Daring Force Tactics: The Assassination Attempt on Lord French, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, December 1919

Doubtful Mercy

Life in Ireland turned a little more perilous on the 19th December 1919, courtesy of a hail of bullets and bombs cast at the convoy of three cars approaching the Ashtown Gate of Phoenix Park, Dublin. On board the first was Lord French, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, who was returning from a brief visit to the West and had arrived at Ashtown Station on the morning train. From there, the trio of cars picked him up, providing an armed police and military escort back to the Viceregal Lodge in a journey that normally would have taken no more than five uneventful minutes.

The Ashtown Gate of Phoenix Park, Dublin

The engagement was a brief one – “those who heard it are agreed that its duration would be about one minute,” reported the Irish Times – but fierce all the same. Detective Sergeant Hally, seated next to the chauffeur of the first vehicle, was struck in the hand, either by a bullet or bomb fragments, mangling his thumb and two fingers. The man at the wheel kept his nerve, however, and sped forward, passing out of range of their assailants. That the car received minimal damage – one hole to the rear and another through the driver’s window – attested to the wisdom of the decision not to stop and fight it out.

The second car, in contrast, was badly mauled, losing all its windows and taking over a dozen bullet shots to its body. Had there been anyone other than its driver inside, they would almost certainly have been similarly battered; as it was, the sole occupant escaped injury.[1]

Lord French’s car post-ambush, with a soldier pointing out a bullet-hole (source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/nlireland/17069060140)

It was the third car that turned the tide when it caught up with the scene: open-topped, with six soldiers who opened fire at once, killing one of the assailants. Sergeant George Rumble later testified at the inquiry into the deceased about how he had pulled his firearm out at three of the ambushers who were behind a two-wheeled cart by the road.

Coroner: You aimed at one man?

Rumble: Yes, he was aiming at me with a revolver.

Coroner: What was the result?

Rumble: My shot made the gravel on the road at the man’s feet to fly around him. At the same time, he jumped and made out of sight. The other man (the second) was in the act of pulling the pin out of a bomb with his left hand, he having the bomb in his right.

Coroner: What did you do?

Rumble: I fired at him.

Coroner: What was the result?

Rumble: The man put up his arms and fell straight on his back.

Coroner: During this time, were there bullets flying around?

Rumble: Yes.

Coroner: Did one bullet pass close to your face?

Rumble: Yes, it burned my lip and smashed the windscreen.[2]

Dan Breen

The dead man was later identified as Martin Savage, a former resident of Knutsford Detention Barracks, imprisoned there due to his involvement in the 1916 Rising, three and a half years previously. The attacking party soon fled, some on bicycles down Navan Road, in the direction of the city, others running through a field, all the while hotly pursued by soldiers – at least, that is how it was reported. According to Dan Breen, reading this in the newspapers was enough to send him into fits of laughter as the soldiers in the third car had actually driven on to the cover of the Phoenix Park wall after their initial exchange of shots. And Breen would have been in a position to know, having been one of the three men positioned by the cart with Savage, during which he had also been hit – though in the leg, making him luckier than Savage at least.

What is certain is that Breen and the rest did not stick around, having disappeared by the time more soldiers and policemen from the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) arrived. They found, in addition to the slain man, a wounded Constable Michael O’Loughlin. Whatever happened to him had occurred before the ambush was sprung. He was immediately placed in the second of the cars which, as damaged as it was, remained intact enough to drive the constable to Steevens’ Hospital, Kilmainham.

Also of interest was the farmer’s cart Rumble had seen three of the assailants sheltering behind. It would appear that its intended use was to be pushed into the middle of the thoroughfare, only for Constable O’Loughlin to chance upon the party and their cart while on patrol, as unexpectedly for him as it was for them. Which was just as well for Lord French, for, as the Irish Times darkly noted, “had they blocked the road and stopped the cars, they would have had them virtually at their mercy.”[3]

‘The Head of an Alien Government’

Which almost certainly would have meant the end of the Lord Lieutenant. Whether the War of Independence had started earlier that year, at the Soloheadbeg ambush on the 21st January 1919, or if it was just the latest stage in a process triggered by the Easter Week of 1916 – Savage, after all, had been a participant – is a matter of debate; what is clear is that the Volunteers of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) had been looking at ways to escalate their armed campaign against British rule in Ireland for quite some time.

Cathal Brugha

Mick McDonnell had been in London in the autumn to assess the feasibility of wiping out the British Cabinet and any other targets of note (a strategy first mooted during the Conscription Crisis of the year before and which would later be revived in 1921 as the insurgency was reaching its zenith). After two weeks in the enemy capital, McDonnell returned to Dublin to report to Michael Collins, Richard Mulcahy, Cathal Brugha and other members of the IRA command. He recommended against the initiative as, other than the unlikelihood of catching the entire hit-list at once, anyone sent on the mission would not be coming back (though Brugha still seemed eager, that particular plan was quietly dropped). That was the same rationale against the next big idea, in November 1919: shooting Lord French while the Lord Lieutenant was taking the salute for the special victory parade in College Green, marking the one-year anniversary of the Armistice; meanwhile, IRA teams would be simultaneously striking the procession at different points.

When Dick McKee, while discussing this with McDonnell, asked for a choice of assassin – who, in theory, would snipe Lord French from a window in the adjacent Bank of Ireland, as if this was Dallas in 1963 – McDonnell could not provide one: the job was just too big. He eventually offered himself, despite knowing full well, as did McKee, that the mission would be a suicide one. “If I went down I would go down in glory,” was how McDonnell explained his thinking at the time. To his surprise – and probably relief – the scheme was cancelled the night before the parade as Brugha, a man not otherwise known for his moderation, “said the people would not stand for it” – civilian casualties, after all, would be hard to avoid.[4]

The Bank of Ireland on College Green, the proposed vantage point from which to snipe Lord French

Regardless, from that point, the Lord Lieutenant became the IRA’s number one target – “GHQ wanted Lord French executed at any cost,” as McDonnell put it.[5]

It was, Breen stressed, nothing personal: “Against the old soldier himself we had no personal spite, but he was the head of an alien Government that held our country in bondage.” Besides, there was the potentially priceless publicity to consider:

We knew that his death would arouse the world to take notice of our fight for freedom. His name was known throughout the civilised world. The Phoenix Park was as famous as Hyde Park. Think of the sensation that would be created when this man, a Field-Marshal in the British Army, head of the Irish Government, was shot dead at the gate of the Phoenix Park, in the capital of the country he was supposed to rule…The citizens of every country would sit up and say: ‘The men who have done this are no cowards. Ireland must have a grievance. What is it?’ That is the result on which we reckoned.[6]

Seán Treacy

In truth, Breen was more concerned about the inhabitants of his own country, finding them, to his dismay, to be ambivalent about the IRA’s recourse to violence. Soloheadbeg had been as much to kick-start the overdue war as about robbing gelignite when Breen, Seán Treacy and other Tipperary Volunteers waylaid the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) escort and shot dead the two constables present. That was what Breen and Treacy, as Quartermaster and Vice-Commandant of the South Tipperary IRA Brigade respectively, had agreed between them. Both were spending too much time behind bars on one charge or another for their liking; it was time, Treacy remarked, to stop being pushed around and do a bit of pushing back.[7]

Instead of the ‘risen people’ Breen had hoped for after Soloheadbeg, “many people, even former friends, branded us as murderers,” a fact that still rankled by the time he put pen to paper for his reminiscences. An otherwise sympathetic priest compared from the pulpit the Soloheadbeg culprits to the Biblical Cain, while a farmer who allowed Breen and some others into his house ordered them back out into the cold night as soon as he learned they were armed. Such was the pressure that Breen and Treacy, along with Séumas Robinson and Seán Hogan who had also been at Soloheadbeg, decided to chance the big city together.[8]

Left to right: Séumas Robinson, Seán Treacy, Dan Breen and Seán Hogan

Their proven willingness to risk their lives and liberty for the cause was co-opted into the cadre of gunmen that was forming in Dublin – what would become known as the Squad – and assigned to the task of assassinating the Lord Lieutenant. Which was easier ordered than done: the experienced soldier that he was, Lord French proved an elusive quarry, often changing his plans at the last moment to thwart his enemy’s, such as when Breen was assigned with others to Grattan Bridge one chilly November night, a grenade in hand to hurl at the Lord Lieutenant’s car when it passed on the way to a banquet in Trinity College.

Grattan Bridge, Dublin

As Lord French failed to appear, all Breen and his companions got for their troubles was wasted time and frigid fingers. The same nothing happened a fortnight later on the same bridge which Lord French was again supposed to cross and again did not. As they stood in the snow, pacing the length of the bridge, the Volunteers realised how they stood out like a sore (and cold) thumb and hastily departed – just in time to avoid the lorry-loads of British soldiers who descended on the scene, stopping and searching everyone in sight. It was an unpleasant reminder that, while the IRA was gradually winning the streets, via the murder of selected DMP officials, Dublin remained dangerously unpredictable – for everyone.[9]

Misleading Statements?

Piaras Béaslaí

However readable Breen’s My Fight for Irish Freedom is, it must, like any autobiography, be treated with a certain caution. Not all contemporaries were overly impressed by it; Breen’s suggestion that the quest to kill the Lord Lieutenant originated from discussions between him and his three Tipperary comrades, with the Dublin Volunteers following their lead, prompted Piaras Béaslaí to inform readers of his own work:

In view of misleading statements, made in a recent publication [Breen’s book was published in 1924, two years before Béaslaí’s in 1926], it is necessary to emphasis the fact that the projected attack on Lord French was the unanimous decision of G.H.Q., and that reports as to his plans and activities in the matter were regularly submitted by Collins to meetings of Headquarters.[10]

Another divergence is how the IRA learned of Lord French’s arrival in Ashtown Station on the 19th December 1919. According to Breen, “our information had come from a trusted agent inside Dublin Castle” – one of the several DMP moles Collins had working for him, such as Eamon Broy, who was to identify himself (if indirectly) as the source in question:

Several times, amongst the items I gave Tommy Gay [his link with Collins] were particulars as to where Lord French would be the following day, but nothing ever happened. One night, meeting Tommy in the usual way, and having told him a few things, I mentioned casually that Lord French would be arriving at Ashtown Station at 1 p.m. on the following day. I thought no more about it.[11]

McDonnell and Vincent Byrne, both of whom were present at the ambush, told a different story, albeit with variations between them (each as part of their Bureau of Military History [BMH] Statements, composed decades afterwards, so such discrepancies are to be expected). According to Byrne, he was in a Sinn Féin club at North Summer Street when Paddy Sharkey, who was part of the same Dublin IRA company as he, casually mentioned his need to leave early that night: his father, as a railway guard, was due to go down to Roscommon “to bring ould French back to Dublin” the next morning, with Sharkey needed to prepare his lunch for then.

“Oh, is that so?” Byrne replied, and went to McDonnell’s house as soon as he could to report this inside scoop.

Members of the Squad (left to right): Mick McDonnell, Tom Keogh, Vincent Byrne, Paddy O’Daly and Jimmy Slattery

McDonnell was to tell a similar story, except that it was Tom Ennis, not Byrne, who overheard the railway guard’s son and that the original information was when Lord French would be leaving Dublin, not returning to it. “We organised a squad, went to Ashtown Cross, waiting there all night, and French did not turn up,” McDonnell recalled. “When dawn started to break in the morning we went home tired, sleepy and hungry, disgusted and disappointed.”

The information had been correct, it seems only that Lord French had enjoyed the party he was at in Frenchpark, Co. Roscommon, so much that he stayed the night. McDonnell resolved to get their target on the return journey instead, and obtained the new schedule from the railway guard’s son (that the young man may have been putting his father in harm’s way did not seem to have occurred to him). When McDonnell received the phone-call from Tom Ennis on the morning of the 19th December that the train due to carry the Lord Lieutenant was leaving Broadstone Station, he knew it was time to gather the men and get them into position at the chosen site of Ashtown Cross, between Ashtown Station and the Phoenix Park gate.

Ashtown Station (source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/26289859@N06/16840190943/in/photostream/)

“I was in charge of that ambush,” he wrote, a claim supported by Byrne, who was told by McDonnell, in the front-room of the latter’s home where the handpicked team assembled that day, to go out and bring back any grenades he could find in the nearest weapons’ dump.[12]

Constable O’Loughlin

Séumas Robinson

Breen did not specify who was in charge, preferring instead to focus on his own experiences during the ambush. Historian Diarmaid Ferriter commented on how his memoirs “seemed more to popularise him than to provide any real insight or detached analysis.” A harsh critique, perhaps, but Séumas Robinson, came to resent Breen’s glory-hound tendencies, using his BMH Statement to accuse the other man of inflating his war record and IRA rank. As O/C of the South Tipperary Brigade, Robinson had been Breen’s commanding officer – but one would never guess from My Fight for Irish Freedom that Breen had had any such thing.[13]

Similarly bold, or brash, was his assertion that they could have taken the train to Frenchpark, overpowered its military guard and killed the Lord Lieutenant then and there, before escaping with similar ease. Considering the difficulties Breen would encounter during the actual attempt, this claim should perhaps not be looked into too closely (in contrast, Byrne said he was “no Robert Emmet”, as in suicidal, when an earlier plan to catch Lord French on the grounds of the Viceregal Lodge was broached to him).[14]

The first complication arose when Constable O’Loughlin chanced upon Breen, Savage and Keogh as they waited by the road, cart at the ready to push out. In a sign that the IRA insurgency was still in its fledgling stage, the policeman tried moving them along rather than assume any malign intent; to Breen’s exasperation, O’Loughlin somehow failed to notice the two revolvers he was carrying. The constable would be found injured at the scene, though not from any action of Breen’s; besides having “no desire to kill the unfortunate man”, a gunshot would almost certainly blow their cover.

Instead, it was a fourth Volunteer – unnamed in Breen’s book – who left the spot he had been assigned to and threw a grenade at Constable O’Loughlin. As this meant endangering Breen’s life as well, it can be assumed this was done in a fit of pique:

The policeman was struck on the head with the bomb which burst at my side without inflicting injury; but the force of the explosion threw us violently to the ground. The policeman was not seriously injured. We quickly recovered from the shock and had no time to bother about the policeman.

The Lord Lieutenant’s convoy was almost upon them. Had Breen, Savage and Keogh got the cart in place, instead of being delayed by O’Loughlin, they could have prevented the first of the cars – the one, as it turned out, Lord French was inside – from speeding past with only a few strikes able to be made against it.[15]

The interfering constable appeared in McDonnell’s and Byrne’s BMH Statements as well, though not with any great explanation as to what happened to him. “We thought of taking him but thought again it would hamper our positon or maybe give the alarm, then decided to leave him alone,” wrote McDonnell, attributing instead the failure of the cart strategy to Breen and the other two pushing it shaft-first, not the easier way of body-first McDonnell told them to do.[16]

In Byrne’s version, it was Breen, Keogh and McDonnell – not Breen, Keogh and Savage as Breen told it – who were moving the cart, only for it to become stuck in a dip by the side of the road. Constable O’Loughlin appeared and disappeared in Byrne’s narration just as mysteriously as in McDonnell’s, with the former saying only: “The policeman stood in the centre of the crossroads, as a traffic man. I suppose he was there to see that his Excellency would have a clear passage.”[17]

Policemen on the Scene
“RIC men looking for clues, and a DMP man standing at a spot where one of the bombs exploded.” (from the ‘Irish Independent’, 20nd December 1919)

Clearly, the ambush was a less-than-professional affair, and its various players had ample reason to omit or downplay certain aspects. As if Breen being almost killed by a ‘friendly’ bomb was not farcical enough, Seán Hogan fumbled one of his own, covering himself and Paddy O’Daly with dirt when it detonated between them. Had Hogan and O’Daly not thrown themselves to the ground in time, worse might have been inflicted. Michael Lynch was to blame the failure to kill the Lord Lieutenant on the grenades having overly long five-second fuses, when shorter ones for a second and a half would have been deadlier. Given the narrow escapes Breen, Hogan and O’Daly did have, however, the likeliest causalities would have been themselves.[18]

Exchanging Shots

Although too injured to appear at the subsequent inquiry, Constable O’Loughlin was able to make his side of the story known via a friend who repeated what the other man told him to the Irish Independent. According to O’Loughlin, he had been on duty at the crossroads, minding his own business, when a bomb passed over his shoulder, narrowly missing his head. “I did not know who threw, or if it was thrown at myself, because it was flung from behind,” the policeman said. “I had not noticed any suspicious-looking people around there. Everything appeared just as usual.”

Civilian with Grenade
“A civilian examining one of the hand grenades found after the attack” (from the ‘Irish Independent’, 20th December 1919)

Almost as if the first was a signal, more grenades were flung from a hedge on the roadside, while O’Loughlin heard the sound of several guns being fired; meanwhile, the first of the convoy cars was coming up the road. The constable was drawing his own weapon when the first bomb went off in front of him, albeit not to any great effect – to judge from all the accounts, IRA munitions-making skills was decidedly in the beginner’s stage – for O’Loughlin was still standing when he saw three men – described by the constable as being “all respectably dressed…not like labourers or in working clothes” – running towards him, guns in hand:

Before I could bring my revolver into action I got shot in the left foot. I was staggered and fell, and was just falling on the side of the road…The wound in my foot and the whole commotion of the shots and explosions all coming at once, must have stunned me, and I was dazed.[19]

The man who was to drive O’Loughlin to hospital, Corporal Appleton, had his own brush with death. As the man behind the wheel of the second car, as well as its sole occupant, he bore the brunt of the ambush. Two bullets struck the windscreen, followed by a bomb through the left-hand window, scattering fragments inside but leaving Appleton unscathed. As the Corporal stopped his car and looked out, he saw one of the attackers pointing a revolver at him with a cry of ‘hands up!’

Mr H.O. Holmes (Crown representative at inquiry): What did you do?

Appleton: I immediately fired a shot at him with my revolver. The escort car went by as I ducked down.

Holmes: How many shots did you fire at this man?

Appleton: About twelve. The revolver has six rounds, and I reloaded once.

Holmes: Did he fire back at you?

Appleton: Yes.

Holmes: How many shots did he fire?

Appleton: I could not say. We were exchanging shots, firing shot for shot till my ammunition was exhausted.

Holmes: What happened [to] him?

Appleton: He went clear round the corner [of a nearby building]. After my ammunition went, I had no more to defend myself with.[20]

This was a somewhat more heroic version than the one later provided by Byrne, in which Appleton – misnamed as ‘Applesby’ here – waved a white handkerchief in surrender.  “Blown to bits in his car,” he said when questioned about the Lord Lieutenant, which the Volunteers took at face value. Someone then suggested Appleton be killed, to which another replied: “Oh, it’s not him we wanted,” thus saving the Corporal’s life.[21]

McDonnell corroborates this somewhat, in that they captured the second car and its driver, finding to their disappointment only luggage inside, with no Lord French. The debate on Appleton’s life is not included, however. Breen is briefer, writing only that “we left the constable [O’Loughlin] and the driver [incorrectly named ‘McEvoy’] on the field of battle,” while the version provided by another participant, Joe Leonard, matches the initial newspaper reports of the would-be assassins fleeing after being confronted with the soldiers in the third car: “We had not much time to spare, remembering the fifty [actually six] soldiers advancing on us, so all we could do for Martin Savage was to whisper a prayer” and leave the scene.[22]

The Martin Savage Memorial, erected on the site of the ambush in 1948 by the National Graves Association


Other than Savage’s death, there were three main consequences to the attack on Lord French:

Sir John French, Lord French

One – New measures to stamp out the nascent rebellion were accelerated by the authorities. Throughout his military career, Lord French’s “touch had never been light or deft when matters of internal security was concerned,” as even a sympathetic biographer admits, and “his deep own sense of Irishness did nothing to help him see the Irish problem in anything but the starkest of blacks and whites”; his appointment to Lord Lieutenant being a sign in itself at how the British Government “was fast running out of options” in its handling of an increasingly turbulent country.[23]

As Dublin Castle hesitated between applying the carrot or the stick, Lord French was very much of the latter option, successfully urging the Cabinet to proscribe Sinn Féin in July 1919, though London balked at his request for the right to impose martial law – that is, until the failed attempt on his life convinced enough wavering minds in government. A month later, in January 1920, the British Army began assuming greater responsibility in Ireland, turning a policing matter into a more military one, and with Lord French taking the chance to sign as many internment warrants as he could get.[24]

Lord French inspecting RIC men on parade

Two – Sufficiently offended were the Dublin Volunteers at the coverage of the Irish Independent, with phrases such as “this dastardly attack”, that it was agreed by Richard Mulcahy, the IRA Chief of Staff, that action could be taken against it. Guided by the advice of one of their number, who worked in the linotype room of the newspaper, an IRA raiding party entered the Irish Independent’s building and dismantled its printing machinery, enough to lose it a day of sales. Worse could have occurred: some of the Volunteers were on their way to murder the editor when stopped near Parnell Square by one of their officers, Michael Lynch, who insisted on them waiting for orders from GHA before doing anything.[25]

Mulcahy was to refer to this almost three years later, in April 1922, before Dáil Éireann. Ireland was by then a very different place, politically speaking, with the Lord Lieutenant and the rest of Dublin Castle out and the formerly underground body of Irish representatives in – and wrestling with a very similar set of challenges. Instead of the Irish Independent, it was the Freeman’s Journal’s turn to be wrecked by the IRA – except, rather than having ordered it as before, Mulcahy was obliged to explain why brutalising a media outlet was not okay now when it had been permissible then.

