they were incorrectly identified as ‘McEnweel’ and ‘Connolly’ from Rameltown, Co. Donegal.[17]

IRA men

The reason for this ignorance was calculated, for when the trio of bodies were taken to Enniskillen, false names and addresses were provided by those claiming them to better fit the narrative that the deceased had been in the service of the Free State. Lieutenant Owen McDonnell, who was sent to Donegal from Dublin to assess the situation post-battle, estimated that of the twenty-five IRA men who had come over the Border to Pettigo, fifteen had “signified their willingness to remain loyal to General Headquarters,” as in the Free State.[18]

Which would presumably mean the other ten were anti-Treaty but, to those involved, such distinctions may not have seemed terribly important. In the case of Nicholas Smyth, although he joined the Republicans when the Civil War came, his priority in May 1922 was more self-preservation than politics, and it was for that reason that he had fled his native Tyrone for Donegal.

Not all his comrades got away in time, with half the officers and rank-and-file fighters in the Tyrone IRA captured by the Northern Irish authorities (Tyrone, lest we forget, fell on the British side of the Border). Smyth himself had been warned by a sympathetic Protestant that he would be shot if caught. Once in Pettigo, Smyth was housed in the old barracks of the village with thirty or forty other IRA ‘refugees’ who busied themselves with patrol duties and plans for when they could return over the Border and renew the war for Irish freedom in their home counties. Whoever was Republican or Free State, anti or pro-Treaty, did not matter, not in that particular place or point in time – for now, all were Volunteers for Ireland, as it had been before.

248_1“Although life was dull, there was an air of expectancy about the place and one felt that anything could happen,” Smyth recalled years later, in his statement to the Bureau of Military History.

As it turned out, something did.

Given the tensions across the Border in recent months, Smyth was hardly surprised when news came, on the Sunday of the 28th May, of that skirmish with the Ulster Special Constabulary, which had resulted in a number of policemen being cut off on an island in Lough Erne. To forestall a breakout, orders were issued for the Volunteers at hand, Smyth among them, to dig a trench across the road at Pettigo Bridge:

While this work was in progress large numbers of enemy forces began to appear on the Fermanagh side of the border. As our working party was in grave danger should the enemy open fire, I was ordered to take a covering party of about 12 or 14 men to protect. These men were armed with rifles. We took up positions overlooking the bridge. The enemy forces doubled and took up positions behind a hedge (?) across from us.

In danger of being caught in a crossfire between their own side and the enemy, the trench-diggers hurriedly pulled back. Smyth told his subordinates to hold their fire but keep in position and await further orders. And there they stayed, on the possible frontline of an impending battle, for a couple of hours. The danger in the air must have spread to the village behind them as Pettigo was deathly quiet – “you could hear a pin drop,” as Smyth put – until the tension snapped with a single gunshot:

This was followed by three or four more single ones. This seemed to be a signal, because the whole place became alive with sound in a few minutes. Bullets were hitting the wall just over our heads and large lumps of lead were dropping on top of us. Our rifles were soon too hot to hold and the air was filled with the smoke and the smell of cordite.

Thankfully, the enemy withdrew before the Volunteers could exhaust their ammunition. Even then there was no respite, with the Irishmen fixed at their posts throughout the night until the Monday morning of the 29th May. Relieved of duty at 7 am, the IRA men trudged through Pettigo in twos and threes – not that the fighting refused to let them be, as Smyth found out almost to his cost:

Danny Gallagher and I were crossing the street when one of the enemy had a shot at us. The bullet hit the road just in front of us. We lay flat on the street and one of our fellows who saw the thing happening got a Thompson gun and let this sniper have a couple of bursts. We didn’t hear from him again.

Some food and a few hours of overdue sleep later, the men gathered at the old barracks, readying themselves for the next round. Monday, however, stayed quiet throughout the day and continued so at night.

Ulster Special Constabulary in a trench

Final Push

At daybreak, British forces attacked again. Smyth led a team along the railway line in order to cover the main road into Pettigo. Resistance was evidently strong, for some of the Crown combatants were retreating down the road, allowing the Volunteers a chance to snipe at them. Smyth saw how one of his comrades had fitted his rifle for hurling grenades; although none hit their target, Smyth was impressed at the innovation.

With the assailants beaten back yet again, Pettigo enjoyed a measure of quiet, save for the odd potshot. Two days later, on the 1st June, the British tried again with a frontal assault by twelve Crossley tenders carrying policemen and soldiers. The Volunteers allowed them to near before opening fire at the sight of the proverbial ‘whites of their eyes.’ IRA outposts elsewhere added their firepower, and Smyth guessed the enemy casualties to be severe, though the Crown force gave as good as it got with its machine-guns.

After half an hour, the police and soldiers fell back:

An amusing sequel to this fight was that one of the policemen, for some reason or another, didn’t leave with the rest and after the main party had moved off he started off down the road, running for all he was worth. None of our fellows fired on him, but gave him a hearty cheer.

Despite these successes, the strain was starting to be felt by the defenders of Pettigo, less than a hundred of whom were available in the village at any given time. The British, in contrast, were growing stronger, with more soldiers to be seen on Boa Island, in Lough Erne, from where two incursions were launched over the water, landing two miles down from Pettigo and forcing the Irish to divert manpower to there, as well as to another point in the Letter district, three miles away.

Lough Erne

Smyth barely had an hour in bed before a fresh attack was reported at a narrow isthmus known as Waterfoot. He arrived with the rest, having to crawl the last three hundred yards due to the bullets whizzing through the air. The Volunteers already on the scene, under the command of James Scallon, were in a perilous state, taking fire from two different directions. Smyth suggested to Scallon that they shift between these separate points so that their opponents would catch themselves in a crossfire:

We did this and it worked out as we had anticipated. When we got them properly engaged in the darkness, we returned to the safety of our trench. Their fire at each other continued for some time and eventually both parties of the enemy evacuated their positions and retreated.

The Irishmen did not, sleeping where they were until relieved. The fight was continuing here and there even as Smyth attended morning Mass in Pettigo. It was while he was leaving the church that the British played their trump card: artillery guns, the first time they had been deployed in Ireland since 1916.

Smyth hurried to the building used as their military headquarters, finding it already deserted. Even with this new level of warfare, he did not think the British would go so far as to occupy the village – only to look through a window, a quick cup of tea in hand, to see two armoured cars parked outside.

Pettigo, Co. Doengal (today)

With nothing else to be done, Smyth grabbed a Thompson gun that had been left on a table – which says much about how quickly the place was abandoned – and went out, into the yard at the back. There he found Danny Gallagher (the man he had been with when narrowly avoiding a sniper’s aim) and twenty others, all huddled behind a hedge. So intense was the enemy fusillade that the one Volunteer with a weapon to match, a Lewis gun, did not dare risk exposing himself to use it (though Smyth gave a few return shots with his newly claimed Thompson). Retreat being the only sane option, the band crawled away, singly or in pairs, along the hedge.

When they judged themselves to be sufficiently far away, the Volunteers quickened their pace, finally breaking cover to dash across a bare patch of land. An artillery shell chose that moment to land beside them, splattering Smyth and the rest with mud but miraculously leaving them unscathed. The fleeing Irishmen were able to continue on and escape, making their way to Donegal town with nothing but the clothes on their backs. About fifty-five or sixty-five others arrived with Smyth, only half the number that had held Pettigo.[19]

At least no pursuit was made, for there was still one more nail for the Crown forces to hammer down. “I understand that the advance will be continued to-morrow towards Belleek,” wrote the journalist on the scene for the Irish Times.[20]

Newsreel from Topical Budget depicting the capture of Belleek by British troops, available from the Irish Film Institute (IFI) Archive Player:

By Thursday, the 8th June, the Fermanagh village in question was too under British control, courtesy of the one hundred and fifty soldiers from the Manchester Regiment and the Lincolnshire Regiment’s three companies, which had advanced on Belleek from the south and north respectively.  As with Pettigo, resistance was offered by rifle and Thompson gunshots, some of which came from an old Williamite fort on a hill overlooking Belleek.

belleek-fortAnd, as with Pettigo, artillery made all the difference:

There was a “boom” of a big gun, and the ground shook. A cloud of dust rose from the back of the fort, and the Republicans were seen scattering in all directions. Three more high explosive shells were fired, and every one of them registered a hit, landing within the walls of the fort.

As the garrison was from anti-Treaty IRA and thus unambiguously hostile, and that Belleek lay on the Northern Irish side of the Border, the village made for a much more straightforward mission than Free State-held Pettigo in Donegal (tellingly, when Collins later complained of the British attack against Pettigo, he ignored the one on Belleek). The exchange of bullets and shells had begun at 12:45; three-quarters of an hour later, the Anti-Treatyites were reported to be in retreat. Save for a slight injury, no casualties among the British were suffered, nor any bodies found in Belleek, making it as close to a bloodless battle as could be hoped.[21]

At 10 Downing Street, London, news of the victory and its swiftness was celebrated by the Prime Minister and his inner circle with a bottle of champagne and the singing of songs until past midnight. Relief rather than triumphalism was the order of the day, for the last thing David Lloyd George had wanted was to be “fighting in the swamps of Lough Erne,” as he told Churchill.[22]

British troops
‘Lads who took the town”- victorious Tommies pose in Belleek with a captured tricolour flag: (1:40)

Overwhelming Force

It had been a brave holdout but, in Smyth’s resigned view, “the forces which the British used against our men in the last stages of the fight in Pettigo were so overwhelming that we couldn’t stem the tide.” If nothing could have averted the outcome, then one thing Smyth did regret was the death of Patrick Flood. Flood had stayed behind for some overdue sleep when Smyth left for Waterfoot, being too tired to do anything else. He later died elsewhere at Drumharriff Hill, haunting Smyth for years afterwards with the possibility of Flood surviving had they only stayed together.[23]

1b534e4b-921b-4654-ad4b-d0d2188269e0Four were reported dead altogether: three of the Pettigo defenders, unnamed and otherwise unremarked, and Special Constable Dobson, whose death had previously been reported. Post-victory, it received more elaboration in the Irish Times: despite being shot in the head, the dying Dobson had managed to apply the brakes of his Lancia car and bring it to a halt by the roadside, rather than getting in the way of the other vehicles and rendering them easy targets.[24]

A contradictory version came from John Travers. Like Smyth, Travers was contributing a statement to the Bureau of Military History, three decades after the event, in July 1952 (four other participants, including Smyth and James Scollan, put their names at the end, indicating that the document was a group effort). According to Travers and company, after Dobson was downed, “the car overturned and blocked the road. Fire from the Volunteers prevented them from clearing the way for some time.”[25]

British armored cars
British armoured cars: (00.25)

Travers also contributed the closest account posterity has for the final moments of the three fallen defenders:

The machine gun post of about eight IRA Volunteers which manned Drumharriff Hill covering the approach to the town [Pettigo], held their position until their ammunition was exhausted and then the post was surround [sic] and captured. Three of the gallant defenders, Patrick Flood of Pettigo, Bernard McCanny and William Kearney of Drumquin, were killed at their post.[26]

Neither Travers nor any of his five contributors seem to have been eyewitnesses to this last stand and so little more than the bare facts above can be provided. The Monday after the fight, Father Bernard Hackett was to find Flood’s body in the field where he fell and removed it to the Catholic church in Pettigo. The top of Flood’s head was missing, torn off by what the padre guessed to have been an artillery shell.[27]

British artillery, having just fired (note the smoke to the right): (00:57)

And Flood’s condition was not the worst, for he at least was recognisable. Part of why McCanny and Kearney were not immediately identified was “principally owing to their mutilated condition,” according to the report by Lieutenant McDonnell. In addition to the three dead, McDonnell estimated eighteen further casualties to the Free State, these being prisoners who had been removed to Enniskillen.[28]

A fourth name on the memorial to the Irish dead in Pettigo is William Deasley ‘who died of wounds 6-6-1922’. According to historian Liam Ó Duibhir, these injuries were not from the actual battle but afterwards in Donegal town as a result of an accident. And then there had been the blood spilt at the very start, that of the Lancia car driver who had been shot on the 28th May while crossing with a police convoy into the Free State: Special Constable Herbert Thomas Rickerby, a Belfast man (given the similarity between his death and Dobson’s, the driver’s seat in a military vehicle must have been an exceptionally dangerous place to be).[29]

Memorial to the battle in Pettigo, Co. Donegal

Numbers are a notoriously difficult science for the military researcher, given the tendency of primary sources to inflate them; for example, Michael O’Donoghue believed that fifteen Free State soldiers altogether had been slain by the shelling of Pettigo. But, when all is said and counted, five (six if you count the latecomer Deasley) is the most reasonable tally of the butcher’s bill.[30]

An Army Once Again?

Though not present in either Pettigo or Belleek, Michael O’Donoghue was in Donegal, one of the Corkonians sent to assist the anti-Treaty IRA there, and so can provide a man-on-the-ground view of how the situation was perceived. The initial reaction for O’Donoghue and his comrades in Donegal town was dread: if the British advanced westwards along the Erne River to Ballyshannon, they could cut the Anti-Treatyites off from the rest of ‘Southern’ Ireland.

British soldiers marching through the Pettigo-Belleek Triangle, June 1922

However, that looming cloud promised a silver lining, in O’Donoghue’s view:

Had they done so, the whole subsequent history of Ireland would assuredly have been changed, for a unified Irish Republican Army would have waged renewed war on the British in Ulster and prevented the setting up of the Six County statelet.[31]

For if the valiant, albeit ill-fated, defence of Pettigo and Belleek had demonstrated anything, it was how:

At last the sundered wings of the IRA – the Free Staters and the Republicans – were fighting side by side as comrades again here in Ulster against the common English enemy. Now the Irish Republican Army had closed its ranks and were re-united once more.[32]

Brian Monaghan, who had been in the battle, thought much the same:

This incident seemed to heal the division in the ranks of the former IRA as both the treaty supporters at Pettigo and the anti-Treaty supporters at Belleek took a hand at actively opposing the advance of the British Forces.

But it was not to be:

Unfortunately this temporary feeling of old-time unity disappeared as soon as the military operations against the British forces came to an end.[33]

Disappointedly, and “strange to say, the British stayed put in Belleek and Pettigo and made no further move,” O’Donoghue lamented. Despite the Pettigo-Belleek clash being exactly the sort of reaction Liam Lynch had hoped to provoke when undertaking the ‘Army of the North’, the Anti-Treatyites in Donegal were caught off-guard as much as anyone. But, when reviewing events years later, O’Donoghue preferred to blame external forces rather than his own side’s failure to capitalise on their gift-wrapped opportunity:

Michael Collins was called to London to explain the warlike activities of the Free State army in Ulster. What transpired between himself and Churchill there will hardly ever be fully revealed.[34]

An Unbridgeable Gulf?

What went on behind closed doors was not quite as cloak-and-dagger as O’Donoghue tried to make out – contrary to his insinuation, we have quite a lot of material about Collins’ interactions with the British state – but the clash of arms on the Donegal-Fermanagh frontier did expose just how far the two governments were at an understanding. Collins and Arthur Griffith were not even aware that the fighting had broken out until informed about it in a meeting at 10 Downing Street in London on the 31st May. Worse, neither Irish Cabinet minister knew if it were the Anti-Treatyites who were involved or their own forces. Collins repudiated any Free State involvement – erroneously, as he later learnt – to Churchill, who was in turn downplaying the whole affair as much as he could to Parliament.[35]

Thomas Jones

Both men were feeling the strain. Thomas Jones, a civil servant with a front-row to many of the Anglo-Irish deliberations, had had a testy conversation at Chequers with a frazzled Churchill, who wanted to send in the military to the Pettigo-Belleek Triangle without first warning their partners in the Free State. When Jones cautioned him against impulsivity, Churchill threatened to resign and leave the Prime Minister to carry the load (Lloyd George, when he heard, compared his Colonial Secretary to an unstable chauffeur who was liable to drive everyone off a cliff without warning).[36]

Collins likewise yearned to cast off responsibility. The first thing he had told Jones at one encounter in late May was: “This gulf is unbridgeable.” Going back to war, with his comrades at his side once again, did not seem like such a bad thing, he hinted to Jones. But this was more of a case of Collins venting than seriously considering. His immediate demand was for jaw-jaw rather than war-war; when asked by an American journalist if he would insist on an official enquiry into the Pettigo-Belleek affair, Collins was emphatic: “Most certainly.”[37]

Michael Collins, looking like a man with a lot on his mind

He calmed down somewhat after a talk with Sir Laming Worthington-Evans, the Secretary of War, and Lord Cavan, Chief of the General Staff, in mid-June. As he told Richard Mulcahy in a letter:

I am satisfied that there is a very serious conflict of evidence and I am not satisfied that either side can be accepted as being correct.

What Collins had heard was apparently enough to persuade him that enough blame was there to go around: “I was pressing my demand for an enquiry but eased off somewhat after certain passages of the British report had been read out to me.” Any secret deal struck with Liam Lynch belonged to a different age, assuming anything of the sort had really existed. As for Churchill, when asked in Parliament, the Colonial Secretary confirmed that no such enquiry would be necessary as his government accepted “full responsibility for the action which the military authorities took by their express direction.”[38]

Cooler heads, it seemed, were prevailing. It was not the end of the Irish Question for Britain, nor the Border issue for Ireland, but the attentions of both countries did not linger long on either Pettigo or Belleek. British, Free Stater and Republicans turned to bigger priorities, and soon to bigger battles, and the one that had flared up on the Donegal-Fermanagh border so suddenly faded away just as swiftly.

Memorial to the battle in Pettigo


[1] Ibid, 30/05/1922

[2] Ibid, 05/06/1922

[3] Macready, Nevil. Annals of an Active Live, Vol. 2 (London: Hutchinson and Co. [1924]), p. 649

[4] Ibid, pp. 631-2, 645, 656

[5] MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), pp. 268-9

[6] Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001), p. 238

[7] O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Bielenberg, Andy; Borgonovo, John and Ó Ruairc, Pádraig Óg; preface by O’Malley, Cormach K.H.) The Men Will Talk to Me – West Cork Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2015), pp. 203-4

[8] O’Donoghue, Florence. No Other Law: The Story of Liam Lynch and the Irish Republican Army, 1916-1923 (Dublin: Irish Press Ltd., 1954), p. 251

[9] O’Malley, West Cork Interviews, p. 205

[10] Ibid, p. 63

[11] O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam and Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk to Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018), pp. 33-5

[12] Ibid, 12/05/1922

[13] O’Malley, West Cork Interviews, p. 97

[14] Downing, Dan. Neighbours in Pettigo: Living with Conflict and Division in a Border Village (Co. Donegal: Pettigo Publishing, 2018), p. 129

[15] Irish Times, 06/06/1922

[16] Military Service Pensions Collection, ‘Kearney, William’ (W2/11378), p. 18

[17] Names and addresses supplied by Travers, John (BMH / WS 711), p. 7 ; Irish Times, 07/06/1922

[18] Kearney, pp. 3, 11

[19] Smyth, Nicholas (BMH / WS 721), pp. 24-31

[20] Irish Times, 05/06/1922

[21] Ibid, 09/06/1922

[22] Jones, Thomas (edited by Middlemas, Keith) Whitehall Diary: Volume III, Ireland 1918-1925 (London: Oxford University Press, 1971), pp. 211-2

[23] Smyth, pp. 29, 31

[24] Irish Times, 05/06/1922

[25] Travers, p. 6

[26] Ibid, pp. 6-7

[27] Flood, Patrick, W2D221, pp. 111-2

[28] Kearney, p. 3

[29] Ó Duibhir, Liam. Donegal and the Civil War: The Untold Story (Cork: Mercier Press, 2011), p. 128 ; Belfast Newsletter, 31/05/1922

[30] O’Donoghue, Michael V. (BMH / WS 1741, Part II), p. 95

[31] Ibid, p. 97

[32] Ibid, p. 95

[33] Monaghan, Brian (BMH / WS 879), p. 13

[34] O’Donoghue, p. 97

[35] Downing, p. 124

[36] Jones, pp. 210, 212

[37] Ibid, p. 203 ; Downing, p. 136

[38] Kinsella, Anthony, ‘The Pettigo-Belleek Triangle Incident. Irish Sword (Dublin: The Military History Society of Ireland, Volume XX, No. 2, Winter 1997), p. 352 ; Irish Times, 15/06/1922



Belfast Newsletter

Derry Journal

Irish Times


Andrews, C.S., Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001)

Downing, Dan. Neighbours in Pettigo: Living with Conflict and Division in a Border Village (Co. Donegal: Pettigo Publishing, 2018)

Jones, Thomas (edited by Middlemas, Keith) Whitehall Diary: Volume III, Ireland 1918-1925 (London: Oxford University Press, 1971)

MacEoin, Uinseann. Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980)

Macready, Nevil. Annals of an Active Live, Vol. 2 (London: Hutchinson and Co. [1924])

O’Donoghue, Florence. No Other Law: The Story of Liam Lynch and the Irish Republican Army, 1916-1923 (Dublin: Irish Press Ltd., 1954)

Ó Duibhir, Liam. Donegal and the Civil War: The Untold Story (Cork: Mercier Press, 2011)

O’Malley, Ernie (Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam; Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk To Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018)

O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Bielenberg, Andy; Borgonovo, John and Ó Ruairc, Pádraig Óg; preface by O’Malley, Cormac K.H.) The Men Will Talk to Me – West Cork Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2015)

Military Service Pensions Collection

Flood, Patrick, W2D221

Kearney, William, W2/11378

Bureau of Military History Statements

Monaghan, Brian, WS 879

O’Donoghue, Michael V., WS 1741

Smyth, Nicholas, WS 721

Travers, John, WS 711


Kinsella, Anthony, ‘The Pettigo-Belleek Triangle Incident. Irish Sword (Dublin: The Military History Society of Ireland, Volume XX, No. 2, Winter 1997)

Béal na Rashomon: Liam Deasy and His Multiple-Choice History of the Irish Revolution, 1920-74

“If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!”

Moore, Alan and Bolland, Brian. The Killing Joke (1988)

‘For the Future of Ireland’

Liam Deasy

That a man was taken prisoner by Free State forces in Tincurry, Co. Tipperary, on the 18th January 1923, was nothing remarkable in itself, what with the Civil War being on; what was noteworthy, however, was the POW’s identity and importance: Liam Deasy, Deputy Chief of Staff of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). As a parabellum revolver and twenty-one rounds of ammunition had been found on him, a court-martial was convened a week later, sentencing Deasy to death, as per Government law against possession of unauthorised firearms, a decree aimed specifically at anti-Treaty IRA combatants or ‘Irregulars’ like him.

And that would have been the end of him, another name on a growing list of Republican martyrs, except Deasy was not quite ready to join it. Upon his request for an interview with the enemy Commander-in-Chief, Richard Mulcahy – “for the future of Ireland,” Deasy was quoted as saying – the captive was transferred to Dublin, where, after further discussion, it was agreed for him to put his name to a communique announcing to the country:

I have undertaken, for the future of Ireland, to accept and aid in an immediate and unconditional surrender of all arms and men, and have signed the following statement: –

I accept, and I will aid in immediate and unconditional surrender of all arms and men, as required by General Mulcahy.

(Signed) LIAM DEASY[1]

Ernie O’Malley

This volte-face was met with shock and dismay from his colleagues. While sympathising with Deasy and his plight, Ernie O’Malley could not help but rail at the “rank indiscipline of it” in a letter to a friend, Sheila Humphreys, from Mountjoy Prison. It was not as if O’Malley could not relate, being a POW and under threat of execution himself, but he failed “to see what right prisoners have to attempt to force the hands of their comrades in the field; we are out of the fight and it does not matter what the enemy do to us.” Furthermore, there was the bigger picture to consider: what impact would news of Deasy’s submission have on the rest of the IRA?[2]

Almost a fortnight later, O’Malley would write again to Humphreys, announcing himself to be in a better mood, confident that the rank-and-file would remain true and stay the course. Nonetheless, the crack in the Republican lines made by Deasy was starting to widen: A signed statement from twelve POWs held in Limerick, claiming to represent six hundred others, asked for four of their number to be paroled in order to discuss with IRA senior officers still at large about a possible end to hostilities.[3]

Although no reference was made to Deasy, the timing seems too close to be entirely coincidental. Seventy detainees in Tralee, Co. Kerry, went even further in their own proclamation, not only citing Deasy by name but urging the remaining Anti-Treatyites to go beyond just considering peace:

We, the undersigned prisoners in Tralee Prison, approve of Liam Deasy’s actions in calling on his comrades for unconditional surrender, and we request a parole for delegates to interview our comrades in arms to advise them to surrender.

Some of these comrades-in-arms were no longer waiting to be advised. Eager to capitalise on its success in turning a high-ranking opponent into its mouthpiece, the Government had offered an olive-branch in the form of an amnesty to enemy combatants on condition that they surrender their weapons between the 8th and 18th February. Sixteen men were reported to have done so accordingly to Free State troops at Innistioge, Co. Kilkenny, with almost a dozen more in Limerick declaring by telegram their intention to hand in their arms. Slightly more complicated was the case of Michael Pierce, who stated his willingness to surrender the two flying columns he commanded in North Kerry, but also his uncertainty as to whether he could contact each of his subordinates in time. The amnesty deadline was extended by two days to accommodate him.[4]

IRA Flying Column

And then there were those prisoners, tried and convicted on a capital offence but willing, like Deasy, to sign declarations renouncing further hostilities on their part in return for a reprieve. By April, the number of these signatories was enough to sicken O’Malley, especially when he thought “of the gallant lads of 17 and 19 who faced death with such courage” in comparison. Adding further indignity, a visiting chaplain suggested that he follow Deasy’s example and publicly submit. O’Malley managed to keep himself composed until the padre had left and then vented his rage and frustration in the privacy of his cell.[5]

The Final Advance to Victory

And yet, as Deasy stressed in an accompanying letter, his call for surrender was not based on any change of heart, nor were his ideals as a Republican any different now than they had been at the start of the Civil War. Neither was it from a fear of defeat, since the Anti-Treatyites, in his opinion, could sustain their military campaign for years – and yet at what cost?

Our military position had not materially changed – if anything, it was stronger than at any time, sufficiently strong to prevent the Free State Government from functioning. Briefly both sides had ample strength to carry on for an indefinite period, the end of which would probably see no change on the respective position, but, undoubtedly would show a considerable weakening nationally.

With this unhappy situation before them, Republicans had to choose whether it would be better for their country and its freedom to:

  1. Halt at this stage and prepare to fight the common foe again at the first opportunity.
  2. To continue on as before, maybe for years, and leave only irreconcilable bitterness by the end.

Neither was ideal, Deasy admitted. The former option would “see the attempted reinforcing of Britain’s grip, not of course, as formerly; but even veiled, her influence in part will remain.” In the case of the latter, however, the aforementioned ‘common foe’ might not even bother with any veil if further hardship for Ireland led to “a cordial welcome by a section of our people to the return of England’s ‘protective forces’” and armed occupation all over again.

Anti-Treaty newsletter and cartoon

So Deasy was not quite appealing for peace as much as he was for breathing space before Round Two with Britain. Regardless of his current course of action, which he admitted “may appear inconsistent” to his stated views, he was at pains to present himself as a man, if not quite unembittered, then at least unbroken and most certainly unrepentant. The coarsening of the conflict, “retrograding from the path of warfare to that of a vendetta”, he blamed solely on the Free State in its execution of POWs; any harsh measures on the part of the IRA were purely a response to the enemy’s “policy of murder.”

Execution by firing-squad during the Civil War (presmably staged)

The times had been harsh, and they would grow harsher, but Deasy, concluding his letter on an incongruously triumphant note, was confident that:

To the Army of the Republic the ultimate aim will be a guide likewise to methods and the inspiration of those many brave comrades already fallen, and to whom we owe a duty, will strengthen our hand in the final advance to victory.[6]

Quite different, then, was the tone and text of the letter when printed in Deasy’s Civil War memoirs, Brother Against Brother, more than fifty years later:

My comrades when they view the whole outlook nationally, they will see the absolute urgency of bringing the present chapter to a close: if we conserve our forces the spirit of Ireland is saved. Our advance may be greatly impeded for a time but the freedom we desire will be achieved by, we hope, our united efforts again.[7]

Here, the letter is less defiant and more muted, even melancholic (the book’s title alone being indicative of its sadder-but-wiser author). No mention was made of wanting to wait for another war, only in ending the current one, which Deasy, unlike earlier, was willing to concede was being lost. That the IRA would last beyond the summer of 1923 was something he doubted, considering the setbacks the Republicans were already struggling with, as Deasy unflinchingly listed:

  1. The increasing strength of the Free State army from recruitment.
  2. The decrease in IRA strength due to constant arrests.
  3. The defensive stance of IRA units in many areas and the decrease in fighting.
  4. ‘War Weariness’ in general.
  5. The failure to combat enemy propaganda leading to increased support for the Free State Government.
  6. The overall situation created by executions, leading to a cycle of reprisals and counter-reprisals.[8]

That his side might at least be partly responsible for the mess everyone was in had been more than Deasy was willing to openly discuss at the time.

A train derailed during the Irish Civil War

Intellectual Convictions?

Whether he was deliberately rewriting his words or honestly misremembering is another question and, while we can never know for sure, not everyone who knew him was always impressed at his truthfulness. As Tom Barry told historian Pádraig Ó Maidin in 1976, when  he last saw Deasy before his capture, a few days earlier in the Glen of Aherlow, the other had said not a word about ending the war, nor had he to any of the other IRA Executive members, as each confirmed when next they met as a body.[9]

Deasy himself had sounded almost chipper in a letter for O’Malley, as Deputy IRA Chief of Staff to the latter’s Acting Assistant Chief of Staff. “Generally, the position here is very satisfactory, particularly in the Cork and Kerry Brigades,” he wrote. “The people generally are becoming very favourable.” While Deasy did make mention of peace overtures, these were from the other side, by Free State officers such as Tom Ennis and Emmet Dalton. Deasy offered no comment, good or bad, on them, but his description of tactics being developed by the IRA against enemy-held towns and their satisfying results so far do not give the impression of a man yearning for peace, contrary to what he later claimed to have been.[10]

IRA members on Grafton Street, Dublin

In fairness, Deasy was writing in September 1922, before the situation turned truly dire for the Republicans, and Barry’s relationship with Deasy had plummeted by the time he talked to Ó Maidin (as we shall see). Others were more willing to see the best in Deasy, even if they had been on the opposing side.

“Deasy is the kind of person who wouldn’t be actuated by malice,” Lieutenant-General Costello told Richard Mulcahy as part of an interview the latter was conducting in May 1963. Such amiability only made the subject’s past behaviour all the more puzzling to Costello:

I can’t place Deasy’s opposition to the Treaty at all because he had no intellectual convictions against us; he certainly was not in favour of a civil war.

“I have never been able to understand what influenced him,” Costello concluded with a sigh.[11]

Liam Mellows

Deasy might not have disagreed on some of the above points. Back then, he had been among the cooler heads or ‘moderates’ on the IRA Executive, formed in the wake of the Treaty rift to take charge of the Republican forces. Perhaps he and his like-minded colleagues had been a little too reasonable for their own good; according to Deasy, a willingness to negotiate with their Free State counterparts, in the months leading up to the Civil War in 1922, had earned them the derision of hardliners like Rory O’Connor and Liam Mellows, who:

…could see no good in Michael Collins, Dick Mulcahy and Eoin O’Duffy. This distrust extended to Liam Lynch, Florence O’Donoghue, Frank Barrett and myself. We were regarded as being well intended but failing in our stand to maintain the Republic.

To Deasy, this was deeply unfair: “Although we were regarded as moderate, we felt that our policy was considered and meaningful.”[12]

A Well-Informed Man

At least some thought Deasy worth listening to. Todd Andrews had talked with him and a number of other West Cork IRA bigwigs, finding them to be:

…particularly well informed men with a deep knowledge of Irish history. Physically they were distinguished looking men…They had the quality of leadership. They were the kind of men I wished to see at the head of affairs in Ireland.[13]

Seán MacBride

Which came closer than Andrews knew of happening…until divisions within the IRA Executive proved as irreconcilable as the schism between the pro and anti-Treaty camps. At the disastrous IRA Convention of June 1922, the ‘hardliners’ stormed out of the gathering in protest at the proposal to heal the IRA breach with a reunited army. Seán MacBride, as a witness, identified Deasy, along with Liam Lynch, as among the movers behind this olive-branch.