The remnants of the Freeman’s Journal printing equipment, March 1922

“As far as any action against the Independent is concerned,” he told the Dáil, “that was taken in order to save life purely and simply.” Had Mulcahy not permitted the Volunteers that outlet, their anger might instead have been taken out on the newspaper staff, fatally so. The opposition in the Dáil scoffed at this but, going by Lynch’s account, Mulcahy was speaking the truth.[26]

Martin Savage

Three – As with Easter Week of 1916, the Ashtown Ambush was in execution a flop. While praising the “small handful of very brave men” behind it, Michael Lynch lamented how the operation had been “rushed into without proper military planning” and was to wonder what could have been done differently to save Savage’s life. However, again like Rising, the deed did much to publicise the policy of armed resistance to British rule – and showed there was a receptive audience.[27]

This was demonstrated at the inquiry into Savage’s death. After outlining the facts of the case, the Coroner urged the jury to find that the fatal shooting of Savage, in the act of pulling the pin out of a grenade he would then throw, was justifiable homicide on the part of the soldier responsible. Instead, after consulting among themselves for an hour, the jury members delivered a verdict coolly indifferent to the Coroner’s request, finding only “that Martin Savage met his death as a result of a bullet fired by a military escort at Ashtown Cross on the 19th December.” What was more: “The jury beg to tender their sympathy to the relatives of the deceased.”[28]

A turning-point had been reached, Breen crowed:

The people were beginning to appraise the situation. In private many defended our standpoint. The great majority of our countrymen were taking their bearings. Some of them were shocked at the daring force-tactics but it was becoming obvious to all that we meant business and that it was their duty to stand by us.[29]

And while there is much in Breen’s book to put a question-mark over, on that particular point, when read alongside the jury’s verdict, he was probably more correct than not.


[1] Irish Times, 20/12/1919

[2] Ibid, 23/12/1919

[3] Ibid, 20/12/1919 ; Breen, Dan. My Fight for Irish Freedom (Cork: Mercier Press, 2010), p. 95

[4] McDonnell, Michael (BMH / WS 225), pp. 3-5

[5] Ibid, p. 5

[6] Breen, p. 84

[7] Ibid, pp. 31, 34

[8] Ibid, pp. 40-1

[9] Ibid, pp. 82-3

[10] Ibid, p. 81 ; Béaslaí, Piaras. Michael Collins and the Making of a New Ireland, Volume I (Dublin: Edmund Burke Publisher, 2008), p. 248

[11] Breen, p. 85 ; Broy, Eamon (BMH / WS 1280), p. 103

[12] Byrne, Vincent (BMH / WS 423), p. 16 ; McDonnell, p. 5

[13] Ferriter, Diarmaid. A Nation and Not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution 1913-1923 (London: Profile Books Ltd., 2015), p. 30 ; Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 1721), pp. 127-9 (for more on Robinson’s and Breen’s chilly relationship, see A Bitter Brotherhood: The War of Words of Séumas Robinson

[14] Breen, p. 84 ; Byrne, p. 15

[15] Breen, pp. 87-8

[16] McDonnell, p. 6

[17] Byrne, pp. 17-8

[18] O’Daly, Paddy (BMH / WS 387), p. 21 ; Lynch, Michael (BMH / WS 511), p. 84

[19] Irish Independent, 22/12/1919

[20] Irish Times, 23/12/1919

[21] Byrne, pp. 189-9

[22] McDonnell, p. 7 ; Breen, p. 90 ; Leonard, Joe (BMH / WS 547), p. 7

[23] Holmes, Richard. The Little Field Marshal: A Life of Sir John French (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2004), p. 337

[24] Ibid, pp. 350, 354

[25] Lynch, pp. 87-8

[26] Dáil Éireann. Official Report (Dublin: Published by the Stationery Office, [1922]), p. 322

[27] Lynch, p. 84

[28] Irish Times, 23/12/1919

[29] Breen, p. 93



Irish Independent

Irish Times


Béaslaí, Piaras. Michael Collins and the Making of a New Ireland (Dublin: Edmund Burke Publisher, 2008)

Breen, Dan. My Fight for Irish Freedom (Cork: Mercier Press, 2010)

Dáil Éireann: Official Report (Dublin: Published by the Stationery Office, [1922?])

Ferriter, Diarmaid. A Nation and Not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution 1913-1923 (London: Profile Books Ltd., 2015)

Holmes, Richard. The Little Field Marshal: A Life of Sir John French (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2004)

Bureau of Military History Statements

Broy, Eamon, WS 1280

Byrne, Vincent, WS 423

Leonard, Joe, WS 547

Lynch, Michael, WS 511

McDonnell, Michael, WS 225

O’Daly, Patrick, WS 387

Robinson, Séumas, WS 1721


A Cavan Field That is Forever Belfast: The Last Stand of an Ill-Fated Flying Column, May 1921

Showdown at Lappanduff

Proof that there was nowhere in Ireland entirely safe from the ongoing guerrilla war was abruptly demonstrated when the inhabitants of Lappanduff, in the parish of Drung, were awoken from their sleep in the early hours of the 8th May 1921 by the sound of gunfire. Lappanduff was not normally a townland that could expect much in the way of excitement or even attention; even more remote was the farm of Mr John Brady, set on a mountainous piece of land that lay on the parish border and a mile away from the nearest road. In the corner of this farm was a slated, two-storey house, formerly tenanted by a labourer, when Mr Brady still actively farmed, but unoccupied as of late – that is, except for the group of young men who had taken up residence a few days before.

Cavan mountain

Not much was known about them, at least not by the Anglo-Celt, except – “from the meagre details available” – the men were strangers to the area, mostly hailing from Belfast, with two from Knockbridge parish, Co. Louth, and their ages ranged from nineteen to twenty-one years. One was dead by the time the newspaper went to print, and most of the rest captives, as their presence had not gone unnoticed by the authorities, who had sent lorryloads of Crown police and British soldiers to the farm.

When shots rang out:

The troops immediately took cover behind the rocks on the highland above, and some of the occupants of the house, it is stated, rushed from their beds and took up positions behind broken-down walls which adjoin the building. Daylight was just breaking, and as the battle developed the crack-crack of rifles resounding through the valleys were heard for miles round.

For two hours this firefight raged, so the Anglo-Celt estimated, until the farm occupants – or ‘civilians’ as the newspaper somewhat erroneously termed them – surrendered. By then, one had been wounded in the arm, along with a soldier, neither seriously; the sole fatality being identified as John McCartney from the Falls Road, Belfast. Upon examination of the farmhouse, an arsenal of respectable size and variety was discovered inside: Mills grenades, bombs, service rifles, pistols, ammunition and gelignite fuses, as well as the beds, food and clothing necessary for an extended stay. Clearly these were no mere ‘civilians’ and had come for more than just a visit.

For the most part, the Anglo-Celt had been discreet in its coverage. The facts were reported, with little speculation beyond. The only hint at why the supposed ‘civilians’ had been there in the first place was the inscription on the coffin plate for the deceased: John McCartney, Sectional Commandant, IRA.[1]

McCartney, p. 55
John McCartney (from his Military Service Pensions application, 1D65, p. 55)

‘In Great Dread’

Not all the Volunteers from the Irish Republican Army (IRA) had been killed or captured at Lappanduff. “One account states that the leader escaped,” read the Anglo-Celt, “whilst another is that five of the party succeeded in getting away.” The truth of the former report was confirmed two days later, on the 10th May, when Joe McGee wrote to the rest of the Belfast IRA Brigade to report. McGee wisely refrained from signing his name, only as “O.C., Flying Column’, and revealing his location as “enemy under the impression I am wounded and are searching Cootehill district for me.”

McGee had arrived at Ballyhaise, Co. Cavan, on the 3rd May, only five days before the disaster, along with six others from Belfast. The organiser from the IRA GHQ – nameless in the report, presumably also for security purposes – guided them to a safe-house until the rest of the flying column-to-be joined them. From Ballyhaise, the men went to Bunce to pick up the weapons stored for them, and then to Lappanduff, reaching it on the 5th May. Initial impressions were not encouraging: the column had to be distributed to nearby friendly houses as the one intended for their sole use was not ready.

Also disappointing was the absence of the local Volunteers who were supposed to appear later that evening with more equipment. The base at least was finished, the work in doing so taking up most of the Belfast men’s time. They had enough light left for two hours of parading and practising with signalling and taking cover, before retiring for the night on the 7th May.

An example of an IRA Flying Column

Sentries, of course, were posted and these awoke the rest at 4:50 am. British troops had been spotted lurking in another house close by, prompting the column to divide into three groups, one in the centre and the other two on either flank, each facing the threat. Rather than on McGee’s command, “this was done by the men themselves,” and though standing to fight would prove a grave mistake, “I believe they were under the impression they had only a small party to deal with.”

In fact, the Crown force numbered about three hundred and fifty, complete with ten lorries, so McGee later learned, against the seventeen men at Lappanduff. Also, it turned out that the enemy party first sighted had only been a decoy while the rest converged on the Irishmen’s hillside position from different angles. Compounding their woes was the breakdown in communication between their three sub-columns, each focused on its own separate struggle. McGee gave no indication in his report that he considered himself to be in any way responsible, despite his rank as O/C: “From the start no discipline was maintained.”

At first, the Volunteers held their own, one attempt by the enemy “to storm position on the right” being beaten and “forced to retire with I believe ten casualties” – this being a much more impressive (and suspect) tally than the one reported in the newspapers. All the same, the weight of numbers proved too much and when one of the three bands, consisting of four men, surrendered, the remaining pair were compelled “to break up and retire as best possible,” as McGee put it, though their best would prove not enough to save the column:

The entire parties were moving in different directions and were picked up by parties of enemy forces. I and two others managed to escape with our arms. As far as I can gather four of the column including myself are still free.

McGee finished his report with: “Awaiting further instructions from you,” although he could not have been under any illusion of accomplishing much from now on. Besides, “local Volunteers very very slow and do not seem to grasp anything at all,” he complained to Belfast. Nobody in the area had given the column any warning of the enemy’s approach, despite the lorries passing by their homes. This negligence might be explained by the hostages the British had rounded up in one of the vehicles – or it could be that the slow-witted Cavan IRA members McGee had encountered so far “are just typical of this sleepy place, and seem to hold enemy forces in great dread.”[2]

A Peculiar Position

McGee was venting his frustration but even Cavan Volunteers could be aware that there was something amiss in their branch of the IRA. “The position in Cavan was a peculiar one,” admitted Hugh Maguire, an officer in the IRA brigade there, blaming the central leadership in Dublin for the disarray:

I am at a loss to understand why our GHQ did not take some steps to put the organisation there on a better footing. There were eight or nine battalions in the county area. This was too big and too scattered an organisation to be controlled as one brigade and should have been organised into two brigades at least.

Instead, the Cavan IRA became a sprawling, unwieldy mess:

We could hardly have said to have a water-tight brigade organisation at any time, and when the original brigade organisation lapsed each battalion was an independent battalion coming directly under GHQ, Dublin, and for such a number of them in one county this was a pretty hopeless position.”[3]

Which is not to say the brigade was incapable of action, such as the burning of Crosskeys police barracks, as per orders from GHQ, at Easter 1920 after its garrison had evacuated. Raids for arms were also conducted across the county near the end of the year, and though the work was simple – usually just by asking the owner for their firearm – the results were paltry: five or six shotguns and a few revolvers. Funds were raised via a house to house collection, which Maguire, as Brigade Quartermaster, and another officer took to Dublin in order to purchase more weapons from GHQ.

A burnt-out RIC barracks

“I understand that a consignment of some sorts was sent to us via Longford with a supply for that area,” Maguire was to recall, “but that the Longford Volunteers kept the whole lot for themselves…we never got any arms and our money was never returned to us either.” The central leadership seemed to hold scant expectation in general for Cavan, as a conversation Maguire had with Michael Collins and Gearóid O’Sullivan in Dublin would indicate:

Collins asked us what we were doing in the area and we told him we had no arms and that all we could do was trench roads and cut communications and generally disrupt British government measures. He told us to continue this sort of work.[4]

Success was had instead in the poaching of policing duties from the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). By then the Dáil courts were up and running, as a counter to the British ones, and these required the arrest of suspects and their guarding during detention. All of this “threw a great strain on the Volunteers,” according to Maguire – the feeding of detainees alone was a constant headache – but, as a plus, “the people developed a sense of confidence in the Volunteers when they realised they were quite capable of maintaining law and order in the country.”[5]

Those expecting the sort of daring deeds and dramatic exploits popularised by the likes of Tom Barry, Dan Breen and Ernie O’Malley will be disappointed, but then they were always exceptional. In its low-key approach to the guerrilla war – to the point of being sedate – and focus on mundane, but essential, groundwork, Cavan was more representative of the country during the War of Independence than bigger, flashier places like Cork and Dublin.

Webley revolver, commonly used in the Irish War of Independence

Which is not to say the Cavan IRA entirely gave up on its ambitions for something bigger. Plans were laid to attack Ballyjamesduff RIC Barracks in December 1920; as with much else in Cavan during this period, bad fortune thwarted the attempt when the six riflemen who were intended to spearhead the assault failed to materialise on the night, forcing the rest of the Volunteers to cancel. Even as late as 1956, when Maguire was composing his Bureau of Military History (BMH) Statement, the reasons for this absence remained uncertain. One theory was that the six men had been injured in an accident, though Maguire believed, less charitably, that only three had bothered to show at their meeting-spot and then decided to go no further. And a third version is from Seán Sheridan, in his own BMH Statement, in which it was the guide intended to lead the six to the barracks who stood them up.[6]

The Facts(?) of the Case

Trying to make sense of the Lappanduff debacle is likewise complicated by its conflicting accounts; in each, the issue of blame was one that could be skirted around or laid on someone else but, either way, never fully ignored.

Crown policemen on a Crossly tender, a lorry commonly used by British forces in Ireland

Writing a day after McGee’s report to Belfast, on the 11th May, Séamus McGoran, in his role as IRA organiser for Cavan, attempted to explain to his Chief of Staff in Dublin exactly what happened. McGoran did not say whether he had talked to McGee beforehand or read the latter’s report; nonetheless, it is probably not a coincidence that McGoran at the start exculpated the people near Lappanduff from the charge of negligence: the British had, prior to their attack, commandeered every house nearby to prevent their presence from being leaked to the column. Furthermore, the Cavan IRA had dug trenches across the roads leading to Lappanduff Mountain in order stymie any British lorries, only for the foe to conscript local labour to fill them up again.

“Our men fought splendidly under difficulties, but the mistake made was that they took up positions to fight a small force,” McGoran wrote, echoing (knowingly or not) what McGee had stated about the fatal mistake the column made. Thus the enemy were able to outflank the small band of Belfast men. A consolation, of sorts, was the price the British paid for their victory:

The enemy lost heavily. Their casualties are ten at the least, that is taken from an eye-witness who watched them carrying them away and he was in a position to see them all. We have had that verified from another source who saw them being brought into Cavan town.

At least, this is according to McGoran, his count of the Crown losses being quite higher – and suspiciously more impressive – than the sole injury reported in the press. Another silver lining in the cloud was psychological:

Though a material defeat I look upon the fight as a moral success. It had had a good effect on Cavan and I think will awaken the men to a sense of their duty. From that point of view I consider the introduction of the column justified.[7]

Richard Mulcahy

But the IRA Chief of Staff remained unmollified by the ‘glass half full’ arguments from McGoran. “While this must not magnify our defeats, or let them depress us, or let them weaken our will to see the present struggle through to the very end,” wrote Richard Mulcahy thirteen days later, on the 24th May, “there is nothing to be gained by shutting our eyes to actual facts.” And facts were what Mulcahy was lacking: “Your own report is very unsatisfactory and it really gives me no details to go on, as to what the actual state of affairs in the neighbourhood was.”

A fuller report was thus ordered from McGoran, with particular attention to be given to two points:

  1. The arrangements made for the security of the column on the night of the 7th May, just prior to the engagement.
  2. Any orders the column had had from its O/C about its disposition and what to do in the event of a surprise attack.

That the column had been evidently been found wanting on what to do, coupled with how the enemy had been able to advance so close to its position without detection, revealed to the Chief of Staff “a most appalling lack of training or neglige [sic – rest of word cut off from the page] which, in view of the fact that it involves the lives of men and the morale of the county generally, is criminal.”[8]

A Sense of Duty

McGoran must have taken this stern reprimand to heart, for he submitted a fuller report on the 6th May, addressing both of Mulcahy’s demands for further information:

  1. Security arrangements for the column: McGoran had given standing orders for roads leading to Lappanduff to be trenched and, if refilled, for them to be dug again. Upon hearing that the roads had indeed been filled by the British, McGoran assumed his orders would be adhered to and saw no need for further instructions. As they were not, the routes to Lappanduff were essentially left wide open.
  2. About any orders given by the Column O/C in the event of a surprise attack: McGee had left no such instructions as he was waiting for the unit to become at full strength with the seven Cavan Volunteers due to join the thirteen Belfast men waiting at Lappanduff.

On the second point, McGoran conceded that he “would be responsible” as it was his role to organise the local aid to the column, “but I didn’t consider the absence of seven men would make a difference regarding his plans for a surprise attack” – thirteen could surely retreat as easily as twenty, McGoran had assumed. Another misjudgement McGoran took on himself was how he “didn’t expect that the presence of the column in the area would be detected so soon. I considered the neighbourhood safe enough.”[9]

IRA members in a field

McGoran also hastened to clarify to his Chief of Staff that he:

…didn’t mean to convey the idea that a defeat in itself had a good effect in Cavan but the fact that men from another part of the country had to be brought in to make a fight for them would surely waken them to a sense of their duty if they desired their county to take its rightful place in the fight for Ireland’s freedom.

In this, McGoran needed every bit of help he could find, given that there was:

…an idea still abroad among the men and people of Cavan that when they had first won East Cavan for a political party [the Sinn Féin by-election victory in June 1918] they had accomplished all that they should be asked of them for some time and it’s taking very hard work to get that idea cleared away.[10]

Amending this complacency had been why the Belfast column was brought over in the first place. Wanting to raise a local column, McGoran had applied for arms from both Dublin and Belfast; once again, the latter was less than interested in handing over valuable resources to a dead-end county, while the former only agreed on condition that Belfast men came over with Belfast arms.

Lee Enfield rifles, highly prized weapons by the IRA

Exactly why is unclear; after all, the Belfast IRA had more than enough fighting of its own to do, and columns operating in areas not their own was highly unorthodox, given the need to be familiar with their surroundings. Historian Jim McDermott (whose great-uncle was part of the column) offers the suggestion that the Belfast Volunteers hoped to gain experience in the use of rifles in an area that seemed, on the surface, safer than their own. Whatever the reason, McGoran was apparently less than happy at these terms but, seeing no better option, agreed, with a condition of his own: as soon as further weapons were gained, probably by looting from successful attacks and ambushes, the Belfast men would be phased out of the column and replaced with Cavan ones.[11]

‘A Very Bad Setback’

McGoran’s hopes for Cavan to stand on its own two feet would go unfulfilled, brigade morale by the time of the Truce in July 1921 being not “very robust” in Sheridan’s opinion. Instead of inspiring the Cavan IRA, “the Lappanduff affair was a very bad setback to the morale of the force.” Sheridan had his own idea for why the column had been caught, it being a simple matter of geography:

The position selected for the camp was a very bad one, to my mind. It was on top of a hill which stood up like a pimple on the surrounding countryside. The sides of the hill were rough and provided good cover for an encircling force.

Human error also played its poisonous part:

It is said that one of the column left the camp in the early morning of the 9th with a tin can to fetch water from a well or stream and that the morning sun glinting on this can as he swung it around his head, telegraphed or signalled to the enemy forces that the place was occupied.

However, Sheridan also believed that the Belfast men had been without scouts or sentries which, now known from the newspaper reports and internal IRA memoranda, was not the case. Notably, he blamed, as well as the man with the tin can, the column for having “no liaison with the local Volunteers who would have been able to warn them of the enemy’s approach” – for all the difference that would have made, to go by McGoran’s report of the locals being detained and prevented from passing on any alarm.[12]

Cavan countryside

Sheridan was perhaps a little too quick to foist the blame on the outsiders and, besides, he had not been present at Lappanduff at the time. As one of the column, Seamus McKenna had. Interestingly, the tin can’s owner makes an appearance in his own version of events. While Sheridan portrays the unnamed individual in question as at least part of the reason why the column was discovered, he and his tin can, according to McKenna, were only noticed at the last minute, after the column sentries on Lappanduff had begun perceiving through the morning gloom the shadowy figures nearby:

At the time, one of our men, who had just gone off duty, came out with a can to draw water from a spring, about fifty yards from the house. It was getting somewhat brighter and, as this man saw the strangers, he whistled to them and waved his water can. Immediately a shot rang out, followed by another, and numerous figures were then seen moving around the foot of the hill.

“I raised the alarm,” wrote McKenna, who was with the watchmen at the time, “but most of our party had heard the shooting and were awakened.” McGee delegated responsibility for getting the Volunteers out of their billet and into position to McKenna, after which the column O/C would resume command. McKenna duly did so: “I saw that everyone was out of the house and ordered the men into firing position on the hillside.”[13]

The fight was on.

IRA members

A Few Observations

By the time McKenna composed his BMH Statement, written more than three decades later, in 1954, he had clearly given that day at Lappanduff much thought. “There a few observations I wish to make,” he wrote:

  • Their presence had clearly been betrayed to the British.
  • Such information must not have reached the enemy barracks until late in the previous day, as the RIC and Tans who fought and arrested them had the sloppily-dressed appearance of men just roused out of bed.
  • The choice of area was a bad one, being both familiar to the authorities and containing inhabitants hostile to the IRA.
  • While McKenna respected McGoran as a conscientious officer, the Cavan organiser had been amiss for not taking proper precautions such as posting scouts by the roads to Lappanduff.
  • No attempts had been made in the meantime to identify the informer who McKenna believed had given away the column; if anything, the Cavan officers McKenna talked to about it preferred the idea that it was a Belfast man responsible.[14]

Needless to say, regarding the last point, McKenna found that suggestion rather insulting; nonetheless, he did concede that certain column members had not been as tight-lipped or as security-conscious as they should have been. The day before the disaster, on the 7th May, McGee gave leave to three of his subordinates to visit a nearby pub. After some hours, the trio returned, mildly tipsy and, while otherwise none the worse for wear, McKenna had to wonder if the damage had already been done:

Being Saturday evening, there must have been quite a number of local men passing in and out of the pub during the three hours or more than the men spent there. The appearance and speech of the three identified them as city men and, even if there had been no indiscreet talk, the very presence of the men must have caused surprise, even to friendly disposed people. Two of the men…however, were anything but discreet and I have no doubt that their tongues wagged.

“I wonder who heard them that night!” McKenna added ruefully.[15]

Tom Fox, the Cavan IRA Quartermaster who was captured with the column, identified the culprit as “a local Protestant farmer” – the nearby Protestants in general being “completely hostile” in his unvarnished view (another reason, if so, why Lappanduff had been an unwise selection). Later that month in May, Patrick Briody was taken from his home in Mullahoran and riddled with bullets. ‘Spies and Informers, beware – IRA’ read the note left by the 60-year-old shoemaker’s body.IRA spy sign

Historian Jim McDermott speculates that this may have been revenge for the column but – other than the considerable distance between Mullahoran and Lappanduff – neither Maguire nor Sheridan drew that connection when discussing Briody’s murder in their BMH Statements. If loose lips had indeed doomed the column, whether through carelessness or malice, then the deed went unavenged, in contrast to the usual bloody IRA purges post-defeat (such as the six civilians shot dead in the wake of the Clonmult ambush, Co Cork, in February 1921).[16]

But the biggest reason why the Belfast column failed might have lain inside or, more specifically, at its head. McKenna’s decision to wave a white handkerchief and surrender may have been understandable, outnumbered, outgunned and outmanoeuvred as he and the other Volunteers were, but that did not make it any less galling. Rubbing salt into the wound was when the English captain in charge held up a Sam Browne belt and told McKenna, with heavy sarcasm: “It’s a pity your C/O did not wait for the scrap.”[17]

An example of a Sam Browne belt (a leather belt with a supporting strap over the shoulder)

On Cavan’s Mountain

McKenna had last seen that particular item being strapped around the waist of his O/C as McGee stood in the doorway of their billet, readying himself while McKenna, as instructed, roused the rest of the Volunteers into their positions. Fighting on the mountainside was complicated by cover: good in some areas, too exposed for others, and as a result the men, already forced to spread out, drifted apart into separate pockets. Even so, the column was able to give a good account of itself, keeping up a steady enough pace of fire to hold the enemy at bay.

Had the Irishmen taken the chance, they could have crawled away and escaped, ready to fight another day but, as it was, McKenna kept waiting for McGee to reassert his authority as promised. When that did not happen, McKenna resorted to calling for McGee by his first name:

The echoes of my voice and of the shots were the only answer to my calling. I continued this calling, at intervals, for about an hour, I am sure, and my voice was heard all over the hillside. In fact, the enemy heard it and questioned us afterwards about it. Magee [sic] must have heard it before he cleared off – as he apparently did.

That the tell-tale Sam Browne belt was found five hundred yards away from the scene of battle confirmed to McKenna that his commanding officer was a coward as well as incompetent (although, of course, this is just one man’s opinion on another, and so must be treated with a certain caution). McKenna was transported with the rest to Cavan Military Barracks, then to his native Belfast, where he was housed in Crumlin Road Gaol. Due to the injuries of one of the other column members, their court-martial was delayed sufficiently until the Truce of July 1921 brought the War of Independence to a tentative pause.[18]

However ignominious the defeat, the prisoners could at least count surviving as among their blessings. John McCartney, of course, had not been so lucky. When the engagement started, McGee had dispatched him and a second man, McDermott, to the base of the mountain in case more soldiers advanced from there. The sun had almost risen in full when McKenna saw the pair racing back uphill in the direction of their comrades. The firing from the British intensified, and one of the two collapsed. His partner hesitated for a moment to look back at the other man before continuing his run, helpless to do anything else. It was not until the battle was over that the body could be retrieved, and death confirmed, and for McKenna to learn that it was McCartney and not McDermott who had fallen.[19]

Memorial to John / Seán McCartney in Belfast

It had not been McCartney’s first time in battle, having received an injury before, in the right hand – though the occasion then had been in France, as part of the British Army. Perhaps because of this former comradeship, or maybe due to the grit displayed by the column as a whole, the British garrison in Cavan Barracks treated the deceased with respect, saluting his hearse with rifle-fire as it left for the station. A second such gesture was made as McCartney’s father and brother, who had come to Cavan with a coffin, lifted their sorry load on board the next train back to Belfast. Following the cortége through the streets, passing closed businesses and drawn shutters, was a large crowd of civilians, along with the military escort, many of whom knelt on the railway platform as women from Cumann na mBan recited the rosary in Irish.[20]

McCartney’s name lived on, as cold comfort it may have been to his family. The author Brendan Behan was sitting in a pub on the Falls Road, Belfast, when he heard the song Belfast Graves for the first time. Among the more familiar names of Wolfe Tone and Joe McKelvey were a few other, less famous martyrs, including:

On Cavan’s mountain, Lappanduff,

Fought one with bravery,

Until the English soldiers killed,

Brave Seán McCartney.[21]

More on the song ‘Belfast Graves’ from ‘The Treason and Felony’ blog: https://treasonfelony.wordpress.com/2016/01/24/story-of-a-song-belfast-graves/


[1] Anglo-Celt, 14/05/1921

[2] Ibid ; University College Dublin (UCD), Richard Mulcahy Papers, P7/A/18, pp. 111-2

[3] Maguire, Hugh (BMH / WS 1387), pp. 20-1

[4] Ibid, pp. 11-12, 15-6

[5] Ibid, pp. 10-1

[6] Ibid, WS 1388, pp. 3-4 ; Sheridan, Seán (BMH / WS 1613), pp. 13-4

[7] UCD, Mulcahy Papers, P7/A/18, pp. 108-10

[8] Ibid, pp. 113-4

[9] Ibid, P/A/19, p. 51-4

[10] Ibid, p. 55

[11] Fox, Thomas (BMH / WS 365), pp. 9-10 ; McDermott, Jim. Northern Divisions: The Old IRA and the Belfast Pogroms, 1920-22 (Belfast: Beyond the Pale, 2001), p. 81

[12] Sheridan, pp. 17-8

[13] McKenna, Seamus (BMH / WS 1016), p. 21

[14] Ibid, pp. 34-6

[15] Ibid, p. 20

[16] Fox, pp. 10, 12 ; McDermott, p. 82 ; see Anglo-Celt, 28/05/1921 for contemporary information about Briody’s death ; Maguire, p. 20 ; Sheridan, p. 18

[17] McKenna, pp. 25, 27

[18] Ibid, pp. 21-3, 28-9

[19] Ibid, pp. 21-2, 28

[20] Military Service Pensions Collection, ‘McCartney, John’ (1D65), p. 71 ; Anglo-Celt, 14/05/1921

[21] McDermott, p. 81





McDermott, Jim. Northern Divisions: The Old IRA and the Belfast Pogroms, 1920-22 (Belfast: Beyond the Pale, 2001)

University College Dublin Archives

Richard Mulcahy Papers

Bureau of Military History Statements

Fox, Tom, WS 365

Maguire, Hugh, WS 1387

Maguire, Hugh, WS 1388

McKenna, Seamus, WS 1016

Sheridan, Seán, WS 1613

Military Service Pensions Collection

McCartney, John, 1D65

Book Review: Ireland’s Special Branch: The Inside Story of their Battle with the IRA, 1922-1947, by Gerard Lovett (2022)

Special Branch book coverAnyone believing the Civil War was over in Ireland by 1926 might have reconsidered that viewpoint when, on the 14th November, twelve stations of the Garda Síochána came under coordinated attack by members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The goal was to steal, not to kill; nonetheless, two Gardaí were dead by the end.

The orderly who answered the knock at St Luke’s station in Cork city managed to strike the revolver away from the man in front of him and slam the door back shut, but the bullets passed through the barrier all the same and killed Sergeant James Fitzsimons. At Hollyford station, Co. Tipperary, Garda Hugh Ward did not even get that chance, being shot at point blank range as soon as he opened the door. Ward lingered in hospital for two days before dying. Police personnel in other stations were luckier, being merely held up at gunpoint while the intruders seized whatever cash, equipment and paper records they could.

Such brazen assaults on the custodians of the law were hardly new in Ireland and would not be for the last time. A year later, almost to the day, on the 20th November 1927, Crumlin station in Dublin fell victim to the same trick: a rap one night brought Garda Thomas Doyle close enough for the bullets, fired without warning, to pierce the door and wound him. Doyle would survive, as would the integrity of the station, thanks to one of his colleagues, Murphy, shooting back with a revolver to drive off the raiders.

Significantly, the gun had not been Murphy’s own, having been left behind in a drawer by one of the Special Branch: the Garda generally went unarmed, adding to the sense of outrage as author Gerald Lovett puts it:

The deaths of Fitzsimons and Ward were the last straw for a force that since its foundation endured continuous threats and intimidation and suffered eight fatalities in their years of existence. They considered it a particularly cowardly act to shoot down two unarmed, uniformed gardaí who had no involvement in the ongoing battle against the IRA.

Eoin O’Duffy

Rubbing salt into the collective wound was how “most of the new force consisted of former pro-Treaty IRA men” from the Civil War. Retribution could be fierce: Republican prisoners were beaten in their cells after taunts about Fitzsimons and Ward. In the resulting public outcry, the Government wanted the policemen responsible fired, only for Eoin O’Duffy to threaten his resignation as Garda Commissioner. A compromise was reached: the culprits kept their jobs in return for paying a portion of the damages to their victims.

Wash, rinse, repeat: political subversion provoked heavy-handed responses, followed by dithering on the part of the authorities over whether to uphold their own laws or to stand by the men they relied on. Damages for assault and false imprisonment of suspects against Special Branch individuals, during a particularly heated period between 1929 and 1931, were paid for by the State. But the IRA did more than issue lawsuits.

John Curtin
Superintendent John Curtin

Superintendent John Curtin was opening the gates to his Tipperary house one evening in March 1931 when gunmen, who had been lying in wait, opened fire, close enough to leave scorch marks on his clothes as well as five bullets in his body, fatally so. As the head Special Branch officer in the county, Curtin had overseen many arrests to match the surge in IRA recruitment. However enthusiastic he may have been in pursuit of his duties, Curtin’s rough methods arguably did more harm than benefit to his cases. One witness to four men charged with illegal drilling retracted his statement to the court, saying it had been made under duress after Curtin “knocked [him] about a bit” and threatened to “paste me against the wall.” The four accused were acquitted by the jury and discharged.

Frank Ryan
Frank Ryan

Republicans gloated at Curtin’s murder. A poster issued by Cumann na mBan hailed “the men of Tipperary, true to the traditions of their forefathers” who “have shown that they will not allow a Free State superintendent to stand between them and freedom.” The deceased, IRA spokesman Frank Ryan (and later guest of the Third Reich) explained in a newspaper interview in August 1931, five months later, “had exceeded his duty. He went out of his way to persecute the IRA.” Ryan was happy to draw a distinction between the bulk of Garda Síochána, confining itself as it did to regular police work, and the overtly political Special Branch, who “if they ask for trouble…must not be surprised if they get it.”

He was blunter in regards to John Ryan (no relation), a co-operator in one of Curtin’s cases, who was shot dead on a roadside in July 1931. “He was nothing but a traitor,” Frank Ryan sneered. ‘Spies and Informers beware. IRA,’ had read the note left by the body.IRA spy sign

It was a scene straight out of the War of Independence. But then, for some, the Irish revolution had never ended. Perhaps the Civil War had been too bitter and too savage for bygones to ever truly be bygones. “We cannot make omelettes without breaking the eggs,” Kevin O’Higgins told the Dáil in March 1923. “We cannot build up a disciplined and self-respecting decent country without hitting pretty hard a head here and there.” He might well have had the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) in mind. Formed almost at the start of the internecine conflict in August 1922, the CID soon earned a dark reputation from their Republican targets such as Todd Andrews, due to their methods of:

…torturing prisoners under interrogation, which is to say, they were beaten and battered sometimes into a state of unconsciousness.

And these wretches could be considered fortunate since other:

Republican activities, real or suspected, were picked up on the streets and never got as far as Oriel House [the base of the CID]. They were shot out of hand.

Whatever else may be said about the CID, its tactics worked, enough for the Freeman’s Journal, upon the CID’s disbandment in October 1923, to print its concerns at the loss of such an effective tool. After all:

It is questionable if any force organised for the prevention and detection of crime has established so fine a record in so short a time. At the time they were formed most people had almost given up hope that an effective means would be found of stamping out the epidemic of armed robbery in Dublin. Inside a few weeks the CID had the bandits on the defensive, and ever since it has been keeping them on the run.

A very different picture, then, than the one Andrews painted. The newspaper need not have worried too much, for the most energetic (and more presentable) CID men were transferred to the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) (the rest were dropped, possibly, as Lovett speculates, because they matched Andrews’ brutal depiction of them a little too well). When the DMP was amalgamated in turn with the Garda Síochána in 1925, and the Special Branch formed, the new force was ready to confront an IRA that was as determined as the State to be going nowhere.

Lovett generally eschews analysis or commentary in his text, letting the story be told through the various listings of arrests and reprisals, shootings and beatings, police successes and official reversals. Despite having served as a detective inspector in the Garda Special Branch (retiring in 2004, according to the book jacket), the author remains admirably neutral, making it plain that both sides could be prone to violence as the solution to a problem.

And what violence there was! Ireland in the post-Civil War years seems to have resembled a Paul Williams gangland read, except the outlaws here were primarily concerned with targeting the State rather than each other (with exceptions – spies and informers beware, indeed). Contrary to the subtitle, the men of the Special Branch are only sometimes the central characters; the whole policing and legal apparatus is given considerable airing in the State struggle against the IRA – which, for its part, threatens at times to dominate the book as it almost did the country.

John Curtin commemoration
Assistant Commissioner Michael Finn playing a wreath on the site of John Curtin’s murder, March 2022 (source: https://www.tipperarylive.ie/news/home/779056/big-read-victim-of-ira-1931-ambush-in-tipperary-town-commemorated.html)

Trouble worked its way up to the top: Tomás Mac Curtain was spared the death penalty for gunning down Detective Garda John Roche in January 1940. This reprieve was due – according to one source, anyway – to several Fianna Fáil TDs threatening to resign their seats and thus deprive the Government of its majority. Residue sympathy for Mac Curtain’s father, the murdered Mayor of Cork, was presumably at play, as well as how the TDs in question were formerly members of the IRA. But then, so had been Superintendent Curtin, along with many of his Special Branch and Garda colleagues, to say nothing of the other TDs in the Dáil. If this book suffers in its focus, it does compensate by capturing the wider picture of a most turbulent time in Ireland.

Publisher’s Website: Eastwood Books

Originally published in The Irish Story (20/12/2022)

Before the Blue: Eoin O’Duffy and his Military Career in the Irish Revolution, 1920-2

A Model Everything

Eoin O’Duffy in a Free State uniform, 1922

With a year having passed since the end of the Civil War, Frank Aiken and Mary MacSwiney decided it was time to take stock of the national situation. After all, the former was Chief of Staff of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the latter its Director of Publicity, putting much of the burden of reviving the defeated Republican cause on their shoulders. In an exchange of letters in April 1924, the future career prospects of an erstwhile comrade, now enemy, was examined: Eoin O’Duffy, who, MacSwiney believed, would make a more popular candidate for the Free State leadership than the other two likely contenders, Richard Mulcahy and Joe McGrath.

Besides O’Duffy’s current position as Commissioner for the Civic Guards and the evident success he was making of it:

I have heard it said that he is playing a very deep game; that he is idolised by his men; that he is considered a model Catholic and a model everything that he touches.

Despite the twinge of reluctant admiration in her description, MacSwiney assured Aiken that she was not swallowing any of it: “I believe he is extremely unscrupulous and personally I have rather grave doubts about the correctness of his Catholic ideas.”

As proof, MacSwiney told of a conversation she had had with O’Duffy in December 1921, in the vestibule of the National College, Dublin. Dáil Éireann was about to open for the debate on that most controversial of subjects: whether or not to ratify the Anglo-Irish Treaty. MacSwiney had already made it quite clear where she stood at an earlier, private session, that the agreement in question was nothing less than a grievous betrayal, and a spiritual one at that, of the Irish Republic.

National Concert Hall, Dublin (formerly the site of the National University and the venue for the Treaty debates, Dec. 1921 -Jan. 1922

Strong words, indeed, enough to bring O’Duffy – a supporter of the Treaty – to tears and, when he stood to speak next after MacSwiney, he openly wished he could have died before hearing such a thing. This made an impact of its own on onlookers, several of whom remonstrated to MacSwiney afterwards about her reducing a fine fellow like O’Duffy to his piteous state. In an attempt to keep their differences purely political, without straying into the personal, MacSwiney agreed to the one-on-one at the National College.

Mary MacSwiney

At the start of their talk, O’Duffy impressed her as “very straightforward, very frank and in earnest.” His earlier distress, he explained, had been less what had been said and more who had said it, given the respect he had for her martyred brother, Terence MacSwiney. “Now here comes the extraordinary part of it,” she told Aiken – O’Duffy claimed that while Terence was dying on his prison hunger-strike in late 1920, one of O’Duffy’s subordinates in the Monaghan IRA Brigade expressed the view that Terence’s fatal self-denial amounted to the mortal sin of suicide.

This was apparently too much for O’Duffy:

He assured me [MacSwiney] that he had taken that man out, had given him half an hour and had him shot as a traitor. This he said he told me to show me how much he reverenced Terry.

Much to O’Duffy’s surprise and consternation, MacSwiney was horrified at this, although she now had her doubts that any such thing occurred and wanted Aiken’s opinion; after all, the story, if true, might prove useful should O’Duffy take on a more public role in the Free State. When he wrote back in reply, Aiken was emphatic: “O’Duffy told you a lie.” There was indeed a Volunteer in the Monaghan IRA executed on O’Duffy’s orders but for an entirely different reason: the wretch had spilled secrets when arrested by British forces and consequentially, so Aiken heard, actually asked to be shot.[1]

‘A Stickler for Discipline’

Aiken did not name the deceased. Otherwise, he must have been quite well-informed about an area not his own (Aiken commanded the Newry IRA) as the details he provided MacSwiney with match those in other accounts of Patrick Larmer’s fate. James Sullivan had met Larmer – spelt ‘Larmour’ in Sullivan’s account – after the latter returned home to Rockcorry from Belfast Jail in April 1921. Larmer confessed to Sullivan and the other IRA officers present that, yes, he had talked to the authorities while imprisoned but about nothing not already known. This was evidently not good enough, for Larmer was arrested shortly afterwards for court-martial.

Guessing its likely verdict, Sullivan tried pleading for clemency but his Brigade O/C was implacable: “O’Duffy said it would be an example and a warning to others.”[2]

Ernest Blythe

Perhaps Sullivan should have not expected allowances made for extenuating circumstances; O’Duffy was, after all, “a stickler for discipline,” according to James McElduff. For some like Ernest Blythe, that was part of O’Duffy’s appeal, his reputation as a “strict, thoroughgoing, enterprising man” being what earned him his appointment to Commissioner of the Civic Guard in 1922. But this picture of O’Duffy as a martinet and a Bligh might not be the full one; while John McGahey was to recount a story similar to Sullivan’s regarding Larmer, his one portrayed his commander in a less harsh light:

I got a feeling that my pleadings were having the desired effect on O’Duffy when Dan Hogan [O’Duffy’s right-hand man] arrived on the scene and intervened in a manner most aggressive towards myself. I have felt that only for Hogan’s untimely arrival I could have succeeded in influencing O’Duffy to spare Larmer’s life.