Not that Deasy did not have a vested interest. Had a reformed Army come to pass, Deasy would have been poised to help shape future developments as joint Deputy Chief of Staff, with responsibility for General Training. But, since unity also meant “that the Republican Army be united and controlled by the Free State Army” – as MacBride put it – “in other words this meant they were ready to work the Treaty and thereby signify their acceptance of it,” it was little short of abject surrender in the eyes of Mellows and O’Connor. They much preferred the counter-suggestion by Tom Barry: that the Anti-Treatyites just restart the war with Britain then and there.[14]

Liam Lynch

Neither the hardliners nor moderates had their way, and the result was Deasy and Lynch waking up together in the Clarence Hotel, Dublin, on the 28th June 1922, to the sound of Free State artillery pounding away at Republican positions. Both were too shocked to react or speak at first, sitting dumbfounded in their room before finally making their way outside to where civil war awaited. If Costello would struggle to understand what influenced Deasy, then perhaps the answer was nothing did, and that he was as swept up in events beyond his control as anyone.[15]

Whether this makes him sympathetic or contemptible is another matter. “It is my personal [emphasis in text] opinion that Liam Lynch and Liam Deasy were simply not up it,” Tom Kelleher later said about their performance. But neither, he conceded, was anyone else who was in charge.[16]

Gunmen taking aim during the Civil War

Béal na Bláth – Take 1

All of which still leaves the discrepancy between the letter Deasy wrote in 1923 and what he presented in Brother Against Brother. To put things in context, however, the book was published posthumously, after his death in August 1974, while still in its first draft stage and it is possible his revisions would have been closer to the original had he the chance.[17]

Florence O’Donoghue

Less easily explained are the differences between his depiction in Brother Against Brother of the ambush at Béal na Bláth in August 1922 that resulted in the slaying of Michael Collins – and that of another version, composed a decade before Deasy’s. What makes the latter particularly noteworthy is that Deasy had a hand in its making as well, being one of the seven men who met at the Metropole Hotel in Cork in February 1964. All were former officers in the Cork IRA and each had participated at Béal na Bláth on that fateful day, save Florence O’Donoghue, whose role in the group was as its secretary.

The reason for their reunion, as explained by O’Donoghue at the start of the resultant piece:

I was asked to be present to record what could be established as the truth and because I had been given an undertaking by Capt. Sean Feehan of the Mercier press that he would not publish Eoin Neeson’s book on the Civil War until we were satisfied that the part of it dealing with the death of Collins was in accordance with the facts.[18]

Few deaths have merited as much introspection as Collins’: the war hero cut down by a bullet after falling into a trap laid by his compatriots and leaving behind the eternal question of what he would or could have done further for Ireland had he lived. That he was a fellow Corkonian only rubbed further salt into the wounded pride of his ambushers, in “a sense of collective guilt from the death of Collins” as observed by Todd Andrews of his Cork colleagues in the IRA, and perhaps demonstrable in Tom Barry’s indignation at “the canard that the IRA plotted and planned Collins’ death in 1922 and in fact assassinated him.” The IRA party responsible did not even know Collins – “a great son of West Cork” – was in the convoy at the time, Barry insisted.[19]

Michael Collins

O’Donoghue did not attempt that particular argument but the same touchiness that Barry showed and Andrews observed can be detected in the work the seven men produced in the Metropole, even with the passing of forty-two years:

Statements which have been made to the effect that the Division and Cork No. 1 Brigade were aware of Collins’ intention to visit posts in Cork and that a general order was issued to kill him are without foundation and completely untrue. His presence in the South was known to the officers in the Division and of the 1st and 3rd Brigades only on the morning of 22nd and no order had been issued by either of the commands. The ambush was decided on as part of the general policy of attacking Free State convoys.

In short: nothing personal. It was presumably to pre-empt any further statements ‘without foundation’ that might be found in historian Eoin Neeson’s book that the seven men had had their reunion. The Metropole Hotel document, the fruit of their collective recollections, is relatively short, focusing on the bare facts, at least as presented: the four officers in the Third Cork IRA Brigade who gathered at Béal na Bláth on the forenoon of the 22nd August did so for the purpose of a routine brigade meeting. Although a Free State convoy had been spotted passing through the area on the previous night, that was not the intended subject of discussion, nor did it become so until late in the meeting, by which point the ambush party was already in place at Béal na Bláth in anticipation of the convoy returning by the same route. No instructions had given for them to do so, it seems, beyond the aforementioned policy of attacking the enemy whenever opportunity presented itself.

Last known photograph of Collins, about to leave Bandon for Cork, through Béal na Bláth, on the 22nd August 1922

The four officers – unspecified in the account – only came later on the scene to take command. The group, numbering between twenty and twenty-five, waited until deciding that the target was probably not going to appear. As the main section withdrew on foot, a rear-guard of ten lingered to clear the road, and while doing so they heard the sound of imminent vehicles: the convoy was coming after all:

They realised that the main party moving back towards [Béal na Bláth] cross-roads were in a ravine and in a very dangerous position. They could not have reached the cross-roads before the convoy overtook them.

To prevent this calamity, the rear-guard hurriedly took up position on the roadside and opened fire with rifles and revolvers on the incoming Free Staters. The two sides exchanged shots for twenty or thirty minutes before nightfall made further exertions impractical and the convoy broke away. The IRA suffered no losses and it was only later that they learnt the enemy had had one: Collins.

Should any doubt be left in the readers’ minds as to intent: “Conditions were such that it was not possible to get off an aimed shot.”

Portrait of Collins’ death, by W.S. Rogers

It should be noted that while the story of Béal na Bláth has been told by other sources, only in this one is the depiction of the ambush as self-defence to be found. Leadership on the scene seems to have been collective, with no one officer having the final say (and thus bearing the most responsibility). Although not the focus of the text, Deasy did merit a couple of mentions: that the decision to evacuate the ambush site had probably been his, and that when he had arrived at Béal na Bláth on the morning of the 22nd, it had been in the company of Éamon de Valera.[20]

Béal na Bláth – Take 2

Éamon de Valera

On that last point, Deasy’s memoir was in accordance. The two leaders, the soldier and the politician, had met before in Garranereagh, Co. Kerry, where they talked about peace and its desirability, a subject close to de Valera’s heart, as it would be for Deasy’s as well. The latter was to claim that, even then, he agreed with de Valera’s assertion that, with the war dragging on, it was time to gracefully withdraw, except Deasy knew the IRA was still too confident to countenance anything short of victory.

The pair left the next morning, the 22nd August, for Béal na Bláth, arriving in time to learn of that Collins had been sighted in his convoy. To de Valera’s question as to what would happen next, Deasy shared his guess that:

The men billed in this area…would consider this incursion into the area which was so predominantly Republican…as a challenge which they could not refuse to meet. I felt that an ambush would be prepared in case the convoy returned. De Valera then remarked that it would be a great pity if Collins were killed because he might be succeeded by a weaker man.

This is certainly more intimate information than offered in the 1964 Metropole document, though the two match in depicting the IRA unit responsible as fully capable of acting on their own initiative. Deasy’s book gives no clue as to his opinion at the time, nor of any effort on his part in encouraging or discouraging an attack on a high-ranking enemy general. The assumption that events were already in motion was apparently sufficient for him to return to Garranereagh, where he “attended to many urgent matters and weighed up the new situation in which we found ourselves” for the better part of the day.

We can assume from this that Deasy was not one of the four officers who met at Béal na Bláth while the ambush was being laid; indeed, he was at pains to distance himself from any such quartet, even complaining at how:

One writer states the four anti-Treaty officers, including Seán Lehane and myself, stayed at Joe Sullivan’s the night before the ambush…That is simply not true.

Tom Hales

Deasy is unclear as to whether such a meeting did not happen at all or just that he was not present. Only after his business in Garranereagh was done did Deasy travel again to Béal na Bláth. He arrived in time to find the would-be-ambushers in the process of withdrawing due to the likelihood of Collins taking a different route – much as in the 1964 account. Except that, in the earlier version, the decision to withdraw was probably made by Deasy (though it is not definite); furthermore, Deasy is listed as one of the ambush party. In Brother Against Brother, the withdrawal order was Tom Hales’, before Deasy had even arrived, with Deasy no more than a latecomer.

The point is explicitly made in the 1964 account that the ambush was triggered by the need of the rear-guard party to cover the rest from being overtaken by the sudden arrival of the convoy. However, according to Deasy, most of the team were already in a pub for ten minutes when they heard the first shots from the skirmish and dashed back in time to let off a few shots of their own before the convoy retreated. While the Metropole Hotel document seeks to distance the ambushers from their own ambush by means of self-defence, Deasy goes one further and places himself as barely on the scene at all. Deasy also contradicts the 1964 account’s insistence that the main party were exposed in a ravine and in danger of being cornered; according to him, they had already spent some minutes inside before the firing began.

Site of the ambush at Béal na Bláth

As the 1964 report was written by a committee of seven, it is impossible to know how much input Deasy had. Another question is whether he was purposely going against the earlier source for his own evasive benefit, was honestly remembering events differently than he had a decade earlier or had wanted to include his two cents from the start but been overruled by the six others in the Metropole. There are many overlaps in narrative between the two statements but also are significant differences in Deasy’s sole version and these were seemingly part of a similar desire to distance the subject from the same embarrassing event that had motivated the earlier account.

Michael Collins Monument at Béal na Bláth, Co. Cork

Deasy himself acknowledged the awkwardness of association with Ireland’s most infamous assassination (or war casualty if one prefers) when he spoke of how “a lot has been written about this ambush at Béal na Bláth by Irishmen who dramatised the action out of all proportion. Strangers also did not help in what they wrote, many of whom caused much pain.”[21]

Old Friends

Deasy bookAnother ambush that stirred post hoc controversy was Kilmichael on the 28th November 1920, when a force of eighteen Auxiliaries was nearly annihilated by the flying column of the West Cork IRA Brigade. Deasy was on familiar terms with the column and its commander, Tom Barry, accompanying it when not called away on staff work as Brigade Adjutant. It was while performing such duties in Crossbarry that Deasy missed the ambush, though he was able to use the testimony of one participant, Paddy O’Brien, in his narrative of the War of Independence, Towards Ireland Free.[22]

Published in mid-1973, the autobiography was considered provocative enough by Barry to write to the national newspapers about how:

Frankly, when I first glanced through the book I was puzzled at some of Deasy’s statements, but later I was angered at his presentation of events and his alleged informants. The omissions, of great importance were so vital to a true picture of what occurred that it was hard to understand.

While “individuals are all praised fulsomely and excessively,” Barry nonetheless saw cause to take the depiction of himself very personally:

A picture is given which denigrates the Flying Column, and if true, must show the Column Commander as a moron, incapable of commanding a single sniper, not to mention a flying column.[23]

It would appear, as one historian puts it, that “many of the tensions that had existed between the Brigade leadership since the War of Independence” had been brought to the surface.[24]

524796223.0.mThat assumes, of course, that these feelings had been bubbling away all this time. Yet the evidence otherwise suggests that, until Towards Ireland Free, the two men had been on good terms. After all, Deasy praised Barry lavishly in his memoir, as had Barry with Deasy in his own, Guerrilla Days in Ireland, printed twenty-four years earlier in 1949. Which was hardly surprising, given how extensively the pair worked together in the West Cork Brigade. Barry had found Deasy to be “a tower of strength” and not only “the best Brigade Adjutant in Ireland” but “one of the best Brigade O/Cs” when promoted to that position. For Deasy’s part, he extolled Barry’s “enthusiasm and dynamism that were astonishing”, combined with “a remarkable grasp of military psychology” and culminating in “something greater still: he was a leader of unsurpassed bravery.”[25]

All this was not just nostalgia on either man’s part. When Deasy, shortly after his release from prison in 1924, found himself accused of cowardice and treason by his IRA peers – who had not forgotten or forgiven his call for them to surrender – he chose Barry to defend him. It was a bold move, considering Barry had been only too eager the year before to let his own disgust be known. “We got a letter from Barry repudiating Deasy,” according to one contemporary, Charlie Browne, while another, Ted Sullivan, remembered Barry calling “2 or 3 meetings of the [1st Southern] divisional Council to condemn Deasy for he hated Deasy like hell.”[26]

Tom Barry

‘Hated’ might be too strong a word, for at the court-martial in Dublin, January 1925, with Deasy’s life on the line, Barry argued for clemency, saying that enough blood had been spilled already. The appeal was not enough to stop Deasy being sentenced to death but Barry’s warning that anyone touching as much as a hair on the condemned man’s head would answer to him was enough for the verdict to be commuted to dismissal with ignominy from the IRA. Regardless of the disgrace, Deasy’s life had been saved, and the two comrades would keep in touch throughout the years, often meeting at funerals, commemorations and other social occurrences.[27]

51vzvt35mll._ac_sy780_Barry’s public vitriol at Deasy’s perceived slight was thus very personal, the anger of a betrayed friendship, and that feeling spilled out into the booklet he published as a sequel to his letter to the media. Titled The Reality of the Anglo-Irish War 1920-1921 in West Cork, with the pointed subtitle Refutations, Corrections and Comments on Liam Deasy’s Towards Ireland Free, the work went beyond the professional – one historical record set against another – to the personal with such spitefully worded phrases as ‘This disposes of one part of Deasy’s fairy tale’, ‘Deasy’s other hysterical statements’, ‘Deasy had the impertinence’ and ‘Deasy’s final chapter is equally incorrect’.[28]

‘Refutations, Corrections and Comments’

Given the mutual appreciation previously demonstrated by the two men, the reason for such a strong reaction on Barry’s part might not have been immediately obvious to readers. But, for Barry, it was the principle of the thing:

Deasy’s presentation of the engagement at Kilmichael and the training camp immediately prior to it, is another extraordinary portrayal of history. The training camp would appear to be like a scene from ‘Dad’s Army’ whilst the fight could be summed up as a galaxy of names and “we waited, Auxies came, we shooted and all dead.”

Barry knew O’Brien well enough to consider him a life-long friend. He never got the chance to ask O’Brien about what he told Deasy, for the other man had by then passed away. And so Barry could only:

…hope that Paddy and his family will understand. I have no alternative but to tear asunder Deasy’s published account of the fight itself, where the camp appears to be a joke and the fight one where no false surrender by the Auxiliaries occurred.

Michael McCarthy

There were various points addressed by Barry: O’Brien claimed to have taken over training while Barry was absent, a responsibility Barry said would have fallen instead to Michael McCarthy as Vice-Commandant; to O’Brien’s description of the column being divided into two for the ambush, Barry maintained that the unit marched to the site in three sections, one of which was halved in turn; O’Brien has Barry stepping onto the road after the driver of the first enemy lorry was killed in order to throw a Mills bomb into the back of the vehicle, an action which would have got the man in question shot by the other passengers, Barry retorted.

Much of these two differences can be attributed to the usual flaws and bedevilments in human memory. But, on the matter of the ‘false surrender’ that Barry referred to at the start, reconciliation is a lot harder. After the initial outburst of rifle-fire and explosives had wiped out the Auxiliaries on the first lorry, those on the second called out to surrender, causing – or luring – some of the column members to break cover and be shot down, including McCarthy. From then, the surviving IRA men were ordered to keep on firing until the rest of their enemies were safely dead.

Unfortunate, perhaps, but, in light of Irish clemency being so sorely abused, understandable – at least, that is how Barry told it.

Wreckage after the Kilmichael Ambush

O’Brien’s – and, by extension, Deasy’s – dog is one that did not bark in the night. Nowhere is any surrender, false or otherwise, mentioned, not even in passing, with the slaughter of the Auxiliaries presented as an act that was both remorseless and inevitable: “We then opened fire from their rear [of the second lorry] and they knew they were doomed.” This, Barry protested, presented him “as a blood-thirsty commander – who exterminated the Auxiliaries without reason” – which, hurtful enough as it was, slandered not only him but also “all the men who fought under my command in the Kilmichael victory.”[29]

Neither O’Brien nor Deasy had the chance to respond, for O’Brien was dead by the time of Barry’s booklet, as was – though Barry did not then know it – Deasy, who died on the 20th August 1974. Anvil Books Ltd, as publisher, felt obliged to point out in its preface that it was not aware of Deasy’s waning health until after receiving Barry’s manuscript and had only been given the final page-proofs the day before Deasy expired.[30]

Nonetheless, the idea that a man was being kicked on his deathbed left a sour taste in the mouths of some, enough for Barry to publicly lament such a “despicable suggestion by one signatory.” For Barry’s was not the final word on the whole cause célébre. With Deasy not present to defend himself, fourteen other survivors of the West Cork IRA Brigade put their names to “a statement dissociating themselves from the contents of a booklet published recently by General Tom Barry” and describing Towards Ireland Free as “a very fair and complete account.”

Reunion of the surviving members of the West Cork Flying Column at the Kilmichael Ambush site, 1966, with Tom Barry (front centre)

Showing that you can take the man out of the army but not the army out of Tom Barry, his response was to pull out his war service and offer (threaten) to compare it with others’:

I am well aware that a number of [the signatories] are bedridden and even more aged and handicapped than I am myself, and it is far from my wish to name them and question their records and knowledge of the real history of the West Cork Brigade of the IRA.

With this display of faux sympathy done, Barry bared his teeth:

But, of course, I will do so if necessary…I am not in any way disparaging the records of some (and some only) of the signatories who gave splendid military service, but I am questioning their competence to agree or disagree with the over-all history of the events related in my booklet.

Tom Barry in later years

After all, “none of the signatories ever attended a GHQ or Divisional meeting, and, as far as I can recollect, only a couple ever even attended a Brigade Council meeting” – no small matter for a man who was still referred to in Ireland, even by critics, as ‘General.’ But even deference is no guarantee against disagreement, and Barry was reduced to telling people that while “I don’t think we should forget about” the past, “we should shut up about it” – the historian’s equivalent of taking one’s ball and going home.[31]

It was all rather undignified. At least one of the signatories, Dr Nudge Callanan, came to regret lending his name; after all, a photograph of Barry adorned the wall of his study. Adding to the confusion, it seems Callanan had not actually read Towards Ireland Free at the time, nor had at least two of the others. Perhaps they had just felt sorry for Deasy.[32]

It would not have been the first time.

Richard Mulcahy

Given the difficulties in remembering history and the trouble trying to do so could bring, it is fitting to end with what Deasy told Richard Mulcahy. The funeral of a mutual acquittance in 1961 brought them together for the first time since a captive Deasy signed his way out of execution in 1923, almost four decades ago. Both were following the coffin when a third man casually introduced them, the reunion eliciting little more than nods of recognition. It took a second funeral for the two former foes to begin chatting. In the subsequent dialogues, the topic turned, inevitably, to past conflicts.

What should be done, Deasy said, was not for people on one side to point out the mistakes done by the other; instead, everyone should list the mistakes their own had made and then proceed for there.[33]


[1] Irish Times, 17/02/1923

[2] O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Dolan, Anne, introduction by Lee, J.J.) ‘No Surrender Here!’ The Civil War Papers of Ernie O’Malley, 1922-1924 (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2007), p. 359

[3] Ibid, p. 362 ; Irish Times, 17/02/1923

[4] Ibid, 24/02/1923

[5] O’Malley, ‘No Surrender Here!’, pp. 360, 369

[6] Irish Times, 17/02/1923

[7] Deasy, Liam. Brother Against Brother (Cork: Mercier Press, 1998), p. 121

[8] Ibid, pp. 119-20

[9] Ryan, Meda. Tom Barry: IRA Freedom Fighter (Douglas Village, Co. Cork: Mercier Press, 2005), p. 255

[10] O’Malley, ‘No Surrender Here!’, p. 159

[11] University College Dublin Archives, Richard Mulcahy Papers, P7/b/181, p. 78

[12] Deasy, Brother Against Brother, p. 40

[13] Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001), p. 227

[14] O’Malley, ‘No Surrender Here!’, pp. 26, 491

[15] Deasy, Brother Against Brother, pp. 46-7

[16] MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), p. 230

[17] Ibid, p. 9

[18] Michael Collins: His Life and Times – Index: Appendix 1, Collins 22 Society (Accessed on 11/02/2022)

[19] Andrews, p. 313 ; Barry, Tom. Guerrilla Days in Ireland (Cork: Mercier Press), 2010), pp. 182, 184

[20] Collins 22 Society

[21] Deasy, Brother Against Brother, pp. 76-80

[22] Deasy, Liam (edited by Chisholm, John E.) Towards Ireland Free: The West Cork Brigade in the War of Independence 1917-21 (Cork: Royal Carbery Books, 1973), pp. 168, 170

[23] Irish Times, 04/10/1973

[24] O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Bielenberg, Andy; Borgonovo, John and Óg Ó Ruairc, Pádraig) The Men Will Talk to Me: West Cork Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2015), p. 22

[25] Barry, Guerrilla Days in Ireland, p. 17 ; Deasy, Towards Ireland Free, pp. 160, 165, 249

[26] Ryan, p. 256 ; O’Malley, West Cork Interviews, p. 160

[27] Ryan, pp. 271-2, 376

[28] Ibid, p. 372

[29] Barry, Tom. The Reality of the Anglo-Irish War 1920-1921 in West Work: Refutations, Corrections and Comments on Liam Deasy’s Towards Ireland Free (Tralee and Dublin: Anvil Books Ltd, 1974), pp. 13-6

[30] Ibid, p. 4

[31] Irish Times, 12/12/1974, 13/12/1974, 21/12/1974

[32] Ryan, p. 375

[33] Mulcahy Papers, P7/D/45



Irish Times


Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001)

Barry, Tom. Guerrilla Days in Ireland (Cork: Mercier Press, 2010)

Barry, Tom. The Reality of the Anglo-Irish War 1920-1921 in West Cork: Refutations, Corrections and Comments on Liam Deasy’s Towards Ireland Free (Tralee and Dublin: Anvil Books Ltd, 1974)

Deasy, Liam, Brother Against Brother (Cork: Mercier Press, 1998)

Deasy, Liam (edited by Chisholm, John E.) Towards Ireland Free: The West Cork Brigade in the War of Independence 1917-21 (Cork: Royal Carbery Books, 1973)

MacEoin, Uinseann. Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980)

O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Dolan, Anne, introduction by Lee, J.J.) ‘No Surrender Here!’ The Civil War Papers of Ernie O’Malley, 1922-1924 (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2007)

O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Bielenberg, Andy; Borgonovo, John and Óg Ó Ruairc, Pádraig) The Men Will Talk to Me: West Cork Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2015)

Ryan, Meda. Tom Barry: IRA Freedom Fighter (Douglas Village, Co. Cork: Mercier Press, 2005)

University College Dublin Archives

Richard Mulcahy Papers

Online Source

Michael Collins: His Life and Times – Index: Appendix 1, Collins 22 Society (Accessed on 11/02/2022)

Book Review: UVF: Behind the Mask, by Aaron Edwards (2017)

51l29jvlhvl._sx342_sy445_ql70_ml2_Never let it be said that the East Antrim unit of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) could not be equal opportunity killers when opportunity or need arose, as two men learned the hard way when abducted on the 7th April 1975, in North Belfast. Hugh McVeigh and David Douglas had stopped their delivery van in Newington Avenue, inadvertently giving the armed occupants of the cab tailing them the chance to step out at the same time as they did and waylay them. The captives were driven out of the city in another vehicle, to a lonely stretch of the Antrim coast where they were found five months later, buried together in a shallow grave, one on top of the other, with hands bound behind their backs and bullet holes in their heads.

Appearances aside, the executions had not exactly been a flawless process. According to one participant who confessed his culpability to the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), when a kneeling Douglas was shot, the gunman narrowly missed one of his accomplices, causing the latter to lose his balance and fall over. To add to the confusion, a couple of the group panicked and fled, for all the good it did McVeigh, who was shot next and then again, as was Douglas, presumably to be sure.

Hugh McVeigh (left) and David Douglas (right)

However shocking, such ruthlessness was the UVF’s raison d’etre, as a Brigade Officer, Billy Mitchell, who had been present at the double homicide, explained:

The UVF was…formed because they believed there was a sell-out, there was a rebellion which had to be stopped, whether you were from the Shankhill or East Antrim you had one enemy – the IRA [Irish Republican Army], indeed the nationalist community, as most UVF volunteers didn’t distinguish between the IRA and those they fought for.

It would seem that Loyalists did not always distinguish between themselves either, as both McVeigh and Douglas were, in theory, on the same side as their killers, albeit as part of a separate paramilitary organisation, the Ulster Defence Association (UDA). But in Northern Ireland, differences, not similarities, were what mattered – and arguably still do – not to mention, perhaps most of all, power:

In many cases the focus was territory, there would not have been any philosophical differences between the two organisations there would have been issues around personalities, feelings in both sides that ‘we are the elite’.

Tellingly, Mitchell expressed the feud in military terms – “regimental loyalty was the key factor in competitiveness – not unlike the regular British Army” – a sign of how he and his UVF colleagues saw themselves as the Thin Orange Line holding back the Fenian fuzzie-wuzzies. It is doubtful, however, if even the most competitive of regiments in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces would have gone so far as to attack each other’s drinking clubs, as the UVF did to a UDA-linked shebeen, driving up in a small collection of black cabs and armed with iron bars wrapped in newspaper, which they used to trash the place in return for the beating of one of their members.

plate35The UVF assailants returned to their pints at their own bar, only to be invaded in turn later that day by a UDA revenge party, numbering hundreds in a purloined flotilla of their own which included cars, taxis, buses and even a tractor. The UVF ringleader responsible for the earlier vandalism was beaten within an inch of his life, another act of war in a feud that was to culminate in the murders of McVeigh and Douglas. Given the Loyalist willingness to inflict grievous bodily harm against their own, it is not surprising that at least one of the men arrested for the double homicide appeared more scared of being killed in jail than the prospect of jail itself.

Terence O’Neill

Even from the start, the UVF was as much driven by suspicion of the Unionist Enemy Within as the Nationalist Enemy Without. The men who gathered at a farm at Pomeroy, Co. Tyrone, in November 1965 – during an insufferably clichéd dark and stormy night – may have done so for fear of a resurgent IRA; the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising was only a year away, after all. But had the premiership of Terence O’Neill been more vigilant or sufficiently hard-line, there would be no need, in the minds of the UVF founding fathers, for them to take their current course of action, standing side by side inside a dimly-lit barn with their right hands raised as they were sworn into a reborn UVF.

Gusty Spence

One of these inductees, Augustus ‘Gusty’ Spence, had had prior experience in counter-insurgency as part of the Royal Ulster Rifles in Cyprus in the 1950s. That background was presumably why he had been asked to join the UVF by two men, one of whom was a Unionist Party politician. At least, this is according to Spence, who neglected to provide a name, but the idea of the UVF as something more than an expression of working-class Unionist discontent can be found elsewhere: the RUC Crime Special Department suspected a number of grandees in the Northern Irish state of links with Loyalist paramilitaries, an alleged alliance by the top and bottom of Unionism against the conciliatory policies of an offensively liberal O’Neill.

UVF member

But, like much about the period, speculations are common, certainty less so. As Aaron Edwards puts it:

Some of the oral history contributions collected for this book have been difficult to verify in the absence of written evidence, so it would be wrong to speculate. However, it appears that the archival record has been completely expunged of this suspected high-level conspiracy, which is suspicious for, even if it was an invention of the men subsequently arrested and prosecuted, it is reasonable to assume that the RUC would have intelligence (in the absence of evidence) either proving or disproving its existence, yet no paper trail exists.

Well, who knows? It is hard to prove a negative, after all. However they began, the likes of Gusty Spence would need no further prodding from above to take up the gun for God and Ulster, even if their initial attempts to be the counter-terror force the UVF envisioned itself as left something to be desired:

The reality was that few of them had ever fired a shot in anger. As a consequence, it was usually personal grievances, mixed with hefty doses of alcohol, which played a key role in the decision to target specific individuals.

Martin Doherty

That was in its early years of the mid-1960s. Three decades later and the UVF was reaping a body count to match their Republican foes. To take the month of May 1994 alone: 76-year-old Rose Mallon, murdered at a relative’s home near Dungannon on the 8th; nine days later, the fatal shooting of 42-year-old Eamon Fox and 24-year-old Gary Convie by the East Antrim Brigade, and then, the next day, the Mid-Ulster Brigade attacking a taxi depot in Lurgan, resulting in the deaths of two 17-year-olds, Gavin McShane and Shane McArdle. Terrorism was not limited to the Six Counties, as shown when shots were fired at a Dublin pub, killing 35-year-old Martin Doherty. As an IRA member, Doherty was the type of target the UVF had been formed against, but it is hard to see the net gain of a dead elderly woman and teenagers. For all the UVF talk of ‘daring raids’ and ‘taking the war to the enemy’, the unvarnished reality was more often than not the spraying of homes, workplaces and recreation centres by AK47 or VZ58 assault rifles, without mercy or warning.

Rose Mallon

Much has been written about the UVF and Loyalism in general. What gives Edwards’ book an advantage is its post-Troubles publication, in 2017, allowing us to see what happens to a war machine once the war is done. When Billy Greer died in July 2006, the organisation he had helped lead for decades was at a crossroads and seemingly unsure which way to go. A charismatic and popular man, his standing was enough for a number of senior Loyalists to attend his funeral in Belfast, complete with a purple UVF flag draped over his coffin and a guard of honour as the pall-bearers. ‘Here Lies a Soldier’ read the epitaph on his grave, above a UVF badge etched in gold lettering.

Yet, by the time of his death, Greer had surrendered his authority, resigning command of the East Antrim Brigade over allegations that subordinates of his were dealing drugs. That he jumped before needing a push probably saved him from worse. Nonetheless, even disgraced, Greer left big shoes which his successor, Gary Haggarty, struggled to fill. Not helping was the scale of the challenge: converting an armed militia into a politically sensitive, civic-minded ‘old comrades association’, preferably with less punishment beatings than before.

Haggarty’s tenure came to an awkward end when his past as a police informant came to light. In his conveniently timed absence, the rest of the UVF sentenced him to death – so much for ‘old comrades association’ – but the authorities got to him first on charges of murder. With all other bridges burnt, Haggarty turned supergrass against his erstwhile colleagues in January 2010.

Gary Haggarty

Do mishaps and missteps like these mean that the UVF is out for the count, to be relegated to the past as an unfortunate anachronism? Hardly, argues Edwards. The structures of the organisation at the time of his writing:

…are still in place and, despite the hard work of some genuinely progressive people, show little signs of withering away on their own. In fact, the most recent evidence suggests that a ‘Praetorian Guard’ has been formed to maintain the old adage of a ‘pike in the thatch’. One only hopes that the record provided in this book will highlight the wrong turn by loyalists in the past, before more young people ruin their lives by travelling the futile road of paramilitary violence.

One hopes, indeed.

Publisher’s Website: Irish Academic Press

See also: Book Review: My Life in Loyalism, by Billy Hutchinson (with Gareth Mulvenna) (2020)

Stepping Forth into the Breach: The Irish Labour Party and its Decision to Contest the 1922 General Election

Up to the Neck in Politics

Principle or power? Righteousness or responsibility? These were the choices facing the two hundred and forty-five delegates at the Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress (ILPTUC), held inside the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, on the 21st February 1922. Either way, it was time to decide, Cathal O’Shannon, as acting Chairman, told the room, for they were looking at the likelihood of a general election within the next five to eight weeks, the third in four years. Labour had stayed out of the first in 1918, “in order that there might not be the least suspicion of a split in the ranks of those who were fighting on one field or another against the British Empire.”

000c8ad0-1500But that had been then, and this was now, and the sundering they hoped to avoid had come after all. Which should not be Labour’s concern, said O’Shannon, as he urged his audience:

Not to think of the contending parties outside, Free Staters or Republicans, but to give their vote in their own interests, and to sacrifice even their personal opinions in order to reach a decision that, in the judgement of the Congress, would be best for the Labour Party and the Labour movement.

Easier said than done, of course, as O’Shannon acknowledged, for he knew he was talking to people “steeped up to the neck in politics” and with ideals they could not easily put to the side. Of course, the Labour Party had aspirations of its own, as made clear in a statement read out by Thomas Johnson, on behalf of its National Executive, that Labour should this time contest the election.[1]

After all:

Our ideal commonwealth – a Republic based upon co-operative labour and service – and not upon property and capital – is not to be attained through either party in the present Dáil. Neither the Republican Party nor the Free State Party stands for our conception of what Ireland’s future should be, nor our view of the place of Labour in the Commonwealth.[2]

The news was initially received well enough. George Nason, on behalf of the Cork Trade Council, seconded this decision in his belief that the time had come for the Labour Party to take its share of responsibility for the future of the country. Year after year, the Congress had met and passed resolution after resolution without a difference being made. Now it was time to make that difference.

Cissie Cahalan

Others thought it risked a difference of an unwanted nature. Immediately following Nason came the first objection, from Cissie Cahalan of the Irish Union of Distributive Workers and Clerks:

Cahalan: I move that the resolution is out of order because it definitely recognises the partition of the country.

O’Shannon: Your motion is not in order.

Cahalan: You passed a resolution at the last Congress that the Party was definitely opposed to Partition. Now you spring a resolution recognising Partition.

O’Shannon: The motion before Congress is perfectly in order.[3]

Abbey Theatre, interior

Sitting it Out?

As if it was as simple as that. In the years to come, others would look back at Labour’s participation in the Irish revolution and find it wanting, even those who otherwise shared its politics. “The Labour Party were a great disappointment,” said Nora Connolly, daughter of the 1916 signatory, with a sigh. “You could say that they just sat it out in their corner and did not take part.”