“I failed,” McGahey concluded, something which troubled him for years afterwards.[3]

Dan Hogan, in the uniform of the Free State

Whatever the exact circumstances, and whoever was ultimately responsible, murdering those believed to be passing information to the enemy was part and parcel of the insurgency throughout the country. By the time the Truce came into effect in July 1921, five Crown policemen and two IRA members had been killed in Co. Monaghan – along with eight suspected spies. If the last seems disproportionate to the rest, then, for context, the Meath IRA Brigade ended its war with three dead policemen, three dead Volunteers and six executed ‘spies’. From elsewhere in West Cork, Tom Barry felt strongly enough to dedicate a chapter in his memoirs to this most thorny of topics. And few other acts in the War of Independence were as brazen or as vicious as when two Dublin IRA men shot a wounded man repeatedly in the head at close range after first removing him from Jervis Street Hospital on a stretcher.[4]

All the same, Monaghan saw its fair share of deeds that generally do not get included in the official commemorations. Larmer’s execution was unusual in that he was a Volunteer; generally, the IRA focused on outsiders in its spy hunts. Kate Carroll fitted that bill as a middle-aged spinster who eked out a living of sorts as an illicit poteen-maker. Though the sign left on her corpse in April 1921 marked her as a spy, the letter she wrote to the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) was to inform on other illegal distillers – her competition – not the IRA. Hugh Kerr suffered a particularly gruesome and prolonged end, being shot six times in different parts of his body; Hugh Duffy’s death was likewise gratuitous: beaten with a blunt object to the head, and his chin and chest riddled with what appeared to be buckshot.

IRA spy signAs with Carroll, notices were left on the bodies of Kerr and Duffy to proclaim their crime of espionage. As for the truth of these allegations, we are, of course, dependent on the word of their killers.[5]

“One of the Most Daring Raids”

However harsh the war, no one in the Monahan IRA could claim they had not been warned; when O’Duffy addressed a gathering of prospective recruits on a Sunday afternoon in June 1918, at Wattlebridge, he made a point of saying that any of them unwilling to use force in their overthrow of British rule need not bother joining. “His words left a lasting impression on me and, I’m sure, on all present,” recalled Francis Tummon. Out of the twenty or so young men, “there were at least half a dozen who listened to O’Duffy on that Sunday afternoon but never joined the Volunteers.”[6]

Ernie O’Malley

By February 1920, the Monaghan Brigade had the strength and confidence to launch an attack on the RIC barracks at Ballytrain on the night of the 15th. This was something of a milestone, being “the first barracks taken north of the Boyne,” as Ernie O’Malley noted. O’Malley had travelled to Monaghan as part of his duties as an IRA organiser, dispatched by the insurgency GHQ from Dublin to assist the various country units in their war, and may have been the mastermind behind the operation. “He was with us when the plans were made for the attack,” recalled Sullivan, although according to another participant, Philip Marron, the details had all been worked out “before O’Malley was informed of our plans.” Full credit, in Marron’s view, should go to the Monaghan Brigade Staff such as O’Duffy and Hogan.[7]

Either way, the assault went off smoothly, if that is quite the right term for something that involved blowing a hole through a wall. Before that climax, the six-strong garrison of Ballytrain Barracks had been roused from their beds at 2am by the sounds of glass shattering and dogs barking. Armed men – about one hundred and fifty, estimated by contemporary reportage – had broken into two nearby premises: a lock-up store next door, the barracks being part of a street of houses, and a grocer’s on the opposite side of the road. From these enveloping positions, the assailants fired shots at the barracks, with the defenders responding in kind.

Constables of the RIC

This exchange went on for three hours until “at 5 o’clock, the leader of the attacking party,” O’Duffy:

…demanded a surrender. The police replied by continuing to shoot. Immediately afterwards a terrific explosion was heard. The explosion, which destroyed the gable of the barracks, drove an iron bedstead and other articles through the two walls, wrecked half the building, and scattered sandbags, which were protecting the windows, all over the main road.

Wearing masks and carrying rifles, the Volunteers advanced to enter through the newly-made breach. Surrender was demanded and received. Despite the fighting having been “of the most desperate kind,” as the Irish Times reported, the victors were magnanimous. “I am glad that no life has been lost,” their unnamed leader was quoted as telling his prisoners.

As four policemen had been injured in the explosion, O’Duffy went out to inquire about getting a doctor, returning five minutes later to apologise for not having found one (the wounded men were instead taken to Carrickmacross Hospital). He also refused to touch the money one constable had on his possession and complimented another on the valour of the garrison’s defence. “One of the most daring raids for arms that has yet taken place in Ireland” was ending on a remarkably civilised and genial note – with O’Duffy setting the tone – a sign that, at this early stage of the IRA’s armed campaign, the savagery that would mark certain other incidents in Ireland had not yet taken root.

The gutted interior of Ballytrain RIC Barracks, 1920

Studying the scene afterwards in the clear light of day revealed the level of preparation that had gone into the operation:

The telegraph wires between Carrickmacross and Shercock were cut, trees were felled and placed across the roads leading to the village. On one road a disused house was pulled down and the stones thrown across the road. An iron gate was placed in the centre, making it impossible to pass.

As for what was left of the target:

The barrack presents every sign of a siege. The walls that remain standing are punctured with shots, partitions are smashed into match-wood, and the ceilings are falling in.[8]

Victory for the Monaghan Brigade and its commander had been total. O’Malley would later pay O’Duffy the compliment of being “energetic and commanding.” Notably, however, O’Malley would withhold from his memoirs the same sort of detailed write-up he would grant to similar operations in Tipperary and Cork in which he had taken part. The most he provided his readers about the capture of Ballytrain Barracks was seeing a policemen blown back through a partition by the blast; that, and a rather implausible story of him being stopped beforehand by a RIC pair while cycling to Ballytrain, forcing him to kick one and then punch out the other. O’Duffy mostly impressed him by the quality of his typed reports to Dublin (as opposed to the usual handwritten ones from other brigades); otherwise, Monaghan as a brigade did not warrant anything higher than “fair.”[9]

IRA members with rifles

And that was for public consumption. In the notes O’Malley made for the interviews he conducted years later, politeness and a measured tone could go out the window: “Monaghan people are a queer bloody people, but they are bloody thick.” Their IRA commander had “had a flair for organisation,” O’Malley conceded, “but not for fighting.” But then, O’Duffy had taken one side during the Civil War and O’Malley the other, making it probably not a coincidence that the latter neglected to include anyone from Monaghan for his interviews.[10]

The Coming Primadonna?

Notable also is the relish with which O’Malley recorded what some had to say about O’Duffy. “He talked like a mad chieftain at the meeting where the Division was formed,” Broddie Malone said. The division in question was the Fourth Western, an amalgamation of IRA brigades encompassing Connemara and parts of Mayo, in line with the GHQ policy of shifting the burdens of the war from individual brigades to the larger, newly-made divisions. The fighting had by then come to a halt, due to the Truce of July 1921, though few expected this lull to last. O’Duffy had attended the meeting on behalf of GHQ, as its Deputy Chief of Staff, but his contribution apparently left something to be desired.

“There wasn’t a man there who didn’t see through O’Duffy,” Michael Kilroy told O’Malley, echoing Malone. “We felt he was very vain, and it was evident in his speech.”[11]

Eoin O’Duffy, in the uniform of the Gardaí, post-1922

Both Malone and Kilroy, like O’Malley, were to take the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War, and so hostility is perhaps to be expected from them (in other accounts, O’Duffy comes across as quite the persuasive orator), but his allies could also regard O’Duffy with a certain wariness, even apprehension. When discussing his war days with his son, Richard Mulcahy generally held fast to the principle of not saying anything about someone if he could not think of anything nice. “Oh, I always got on well with O’Duffy,” he said.

Richard Mulcahy

When probed further on the subject, however, Mulcahy admitted that while his fellow general “was a great man on paper, and he was a great man for going and doing a job…I say he was slightly a nerve [sic] character or touch of, never mind, people would say there was a touch of insanity in the family. Some kind of hysteria, nervous history.” In contrast to Mulcahy’s own phlegmatic personality, his Monaghan colleague “was a real primadonna. O’Duffy was a bit excitable and he had a streak in him that tended towards excitability.” Even Blythe, who paid due credit to what O’Duffy accomplished as Police Commissioner during a challenging time, came to resent the “excessive vanity” he soon found bubbling beneath the stolid exterior.[12]

Of course, if O’Duffy was so obviously “a peculiar mixture” – to use MacSwiney’s not-unbiased verdict – then he would never have risen as high as he did. Despite quarrelling with O’Duffy to the point of the other man trying to have him sacked from the Free State army, Paddy O’Connor “rather liked him,” finding O’Duffy “as friendly as be damned.” More – and perhaps most – importantly, “our friend thought the world of him,” O’Connor told O’Malley during an interview session.[13]

Michael Collins

That friend in question was Michael Collins. When he returned to Dublin from London in December 1921, having signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the Corkonian, far from triumphant, was in a gloomy frame of mind. Dáil Éireann had yet to ratify the Treaty, and since President Éamon de Valera had announced his intention to oppose it, Collins could only conclude that the agreement, and the peace it brought, would fail. The only thing then to do, he told Batt O’Connor, was for him to go back to Cork, if and when war with Britain resumed. Better to fight in his native county than be hunted all over again in Dublin.

Alarmed at this talk, O’Connor tried persuading Collins to remain in the capital. He was needed there, O’Connor said. Collins would have none of it and, besides: “There is a coming man. He will take my place.” By this, he meant O’Duffy, as he clarified to O’Connor. High praise, indeed.[14]

The Delicate Plant of Irish Peace

Mark Sturgis

Collins was not the only one apprehensive about the future; Mark Sturgis, a leading official in Dublin Castle, noted O’Duffy’s nervous habit of picking apart matches as they sat in the Gresham Hotel, Dublin, to discuss the situation in the North. As the IRA liaison officer for Ulster, O’Duffy was tasked with ensuring that the tentative truce there between the Volunteers and British forces held. Sturgis had been curious to meet the man so suddenly prominent in the newspapers, finding him to be:

A clean cut direct fellow, not a bad sort at all, but, I guess, stupid and rather truculent. He seemed business like and on the whole reasonable and when he agreed with any point of mine said so at once without any gêne.”[15]

Not so congenial was the situation in the North, over which O’Duffy had every right to be stressed. Some cases were relatively minor, such as him returning stolen money to a bank in Maghera, Co. Derry, after the local IRA had tracked down the culprits in August 1921; others not so much. Always a powder keg, Belfast had deteriorated sufficiently for O’Duffy, after days of riots, shootings and deaths, to issue a statement, via a telegram to the media on the 1st September:

… that after the refusal of the military and police to act, the situation on Wednesday morning [31st August 1921] was such that he ordered the IRA to take action for the protection of Roman Catholics, as it was quite patent to everyone that the police authorities were conniving with the Orange mob.

Ruins in Belfast, 1922 – note the British soldiers to the side


IRA snipers were placed at vantage points in the city, and in a few hours made their presence felt. Yesterday [1st September], as a result of representations made to him, he ordered his troops to cease fire. He is keeping touch with General Tudor…and other authorities throughout the day in case of further developments.[16]

Seán Ó Muirthile, An t-Óglác, 7 April 1923 (Vol. 1, No. 4)
Seán Ó Muirthile (from An t-Óglách, 7th April 1923 (Vol. 1, No. 4)

This was more proactive – or provocative – an approach than had been intended for a liaison officer; elsewhere around the country, others in the role such as Michael Staines and Emmet Dalton were trying to smooth over disturbances and flare-ups, not add to them. Given the intermittent violence in the North and long-simmering sectarian tensions, however, O’Duffy’s outspoken aggression could be seen as understandable, at least to some of his colleagues. “When one comes to think if it, it was the speech of an Ulster Catholic who had grown up among the scenes of the bigoted fury of anti-Catholicism, and again one ought not to be too mercilessly criticised,” wrote Seán Ó Muirthile in his memoirs.[17]

Ó Muirthile was referring to a controversial address at a Sinn Féin rally in Armagh, on the 4th September 1921, in which O’Duffy apparently threatened to ‘use the lead’ on recalcitrant Unionists. This was received as well as could be expected by the targets of his ire. “The Armagh speech…must go down as a Sinn Fein blunder, and an oratorical frost which retarded the growth of that delicate plant, Irish Peace,” read the Northern Standard on the 28th October 1921. O’Duffy was by then attempting to backtrack, “to water down his famous Armagh speech” which “more than any declaration made by any one since the Truce came into being, has hardened the heart of one class of Irishman against the other,” but the Unionist newspaper was unconvinced:

His explanation does not seem to clear the air very well, and only forces one to the conclusion that at Armagh he spoke his mind well, if not wisely.[18]

In truth, certain Irish hearts had been hard enough for a while and would remain so. Speaking his mind again, wisely or otherwise, this time to the Dáil on the 4th January 1922, O’Duffy declared that he knew “Ulster better than any man or woman in this Dáil because I have faced Ulster’s lead on more than one occasion with lead, and in those places where I was able to do it, I silenced them with lead.”[19]

This was more than idle boasting. Rosslea had seen little excitement during the War of Independence despite the presence of an RIC barracks and an IRA company; the former was evacuated and the latter contended itself with drills and training. Despite the village’s location in Co. Fermanagh, O’Duffy had had responsibility for its Volunteers – brigade lines not always adhering strictly to county ones – and was the one to first organise them in 1918. O’Duffy also wrote the order for the Belfast Boycott, warning all businesses against trading with Belfast-based ones as a protest against the ongoing sectarian violence there – which led to Rosslea’s own experience of intercommunal strife as the Unionist majority resisted this demand.

Ruined building at Rosslea, 1921 (from the ‘Monaghan County Museum’ facebook site, at https://www.facebook.com/photo?fbid=2999985913402408&set=pcb.2999985960069070

The situation soon worsened, as shootings led to the burning of nearly all the Catholic-owned homes in the village in February 1921.  O’Duffy arrived four weeks later to discuss with the local IRA officers the next course of action, specifically whether Unionist houses should be razed in retaliation. Also in attendance was Frank Aiken; when the Newry commander expressed concern at the possible escalation, his Monaghan counterpart struck the table to emphasis his reply.

“When you hit them hard, they will not strike again,” O’Duffy said.[20]

Games of Bluff?

Despite their initial common interests, the relationship between these two leaders would, as with many others during this turbulent period, not end happily. Writing to MacSwiney in 1924, amidst the ashes of defeat, Aiken blamed many for the sorry state of affairs. Winston Churchill, for one, as the guiding hand of Britain’s malign interference, but the British statesman could never have succeeded in his mischief without the assistance of Irish stooges like O’Duffy and “the bitterness” the latter “bred and nurtured wherever it was possible.”[21]

Frank Aiken

Which was something of an oversimplification. O’Duffy had been as willing as anyone to resume the war with Britain when he met Aiken again at the end of September 1921. Aiken was by then the O/C of the Fourth Northern Division, giving him responsibility over the IRA in Armagh, South and West Down, North Louth and bits of Tyrone and Antrim, while O’Duffy was Deputy Chief of Staff. Though the Truce had come as a considerable surprise to Aiken when announced two months earlier, he assumed it would not be lasting long, a feeling seemingly confirmed when O’Duffy told him that GHQ had asked President de Valera to keep his negotiations in London going only until winter – for that, it was believed, is the most favourable season for the weaker side in a guerrilla campaign.[22]

Needless to say, the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty threw all such considerations up in the air. Or did it? A céilé in Clones, Co. Monaghan, on the 6th December 1921, provided the opportunity for Aiken, Joe McKelvey, Seán Mac Eoin and a number of other IRA officers from the North and the Midlands to meet and hear what GHQ, via O’Duffy, had to say. News of the Treaty’s signing had reached them that very morning, casting the men in a doleful mood.

treatyUndeterred by this unpromising start:

O’Duffy assured us with great vehemence that the signing of the Treaty was only a trick; that he would never take that oath and that no one would [be] asked to take it. He told us that it had been signed with the approval of GHQ in order to get arms to continue the fight.

When Aiken expressed his fear that the Treaty would be something not so easy to remove or ignore once established, “O’Duffy again assured us that he would never dream of taking the oath to the British king or asking anyone to take it and that the sole object of signing the Treaty was to get arms.”[23]

Whether O’Duffy was stating GHQ policy or his own opinion is unknown, but he would repeat that line at future meetings in his canvassing of support for the new direction. Tom Maguire returned from a meeting in Dublin to report to the rest of the Second Western Division that Collins and O’Duffy had told him that:

They were only playing a game of bluff, that they did not intend to accept the Treaty at all, that their purpose in pretending to accept it was to get all the arms they could from the British and to get the British troops out of the country and when this had taken place, we would resume the fight. In other words, they would attack the British.

Maguire believed this, as did others in his Division. “Looking back it seems incredible that they would be gullible enough to swallow such statements,” bewailed one of the doubters when it was far too late.[24]

Gearóid O’Sullivan

Not all such efforts succeeded; the two Wexford brigades broke away from GHQ in their opposition to the Treaty, despite O’Duffy trying his best to dissuade them. At Enniscorthy, “O’Duffy made a very plausible speech in which he pointed out that the Army was still the official Army of the Republic and would remain so, and I had the impression that this was going down very well,” remembered Francis Carty. However, the next speaker, Gearóid O’Sullivan, the GHQ Adjutant-General, performed so badly by insulting the men and their past efforts at fighting that he “destroyed the effect created by the eloquence of O’Duffy.”[25]

Taking an Active Part

“There are people who are calling Mick Collins a traitor, who were under the bed when there was fighting to be done,” O’Duffy had told the others at Clones, a hint at how venomously personal everything was about to become. “From that night to the attack on the Four Courts, he worked like a fiend for the success of the Pro-Treaty party,” Aiken wrote. “He seemed gradually to forget the nation and to subordinate its interests to party interests, and, when talking of his opponents, he forgot all sense of justice and sometimes even truth.” There was regret as well as bitterness in this condemnation, for O’Duffy, whatever else Aiken thought of him, “was a strict organiser and one of the hardest workers in Ireland” – as demonstrated when the Civil War finally broke out.[26]

Anti-Treaty propaganda cartoon, by Grace Gifford, depicting Collins as a sellout

O’Duffy’s involvement was a brief one, enough for MacSwiney, in her 1924 correspondence with Aiken, to assume “that he took no actual part in it.” She was quickly put right in his reply: “From the 28th June [1922] until he was transferred to the Civic Guard [September 1922] he certainly took an active part in the war.” More so, as Aiken told it, O’Duffy had been one of its prime instigators and Aiken should know, considering he had been present at one such example.

Liam Lynch

Despite his opposition to the Treaty, Aiken endeavoured to keep himself removed from the IRA schism. At first, both the anti and pro-Treaty factions respected this neutrality, enough for Aiken to play the honest broker – or at least try to. When the fighting at the Four Courts broke out, Aiken hastened to the next likely flashpoint of Limerick, where the two sides were eyeballing each other. A repeat of Dublin looked to be averted when Generals Liam Lynch and Michael Brennan agreed to withdraw their respective Republican and Free State troops from certain frontline posts and advance no further – until O’Duffy arrived to upset that applecart:

The next evening the Free State forces, without giving the promised notice to Liam Lynch, broke the truce and re-occupied the posts…I was with Liam in the New Barracks when I heard of this dishonourable action of Brennan and immediately went to his Headquarters.

Michael Brennan

“I can’t, Hogan is now in charge,” Brennan was reported to have said when Aiken demanded he pull back his men as previously agreed. As soon as O’Duffy had appeared, so Brennan explained to Aiken, he had called him up and another Free State general, Donal O’Hannigan, to upbraid them. There was to be no pussyfooting on O’Duffy’s watch and, to ensure that things got done, another commander, James Hogan, was appointed over Brennan’s and O’Hannigan’s heads. Aiken replied that this did not absolve Brennan of responsibility, and was equally withering when Brennan tried claiming the Pro-Treatyites were only reoccupying their posts as a precaution: “I told him that this was damn nonsense; that it was merely a matter of time until further fighting commenced.”

Two hours, as it turned out, was all that passed before the two armies were again at each other’s throats, just as Aiken predicted – and he knew exactly who to blame:

I think I have given you a good idea that O’Duffy forced the fighting in Limerick. Brennan and [O’]Hannigan, of course, were immediately responsible, but only for O’Duffy they would not have started, as Brennan said “I don’t see how serious fighting can take place here, our men have nothing against the other lads.”[27]

As with much else concerning O’Duffy, there might be more than meets the eye here. According to what they later told historian Calton Younger, Brennan and O’Hannigan had had only been playing for time until reinforcements arrived, with no intention of keeping to any deal with Lynch. Their deception worked – perhaps a little too well, for O’Duffy, who had previously talked of bluffs (in regards to the Treaty), seems to have been just as bluffed here as Lynch was, with results that were almost as disastrous.

Free State solders behind barricade

After the battle for Limerick was done and won, and the Anti-Treatyites compelled to withdraw from the city, O’Duffy assembled Brennan’s officers and warned them to make up their minds about which side they were on. Not for the first time, O’Duffy completely misread the room, leaving pleased with himself but with his audience close to mutiny. Brennan had to spend several hours soothing his officers’ offended sense of honour lest they make good on their threats to pack up and head for home. Let it never be said that O’Duffy ever gave anything less than his full attention, for better or for worse.[28]


[1] University College Dublin (UCD), Frank Aiken Papers, P104/1317

[2] Sullivan, James (BMH / WS 518), pp. 13-4

[3] MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), p. 134 ; Blythe, Ernest (BMH / WS 939), p. 178 ; McGahey, John (BMH / WS 740), pp. 14-5

[4] Dooley, Terence. Monaghan: The Irish Revolution, 1912-23 (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2017), pp. 87, 92

[5] Dooley, pp. 90-2

[6] Tummon, Francis (BMH / WS 820), p. 9

[7] O’Malley, Ernie. On Another Man’s Wound (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013), p. 147 ; Sullivan, p. 6 ; Marron, Philip (BMH / WS 657), pp. 3-4

[8] Irish Times, 21/02/1920

[9] O’Malley, On Another Man’s Wound, p. 147

[10] 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. 4, 166-7

[11] 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), pp. 62, 194

[12] McGarry, Fearghal. Eoin O’Duffy: A Self-Made Hero (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 87, 107 ; Blythe, p. 178

[13] UCD, Frank Aiken Papers, P104/1317 ; McGarry, p. 373

[14] O’Connor, Batt. With Michael Collins in the Fight for Irish Independence (London: Peter Davies Ltd., 1929), pp. 181-2

[15] Sturgis, Mark (edited by Hopkinson, Michael) The Last Days of Dublin Castle: The Mark Sturgis Diaries (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1999), pp. 218-9

[16] Irish Times, 26/08/1921 ; 02/09/1921

[17] UCD Archives, Richard Mulcahy Papers, P7a/209, p. 151

[18] Northern Standard, 28/10/1921

[19] Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, signed in London on the 6th December 1921: Sessions 14 December 1921 to 10 January 1922’ (accessed on the 11th November 2022) CELT: The Corpus of Electronic Texts, p. 226

[20] Connolly, John T. (BMH / WS 598), pp. 2-6

[21] UCD, Aiken Papers, P104/1317

[22] Ibid, P104/1307, p. 2

[23] Ibid, p. 7

[24] Walsh, Richard (BMH / WS 400), pp. 167-8

[25] Carty, Francis (BMH / WS 1,040), pp. 28-9

[26] UCD, Aiken Papers, P104/1307, p. 10

[27] Ibid, P104/1317

[28] Younger, Calton. Ireland’s Civil War (Glasgow: Fontana/Collins, 1982), pp. 370-2 ; Ibid, pp. 382-3


UCD Archives

Frank Aiken Papers

Richard Mulcahy Papers


Irish Times

Northern Standard

Bureau of Military History Statements

Blythe, Ernest, WS 939

Carty, Francis, WS 1,040

Connolly, John T., WS 598

Marron, Philip, WS 657

McGahey, John, WS 740

Sullivan, James, WS 518

Tummon, Francis, WS 820

Walsh, Richard, WS 400


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

Coogan, Oliver. Politics and War in Meath 1913-1923 (Meath County Council, 2013)

Dooley, Terence. Monaghan: The Irish Revolution, 1912-23 (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2017)

Price, Dominic. We Bled Together: Michael Collins, the Squad and the Dublin Brigade (Cork: The Collins Press, 2017)

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

McGarry, Fearghal. Eoin O’Duffy: A Self-Made Hero (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005)

O’Connor, Batt. With Michael Collins in the Fight for Irish Independence (London: Peter Davies Ltd., 1929)

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 O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Keane, Vincent) The Men Will Talk to Me: Mayo Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2014)

O’Malley, Ernie. On Another Man’s Wound (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013)

Sturgis, Mark (edited by Hopkinson, Michael) The Last Days of Dublin Castle: The Mark Sturgis Diaries (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1999)

Younger, Calton. Ireland’s Civil War (Glasgow: Fontana/Collins, 1982)

Online Resource

CELT: The Corpus of Electronic Texts

When the Challenger Becomes the Challenged: Sinn Féin vs the Irish Parliamentary Party in the East Tyrone By-Election of April 1918

A continuation of: Toe to Toe: The South Armagh By-Election, February 1918

Live Free or Die Hard

Ireland entered 1918 as Sinn Fein’s to lose as the January report from the Inspector-General of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) made clear. The best that could be said, from the point of view of Dublin Castle, was that nothing indicated a rebellion like the one two years before; otherwise, ‘Sinn Feiners’ everywhere:

…were diligently organising their movement. Several public meetings were addressed by [Éamon] De Valera and other leaders, and there were numerous lectures and concerts throughout the Provinces which, as well as propagating Sinn Fein doctrines, are a fruitful source of revenue.

As for these doctrines in question: “Our principle is Ireland free or a holocaust of blood and ashes,” Edward Dwyer told a crowd in Golden, Co. Tipperary, on the 27th January, while dressed in the khaki-green uniform of the Irish Volunteers.

Irish Volunteers

Other Sinn Féin talking-points might not have been as bloodthirsty but were equally challenging to the status quo: demands for an Irish Republic, demands for Ireland to be represented at any peace conference at the end of the war in Europe, protestations that food was being exported from the country while it was needed at home, an insistence that the Irish Volunteers and only they were responsible for saving Ireland from conscription being imposed by Britain, along with general abuse of Britain – on the verge of losing the war in Europe, apparently – all “with a view to undermine authority and induce contempt for Government.”

Kevin O’Shiel

No one could deny that Sinn Féin at least possessed an argument to make. Its enemies, in contrast, were conspicuous in their silence. Unionism in the form of the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Orange Order was nowhere to be seen, while the various societies allied to the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) – the United Irish League and the Ancient Order of Hibernians, for example – had been completely inactive until the end of January, and they were only stirred into movement by the by-election in South Armagh in February 1918.[1]

Given how Sinn Féin had won all the four previous ones, one could be forgiven for assuming that this time would no different. Kevin O’Shiel certainly believed so, as did the other activists who had travelled to the constituency on behalf of Sinn Féin. Instead, as O’Shiel recalled:

We were dumb-founded at the news, as most of us, with the tradition of so many electoral victories behind us, were so certain of another that we were concerned merely with what the majority would be and were betting on the size of [the Sinn Féin candidate’s] majority.[2]

For the Irish Party had won, and at almost double the number of votes than Sinn Féin. Newspapers allied to the IPP, or at least sympathetic to its moderate approach, reacted like the blooming of desert flowers after an annual rain. The IPP’s “magnificent victory reveal the hollowness of the Sinn Fein boast that virtue has gone out of constitutional nationalism,” wrote the Freeman’s Journal. “Instead of the stampede amongst its opponents which Sinn Fein hoped to bring about, its chief anxiety at present is to prevent a stampede of its own ranks.”[3]

The Policy of the Gun?

Similarly, the Dundalk Democrat praised “the stout-hearted, hard-headed men of South Armagh” for delivering “more than a mere local victory. They have won a victory that marks the turning point of the mad revolt against unity and sanity in Irish politics.” Even the Unionist Armagh Guardian, as sour on Home Rulers and Redmondites as it was on Republicans and Fenians, took the chance at a little common ground between Green and Orange at the expense of a common foe:

Our Scotch descent makes Ulster Protestants a canny people who do not accept wild and illusionary schemes, and the South Armagh Nationalists from close association have become imbued with this healthy characteristic.[4]

Given their minority status in South Armagh, Unionists did not bother putting forward a candidate of their own. Most preferred to sit out the contest by abstaining, except for a third who was said to have settled for the IPP man, presumably believing Home Rule to be a lesser of evils next to ‘wild and illusionary’ Republicanism. This was seized on by the beaten faction as the cause of their defeat, the implication being that the Irish Party could not have won on its own and that a victory with Orange aid was morally worse than no victory at all.[5]

To O’Shiel, this excuse was “facile” as well being “quite untrue”; despite his Sinn Féin commitments, the Tyrone native prided himself on remaining clear-sighed on political matters, particularly those concerning his fellow Ulstermen. Instead, he identified two key characteristics of South Armagh that led to his party’s failure there: the ingrained conservatism of the Northern Nationalist, as distrustful as he was of “sovereign independence” and about:

…the physical force element in the new movement. He considered the Easter Rising an act of supreme folly and dreaded the country getting into the hands of the “wild men”, as he was wont to refer to the Volunteers, tempting their sons over to the insane Fenian policy of the gun.

Liam de Róiste

Thus the Irish Volunteers who had come in from elsewhere in the country like Dublin and Clare to parade about the place probably did as much harm as good. The second factor was the generational one. The “mature elderly men with property qualifications” may have rejected radicalism but their sons, on the whole, did not. They were indeed tempted by the ‘Fenian policy of the gun’, insane or otherwise. But, as the franchise at that point was limited to men of twenty-one years or over, youthful rebellion did not count – literally – for much at the polls.[6]

“The register was an old one and the franchise of the time was limited,” as Liam de Róiste, another Sinn Féin worker, put it.[7]

Accepting the Challenge

Not that this had prevented Sinn Féin from winning before. Regardless of the reasons, or excuses, Sinn Féin had come up short for the first time since 1916. “The Sinn Fein movement is apparently holding its own,” noted the RIC Inspector-General, “but it cannot be said to have made any appreciable progress during the Month [February 1918], and lack of enthusiasm is becoming marked.” Perhaps there was an element of wishful thinking in this, but, even so, the trauma of South Armagh was to linger.[8]

Michael Collins

“Unquestionably the result of that election was a serious setback for our policy,” Michael Collins told a journalist four years later, in 1922.[9]

All of which may have been rather an understatement; after all, Sinn Féin had still won four out of the five seats available so far. But so repugnant was the unfamiliar taste of defeat that there was a reluctance to risk it again. When East Tyrone beckoned as the latest constituency in need of a new Member of Parliament (MP):

Sinn Féin headquarters did not wish to fight the election as it was felt by the leaders in Dublin that contesting the seat would be a hopeless proposition…Belfast did not agree with headquarters in Dublin and asked permission to fight the election and stated that they did not require either money or help during the campaign.

This was according to James McGuill, who had been in South Armagh as Sinn Féin’s Director of Transport, the procurer and handler of its small fleet of motorcars. “In a moment of weakness it was agreed that the seat should be contested,” he concluded, with an indication of his own view on the matter. McGuill was writing this years afterwards, as part of his submission to the Bureau of Military History, but a contemporary source told much the same thing, except, here, the deciding voice was neither Dublin nor Belfast but closer to the ground.[10]

“The Standing Committee of Sinn Féin was opposed to contesting the seat,” wrote de Róiste in his diary entry for the 26th March 1918, “but the local people desire the contest.” Like McGuill, de Róiste thought the decision a bad one: “The chances of success seem poor as the constituency has many Unionists.”[11]

Arthur Griffith

About 60,000 Unionists to be precise, wrote Arthur Griffith in the Nationality, compared to 82,000 Nationalists. That Griffith felt the need to inform his readers this and how the former demographic had met to “decide in private conclave” to support the Irish Party, “the apostles of dismemberment [Partition]”, as if to prepare them for failure, suggests he too did not have high hopes for East Tyrone; after all, Sinn Féin would have to secure the Green vote as a whole to counteract the Orange, and even the best of the previous victories in 1917 had not been that total.

And so it was, with the grimly determined air of an incumbent champion Sonny Liston rather than the hungry enthusiasm of an up-and-coming Cassius Clay, that the Nationality proclaimed: “The “Freeman’s Journal” challenges Sinn Fein to oppose [the IPP candidate]. Sinn Fein accepts the challenge.”[12]

Common Bonds

East Tyrone would make the third by-election of the year. A month after South Armagh, there had been Waterford City on the 29th March 1918; “another crushing defeat for Sinn Féin,” remembered O’Shiel. But Sinn Féin had the consolidation of Waterford being something of a special case, politically speaking. “Unlike South Armagh, no one had any doubts as to its cause – the Redmond name in the Redmond stronghold.”[13]

Bridget Redmond

O’Shiel was not exaggerating. As late as 1966, future Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald was told, upon knocking on a door in the Ballybricken area for his Fine Gael candidate: “You need not worry, sir, we always vote Redmond in this house.” For over sixty years, a Redmond had held that constituency, whether as a British MP or an Irish TD, from John Redmond’s victory in 1891 to his daughter-in-law’s death in 1952. And the dynasty could have looked forward to many more years of dominance, to judge by how Bridget Redmond had won the year before with her highest ever first preference vote at 8,372, topping the poll and earning her the seat on the first count.[14]

Given the enduring links between this city and its first family, it was a brave man who stood for Sinn Féin in March 1918, upon the passing of John Redmond. Any hopes that the death of the former IPP Chairman would sever the relationship between the constituency and his name was rudely disabused by Dr Vincent White’s votes of 764 to the 1,242 won by Captain William Redmond, the son and now successor; beforehand, Dr White had been struck on the head while on his way to the polling station, while no less a figure than the President of Sinn Féin, Éamon de Valera, spent his first day on the Waterford campaign surrounded, manhandled and finally besieged for over an hour in his party’s headquarters by a Redmondite mob.[15]

William Redmond, in the uniform of the British Army

Such scenes would be commonplace throughout the by-election, enough for several of the Irish Volunteers to remember their time with the flying columns in the subsequent War of Independence with less dread. Captain Redmond certainly treated the whole affair as a battle in itself, perhaps fittingly for one who had campaigned in his British Army uniform. “We defeated our opponents in South Armagh. We have them snowed under in Waterford and we have them on the run,” he said to the cheers of an appreciative crowd when his victory was announced.[16]

So could it be third time lucky for the Irish Party? Running for his father’s seat in Waterford had meant for Captain Redmond relinquishing the one in East Tyrone, his since the general election of December 1910. That occasion had been a lot closer – only by 140 votes in a total poll of 6,526. Home Rule was on the horizon, prompting Redmond Jr. to reassure – or to try to – the local Unionists:

Not only would Home Rule for Ireland not do anything to dismember or disintegrate the Empire but on the other hand it would be a sure means of wielding together the many, self-governing communities into a common bond in sympathy and interest.

But other points were not for turning. “The Irish Party,” Captain Redmond had said in another speech in 1910, this one directed at the Nationalists whose votes he first and foremost needed, “would not allow in any shape or form the exclusion of Tyrone” by Partition.[17]

Disuniting the Country

Almost eight years had passed and while the country was now in a very different state, the certain question remained the same: how was Ireland to be governed in the future? As part of the United Kingdom, completely separate from it or somewhere in between?

John Dillon

Some were calling for an Irish Republic, John Dillon told a rally at Kingscourt, Co. Cavan, on March 1918. And yet when privately asked if they were truly in favour of one, they would say certainly not: ‘That is merely bluff for the purposes of frightening John Bull.’ But Britain is not so easily intimidated, Dillon warned, and one may find, as some poor fellows did two years ago – in an allusion to the executed 1916 leaders – that the bluff may be called and at very short notice.

If nothing else, the Irish Party was demonstrating it could still put on a show and draw in the numbers. Newly-elected as the IPP Chairman, in succession to the late John Redmond, Dillon and his retinue had first arrived at Enniskillen, with a carriage draped in green and gold driving them to its Urban Council, watched by a crowd estimated to be around 15,000 to 18,000. From there he went to Carrickmacross, Co. Monaghan, and then to Kingscourt, despite a delay in the journey due to the shards of broken glass found strewn across the road half a mile out of Carrickmacross.

Obviously not everyone in the locality was a fan – but plenty were, to judge from the cheers Dillon received from the crowd at Kingscourt, complete with the waving of hats and flags. It was enough to convince Dillon, so he said once the applause finally died down, that all that talk of Ulster going over to Sinn Féin was very much mistaken.

On that particular subject, he had quite a bit to say. “I don’t want to say anything bitter or insulting, because my object is to unite the country,” Dillon said, to encouraging calls of ‘hear, hear.’ However, “these gentlemen say that no man is to be tolerated as a Nationalist who recognised British law in this country,” particularly the police courts, before which many Sinn Feiners were finding themselves. “I will put rather an amusing test: If you owe any money to a Sinn Feiner and don’t feel inclined to pay it, do you think he won’t recognise British law?” Dillon said, earning some laughter.

But while the IPP Chairman had plenty to say about the other side, he had little to contribute on his own. “It is impossible for me today to define accurately or in detail of the policy of the [Irish Parliamentary] Party,” he admitted, “until we have before us, as we shall in a very few days, the decision of the Convention” about to take place in Dublin, a meeting-of-minds between Nationalists and Unionists, sponsored by the British Government, in an attempt to salvage something out of long-delayed Home Rule. “Then we will lay before the people our policy.”

‘God Preserve Ireland’

Until then, Dillon could only offer further jabs at the “very peculiar people” in Sinn Féin:

They remind me sometimes of Lenin and Trotsky, who are now destroying Russia, and whose idea of liberty, we were told the other day in Dublin, is the only kind worth having. God preserve Ireland from that kind of liberty, because the principle of it is that every man is to be at liberty to rob his neighbour, and that anybody who chooses to commit murder wholesale may escape punishment. I say God preserve Ireland from such liberty.[18]

This speech had reached Eoin MacNeill by the time he made his own public appearance, on behalf of Sinn Féin, in Belleek, Co. Fermanagh. He had read it in the morning newspaper, MacNeill told the crowd:

Voice from the crowd: There is nothing new in it.

MacNeill: I beg your pardon, there is a good deal of new things in it.

Voice: He has been saying the same thing for thirty years.

MacNeill: I will answer him and leave you to say what you think.

Voice: He is not worth answering.

For the past decade, MacNeill said, he and the rest of the Irish language revival movement had been accused of undermining the IPP, when now it was no longer necessary to do what the Irish Party was doing to itself (“And badly, too,” added another member of the audience). The late John Redmond had proclaimed a few years ago the solving of the Irish question through Home Rule – who cares a rap for that now? Certainly not his successor, who dares not say as much as a word about it in public.

Eoin MacNeill on a public platform

What Dillon did talk about was uniting the country, or at least offering to; well, MacNeill was about to make an offer of his own:

If Mr Dillon declares that he stands with the majority of the people of Ireland for the rights of the Irish nation to be as free as any other nation, declares as we have done that the Irish people have the right to determine the form of government under which they live, publicly calls on the British Government to withdraw the threat of military force from Ireland…then I say I will welcome him to this platform with open arms.

“Until he does that we will certainly not join hands with him,” MacNeill finished, not that anyone could have found either scenario to be plausible. Notably, he did not use the word ‘Republic’ once in his speech; had his listeners noticed, they gave no sign of caring, to judge by the bouts of applause MacNeill received throughout. But, if Dillon had been hesitant in Kingscourt about the IPP’s current policy, MacNeill was similarly elusive about the game plan for his own party; he was just more confident in asserting that Sinn Féin had one.[19]

piaras-beaslai-td-pierce-beaslaiPut together and the two speeches at Kingscourt and Belleek reveal more about their respective sides than either might have liked. Dillon talked a good game but he, and the IPP in general, “did not actually challenge the desirability of the republican demand,” as historian Fergal McCluskey writes. At the same time, for all of MacNeill’s mock magnanimity, Sinn Féin was suffering “badly from the lack of practical policy, apart from the contesting of by-elections,” remembered Piaras Béaslaí, another activist for the party, since its endgame of creating a national assembly for Ireland was not going to happen until the next general election gave it the seats with which to do so.[20]

‘Players of the Orange Game’

Outwardly, at least, Sinn Féin kept up its bravado. Whether its predictions for itself were entirely convincing was another matter:

We are having a General Election in miniature in Ireland, and the results so far do not bear out the boast of the Sinn Feiners that they only wanted the opportunity of a General Election to “wipe out” the Irish Party.

The Dundalk Democrat wrote this in the aftermath of the Waterford city result, where the two to one majority vote for Captain Redmond, combined with the IPP’s South Armagh win, suddenly made Sinn Féin’s boasts sound a little hollow. With East Tyrone now looming:

Sinn Feiners cannot well back out of a contest since only a little while ago they declared that they would sweep the country at the next election…It would not do for a party that appeals to the “fighting spirit” to back down from a fight in Tyrone.

Coming from an IPP-aligned newspaper, one has to take such snide partisanship for what it is, as well as the accusation that Sinn Féin was “driving a wedge into a hitherto solid body of Nationalists who will probably never again come together as before.” Which was the standard accusation by the Irish Party against its new rival – as it had been for years on anyone threatening its hegemony. A more original line of attack was the Dundalk Democrat’s suggestion that “the hope of Sinn Fein is in the Unionists” – after all, the IPP and the Orange demographic of East Tyrone had long been at each other’s throats for control. Might it be “probable that some Unionists…be prevailed on to help the men who are helping them” in dividing the Green bloc?[21]

In this, the newspaper was reversing the Sinn Féin excuse for South Armagh. Whether the Unionists there had in fact voted for the Home Rulers they knew over the Republicans they did not is debatable; nonetheless, it was now a stock Sinn Féin soundbite. Countess Markievicz sarcastically asked, while campaigning in East Tyrone, whether the Unionists had become Home Rulers or the Irish Party were now pledging themselves to the Union.