Nora Connolly

And this was from somebody who had joined Labour, shortly after the Civil War. Even if it was in part due to family heritage – “It had been founded by Daddy in 1912, so we thought that it was the proper place for us to go” – a certain sympathy or willingness to see the Labour Party’s point of view might have been expected. Instead, Connolly saw only selfishness in its self-regard: “All during the years of the struggle, they concentrated on building up the bureaucracy of the ITGWU [Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union]. That seemed to be all that mattered.” Worst of the offenders in Connolly’s eyes was William O’Brien, Secretary and powerhouse of the ITGWU, who, “took no part in the struggle worth speaking of. From now on, he applied himself to become solely a full-time trade union official.”[4]

Peadar O’Donnell was not quite so condemnatory, even if he too saw wasted potential in Labour and grave disappointment in its leaders: “I believed that Bill O’Brien and company would mobilise and move forward. I was horrified then, when I found out that they too supported the Treaty.”[5]

William O’Brien

All of which is something of a simplification on Connolly’s and O’Donnell’s parts. Life had not exactly been easy for O’Brien; he almost welcomed his arrest by the British authorities in March 1920 as the chance at a long-needed break from the all-demanding union commitments for which Connolly criticised him. Besides, Wormwood Scrubs looked benign enough compared to the conditions in which he had been imprisoned before: the first time in Bridewell Police Station, followed by Richmond Barracks, in mid-1913 for inflammatory speech, and later three months in Frongoch Camp due to his suspected role in Easter Week of 1916 Rising.[6]

In truth, O’Brien had not been actively involved in the Rising, though it was perhaps an easy mistake for the British authorities to make, given how he had had more than a passing knowledge of the event, having been at a certain meeting in 25 Parnell Square, Dublin, on the 9th September 1914. Also present were Connolly, Tom Clarke, Patrick Pearse, Joseph Plunkett and Arthur Griffith, among others, who agreed to start working towards an armed overthrow of British rule. Afterwards, O’Brien seems to have faded out of the picture as he only learnt of the upcoming putsch six days before Easter Sunday, and even then quite by chance, when Connolly told him to cancel a countryside trip O’Brien mentioned he was about to take.[7]

Joe McGrath

If O’Brien had done little more than dip his toe in the revolutionary water, then in Wormwood Scrubs he was determined not to sit back and put his feet up: news that a fellow Irish prisoner and union colleague, Joe McGrath, had been transferred to the less convenient accommodation of Brixton Prison prompted a hunger strike on the part of the politically-minded inmates, O’Brien included. Worsening health saw him moved under police guard to a nursing home, where he partook enough substance to keep himself going; any return to Wormwood Scrubs, however, and he would restart his self-starvation, O’Brien warned the prison governor.[8]

Upon his release two months later in May 1920, he returned to his duties at the ITGWU headquarters at Liberty Hall, where a member of the dockers’ section brought him a novel idea: the refusal of workers to handle British Army munitions due to be unloaded in Dublin. O’Brien took this to the rest of the Labour National Executive, who agreed: the subsequent strike lasted six months and disrupted British forces in Ireland enough to earn a mention in the memoirs of General Nevil Macready – a point of considerable pride for O’Brien.[9]

British soldiers guarding a train during the 1920 Munitions Strike

Little wonder, then, that O’Donnell, for all the subsequent let-downs, remembered how he and others had, at the time, considered O’Brien “as the Lenin of the Labour Movement.”[10]

Dan Breen

Labour had not participated in the strike alone, for Sinn Féin had contributed funds to help keep wages going. A Labour venture it remained, however, proof that it could retain its autonomy even as the country looked to Nationalism to deliver independence. O’Brien’s relations with individual Sinn Féin figures were a reflection of this: amiable but willing to say no, such as when Cathal Brugha proposed to him the mustering of the unemployed masses in Britain as allies should the ongoing Truce of late 1921 collapse. Highly implausible, O’Brien replied, to Brugha’s disappointment. Similarly, O’Brien resisted efforts by Dan Breen, also during the Truce, to fire a suspected British spy from his post as an ITGWU branch secretary in South Tipperary on the grounds that union regulations did not easily permit such a thing (Breen persisted, and the man was dropped, only to be reinstated when no one else proved capable of doing the job).[11]

Arthur Griffith

And, while O’Brien had known Arthur Griffith since 1899, that the trade unionist was then working for a newspaper, the Irish Peasant, in direct competition with the latter’s Sinn Féin was not an auspicious start. Nonetheless, the two future leaders were to stay cordial with each other as they moved, if not in the same circles, then at least in parallel lines as their respective brands of radicalism went from the national fringes into the political mainstream. Though the pair would never grow overly warm towards each other, at least O’Brien and Griffith avoided the sort of acrimony that so often split relationships in this period.[12]

Still, limits remained limits, as dryly noted by O’Brien in the February 1922 Congress, when a delegate asked if anyone on the National Executive had been offered a job in the new Irish government.

“We are all waiting for the offer,” replied William O’Brien, his wry response earning some laughter from the room and a pledge from O’Shannon:

O’Shannon: My personal opinion is that no member of the National Executive would accept a job under either the Provisional Government or the Dáil.

Delegate: Are you speaking for yourself or the whole Executive?

O’Shannon: The whole.[13]

In the Forefront, Behind the Scenes

Cathal O’Shannon

Much as she had done with O’Brien, Connolly dismissed O’Shannon as someone who “also took no part” in the revolution. Not so at the start, she conceded, as O’Shannon had been her father’s contact with the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) when the Connolly family lived in Belfast. Amidst the confusion of Easter Week, he tried his best, first attempting to reach Belfast to rally rebellion and then arrested en route to Dublin.

“Having failed in that, he settled down as an editor of the Union Journal,” she concluded O’Shannon’s story dismissively.[14]

O’Donnell, again, was less stern in his judgement, praising O’Shannon as “a very good person, a brilliant person” who would have been ideal as James Connolly’s heir. The tragedy, in O’Donnell’s view, was that O’Shannon was too much under the sway of O’Brien to fulfil his potential.[15]

However, as O’Shannon told the Military Pensions Board, decades later in 1940, he had not only been his own man, but one very much to the forefront of the Irish struggle, helping – among other deeds – to flush out two enemy agents, including the notorious Timothy Quinlisk:

Timothy Quinlisk

Board Interviewer: Exposed two spies, afterwards executed. One was Quinlisk?

O’Shannon: Yes.

Board Interviewer: Was he caught in London or in Cork?

O’Shannon: Here in Ireland.

Board Interviewer: How did you manage to expose him?

O’Shannon: I had a friend who drew my attention to a suspicious character who approach him for employment and declared that he was an Irishman that had been in the British service and wanted to give his services to the IRA. My friend was suspicious of him and gave in a description of him. I conveyed the description to Mr John [sic – Joe] McGrath. He said he thought the description tallied. Some observation subsequently turned out that he was Quinlisk.

Quinlisk was found shot to death in Cork in February 1920, having failed to infiltrate the Irish Republican Army (IRA) on behalf of his British paymasters. O’Shannon could not recall the name of the second would-be mole, only that he had been a Dublin native whose uncovered subversion was also passed onto McGrath – a point-man for Collins – and ended with his murder in London.

Placard left by the body of a suspected spy in

It was all in a day’s work for O’Shannon, whose duties as an ITGWU organiser took him to Cork, Dublin and England, enabling him to cast a wide net on behalf of the insurgency:

O’Shannon: I established a kind of intelligence service between Michael Collins and some Hotel workers.

Board Interviewer: Were they members of the Transport Workers Union or whatever union you were organising?

O’Shannon: They were.[16]

G. OSullivan
Geáróid O’Sullivan

That is, if you believe O’Shannon. The Pension Board were not too sure if they did, noting that he “appears to have had somewhat intangible and elusive service, the value of which is extremely difficult to estimate.” Geáróid O’Sullivan definitely did not. “His story is a fabrication. Exposing Quinlisk – false!” the former IRA Adjutant General wrote on O’Shannon’s application papers. As if that remark was not scathing enough: “Collins hated the sight of him.”[17]

O’Shannon’s account does, however, chime with other statements about Collins’ interest in the Labour movement. Under his direction, and again with McGrath as a go-between, IRB activists in the various trade unions used their positions to agitate against any British or cross-channel links in favour of exclusively Irish-based bodies. The Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE) fell victim to these machinations, in May 1920, when the Irish Engineering, Shipbuilding and Foundry Workers Trade Union (IESFTU) was formed, claiming 4,500 members from the ASE by the end of the year and leaving its parent body in Ireland with a diminished 1,762 by 1922.

Luke Kennedy

“We smashed up most of the English trades unions in Ireland at that time,” boasted Luke Kennedy, an electrician and IRB man, while another operative described their roles as being “republican agents within the trade union movement. This was regarded as very important work both by the [IRA] Army Council and the Dáil at the time.” The Labour leadership did not seem to have been consulted on this policy of union separatism to judge by how they were “not very favourable to us at all,” according to Kennedy. “As a matter of fact from the start of our union they accused us of being a political union and do so still” – which was hardly surprising, all things considered.

Of course, as with much about the period, things were not necessarily as clear-cut as that, for the ITGWU, as noted by historian Padraig Yeates, was still willing to work with the IESFTU on industrial and other matters. Either way, the IESFTU, and the IRB puppeteering behind it, were “indicative of Collins’s extraordinary ability to control and manipulate any group he saw as either a threat or a potential asset to his objectives.”[18]

Out for a Deal

Harry Boland

So what was Labour to the Irish Nationalist movement – a threat or an asset? Alternatively both, depending on who was asking. “We are all of us anxious to placate Labour as we know we all require their aid in matters of greater importance than the General Election,” Harry Boland told Brugha in a letter upon Labour’s agreement not to contest the 1918 General Election and thereby grant Sinn Féin a clear run. That Labour had considered the question at all was enough for Brugha to grumble that it was “a pity the Labour people have not the intelligence and patriotism to let their class claim wait until we have cleared out the enemy.”[19]

Sinn Féin would practically sweep the board for the Irish constituencies, setting the course for Ireland’s future – and relegating Labour to ‘always the bridesmaid, never the bride’, a placement it has struggled to escape ever since. Never one to miss a chance to point out how Labour missed a chance, Peadar O’Donnell was to argue that the Party:

…should have demanded their quota of seats, as part of the inheritance won for them by Connolly, but they neither had the willpower nor the calibre of women and men, necessary to demand and to fill these positions.[20]

Again, it was not quite as simple as that.

“Sinn Féin is out for a deal,” the journalist L.P. Byrne told Thomas Johnson, the ITGWU President, as early as December 1917. The horse-trading began in earnest the following year, in mid-August 1918, when Boland told the Sinn Féin Standing Committee, after talking with Labour representatives, that the other party was preparing to contest fifteen seats. As this would risk splitting the radical vote, Labour’s participation was thus a severe danger to Sinn Féin’s aspirations to national dominance.

Sinn Féin poster on a carriage during the general election of 1918

Faced with the withering of its dreams on the vine, Sinn Féin renewed attempts to find common ground with Labour. At one meeting, in September 1918, O’Brien, O’Shannon and Thomas Farren put forward to Boland and Robert Brennan not only their aim to contest as many as fifteen seats in Ireland – they wanted Sinn Féin to step back for Labour in four of the seven Dublin constituencies. With the country to win or lose, with or without a deal, the Sinn Féin Standing Committee offered to leave the Dublin seats clear as asked in return for Labour candidates taking a pledge to commit to an Irish Republic: Labour seats on a Sinn Féin platform, in other words.

Seán T. OKelly

That Sinn Féin was stooping to deals at all irked some of its own. “Sinn Féin is the dominant party,” declared Seán Forest at the party’s Ard Fheis on the 30th-31st of October 1918. “It is not for them to go to any section, but for that section to come to Sinn Féin.” More conciliatory was Seán T. O’Kelly, who announced at the same event how at least one Labour candidate was said to have already taken the pledge in readiness; nonetheless, O’Kelly wished the other group would “stand aside to allow the election to be fought on the clean issue of Ireland vs England.”

Which is exactly what happened. Labour had its own gathering two days after Sinn Féin’s, in which the National Executive announced its recommendation for Labour to withdraw from the election. The delegates voted in favour ninety-six to twenty-three. With the crisis having safely passed, Republican journals were suitably appreciative of Labour doing “the right thing at the right time” and waxed lyrical about the “natural bonds” which existed between them.[21]

It is easy to be wise after the fact, and Labour was to have a surplus of wisdom. To Frank Robbins, abstaining in 1918 was the result of “immaturity in its political policy and strategy”, due in part to having “a very small membership without any proper form of organisation.” And William O’Brien, who helped direct Labour Party policy as much as anyone, compared Sinn Féin – “a fully political organisation and the adherents of it were under the control or inspiration of their elected officials” – to Labour’s then-ramshackle nature as a coalition of trade unions, loosely under the authority of a National Executive whose members seldom convened.

The Labour National Executive, 1913, including Jim Larkin, James Connolly and William O’Brien

Labour, as Robbins and O’Brien both told it, was just not ready in 1918.[22]

Helena Molony

Four years passed and the question posed by the ILPTUC in February 1922 remained the same: was Labour ready?

Helena Moloney (Women Workers’ Union), for one, did not think so. Right after O’Shannon assured Cahalan that the motion to contest the election was in order, Moloney threatened to cut it off at the knees with one of her own: “That the Labour Party does not take part in the forthcoming election.”

Helena Molony

Her explanation as to why was brief and to the point: to do so would split Labour. No matter what programme the Party put before the electorate, the Treaty was the issue on everyone’s lips – whether to accept or not – and overriding all others. Instead “the objects of Labour and the Workers’ Republic could be achieved as through their organisation and their own efforts as through Parliamentarianism.”[23]

There was certainly no doubting Molony’s efforts, ever since the start of Easter Week or even, as she told the Military Pensions Board in 1936, some days before:

Board Interviewer: You were mobilised on Easter Sunday?

Molony: Technically yes, although as a matter of fact I spent three nights from Thursday sleeping in Liberty Hall, headquarters of the Army.

Board Interviewer:  You were on duty on Sunday anyhow?

Molony: Yes.

Board Interviewer: Then on Monday?

Molony: We started out at 12 o’clock and I believe our party was the first shot fired, the City Hall, at the Castle gate, but we subsequently occupied the City Hall.

Board Interviewer: You were captured on Monday evening?

Molony: Yes. Monday evening.

Board Interviewer: Taken prisoner?

Molony: Yes.[24]

If her role in the Rising had been for less than a day, and the enterprise itself a defeat, then Molony was far from dispirited. Instead, she threw herself into the subsequent fray to the extent that, when asked about it, she could:

…not remember a single day when I was not doing something, going down to election meetings, taking charge of meetings, publicity, elections and that sort of thing in these periods. It was all revolutionary periods. It was difficult to disentangle what was military and what was civil.[25]

The last line was a response to the interviewer’s dismissal of her running a food kitchen in Liberty Hall, during the shortages of 1918, on the grounds that it was non-military work. The distinction between the martial and the civilian was a very fine one indeed during this era and, even though Molony never fired a shot post-Rising, she was willing to assist others in doing so, in addition to the rest of her revolutionary curriculum vitae:

Board Interviewer: Assisting First Aid, procuring and concealing arms. Assisted in Belfast Boycott under Miss L. [Lily] Brennan’s instructions, continued acting as [Republican District] Justice [for Rathmines Area]?

Molony: Yes. Also, my rooms in Leeson Street [Dublin] were raided in some high time of the Tan regime, No. 4 Leeson Street, and arms found. My landlord was arrested. I was not at home. He was an old man and I wrote pleading for him and saying he did not know he had these things. I got an instruction from the military authorities to surrender them and tell them where more could be got and they would release the man.

Board Interviewer: Had you been in the habit of keeping arms during this period?

A Webley revolver, a gun typically used in the Irish War of Independence

Molony: Yes. I mean, I constantly had them to either pass on or to keep them in safety.

Board Interviewer: Were you in charge of a dump at that period?

Molony: Yes.

Board Interviewer: A small dump?

Kathleen Lynn
Kathleen Lynn

Molony: Always small. I do not think I ever had more than five or six at the outside, in my personal charge. Of course, there were numerous raids on the place where I lived. I lived for a period with Dr [Kathleen] Lynn, although I had rooms downtown. This is 1920-1. It was later that my apartments were used for publicity.

Board Interviewer: Your service was rendered both to the IRA and [Irish] Citizen Army?

Molony: Yes. They were in liaison. They worked in conjunction.

Board Interviewer: There was no difference as far as you were concerned?

Molony: No. Whoever was in charge or suitable for duty was simply called upon.[26]

Maybe it is unsurprising that Molony did not see parliamentarianism or seats in the Dáil as the be-end and end-all, given her range of tools used in the pursuit of a Workers’ Republic. What is surprising is that, unlike O’Shannon, she said nothing to the Pension Board about her trade union activism, despite it being, as with everything else she involved herself in, extensive. By February 1922, she was on the National Executive, albeit an outsider as much as an insider, given how she was seeking to overturn a major decision of that body.

It was an incongruity picked up by another like-minded delegate in the room, Walter Carpenter (International Union of Tailors and Tailoresses), who accused the National Executive of trying to deceive the rest of them: Molony’s dissension was proof enough that the leadership was not speaking with one voice, contrary to its claim.

“Practically,” insisted O’Shannon in response. Everyone else in the Executive was onboard. But, as ensuing debate showed, there was nothing ‘practically’ or sure about much.[27]

To be the Cockpit or in the Cockpit?

The two rallying points in the ILPTUC were the National Executive’s proposal and Molony’s amendment to it, both in direct opposition to each other. Although she was to say nothing else – at least, nothing recorded in the report – Molony had provided a hill to fight on for those resistant to the direction Labour was moving. Of the contributors to the debate, fifteen were for Molony’s amendment and against a Labour run, while fourteen supported the National Executive’s proposed grasp at electoral gain. As it turned out, a greater outspokenness on the part of the ‘nays’ did not equate to numbers for the final tally – when the talking was done and it was time to cast a vote, the ‘yeas’ carried the day, one hundred and four to forty-nine.[28]

In the meantime, a wide range of opinions, doubts and fears, hopes and aspirations were voiced, allowing a snapshot of Irish Labour at this pivotal time. As detailed by historian Niamh Puirséil, dissenters to the party’s electoral ambitions consisted of four different schools of thought:

  • Those who felt that industrial issues more pressing, with parliamentarianism a distraction.
  • Followers of the absent Jim Larkin objecting to anything the current leadership said.
  • Revolutionary syndicates or communists who wanted to focus on factories and services rather than the compromises politics would entail.
  • Republicans who wanted Sinn Féin to have a clear electoral run as before.[29]

Personal bonds may have been as motivating as ideology. Two of the delegates supporting Molony’s amendment were Helen Chenevix and Louie Bennett, both present on behalf of the Irish Women Workers’ Union (IWWU). Post-Civil War, the three would form a powerful triumvirate at the apex of their union, the success of which, disproportionate to its modest size, was attributed by historian Cullen Owens to the combined negotiating skills of this formidable feminine trio.[30]

Members of the IWWU outside Liberty Hall, Dublin

At the 1922 ILPTUC, Chenevix and Bennett set the tone for their future working relationship by weighing in on Molony’s behalf. Pointing to their British equivalent’s dismal record of overthrowing capitalism, Chenevix argued that only direct action could establish a Workers’ Commonwealth, while Bennett took a slightly more pragmatic line: since no more than a handful of their candidates were likely to be elected, they would still be in a poor position to influence the course of events.

Only when they actually held power could they take power, she said:

Politics were useless until the party had some grip of the economic powers of the country. Before they went into politics, they should have a stronger grip of these powers than they had at the present time.[31]

E.P. Hart (ITGWU) held a similar view. Any seats won would be so few “as to be useless”, capable only of uniting the two bigger Sinn Féin factions against Labour, isolated as it was by its lack of direction on the Treaty question. But Hart did not rule out politics for its own sake, only that “the time was not opportune for Labour to run candidates.” Mr Keyes (Limerick Trades Council) thought the same: their moment had not yet come. Any successful seats would most likely number enough to count on one hand, maybe two hands at the most, and at the cost of subverting Labour, for the Treaty question was just too big to ignore and too important for people not to have opinions on, opinions that were already dividing friend from friend.

image070“When the present issue was decided between Free Staters versus Republicans, then the time would come to launch their policy,” but, until then, Keyes:

…asked them to stand down, rally their forces in the interval, make the other parties aware of their contribution to the political campaign, so that, when the time came, they could call for the recognition Labour was entitled to.[32]

In other words, a repeat of 1918. Which, argued E. O’Carroll (Railway Clerks’ Association) with the wisdom of hindsight, had been a mistake. Had Labour entered the general election four years ago, the country would not be in its current disarray. Mr White (Wexford Trade Council) did not go quite that far – or back – but he did think it was time for Labour to assert itself and “not be made the cockpit by other political parties” like before. It was a frustration shared by Mr Anthony (Typographical Association), who sarcastically asked the other delegates how long they were going to wait. Far from it being the wrong time, as some insisted, Anthony believed “Labour had everything to gain and very little to lose by contesting.”[33]

Thomas Irwin (Plasterers’ Trade Union and Dublin Workers’ Council) was bold enough to envisage such an ‘everything to gain’ moment: should the votes fall evenly for both Pro and Anti-Treatyites, then Labour would be ideally situated to:

…hold the balance of power in the legislature assembly set up. If such a position arose, the Labour Party should preserve its independence and act in the Labour interests. The Party would be placed in the position of having to make a momentous decision.[34]

What the momentous decision could or should be, Irwin did not venture. The argument that the Treaty was too large an issue to sidestep were not entirely wrong; even O’Shannon, when he urged both adherents and opponents of the Anglo-Irish agreement in his audience to disregard such considerations – at least until they had finished deciding whether Labour would enter the election – must have known his request was a futile one. The National Executive had already made up its collective mind (sans Molony) to support the Treaty; at least, so said Mr Rooney (Clerical Workers’ Trade Union), who accused the body in question of lacking “the courage or manliness” to say so openly.[35]

Transforming the Republic

If the National Executive stood charged with dishonesty through omission, then the same could be said for the written minutes of the ILPTUC – the published, official version, anyway.

The Irish Labour History Society and Archives, Beggars Bush, Dublin

Two long galleys of an earlier, unedited draft lie amidst the papers of the Irish Labour History Society. A third is absent, covering the middle part of the February 1922 Congress, leaving us with only the first and third ends, but enough to compare “with the recommendations which were circulated in printed form to the delegates at the Special Congress,” at which point, as described by historian Charles McCarthy, “this document becomes interesting,” particularly in what did not make the cut.[36]

Post hoc, the memorandum reads at one point:

Labour ought to have its representatives in the forthcoming Parliament to work in Labour’s interests, to frustrate reactionary measures, and to use every occasion to hasten the process towards our ideal Workers’ Republic.[37]

However, revisions in blue pencil mark what had been there in the initial draft:

If the country decides to confirm the Treaty, Labour ought to have its representatives in the forthcoming Parliament to work in Labour’s interests, to frustrate reactionary measures, and to use every occasion to hasten the process towards our ideal Workers’ Republic. On the other hand, if the country by its vote [cancels? – illegible] the Treaty and elects a majority to proclaim anew the Republic, then again Labour ought to have its spokesmen in any assembly which may function as a parliament, having powers of government.[38]

A little further down, an entire passage – containing a dramatic line of speculation – had been excised:

In the event of the Labour Party being in the position that they hold the balance as between the two main contending parties, the Labour members shall vote for the re-election of the Republican Government [emphasis mine]. Such a contingency will have proved the existence of a deep and widespread revolutionary purpose amongst the mass of the people sufficient to carry the country forward a long way towards transforming the Republic into our ideal Workers’ Republic.[39]

While studiously neutral for the most part, the National Executive was willing to countenance, if faced with the fork in the road, swinging behind the Anti-Treatyites. This was despite, as McCarthy points out, it “clearly did not reflect the general view of the Labour movement, although there was a substantial minority on the Republican side.”[40]

Talk at the ILPTUC of a Treaty-induced schism was more than idle speculation, for Sinn Féin was already rent and torn, as was the IRA – irreconcilably so, as it turned out. Fears of the same disarray infecting Labour would explain why the otherwise Treaty-leaning National Executive was willing to make overtures to its Republican constituents, hinting at a future common goal for the purpose of gaining a current consensus for its electoral proposal. This only lasted as long as the Congress, however, hence the editing of the official report, “from what might be seen as a pro-Republican document to one that some delegates regarded as being pro-Treaty,” with the initial Republican temptations “judged too perilous” to be remembered.[41]

Walter Carpenter

Certainly, many of the 1922 ILPTUC delegates who disagreed with the Treaty proved as willing to defend the Republic in the subsequent conflict as they did in the previous one. Molony returned from Brussels at the start of the Civil War to aid the Anti-Treatyites in procuring weapons, harbouring combatants and contributing to their publicity department. And Walter Carpenter, a 1916 Rising participant who had been the first to speak in favour of Molony’s attempted stymying of Labour’s electoral prospects, joined the IRA in the Four Courts. There, he collected material for making munitions, laid mines outside the building and was later a prisoner with the rest of the garrison when they surrendered to the Free State. As with Molony, O’Brien and O’Shannon, Carpenter was prepared to fight for the Green at the same time as the Red, even when his comrades were not entirely his ideological cup of tea.

“He would not join the Volunteers because we were not holding a class war,” noted a member of the Military Pensions Board.[42]

Frank Robbins

Frank Robbins

Like Carpenter, Frank Robbins (ITGWU) had served with the Irish Citizen Army (ICA) in the Easter Rising; in his case, as part of the St Stephen’s Green contingent, which saw him raising a tricolour over the College of Surgeons. Six years later, upon hearing of the ambush and death of Michael Collins in August 1922, Robbins came close to enlisting in the National Army; he had already been tempted with a captaincy, albeit one refused.[43]

Liam Mellows

He had had his fill of bloodshed, as had the country overall, he believed. Listening to Peter Flood, who had lost two brothers in the span of two years, speak of the need for young people to live for Ireland instead of dying for it moved Robbins greatly. In contrast, he found opponents of the Treaty to be dangerously cavalier about consequences. When Liam Mellows compared his fellow Republicans to engineers mapping out a new Ireland, Robbins retorted that good engineers would find ways around obstacles instead of careering straight into them.[44]

So what direction should Labour be heading in? Its National Executive wanted one way, via elections, Moloney’s amendment another. Both were wrong, Robbins told the 1922 ILPTUC. Though he concurred with the Executive otherwise, he did not believe parliamentary participation would benefit Labour, at least not for the moment, the main problem being that the party had yet to grasp the Treaty bull by the horns and announced whether it would support the deal or not.[45]

And so, as soon as Molony’s amendment was voted down, one hundred and fifteen votes to eighty-two, Robbins proposed a motion of his own, urging that:

This all-important question should be decided by a plebiscite, in order to ascertain the true feelings of the people on the Treaty, and having cleared the position, Labour should then take its place in the election.[46]

Presumably Robbins was counting on any plebiscite resulting in favour of the Treaty. Still, circumstances did not always permit him to follow through on his commitments. When the anti-Treaty IRA seized the buildings in Parnell Square, Dublin, in early 1922, they found Robbins and a number of other ICA personnel present at No. 35, the head office of the ITGWU. The Anti-Treatyites allowed the other faction to remain in return for food and an agreement to defend their section from any Free State attacks.[47]

IRA members outside a building they’ve occupied, early 1922

Conflicting opinions did not necessarily preclude mutual support, no more than overlapping sympathies guarantee healthy partnerships. Robbins would bemoan the lack of vision among his Labour colleagues and the failure to synergise their trade unionist aspirations with their nationalist convictions, continuing instead to see the two movements as separate strands. An example of this myopia was during the 1920 Municipal Elections, which saw – unlike the 1918 General one – a variety of radical candidates, such as Labour and assorted Independents, as well as Sinn Féin ones.

Labour election poster, 1920

Robbins thought it fitting for the Fintan Lalor Pipe Band to parade in support of Labour, since the group had always marched in lockstep with the ICA. When the idea was brought to the ICA Army Council, it decided that the Band should perform for all Republican candidates, such as Kathleen Lynn, who was standing for Sinn Féin despite her ICA membership, but not for Walter Carpenter, who was ‘only’ a Workers’ Republican man. It was apparently not enough to be Labour to be considered a Republican, much to Robbins’ chagrin.[48]

The Fintan Lalor band

An Abysmal Failure?

Notably, Robbins did not resent Sinn Féin for this relegation of Labour to second fiddle, instead casting blame on the ICA leadership and its utter inability to fill James Connolly’s shoes. As a compensation of sorts, according to Robbins:

It can be claimed with some justification that the trade union movement itself as well as individual trade unionists in their roles as members of the Volunteers to some extent made up for the abysmal failure of the Irish Citizen Army to play a significant role on behalf of the working class in the shaping of Irish independence during the crucial years of 1918 to 1921.[49]

Robbins did his best to be one of these said individual trade unionists. When an American shipment of arms landed off Dublin’s North Wall, dockers in the ITGWU ‘assisted’ in unloading the crates and emptying them of their revolvers, as Robbins told the Military Pensions Board in 1937:

Board Interviewer: How did you help in all this?

Robbins: Well, I had not very much to do beyond that of organising and I was receiving.

Board Interviewer: Was it the Transport Workers Union?

Robbins: There were members of the Transport Workers Union and because of my connection.

Board Interviewer: Because of your connection with the Transport Workers?

Robbins: No, the Citizen Army. I was one of the party that was working on the thing. We all had various kinds of jobs.

Board Interviewer: You didn’t take any part in taking the arms off?

Robbins: No.

Board Interviewer: But you had a part in taking the stuff?

Robbins: Yes, in taking the stuff and dumping it.[50]

ITGWU badge

The interviewer was perhaps struggling to sound impressed. The conversation became noticeably awkward when the topic turned to the Connolly Commemorations in June 1919, which saw the ICA clashing with Dublin policemen, wounding several of the latter who had tried to supress the banned event:

Board Interviewer: Connolly Commemoration, you had a conflict with the DMP [Dublin Metropolitan Police]?

Robbins: Yes, I think there was six or seven policemen shot that day, that evening. This was in June 1919.

Board Interviewer: Were you armed?

Robbins: Yes.

Board Interviewer: And you were shooting?

Robbins: Not at the actual time. I was there…

Board Interviewer: Did you have any actual conflict with the Black and Tans? Any fight with them or the military of the police during the time the Black and Tans were here?

Robbins: Yes, I gave you the instance in 1919.

Board Interviewer: There were no Black and Tans then?

Robbins: No.

Board Interviewer: In 1920 or 1921, did you have any fight with them?

Robbins: I cannot just remember. I just scribbled those notes down last night.[51]

Reading between the lines, the interviewer clearly believed that Robbins’ active service record left something to be desired.

Regardless, Robbins took pride in the surge of growth in his ITGWU, mirroring Sinn Féin’s, and if the two movements did not overlap as much as they could or, so Robbins thought, should, then relations were still friendly enough for the trade union and the IRA to share officers or branch halls, not to mention the use on occasion of Liberty Hall for clandestine Cabinet sessions of the underground Irish government. Once, in September 1919, Robbins was asked by an ITGWU colleague to keep an eye out for Michael Collins, who was due to arrive at Liberty Hall. Thanks to the warning of an impending raid, Collins decided against coming. No raid took place, as it happened, but better safe than sorry.[52]

ICA members on parade outside Liberty Hall,

‘A Splendid Substitute’

Robbins’ motion for a plebiscite on the Treaty dilemma appeared reasonable; after all, how could Labour, and the country, move on without knowing for sure which direction to go? Mr Magee (Irish Engineering Union) seconded the proposal and added an accompanying one of his own:

This all-important question should be decided by a plebiscite, in order to ascertain the true feelings of the people on the Treaty, and, having cleared the position, Labour should then take its place in the election.

Five more spoke up. Mr Campbell (Belfast) pointed out how the eighty-two delegates who had voted for Molony’s denial of a Labour electoral policy remained a formidable bloc out of the two hundred in the room – would it thus not be better to find a decision able to unify them into agreement with the rest? More tentative was Mr Cummins (Central Teachers’ Organisation), who thought the National Executive should gather opinions from trade unions across the country and then make a final, binding decision. Thomas Farren (ITGWU) dismissed Magee’s suggestion as ridiculous on the grounds that the National Executive lacked the means of conducting such a plebiscite, while Thomas Foran (ITGWU) wanted to pull out of the parliamentary process altogether – the inevitable falling out would not be worth the few paltry seats gained. And Mr Mullen doubted his area of Ballina, Co. Mayo, would deliver a Labour win anyway, since the farmers there were in the ascendant, having the numbers and the organisation. On the Ballina Municipal Council, for example, Labour had only three out of the twenty-four placements, and even these were negated by the other representatives ganging up on them.