Ulster Unionist crowd with a Union Jack (in Belfast)

WILL THE UNIONISTS VOTE? went a headline in another newspaper, the Ulster Herald, underlining their role as supposed kingmakers in East Tyrone. The answer, directly underneath, was apparently ‘no’:

It was announced on Wednesday night [27th March 1918] that, at a meeting of E. Tyrone Unionist Association Executive…it was decided to recommend Unionists take no part in an election between Dillonite [IPP] and S.F. candidates.[22]

All the same, the anticipation of the Orange vote upsetting the applecart with a swing behind either of the Green parties lingered; if nothing else, it provided fuel to the suspicion that the other Nationalist faction was up to something no good and underhand. The Ulster Herald warned its readers of the “unholy alliance, such as now exists between the Irish Party and the Ulster Orangemen” – no guessing where that newspaper’s allegiance lay; meanwhile, Kevin O’Shiel’s attempts to address a congregation leaving its church at Clonoe on Sunday morning was thwarted by the parish priest who loudly abused O’Shiel and his fellow Sinn Féiners as ‘players of the Orange game’.[23]

The Candidates

Choosing the man for the IPP was done at a specially convened meeting of its East Tyrone Executive. Since the one other possible choice, John Skeffington, was announced to be withdrawing from consideration, as requested by Dillon, the field was clear for Thomas Harbison to be unanimously selected by those present. A solicitor in Cookstown and a member of the Tyrone County Council, Harbison made for a solid candidate. For its part, Sinn Féin initially announced Seán MacEntee (a future Fianna Fáil heavyweight) as its candidate; within a week’s time, however, Seán Milroy was running instead on behalf of that party.[24]

Seán Milroy speaking to a crowd, 1922 (source: https://ifiarchiveplayer.ie/for-the-treaty/

Unlike Harbison, Milroy could not claim a local connection. In O’Shiel’s view, the Dubliner had been pushed forward “because of his known moderate views”, for, despite fighting in the 1916 Rising and his long-time involvement in Sinn Féin (Arthur Griffith being a close personal friend), Milroy “was far from being a ‘wild man’ or advocate of physical force.” As O’Shiel had observed for himself in South Armagh how leery the typical Ulster Catholic was of anything that smacked of violent upheaval, this was a prudent move.[25]

Milroy would continue to be a voice for moderation, urging the Dáil four years later to accept the Treaty in a speech judged by some to be the best of the day. “Speaking with a deep sonorous voice, rolling his r’s and vigorously driving home his thrusts by the scornful finger,” Milroy practically transfixed some of the journalists in attendance. Another onlooker was to be less impressed at the performance: to Todd Andrews, Milroy was little more than “a middle-aged man with hunched shoulders, the face of a boozer with the voice of a corncrake” (although Andrews’ anti-Treaty stance may have coloured his perception).[26]

Considering the odds against Sinn Féin in East Tyrone, Milroy might have drawn the short straw in being its candidate. All the same, he gamely did his best, addressing a crowd from the window of the Commercial Hotel, Dungannon. In keeping with his moderate temperament, he made an appeal for discipline and good order to be the watchwords of the contest; a fierier Countess Markievicz, in contrast, addressed her audience as ‘fellow soldiers’ and ‘rebels’. She had arrived in Dungannon on the midnight train, along with Count and Countess Plunkett (parents of the 1916 signatory), to be met at the station by Milroy and around a hundred and fifty Irish Volunteers, who then led the Sinn Féin dignitaries to the Commercial Hotel in a public display of strength.

Countess Markievicz

Irish Volunteers had become a feature of elections wherever Sinn Féin was involved, with two hundred more coming into Dungannon from nearby Donaghmore and Clonoe for the party demonstration on the following day. An IPP counter-parade, in contrast, attracted only a score of participants, while a crowd of Unionists youths were kept from making trouble by the RIC constables on standby. Count Plunkett, however, did not let this day’s success go to his head, obliquely referring to the predicted odds as he told listeners in Dungannon that the current contest would make Ireland one step closer towards liberty – whether they won or not.[27]

A Tacitly Accepted Axiom

Violence was another characteristic of Irish politics and a long-time one at that, as anyone who remembered the ‘Baton Convention’ in 1909 or the Parnell Split of the 1890s could attest. Joe Devlin, Thomas Lundon, Richard Hazelton and T.P O’Connor thus could hardly have been surprised, however displeased, when the four Irish Party MPs were pelted with rotten eggs at Coalisland; Devlin, for one, seemed to treat it all as just another day at the office as he endeavoured:

…to make his voice heard above the din, appearing to be quite indifferent to the fierce volleys of rotten eggs – their stench was dreadful – that matted his hair and clothes, and also that of his colleagues in the brake.

Despite being Sinn Féin’s election supervisor for Coalisland, Kevin O’Shiel was most displeased at the sight of this, priding as he did on keeping his end of the election tidy and civilised. But there was only so much one could do in the North where “at that time it was an understood and tacitly accepted axiom of politics to break up your opponents’ meetings if you were able to do so.”[28]

Ulster was hardly atypical for this; the prior elections in Longford and Waterford city had been particularly tumultuous. Whether East Tyrone matched them in this depends on the source. “So far the contest is being conducted without any such violent exhibitions,” read the Ulster Herald, while Tyrone Constitution reported on the 29th March “many exciting incidents, and several Nationalist [IPP] meetings have been interrupted and broken up by Sinn Feiners.”[29]

Sinn Féin poster on a carriage

The ‘breaking’ was not all one-sided. “Two supporters of Mr Milroy are alleged to have been attacked while driving along a road outside Dungannon by supporters of Mr Harbison,” read the Freeman’s Journal on the 4th April, the last day before the polls closed. The pair suffered injuries, albeit slight ones; of more interest to the newspaper – unsurprisingly, given its status as the IPP’s main organ – were what the supporters of Mr Milroy were up to:

Sinn Fein “peace patrols” were in evidence on a scale even more formidable than in any other election…Armed with hurleys and sticks, they took up positons in the immediate vicinity of the polling booths, and large bodies of Sinn Feiners paraded the country roads.[30]

Given the heightened feelings in the air, it did not take much for petty provocations to escalate, even if only tangibly related to the election. In Castlederg, a crowd giving cheers for Germany and the Kaiser was set upon by loyal subjects of the King, the scuffle lasting a couple of minutes before the former group broke and fled, some taking refuge in the RIC barracks – much against their patriotic instincts, no doubt – while the rest ran out of town altogether.

WELL DONE, CASTLEDERG! – ROUT OF THE SINN FEINERS. – UNIONISTS CLEAR THE TOWN. – A GOOD SATURDAY NIGHT’S WORK went the headlines of the Tyrone Constitution. Another incident in the same town, this time between a British soldier and some ‘Sinn Feiners’, also earned the newspaper’s glowing approval: “As the Hun learned how the British Tommy can hit back, so did their Irish supporters. Three or four of them rapidly bit the dust before his well-aimed blows, and engaged in a study of astronomy for a few minutes, whilst the remainder, seeing the fate of their leaders, hesitated, with the result that the soldier walked away, apparently satisfied with his work.”[31]

‘There is no Quarrel so Bitter’

And yet the Ulster Herald believed that the by-election as a whole “was not characterised by any of the disgraceful scenes associated with the Waterford contest” – which may say more about Waterford than Tyrone. Or about expectations in the North.[32]

Or maybe it is all just a matter of perspective.

Dungannon Courthouse, George Street, where the election results were counted and read

TYRONE’S VERDICT read the headline for the Freeman’s Journal on the 5th April, the day after the polls closed, when the results were read out on the steps of the Dungannon Courthouse:

Thomas Harbison (IPP) – 1,802

Seán Milroy (Sinn Féin) – 1,222

Thomas Harbison, Freeman's Journal, 5 April 1918_10
Thomas Harbison, from the ‘Freeman’s Journal’, 5th April 1918

The Irish Party had just won for the third time that year by 580 votes, not a bad result, on the face of it, for a party that had been floundering the year before. FLOWING TIDE OF VICTORY proclaimed the Freeman’s Journal. ANOTHER SMASHING DEFEAT FOR SINN FEIN. Another newspapers presented a more circumspect picture, with the Belfast Newsletter observing the disappointment of Harbison’s supporters. They had hoped to succeed by a larger majority, ideally two to one. The Nationality went for the other extreme, arguing that the result was really “a triumph for Sinn Féin” as it:

…demonstrated that nowhere in Ireland can the corrupt Parliamentary Party [note the withholding of ‘Irish’ from the name] hold a seat except by the aid and permission of the Ulster Unionist Council or the Irish Unionist Alliance.

The same excuse for South Armagh was being dusted off for an East Tyrone reappearance. It did not say much about the odds for a United Ireland when the mere association of an Orange vote for a Green candidate provoked such spleen and sectarian grievance-mongering from the organ edited by no less than Arthur Griffith:

Mr Devlin, conscious of the obligation he owes to Orange Ulster, thanked his saviours in Tyrone by playing to their bigoted instincts. He stigmatised the Catholics priests to the howling Union Jack mob as ‘subtle gentlemen’ who went around intimidating voters, and while the bigots cheered he lyingly [sic] attacked the Catholic schools. And for years this slanderer of Catholic priests imposed on thousands of Catholics in Ireland with his AOH [Ancient Order of Hibernians] in which he used the mask of religion to cloak the foulest political corruption.

In truth, Unionists had displayed little interest in the contest if the page-space in the Belfast Newsletter is anything to go by; more had been given to the fresh German offensive in Europe. After all:

From the Unionist point of view there is little difference between the Nationalist and the Sinn Feiner…The [Sinn Feiner] say plainly what they want, while the Dillonites [IPP] are ready to accept something less as an instalment. Both factions are the enemies of England and of Irish Unionists.[33]

Ulster Unionist postcard

Nonetheless, the charge of Orange collusion was a sensitive enough one for the IPP to confront through its mouthpieces. Deflection was the chosen strategy: the Dundalk Democrat accused Sinn Féin of “cooing softly before the Unionist dovecots”, seemingly more intent in warring against fellow Nationalists than Orangemen, while the Freeman’s Journal told of how “a prominent Belfast Sinn Feiner was arrested on a charge of attempting to impersonate a Unionist voter in the Caogh district”, a story that may best be described as ‘unusual’.[34]

Joe Devlin

Whatever the specifics, 1918 was now looking a lot less straightforward than it did at the start. “We beat them in South Armagh, we smashed them in Waterford, and we have routed them in gallant East Tyrone,” Devlin crowed to his followers. The authorities were not so triumphant. The monthly RIC report to Dublin Castle noted the twin wins in Waterford and Tyrone without comment, only that Sinn Féin, while “it cannot be said to have made very striking progress, the leaders and organisers displayed no lack of energy.”[35]

Neither party was leaving the Irish stage quite yet – the IPP had received its second wind and Sinn Féin was as intent in remaking Ireland in its image as before. All that was left to do was a fight to the finish, winner taking all, for, as the Dundalk Democrat sagely put it, “there is no quarrel so bitter as that between members of one household.”[36]


[1] Police reports from Dublin Castle records (National Library of Ireland), POS 8545

[2] O’Shiel, Kevin (BMH / WS 1770, Part 6), p. 2

[3] Freeman’s Journal, 02/02/1918

[4] Armagh Guardian, 08/02/1918; Dundalk Democrat, 09/02/1918

[5] Unionist voting preferences in NLI, POS 8545

[6] O’Shiel, pp. 2-3

[7] De Róiste, Liam (BMH / WS 1698, Part II), p. 173

[8] NLI, POS 8545

[9] Talbot, Hayden (preface by De Búrca, Éamonn) Michael Collins’ Own Story (Dublin: Edmund Burke Publisher, 2012), p. 50

[10] McGuill, James (BMH / WS 353), p. 46

[11]6 Feb – 17 May 1918’, Liam de Róiste Diaries Online, Cork City Council (Accessed on 01/08/2022)

[12] Nationality, 30/03/1918

[13] O’Shiel, p. 5

[14] McCarthy, Pat. The Redmonds and Waterford: A Political Dynasty, 1891-1952 (Dublin: Four Courts Press Ltd, 2018), pp. 14, 164-5

[15] Ibid, pp. 95, 97

[16] Ibid, p. 97

[17] Ibid, pp. 93-4

[18] Anglo-Celt, 23/03/1918

[19] Ulster Herald, 23/03/1918

[20] Béaslaí, Piaras. Michael Collins and the Making of a New Ireland, Volume I (Dublin: Edmund Burke Publisher, 2008), p. 117 ; McCluskey, Fergal. Fenians and Ribbonmen: The Development of Republican Politics in East Tyrone, 1898-1918 (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2011), p. 255

[21] Dundalk Democrat, 30/03/1918

[22] Ulster Herald, 30/03/1918

[23] Ibid, 06/04/1918 ; O’Shiel, p. 8

[24] Tyrone Constitution, 22/03/1918, 29/03/1918

[25] O’Shiel, pp. 2-3, 6

[26] De Burca, Padraig and Boyle, John F. Free State or Republic? (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2002), p. 19 ; Andrews, C.S., Dublin Made Me (Dublin and Cork: The Mercier Press, 1978), p. 206

[27] Ulster Herald, 30 March 1918

[28] O’Shiel, pp. 7-8

[29] Ulster Herald, 30 March 1918 ;  Tyrone Constitution, 29/03/1918

[30] Freeman’s Journal, 04/04/1918

[31] Tyrone Courier, 05/04/1918

[32] Ulster Herald, 06/04/1918

[33] Freeman’s Journal, 05/04/1918 ; Belfast Newsletter, 05/04/1918 ; Nationality, 13/04/1918

[34] Dundalk Democrat, 30/03/1918 ; Freeman’s Journal, 04/04/1918

[35] Freeman’s Journal, 05/04/1918 ; NLI, POS 8545

[36] Dundalk Democrat, 30/03/1918




Armagh Guardian

Belfast Newsletter

Dundalk Democrat

Freeman’s Journal


Tyrone Constitution

Ulster Herald


Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin and Cork: The Mercier Press, 1978)

Béaslaí, Piaras. Michael Collins and the Making of a New Ireland (Dublin: Edmund Burke Publisher, 2008)

De Burca, Padraig and Boyle, John F. Free State or Republic? (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2002)

McCarthy, Pat. The Redmonds and Waterford: A Political Dynasty, 1891-1952 (Dublin: Four Courts Press Ltd, 2018)

McCluskey, Fergal. Fenians and Ribbonmen: The Development of Republican Politics in East Tyrone, 1898-1918 (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2011)

Talbot, Hayden (preface by De Búrca, Éamonn) Michael Collins’ Own Story (Dublin: Edmund Burke Publisher, 2012)

Bureau of Military History Statements

De Róiste, Liam, WS 1698

McGuill, James, WS 353

O’Shiel, Kevin, WS 1770

National Library of Ireland Collection

Police Report from Dublin Castle Records

Online Source

6 Feb – 17 May 1918’, Liam de Róiste Diaries Online, Cork City Council (Accessed on 01/08/2022)

‘A Kindly, Ready Smile’: Seán Russell and his IRA Career, 1916-38


Seán Russell

Seán Russell was perhaps not an obvious person to achieve the fame that he did. To Todd Andrews, who had known him as part of a circle of Irish Republican Army (IRA) members in the days following their defeat in the Civil War, Russell was practically a nonentity; even when he heard his name again, years later, Andrews “found it impossible to fathom how such an indifferent personality could command the respect, let alone the obedience, of any body of Irishmen.” Although another acquaintance would express a much more complimentary view – the two having fought together in the Easter Rising of 1916, where Russell “was an inspiration to all” – Oscar Traynor felt the need to open his article in An Phoblacht on the 26th November 1927 with the headline WHO IS SEAN RUSSELL?

Clearly, Traynor believed this was a man who needed an introduction and not without reason:

His arrest a little over a week ago created but the mildest sensation in the minds of the general public, and he will probably be forgotten by them again until another court appearance gives them half a column, or less, to discuss, take a passing interest in, and then as lightly forget.[1]

But, if Russell lacked recognition, there was one thing he did not: confidence, even to the point of irritating some like Andrews: “He had a fixed smile which seemed to signify that he took for granted how glad everybody in the room must be to see him.” It was with this same self-assuredness that he wrote to the Irish Independent in December 1936 about a meeting he had had with the President. Éamon de Valera’s recent public dismissal of the possibility at any negotiations with the IRA, either as a body or between individuals, was a source of surprise to Russell, as well as a desire to set the record straight:

As, perhaps, an item of interest to the public, to Mr de Valera’s Cabinet, and to all Republicans, and further to show that we are not the unreasonable body that Mr de Valera would have the public believe, I trust you will allow a little space in your paper for the subject matter of my last interview with Mr de Valera.

Two years ago, in 1934, according to Russell, he had been minding his own business in Dublin when the secretary of the Minister for Justice called to invite him to the presidential office at once. As it was noon, Russell agreed to be at the government buildings by 4 pm. This he did, and spent the following two hours in a talk with de Valera, during which the President of the Free State Executive Council outlined various national concerns, both domestic and foreign, such as the Blueshirts, the ongoing Economic War with Britain, the Oath of Allegiance to the British monarch that Irish TDs were still obliged to swear, and so on.

Éamon de Valera

De Valera was speaking to a sympathetic audience in Russell, as one Republican to another. The conversation cooled, however, when Russell asked what the other man suggested he could do.

United Republican Action

“Firstly,” de Valera replied, “the IRA should hand up the arms to the Government.”

Russell refused, giving the following three reasons:

  1. The order de Valera gave at the end of the Civil War in 1923 for the IRA to keep its weapons in readiness rather than surrender them was still in effect.
  2. De Valera’s resignation in 1926 as President of the Republic gave him no further say or responsibility over such matters.
  3. Even if Russell was to go along the length of the country, requesting IRA members to relinquish their armaments, he would be refused.

Russell asked for any further ideas instead. De Valera suggested the IRA cease its military activities such as parades or open drills, though he demurred when Russell asked if he meant demobilisation in full. Either way, Russell said that this suggestion was as impractical as the first.

For his part, Russell proposed for the Government to “put the issue of the Republic before the people at the next General Election and support it or declare the Republic within a reasonable time.” De Valera asked what was ‘reasonable’, to which Russell replied: “Five years.” In return, Russell offered no further trouble from the IRA as long as there were also no more trials or prison sentences for members.

“Instead, you can have united Republican action,” Russell said.

“I wouldn’t consider it,” de Valera replied at once.

There was not much else to say, so Russell took his leave. Given the troubles and turbulence of the subsequent two years, with numerous IRA members languishing behind bars, and one, Sean Glynn, even taking his own life in Arbour Hill Prison, “could this lamentable situation, with all the hostility and bitterness surrounding it, have been averted?” Russell asked the readers of the Irish Independent. “I say it could, had Mr de Valera made a sincere effort to consider with the Irish Republican Army leaders how the difficulties might have been solved.”[2]

As a Man and Soldier

In fairness to de Valera, Russell could be quite a handful at times. “Very sincere, but not so easy to get on with,” was the verdict of one acquaintance, Pax Ó Faoláin, who compared him to Cathal Brugha in how “you would not open up to him readily, nor he to you.” Another, Tony Woods, went further in describing Russell as “a devious person, quiet and absolutely ruthless.” Liam Daly did not go nearly that far, though he did note how, in Frongoch Internment Camp, “he held himself rather aloof from his fellow-prisoners, and associated only with those he was in close contact with during that famous week” of 1916.[3]

Irish ‘residents’ of Frongoch Camp

Daly did not hold it against him; they had met before in the January of that year, when Russell was 22-year-old and already an officer, specifically a section commander in E Company, Second Battalion, First Dublin Brigade of the Irish Volunteers. “Even at this early stage and without any military training he infused a high standard of efficiency in his small group,” recalled Daly. After his release from Frongoch, Russell returned to his old post and excelled yet again: “From that day [in mid-1917] on the morale and efficiency of “E” Company became a bye-word, not only in the Dublin Brigade, but also to G.H.Q.”

Daly went so far as to say that: “I as an individual, became a better soldier and man by his acquaintanceship.”[4]

Clearly, then, Russell was a complicated individual, capable of inspiring scorn and suspicion or respect and adulation in equal measure. For Daly, the memories were bittersweet. The last time they saw each other, it was during the Civil War, in another prison, the Curragh, except this time only Russell was an inmate, with Daly as one of his wardens, the two men having chosen different sides. Russell looked right though his former friend without a flicker of acknowledgement. Their next, and last, exchange was a decade later, in 1933, when Daly sent a letter to Russell, asking for help in compiling a history of E Company. Russell wrote back to decline on the grounds that, as the work the Company was formed to achieve was not yet complete, its story could not be written.[5]

Sean Russell statue
Statue of Seán Russell in Fairview, Dublin

Daly knew exactly what he meant. “Liam, were it not for Easter Week, I would be in a monastery,” Russell had told him. “Now I have taken the Oath…well.” The oath in question was the one to the Irish Republic, as per entry into the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). Daly had proposed Russell for it in March 1919, and watched as the new initiate recited the pledge “in a quiet tone but with a crispness and brevity of words that was a part of him.”[6]

Daly was not the only one impressed by Russell, as shown when the IRA GHQ promoted him to be its Director of Munitions. How well he had performed in this is a matter of debate. Patrick McHugh believed he would have been more suitable for the post, having already set up a munitions factory in Luke Street, Dublin, in January 1921, with a focus on making grenades; Russell, in contrast, possessed “little technical knowledge.” That Russell got the role and McHugh did not was attributed by the latter to his refusal to join the IRB; nonetheless, he did not hold it against Russell and the pair would go on to enjoy a cordial working relationship, Russell being content to delegate production duties to McHugh as his deputy.[7]

A Man-Made Oath to God or a God-Made Oath to Man?

While Thomas Young also agreed that Russell was not the best qualified, his experience of serving under him in the Luke Street workshop was markedly less convivial:

I can’t say that this appointment has the approval of any member of the munitions staff, as Seán Russell had no engineering ability but considered himself, by virtue of his appointment, to be in a position to instruct and direct all munitions. It was as a result of this peculiarity that I found myself suspended for a period of, I think, four months, which extended into the Truce period.[8]

Two years after Russell swore his IRB oath, in December 1921, the Irish revolution found itself at a crossroads when the enemy pulled out a surprise offer in the form of the Anglo-Irish Treaty: peace but at a price. Whether the price was worth it would be hotly debated, not least at a certain IRB branch session both Daly and Russell attended:

At this meeting I noticed Seán sitting on a form, his head lowered and arms folded and occasionally looking round at his companions. It was then I realised to the full the portent of his quiet remark made on the day he was sworn in. He had made a man-made oath to God and intended to carry it out as a God-made oath to man.[9]

Ernie O’Malley

Which meant for Russell, as the IRA split into pro and anti-Treaty factions, siding with the latter. When Rory O’Connor called a meeting of like-minded officers at his home in Monkstown, Co. Dublin, Russell was among those who came, along with Ernie O’Malley, Liam Lynch, Oscar Traynor, Tom Maguire and others who would go on to be the backbone of armed opposition to the Treaty. Russell resumed his post as Director of Munitions, except this time for the IRA Executive when it was formed in March 1922 to give direction to the anti-Treaty IRA.[10]

For O’Malley, his colleague’s attendance at Executive meetings was a performance in itself:

[Russell] twisted and untwisted his hands as he spoke, the fingers pressing the knuckles of his other hand. He threw himself forward when he stood up. The lapels of his coat went further back and his body turned to one side. His even teeth showed when he talked.[11]

Russell was outside Dublin when the Free State attacked the Four Courts in June 1922, being in the country on IRA business, and so avoided capture when the base fell. Upon returning to the capital, he set up secret workshops to resume his production of explosives, working with a zeal and vigour that, if shared all round, would have won the Civil War, as one comrade half-praised, half-lamented. His time as such was brief; at the IRA Executive meeting of October 1922, in Co. Tipperary, Russell was noted as already a POW since a substitute was sent in his place.[12]

O’Malley joined him in captivity at the Curragh, and there they remained even when the Civil War ended with the surrender of the anti-Treaty cause. It was not until July 1924 that the inmates were released and then only in batches, rather than at once, the rank-and-filers first, followed, in time, by officers in groups of two. Russell and O’Malley left as a pair for Kildare Railway Station, meeting and joking with other freed prisoners on the platform as they waited for a train to Dublin and an uncertain future.[13]

Kildare town train station

‘A Soldier’s Death or a Prison Cell’

Some Republicans adapted to defeat through party politics, as did de Valera and Andrews in forming Fianna Fáil; others dropped out of public life in favour of cultural pursuits, like O’Malley’s reinvention as an historian. Russell was among those who never left the IRA, determined to succeed where they had failed before through the same method: force of arms. Governments in Ireland would change, political fortunes rising and falling, old certainties challenged and dogma compromised, but Russell stayed as constant as the Northern star, “the only Irishman that was incorruptible”, in Liam Daly’s view, one who “would rather die a soldier’s death or in a prison cell” than let his oath to the Irish Republic go unfulfilled.[14]

May Dálaigh
May Dálaigh (from Uiseann MacEoin’s ‘Survivors’

Also the same was life since the start of it all in 1916: being on the run when not in jail, the constant danger of discovery, not to mention the headaches of keeping a guerrilla army equipped and together. Suspicion became honed into second nature. Russell was a regular visitor to the home of May Dálaigh, as were other IRA figures, but not to the point of over familiarity. “If you did not go up to him in the yard, he would not come into the house,” she recalled. “He would want to know who was here before he entered.”[15]

Such precautions were not always enough. When detained by police in November 1927 near the North Strand, Dublin, Russell was noted to have been arrested two years before in 1925, only avoiding trial by absconding from Mountjoy. In addition to his legal woes, incriminating documents were found on him, most notably a list of weapons: a Thompson machine gun, 118 rifles, 80 revolvers, 34 grenades, 12 boxes of detonators and the ammunition to go with the firearms.[16]

Upon hearing of this, Traynor ventured the opinion that his 1916 comrade-in-arms:

…in jail…is much happier than many of his old colleagues, who to-day occupy positions of State, and who, with all their bombast, must occasionally feel twinges of conscience and remorse that a man who worked, as they know Sean to have worked, is now a prisoner, under their jurisdiction, within the walls of Mountjoy jail.[17]

However happy Russell might have been, he must have been even more so when found not guilty by a Dublin court, albeit eight months later, in July 1928, having spent the meantime on remand. The prosecution’s claim that the initials on the documents represented IRA names was found to be unconvincing by the jury, who took a mere two minutes to acquit Russell. The escape charge from 1925 was similarly struck out due to the police neglecting to bring their warrant to the session. Russell was observed kicking a co-defendant’s shin in amusement – the smiles on the jurymen’s faces being enough to clue Russell in that he was soon to be a free man.[18]

Sean Russel Group Photo
From ‘An Phoblacht’, 17th March 1934, the start of a project to commemorate Liam Lynch

These small victories alone were not going to change the balance of power in Ireland, however. To accomplish that, the IRA needed weapons, the procurement of which fell to Russell as its Quartermaster-General, a sequel to his previous role of Director of Munitions. Not for the last time, an Irish Republican in need of aid turned westwards, to the United States, to the Land of Opportunity, and to Joe McGarrity.

Overcoming Opposition by Ignoring its Existence

Joseph McGarrity

Russell and McGarrity would grow so close that, by 1939, the latter was referring in letters to the former as “my dear Chief”, a salutation previously reserved for de Valera. The Philadelphia-based businessman had long been a believer in physical force for achieving Irish freedom and as such worked through Clan na Gael, the Irish-American organisation formed for just this purpose. He was no newcomer to the scene: when the Irish War of Independence had been at its height, McGarrity helped purchase five hundred Thompson machine-guns that were to be shipped over to Ireland.

US custom agents in New Jersey seized them before they could be, however, in June 1921, later handing them back to Clan na Gael four years later. It was not until 1930 that McGarrity was able to send the Thompsons to their original destination. As Russell was by then the IRA Quartermaster-General and thus the one handling the Irish end of things, this transaction served as an introduction between the two men.[19]

IRA men with Thompson machine-guns (sometime during the Truce of late 1921)

In McGarrity, Russell found the perfect comrade and confidant – some might add conspirator. “It had been conceived by Russell and McGarrity in the US in 1936,” said Moss Twomey, referring to the Bombing Campaign in England. Twomey’s tour of the IRA units there in April 1938 and the poor state in which he found them confirmed the doubts of the former IRA Chief of Staff about the whole idea; nonetheless, Russell and McGarrity “were alike in their single-mindedness and in their ability to overcome opposition by ignoring its existence.”[20]

Moss Twomey

Twomey meant this dismissively, but such obstinacy would serve Russell well enough – for a time, it was all he had. “I am to be courtmartialed on Saturday,” he told McGarrity in a letter on the 12th January 1937. McGarrity was in Ireland for a trip to Galway, with Russell hoping to drive him there.

But Russell had more to ask of his friend than company:

You may not be able to attend as I hear you are leaving for the States. One of the charges against me is that on October 26 [1936] I entered into negotiations on behalf of the IRA – this refers to the O’Hara Harte meeting in Philadelphia. If you would make out a statement covering this incident for presentation to the court it would help me considerably.[21]

John O’Hara Harte, a Philadelphian journalist and Quaker friend of McGarrity, had come to Ireland on a one-man mission to reconcile the opposing factions in the country through “a spirit of understanding.” Such spirit was to be in short supply, as his hopes of meeting de Valera and James Craig went unfulfilled, and the Fianna Fáil government had just clarified its ambivalent relationship with the IRA by banning it on the 18th June 1936. With many behind bars, including Twomey, the IRA Army Council was in no mood to hear how one of its members, Russell, while in the US, had signed a document in the name of the Army Council, commending O’Hara Harte’s naïve, if well-intentioned, venture.[22]

An Organisation within an Organisation

“Well, my courtmartial is over,” Russell wrote again to McGarrity on the 29th January 1937, seventeen days later:

I have been suspended for three months from the IRA and removed permanently from the position of QMG [Quartermaster-General]. The charges on which I was found guilty were: – For the signing of the document on behalf of the army council, for Mr O’Harte at Philadelphia, and that in spite of your strong letter addressed to the court.

As if that was not enough:

I was also found guilty of writing that letter – which met with your approval – to the press giving the report of my interview with de Valera.[23]

The interview in question was the one where Russell and de Valera tried to hash out the differences between their respective Republican groupings. At least, this is what Russell told McGarrity. Another version is that his court-martial was for the alleged misappropriation of funds, though nobody seems to have believed his guilt on that one.

Walter M.
Walter Mitchell (from Uiseann MacEoin’s ‘Survivors’

“Whether Seán Russell might have been,” said Walter Mitchell, “he was an honest, straightforward man”, while according to Una Daly, his secretary during the Civil War, Russell “never took a penny in payment for his work.” Further evidence of Russell’s financial propriety is a letter from Frank Henderson to Ernie O’Malley on September 1922, describing how £70’s worth of funds Russel had left with someone were now inaccessible due to that person being taken captive in the fall of the Four Courts. To get around this awkward dilemma, Russell “got his brother to pay these accounts or parts of them out of his own private money and that he is too shy to mention the fact to you.”[24]

Not that any of this mattered. Russell had trod on too many toes, particularly Tom Barry’s, the current IRA Chief of Staff. In the years to come, Barry would profess himself to have been “shocked” by “the depths of hatreds which existed between various members of the GHQ.” But Barry was arguably as responsible as anyone for perpetrating them. He had wanted a court-martial previously over the loss of some Thompson guns to the Irish authorities, for which he blamed Russell; Russell, equally difficult as a person, neglected to inform Barry and the rest of the Army Council the location of IRA arms dumps before going to America in 1936. Much to his annoyance, Barry had to borrow some money to send someone to Galway to investigate the storage sites there.[25]

Seán MacBride

It could have been carelessness on Russell’s part. Or perhaps, even in a body where secrecy was paramount and dissembling a virtue, he took things too far. Another senior colleague who did not get along with him, Seán MacBride, would rib Russell about his “organisation within an organisation”; in time, the jest proved to be no truer thing.[26]

Clearing the Decks

Dan Gleeson
Dan Gleeson (from Uiseann MacEoin’s ‘Survivors’

Both Barry and MacBride attended Russell’s court-martial, as did others such as Seán MacSwiney, Donal O’Donoghue and Dan Gleeson, the last of which gave a brief account to the historian Uinseann MacEoin. To Gleeson’s mind, “it was a fiasco of a courtmartial” and “none of us however felt happy in our roles” – with the exception of Barry, presumably, since Gleeson regarded him as the driving force behind the proceedings. Russell stood his ground, choosing to speak alone without anyone else’s help (defendants were entitled to a ‘defence counsel’), and “the upshot of it was that he was expelled”, although Gleeson appears to be wrong in this, as he is with the date, believing the court-martial to have happened in the summer of 1936.[27]

Going by Russell’s letter to McGarrity, he was still in the IRA, albeit suspended. Not that he seemed disheartened by this setback. “It cannot be long until activities start here,” he told McGarrity in reference to his proposal. “Before my suspension I fought hard for the [Bombing] campaign in England and in spite of a strong prejudice it may be given a chance.”

This would be done with or without Barry’s approval. “So far the new Chief of Staff has not proven himself the firm man that we had hoped,” he sneered. As if this was not insubordinate enough, Russell urged McGarrity to deny the IRA further funds from Clan na Gael coffers “until we prove ourselves. On no account must your generous impulses be allowed out of control.”[28]

In short, Russell was driving a wedge between the IRA and an important sponsor – with the latter quite willing to go along with it. The two, after all, were close personally as well as professionally – if revolution is a profession – as a letter later in the year, on the 5th November 1937, shows. McGarrity had just returned to America, with Russell hoping he had had a pleasant trip and sending his best wishes to the health of the McGarrity family.

And then to business:

I have now visited most of the units to find the situation as I expected, and as you would have it. With the exception of a few units who preferred to wait until the General Convention, most of them wanted to have the decks cleared at once for action.

The units in question were, of course, that of the IRA, and the General Convention likewise for the organisation, while the ‘decks’ awaiting clearance meant the leadership. Two points stood out in the subsequent sentence; firstly, that McGarrity had had considerable input on Russell’s decisions – “In deference to your wishes we are prepared to await the decision of the Convention before making a start” – and, secondly, the blithe contempt Russell displayed for obstacles in his way“not that the Convention decision will determine or alter our attitude.” In case there was any doubt as to that, any decision made at the Convention “we intend to respect only if they suit us.”[29]

Getting Down to Work

Tom Barry old
Tom Barry

Perhaps Barry had known what he was doing when he tried derailing his rival with the court-martial. It was not merely a power-struggle; Barry vehemently opposed Russell’s Bombing Campaign proposal, condemning the targeting of civilians as sinking to the level of the Black-and-Tans. Not that Barry was suggesting they do nothing – his own contribution to the debate was a ‘Northern Offensive’, in which the IRA would seize towns over the Border and hold them in a conscious imitation of the defence of Dublin during the 1916 Rising. Barry’s elevation to Chief of Staff made this plan definite policy – that is, until its last-minute cancellation, just as the men involved were set to begin with a strike on Armagh Military Barracks.[30]

Needless to say, this setback did Barry no favours in the eyes of a frustrated rank-and-file. He stepped down as Chief of Staff but tensions were still simmering by the time the IRA General Convention gathered in Dublin on April 1938 – and, in any case, Russell had laid the groundwork with the deftness of a politician canvassing at election time.

Tomás Ó Maoiléoin
Tomás Ó Maoiléoin (from Uinseann MacEoin’s ‘Survivors’)

“There was a good deal of subterfuge from Russell supporters in an effort to make us all vote a certain way,” remembered Tomás Ó Maoiléoin, who would later leave the IRA over his disagreement with its decision to bomb British cities. For the vote in question was as much on that proposal as it was about the leadership. According to Moss Twomey, the Bombing Campaign was the ‘elephant in the room’ at the Convention, causing considerable unease, even for some who had been in the IRA since the War of Independence.[31]

“I could not agree…with the bombing campaign,” said Walter Mitchell. He had sympathised with Russell over his treatment by Barry, but “I felt it should have been held over and used only if Britain took drastic steps against us.” Tom Kelleher likewise refused to support the new initiative, while retaining a certain aloof admiration for it: “On the other hand, it is no harm to get the England crowd into difficulties now and again.”[32]

For now, the IRA had enough difficulty of its own to work through. The Convention ended with the ‘decks cleared’ as Russell had put it before. Barry resigned from the twelve-man IRA Executive, a beaten man, as did four others, leaving Russell triumphant as the new Chief of Staff. A month later, on the 7th May 1938, he was writing again to McGarrity with the good news and to thank him for the cheque from Clan na Gael, normal services having resumed. The transition – or takeover – had hardly been seamless, with certain IRA units in Dublin, Cork and Kerry refusing to accept the new authority, but otherwise “the whole organisation is working smoothly” and “we are now in a position to say that we are getting right down to our work.”[33]

Aftermath of the Coventry Bombing, England, in August 1939, Russell’s ‘work’ in action

In reviewing Russell’s career, the historian Brian Hanley concluded that he displayed “astonishing political naiveté.” While that may have been so in his subsequent actions – a partnership with Nazi Germany is a hard thing to shake off – within the IRA, Russell had displayed talents worthy of a de Valera or Parnell, rising in the course of little over a year from disgraced and suspended to the very top of its military hierarchy. Todd Andrews rolled his eyes at Russell’s “enigmatic, unintelligible remarks” and “strangely theatrical” mannerisms, as opposed to the “always so modest and retiring” person Oscar Traynor knew, but, as Ernie O’Malley noted, Russell’s “kindly, ready smile betrayed no trace of his death dealing work.”[34]


[1] Andrews, C.S. Man of No Property: An Autobiography (Dublin and Cork: The Mercier Press, 1982), p. 34 ; An Phoblacht, 26/11/1927

[2] Andrews, p. 34 ; Irish Independent, 10/12/1936

[3] MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), pp. 148, 328 ; Daly, Liam (BMH / WS 425), p. 2

[4] Daly, pp. 2-3

[5] Ibid, p. 6

[6] Ibid, p. 4

[7] McHugh, Patrick (BMH / WS 664), pp. 25, 27

[8] Young, Thomas (BMH / WS 531), p. 18

[9] Daly, p. 6

[10] O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012), pp. 68-9, 84

[11] Ibid, p. 70

[12] 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. 203, 228, 336 ; O’Connor, Joseph (BMH / WS 544), p. 20

[13] O’Malley, The Singing Flame, p. 369

[14] Daly, p. 4, 7

[15] MacEoin, Survivors, p. 369

[16] An Phoblacht, 12/11/1927

[17] Ibid, 27/11/1927

[18] Ibid, 14/07/1928

[19] Cronin, Sean. The McGarrity Papers (Tralee, Co. Kerry: Anvil Books, 1972), pp. 99 169

[20] MacEoin, Survivors, p. 398

[21] National Library of Ireland (NLI), Joseph McGarrity Papers, MS 17,485/5

[22] Cronin, The McGarrity Papers, pp. 162-3

[23] NLI, MS 17,485/7

[24] MacEoin, Survivors, pp. 275, 391 ; Daly, Una (BMH / WS 610), p. 7 ; O’Malley, ‘No Surrender Here!’, p. 228

[25] Ryan, Meda. Tom Barry: IRA Freedom Fighter (Douglas Village, Co. Cork: Mercier Press, 2005), pp. 295, 301

[26] MacEoin, Uinseann, The IRA in the Twilight Years 1923-1948 (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1997), p. 843

[27] MacEoin, Survivors, p. 275

[28] NLI, MS 17,485/7

[29] Ibid, MS 17,485/14

[30] Ryan, pp. 296, 299-300

[31] MacEoin, Survivors, pp. 101, 398

[32] Ibid, pp. 234, 391

[33] Ryan, p. 301 ; NLI, MS 17,485/16

[34] Hanley, Brian. The IRA, 1926-1936 (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2002), pp. 197-8 ; Andrews, p. 34 ; An Phoblacht, 26/11/1927 ; O’Malley, The Singing Flame, p. 70



Andrews, C.S. Man of No Property: An Autobiography (Dublin and Cork: The Mercier Press, 1982)

Cronin, Sean. The McGarrity Papers (Tralee, Co. Kerry: Anvil Books, 1972)

Hanley, Brian. The IRA, 1926-1936 (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2002)

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

MacEoin, Uinseann. The IRA in the Twilight Years 1923-1948 (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1997)

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. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012)

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


An Phoblacht

Irish Independent

Bureau of Military History Statements

Daly, Liam, WS 425

Daly, Una, WS 610

McHugh, Patrick, WS 664

O’Connor, Joseph, WS 544

Young, Thomas, WS 531

National Library of Ireland Collection

Joseph McGarrity Papers

Conscious, Constituency, Country: The Political, Prison and Policing Career of Michael Staines, from Frongoch Camp to Civic Guard Mutiny, 1916-22

A Civilising Effect

War might have been ended in Ireland, or at least paused, by the Truce of July 1921, but that meant for Michael Staines an increased workload. No longer confined to sitting on the side-lines in prison, Staines was now the liaison officer on behalf of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) with the British military authorities in both Co. Galway and his native Mayo. While he had his doubts that the ceasefire would hold for very long, Staines dutifully set forth from Dublin to Galway railway station and there to Eglinton Street Barracks to make the acquaintance of his British counterpart, Divisional Commissioner M.G. Cruise of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC).

The Eglinton Street Barracks, Co. Galway (now demolished, more information here: https://www.facebook.com/279259995450132/posts/the-old-garda-barracks-on-eglinton-street-pic-from-galway-memories-it-was-built-/1956253691084079/

The scars from the past two and a half years of conflict were apparent almost as soon as Staines stepped off the train. The Railway Hotel he passed while leaving the station was adorned with barbed-wire loops, courtesy of its Auxiliary garrison – unsurprisingly, Staines refused Cruise’s offer of accommodation there. He preferred instead his usual venue in the county, Ballinasloe House at Salthill, despite its current boarded-up state from when a British patrol had smashed its windows a few months ago. But Staines was not to be deterred, arranging for every pane of glass to be replaced and Ballinasloe House reopened before the day was done.