A show of hands voted down Magee’s motion. The short time spent on debating it, compared to the length Molony’s merited, perhaps hinted that the mental engines in the hall were now running on fumes. Not so for P. Kelly (Postal Workers), who made a shot at keeping the Molony amendment alive by suggesting that it be returned to the National Executive for further consideration. This gained the surprising approval of Thomas Johnson – surprising because, as Johnson admitted, the amendment ran completely contrary to the National Executive’s proposition, of which he was the prime mover.

Thomas Johnson

The debate between political tools versus industrial action did not have to be a choice of one or the other, Johnson said. As a matter of fact, the National Executive, himself included, had more faith in the latter, while at the same time considering the former “as a splendid supplement and protection for industrial work.”[53]

Eoin O’Duffy

It was a characteristic move by Johnson, who could never quite stop giving the impression that he was on each side and nobody’s. In fairness, the men Johnson had to deal with as his political peers had a tendency to assume the worst in others, such as Eoin O’Duffy writing to Michael Collin, in the middle of the Civil War in August 1922, of his suspicion that “the Labour element and the Red Flaggers are at the back of all moves towards ‘Peace’, not for the sake of the country, but in their own interests.” These private motives were apparently nothing less than an armed takeover: “They realise that, if the Government can break the back of this revolt, any attempts at revolt, by labour, in future will be futile.”[54]

Conversely, Johnson’s leading of Labour into the Dáil proved his untrustworthiness in the eyes of the other side in the conflict. As the Free State implemented its policy of firing-squads for POWs, Liam Lynch warned Johnson in a letter, in November 1922, that since he was holding him as responsible as the Government, the anti-Treaty IRA would take “very drastic measures to protect our forces.”

Liam Lynch

Any doubt as to what these ‘drastic measures could mean would have been cleared up when Peadar O’Donnell’s future wife, Lile O’Donel, obtained a meeting with Johnson on the pretence of an interview. She then took the opportunity to inform Johnson that he would be the next to die in the event of her imprisoned sweetheart’s execution. As Johnson had no say in the Cabinet or its measures, it is unclear what Lile expected him to be doing, other than what already was, namely using his time in the Dáil to condemn the shootings as a gross abuse of power. None of which absolved him in hardliner eyes, as Lynch admonished: “You, as spokesman, have given the approval of your Party to the present policy of the so-called Provisional government.”[55]

These were times when ‘those who are not with me are against me’ was the ruling assumption; Ernest Blythe would recall how Johnson “often irritated us a great deal by his insistence on debating a great variety of matters at considerable length” – as if that was not the point of the Dáil. Still, Blythe acknowledged this and Johnson’s service to the burgeoning democracy in providing a loyal opposition.


If we had not been challenged and had not to make our case, many arguments against us would have been believed but, because of Mr Johnson’s opposition, we were put in a position to dispose of them.[56]

Not without reason, then, did the Anti-Treatyites turn their ire on Labour as Free State running dogs, wrecking the party’s head office in Dublin and making off with some of its equipment. And also not without reason, given the assassination of one pro-Treaty TD already in December 1922 and the wounding of another, did President W.T. Cosgrave offer Labour TDs the sanctuary of Buswell’s Hotel, conveniently near the Dáil, where other Free State representatives were housed under armed guard. Johnson declined, preferring to keep to his Rathmines residence and the daily commute to work even as the war raged on.[57]

“Johnson, while not an advocate of physical force,” wrote his ITGWU colleague, Robbins, “was certainly not lacking in moral courage” – nor of the physical sort, either.[58]

Thomas Johnson addressing a crowd

A Decision Finally Made

If Robbins had moved from a belief in force of arms to that of compromise, then Johnson could claim consistency: violence had always repelled him. He too had been in Dublin for the Rising, like others in Labour, but, unlike them, only as a spectator rather than a participant. Where some had beheld glory in those five days, Johnson observed only squalor. A walk into town from Drumcondra on Easter Friday turned into a tour of gun exchanges between British soldiers in the streets and Irish snipers from windows, with fires ablaze in different places at once. But the biggest impression made – to judge by the amount of description Johnson gave in his diary – was the impact on ordinary people, from the looters of wrecked shops on Upper Dorset Street to the “hundreds of men, well dressed, middle-class citizens” of Drumcondra buying up every item of food on sale and lugging them back home in sacks.[59]

The experience, so he told the Trade Union Congress at Sligo, four months later in August 1916, “cured me of any leanings I may ever have had towards the ideal of a ‘Nation in Arms’, if directed by a military caste.”[60]

O’Connell Street, Dublin, after the Rising

While nursing his own views, Johnson had taken the time to learn that of others on Easter Week, speaking to people from a range of backgrounds: labourers, shopkeepers and ‘better off clerks.’ Overall, public opinion, in Dublin at least:

Practically unanimously it is against the rebels, while compelled to admire the courage and resources of the young men and their leaders.[61]

Johnson would apply this same sort of constructive ambiguity upon the second great event in five years that ‘changed, changed utterly’ everything. The attitude of the National Executive at the ILPTUC in February 1922 was one of studied neutrality towards the Treaty: they were not responsible for it, it was no business or making of theirs, but there the deal stood, for better or for worse, and it was time to transition from one phase to the next.

Pro-Treaty poster, 1922

In truth, Johnson had favoured the Treaty from the start, even before its ratification in January 1922. Wary of the growing bitterness that emerged from the Dáil during its debates, followed by the widening splits within Sinn Féin and the IRA, Johnson kept his own counsel from his colleagues, at least initially. By the time of the ILPTUC a month later, Johnson, O’Brien, O’Shannon and most of the Labour leadership were in concord where the Treaty was concerned; even then, they moved cautiously, even subtly, whether tempting Republican-minded delegates with the possibility of bringing Labour on the side of the Anti-Treatyites or Johnson posing as all things to all men by approving of a motion to block a proposal he was behind. That Labour was to survive the coming disaster as an intact entity is perhaps a tribute to its deft handling by the leadership.[62]

Kelly’s motion was defeated by seventy-two votes against fifty-five, ensuring the final demise of Molony’s attempt to halt Labour’s march into the parliamentary process. Robbins’ motion for a plebiscite was next put to the room, the lack of further discussion necessitated by the late hour of the evening, and passed by a hundred and twenty-eight against twelve. Finally, Johnson’s motion from the start of the event, around which all debate had flowed, was favoured by one hundred and four to forty-nine, confirming Labour’s entry into the next general election.[63]

Election poster for Cathal O’Shannon in Louth-Meath, 1922

Thus concluded the Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress of February 1922, and Labour’s role as a political party in deed as well as in name began. It was time to turn principles into power and take long-delayed responsibility for their righteousness.


[1] 28th Annual Report 1922, Irish Trade Union Congress Annual Reports (Archives Exhibition by Irish Congress of Trade Unions and the National Archives of Ireland) (Accessed 28/09/2021), pp. 57-9

[2] Ibid, p. 62

[3] Ibid, p. 69

[4] MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), pp. 209, 213

[5] Ibid, p. 24

[6] O’Brien, William (as told to MacLysaght, Edward) Forth the Banners Go (Dublin: The Three Candles Limited, 1969), pp. 180, 83-6, 123, 137

[7] Ibid, pp. 270, 282

[8] Ibid, pp. 180-2, 186-7

[9] Ibid, pp. 194-7

[10] MacEoin, pp. 22-3

[11] O’Brien, pp. 158, 217-8

[12] Ibid, pp. 23, 196

[13] 28th Annual Report 1922, p. 77

[14] MacEoin, pp. 203, 209

[15] Ibid, p. 23

[16] Military Service Pensions Collection, ‘O’Shannon, Cathal’ (MSP34REF21723), pp. 7-8

[17] Ibid. pp. 3, 16

[18] Yeates, Padraig, ‘Michael Collins’s ‘secret service unit’ in the trade union movement’, History Ireland (Issue 3, May/June 2014) (Accessed 28/09/2021)

[19] Fitzpatrick, David. Harry Boland’s Irish Revolution (Cork: Cork University Press, 2003), pp. 167-8

[20] MacEoin, p. 23

[21] Mitchell, Arthur. Labour in Irish Politics: 1890-1930 (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1974), pp. 96-100

[22] Robbins. Frank. Under the Starry Plough: Recollections of the Irish Citizen Army (Dublin: The Academy Press, 1977), p. 222 ; O’Brien, pp. 160-2

[23] 28th Annual Report 1922, p. 69

[24] Military Service Pensions Collection, ‘Molony, Helena’ (MSP34REF11739), p. 21

[25] Ibid, p. 23

[26] Ibid, pp. 22-4

[27] 28th Annual Report 1922, p. 73

[28] Ibid, p. 87

[29] Puirséil, Niamh. The Irish Labour Party: 1922-73 (Dublin: University College Dublin 2007), p. 10

[30] Regan, Nell. Helena Molony: 1883-1967 (Baldoyle, Co. Dublin: Arlen House, 2017), pp. 184-5

[31] 28th Annual Report 1922, pp. 70, 78

[32] Ibid, pp. 71-2, 74

[33] Ibid, pp. 75, 77, 81

[34] Ibid, p. 76

[35] Ibid, pp. 81, 84

[36] McCarthy, Charles. ‘Document Study: Labour and the 1922 General Election’, Saothar 7 (1981: Journal of the Labour History Society), p. 115

[37] 28th Annual Report 1922, p. 63

[38] McCarthy, p. 118

[39] Ibid

[40] Ibid, p. 120

[41] Ibid

[42] Molony, p. 25 ; Military Service Pensions Collection, ‘Carpenter, Walter’ (MSP34REF8789), p. 33

[43] Robbins, Under the Starry Plough, p. 97

[44] Ibid, pp. 230, 234

[45] 28th Annual Report 1922, p. 81

[46] Ibid, p. 84

[47] Military Service Pensions Collection, ‘Robbins, Frank’ (MSP34REF17899), pp. 26-7

[48] Robbins, Under the Starry Plough, pp. 207, 233

[49] Ibid, p. 217

[50] ‘Robbins’, p. 26

[51] Ibid, pp. 25-6

[52] Robbins, Under the Starry Plough, pp. 217-8

[53] 28th Annual Report 1922, pp. 84-6

[54] Regan, John M. Myth and the Irish State (Sallins, Co. Kildare: Irish Academic Press, 2013), p. 132

[55] Gaughan, J. Anthony. Thomas Johnson: 1872-1963, First Leader of the Labour Party in Dáil Éireann (Mount Merrion, Co. Dublin: Kingdom Books, 1980), p. 215 p ; MacEoin, pp. 30-1

[56] Blythe, Ernest (BMH / WS 939), p. 165

[57] Gaughan, pp. 215, 217

[58] Robbins, Under the Starry Plough, p. 220

[59] Gaughan, pp. 52-3

[60] Ibid, p. 57

[61] Ibid, p. 54

[62] McCarthy, p. 117

[63] 28th Annual Report 1922, p. 87


Irish Trade Union Congress Annual Report

28th Annual Report 1922, Irish Trade Union Congress Annual Reports (Archives Exhibition by Irish Congress of Trade Unions and the National Archives of Ireland) (Accessed 28/09/2021)


Fitzpatrick, David. Harry Boland’s Irish Revolution (Cork: Cork University Press, 2003)

Gaughan, J. Anthony. Thomas Johnson: 1872-1963, First Leader of the Labour Party in Dáil Éireann (Mount Merrion, Co. Dublin: Kingdom Books, 1980)

MacEoin, Uinseann. Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980)

Mitchell, Arthur. Labour in Irish Politics: 1890-1930 (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1974)

O’Brien, William (as told to MacLysaght, Edward) Forth the Banners Go (Dublin: The Three Candles Limited, 1969)

Puirséil, Niamh. The Irish Labour Party: 1922-73 (Dublin: University College Dublin, 2007)

Regan, John M. Myth and the Irish State (Sallins, Co. Kildare: Irish Academic Press, 2013)

Regan, Nell. Helena Molony: 1883-1967 (Baldoyle, Co, Dublin: Arlen House, 2017)

Robbins, Frank. Under the Starry Plough: Recollections of the Irish Citizen Army (Dublin: The Academy Press, 1977)

Military Service Pensions Collection

Carpenter, Walter, MSP34REF8789

Molony, Helena, MSP34REF11739

O’Shannon, Cathal, MSP34REF21723

Robbins, Frank, MSP34REF17899


McCarthy, Charles. ‘Document Study: Labour and the 1922 General Election’, Saothar 7 (1981: Journal of the Labour History Society)

Yeates, Padraig, ‘Michael Collins’s ‘secret service unit’ in the trade union movement’, History Ireland (Issue 3, May/June 2014) (Accessed 28/09/2021)

Bureau of Military History Statement

Blythe, Ernest, WS 939

Victory From The Jaws of Defeat: The Easter Rising in Co. Louth, 1916 (Part II)

A continuation of: Defeat from the Jaws of Victory: The Easter Rising in Co. Louth, 1916 (Part I)

Ground to a Halt

Seán MacEntee arrived at Dublin in the evening of Easter Sunday, the 23rd April 1916, as a man on a mission to verify orders he and the rest of the Irish Volunteers in Co. Louth had abruptly received earlier that day. Signed by their Chief of Staff, Eoin MacNeill, the message was brief, to the point and devastating:[1]

Volunteers completely deceived.

All orders for Sunday cancelled.[2]

Handwritten orders by Eoin MacNeill

Though MacNeill did not quite spell it out, his words – however opaque to an outsider – could mean only one thing for those in the know: the Rising to free Ireland, an event months in the making, was over before it had even begun. Even more awkward was how the Louth Volunteers were already on the move, marching as an army from Dundalk towards Tara. From there, they were to cooperate with fellow Volunteers from Meath, Wicklow and Finglas in blockading British counter-attacks on Dublin, the lynchpin to the insurrection. All of this had been meticulously laid out over a week before by Patrick Pearse to Donal O’Hannigan, the rebel operative assigned to command in Louth.[3]

Donal O’Hannigan

O’Hannigan had braved the threat of arrest and imprisonment in the days leading up to Easter Week and was willing to risk further as he led his subordinates on their first steps on the road to Tara, and so it is understandable that his first reaction to learning of MacNeill’s eleventh-hour intervention was disbelief: the cancellation order could not possibly be genuine. Until confirmed by Pearse and the rest of Headquarters in Dublin, he would refuse to accept its validity.[4]

“O’Hannigan stated that he was not taking orders from MacNeill, that P.H. Pearse was his Commanding Officer,” according to one witness. “I remember distinctly O’Hannigan using those words.”[5]

When O’Hannigan took four of his most trusted officers, including MacEntee, aside from the rest of the Volunteers and informed them of this development, they agreed with his decision. Another man, Joe Birrell, was sent ahead on a motorcycle to Dublin with a written dispatch for Pearse, while the other Volunteers continued on foot to Slane. Zero hour came and went at 7 pm but O’Hannigan, paralysed by indecision, gave no orders to proceed beyond Slane.

Irish Volunteers on the march

Until Birrell returned with updates, there was nothing to be done save continue with the pretence that this was all just a routine march, with no seditious intent beneath the surface – which fooled at least the sixty or so onlookers from the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) detailed to shadow them. When O’Hannigan asked the RIC District Inspector in charge to withdraw his men to the other side of the river, while he kept his at the other northern end of Slane, the Inspector obliged.

With no sign of Birrell, nor of the other two couriers sent later on bicycles, O’Hannigan called another meeting, this time with all his officers. MacEntee agreed to be the next to venture out to Dublin, answering his commandant’s call for a pair of eyes to assess how things stood in the capital. If possible, MacEntee was to contact the rebel leadership in Liberty Hall and ask directly for clarification.

It was by then raining heavily, but MacEntee set off all the same by bicycle to Drogheda to catch the train from there. O’Hannigan waited in Slane until 3 am and then led his army back the way it had come. There was little else to do besides walk and wait.[6]

A Trip to Dublin

Seán MacEntee

The abnormal thing about the whole situation, MacEntee thought, was how normal everything was. In Slane, the Volunteers had acted as an occupying force, some placing pickets on all roads in and out, with the rest either mustered in the village square or by the bridge, opposite the RIC who seemed more bothered by the pouring rain than the blatantly provocative behaviour before them. If Dublin was up in arms in rebellion as originally intended, then surely the police would be treating things more seriously. Was the message from MacNeill authentic then?

Unless the RIC was waiting for reinforcements…?

On the other hand, the scouts sent out for miles along the roads were reporting no such thing.

On the other other hand, why had Birrell not returned?

As MacEntee later told it:

We could think of no satisfactory explanation for his absence – for, strangely enough, the most reasonable one and the real one, a motor break-down, escaped us. We could only imagine he had been taken prisoner.[7]

Dublin presented a similarly contradictory picture when MacEntee stepped off the train that Sunday evening, seeing streets that were empty save for a few people going about their business. Monday morning was busier but that was to be expected on a public holiday and with races at Fairyhouse to enjoy.

Dublin, circa 1900

It was only when MacEntee reached Liberty Hall that there were signs of something amiss at the heart of an otherwise placid city:

Alertness and animation marked the entrance to the famous Labour Headquarters. People were continuously passing in and out. All who went in, however, and all who came out were challenged by the sentries at the doorways…Though it was then only about half-past seven, the building was thronged.

Once he gave the password, MacEntee was taken through the corridors, past men – and the occasional woman – who were similarly in a hurry to get somewhere, into the office of the Workers’ Republic. It was as pressed for space as the rest of the building, with stacks of newspapers on the floor and the walls covered by posters, cartoons and other memorabilia like an exhibition of the Labour movement. MacEntee was left by himself to stare at the displays like a tourist in an art gallery when James Connolly entered.[8]

Liberty Hall, Dublin

The two recognised each other at once from their time together in Belfast, which made explaining his presence easier for MacEntee. Connolly listened in thoughtful silence, before telling him only to wait for Pearse to see him. MacEntee dutifully did so, his one indulgence a catnap while sitting on the stairway by the main landing, until the bustle of human activity all around proved too much and woke him up.

New Old Orders

Éamonn Ceannt

It was sometime after half nine when Connolly reappeared, this time in the company of Thomas MacDonagh, but MacEntee could barely get a word out before MacDonagh was called elsewhere. Éamonn Ceannt joined them a minute later and MacEntee resumed his story until he was again cut short, this time by Piaras Beasley needing to talk to MacDonagh and Ceannt. MacEntee moved aside to give them privacy:

By this time, there were about nine or ten people present, grouped about the room in little changing circles of threes and fours. Connolly had gone out, and MacDonagh, Beasley and Ceannt were the only others there that I knew, even by appearance. There was much talk and much gaiety.

MacDonagh and Ceannt in particular were having a jolly time in each other’s company, teasing and laughing; in contrast to Pearse when he entered, moving into a backroom with a slow, solemn sense of purpose which impressed MacEntee. When MacEntee was summoned, he found Pearse standing beside a table with Connolly.

James Connolly

As before, MacEntee was heard out in silence, broken by the occasional ‘humph’ by Connolly – MacEntee could never determine if that meant approval or not – and a few questions from Pearse on the state of the Louth Volunteers. Seemingly satisfied by the answers, Pearse asked his caller to wait in the other room. MacEntee passed the time by chatting with MacDonagh:

“I suppose you know”, he went on, “there’s to be a secret session (of the English Parliament, he meant) next Tuesday. They’ll declare for peace then. And the country will be lost without a blow.” “Will it be that – or conscription?” I asked. “No”, he replied, “peace – -”.

Patrick Pearse

At that point, MacEntee was called in again, breaking off the conversation, but MacDonagh’s point – however reliable his grasp of current affairs – was clear: If England’s difficulty was Ireland’s opportunity, then that window was rapidly closing. Perhaps this sense of urgency was why Pearse got straight to the point: MacEntee was to return to Louth and tell Commandant O’Hannigan to continue on as before.

“We strike at noon,” Pearse said.

MacEntee did not argue otherwise or ask about the countermand from MacNeill; that the Rising was back on was all he needed to know. As he headed out of Liberty Hall, with a revolver given by Pearse and in fresh change of clothes, he passed MacDonagh, engaged in some errand of his own. Someone else threw MacDonagh a question which MacEntee did not catch, but he heard the reply well enough: “Oh, quite alright, but the boys are turning up very slowly.”[9]

Cause of Death

But turned up they did, at least some. MacEntee was among those who endeavoured to make up for lost time, enough for him to face a court-martial five weeks later on the charges of insurgency and murder. Seated with him in Richmond Barracks, Dublin, on the 9th June, as his co-defendants were Frank Martin, Denis Leahy and James Sally, with T.M. Healy, MP and veteran of the Irish political scene, and Henry Hanna, KC, as their counsel. The four prisoners pleaded not guilty to the charges read out before the British military court:

  • Engaging in armed rebellion against the King.
  • The murder of Constable Charles McGee in Castlebellingham.
  • The attempted murder of Lieutenant Robert Dunville of the Grenadier Guards.

Richmond Barracks, Dublin

The aforementioned Lieutenant Dunville was present to testify about his experiences on Easter Monday: he was en route from Belfast to Kingstown (modern day Dún Laoghaire), when he and his chauffeur, Edward O’Brien, drove into Castlebellingham at about ten minutes to 7 pm. Blocking their way was a large group of men carrying weapons, some being revolvers and automatic pistols, others carbines and ordinary rifles. It was a rifle that one of the accused in the dock, Leahy, pointed at Dunville, and then MacEntee appeared brandishing a pistol.

More annoyed than afraid, Dunville demanded to know what this was all about and to let him pass – he had a boat to catch at Kingstown, after all. When MacEntee told him to stay civil, Dunville retorted he would be as civil as he was treated. With that said, Dunville and O’Brien were made to stand with three other captives, all policemen, by the railings on the roadside. There were a number of other motorcars on the scene, out of which another man got out and:

…aimed a long rifle at him [Dunville]. He heard a report, and somebody at his right hand side shouted, and he found that he himself had been shot; that the bullet passed through his breast from left to right. He saw a rifle still pointed at him after he was hit. After that he fell.

The prosecutor, Major E.G. Kimber, now moved to cross-examine the witness.

Kimber: Did you see anyone else that you recognised but MacEntee?

Dunville: I saw Leahy and Martin.

Kimber: Did you notice who was in command of the rebel party?

Dunville: It seemed to be MacEntee.

It was noted from previous testimony that the late Constable McGee, for whose murder the four defendants were on trial, seemed to have been shot before Dunville. On this point, the President of the Court, Major-General Cheylesmore, asked his own questions.

Robert Dunville

Cheylesmore: Can you tell us how many shots were fired before you were shot yourself?

Dunville: Two.

Cheylesmore: Are you quite sure that McGee was wounded before you were?

Dunville: Yes. I heard the shot, but I did not see McGee fall.

Cheylesmore: Before you were shot, were any of the accused in front of you?

Dunville: MacEntee was in front of me.

Cheylesmore: The other men had gone down the road?

Dunville: Yes, they had moved away.

Cheylesmore: Then MacEntee was practically the only man left when you were shot?

Dunville: Yes.

Cheylesmore: You don’t know who fired the shot?

Dunville: I don’t.

Cheylesmore: Were you wounded by a rifle or revolver bullet?

Dunville: I don’t know. It was a very small hole.

Cheylesmore: But it went right through your body?

Dunville: Yes.

Cheylesmore: Could you recognise the man who was pointing the long rifle at you?

Dunville: I could.

Cheylesmore: Is he one of the accused?

Dunville: No.

Edward O’Brien spoke next on the stand to corroborate his employer’s statement that Leahy had pointed a rifle and MacEntee a pistol at Dunville. But he did not think it was any of the four defendants who fired the shots that wounded Dunville or killed McGee. The Constable’s death – so testified Dr Patrick O’Hagan as the Coroner – was due to shock and haemorrhage, caused by four bullet-wounds: two in his left arm and two in the body, while Dunville had two altogether in the chest, the one on the left side apparently being the point of entry.[10]


Putting the Record Straight

The service of Dundalk men in Easter Week presents merits peculiarly their own when compared with that of other areas outside Dublin city and county.[11]

(John McCoy, Member of the Military Pensions Advisory Committee, April 1947)

History had not been particularly generous to Louth’s contribution in the Rising, to MacEntee’s chagrin. It was not so much that the historians of his day were intentionally side-lining the county, more that they simply did not have much to work on. Motivated by “impression that the misadventure at Castlebellingham was the beginning and end of Louth’s participation in Easter Week,” MacEntee sat down in 1966 to compose his memoirs in the “hope that this first-hand story of what actually did happen will put the record straight.”[12]

Which may have been easier written than done, for there was a good deal of uncertainty over what had occurred in Castlebellingham, even by those who were present, as shown by Dunville’s and O’Brien’s testimonies – not to mention the conflicting reminiscences from certain Volunteers, composed, like MacEntee’s, decades afterwards. All Frank Martin – one of MacEntee’s co-defendants in May 1916 – could report for his Bureau of Military History Statement in 1949 was that “some shots were fired. Const. McGee was killed and Lieut. Dunville got a slight wound on the arm.”

And this was from a man who had been as close to the scene as anyone, having been ordered by MacEntee to watch Dunville, McGee and the two other RIC men held at gunpoint when the Volunteers took over the main street in Castlebellingham. Despite later being on trial for his life as a consequence, the biggest impression made on Martin were the “antics” of “Lieut. Dunville [who] was jeering and abusing us.”[13]

Another participant, Edward Bailey, similarly recalled Dunville’s salty attitude: “He was not very nice about his treatment.” But Bailey was equally clueless about the Big Question of the day: “Some shots were fired and Const. McGee fell on the road, mortally wounded. I did not see the actual shooting. I saw McGee lying on the road after I heard the shooting.”[14]

Donal O’Hannigan, as overall commander of the Louth rebels, believed he knew more, not as a witness, but from a subsequent report he received:

It appears that when the officer [Dunville] was approached by McEntee [alternative spelling] he…ran behind the RIC men and made attempts as if to draw a gun from his pocket. On seeing this one of my men fired at him. At that moment the RIC man unfortunately moved into the line of fire and the bullet passed through the RIC man and wounded Lt. Dunville. Lieut. Dunville was found to be armed with a revolver.[15]

There is more than a whiff of passing-the-buck here, with responsibility – clunkily and rather obviously – passed on to Dunville’s shoulders for resisting and even on the victim by getting in the way. And despite MacEntee’s avowed determination to rescue Louth’s Rising deeds from the confusion and obscurity they had been cast, due to “the brief and garbled reports which were permitted to appear at the time”, he was candid enough to admit that, as far as Easter Monday in Castlebellingham was concerned, he had little definite to offer posterity.[16]

‘Unfortunate and Damaging’

It is ironic that an Irish-speaking constable from the remote island of Inishbofin in County Donegal should become the first Royal Irish Constabulary victim of the Rising in County Louth, and indeed in the whole of Ireland.[17]

(Madge O’Boyle, historian and grandniece of Charles McGee)

Or maybe it was less honesty and more embarrassment. The death of Constable McGee – entirely unnecessary, it seems – was a public relations disaster for the Rising locally, particularly after the initial inquest in May 1916 brought in a verdict of murder. Though James McGuill attributed this harsh judgement on the fact that the jurors tended to have relatives serving in the British Army and thus inclined against the rebels from the start, he also acknowledged that the late McGee “was evidently very popular with all who knew him.”

McGuill’s ownership of a garage in Dundalk allowed him to assist his fellow Louth Volunteers with transportation. He left active service to his brothers, who were also enrolled, and so he remained in town during Easter Week. There, McGuill heard the news about McGee, and experienced first-hand the “unfortunate and damaging effect on public opinion in the town of Dundalk and the district” his shooting had, with “the effect of turning sympathisers away from us and gave the people opposed to us the opportunity to cast ridicule on the early fruits of our efforts at Insurrection.”

Market Square, Dundalk

Dundalk was a cauldron of clashing emotions and conflicting ideologies: there was the personal popularity of the landowner Sir Henry Bellingham, whose two sons in the British Army in France were role-models for other young men in Louth to enlist. John Redmond also enjoyed a standing as the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party and mover behind Home Rule, which now looked imperilled thanks to the rebels, or so Redmond’s followers claimed:

We were referred to as pro Germans and as men who were trying to stab John E. Redmond in the back, and by our actions blasted all hopes of the implementation of the Home Rule Bill then held up in a state of abeyance.

1914-ireland-propaganda-home-rule-1d-harp_180587208483If this was mainstream opinion, then resisting this consensus were men like Thomas Hearty, a former Fenian, who McGuill saw on Easter Thursday, returning to Dundalk from Dunboyne, Co. Meath. The Louth Volunteers had reached it, though Commandant O’Hannigan ordered Hearty back on account of his advanced age and the poor state of the horse pulling his hackney carriage. Though denied his chance at glory with the rest of the Louth contingent and their Meath comrades, the two groups having joined up as planned, Hearty had at least witnessed a tricolour fluttering over the marching ranks.

It was a moving sight, the emotion of which Hearty was keen to impart to McGuill: “He seemed in great form and spoke enthusiastically of our armed men marching across the country carrying our National flag.” Undeterred by the odds against them, Hearty “stressed his pride in the fact that the flag of the Republic flew so many days even though he feared it was fated to go down against much superior forces.”[18]

Irish Volunteers


However magnificent it seemed to Hearty, the impression MacEntee had of the Louth Volunteers when he rejoined them later that Monday at Lurgen Green was not an encouraging one. The rain had left the men wet and bedraggled, as if footsore and uncertain were not enough, and the route they were marching back to Dundalk on was a muddy mess. Perhaps that was why MacEntee – travelling in a motorcar he had hijacked at a roadside pub – was able to overtake them before the Volunteers completely quit the field.

O’Hannigan accepted without question MacEntee’s message from Pearse: ‘Carry out the original instructions. We strike at noon.’ Noon had come and gone, four hours ago, but later was better than never. The two RIC constables on their trail were captured and disarmed without trouble – a good start, at least – even if MacEntee had had to be unambiguous about what he would do if compliance was not given.

Coercion continued to be the strategy of choice for the Volunteers as they entered Castlebellingham, now moving in a fifteen-strong flotilla of cars pilfered from motorists returning from the races in Fairyhouse. This ‘by any means necessary’ attitude continued as the men dismounted and stole – or commandeered or whatever – from the shops along the main road that dominated an otherwise unremarkable village. The pair of RIC men who came to investigate the disturbance were disarmed and placed under guard, alongside their two captured colleagues from Lurgan Green, by the railings of the grass plot in the village centre, next to the road.

Castlebellingham, Main Street, County Louth

The first flicker of resistance came from a fifth curious policeman who appeared on the scene, this being Constable McGee:

…a tall, fine looking fellow, of rather a tougher spirit than his comrades, and he refused to obey when I ordered him to dismount [from his bicycle], and it was only under pressure from the other police that he complied.

Another stone on the revolutionary road presented itself in the form of the owner of a car which drove in just as the Volunteers finished loading their procured supplies: a British Army officer, MacEntee guessed him from his gold-braided uniform. In every account of that day, Lieutenant Dunville was undaunted and even pugnacious towards the men who had unexpectedly forced him from his journey at gunpoint, and here, in MacEntee’s, he is no different:

The occupant…was exceedingly angry at being held up and refused to get out of his car, whereupon there arose something of an altercation between him and the men, in which some rough words passed.

MacEntee says nothing about any verbal exchange between himself and the Lieutenant, as in the latter’s court-martial testimony, but their two accounts otherwise match: Dunville stood his ground in the face of overwhelming odds until finally joining the rest of the prisoners, as did his chauffeur O’Brien, by the railings.

It was time to go, Commandant O’Hannigan ordered. With his eye on the captives, MacEntee:

…then backed towards my own car which…was the last of the fifteen. I had just turned to enter it, had mounted the foot-board and was stepping inside the car, when a shot rang out. I jumped out at once and looked towards the prisoners. The lieutenant was standing quite steady and upright, two policemen were running across the road, while of the other policeman and of the chauffeur there was no sign. I thought that, like the others, they too had run away. At the sound of the shot, the cars had stopped. I ran to the leading car and told [O’]Hannigan that some person had fired on the prisoners.

When MacEntee said that he did not know if anyone had been hit, O’Hannigan instructed him to get back to his transport and continue. As MacEntee looked back from his moving car, at the rear of the convoy, he saw Dunville, who:

…had been standing very bravely and steadily up to this but, as I looked at him now, I saw him tremble and sway and slink to the ground. I realised then, for the first time, that he had been wounded.

Charles McGee

Doubling-back to check on the Lieutenant was not a feasible option, not with the journey to Tara and then Dublin still to do. Instead, leaving the wounded man to the care of whatever doctor was in the village seemed reasonable enough, and MacEntee satisfied himself that he had done the best he could. Of the second victim, “tall, fine looking” McGee, he had seen no sign, and it was not until five weeks later, at his court-martial in Richmond Barracks, that he learned that the constable had been killed, apparently from the same shot that wounded Dunville.[19]

A Fellow Countryman

This, of course, is from MacEntee’s memoir, written two years later, so stated at its start, when the author was in Gloucester Gaol in the summer of 1918 (though how much was edited between then and publication in 1966 is another question).[20] At the court-martial in May 1916, with life and death on the line, MacEntee was more circumspect, leaving it to the solicitors T.M. Healy and Henry Hanna to build up as much of a defence as they could. With their clients ‘caught in the act’, there was little the two legal eagles could do, though Healy’s argument that the British Government was in a sense as complicit in the rebellion as its participants due to prior permissiveness has a certain ingenuity.

Evidence against MacEntee included incriminating documents found in a police search of his Dundalk lodgings. The testimony to this effect by RIC Sergeant Christopher Sheridan allowed Healy to put his cross-examining skills to use:

T.M. Healy

Healy: Was there a government in Ireland while all this was going on? Were the police in Dundalk?

Sheridan: Yes.

Healy: Did your authorities allow a number of young men, under the eyes of the police and the Government, to join an organisation which you now say is pro-German and illegal?

Sheridan: Yes.

Healy: Therefore, whatever my clients did, they did it with the idea that the Government was, at all events, tolerating them?

Sheridan: That seems to have been Mr [Augustine] Birrell’s [Chief Secretary for Ireland] business.

Healy: Did you allow all these young men to be brigaded, drilled, organised, armed and pro-Germanised without taking any steps to stop it?

Sheridan: We did not interfere.

Healy: But Mr Birrell and the Government did, and now they are being tried for their lives. Did the Government allow these Volunteers to get arms and ammunition, and military instructions, in Dundalk, for the last two years without interference?

Sheridan: I am not in a position to express an opinion on that.

Healy: Did you ever caution them?

Sheridan: No.

Healy: Did you ever tell them they were taking a course that might lead to trouble?

Sheridan: No.

MacEntee limited his part to reading out to the court a prepared statement, in which he carefully downplayed his role in Castlebellingham, while leaving the specifics vague:

In obedience to the order of his commander, he stopped the constable, and searched him. He took an envelope, which he brought to his commander. The constable received no abuse from him, and he lamented his death; the constable was his fellow countryman, discharging his duty.

As for the charge of murder against him, “he was not a murderer and the term was loathsome to him.”

Witnesses for the defence were a mixed bag. While Thomas Alexander testified as to MacEntee’s good conduct and character, in doing so he also inadvertently confirmed the other man’s presence and involvement when Alexander was waylaid at Dromiksey while driving back from Fairyhouse to his home in Belfast. If not for MacEntee and the control he exercised, Alexander said on the stand, the thirty men pointing revolvers at him might not have behaved as well as they did. Another witness, a chauffeur named Dickson, had sat next to MacEntee in the car the rebels had commandeered at Lurgan Green. With him were five other Volunteers, one of whom had, at Castlebellingham, fired his rifle at the captives lined up by the railings.

Irish Volunteers

He got first blood, Dickson heard the rifleman say.[21]

Paddy McHugh

The good news for MacEntee, at least, is that none of the witnesses linked him to the shooting. If it had been done by the rifleman, then MacEntee was in the clear, since he had been carrying a pistol that day. Instead, the finger of suspicion pointed at someone not present at the court-martial: Paddy McHugh, a person of interest even before the Rising ended, a fact that dawned on MacEntee as he sat through his trial, so he told the Military Pensions Advisory Committee in June 1945, twenty-nine years later:

Advisory Committee Referee: How do you know that he was wanted for murder from Easter Monday night?

MacEntee: Because I happened to be charged with murder too and I know on the evidence which was given at the trial that they were looking for the other man, McHugh.

Referee: Was there any reference made to McHugh at your trial?

MacEntee: I think there was. Yes, there was, because it was definitely established that I hadn’t fired any shots, that was definitely established, and that the police were searching for the other man and had been looking for him.

Referee: There was not a specific reference made to him?

MacEntee: Not to him by name, but –

Referee: Could you say whether or not you formed the opinion at the time at the reference was to McHugh?

MacEntee: Yes.

Referee: You did?

MacEntee: Yes.

Referee: At the time?

MacEntee: At least it was to the man who was alleged to have fired the shot and he was the man alleged to have fired that.[22]

The man in question was to deny this in his Statement to the Bureau of Military History (BMH) in 1952, though McHugh did not repudiate that he had indeed been holding a rifle and using it to cover the prisoners from where he was standing on the running board of his car. The rest of the Volunteers were withdrawing, and MacEntee’s back turned, when Dunville:

…whom I had covered made a move that appeared to me as if he was attempting to draw a gun. I immediately called on him to put up his hands. He did not obey. I called no more but fired, and, to my amazement, the RIC man at the other end of the line of prisoners fell. Another shot then rang out and I called out to cease fire.

Judging by that common point with O’Hanigan’s version, it is probable that it was McHugh’s report O’Hannigan had read from. The difference between the two accounts is that, in O’Hannigan’s, McGee stepped between Dunville and the gunman (unnamed by O’Hannigan), and was hit by the bullet that then wounded Dunville, while in McHugh’s:

What happened has never been fully explained. The RIC man who fell on the road was killed by a charge of buckshot fired from a shotgun and the staff officer who fell to the ground as we were leaving the village was shot through the lung by .303 bullet… The man who fired from the shotgun has never admitted the mistake or the accident or whatever his motive was and so it will now probably remain forever his secret.

Two other men that day, RIC Sergeant Kiernan and a publican, Byrne, were to swear under oath at the initial inquest, in May 1916, that it was McHugh who fired the fatal shot at McGee. Since both knew McHugh personally, as McHugh conceded in his BMH Statement, their testimony carries some weight. However, Byrne also mentioned how McGee had been standing at the end of the line of prisoners furthest from McHugh, making a deliberate aim by McHugh implausible – why not shoot the target closest to him, if so?

Byrne was not aware of a shotgun being used, as McHugh claimed, and the only other gun he heard being fired at the time besides McHugh’s was a pistol at the wheel of Dunville’s car in order to disable it. The Coroner at the court-martial was unable to determine if McGee’s mortal wound came from a shotgun or rifle; however, if Dickson heard correctly, then the rifleman in his car was responsible – which would implicate McHugh the most.[23]



Sent into Action

Driving though Dunleer and then Collon and Slane at night, MacEntee became separated from the main force when the fourth car from the end took a wrong turn and ran into a deep gully, trapping itself and blocking the others. Not wanting to risk another accident in the dark, the stranded Volunteers camped for the night before doubling back at the crack of dawn in order to find where the rest had gone.[24]

They would have done better to stay put, for Commandant O’Hannigan, noticing his missing rearguard, sent two men to locate them. The pair returned to report that they had found only a single car, abandoned in a gully. Assuming – or hoping – that the absent others would make their own way to Tara, O’Hannigan ordered the remaining nine or ten cars to the ancient royal hill, arriving there on Tuesday morning and finding no one else, neither their MIA Louth compatriots or the Meath Volunteers who were supposed to join them. Taking the main Dublin-Navan road did not offer much encouragement either, for O’Hannigan could see, through the field glasses he had brought with him, British troops at Dunboyne Bridge ahead.

An empty country mansion, Tyrrelstown House, offered shelter and a place to consider their next move. Scouts were able to confirm the strength of the challenge awaiting them: with a hundred and fifty soldiers near Dunboyne, the enemy far exceeded the Volunteers, even with the addition of the sixteen-strong Dunboyne company which had disbanded on the Sunday like so many other units across Ireland, as per MacNeill’s countermand, but now eager to make up for lost time.

Irish Volunteers

It was a chance they were never to get, for one of the scouts, sent out to Dublin on a bicycle, returned on Tuesday night. He had made it to the General Post Office (GPO) and brought back a dispatch, signed by Commandant-General James Connolly:

To Comdt. O’Hannigan, commandeer transport and move your men to Dublin where they will be rested and armed before being sent into action.

Thomas Ashe

Fulfilling such a bold extortion did not seem remotely possible, as the Volunteers officers agreed when called together in Tyrrelstown House to discuss Connolly’s latest order. Another scout had been turned back at Cabra Bridge by a British picket before he could reach Dublin, which confirmed what they must have suspected: the enemy had made a cordon around the capital, through which there would be no way, not with their paltry numbers. Contact made with Thomas Ashe of the Fingal Brigade only gave false hope, for by the time O’Hannigan set out to meet him in Turvey on Sunday morning, Ashe had surrendered, as had – though O’Hannigan was oblivious to this – the rest of the rebel leadership in Dublin.[25]

The Dispensation of Providence

“It was not by their volition that theirs was a bloodless campaign – that was the dispensation of Providence,” so MacEntee finished his narrative of the Louth Volunteers in Easter Week, “but if the opportunity had been afforded to them – they would have proved themselves as gallant as any that ever fought in the nation’s cause.”[26]

Exactly what else they could have done remained a sensitive point, even thirty years later, when O’Hannigan and McHugh defended their honour and that of their comrades before the Military Service Pensions Board in July 1945. What irked McHugh in particular was a statement made by the Board, that ‘after Wednesday night, all possibility of cooperation with the main Volunteer forces had admittedly passed’, which made it sound as if Easter Week had essentially ended for them on the Wednesday.

“That is a rather high-handed assumption,” McHugh said:

Board Referee: But the possibility has passed?

McHugh: Not on Wednesday.

Referee: After Wednesday.

O’Hannigan: As a matter of fact, why did we remain under arms?

McHugh: The possibility had not passed on Wednesday.

Referee: After Wednesday?

McHugh: Even after Wednesday.

Referee: What possibility of contact was there?

McHugh: If we had been able to contact the main road or men to guide us into the city of Dublin, we could have got into some position. The possibility could not have passed until we couldn’t have got into the city of Dublin.

Board member McCoy: Is that your view, Mr O’Hannigan?

O’Hannigan: It is. We tried to get to the Fingal Brigade. Our unit wasn’t strong enough. There was a few rifles that I should have got and they went to Donabate instead.

Referee: As long as you kept your men under arms, you were ready and anxious to cooperate with any body of Volunteers who were fighting against the British?

O’Hannigan: Correct.

Referee: And that is beyond doubt. I think that is quite reasonable and I don’t think that has ever been in doubt.

McHugh: That is the position. I haven’t been given enough credit for it.

Referee: Has that ever been in doubt, Mr McCoy, that as long as these men remained under arms, they were ready and willing to cooperate with any Volunteers who were in insurrection against the British enemy?

McCoy: Well, rightly or wrongly, I had a sort of an idea in the beginning that they had orders to go to Tyrrelstown House and go no further.[27]

Tyrrelstown House, Dublin 15


Au contraire, the Dundalk contingent, as per the plans laid out by Pearse, were to enter the outskirts of the capital from the north. From there, they would thwart British advances into the centre, while keeping an escape route open if needs be for the Dublin rebels. As much with else that had gone wrong on Easter Week, the failure to accomplish either task could be traced to the very start:

McCoy: Is it a fact that the trouble you had with cars, delays caused on the road and countermanding orders and all that, was responsible for your delay to such a time as the [British] reinforcements got into the park?

McHugh: Yes, we lost forty-eight hours.

McCoy: You lost a couple of days and that upset your timetable?

McHugh: Yes.

McCoy: By the time you arrived at the point in your journey the military had gone into Dublin on that road?

O’Hannigan: Yes.

McCoy: If you had been there forty-eight hours earlier, you could have intercepted them?

Liam Mellows

O’Hannigan: Yes. We could have got the [British] artillery but then if it had not been for the countermanding order, we would have had three hundred and thirty-seven men, whereas we had only a small number. Had we been in position with the number of men we had from the areas, we certainly would have got the artillery that was used in Dublin without any difficulty whatever. I had access to all the plans for all Ireland before I went to Cork [sic?]. I spent days going over the plans in St Enda’s with [Liam] Mellows and the others so that I would know the position we would be in all the time.

McCoy: Were you in touch with Pearse from Thursday morning onwards?

O’Hannigan: Not from the Thursday of Easter Week.

McCoy: Were you in touch with any of the leaders from Thursday?

O’Hannigan: Only with Ashe. We were cut off completely.[28]

Joy and Sorrow

In a bad case of crossed wires, the GPO garrison had apparently been expecting the appearance of their Dundalk comrades, almost until the final hour, if Connolly’s Order of the Day on Friday is anything to go by:

Dundalk has sent two hundred men to march upon Dublin, and in other parts of the North our forces are active and growing.

MacEntee was among the audience as this was read out to the GPO; despite all the mishaps and misfortunes, he had persevered and succeeding in slipping past British lines and then to the rebel headquarters. Galway, Wicklow, Wexford, Cork and Kerry were also reputed to be giving their all in the field of battle. As was the enemy – no question as to that – whose renewed bombardment succeeded in setting fire to the roof of the GPO, forcing the defenders out onto the streets.

Two things would stick in MacEntee’s mind during that flight to safety: the pale face of a woman by a window and another Volunteer dropping to his knee as MacEntee dashed by. He would pass that same man, outstretched on the pavement, as the rebel remnant marched towards captivity, the order to surrender having finally been given. The uniform on the corpse, MacEntee noted, was tattered and torn, with the upturned face white beneath flecks of dried blood.[29]

British soldiers leading rebel prisoners away in Dublin

Elsewhere in Ireland, another body was being transported through Lurgan to the deceased’s native Inishbofin Island, Co. Donegal. RIC Sergeant J.J. McConnell apologised to the passengers of the car carrying the coffin; he was merely following the ‘Secret and Confidential’ orders issued to his barracks on Easter Saturday to stop and search all vehicles due to the uprising that was supposed to break out the next day. Initially bemused by these seemingly unnecessary instructions, Sergeant McConnell saw even less reason for them as the week went by, for nothing was amiss save for the absence of any newspapers or mail.

Though the wildest of rumours filled the news vacuum, McConnell remained unfazed until he asked about the identity of the coffin’s occupant. The sergeant was informed that not only had he been a colleague, the constable:

…was cycling with a dispatch to Castlebellingham, unarmed and alone when he was held up and shot by a party of Sinn Feiners, as they were then known. Then I knew something momentous had happened and I was no longer amused.[30]

McGuill and his fellow ‘Sinn Feiners’ who had remained in Dundalk were similarly struck, albeit for a very different reason. “The news of the Surrender in Dublin came to us on Saturday and was received in Dundalk with mixed feelings,” McGuill recalled, “feelings of joy and jubilation by our opponents and by feelings of sorrow and disappointment by us.”[31]

“Thus our Easter Week was ended,” MacEntee dolefully concluded in his memoirs.[32]

O’Connell Street in ruins after the Rising

But, of course, it hadn’t, for Easter Week had set in motion feelings that fused into a movement that would sweep aside its foes – and, in time, some of its followers as well. Less than two years afterwards, in February 1918, MacEntee was touring Co. Donegal, campaigning alongside Éamon de Valera as part of the general election. Four hundred supporters greeted the pair in Letterkenny before escorting them in a torchlight procession to their lodgings in town. From Letterkenny, MacEntee and de Valera travelled across Donegal, addressing large and enthusiastic crowds who waved tricolours in a mass echo of the flag the Irish Volunteers had marched under on the Rising.

No more would a foreign power govern their country, MacEntee declared, for the day of England’s difficulty and Ireland’s opportunity was upon them. Turn away from England, he urged the crowds, and do nothing except for Ireland.

1913_seachtain_na_gaeilge_posterIt was not the first step in what was to be a long and distinguished career for MacEntee – Easter Week could claim to be that start, for without the Rising, there would have been nothing and almost certainly a very different future for Ireland. But not everyone would have a future, a fact MacEntee was evidently aware of, for he took time out of his busy electioneering tour to visit Inishbofin and pay his condolences to the family of Constable McGee.[33]


[1] MacEntee, Seán. Episode at Easter (Dublin: M.H. Gill and Son Ltd., 1966), p. 82

[2] Ibid, p. 69

[3] O’Hannigan, Donal (BMH / WS 161), p. 11

[4] Ibid, pp. 20-1

[5] Greene, Arthur (BMH / WS 238), p. 5

[6] O’Hannigan, pp. 21-2

[7] MacEntee, pp. 74-5

[8] Ibid, pp. 82-5

[9] Ibid, pp. 28-33

[10] Dundalk Democrat, 17/06/1916

[11] Military Service Pensions Collection, ‘McHugh, Patrick’ (MSP34REF12512), p. 149

[12] MacEntee, p. 8

[13] Martin, Frank (BMH / WS 236), p. 4

[14] Bailey, Edward (BMH / WS 233), p. 4

[15] O’Hannigan, Donal (BMH / WS 161), p. 25

[16] MacEntee, p. 8

[17] O’Boyle, Madge. The Life and Times of Constable Charles McGee: The First RIC Casualty and the 1916 Rising in County Louth (Louth County Council, 2016), p. i

[18] McGuill, James (BMH / WS 353), pp. 17-9

[19] MacEntee, pp.107-12

[20] Ibid, p. 11

[21] Irish Times, 12/06/1916

[22] ‘McHugh,’ Military Service Pensions Collection, pp. 98-9

[23] McHugh, Patrick (BMH / WS 677), pp. 22-3 ; inquest testimony outlined in Dundalk Democrat, 06/05/1916

[24] MacEntee, pp. 113, 115-7

[25] O’Hannigan, pp. 25-29

[26] MacEntee, p. 176

[27] ‘McHugh’, Military Service Pensions Collection, pp. 141, 143-4

[28] Ibid, p. 148

[29] MacEntee, pp. 149-50, 154-5, 160-1, 164

[30] McConnell, J.J. (BMH / WS 509), pp. 4-5

[31] McGuill, p. 19

[32] MacEntee, p. 169

[33] O’Boyle, pp. 339-40



MacEntee, Seán. Episode at Easter (Dublin: M.H. Gill and Son Ltd., 1966)

O’Boyle, Madge. The Life and Times of Constable Charles McGee: The First RIC Casualty and the 1916 Rising in County Louth (Louth County Council, 2016)


Dundalk Democrat

Irish Times

Bureau of Military History Statements

Bailey, Edward, WS 233

Greene, Arthur, WS 238

Martin, Frank, WS 236

McConnell, J.J., WS 509

McGuill, James, WS 353

McHugh, Patrick, WS 677

O’Hannigan, Donal, WS 161

Military Service Pensions Collection

‘McHugh, Patrick’, MSP34REF12512

Defeat From The Jaws of Victory: The Easter Rising in Co. Louth, 1916 (Part I)

The Killing

Blood had been shed in Co. Louth, and while the loss of a single life was slight compared to the toll elsewhere in the country – specifically Dublin, where many of the streets lay in broken ruins – Constable Charles McGee’s death was deserving enough of an inquiry, held on the 4th May 1916, in the Louth Infirmary.

The first witness, Sarah Connoughton, testified as to how, on the Easter Monday of the 24th April, ten days earlier, she had seen a band of men drive into her village of Castlebellingham in a convoy of eight motorcars. As she did not get a clear look at their faces, she could not say who they were and the only noteworthy thing about them, besides their guns, were the dark trench-coats they wore.

Castlebellingham, Main Street, County Louth

This was not the first such oddity of the day; earlier, another group, likewise armed despite their civilian dress, advanced on foot through the village in the direction of Dundalk. Someone remarked that these strangers hailed from Belfast but that was the only thing Connoughton could tell.

When two members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) came to investigate these newcomers in cars, Sergeant Kiernan and Constable Donovan were held up, searched and then placed against some railings. As the RIC recruited on height, the policemen towered over their captors but, staring down the barrels of revolvers, they had no choice but to comply. A few minutes later, a third policeman appeared on his bicycle.

“Don’t go down there or you’ll be shot,” Connoughton warned Constable McGee.

Policemen of the Royal Irish Constabulary

Nothing that dramatic happened quite yet, as the armed party at first just held up the constable as they had done with the other two, with one man taking the time to remove some papers from McGee’s pocket. When a man in an officer’s uniform of the British Army drove up, he too was made to stand against the railings, his chauffeur as well, in what was becoming a small collection of prisoners.

As not much else was happening, a crowd had gathered in the street, until the abrupt sounds of three gunshots and a whistle blast caused the onlookers to scatter. Connoughton’s first thought was that the revolvers were being used to puncture the tyres of the car belonging to the British officer, until she heard someone say: “Run, they’re going to shoot.”

Connoughton was in the process of doing just that when she heard both another shot and Constable McGee say: “Oh, my arm”:

I saw him catch his arm at the same time. He staggered across the road and I went towards him. There was blood streaming from his coat, and I said, “Oh, God, are you shot?”

McGee had been. He collapsed face-down, and Connoughton rushed to find help. Three of the men from the armed party were watching as she returned with a doctor but did nothing to help or hinder as McGee was taken inside and later to a hospital, where the constable died.

Connoughton’s testimony was enough to earn the respect of Mr McGahan, the Justice of the Peace presiding over the inquiry:

McGahan: I think, Miss Connoughton, you behaved very charitably and very bravely on this occasion.

Juror: The jury thoroughly endorse your remarks.

Connoughton: I only did my duty.

Old Louth Infirmary, the site of the inquest into Charles McGee’s death

The Killer

The second witness on the stand, Patrick Byrne, was able to fill in some of the details, such as the identity of one of the shooters: Paddy McHugh had been covering the captives with a rifle from the footboard of one of the cars, a Ford, from a distance of about seven or eight yards. Byrne even provided a description of McHugh:

He was a man of 5 ft. 7 or 8 inches in height and of slight build; he was inclined to be dark; he wore a brown, soft hat, and a long greyish overcoat.

Byrne had watched as the British officer and his driver were added to the line-up by the railings, with the latter next to McGee, who stood the furthest from McHugh on the far end. One of the others tried disabling the officer’s car by twice firing his pistol at the front wheel. As for what happened then, Byrne believed – “I am of the opinion,” as he put it – that it was McHugh, his rifle held up against his shoulder, who fired:

I heard the report of the shot and saw Constable McGee place his two hands on his breast and reel round. The chauffeur caught him and prevented him from falling.

Byrne admitted to not seeing a discharge from the rifle but, considering how it had fired at the same time as McGee’s shocked reaction, the theory of McHugh as the killer was a logical assumption. At that point, Byrne ran into the safety of a nearby shop. He had seen enough to conclude to the court that the shooting:

…was done without any provocation whatever. I saw the whole occurrence and it was deliberately done.

Charles McGee

As for the shots at the car-tyres, Byrne did not think it likely that they could have been the ones to hit McGee. Somewhat contradicting himself, Byrne continued, “in my opinion McHugh could not have taken deliberate aim at McGee,” considering how, if he had meant to shoot a captive, he would have chosen one closest to him, while McGee had been the furthest away.

One of the policemen held up that day, Acting Sergeant Kiernan, was unable to provide much more on the stand, only that the ‘Sinn Feiners’ had meant business to judge from the instructions he had heard their commander – a man unknown to Kiernan – give them: “See that your rifles are properly loaded, men, and be read to obey me when I give the order.”

After checking their weapons as ordered, the men began returning to their seats in the cars, apparently making ready to depart. It was then that Kieran heard shots, though he did not see from whom. He and Donovan ran into a public-house as the crowd shouted at them to get away, and it was only some time afterwards that Kiernan learnt that McGee had been wounded – mortally, as it turned out.

“We were all unarmed and there was no resistance offered by anybody,” Kiernan told the inquiry as he finished his version of events. After consulting with each other, the jury returned its verdict: that Charles McGee had died of shock and haemorrhage from gunshots inflicted by some person or persons unknown.

183410128-f580ab76-d054-4332-a366-32309b7873e7‘Failing to Ascertain’

If McGee’s death had indeed been unintentional, then his was not the first case of firearm mishaps that day. Earlier that Monday, Seán MacEntee had been overseeing a picket of Volunteers on a country road. Having marched all night, through rain and wind, with only the barest amount of food, the men were keen to ease their burdens and so were stopping all traffic that came their way and then seizing the transport for themselves.

Irish Volunteers

When one traveller refused the demands to step down from his pony-pulled cart, MacEntee drew a pistol from his pocket. The other man raised his whip to strike, prompting a step back from MacEntee, at which point he reflexively squeezed the trigger, wounding the cart-driver in the arm.

When composing his version of events, almost four decades later in 1954, MacEntee still cringed to recall how:

The safety catch of the pistol had been put to the firing position, and I had not known it – a fact which I offer as an explanation and not as an excuse. My negligence, in failing to ascertain whether the catch was at the firing position or not, and perhaps, the hastiness with which I presented the weapon were certainly blameworthy.

Sean MacEntee
Seán MacEntee

Then it was MacEntee’s turn to be on the receiving end of another’s carelessness, when a bullet whistled past his head and those of several others from a Volunteer who had mishandled his rifle. To further add to the chaos, one of those assigned to sentry duty hurriedly returned to warn of another group which was advancing on them from the direction of Dundalk.

Judging these to be RIC from their blue jackets, the uniform of the Crown custodians, the Volunteers readied themselves for their first engagement in the name of Irish freedom. They had already captured a number of policemen who had been tailing them since their departure from Slane but that had been accomplished by the threat of force without having to exert actual violence.

Some distance still remained between the two bodies when the newcomers halted, waited and then, evidently deciding that prudence was the better part of valour, retreated back the way they had come. MacEntee later learnt that the ‘police’ he and his comrades had been about to fire on were actually fishermen on their way to Annagasson when rumours of the odd happenings piqued their interest, albeit briefly. It was an apt enough example of the confusion and uncertainty that characterised Louth during the Easter Week of 1916.[2]

Ups and Downs

Paddy Hughes

Though MacEntee had had a hunch that something big was in the works, his initial assumption when Paddy Hughes (not to be confused with Paddy McHugh, the alleged killer of Constable McGee) interrupted his duties at Dundalk Electricity Works, on the Holy Thursday of 1916, to break the news of an imminent uprising, was that Hughes was pulling his leg. Hughes insisted that he was not; besides, his demeanour – “eyes glittered with excitement, though his voice was quite cool and steady,” as MacEntee recalled – was convincing enough.

Orders had come up from Dublin: they and the rest of the Dundalk Volunteers were to muster, fully packed, and then march on Tara, come the night of Easter Sunday in three days’ time. Which did not leave a lot of time but then, MacEntee had been preparing for just this occasion ever since the Belfast native arrived in Dundalk, at the turn of 1914. The Irish Volunteers had been founded in Dublin in November 1913 and MacEntee moved quickly to ensure that his adopted town was not left behind by the new national movement.

In Dundalk Town Hall, it was agreed to set up a local company, with MacEntee as one of its founding committee members. Things were progressing smoothly…until disaster struck in August 1914, when the majority of Volunteers left to side with John Redmond, whose esteem was high in Dundalk, leaving the rest at a loss of what to do.

It was not until early 1915 that MacEntee was approached by Hughes, who MacEntee had befriended after his arrival. It was time, Hughes said, to restart the Irish Volunteers in Dundalk, except this time allied with Eoin MacNeill, Patrick Pearse and the rest of the central committee who had resisted Redmond’s control. Which was perfect for MacEntee and he went on to serve as Adjutant to the reborn Dundalk Company. Weapons were scarce, as the Redmondites had claimed most of the old stock, but the hundred or so men made do with what they had, training on sports grounds when not drilling in the John Boyle O’Reilly Hall on Clanbrassil Street.

The John Boyle O’Reilly Hall on Clanbrassil Street, Dundalk (modern day)

It was to this base of operations that MacEntee came that Thursday night, finding it already filled with fellow Volunteers, as well as a sense of excitement and anticipation in the air. Everywhere was activity: drills on whatever floor space was available, armourers’ working at a bench in the corner and knots of men from all over Louth engaged in deep conversation. Among them was Donal O’Hannigan, a recent addition from Dublin – sent by none other than Patrick Pearse – and Paddy Hughes:

Busier than any, his great big round face beaming as he moved from group to group, helping and cheering all…For years he had dreamed of such a night as this, while men had scoffed at him and mocked at him and called him mad. But he held on, and his dream had come true. On Sunday he would march to fight for the cause for which, all his life, he had laboured. Was it any wonder his heart was light?[3]

The same could have been said for MacEntee and the rest in the hall who now found themselves as players in the greatest drama of their lives, however sudden this casting-call had been. MacEntee had only been informed on the eleventh hour, and that was not untypical. Another member of the Dundalk Volunteer Committee, Patrick Duffy, only had an inkling when Hughes, upon meeting him in the street less than a week before Easter, informed him of plans for a parade on the Sunday, after which the Volunteers would be marched to Ashbourne, Co. Meath, and join others there.

Few other details were forthcoming from Hughes, and Duffy was lucky to get what little he did. Most of the other committee members, Duffy believed, were kept entirely in the dark as to the true purpose behind the Easter event. The same went for the rank-and-file, who “would have resisted attack or attempts to conscript them, but did not contemplate aggressive action.”[4]

Irish Volunteers

The Insider

Not so much was Donal O’Hannigan, who “ranked as Commandant and was described as a training officer,” remembered McHugh. To McHugh, O’Hannigan’s presence alone was a point of pride:

His allocation, I understood from Paddy Hughes, was at Hughes’ request to General Headquarters for a man with military knowledge to guide and advise the officers of Dundalk Battalion. This act of GHQ clearly shows that the 1916 Rising was not an impromptu affair, but a planned and organised affair, applying to all Ireland.[5]

Not only that, O’Hannigan personally had been helping with the script for rebellion long before coming to Louth. Even a game of football could be weaponised, such as when one of the players, one Sunday morning in Phoenix Park, carelessly kicked the ball over a barbed-wire fence and into the Magazine Fort. Watching the British soldier on duty allowing the player in to retrieve the ball, O’Hannigan began thinking of ways to exploit this chink in military security.

The Magazine Fort, Dublin

Both his underground superiors, Tom Clarke and Seán Mac Diarmada, were intrigued when O’Hannigan passed on his discovery, and assigned him to further study. From then, every match in the park would see the ball ‘accidently’ kicked over into the Fort, with sentries invariably abandoning their posts to return it, unwittingly giving O’Hannigan the germ of a plan for capturing the base, if and when the time came.[6]

None worked harder than he in laying the groundwork for this. Ever since his induction into the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), he had made the acquaintance of other rising stars in the secret society – such as Liam Mellows, Con Colbert and Seán Heuston – as well as gaining the trust of the leadership, enough for him to witness a meeting of minds between two future architects of the Easter Rising:[7]

James Connolly

[James] Connolly held that in the event of a revolution and if the English used artillery against the rebels that it would be the equivalent to recognition that they were fighting the armed forces of another country and that other nations would recognise us accordingly. On the other hand, if they only used rifles and other small arms, they could claim they were only dealing with a riot.

[Tom] Clarke maintained that no matter what they used – even poison gas – it would make no difference, as all the nations at that time were too interested in looking after their own affairs and skins to take any interest in us.[8]

Donal O’Hannigan

Military matters had long been of interest to the IRB. The Wolfe Tone Clubs, formed in 1910-1, provided cover for lectures or talks, in which some aspect of soldiering would be the subject, though O’Hannigan was to rate this clandestine recruitment drive a failure – one only met the same people at every event, he complained.

Promising better returns were the Irish Volunteers, who O’Hannigan joined in accordance with IRB instructions to its initiates. In between parades with the rest of his Dublin battalion, O’Hannigan found himself selected for special training classes reserved for officers. His IRB credentials already made him an insider, as shown when Clarke confided in him that the reason for his unit’s march to Howth, on the 26th July 1914, was to retrieve the shipment of rifles there.

Another gun-running mission in Kilcoole, on the 2nd August 1914, was likewise a success. O’Hannigan and his IRB brethren had been purchasing firearms since 1912, but Howth and Kilcoole were orders of magnitude far exceeding the odd revolver here and there as before. In a reflection of this growing confidence, Mac Diarmada tasked O’Hannigan, a week after Kilcoole, with a tour of the Irish Volunteers from Kildare to Cork, which he covered by bicycle before returning to report to Headquarters in Dublin.

Volunteer Cycle Corps

“I found all centres very active and keen, but all were short of arms” – a warning that, whatever the successes of before, the brewing revolution had yet to match the ‘weapons gap’ with the enemy.[9]

The Grand Plan

Still, the following year of 1915 saw morale remain steady amongst the Irish Volunteers, training having been intensified and munitions stockpiles reinforced by a steady stream of consignments. O’Hannigan continued to travel on behalf of the Volunteers, as well as the IRB, setting up cells of the secret fraternity wherever he could. He had by now abandoned all social and sporting life – or any life outside the cause – and, at the start of April 1916, he received instructions from Clarke and Mac Diarmada, in the former’s shop on Parnell Street, to drop his employment at the Guinness Brewery as well.

Tom Clarke (left) and Seán Mac Diarmada

Something was planned for Easter Week, Clarke revealed. O’Hannigan would play his part by taking command of the Louth-Meath-South Armagh-South Down and South Monaghan districts. This was a formidably large area to be responsible for, though O’Hannigan was not one to shirk duty, showing reluctance only in leaving paid work, particularly if there was no guarantee of success (he was to compromise by using his fourteen days’ annual leave).

As Dundalk offered the most Volunteers in the designated areas, with 270 men out of the combined 1,337 – “this has stuck in my memory through the years since” – that town was to be used as O’Hannigan’s starting point. For guidance, Clarke provided a list of IRB personnel in Dundalk, names O’Hannigan already was familiar with, having been the one to swear them in at the start. Though O’Hannigan guessed that a proper Rising was what the IRB ultimately had in mind, Clarke gave no further insight, only that he was to visit Dundalk that weekend to familiarise himself with his intended headquarters.

This O’Hannigan did on the Saturday, two weeks before Easter, and wasted no time in contacting Paddy Hughes, who introduced him in turn to MacEntee and a number of other officers. A Sunday parade by the Irish Volunteers through Dundalk, followed by field exercises under O’Hannigan’s direction, allowed him to assess the overall quality available to him.
The Court House, Dundalk

Upon his quick return to Dublin on Monday, O’Hannigan first went to see Clarke in his shop, and then to St Edna’s School, where its headmaster, Patrick Pearse, was to give further instructions to him and Séan Boylan, the commander for Co. Meath. After introducing his guests to each other, Pearse outlined their respective roles:

I was to mobilise the Volunteers from the area at Tara in Meath on Sunday (Easter) at 7 pm. On completion of mobilisation I was to read the proclamation of the Irish Republic and then march via Dunshaughlin on Blanchardstown where we would contact Sean Boylen [sic] and the Dunboyne men. We were to seize the railway at Blanchardstown and cut the line to prevent the English artillery coming from Athlone.

The Fingal Bn. [5th Bn. Dublin Brigade] were to contact us on our left flank and the Kildare men were to come in on our right flank. The Wicklow and South Co. Dublin area was to be on the right of them again. In this way we would form a ring around the city.

Dublin would thus be shielded from British counter-attacks from the countryside. In addition, the rebels could keep open supply-lines into the city, as well as – in the worst case scenario – escapes routes.

That was not all: While en route through Meath, O’Hannigan was to liberate German POWs held in Oldcastle, some of whom were artillery specialists who would man the ordnance – either captured from the enemy garrison in Athlone or delivered as part of the anticipated aid from Germany – which should help balance the weapons imparity. As for Boylan, his priority was to hold Blanchardstown until O’Hannigan could arrive, upon which the latter would take charge of the units making up the ‘ring’ while maintaining hourly contact with Pearse in central Dublin.[10]

Patrick Pearse in the uniform of a Volunteer

Step by Step

Éamonn Ceannt

All of which was far more elaborate than what had been previously envisioned. With time of the essence, O’Hannigan was to return to Dundalk that evening to ensure the IRB cells in Louth were sufficiently prepared. This took the better part of the week and it was not until Friday that he could report back to Dublin, this time in Éamonn Ceannt’s house.

Previously, he had been consulting his IRB superiors in ones and twos; gathered now was the conspiracy at almost full strength: Clarke as the chair, flanked at the table by Pearse and Mac Diarmada, with Ceannt, Joseph Plunkett and Thomas MacDonagh also present, along with Cathal Brugha by the door and another participant who O’Hannigan believed, when recounting for posterity, to be James Connolly.

They listened as O’Hannigan made his report, the news visibly pleasing them, and he was rewarded with his command of the assigned area confirmed. Perhaps emboldened by this show of faith, O’Hannigan – now Commandant O’Hannigan – made the observation that the Hill of Tara would not be an ideal choice for a military starting-point, but Pearse insisted – beginning the blow for national liberty at Ireland’s historic royal capital was too good an act of symbolism to overlook.

Artistic depiction of the various 1916 leaders

There was little else to say, only a reminder of 7 pm on Easter Sunday being zero hour, and a warning that nothing be attempted prior to that. O’Hannigan was also to avoid arrest at all cost, which the man in question thought a tall order and said as much. After mulling over the likely scenarios:

Clarke said I could use my own discretion as regards shooting, but on no account to be arrested. All were in very good spirits and laughing and talking with each other. I was now very satisfied and as I left again Ceannt came to the gate with me and as we shook hands he said “Don’t let yourself be arrested or you will never forgive yourself.”

Which was easier said than done. O’Hannigan had not even left Dublin before spotting a police detective tracking him at Amiens Street (now Connolly) Station. O’Hannigan was able to lose him, only to find more RIC men waiting as his train pulled into Dundalk on the Saturday evening, the 15th April, one week away from Easter. For now, the enemy were content to do nothing more than observe. All the same, O’Hannigan, remembering the dos and don’ts allowed to him, issued a blunt warning while addressing the Volunteers’ parade that evening:

I said that I believed that an attempt would be made at the end of the meeting to arrest me. I said “I have an automatic and a Colt revolver here and 13 rounds of ammunition, and 13 RIC [there were twenty policemen present] will die before I am arrested and then perhaps not either”.

This bold statement gave the Volunteers great heart as it was the first time anyone had spoken to them in that manner. I also wanted to let the police and the people know what the position was in case there was any shooting.

No arrest was attempted then, nor afterwards as O’Hannigan went about his business in Dundalk and elsewhere around Co. Louth. Instructions were dispatched for a general mobilisation of the Irish Volunteers on Easter Sunday, though O’Hannigan – an IRB operative through and through – kept the ultimate goal to himself. Ash Wednesday, on the 19th April, saw a dry run for the Dundalk members, even if not many knew for what, as the men were marched outside town to practise offensive and defensive manoeuvres.

Irish Volunteers

Parallel to the grand plan ran smaller ones: the former comrades who had left during the split of August 1914 still remained in the form of the National Volunteers, with the guns they had taken with them stored in Ardee town. Phil McMahon, the officer in charge of the Irish Volunteers there, assured O’Hannigan that these would be seized in time for their own ends.

Eoin O’Duffy

Meanwhile, Eoin O’Duffy of Monaghan sent word of a large amount of explosives that he was willing to give to his comrades in Louth. Despite efforts to retrieve this, however, the material never arrived, though this was a small stone on an otherwise smooth road. Besides, the promised shipment of German aid was on its way, as Clarke and Mac Diarmada told O’Hannigan when he reported to them in Dublin on the 20th April, the last Thursday before all hell was due to break loose.[11]

O’Hanigan shared in their confidence. When Paddy McHugh told him that, while he was willing to fight for Ireland, there was the paucity of weapons to consider, O’Hannigan replied: “That will be alright. We’ll get them.”[12]

Moving Out

A true conspirator, O’Hannigan showed his hand to the Louth men only one card at a time. After the Volunteers as a whole had been informed of a routine parade set for the end of the week, on Easter Sunday, he took the officers aside, including Hughes and MacEntee, and broke the real plans to them: There would be nothing routine about that day; instead, it was to be the blow for Irish liberty:

I gave out the necessary instructions, informing them the Rising was starting at 7 pm, on Sunday evening. I also gave them our plan as far as the mobilisation at Tara. All information given to them was secret and not to be conveyed to the men or any other person outside themselves.

By Saturday evening, O’Hannigan had updated the remaining IRB members in Louth about the insurrection-to-come. Slowly, surely, the Rubicon was being crossed.

Still, however small the steps being taken, an event of such magnitude could not help but  create ripples; the number of Volunteers attending Confession on Saturday evening, and then Mass in the morning, alone roused official suspicion. RIC surveillance increased, with no less than eight policemen posted outside where O’Hannigan stayed on Saturday. Otherwise, the guardians of the status quo made no moves to intervene – at the rate they were leaving things, it would be too late by the time they realised what was being plotted beneath their noses.

RIC policemen taking it easy

The explosives from Monaghan had still not materialised, so O’Hannigan focused on a chance closer to home: the rifles stored in Ardee by their rivals, the National Volunteers. Seizing them would require precise timing. As per strict orders from GHQ, nothing could be attempted before 7 pm, the appointed time for the Rising, when the rebels would need them the most.

Rather than delay, the Volunteers would set off for Tara as planned, while McMahon seized the rifles in Ardee and then deliver them to a waiting MacEntee in Dundalk. Then MacEntee was to catch up with the rest of the army, via a car laden with the goods, along with any news worth forwarding, for a friendly worker in the Dundalk telephone exchange had agreed to keep MacEntee abreast of any developments elsewhere in Ireland while he could.

Plaque for the John Boyle O’Reilly Hall on Clanbrassil Street, Dundalk

The Volunteers began to gather in Dundalk Square on Sunday morning at 9 am, with around a hundred and sixty standing to attention by half past, each man carrying three days’ worth of rations as instructed and holding whatever arms they had. Judging the iron to be hot, Commandant O’Hannigan gave the order to march in the direction of Ardee, their first stop on the trek to Tara, and where the appropriated rifles were hopefully waiting. Three miles out of Dundalk, McMahon met them on the road to inform O’Hannigan of the bad news: the rifles were staying where they were. Too many RIC watchers on the scene, McMahon explained.[13]

This left the army with “twelve bore shotguns, a few small arms amongst 200 men,” according to McHugh. Bayonets had been made by bolting blades from garden shears or hedge-clippers to the gun-barrels. With this martial pittance the Louth Volunteers intended to confront the might of the British Empire.[14]

Irish Volunteers

The Heist

Which would not do at all. O’Hannigan decided on a calculated risk: he and McMahon would drive into Ardee, while a detachment of fifty Volunteers would advance on foot to the town’s northern entrance. The rest of the army would continue on as before, under the command of Paddy Hughes.

Once in Ardee, McMahon took O’Hannigan to the chemist’s shop where the National Volunteers kept their coveted munitions. The four RIC constables outside did nothing as O’Hannigan rapped on the door. He entered as soon as it opened, with the air of a man who had every right to be where he was and to do what he was doing:

I asked the lady who had opened it if the rifles were still here and she said “yes”. I said I wanted to get them away as the “Sinn Feiners” were after them. She said “Thank God I have not slept since you left them here”. We found the rifles in a room in the house and McMahon and carried them to the hall and placed them against the wall.

The constables maintained their lack of reaction as O’Hannigan stepped outside to blow three blasts on his whistle, the signal for the fifty Irish Volunteers coming in from the north to make their appearance After all forty-eight Lee Enfield rifles had been removed from the chemist’s and in the hands of the Volunteers, O’Hannigan and McMahon got back in their car and drove next to where the ammunition was.

Ardee, Co. Louth (today)

Once again, a simple act of deception was sufficient:

Previous to this I had arranged with McMahon to have one of his men go to this house and to tell the people there that he had left the Irish Volunteers and had joined the Redmond [National] Volunteers and that the Irish Volunteers were after the ammunition and that it should be taken away and stored somewhere where the Irish Volunteers could not find it.

As before, this worked perfectly, the caretakers even assisting O’Hannigan and McMahon, upon their arrival, with the removal of the three boxes, each holding a thousand rounds. O’Hannigan had seized the pride of his rivals, equipped his men with what they needed most, and without as much as the threat of force, in keeping with GHQ’s directives.[15]

1871 Mauser Rifle, of the type commonly used by the Irish Volunteers

Although not present himself, MacEntee would recall this coup, and the exultation from it, in giddy, almost romantic terms:

Those rifles had long been a source of secret heart-burning to us. Every time a man handled his old single-shot, short-range shotgun, he thought of those beautiful Lee-Metfords, firing their five shots and sighted up to two thousand yards. Many times we had discussed the advisability of seizing them and, had we not been certain that when they were wanted in earnest they could be easily got, we would have taken them many months before. But the project was always deferred to a more propitious moment.[16]

That moment had now come – and not one too soon, considering the urgent need for weapons. But there was also the taste of sweet revenge. Back in 1915, when twenty or thirty men had met in Dundalk Town Hall with the intent of re-establishing the Irish Volunteers following the Split, the attendees found the building surrounded by rowdies from the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), a fraternity allied to the IPP and with a strong presence in Dundalk.

Belt-buckle with the initials AOH (Ancient Order of Hibernians)

Upon being refused entrance, the Hibernians tried to force their way in with sticks and clubs, prompting the defenders to smash furniture for makeshift cudgels to wield in response. The battle spilled out onto the street and was only broken up by the arrival of the RIC; even then, those leaving the Town Hall at the end of their resumed meeting had risked being set upon by AOH gangs lurking in the area.[17]

Stopping at Ardee

Inside Ardee, the Dundalk men were joined by their local comrades and some arrivals from Dunleer, swelling the army to about two hundred and thirty. Refreshments were in order, and so O’Hannigan arranged for tea and food to be purchased and brought out. While the men ate and rested their feet, the sergeant of the RIC detail, who were watching at a discreet distance, asked O’Hannigan for a quiet word. When he obliged:

The Sergeant told me that the telephones were going strong and that reinforcements were converging on Ardee from several points. He wanted to know if we were going back to Dundalk or going forward. Apparently his main concern was to get us out of Ardee and his district before there was a clash.

Even if most of the Volunteers had by now guessed the true ambition behind their manoeuvres, keeping the enemy in the dark for as long as possible would be useful. They were going for a lengthy trek and then back to Dundalk, O’Hannigan assured the sergeant, who was relieved to hear this, even agreeing to the request for more refreshments to be prepared for when the Volunteers came back through Ardee – which, of course, O’Hannigan had no intention of doing.

The only way now was forward.[18]

Irish Volunteers

Placated the sergeant may have been, the RIC continued to shadow the column out of Ardee and towards Slane. “The progress now was slowing as our untrained men were tiring,” remembered Paddy McHugh. McHugh had been previously entrusted with delivering messages by O’Hannigan, and thus knew more than most, but he could see the effects of keeping the others in the dark beginning to show around him.  “It would be untrue to say that there was no grumbling as the rank and file of the men did not know where our main objective lay.”[19]

Even worse consequences of conspiracy were soon revealed. McHugh had never joined the IRB, “having a holy horror of secret societies.” It was an aversion he would consider fully justified in the years to come: “Truly, secret societies only breed traitors and informers.”[20]

1461348_10152433749850739_7282139786168268616_nWhich is a matter of opinion, perhaps, but keeping one hand ignorant of the other’s doings – the strategy the Easter Rising was built on – would certainly prove to have repercussions no less unfortunate.

The Volunteers had not yet reached Slane when MacEntee caught up with them in a motorcar at around 2:45 pm. As instructed, he was bringing news on the general situation in Ireland, though the message was not one even insiders like O’Hannigan and McHugh could have foreseen. By the authority of Eoin MacNeill, Chief of Staff of the Irish Volunteers, all activities, such as the one they were currently performing, were to be ceased at once and the men to return home until further notice. The Rising had just been cancelled.[21]

To be continued in: Victory From The Jaws of Defeat: The Easter Rising in Co. Louth, 1916 (Part II)


[1] Dundalk Democrat, 06/05/1916

[2] MacEntee, Seán (BMH / WS 1052), pp. 51-3

[3] Ibid, pp. 2-5

[4] Duffy, Patrick (BMH / WS 237), p. 6

[5] McHugh, Patrick (BMH / WS 677), p. 11

[6] O’Hannigan, Donal (BMH / WS 161), pp. 7-8

[7] Ibid, pp. 2-3

[8] Ibid, p. 9

[9] Ibid, pp. 3-6

[10] Ibid, pp. 8-12

[11] Ibid, pp. 12-15

[12] McHugh, p. 12

[13] O’Hannigan, pp. 16-18

[14] McHugh, p. 13

[15] O’Hannigan, pp. 18-20

[16] MacEntee, p. 8

[17] McHugh, pp. 9-10

[18] O’Hannigan, pp. 20-1

[19] McHugh, p. 15

[20] Ibid, pp. 11-2

[21] O’Hannigan, p. 21



Dundalk Democrat

Bureau of Military History Statements

Duffy, Patrick, WS 237

MacEntee, Seán, WS 1052

McHugh, Patrick, WS 677

O’Hannigan, Donal, WS 161

Denial Under Fire: The Case of Patrick Mulrennan, Victim of the Irish Civil War, October-November 1922

A Civilised State

The preceding hours in the Dáil, on the 29th February 1928, had been humdrum enough: a debate about old age pensions, with Labour urging for their increase, to the objection of the Cumann na nGaedheal Government, who pointed out the extra costs this would entail. The topic turned to that of taxation and whether it need be raised to match any pension expansions: the Government argued that this would prove inevitable, while the Opposition insisted not. Among the latter’s representatives in the chamber, Dr Seán Tubridy, the Fianna Fáil TD for Galway, claimed that if Government Ministers were unable to find the required money, then his party could and all without taxing a single extra cent.

550px-executive_council_of_the_irish_free_state_1928Which all seemed part of the procedure of parliamentary life: the cut n’ thrust of debate, the claims and counter-arguments, the worthy rhetoric and ambitious promises and outbursts of laughter at the occasional quip. The tone turned considerably darker when another Fianna Fáil Deputy, Dr Patrick O’Dowd of Roscommon, brought up a new point, one that scratched at the surface of a past never too far away for many in the chamber, or for the country as a whole.

Why, asked O’Dowd, had the Coroner’s inquest into the fatal shooting of Patrick Mulrennan on the 6th October 1922, almost six years ago, been adjourned no less than three times without a definite answer? Was this the usual procedure?

Patrick O’Dowd

If not, then the TD for Roscommon challenged the Government Ministers on the benches opposite him to set up an impartial investigation to finally put the matter to rest. The ostensible reason why O’Dowd wanted this was the financial plight of the next of kin; given that Mulrennan had been his widowed mother’s sole support, it was only fitting that the Government provide for her upkeep, especially since it had been the cause of Patrick’s death.

All that was known for sure, O’Dowd continued, was that Mulrennan had perished shortly after his wounding by the gun of a National Army officer. Mulrennan was a prisoner at the time in Custume Barracks, Athlone, during a mutiny by the inmates, who had already been warned to behave lest they be shot – at least, that was the official line or the closest to one in lieu of an inquest.

Except, the Fianna Fáil TD argued, there had been no such unrest in the prison. As proof, O’Dowd had statements to that effect by ninety-four former detainees at Athlone, and he could bring five hundred more if needs be. The story they told was a very different one to the Government’s and that it was:

Mulrennan was shot by Colonel Lawlor, who, according to the deputy [O’Dowd], entered the compound where the prisoners were and fired a shot which did not hit any of the prisoners. Then Colonel Lawlor’s senor officer, who was with him, said: “You are a bad shot, Tony.” Colonel Lawlor then fired again and wounded Mulrennan, who died as a result of his injuries. Mulrennan when he was shot was seated on a dust-bin reading a book.

Little wonder, then – if what O’Dowd said was true – that the inquest had been continuously delayed, since the Government then was the same as the present one, crimes and all. “In any civilised State, those who took prisoners were responsible for their safe custody,” O’Dowd said, driving the point home. “This prisoner, standing helpless behind bars, had been shot by the second officer in command at Athlone, in the presence of his senior officer.”[1]

‘A Wonderful Shot’

Seán Mac Eoin

O’Dowd could hardly have been ignorant of the identity of this senior officer in question; after all, Seán Mac Eoin was still prominent in the Free State military hierarchy as Quartermaster-General. Outing him may have been regarded by O’Dowd as an accusatory step too far. Mary Mulrennan was under no such public restraints when applying for a pension in 1933 and with a much more sympathetic government in place since the election of Fianna Fáil. Even so, she was short on specifics in her brief description of the eleven years-old event that claimed her son’s life:

Wounded while prisoner in Athlone Military Barracks a few days previous by Free State officers over quarrel.[2]

No names were given and nothing further said about the circumstances of this ‘quarrel’. Liam Forde, a former officer in the Irish Republican Army (IRA) who was writing in support of her application, was similarly sparse in his contribution:

Shot by a Free State Officer here [in Athlone] in November [sic?], 1922. Removed to Curragh Military Hospital where he died a few days afterwards. No record of his death…in the ordinary Registers.[3]

Between the dearth of of paperwork and the thrice-timed adjournment of the inquiry, definite answers are frustratingly hard to come by. Even Mulrennan’s date of death is disputed. The Military Service Registration Board recorded it as the 5th November 1922, only to then change it to the 3rd, with the cause of death being a gunshot wound to the abdomen. These facts were taken from the “A.& D. Book, Curragh”, there being “no other medical records available.”[4]

Adding to the confusion, the date of the fatal injury was given as the 3rd November as well, conflicting with that of the 6th October as stated by O’Dowd – and Poblacht Na h-Eireann: War News, the only contemporary source, albeit far from an unbiased one, given its role as mouthpiece for the anti-Treaty IRA cause. With the Civil War in full swung, and a Free State misdeed to expose, the newspaper was only too eager to publish in full its version – purportedly given by eyewitnesses – of how Major-General Seán Mac Eoin entered Custume Barracks that day in October 1922.

Custume Barracks, Athlone

Part of the compound had been set aside to hold Irish Republican Army (IRA) POWs. With Mac Eoin was his right-hand man, Colonel Anthony Lawlor, who decided, while waiting outside Q Hut for Mac Eoin, that it was a good idea to draw his revolver and shoot in the direction of N Block:

On McKeon [alternative spelling] hearing the report of the gun he rushed out and asked Lawlor “If he had got any” to which Lawlor replied “No. But by J____ I will not miss this time.” While saying so he drew his revolver again and fired point blank into a group of men who were sitting on a dust-bin outside N. Block. The bullet, a 45 pierced the side of a young man, Patrick Mulrennan.

“I am shot,” Mulrennan was reported to have said, as he “grasped one of his comrades by the shoulders, pointing to his side where the bullet hit.” His fellow prisoners had stripped off his coat and shirt, stretching him out on the ground as they tried to administer first aid, when Mac Eoin and Lawlor strode over to inspect the latter’s handiwork. Mac Eoin:

…pressing his finger on the wound, and of a sudden turned round and said to the prisoners, ‘By God, some more of ye would need it too.” After that they walked over to O. Block where there was a patient in bed. Lawlor asked “What was he doing there” and the young lad replied he was sick. McKeon shouted “Shoot the ____” and both walked out. Mulrennan was taken to Hospital where he now lies in a very critical condition.”

Whether on the 3rd or 5th November, Mulrennan was dead by the time Poblacht went to print on the 11th. As further proof of its story, the newspaper also published an accompanying letter it claimed was intercepted from Lawlor to his mother. In it, Lawlor boasted of how:

I shot one of the prisoners the other day (wounded him), it was a wonderful shot. I had threatened them…26 times and they ignored the sentries because they knew they were firing over their heads, things are becoming more orderly since I did it.

“Such are the types of Irish people who are being sacrificed by the Mulcahys, the McKeons and the Lawlors,” added the Poblacht commentary, in case its readers forgot which side they were supposed to be on, “to complete their treason and earn the contemptuous thanks of their Imperial masters.”[5]

39143_lgA Little Prussian?

While accounting for wartime propaganda, both Mac Eoin and Lawlor had earned fearsome reputations among their adversaries. When Ernie O’Malley, as Acting Assistant IRA Chief of Staff, in October 1922, asked for names of pro-Treaty officers “who have ill-treated prisoners, or who have acted in the murder gangs” in order to know who was to be “shot at sight”, he added in his dispatch that Mac Eoin and Lawlor were to be included on the hit list. Three months later, in January 1923, O’Malley – by then a captive himself in Mountjoy – would hear from other inmates transferred from Athlone that Lawlor “is as one fellow expressed it ‘a living devil.’”[6]

Richard Mulcahy

Lawlor’s own side might have agreed with that assessment. A Free State deserter claimed that Lawlor “always does the ‘Little Hun’ in an attack, he forces on his men at the point of a revolver”, while Richard Mulcahy expressed concern to Mac Eoin, in November 1922, that Lawlor appeared “just a bit touched it would be serious enough to think that important operations were left in his hands, or that he was allowed bear any responsibility at all in connection with them.”[7]

Not that Mac Eoin or Mulcahy could afford to be fussy, for the overall quality in the National Army, as an internal report admitted, was dire. Since officers often owed their appointment to service in the guerrilla war against Britain, many were struggling to adapt to the new, more open method of warfare, knowing “nothing beyond the limited tactics of ambushes, street fighting, car bombing and private assassination.” Considering how the troops in general were “very badly disciplined, frequently mutinous and very inefficient (militarily) sometimes treacherous and except in certain Barracks, dirty and slovenly”, driving soldiers on at gunpoint, as Lawlor supposedly did, might have been as good a motivational method as any.[8]

Sound Judgement?

At least Lawlor could claim a proper military background, albeit from an army many of his colleagues had been fighting against only months earlier. For all his toil and trouble, Lawlor could never quite remove the blemish to his career as a soldier in the Irish army – first the Irish Republican one and then the National – that he had come late to the fight.

Lawlor, An t-Óglác, 21 April 1923 (Vol. 1, No. 5)
Tony Lawlor (from An t-Óglách, 21st April 1923 (Vol. 1, No. 5)

It was not his fault, as Lawlor explained in his (unsuccessful) application for a military pension in 1936. The poor health that had prompted his demobilisation from the Royal Air Force in the summer of 1919 also kept him from joining the nascent insurgency in his home country. When he was finally able to apply in August 1920, he did so through the Gaelic League for lack of knowing where else to approach. A reluctance to consider him due to his prior allegiance further stymied Lawlor until he was finally allowed a chance to prove his mettle, doing so with flying colours, according to his peers at the time, at least those writing to the Pension Board in support of his attempt.[9]

Seán Sheehan was introduced to Lawlor in August 1921 by Michael Collins, who “stressed the point that he (Major Lawlor) had given excellent service before the Truce in and around Dublin.” Sheehan’s role as O/C of the Fermanagh IRA Brigade saw him undertake raids over the soon-to-be border into the Unionist-dominated North, for while there may have been a Truce on, certain hostilities persisted. When an incursion into Enniskillen, that Lawlor was meant to help lead, went badly awry, he had a narrow escape to the safety of Cavan, unlike several others who were wounded or arrested.

IRA Flying Column

Later operations were more fruitful, such as when:

Subsequently Major Lawlor established a post at Blacklion (near the Border) disarming the R.U.C. and sending them over the Border…he was later in charge of the party that carried out a successful raid on Belco, Fermanagh, R.U.C. Barracks, when the whole garrison was captured, together with arms and equipment.

“I do not think I could overstate the efficiency and sound judgement as well as the keen sense of co-operation displayed by Major Lawlor in that area under very trying circumstances,” Sheehan wrote. “His energy and guidance were a source of inspiration to all Officers at all times.”[10]

michael-collins-1As with Sheehan, Mac Eoin met Lawlor through their mutual commander. When Collins offered him the post of O/C of the First Midland Division, Mac Eoin replied that he would accept as long as he also had “a good Adjutant who would have pre-Truce service and who knew their work” to help shoulder the burden. “I recalled distinctly his references to Lawlor and they were of a high character for the period of several months prior to the Truce.”[11]

Their working relationship almost ended before it could properly begin, for Lawlor’s immediate thought to the news of the Treaty being signed in December 1921 was ‘We can’t touch that’, fearing that the country would grow complacent with a half-measure and not seek the full amount. But struggling on against superior British forces did not seem a viable long-term option either, as Collins pointed out to him.

“What are you going to fight with?” Collins asked pointedly.

When the British garrison withdrew from Athlone in February 1922, as per the terms of the Treaty, Lawlor was in charge of the Irish troops waiting to replace them. “We met them coming across Athlone Bridge and they didn’t return our ‘eyes right’,” Lawlor later told the historian Calton Younger. “It was the bitterness of their evacuation which reinforced my convictions.” To add to the snub, the retreating Tommies had cut down the flagpole in Athlone, a spiteful parting gesture that did not disguise the truth that, as Mac Eoin put it, “to vacate a position is to lose it.”[12]

England’s loss was an Irish gain, as Mac Eoin and Lawlor saw it.

British soldiers departing from Athlone, 1922

Others didn’t. Seven months later, in September 1922, Lawlor was part of a convoy of Free State troops making their way over the Ox Mountains to rejoin Mac Eoin in Tobercurry, Co. Sligo. “The road made a series of s-bends round low, bumpy hills. We had a number of vehicles and we couldn’t see more than one car’s length in front of us,” Lawlor recalled to Younger. Lying in wait were an armed party from the IRA faction which had chosen to oppose the Treaty and, by extension, the Free State. “They ambushed us, got us badly.”

Discharging his Duties

Joe Ring
Joe Ring

Lawlor survived, if just about. He hurriedly took position behind a low bank on the roadside, only to be hit in the arm by bullets coming through which also struck the neighbouring man. Lawlor slung his downed comrade over his shoulder before seeking better shelter, scaring away in the process two or three armed assailants – from the blood, Lawlor later guessed, pouring from the wounded soldier and down onto Lawlor’s head and shoulders, giving him an almost demonic look. An armoured car, sent by Mac Eoin from Tobercurry, arrived on the scene in time to rescue the pinned convoy, though not before some had been killed, including Colonel Joe Ring, who Lawlor had ordered to take the other side of the road when the lead began flying. A seasoned combatant from the fight with Britain, who was due to begin as Commissioner of the new Garda Siochana, Ring was a grievous loss.[13]

Lawlor, for his part, “sustained a slight wound, but he is still discharging his duties,” reported the Irish Times.[14]

Free State soldiers receiving medical treatment (colourised photograph)

Duties included leading Free State operations in North Mayo, later in the year. By December 1922, Lawlor was able to report victory to Mac Eoin, and a hard-earned one at that. They had had “6 or 7 minor scraps of the ambush nature,” he told Mac Eoin, as well as “one pitched battle (not exaggerating)” at Newport, until recently a stronghold for the Anti-Treatyites.

For the Free Staters, it was as much a triumph over their own disarray as against the enemy, the former having forced Lawlor to delay his campaign by a few days in order to bring his soldiers in Claremorris up to scratch. Another complication was the lack of telegraph communication between Claremorris and the other towns he intended to use as stepping-stones, holding up the National Army long enough for it to arrive late in the night at Castlebar. In a rare moment of leniency, Lawlor allowed his soldiers the night to sleep, before moving on – he “flung them out” as he put it – the first thing in the morning, at 6:30 am, to Newport.

National Army troops on the march

The running battle took the combatants past Newport, over the river and to Letterlough, lasting, in Lawlor’s estimate, six and a half hours from midnight to the break of dawn. Between the darkness of night, ignorance of the local area and a front stretching nearly four miles long, a decisive end to the fight proved impossible to grasp:

We kept extending to outflank and it was a race on either side. Newport was forced early but it was not until 5 o’clk [sic] that their left flank was turned and even then the centre had some trouble in forcing its was [sic] through…Their position was well chosen in that their front was protected by the River which forms a capital L upside down at Newport.

Lawlor was honest enough to admit to Mac Eoin that he had rashly pushed ahead, imperilling his right flank. It took his stepping forth in person to the front line and a bayonet charge from his reinforcements – “I then led a couple of charges firing from the hip” – to reach the river:

I then had to extend the lines to outflank the upringt [sic] of the L. This was eventually done and we crossed the river easily enough though some men got very wet being nearly up to their armpits. The Line was then like a Capital L upside down with a full stop, full stop being Newport. Our outflanking movement could best be shown by placing another capital the Right [way] up so that the upright would correspond with the upright of the other.

Lawlor obviously had an eye for the technical details of battle. There was also the human factor to consider: by the time the enemy troops had withdrawn altogether, Lawlor’s own were:

…very cold, wet, tired and exhausted i.e. They had been soaked in the bogs all day and then wet in the river. They had got chilled fighting in the darkness. I ordered every man a half-glass of Whisky – Rum was not available. I hope there will not be trouble about this as I considered it was necessary sir.[15]

It was another uncharacteristically tolerant gesture on his part; otherwise, Lawlor assured Mac Eoin that he was “enforcing absolute Prussian Discipline here”, unknowingly echoing the hostile description of him as a ‘Little Hun’. Lawlor might not even have minded, had he known – on Machiavelli’s question as to whether it is better to be feared or loved, Lawlor knew his answer.

His brand of regime “is wanted as I am afraid not liked…I give no second chances now.” Needless to say, after the previously lax standards, his “enforcing of Discipline was a nasty shock to some of them at first”, but Lawlor was determined not to “tolerate the least deviations from orders. I excuse no failure.”[16]

Free State soldiers on parade

Was there an eagerness to impress here? In another report, Lawlor told Mac Eoin that the men had taken to using ‘Up McKeon and into it’ as a war cry, while dubbing their field hospital ‘Hospital McKeon’. Mulcahy expressed his disapproval of this excessive familiarity when he read about it but there was no doubting that Lawlor and Mac Eoin made an effective team as even their enemies could appreciate.[17]

Custume Barracks

During the fighting in Co. Sligo, in July 1922, some Anti-Treatyites took shelter in a country home near Collooney. According to one, Broddie Malone, “Tony Lawlor wanted to blow in the cottage with an eighteen pounder, but Seán MacEoin wouldn’t let him use the gun on us.” Malone was spared death by artillery, being taken as a prisoner instead to Custume Barracks.[18]

Tom Maguire

Another unwilling resident was Tom Maguire, a prominent Mayo IRA officer, whose time inside gave him a chance to observe the differences between the two Free State officers. “MacEoin was decent to me and to the men, but before that Tony Lawlor annoyed our men,” Maguire later told Ernie O’Malley as part of the latter’s interviews with fellow combatants from the era. Not that life in Custume Barracks was particularly decent to begin with, what with the bad food, cold stone floors and overcrowding. Nonetheless, Maguire did not think he had had it too bad – “I was not personally mistreated” – even if the guards played disturbing games of being “outside our cells at night pretending to shoot in.”

Maguire tolerated all this for eight months until June 1923, when he and some others seized the opportunity to escape via a hole surreptitiously made in the wash house’s wall. A couple of men had previously flown the coop, prompting their captors to build crows’ nests along the walls. These did not deter Maguire and his fellow escapees from dashing through the gap once it was widened sufficiently, past the less-than-watchful sentry in the crow’s nest. Ten miles of walking through the countryside later, they reached the relative safety of friendly dugouts.[19]

Malone also fled with eight more, using makeshift ladders constructed from scavenged bed-boards and nails. When a stormy night offered the best cover they were going to get, the men scaled the walls to freedom, albeit a short-lived one for Malone, for he was soon recaptured and spent the rest of the Civil War in a succession of prisons.[20]

Desmond Fitzgerald

The regularity in which detainees in Athlone had thumbed their noses at security was still a sore point in 1928, when Desmond Fitzgerald, as Minister of Defence, responded to Dr O’Dowd’s claims of murder and cover-up. Fitzgerald did not quite refute the accusations, instead providing context to the incident: due to previous breakouts, the nine hundred and fifty captives of Custume Barracks had been confined to their quarters. In response, they undertook a hunger strike which ended in an agreement between them and the military authorities: the former would have a certain freedom of movement within the Barracks, save for designated buildings which they were forbidden from entering under threat of being fired upon.

“It should be remembered that the country was in a state of war at the time,” Fitzgerald added:

On the 6th October, there was an attempt at escape by a prisoner, and a large number of prisoners were found inside the house they had been ordered out of. A shot was fired over and another shot into that building where the prisoners should not have been. The second shot wounded Mulrennan.

Far from settling the matter, Fitzgerald’s explanation provoked a heated exchange in the rest of the Dáil chambers, starting with a protest from the Fianna Fáil TD for Roscommon:

Gerald Boland

Gerald Boland: He was seated inside the door on a dustbin.

Fitzgerald: Where he should not have been.

Patrick Smith (Fianna Fáil TD for Cavan): Did you attempt to escape [from British jails]?

Fitzgerald: If I did, I would be prepared to take the consequences and not whine about it afterwards.

Boland: The question is not what brought him there. The Minister should not go into these things.

Michael Cleary (Fianna Fáil TD for Mayo): The Minister made a deliberately false statement to the House.

P. Hogan (Deputy Speaker): I cannot allow that. The Deputy must not say that of any deputy or Minister, and he must withdraw it.

Cleary: It is such a glaringly false statement that I cannot withdraw it.

Hogan: If the Deputy does not withdraw, I will adjourn the Dáil.

Cleary: I cannot.

At this, Hogan made good his warning and declared the House adjourned, ending a debate that had been as much about refighting a war six years past as the plight of a single bereaved woman. Fitzgerald had been dismissive of O’Dowd’s request for compensation for Mary Mulrennan, arguing that, even if Patrick had been his mother’s sole support, the Minister did:

…not like to suggest that young people who went to war against the State on the advice of others did so for the purpose of improving the financial position of their families, and he did not think it was the duty of the State to give compensation now.[21]

Mary Mulrennan would have to wait until 1934 to claim her due, when the Military Service Registration Board judged her deserving of a partial dependents’ gratuity of £112.10.00 (one hundred and twelve pounds and ten shillings). It had taken a while, but “the difficulty regarding evidence of death of the late Patrick Mulrennan has…been overcome,” wrote Senator William Cummins to the Board.[22]

Straight Talk

Ernie O’Malley

The same cannot necessarily be said for the historian. In the interviews conducted by O’Malley with former inhabitants of Custume Barracks, none mentioned a mutiny, hunger strike or any other sort of large-scale fracas as described by Fitzgerald to the Dáil (which, if true, would give some credence to the letter in Poblacht in which ‘Lawlor’ bragged about restoring order by shooting a prisoner). Instead, the versions given, such as by Tommy Heavy in 1951, align more with O’Dowd’s or Poblacht, in that Lawlor had made his first shot out of little more than a whim and his second when Mac Eoin egged him on:

This day Tony Lawlor and MacEoin arrived in the compound. Mulrennan, who lived near Ballyhaunis, was sitting down hammering a ring on the floor outside the door…Some fellows, who were in the room, cleared out when they saw MacEoin and Tony Lawlor. MacEoin said something to Tony Lawlor, and Lawlor fired at Mulrennan. MacEoin is alleged to have said, ‘That was a bad shot,’ and Lawlor said, ‘I won’t miss this time,’ and he hit Mulrennan in the thigh. It was neglected, the wound, and he died.

Not surprisingly, Heavy found his next place of enforced residence, Mountjoy, to be “a relief after Athlone.”[23]

Johnny Grealy was to say almost exactly the same thing, in that “Mountjoy was a palace compared to Athlone.” He too had quite a tale to tell about life inside Custume Barracks, referring to Mulrennan by the nickname ‘Patch’:

Patch Mulrennan raised a window and went in to boil water one day. Someone shouted at him that MacEoin and Tony Lawlor had come in. Lawlor fired as Patch was coming out the window. ‘You missed,’ said MacEoin.

‘Well, I won’t miss this time,’ said Tony Lawlor, and he fired again and Patch died there and then.[24]

Which was not quite accurate as Mulrennan was to linger on until the 3rd (or 5th) November 1922. The detail of him boiling water differs from the one provided by Heavy, who says Mulrennan was hammering a ring at the time (while O’Dowd had him reading a book while seated on a dustbin) – but the essence in all is the same, as is Michael Kilroy’s account:

Mulrennan was shot sitting beside Paddy Hegarty in Athlone. Lawlor fired a few shots at him…MacEoin would say when Lawlor fired, ‘You missed him.’

Michael Kilroy

Not that these testimonies are entirely neutral, for O’Malley tended to interview subjects who had, like him, sided against the Treaty in the Civil War. Also, none of them claimed to have seen the incident for themselves and had presumably learned of it from others, who likewise may have been relaying second-hand information. But the consistency of these multiple versions, along with details like Mac Eoin goading Lawlor and Lawlor’s cocksure reply, makes the case for the prosecution hard to refute.

And yet…and yet…and yet…if there was more to the tale than the brief, sanitised one, then there is also more to Mac Eoin. Kilroy had told his damning story to O’Malley about what Mac Eoin and Lawlor had done right after another anecdote about the former, one which puts the enemy general in a very different light. Wounded from his capture in Mayo, Kilroy had been brought to Athlone, expecting to be executed as per Free State policy for POWs caught bearing arms, except “MacEoin made a special journey to Dublin to save me.”[25]

Robert Briscoe

Robert Briscoe also had cause for gratitude when he chanced upon a uniformed Mac Eoin in Dublin. Recognising the IRA operative, Mac Eoin reached for the revolver in the holster of his Sam Browne belt; Briscoe, in contrast, turned and walked away, lacking a weapon himself and trusting in the other man’s sense of chivalry.

“Briscoe, you bastard,” he heard Mac Eoin roar after him. “You know I wouldn’t shoot a man in the back!”[26]

It had been an educated gamble by Briscoe. Clemency was what Mac Eoin was already known – indeed, even famous – for. When reviewing the 1920-1 campaign of the British Army’s 5th Division, The Record of the Rebellion in Ireland, while far from being the IRA’s greatest fan – putting its success in guerrilla warfare down to “sheer terrorism” – gave a favourable mention of Mac Eoin’s “noticeable and unusual” sparing of captured Auxiliaries after the Clonfin Ambush in February 1921.[27]

Nonetheless, Patrick Mulrennan remains quite dead, Mac Eoin and Lawlor never answered for his murder and those who left captivity in Athlone alive took with them the memories of fear and mistreatment. “I suppose you heard of the chap who was killed in here by Sean McKeon and Tony Lawlor,” read an anonymous letter that purported to have been smuggled out of Custume Barracks and into the pages of the Republican journal Straight Talk in December 1922. “They shot him in cold blood without warning or reason.”

Seán Mac Eoin, glowering from a window, 1922

If we are to believe this unnamed author, even Mac Eoin’s subordinates were not spared his wrath:

You might think Sean would not shoot one of his own soldiers. Well, I have seen one he killed himself the night of the Longford Races. And the next day’s papers had it that he died after a bad fit of sickness.[28]

Which may be a propaganda piece too far. No one else has claimed Mac Eoin murdered one of his troops in Custume Barracks, and the idea that the rest of the garrison would have gone along with such deception, without another word leaked out in the years to come, makes it an implausible exhibit in the evidence.

There is enough as it is.

See also: Brotherhood and Brutality: Seán Mac Eoin and the Irish Civil War, 1922-3


[1] Irish Times, 01/03/1928

[2] Military Service Pensions Collection, ‘Mulrennan, Patrick’ (DP7961), p. 3

[3] Ibid, p. 22

[4] Ibid (2RB588), pp. 3, 8

[5] Poblacht Na h-Eireann: War News, 11/11/1922

[6] O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Dolan, Anne, introduction by Lee, J.J.) ‘No Surrender Here!’ The Civil War Papers of Ernie O’Malley, 1922-1924 (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2007), pp. 309, 356

[7] Price, Dominic. The Flame and the Candle: War in Mayo 1919-1924 (Cork: The Collins Press, 2012), p. 240 ; University College Dublin Archives, Richard Mulcahy Papers, P7/B/75, p. 10

[8] Price, p. 238

[9] Military Service Pensions Collection, ‘Lawlor, Anthony’ (R7/1924A2), p. 20

[10] Ibid, pp. 9-10

[11] Ibid, p. 29

[12] Younger, Calton. Ireland’s Civil War (Glasgow: Fontana/Collins, 1982), pp. 240-1

[13] Ibid, pp. 463-4

[14] Irish Times, 16/09/1922

[15] Mulcahy Papers, P7/B/75, pp. 66-7

[16] Ibid, p. 69

[17] Ibid, p. 10

[18] O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Keane, Vincent) The Men Will Talk to Me: Mayo Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2014), p. 200

[19] Ibid, pp. 224-6

[20] Ibid, pp. 201-3

[21] Irish Times, 01/03/1928

[22] Mulrennan, p. 26

[23] O’Malley, Mayo Interviews, pp. 147-8

[24] Ibid, pp. 296-7

[25] Ibid, p. 69

[26] Briscoe, Robert and Hatch, Alden. For the Life of Me (London: Longmans, Green and Co. Ltd., 1959), pp. 172-3

[27] Sheehan, William. Hearts & Mines: The British 5th Division, Ireland, 1920-1922 (Cork: Collins Press, 2009), pp. 68, 94

[28] Straight Talk, 28/12/1922



Irish Times

Poblacht Na h-Eireann: War News

Straight Talk


Briscoe, Robert and Hatch, Alden. For the Life of Me (London: Longmans, Green and Co. Ltd., 1959)

O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Dolan, Anne, introduction by Lee, J.J.) ‘No Surrender Here!’ The Civil War Papers of Ernie O’Malley, 1922-1924 (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2007)

O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Keane, Vincent) The Men Will Talk to Me: Mayo Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2014)

Price, Dominic. The Flame and the Candle: War in Mayo 1919-1924 (Cork: The Collins Press, 2012)

Sheehan, William. Hearts & Mines: The British 5th Division, Ireland, 1920-1922 (Cork: Collins Press, 2009)

Younger, Calton. Ireland’s Civil War (Glasgow: Fontana/Collins, 1982)

University College Dublin Archives

Richard Mulcahy Papers

Military Service Pensions Collection

Lawlor, Anthony, R7/1924A2

Mulrennan, Patrick, DP7961, 2RB588

The Elephant in the Revolutionary Room: The Irish Republican Brotherhood and its (Maybe, Perhaps, Possible) Role in the Irish Struggle, 1917-24

Rights and Authority vs Hidden Forces

Michael Collins

Michael Collins was a busy man in April 1921, but not too busy to respond to a letter from a Mr Meagher in Australia. Meagher was curious about the recent state of affairs in Ireland, fought over as it was by the British military authorities and the Volunteers of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and Collins, with an eye to PR and perhaps out of genuine helpfulness as well, took the time to answer his correspondence point by point.

To Meagher’s query – “Is there any truth in the report that Sinn Fein is controlled by the IRB?” – Collins was emphatic that “to make such a suggestion is to show an entire misconception not only of the relative positions of these separate organisations but of the whole Irish situation.” Since its inception sixty years ago, the policy of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) had been that of the current independence movement and, as such, “it may be called the parent of all present day Irish Ireland organisations.”

Nonetheless, despite this prestige, despite the venerability of the IRB:

One body only has the right and authority to speak and it is the body brought into being by the freely exercised will of the Irish people. It is DAIL ÉIREANN. That is the Government of Ireland, and to it all national organisations within Ireland give allegiance.[1]

Spoken like a true democrat. Others, however, might have looked askance at this answer and wondered if its author was being entirely straightforward in his avowedly unambiguous response. Certainly, the O/C of the Sligo IRA Brigade felt he needed clarification when some of his subordinates committed a raid on a mail car, during “which some hundreds of pounds [in] letters were taken without the sanction or knowledge” of the rest of the Brigade.

Since there appeared to be “hidden forces at work that are not working for the greater efficiency of the Volunteers,” the O/C wrote to Collins, then the IRA Adjutant-General, in April 1920, asking about “the attitude of the Irish Volunteer organisation to the IRB,” to which the raiders had apparently belonged.[2]

IRA men standing to

Collins’ response a month later, as with his one to Meagher, was to dismiss any suggestion of a conflict of interests:

Arising out of your letter…re attitude of Irish Volunteers and another organisation, you will notice that there is no difference between the aims and methods of the Irish Volunteer Organisation and the other one you mention.

Noticeably, Collins did not refer to the ‘other one’ by name, as if too delicate an issue to touch directly. That was not to say that its members could act with impunity, as Collins instructed the Sligo commander to arrest the perpetrators of the mail car robbery and relieve them of their ill-gotten, and unauthorised, gains.[3]

Even so, questions continued, for Sligo was not the only IRA area uncomfortable with compromised authority. In May 1920, Collins received a letter from the Adjutant of the Leitrim Volunteers, asking him who among their ranks were in the IRB as well due to the suspicion that these Brotherhood insiders “seem to have power over us.”[4]

Elements of Consciousness

If Collins replied, then his answer has been lost to posterity, since most of the subsequent sheets in that particular batch – stored in the National Library of Ireland with the rest of his papers – are in tatters, rendering their words illegible. In any case, Richard Mulcahy was not impressed with how the Library was handling the memoranda of his old comrade. “They strike me as being the sweepings of some room,” he wrote with a sniff, “they in no way suggest the manner in which Collins kept his papers or that they were anything but crumbs indicating certain aspects of his varied work.”[5]

The National Library of Ireland, this author’s spiritual abode

With his own eye on history, Mulcahy discussed the era with another former colleague, Peadar McMahon, in 1963. While Mulcahy had served as the IRA Chief of Staff during the War of Independence, McMahon worked as an IRA organiser, dispatched by GHQ to places deemed in need of assistance, one of which happened to be Leitrim. There, McMahon found a brigade not so much dominated by the IRB as oblivious to it:

Mulcahy: Did you ever on any of your moments on organisation work come across anybody who was consciously an IRB man as distinct from a Volunteer?

Peadar McMahon
General Peadar MacMahon, in the uniform of the Irish Army

McMahon: No. In Leitrim, it was rather amusing; they pointed out ‘in such an area there is a man there who is a member of the IRB’. Otherwise you would never hear the IRB mentioned at all, simply GHQ, and because I was from GHQ they couldn’t do half enough for me.

Mulcahy: Was the fellow from the IRB an old man?

McMahon: I never met him. It was simply pointed out that he was there and I was interested enough to go and see him.

Mulcahy: Would he be from the Seán McDermott area – Kiltyclogher?

McMahon: He was. When I asked what age he was, I was told he was eighty-seven.[6]

Similarly underwhelming was McMahon’s own experiences, such as they were:

Mulcahy: When did you link up with the IRB or what contact had you with it?

McMahon: In 1917. I was introduced to it by Seán Ó Muirthile and didn’t attend a meeting from the day he introduced me to it until that meeting – 1917 to 1922.

Mulcahy: So in these three years – 1917, ’18 and ’19 – you never attended an IRB circle and you never got instructions from anybody. Why was that? Was it that it satisfied the IRB requirements that you were a member of the Volunteers?

McMahon: I don’t know.[7]

Mulcahy concurred with that description. To him, the strength of the rank-and-file Volunteers had been their “air of comradeship, naturalness and understanding of the difficulties.” Loyalty was directed towards – in varying degrees – the IRA GHQ, Dáil Éireann and the underground Irish Government, but otherwise without any “element of consciousness of an IRB outlook or IRB organisation or IRB orders anywhere else.” As for policy: ‘Join the Volunteers and take your orders from your superior officer.’ Had McMahon, Mulcahy asked, ever been told anything different by anyone in the IRB?

“No, nothing else,” McMahon replied.[8]

Richard Mulcahy, completely owning that desk

A Disputed Dispute

Obviously, these are the conclusions of two men, speaking decades afterwards. At the time, the picture did not seem so simple; indeed, the Brotherhood was a sensitive spot for Mulcahy, considering how he had lost his military command, as did others in the Army Council, in no small part because of the secret society and its alleged role in the Army Mutiny of 1924. As with the subject of the IRB in general, much is open for debate, and little known for certain. Initial responsibility lay on the body of mutinous malcontents, the so-called IRA Organisation, wrote the Army Inquiry Committee in its report to the Dáil in June 1924.


While we are completely satisfied that there would have been no mutiny but for the existence of this organisation [the IRA Organisation], we are equally satisfied that its activities were intensified by the revival or reorganisation of the IRB, with the encouragement of certain members of the Army Council.[9]

It had all been “a disastrous error in judgment,” concluded the Committee. According to Mulcahy, however, he and other ‘certain members’ in question had only the best of intentions in reforming the IRB:

[Mulcahy] suggested to the Dáil that there was in that organisation a force that required to be controlled and directed, and that he, as the Minister responsible, should take steps to have that force stabilised in the Army.[10]

Whatever the original motive, stability was the last thing achieved, least of all for Mulcahy’s career, as he was forced to step down as Minister of Defence. So did Seán Ó Muirthile as Quartermaster-General, Adjutant-General Gearóid O’Sullivan and the Chief of Staff, Seán MacMahon. Kevin O’Higgins was the chief winner of the debacle, out of which the Minister of Justice emerged as the defender of the civilian government, strongman of the state and vanquisher of troublesome cabals.

Kevin O’Higgins strutting his stuff

Assuming there had been an IRB left by that stage. McMahon found the whole affair puzzling and more than a little absurd because, as he told Mulcahy in August 1963, the Brotherhood had already been wrapped up by the time O’Higgins flexed his political muscles:

McMahon: [The] statement that Kevin O’Higgins supressed the IRB was ridiculous. Months before that, I was called to a meeting at the private secretary’s lodge in the Phoenix Park. Martin Conlon was there, Gearóid O’Sullivan, Seán Ó Muirthile, Dan Hogan, Eoin O’Duffy and I think that was the lot. The meeting was called to bring the IRB to an end. It was feared that some irresponsible people were trying to get control of it, and the funds, which at that time were in the hands of Eoin O’Duffy, were handed over to Martin Conlon. The statement that Kevin O’Higgins supressed the IRB came as a big surprise to me.

Mulcahy: Are you sure that that meeting was before the army episode?

Seán Ó Muirthile (from An t-Óglách, 7th April 1923 (Vol. 1, No. 4)

McMahon: Yes. As a matter of fact, Gearóid O’Sullivan was Adj. General, Seán Ó Muirthile was Quarter Master General.

Mulcahy: Was that the end of the contact with that question that you had?

McMahon: Yes, that was the end.

Mulcahy: Do you remember any kind of meeting that was held in Portobello that I am supposed to have been at, at which the various O/Cs of the various divisions were pressed for the purpose of reorganising the IRB?

McMahon: No, I never heard of it even and I am sure I would have been there if there had been such a meeting. I didn’t hear the IRB discussed from that particular meeting until –

Mulcahy: Would you be able to get an approximate date for that?

McMahon: It would be difficult, but it must have been before it because I know that Gearóid O’Sullivan was Adj. General and Seán Ó Muirthile was Q.M.G.

Mulcahy: In what capacity in the IRB were you there?

McMahon: In no capacity.[11]

‘The Whole Caboose’

Which is the opinion of one man. Others would differ, pointing to the Brotherhood as not only active but ambitious, with an eye to the future as much as the present. Though the ‘IRB Constitution – 1923’ was tentatively labelled ‘Provisional’, its contents speak of an organisation determined to be anything but.

The Supreme Council was to be expanded to twenty-eight members: one from each of the sixteen IRB Divisions encompassing Ireland and Britain, four co-opted and the remaining eight – most significantly – out of the eleven Divisions in the National Army (in comparison, the earlier 1920 Constitution only anticipated a need for fifteen Supreme Councilmen). To accommodate military initiates, they were to form ‘Clubs’, each headed by a Centre who would report up the societal chain of command, and not exceeding ten-strong unless authorised by the Supreme Council – exactly like the civilian ‘Circles’ of before that were clearly intended to continue on, running parallel now with the new Clubs. These were no idle musings, either, for a note in the margins identified Mulcahy and Ó Muirthile, men at the very top of the National Army, as the ones presenting this proposed document to their peers.[12]


Free State soldiers on parade

The future of the IRB had been under consideration for some time, as Ó Muirthile wrote in his memoirs. The Supreme Council, on which he sat, had not been active for a while, nor were local branches across Ireland as far as he knew, leaving the organisation in limbo and its adherents uncertain. After hearing of these concerns from others in the National Army, Ó Muirthile raised the issue with the remaining Supreme Council members and it was agreed, at a meeting in January 1923, that:

  • The proud tradition of the IRB should be preserved and passed onto those loyal to the Free State government.
  • This effort would fall upon the previous members of the Supreme Council.
  • The Free State government must not be prejudiced or subverted in any way even if any members of its Executive Council were also in the IRB.[13]
Seán Ó Muirthile (Civil War caricature, the only image found of the man)

Unlike Mulcahy and Collins, who had their roles in the IRA and government as well as the IRB, Ó Muirthile’s place in the Irish struggle was largely defined by the Brotherhood – and perhaps the IRB was defined in turn by him, considering the length and level of his involvement. It was he who chaired a special meeting in Dublin, in early 1917, for the purpose of reorganising the fellowship since the shock of the Easter Rising failure and the decimation of its leadership in the resultant executions. His ‘take charge’ attitude and garrulousness did not endear him to everyone in the room, with one delegate from Galway feeling that Ó Muirthile thought “that he was the head of the whole caboose.”[14]

Another acquaintance immune to his charms was Ernie O’Malley, who remembered Ó Muirthile as “a big, burly man with a thick moustache and a prosperous air, pudding rolls at the back of his neck.” While conceding that Ó Muirthile was a good speaker and “considered a man of weight…I did not like him from the first.”[15]

Ernie O’Malley

Civil War bitterness might have coloured these reminiscences, for the two men were to choose opposing sides in that internecinal conflict, during which O’Malley identified the Free State enemy so much with the Brotherhood that he wrote in April 1923, while under threat of execution in Mountjoy Prison, of his life resting “on the whims of an IRB clique.”[16]

Lingering memories of that unpleasant experience would be channelled into academic interest. When interviewing to his peers for posterity, O’Malley was wont to ask, as one other historian puts it:

…frequent questions about the functions of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), especially in regards to its impact on the Anglo-Irish Treaty split. O’Malley was not a member of the IRB, so he had little personal understanding of its internal working and seemed to want to educate himself as to the importance of the IRB in the division of the IRA over the Treaty.[17]

“Did IRB also think it would be IRB who would do as they were told in the case of the Treaty?” O’Malley asked himself in the margins of his notebook when discussing with an interviewee the dominance of the fraternity over the 1916 Rising.[18]

In another interview, he was sceptical about Joe Sweeney’s claim that the IRB had never tried to persuade him over the Treaty. O’Malley reminded him about a book in which the author, Piaras Béaslaí, revealed how the Supreme Council had informed IRB members who were also TDs of its decision to back the Treaty.

Piaras_Beasla_Book“Yes,” said Sweeney, “I remember that.”

“Didn’t you think that was a lead?’ O’Malley said, with just a hint of a sting in his words.[19]

Leading and/or Deciding

O’Malley was not alone in his suspicions – or bitterness. Unsure as to which side to take in the looming schism, Seamus McKenna consulted Pat McCormack, a man greatly respected amongst Belfast republicans and who had sat on the IRB Supreme Council. McCormack’s advice was to stick with the IRA GHQ and choose, by default, the Treaty. Eight or months later, McCormack changed his mind but the damage, as McKenna was concerned, was done: “He had…already compromised, and led others along the same path.” Not that McCormack was alone in his perceived apostasy, McKenna being “sure that many other IRB men accepted the ill-fated Treaty on the advice of their officers in that organisation.”[20]

Anti-Treaty cartoon, lampooning Griffith and Collins

It is notable, however, that McCormack was giving solicited advice rather than orders. The grandiosity of its name aside, the Supreme Council had a tenacious hold on its followers, one that could be dropped, seemingly at will, such as when Tom Maguire chanced upon Michael Thornton in a hotel hallway during the Treaty crisis in early 1922. As part of the IRB Connaught Council, a halfway body between the Supreme Council and the Circles in that province, Thornton stood above Maguire in the IRB hierarchy.

Tom Maguire

Yet, when Thornton told of the Supreme Council’s siding with the Treaty, Maguire replied that meant nothing to him; he was a free agent and would do whatever he thought was right. Thornton left at that point, and Maguire, far from suffering consequences for his independence, continued in his rank as a Mayo IRA commander, leading his troops against the Free State in the subsequent Civil War.[21]

Even those who went the other way could do so not because of the IRB but despite it. Joe Sweeney would be one of the Free State’s most active generals in the Civil War; this despite him not wanting anything to do with the Treaty when he first read of its signing in the newspapers. A cautious man, Sweeney nonetheless travelled to Dublin from Donegal, where he led its IRA Brigade, to consult with the President of the Supreme Council.

Seeing a depressed and worn Collins in the Wicklow Hotel, Sweeney decided against bothering a man already under visible strain. Instead, Sweeney found O’Duffy in the hotel and took him aside. Regardless of O’Duffy’s own high placement in the IRB, he could offer nothing more definite than how it was up to Sweeney to decide for himself. It was only after Sweeney returned to Donegal and discussed with local Sinn Féin acquittances that he threw his lot in with the Treaty.[22]

O’Malley would privately doubt all this, thinking that “Sweeney prevaricated about his attitude to the Treaty.” Who had decided him? he jotted to himself in his interview notebook.[23]

Joe Sweeney in later years

‘This Splendid Historic Organisation’

O’Malley’s snide cynicism aside, there is no reason to think Sweeney was any more an unthinking drone than Liam Lynch, who did not let his own membership – not just of the IRB but of the Supreme Council itself – stop him from directing the anti-Treaty forces in the Civil War. Indeed, in November 1922, five months into the conflict, Lynch was thinking up ways to reclaim the Brotherhood for his cause and thus redeem “the honour of this splendid historic organisation,” as he put it in a letter to his right-hand man, Liam Deasy.

Liam Lynch

Lynch was by then the last Supreme Council member who opposed the Treaty still alive – Harry Boland had been killed in August 1922 – and at liberty, unlike Joe McKelvey and Charlie Daly. With responsibility now solely on his shoulders, Lynch outlined to Deasy how he would go about things: an adjourned meeting from before would be reopened, in which his Supreme Council colleagues who had voted for the Treaty were to be held to account, suitably castigated by the middle-ranking IRB officials in attendance and then cast out, allowing the ruling body to be filled with more Republican-minded replacements. In the event of this meeting being refused, then Lynch would dispense with formalities and drop the pro-Treaty dissenters from his reformed Supreme Council all the same.[24]

Was this plan plausible? Not just Lynch thought so. Boland had previously outlined, in a letter on March 1922, that he and his allies in the IRB “were not anxious to force a division until such time as we were satisfied of securing a majority vote.” By April, Boland believed that majority vote was his for the taking:

The organisation holds a Convention next week, at which I am certain the proposed Free State will be condemned and all those favouring it will be asked to resign. The new S.C. will, I hope, throw all its strength behind the Army.[25]

Harry Boland

Both Lynch and Boland were angling for the Supreme Council as the prize, while believing it vulnerable to a putsch from below. Giving credence to this thinking was how – going by its 1920 Constitution, the then most up-to-date version – the IRB was, if not quite democratic, then at least reasonably representative: those in its Circles, the basic unit of the organisation, would elect a Centre, who would in turn vote in Centres for County Circles and the District Boards (each Irish county being divided into two or three Districts, with cities counting as a District in themselves).

County Circles and the District Boards were grouped into the eleven Divisions encompassing the IRB’s sphere of influence: eight Divisions for Ireland, two for the south and north halves of England, and one for Scotland. Centres for the County and District Circles in each Division met to select by ballot a five-strong committee, which in turn would appoint someone to represent the Division on the Supreme Council. These eleven men, one for each Division, would co-opt four additional members, leading to a total membership of fifteen for the ruling body.

Putting Up and Shutting Up

Which meant that the Supreme Council could not be completely indifferent to lower-tier feelings, and while it claimed in the IRB Constitution that its “authority…shall be unquestioned,” reality sometimes fell short of this totalitarian assumption. The Treaty divisions of 1922 may have pushed fraternal feelings to breaking point but, even as early as 1917, the leadership could not count on unconditional loyalty.[26]

irbA case in point was when the Galway University Circle received an envoy from the Supreme Council, Patrick Callaghan, as part of the IRB’s resurgence that Ó Muirthile had prompted in Dublin. Callaghan opened the session with a criticism of Éamon de Valera, the newly-minted political dynamo of the independence movement. Callaghan did not last two minutes before Dr Pat Mullins, as the Circle Centre, shut him up with: “If that’s what you’ve come over for, you’d better get back to where you came from.”[27]

Another Mullins, Billy Mullins from Kerry, also had a snippy exchange with an IRB superior, this time during the Truce of late 1921. After meeting with Liam Deasy and Ó Muirthile, Mullins was asked by Deasy about continuing the work of their Brotherhood.

Mullins: I’ll ask you a question first. Who is responsible for carrying on the activities of the IRB now?

Deasy: I’ll answer you now. Seán Ó Muirthile.

Mullins: If that’s the case, you can count me out.[28]

(Ó Muirthile evidently had that effect on people.)

IRA Veteran Billy Mullins
Billy Mullins in later years

Mullins stayed with the Brotherhood long enough to attend a meeting in Tralee in January 1922. Twenty-five had come, an unusually high turnout according to Mullins, who was clearly used to smaller, more secretive gatherings. After a discussion on the Big Question of the Day, “the meeting finished with a motion that further inquiries be made, but the result was that nothing happened, as it never seemed to come to anything.” Still, Mullins felt that “the majority there present…were in favour of the Republic” and against the Treaty – so much, then, for the Supreme Council controlling its underlings like obedient puppets.[29]

Also present at this Tralee conclave was Dinny Daly, who came away thinking that “more or less left it was to everyone to do what they liked.” Personal connections seemed to count for more than direction from above: “When the officers went one way, the men followed them.”[30]

Paying the Piper and Calling the Tune

This is not to say that the Brotherhood simply ceased to function: perhaps to the alarm of the Supreme Council’s pro-Treaty majority, the IRB provided a convenient framework for county or provisional representatives to vent their feelings. An example of this was on the 18th of February 1922, when a passed resolution in Cork expressed approval of how the Cork County Centre and Division Boards had withdrawn their support from the IRB upper echelons over the Treaty. Meanwhile, a report from Co. Kerry proudly told of how the Supreme Council’s decision had practically no effect on its Circles there, with pro-Treaty numbers remaining negligible.[31]

Anti-Treaty cartoon, drawn by Constance Markievicz

In Dublin, Circles expressed a range of reactions, as summarised in a notebook in April 1922, from wary reserve – “that a meeting of all Dublin centres be called to discuss the circumstances of the present crisis and that a member of SC be deputed to attend and explain position” – to anger and threats to withhold subscriptions “until such time as S.C. cease to consider us as Kindergarten Kids.”[32]

Little wonder, then, that Lynch and Boland had assumed they would have the numbers to retake control of the Supreme Council. James McArdle caught the complex, even ‘love-hate’, nature of the relationship between the top and lower ends of the Brotherhood in a letter to Martin Conlon, a member of the Supreme Council. McArdle apologised in advance for his absence and that of his like-minded colleagues at an upcoming IRB session, though he hoped that Conlon:

…will be both able and willing to defend us here from any attacks that may possibly be made on us during our absence there, or any insinuation against our sincerity for the cause, for which we are now stronger than ever, now that it has again fallen to the minority to uphold.

McArdle had evidently been expecting an unfriendly reception; regardless, he was sure that:

If our own members, the C.B. [County Board] or the S.C. require any explanation from us, for our attitudes or actions in the present conflict we will be able to give them, and vindicate ourselves before any impartial [underlined in text] tribunal of the organisation still loyal to its principles.

It was a loyalty McArdle doubted was shared by the majority of the IRB. Undeterred by the numbers against him and emboldened by the righteousness of his defiance, McArdle demanded from Conlon:

…the right to know what steps – if any – that the S.C. takes from now onward as we, the rank and file of the organisation have always to pay the piper, we claim the right to call the tune, or at least be consulted as to what tune is to be called.

Not that McArdle was likely to be consulted on much by the Supreme Council, not anymore. His letter was dated to the 29th August 1922, two months and a day into the Civil War, with the address given as Kilmainham Gaol, where McArdle was an unwilling resident and POW.[33]

Kilmainham Gaol

A High Sense of Duty

“Only a high sense of duty could have driven a group of disciplined officers in such open conflict with their superiors,” wrote Florence O’Donoghue when describing the turbulence within the IRB:

They acted against a discipline all the more precious to them because it was voluntary and respected, against that almost mystical loyalty which bound them to the organisation in good times and bad.[34]

O’Donoghue could relate. After wrestling with his dual loyalties to the Brotherhood and the Cork IRA Brigade, he chose the former and went to his commanding IRA officer to resign as Brigade Adjutant. This, Tómas Mac Curtain refused to accept, insisting that O’Donoghue remain and saying nothing subsequently about the other man’s continued membership of a society he was increasingly at odds with.

Tómas Mac Curtain

Mac Curtain had walked out of prison in 1917, believing, as did many other “responsible leaders” in the independence movement that “there was no further need for a secret movement, that the IRB should be allowed to lapse, and the whole future struggle should be based on the open political and military organisations” like Sinn Féin and the Irish Volunteers (later the IRA) respectively, as O’Donoghue put it. O’Donoghue, on the other hand, respected the IRB’s singular purpose and determination to fight for Irish freedom, in contrast to the vacillating strands of thought he found in the Volunteers, many of whom believed in physical force only as a last resort – to his dismay – and sometimes not even that.

Seán O’Hegarty

Complicating things further was how the Vice-Commandant to the Cork Brigade, Seán O’Hegarty, was also the IRB County Centre, an additional authority that he was not afraid to wield. While Mac Curtain made no move to restrict the parallel command within his ranks, tensions came to a head with the unauthorised shooting and wounding of a policeman, in April 1919, by a Volunteer who claimed that the right to carry arms had been granted to him by O’Hegarty. This challenge to the Brigade chain of command could not go unanswered, though O’Donoghue was to claim the controversy had been blown “out of all proportions to its importance.”

In any case, O’Hegarty resigned as Vice-Commandant, “not a complete solution, but it was a gesture to the authority of Tómas, and it left Seán’s IRB position intact.” And it was a position jealously guarded:

Seán would not and could not be expected to abate anything of his IRB authority, but was quite willing to work on co-operation with the Volunteers provided they were on his road.

Florence O’Donoghue

O’Donoghue was able to stay on amicable terms with both Mac Curtain and O’Hegarty even as he kept a foot in each of their camps. Perhaps out of memory for his friends, O’Donoghue – in his later career as a historian – was to characterise the trouble between them as a gentlemanly dispute over honourable principle. It is possible, however, that Mac Curtain’s murder at the hands of policemen saved relations in Cork from worsening irreconcilably – and allowed the IRB to completely dominate the IRA there.[35]

By the Easter Sunday of 1921, the Brotherhood could claim a good number of leading Cork officers, many of whom met other South Munster IRB leading lights in a house at Palmerstown Park, Dublin. Presiding over it, in more ways than one, was Collins – the President of the Supreme Council – who set the agenda: the delegates were to return to their areas and expand their Circles with fresh blood of proven worth.[36]

Liam Deasy

His audience took note. “After that we put any man of importance in West Cork into the IRB,” recalled Liam Deasy.[37]

He was by then Adjutant to the West Cork IRA Brigade, having joined in 1917 while part of the Bandon Company. Tom Hales soon swore him into the IRB after convincing him of the importance of the fraternity in the upcoming struggle. From there, Deasy rose steadily in the two parallel organisations, seeing no clash of interests between attending an IRB conclave one day and an IRA GHQ strategy meeting the next.[38]

Only Silent Men

In keeping with a body concerned with gathering influence, the IRB was interested primarily in those with clout of their own to share. Elitism was the attitude as well as an objective unashamedly pursued. “Only Bn [Battalion] and Bde [Brigade] officers sworn,” recalled Tom O’Connor from Tralee, Co. Kerry. Mere company officers or below were apparently not to be bothered with.[39]

IRA Flying Column

When Patrick McDonnell wanted to induct the entirety of his East Clare Flying Column, he was dissuaded by Ernest Blythe, who advised him to be selective: “Only the very select few you want in the IRB.” It was a case of quality over quantity, and the virtue that Blythe prized most of all was taciturnity – he wanted “only silent men.” But reticence could have its drawbacks; McDonnell never informed his colleague in Clare, Michael Brennan, that he was in the IRB, and neither did Brennan let McDonnell know of his own membership. Perhaps this state of one hand not knowing what the other was up to was why, in McDonnell’s estimation, “the IRB never developed much in Clare.”[40]

Others would remember the Brotherhood in almost comical terms. When John Joe Rice met its adherents in Kenmare, Co. Kerry, in 1917, he found them gagged with “the old idea that nobody was to be trusted with anything. They were good fellows but that idea had been drummed into them for years.” It took some time, but “as soon as they got over their initial fright of things being spoken about,” a working relationship was possible. Elsewhere in Kerry, Dinny Daly considered many of his Circle in Cahirciveen to be “a queer crowd…some of them I never thought should be in the IRB.” Of particular annoyance was how they approached Daly for recruitment after his release from prison, not knowing he was already a member: “I hauled them over the coals for being slipshod about it.”

Such ineptitude, however, did not prevent the Brotherhood from being “very strong in Kerry,” in Daly’s view. “I expect that all the officers in Kerry were IRB.”[41]

The underground nature of the IRB, even by the standards of the Irish revolution, and the insularity of its insiders, even among each other, makes its power hard to gauge – even to its members. John McCoy’s promotion to Belfast IRA Brigade Adjutant prompted Paddy Rankin, the IRB Centre for Newry, to hurriedly attempt to recruit him, seemingly “afraid that if I refused to join the IRB, headquarters might not sanction my appointment as Brigade Adjutant.” Due to McCoy’s “certain moral scruples” and belief that the IRA had rendered secret societies obsolete, he declined.[42]

Paddy Rankin

Contrary to Rankin’s fears, McCoy remained as Adjutant. That he suffered no adverse effects to his IRA position made a mockery – in Seamus McKenna’s eyes, at least – of the IRB policy to seek only the best:

I understood at the time that the main function of the IRB was to control both the leadership and the activities of the Volunteer [IRA] movement from within by ensuring that senior officers were IRB men who would see that the fight for the Republic was relentlessly pursued.

However, “I cannot recall that this was effective in Belfast.”

Roger McCorley

Both the Belfast Brigade O/Cs, Seán O’Neill and his successor, Roger McCorley, kept aloof from the Brotherhood, apparently sharing McCoy’s ethical qualms; McCorley, in particular, earned McKenna’s respect as “one of the most daring and active Volunteer officers in Ireland.” In glaring contrast was Joe McKelvey, a fellow Belfast native, whose rise to O/C of the Third Northern Division, in 1921, McKenna attributed to IRB machinations despite his personal unsuitability for command. Two of the men in McKenna’s Circle made similarly poor examples by displaying “a lamentable lack of courage when the occasion for such arose.”

Of the group overall, though McKenna was a dutiful participant in its monthly get-togethers, he could not later “recall any useful purpose served by our particular Circle.” As convenient as the Brotherhood might have been before, “from 1918 onwards the organisation, in my opinion now [in 1954], did not justify its existence.”[43]

A Secondary Business?

John Joe Rice

Indeed, some struggled to remember the point at all. Boredom, even contempt, colours many a reminiscence of time inside the fraternity. “We had all been sworn in to the IRB, but we looked upon it as a kind of secondary business of no real importance,” said John Joe Rice of his fellow Kerry IRA officers. “It was, or would only be, of use if we had to go underground again. I don’t think we had circles or meetings even.”[44]

While many Volunteers highly placed in the Athlone Brigade – to choose an example – had been sworn into the IRB as well, they noticeably drew a blank about what the latter had actually done in the course of the War of Independence. Statements include:

Seumas O’Meara, O/C of the Athlone Brigade:

The organisation did not really serve any great purpose except to keep a strong backbone on the Volunteer movement. There was not, at any time, any attempt to direct Volunteer activities by the IRB in the area…When things were really hot and principally during the period of the Black and Tans, the IRB organisation became inactive and may be said to have practically ceased to exist.[45]

Henry O’Brien, Captain of the Coosan Company, First Battalion:

On the whole, the organisation did not seem any useful purpose, but it may have acted as a stiffener for the Volunteer force. When the military situation developed to the point when they became really hot and communications became impossible, the organisation kind of faded out and became inactive.[46]

David Daly, Commandant of the First Battalion:

It is hard to say what was really the objective of the organisation at this time in view of the policy of the Volunteers escept [sic] that it formed a hard core of resistance inside that organisation who would carry on the fight should the Volunteers weaken in their purpose.[47]

Frank O’Connor, Commandant of Second Battalion:

Business was of a routine nature and discussions on the existing situation in the area and the country in general took place and suggestions of what might be done to intensify the work were made. Such suggestions usually came to nothing. Looking back since, I cannot see that the organisation served any useful purpose, but the powers at headquarters seemed to think that it did.[48]

Reading all of this makes it easy to dismiss the IRB as largely a name and little else, a thing more theory than fact, or a Walter Mitty outfit compared to the IRA or Sinn Féin. A contemporary document, however, points to a more nuanced picture, one in which the Brotherhood was as capable of waxing as well as waning, and confident enough to prepare for its revival after lying dormant for months on end.

Judging an Elephant

Seán Murphy arrived in Co. Westmeath on behalf of the IRB central leadership, on the 22nd July 1921, in a tour of the Circles to be found there. He made contact with Thomas Costello and James Maguire, the Athlone and Mullingar O/Cs at the time, who were able to guide him to their societal grassroots. Meeting each cell was delayed by bad weather and sketchy communications – the latter in particular a common problem in the Irish insurgency – but, by the end, Murphy was able to draw up for his superiors a detailed breakdown of the Circles’ personnel:


On roll: 11

Present: 8

In jail: 2

Absent: 1

Last meeting: October 1920


On roll: 14

Present: 10

In jail: 3

Absent: 1

Last meeting: October 1920


On roll: 17

Present: 14

In jail: 1

Absent: 2

Last meeting: 1920


On roll: 22

Present: 16

In jail: 3

Absent: 3

Last meeting: 11th July 1921


On roll: 7

Present: 4

In jail: 3

Absent: 0

Last meeting: October 1920


On roll: 13

Present: 3

In jail: 8

Absent: 2 (sick)

Last meeting: September 1920

(As all officers were in jail, Murphy recommended temporary appointments until elections for the roles could be held)


On roll: 10

Present: 7

In jail: 0

Excd.: 3

Absent: 0

Last meeting: October 1920


On roll: 12

Present: 2

In jail: 10

One hundred and six delegates met at the IRB County Board on the 29th July 1921, the first since October 1920. That gap of nine months was typical of Westmeath, where the various Circles had had their last proof of existence in the previous autumn before fading out of the picture – but not necessarily out of existence, for Murphy felt “confident of good results owing to the present constitution of the organisation in the county.” Arrangements were already afoot to form new cliques in Loughnavaly, Kinnegad, Killucan and Moyvose.

IRA memorial in Athlone

Longford told a similar story when Murphy travelled there next. Delays were again suffered, this time blamed on poor roads, but Murphy came away believing that the effort had again been worth it: “The condition of the organisation in the county is very favourable and ought to improve considerably in the near future.”[49]

John M. Regan

In his heroic attempt to make sense of the times, historian John M. Regan writes of how “the lack of available documentary evidence” makes for “no easy answers to the interpretative and methodological problems the IRB presents.” And that is only part of the headache, for the sources we do have are so wildly contradictory.[50]

Was the Irish Republican Brotherhood a splendid historic organisation? A sinister and manipulative cabal? A barely-there relic? An elitist pursuit or a pastime for oddballs? A democratic movement or the subversion of one? All are viewpoints put forward by contemporaries, each in a position to have known, and each like the Indian analogy of the three blind men who encountered an elephant. One touches its huge bulk and describes it as a wall, another thinks it a snake from the feel of its snout, while the third judges it to be a spear by its tusk – valid interpretations that nonetheless only capture part of the peculiar whole.

See also:

To Not Fade Away: The Irish Republican Brotherhood, Post-1916

Career Conspirators: The (Mis)Adventures of Seán Ó Muirthile and the Irish Republican Brotherhood in the Free State Army, 1923-4

‘This Splendid Historic Organisation’: The Irish Republican Brotherhood among the Anti-Treatyites, 1921-4


[1] Military Archives – Cathal Brugha Barracks, Michael Collins Papers, ‘Copy Letter from Michael Collins to Mr Meagher to Australia’, IE-MA-CP-06-02-06, p. 4

[2] Ibid, ‘Sligo Brigade’, IE-MA-CP-03-36, pp. 2-3

[3] Ibid, p. 9

[4] Ibid, ‘Leitrim Brigade’, IE-MA-CP-03-35, p. 18

[5] University College Dublin (UCD) Archives, Richard Mulcahy Papers, P7/b/181, p. 1

[6] Ibid, p. 61

[7] Ibid, p. 16

[8] Ibid, p. 60

[9] Irish Times, 21/07/1924

[10] Ibid, 27/07/1924

[11] Mulcahy Papers, P7/b/181, p. 15

[12] National Library of Ireland, Florence O’Donoghue Papers, MS 31,236; the 1920 Constitution at MS 31,233

[13] Mulcahy Papers, P7a/209, pp. 177, 229

[14] O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Comhraí, Cormac) The Men Will Talk to Me: Galway Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013), pp. 210, 212

[15] O’Malley, Ernie. On Another Man’s Wound (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013), p. 120

[16] O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Dolan, Anne) ‘No Surrender Here!’ The Civil War Papers of Ernie O’Malley, 1922-1924 (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2007), p. 367

[17] O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Bielenberg, Andy; Borgonovo, John and Óg Ó Ruairc, Pádraig) The Men Will Talk to Me: West Cork Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2015), p. 28

[18] O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Horgan, Tim) The Men Will Talk to Me: Kerry Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012), p. 60

[19] O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam and Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk to Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018), p. 32

[20] McKenna, Seamus, (BMH / WS 1016), p. 45

[21] O’Malley, Interviews with the Northern Divisions, p. 218

[22] Griffith, Kenneth and O’Grady, Timothy. Curious Journey: An Oral History of Ireland’s Unfinished Revolution (Dublin: Mercier Press, 1998), pp. 264-5

[23] O’Malley, Interviews with the Northern Divisions, p. 32

[24] O’Donoghue Papers, MS 31,240

[25] Fitzpatrick, David. Harry Boland’s Irish Revolution (Cork: Cork University Press, 2003)

[26] O’Donoghue Papers, MS 31,233

[27] O’Malley, Galway Interviews, p. 212

[28] Ibid, Kerry Interviews, p. 62

[29] Ibid, p. 64

[30] Ibid, p. 319

[31] O’Donoghue Papers, MS 31,237(2)

[32] UCD, Martin Conlon Papers, P97/16(1)

[33] Ibid, P97/11(i)

[34] O’Donoghue, Florence. No Other Law: The Story of Liam Lynch and the Irish Republican Army, 1916-1923 (Dublin: Anvil Books, 1986), pp. 194-5

[35] O’Donoghue, Florence (edited by Borgonovo, John) Florence and Josephine O’Donoghue’s War of Independence: A Destiny That Shapes Our Ends (Dublin, Irish Academic Press, 2006), pp. 58-60

[36] Deasy, Liam (edited by Chisholm, John E.) Towards Ireland Free: The West Cork Brigade in the War of Independence 1917-21 (Cork: Royal Carbery Books, 1973), pp. 258-9

[37] O’Malley, West Cork Interviews, p. 190

[38] Deasy, pp. 15, 258-9

[39] O’Malley, Kerry Interviews, p. 138

[40] O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Óg Ó Ruairc, Pádraig) The Men Will Talk to Me: Clare Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2016), pp. 155-7

[41] O’Malley, Kerry Interviews, pp. 303, 305, 319

[42] O’Malley, Interviews with the Northern Divisions, p. 179

[43] McKenna, pp. 44-6

[44] O’Malley, Kerry Interviews, p. 281

[45] O’Meara, Seumas (BMH / WS 1504), p. 53

[46] O’Brien, Henry (BMH / WS 1308), pp. 23-4

[47] Daly, David (BMH / WS 1337), p. 28

[48] O’Connor, Frank (BMH / WS 1309), p. 28

[49] Conlon Papers, P97/18(ii)

[50] Regan, John M. Myth and the Irish State (Sallins, Co. Kildare: Irish Academic Press, 2013), p. 126



Irish Times


Deasy, Liam (edited by Chisholm, John E.) Towards Ireland Free: The West Cork Brigade in the War of Independence 1917-21 (Cork: Royal Carbery Books, 1973)

Fitzpatrick, David. Harry Boland’s Irish Revolution (Cork: Cork University Press, 2003)

Griffith, Kenneth and O’Grady, Timothy. Curious Journey: An Oral History of Ireland’s Unfinished Revolution (Dublin: Mercier Press, 1998)

O’Donoghue, Florence (edited by Borgonovo, John) Florence and Josephine O’Donoghue’s War of Independence: A Destiny That Shapes Our Ends (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2006)

O’Donoghue, Florence. No Other Law: The Story of Liam Lynch and the Irish Republican Army, 1916-1923 (Dublin: Anvil Books, 1986)

O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam and Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk to Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018)

O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Bielenberg, Andy; Borgonovo, John and Óg Ó Ruairc, Pádraig) The Men Will Talk to Me: West Cork Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2015)

O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Óg Ó Ruairc, Pádraig) The Men Will Talk to Me: Clare Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2016)

O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Horgan, Tim) The Men Will Talk to Me: Kerry Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012)

O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Comhraí, Cormac) The Men Will Talk to Me: Galway Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013)

O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Dolan, Anne) ‘No Surrender Here!’ The Civil War Papers of Ernie O’Malley, 1922-1924 (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2007)

O’Malley, Ernie. On Another Man’s Wound (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013)

Regan, John M., Myth and the Irish State (Sallins, Co. Kildare: Irish Academic Press, 2013)

Bureau of Military History Statements

Daly, David, WS 1337

McKenna, Seamus, WS 1016

O’Brien, Henry, WS 1308

O’Connor, Frank, WS 1309

O’Meara, Seumas, WS 1504

Military Archives – Cathal Brugha Barracks

Michael Collins Papers

University College Dublin Archives

Martin Conlon Papers

Richard Mulcahy Papers

National Library of Ireland

Florence O’Donoghue Papers

Book Review: My Life in Loyalism, by Billy Hutchinson (with Gareth Mulvenna) (2020)

Loyalism_Book CoverLike many a young man in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s, Billy Hutchinson began his political journey as a rioter in his home city of Belfast, slugging it out with missiles and makeshift barricades against the teargas and batons of the authorities. The highlight of Hutchinson’s street-fighting exploits was during the assault on ‘Fort Milanda’, an old Milanda bakery building on Snugville Street where the King’s Own Royal Regiment had set up base, right in the heart of a community with which it was increasingly at odds.

Such feelings were vented on the last week of September 1970, when hundreds of local residents, mostly youths, surrounded ‘Fort Milanda’, hurling anything at hand and eventually using a large post to ram down the gates. Espying a chance to make a name for himself, as well as express what he thought of the whole situation in his homeland, Hutchinson clambered up a drainpipe and snatched the regimental flag of the King’s Own from where it fluttered.

British soldiers engaged in constructive dialogue on the streets of Northern Ireland

With the enemy’s disgrace complete, Hutchinson climbed back down to the cheers of his onlookers but, for him, the battle had been for more than its own sake:

It might be called ‘recreational rioting’ nowadays, but in 1970 we saw ourselves as street soldiers of a kind. This wasn’t just thuggery or troublemaking. We were defenders of the community.

He was 14 years-old; on the surface, just another young man in Doc Marten boots and a Wrangler jacket like many others in the UK but coming of age in a very different part of it. Resistance brought the respect of his peers and elders but also the less impressed attention of the British state, which harassed, arrested and eventually imprisoned him. All of which would make him a worthy subject of a Christy Moore song – except the Shankhill born-and-bred Hutchinson was a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), fighting to keep Northern Ireland British.


Hutchinson is not oblivious to the contradiction of his actions: “People might wonder why we, as Loyalists, were attacking the army of a state we professed an allegiance to.” If his reader is thinking ‘good question’, then “the answer is simple: The army was being heavy-handed with young men on Shankhill, and we saw them as an obstacle to getting our hands on the republicans while the authorities dithered.”

The definition of ‘republican’ could be open for debate. The double murder of Michael Loughran and Edward Morgan in October 1974 was due to the pair being identified by Loyalist intelligence “as active republicans. How accurate the information was, I don’t know.” Hutchinson is rather coy about his own activity, describing in his book little more than how the “evidence was clearly pointing toward my involvement in the shooting” when the police brought him in for questioning.  Notably, he refers to the two deaths as assassinations, suggesting that, whatever the rights and wrongs, truth or untruth, of five decades past, he remains untroubled by the deed.

Loyalism_victimsThe criminal justice system was not quite so sanguine, sentencing Hutchinson to prison and there he stayed for the next sixteen years until his release in 1990. In a sign of how the times were a-changing, Hutchinson worked, as director of the Springfield Inter-Community Development Project, alongside Tommy Gorman, a fellow ex-prisoner, except for the other side – not that it stopped the UVF officer and Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) member from striking up a bond, as well as a mode of operation, each running programmes in their different communities, and then meeting up to compare notes.

Loyalism_Ian Paisley
Ian Paisley

The two had something else in common: both had grown sceptical of the people who previously held all the answers. Hutchinson witnessed Gorman openly needling Gerry Adams, telling him that if achieving a United Ireland was simply a case of Nationalists outbreeding Unionists, like Adams was proposing, then why did Gorman have to spend so much time in jail? As for Hutchinson, he had the last word with Ian Paisley when the preacher refused to enter a lift with “a UVF murderer.”

Hutchinson retorted that such niceties did not bother Paisley when he was urging others to their deaths:

As the doors to the lift slowly closed, Paisley’s face dropped and for once he was speechless – here was a man who had led the loyalist people to heartache and death, and still, thirty years later, he hadn’t changed his tune. He was a total hypocrite.

His dealings with David Trimble went better, if only because their two Unionists parties needed each other in the Peace Process to which both were committed. Otherwise, Trimble dismissed his fellow Shankhill native for lack of formal education. “It didn’t annoy me,” Hutchinson claims:

It was pure ignorance. It was just a ploy to make people think that they had to vote for doctors and lawyers, like they had always done.

Loyalists_David Trimble
David Trimble

This relationship of a mutual goal running parallel with general contempt reflected the wider one between white-collar Unionists and their roughneck cousins. The former needs the latter for votes on election day, before abandoning them to the ghettos the next, leaving the working-class, as Hutchinson describes, “like a dog that is kicked by its owner and keeps coming back to get fed.” It’s this sort of insight that stands Hutchinson out from the other poster boys of Loyalism, the musclebound Johnny Adair and viperish Billy Wright, both of whom Hutchinson knew, and neither of which he could stand.

Loyalists_Tommy Gorman
Tommy Gorman

A curious note, then, that while Hutchinson joined the UVF to protect Northern Ireland from the horrors of Fenianism, on the few occasions Irish Republicans appear in his narrative, he seems to get on reasonably well with them. With people sharing the same Unionist cause, however, it’s just one thing after another. One wonders if the likes of Gorman could tell a similar story: his sparring with Adams ended with Gorman self-exiled to Donegal to escape the harassment of his former allies, who had driven him to distraction with fire engines and food takeaways falsely sent to his door.

Hutchinson’s internecine issues were less childish and potentially more deadly, such as when the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) threw a pipe-bomb at Hutchinson’s house in 2000. As the windows were of reinforced glass – in addition to the steel doors, security cameras and alarms – the weapon bounced off harmlessly. UVF and UDA combatants bombed or shot up offices connected to the other, while family members were considered fair game, even if shared across the divide. “One guy who was in the UDA, and whose brothers were in the UVF, put his own mother out of the Shankhill” as part of the “purge against UVF-linked families.” A kicked dog can still bite, particularly, it seems, other dogs.

Loyalism_Johnny Adair
Johnny Adair, the UDA commander and constant thorn in Hutchinson’s side

Hutchinson was by then a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA), but even an elected representative could not ignore the street law of the Shankhill. “Sometimes you face intracommunal issues that can’t be solved in the parliamentary chamber,” as he puts it. Hutchinson had demonstrated the implacable truth of that as far back as 1972, when he pulled out a gun at a UVF gathering to rebut a proposal not to his liking. The matter was dropped.

Loyalism_Ken Gibson
Ken Gibson

Another UVF rival of Hutchinson’s at the time, Ken Gibson, stood as a candidate in West Belfast during the 1974 UK General Election, hoping to take working-class Unionism in the same political direction that Hutchinson would espouse decades later. Hutchinson does not spare Gibson the humiliation of informing his readers of how bad a drubbing the would-be politico got: 0.4% of the vote. Gibson would later condemn the Unionist politicians of 1974 – the ones who actually succeeded in being elected – as ‘back-stabbers’, an incongruity that gave Hutchinson a dry chuckle when he read it in the newspaper. He prided himself on hearing “the mood music, while Ken Gibson was trying to play an unpopular tune.”

But tunes can be changed, as Hutchinson and even the “total hypocrite” Paisley would do when the latter stood alongside Martin McGuinness as the First and Deputy First Ministers of a new Northern Ireland – or maybe an old Northern Ireland in new clothes. The difference, then, between a warmonger and peacemaker is perhaps as simple as a single thing:


Publisher’s Website: Irish Academic Press

Originally published in The Irish Story (07/09/2021)

Book Review: Dachau to Dolomites: The Irishmen, Himmler’s Special Prisoners and the End of WWII, by Tom Wall (2019)

Dachau_Book_CoverIf, in popular culture, the POW experience from World War II is the movie The Great Escape, then this book could be considered its antithesis. Instead of the daring-do of an irrepressible Steve McQueen as he clears a barbed-wire fence on a motorbike, we have here men and women doing their best simply to endure. Not all succeeded, and the fate of Yakov Dzhugashvili – the captured son of Joseph Stalin – was a case in point about how a sentry’s bullet did not play favourites:

He put one leg through the trip-wire, crossed over the neutral zone and put one foot into the barbed wire entanglement. At the same time he grabbed an insular with his left hand. Then he got out of it and grabbed the electrified fence. He stood for a moment with his right leg back and his chest puffed out and shouted at me ‘Guard, don’t be a coward, shoot me!’

The German guard in question duly did so. “A shot rang out, followed by a blinding flash, and poor Jakob [sic] hung there, his body horribly burnt and twisted,” recalled another witness, ‘Sergeant’ Thomas Cushing. He left out the small detail that the luckless man had been outside their shared hut in the first place because he, Cushing, chased him with a knife after a brawl broke out between the Russian and Irish prisoners.

Yakov Dzhugashvili

But then, Cushing was a slippery individual. German military intelligence in the form of the Abwehr was interested in the recruitment potential of Irish-born POWs from the British Army, and Cushing was among those receptive to what his captors had to offer – or, at least, was willing to let them think so.

One could never quite tell with someone like Cushing, who claimed membership in the IRA during the Irish War of Independence (when he would have been ten), fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War (doubtful) and claimed the rank of sergeant while in Friesack Camp (he wasn’t). A chaplain at Friesack probably had the measure of the man when he described Cushing as someone who would “do and say anything to get out of prison.”

An equally crafty – though perhaps more admirable – Irishman in the camp was Colonel John McGrath, who also volunteered his services. In his case, he did so to undermine the German operations from within. When opportunity came in the form of a visiting priest (and a fellow son of Erin), Father Thomas O’Shaughnessy, McGrath had a list of the names of other inmates being trained by the Abwehr for sabotage missions smuggled out on the person of the padre at, as it turned out, no small cost to himself.

John McGrath (Irish Times, 29th November 1946, thanks to Come Here to Me!)

The subtitle here is somewhat misleading, as Irishmen like McGrath and Cushing are merely one of the many nationalities present in this book who found themselves at the mercy of the Third Reich, though McGrath fits the role of central character best of all; appropriately enough, given that it was the sighting of his name, in an unexpected place, which inspired historian Tom Wall:

At the entrance to the exhibition in the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site, there is a large wall map listing the names of prisoners from each country held in that notorious place. A figure of ‘1’ is superimposed on a map of Ireland. On a visit, intrigued by who this fellow Irishman might be, I began a journey of discovery. I soon learned he was John McGrath, from Elphin in Country Roscommon.

McGrath’s undercover work came with painful consequences. The Abwehr caught wind of his leakage, not through Father O’Shaughnessy – who was as good as his word in taking the information brief, first to London and then to the Irish Government – but when a coded message to Dublin was broken.

After some “intensified interrogation”, with the threat of execution as a spy, McGrath spent ten months in solitary confinement before being transferred to Dachau, where he became part of a group of around 160 prisoners, representing 18 European countries – the Prominenten – gathered for use as bargaining chips by high-ranking Nazis desperate to save their own skins as the war turned against them.

Entrance to Dachua Concentration Camp

While this gave the Prominenten value, one of them, the former French statesman, Léon Blum, was all too aware of the perilous situation this status put them in, as he noted in his diary:

When you say: ‘I offer to exchange Mr. so and so, who is in my hands, for this other,’ it necessarily means: ‘if you refuse to bargain, I will do away with Mr. so and so.’

Adolf Hitler

Blum had good reason to worry; in post-War trials of high-ranking Nazis, plans for Operation Volkenbrand – Fire Cloud – emerged, where the Luftwaffe was to bomb Dachau out of existence. Alternatively, its residents could be shot or poisoned. “Shoot them all! Shoot them all!” Hitler ranted during a conversation in his bunker where the Prominenten were among the topics, though it was debatable as to which of his many enemies the unhinged Fuhrer was referring to.

Finally, it was decided by the authorities to evacuate Dachau. The Prominenten at least left by bus, a relative luxury compared to how the ordinary prisoners were forced to march on foot, a sign of the importance that the German high command placed on them. A good character reference on a witness stand after the War could make all the difference in a war crimes court, after all.

Prisoners being marched out of Dachau

Even then, there was no guarantee of survival for the hostages as they were taken southwards, their intended destination being the Alpine fortress where the regime was expected to make its last stand. Their SS guards might keep them alive – or just as easily kill them to avoid any inconvenient finger-pointing later. One German assured a British POW, with whom he had become friendly, if not quite friends, that he would give him, if needs be, a clean end, via Nackenschuss – a pistol shot to the back of the head – of which he was an expert.

It was intended as a favour. Perhaps it was. It was hard to be sure in a nightmarishly uncertain world, where clear concepts held less and less meaning. Even ‘captor’ and ‘captive’ were becoming blurred, as it was suggested to the former that they relinquish command to the latter. This was while an attack by anti-Nazi partisans was being planned with the knowledge of some of the prisoners, and to the alarm of the others who feared being caught in the crossfire just when the end of the fighting was in sight.

SS officers

Despite the setting, this is less of a war book and more of a study of human nature. Considering the range of personalities and situations, it can be a difficult work to take in at one go and rereads might be needed to fully grasp some of the nuances. Everything, from the inner workings of Reich politics to the ethnic tensions between Germans and Italians in South Tyrol – where the Prominenten and their escorts ended up – is grist to the mill here, but especially the different ways individuals, whether heroes, villains and everything in between, will respond when pushed to extremes.

Some just give up, such as poor Dzhugashvili. Others rise to the occasion as best they can, like McGrath. But liberty for those who survived brought challenges of a different, more insidious sort. McGrath returned to his former managerial job in the Theatre Royal in Dublin but soon resigned due to nerves unhealed from his time as a prisoner. When he died, just seventeen months after his homecoming, it was Father O’Shaughnessy, appropriately enough, who delivered the last rites. Those wanting a Second World War book of a different sort, stripped of the usual heroics, would be well recommended to try this one.

Publisher’s Website: Irish Academic Press

Originally published in The Irish Story (10/06/2019)