Nor was he intimidated when drunken Auxiliaries came knocking roughly at Ballinasloe House, a few weeks later, in search of him:

I reported the matter to Mr. Cruise, and told him that if he allowed anything like it to happen again these men would have to be deported. This had a civilising effect and I was not troubled further by them.[1]

Michael Staines

Galway had been in need of a ‘civilising effect’ for quite a while, having suffered a large number of Crown reprisals during the guerrilla campaign. This was in contrast with neighbouring Mayo, despite it being similarly rebellious and how both counties had been under Cruise’s military authority. When Staines pointed out this difference to Cruise, the Divisional Commissioner replied: “We were afraid of the Mayo lads.”

Which must have stirred Staines’ heart to hear his people held in such dread regard by the enemy; indeed, he had already forwarded his gun to Mayo in preparation for his return when the Truce broke down, as he was sure it would. While he had spent the proceeding conflict either in Dublin or as a prisoner, next time would be served as part of a Mayo IRA Flying Column.[2]

That opportunity veered perilously close at least once, according to Seán Gibbons, who briefly worked alongside Staines in liaising duties: “By the beginning of October, 1921, the Truce seemed in great danger of breaking”; enough for Gibbons to rejoin the ranks of the Mayo IRA Brigade and for Staines’ recall to Dublin. His Galway office on University Road was closed accordingly. “The position was very delicate apparently for two or three weeks” before the heat died down and life resumed its prior state of ‘not at war, not quite at peace’.[3]

“Looking back on it, while I must say that the time in Galway was interesting for a week or two, I got tired of it rapidly, as there was not enough work to do,” Gibbons later wrote.[4]

Which would have been news to Staines. For him, it was one thing after another to delay the seemingly inevitable return to war and keep Galway on a relatively even keel. When trees were reported lain across the road at Kilmaine, apparently in preparation for an ambush – an IRA speciality – he and Cruise drove over together. After inspecting the suspicious site, the pair agreed that it was the recent storm to blame. A closer shave was at the Galway Town Hall, on the Sunday of the 2nd October 1921, when shots were fired, a man was killed and the situation became, as Gibbons put it, very delicate.[5]

A Delicate Position

It says much about the state of Ireland at the time that the bullets – according to one witness – that came through the Town Hall window just before midnight, in between songs, were not considered sufficient to cancel the dance, held in aid of the Republican Prisoners’ Dependents’ Fund. Everyone threw themselves on the floor, some women doing so involuntarily upon fainting, and a panic was close to breaking out when the Volunteers of the IRA, who had been acting as door stewards, came in to quell it.

Evidently they were successful, for the dance was soon restarted. It was not until Cruise and Staines appeared together to request the postponement of any further activities, out of respect for the British Army officer who had been shot dead outside, that the revellers had any idea that anything more serious had occurred.

Souchon, 05.10.21
Lieutenant G.H. Souchon (from the Irish Times, 05/10/1921)

The deceased was Lieutenant G.H. Souchon, 17th Lancers, a popular man with his fellow officers as well as the Galway townspeople, some of whom he would have known through his participation in the local boat club. “A pathetic coincidence is that the officer was to have retired from the Army last month,” noted the Irish Times, “but owing to some delay in the arrival of his papers his retirement was postponed.” Another victim that night was Temporary Constable Driver Barnes, wounded in the hip, gravely but not life-threateningly so.

Naturally, everyone had their own version of what happened – and where the responsibility lay. With an official inquiry pending, there were two theories, according to the Galway correspondent of the above newspaper:

It is alleged on the one hand that the origin of the trouble was an attempt on the part of some members of the Crown Forces to enter the building without payment, and, on the other hand, that members of the Crown Forces were held up by Republican police [IRA] and searched in the vicinity of the hall.

Either way, an already tense situation boiled over into violence, resulting in the firing of the gunshots, one of which struck Lieutenant Souchon as he drove by with colleagues:

He received the fatal shot in the forehead, almost between the eyes, and collapsed into the arms of a brother officer, who was sitting next to him in the back of the car.[6]

Meanwhile, Staines, Gibbons and the other guests at Ballinasloe House were abed and had been since eleven, as per the rules – the proprietor ran a tight establishment. Roused by some commotion, Gibbons got up to find Staines in the next room, already dressed and about to depart:

I asked him where he was going. He replied to the effect that he was going down to the Town Hall where an officer of the Dragoons had been shot, with the resultant danger to the Truce. I suggested that he should take me along with him, that I would be helpful on a journey of this nature, but he was just not in that particular frame of mind and said that perhaps it would be better if he saw Cruise himself and got an idea of the position generally for Headquarters.[7]

Joe Ring
Joe Ring

Staines never mentions Gibbons in his own account, written thirty-three years later in 1954 as part of his Bureau of Military History (BMH) Statement. Joe Ring, in contrast, features prominently, perhaps because Ring had Staines’ respect while Gibbons did not. A fellow Mayo man and Staines’ assistant in liaising duties (later taking over from him when the latter was recalled to Dublin), Ring had previously fought in the Mayo IRA, most notably as commander at the Carrowkennedy Ambush in June 1921, where he had treated captured Auxiliaries chivalrously, providing the wounded with first-aid and allowing them to be removed for treatment. Such humanity had earned him the esteem of even the British forces in Galway.[8]

Who Knows?

At least, that’s how Staines told it.

Douglas V. Duff

As with much else in the period, what occurred exactly that night would be tussled over by conflicting sources. Douglas V. Duff wrote in his memoirs (published in 1934) about how his fellow Black-and-Tans streamed out of their Eglinton Street Barracks upon news of the shooting, some straight out of bed and in various states of dress. Coming across one man in a green uniform at the scene, and identifying him not only a ‘Shinner’ but one responsible for the deaths of several of their comrades, they dragged him to the back of the hall. An impromptu firing-squad was forming when the RIC Divisional Commander, in a dressing-gown, put himself between the Tans and the ‘Shinner’, daring the would-be executioners to shoot through him, causing them to back down and thereby saving the other man’s life.[9]

Though unnamed in Duff’s book, the heroic (and almost-self-sacrificing) Divisional Commander was probably Cruise. Whether the ‘Shinner’ who narrowly escaped death was supposed to be Ring or Staines is uncertain; unlike Ring, Staines had not seen active combat during the insurgency, instead serving in an administrative role as IRA Quartermaster in Dublin. He was, however, the one to be threatened when arriving, as Staines told it:

…at the Town Hall several Auxiliaries rushed at me with their revolvers, and two of them actually had their revolvers on my chest.

The saviour is this version was not Cruise but Ring, who:

…came in behind me with a gun in each hand. He covered the two British officers, saying, “Put down those guns or I’ll shoot”, and they put down the guns.

Ring had warned Staines at Ballinasloe House against coming in the police car that was waiting for them outside. Staines decided to do so anyway – while Ring came in a separate vehicle – which, according to Staines, allowed him to catch the other side in a ‘gotcha’ moment:

On the journey the car in which I was travelling was held up by Auxiliaries in Shop Street. It was held up because it was a police car. The Auxiliaries told the driver about the shooting and said they wanted to get out of Galway as quickly as possible to Lenaboy. In my hearing they admitted that they were the culprits who had done the shooting. Of course they did not know I was in the car.

Staines was able to use this inside information when finally meeting Cruise. The Divisional Commander was in a thunderous mood at Souchon’s death until Staines repeated what he had overheard in the car. Instantly contrite, Cruise threw his arms around Staines’ shoulder and accepted responsibility on behalf of the Crown forces in Galway, agreeing to Staines’ advice to withdraw them from the town that night before they made good on their threat to burn the town. At the subsequent inquest, “the British admitted that one of their D.I.s [District Inspectors] had done the shooting” under the mistaken impression that the car with Souchon in it was an IRA-owned one, according to Staines.[10]

Galway Town Theatre, formerly the Town Hall where the fatal fracas occured

The inquest in question, held two days after the shooting, on the 4th October, had actually said no such thing, to go by contemporary coverage. As Staines had told Cruise beforehand that the witnesses the latter requested for the hearing would not attend, the only ones who did testify were Auxiliaries or Lancers. None of them, however, were able to provide a definite version of events; it is not even clear if Souchon’s death and the ruckus at the Town Hall were connected.

Initially, it was reported that the deceased had died in ‘the arms of a brother officer’; the Lancer who had been in the front seat at the time told of how he had not known Souchon was dead until arriving back at their camp at Earl’s Island and finding the blood-stained Lieutenant slumped in the backseat. He had been still alive when the car was stopped in Galway town by a police cordon, during which puffs of smoke and flashes of light were seen from the windows of a house before them. Three bullet holes were later found in the back of the car-hood, with the fatal shot believed to have gone through the back window to strike Souchon – which would rather contradict the insistent of the surviving passengers that the firing they witnessed had come from the front, not behind them.

IRA men posing for the camera

As for the fracas at the Town Hall, testimony depicted the IRA as the aggressors. A District Inspector was struck in the face when an argument with the Volunteers – in civilian dress but marked out by green ribbons in their coat button-holes – over their legal status as a police force turned violent. Shots were made as the RIC retreated from the scene, prompting return-fire and the arrival of Crown reinforcements who forced their way into the Town Hall. It was at that point Staines joined them. According to an unnamed “high official” of the RIC, the IRA liaison officer admitted that the breach of the Truce had been on the Irish side.[11]

‘A Highly Efficient Officer’

W.J. Brennan-Whitmore

Whichever version one chooses to believe (if any, given how self-serving each is), Staines emerges in all of them as cool-headed at a pinch. But then, he had had a lot of practice, such as during his stint as prisoner commandant in Frongoch Camp after the Easter Rising of 1916. When a “very difficult situation” occurred, he was able to handle it “with remarkable efficiency and tact”, as described by fellow resident W.J. Brennan-Whitmore.

The Camp Commandant – dubbed ‘Buckshot’ on account of him warning his charges that they would be met with buckshot should they risk an escape – had approached Staines with the idea of each of the sixteen huts in Frongoch having a leader appointed who would then provide a list of everyone inside. This was ostensibly for greater efficiency but Staines, suspecting it as a means of identifying whoever was liable for British military service, refused to cooperate. Even when threatened with withheld rations, Staines held his ground, retorting to ‘Buckshot’ that he would sooner be a corpse than a spy, which was what such a role amounted to.[12]

An attempt by the Frongoch authorities to force the issue with a roll-call flopped when 342 out of the 546 detainees stayed mum rather than respond to their names. For this, they were sent to internment without privileges but the point had been made, in no small part due to Staines, according to Brennan-Whitmore.[13]

“He was a highly efficient officer who earned the love and respect of every individual prisoner,” Brennan-Whitmore wrote. “Could I pay him a higher tribute?”[14]

Illustration of Frongoch Camp by Cathal MacDowall, a prisoner there.

Staines was released from Frongoch at the end of 1916. Despite continuing to play an active role in the Irish revolution, Staines would not see the inside of a prison again until the 6th of December 1920, when a session of the Dublin Corporation at City Hall was interrupted by a squad of armed Auxiliaries. The roll book allowed the British officer in charge to know exactly who was present, and he was undeterred by the silence that met his call for a ‘Mr Staines’. It looked like he would have to arrest everyone in the room, he said out loud.

After that, an Auxiliary approached a man sitting in one of the back seats and asked his name.

Black-and-Tans searching Irish suspects

“Mr Staines,” came the answer. He was at once taken into custody. The officer went through the rest of the names in the roll book. By the time the Auxiliaries departed, six Dublin aldermen were accompanying them to jail.[15]

Staines would tell the story a little differently. The sole reason he had attended in the first place – for life was risky enough for the Quartermaster of the IRA Executive – was because a motion was about to be presented before Dublin Corporation that amounted to a vote of loyalty to the British Government. Which would not do at all and so Michaels Collins ordered Staines to oppose it. Staines stayed dumb as the British officer read out his name and it was only the glances in his direction from the rest of the Aldermen that gave him away.[16]

At least Staines could have the gratification of the story reaching not only the newspapers but the House of Commons, where Joe Devlin MP was sarcastically asking the Chief Secretary of Ireland if such arrests were supposed to make Ireland a more peaceful place. As justification, Sir Hamar Greenwood provided a quick summary of each detainee’s rebel CV:

Alderman Michael Staines, captain in the 1st Dublin Battalion, Irish Republican Army, so-called ‘Minister of Trade and Commerce’ to ‘Dail Eireann,’ previously a tailor. He has been continuously ‘on the run’ since February last, and slept the night previous to his arrest in a hay shed. Hidden ammunition was found in his last permanent address. He is known to be a member of the Inner Circle of the Irish Republican Army Headquarters.[17]

“Staines is not what I expected,” Mark Sturgis, a senior administrator in Dublin Castle, wrote in his diary upon meeting him in October 1921. “I am told he is a cunning twister but he has the appearance of a good looking type of honest peasant – the dark Galway type, keen and straight forward but not foxy.” Staines was by then out of jail, freed as part of the Truce of July 1921, but the bulk of the prisoners continued to linger behind bars.

Irish prisoners at Ballykinlar Camp, Co. Dow

It was on their behalf that Staines and Fintan Murphy were meeting with Sturgis, to discuss their conditions and possible release. After appraising the two Sinn Féin representatives up close, Sturgis decided that, while Murphy was better educated, “on the whole Staines made a better impression on me.” Whether friend or foe, Staines seems to have had that effect on people.[18]

Sovereignty vs. Slavery

Regardless, the prisoners remained as such by the time Staines stood up to address Dáil Éireann on the 6th January 1922. Since most of the session had been and would be “scenes of excitement, outbursts of passion and stormy protests” – not surprisingly, given how the debate was on that most emotive of topics, the Anglo-Irish Treaty – Staines promised he would be brief, for two reasons:[19]

The first is that I don’t want to import any bitterness into this discussion; I want to have the Dáil and the country united if possible, if they are not united I sincerely hope that no word or action of mine will be responsible for disunion.

As for the second:

There are two thousand Irishmen in Irish and English jails; they have got to stop there while we are talking and repeating the same things over and over again; there are forty-one of these men in jails in this Republic of Ireland under sentence of death. I don’t want, and I am sure these prisoners don’t want me to bring up their case here in order that it would decide the vote one way or another; I am speaking for myself; but anyway for their sakes I think we ought to hurry up and finish this debate.

With that said, Staines got to the question on everyone’s minds: yes, he was voting for the Treaty. In doing so, he was following his own accordance and the wishes of the inhabitants of Dublin North-West, who he represented as their TD, as well as that of the Irish people in general. Or, as he summed up, with a flair for alliteration: “My conscious, my constituency, my country.”

Michael Staines (left in the photo) and Eamonn Duggan (right) on their way to the Dáil, December 1921

Despite the worthy sentiment at the start, it did not take long for the bile to seep into his words as Staines picked at the apparent inconsistencies of the opposition. Had not President Éamon de Valera stated that anyone believing the Plenipotentiaries could return from London with a Republic expected them to do what a mighty army could not? And now de Valera was putting forward a document – the controversial ‘Document No. 2’ – of his own that was neither a Republic nor, unlike the Treaty, actually signed.

“Today the President made a statement in which he said he is going to stand by the Republic,” Staines said, rather snidely, to cries of ‘Shame!’ around the hall. “I am glad he is a Republican again, and I am very sorry he ever left the rock of the Republic.”

This was too much for the man in question to take lying down:

Éamon de Valera

De Valera: If that could be proved –

Staines: President de Valera will understand me, he will admit that I don’t want to say anything to hurt his feelings or the feelings of anyone in this House. We know each other a good many years. We have been always good friends, and I hope we will remain good friends to the end.

De Valera: Show where the document is inconsistent with the Republic.

Staines: First, as to your leaving the British Navy in possession of some ports.

De Valera: For five years.

Michael Colivet

It took an intervention by Michael Colivet, the TD for Limerick City-Limerick East, to cut off this particular thread: “In discussing the Treaty, we can’t keep to it [as in, Document No. 2].”

Staines continued with his arguments. What needed to be done now was whatever was best for the country and that was clearly, in Staines’ mind, the Treaty. What else was the other side – “I don’t know what side to call it” – suggesting? Did anyone think that if the President took four or five other Plenipotentiaries to Downing Street and started the negotiations all over again, a different or better result could be had? Would de Valera come back with a Republic on another go?

“He will not,” Staines said in yet another jab at the man whose feelings he professed to care about.

At least the end of the speech was on a pragmatic note. The Dáil had heard about all sorts of laws: international law, constitutional law and common law. But the only type Staines had ever really experienced, “as an ordinary common man” in Ireland, “was the law of force and the law of might.” With the withdrawal of the British Army and its replacement by an Irish one, it would seem that, for once, Irish people would have a chance at deciding what type of freedom they wanted. “I will vote for this Treaty because it stands for Irish freedom against English oppression,” he said as his finishing line, “and Irish sovereignty against English slavery.”[20]

The Dáil debates on the Treaty, 14th January 1922 (source: https://www.rte.ie/centuryireland/index.php/articles/dail-votes-for-historic-treaty-by-margin-of-just-seven-votes

Staines was but one speaker amongst many but his contribution was gratefully noted by some journalists, who were observing the proceedings, as “pleasantly brief. How we could wish to see the others follow their example.”[21]

Ruling in Hell or Serving in Heaven

Michael Collins

Another argument for the Treaty were the odds against the IRA should it resume its armed campaign. That the Truce had been agreed to in the first place was due to “the fact that the position of the fighting men was very precarious in view of the grave shortage of ammunition,” according to Staines. He did not state this at the time, perhaps wary of being seen as defeatist, and waited until 1954 to include it in his BMH Statement. That he was in prison for the last seven months of the conflict would raise the question of how informed he could be of IRA strength in July 1921; nonetheless, Staines believed that the paucity of munitions “very definitely influenced [Michael] Collins in his negotiations with the British” that led to the Treaty being signed.[22]

Staines said very little in his BMH Statement about the split following the Treaty and the resultant Civil War; needless to say, his stated wish during the Dáil debates for national unity to be maintained went unanswered. “Big numbers of people were delighted about the Treaty, but some of them turned the other way overnight,” was all he provided, the anger palpable and still raw even after three decades. “Somebody must have got after them.”[23]

When the acrimony of the Treaty debates bled out into the daily work of government, Staines was as guilty as anyone of adding to it. “I am very glad to see that here today Mr de Valera told us that the Dáil was a sovereign assembly,” he told the Dáil on the 27th April 922, the sarcasm practically dripping from his words. “It is wonderful when people are in power how they delegate authority to themselves and, when they are not in power, how they try to take that authority away.”

Group photograph of TDs in January 1922

As catty as Staines sounded, he was raising a pertinent question: from where did the sovereignty of the Irish revolution – now the Irish state – derive? The Cabinet? The Dáil? Both had been used by the Opposition – by which Staines meant the TDs who had resisted the Treaty and still did – at different points, depending on whichever served at the time:

You all remember that the debate here on the Treaty all turned on the one point – that the Plenipotentiaries did not come back and report to the…Cabinet. Now we are told today that the Dáil is a sovereign assembly.

The cause of this apparent volte-face was the accusation from de Valera – now just Mr de Valera, having resigned as President – that Cabinet Ministers were acting without consideration and consultation of the Dáil. In truth, wherever predominance lay had never been determined in the three years since Dáil Éireann and its accompanying government formed in the Mansion House, Dublin, in January 1919. Too much had been happening, and the question too delicate for it to be confronted, let alone solved, but it did leave openings to be exploited in ways that Staines considered the height of hypocrisy:

Today we are told that the Dáil itself is the Government of the country. Of course it is, and of course it was. But when the Opposition was in power it was the Cabinet. They want it different today, because some people would rather rule in hell than serve in heaven.

Staines was evidently acquainted with Paradise Lost if he could quote from it. Several months had passed since the Plenipotentiaries returned with the Treaty and the wounds from the tooth-and-nail struggle over it remained raw and unhealed. Staines was unafraid to bare his to the Dáil, telling the assembly of how he had advised de Valera – back when they were still on civil terms – not to publish his famous letter urging the Irish people against the Treaty. Staines’ reasoning had been that, by doing so as a Cabinet member, the then-President was intruding into the prerogative of the elected assembly.

A meeting of Dáil Éireann in the Mansion House, Dublin

Staines had further advice to give, this time to his colleagues as a whole. “While we are coming here and squabbling for power, people are being slaughtered all over the county,” he warned. “Let the people decide and decide quickly, and let all this squabbling end. We are making a disgrace of ourselves.”[24]

Policing Woes

Eamon Duggan

As before, his advice went unheeded.

But then, Staines was not finding it easy to make himself heard, even with his promotion to Commissioner of the Civic Guard. Intended to replace the disbanded RIC, this new police force was troubled from the start, as the appointment of former RIC officers to senior positions bred resentment in the ranks. Other than the occasional, insubstantial remark from Eamonn Duggan, the Minister for External Affairs, the rest of the Cabinet were largely ignorant of the brewing tensions, assuming, as Ernest Blythe described:

…that it was one of those disputes that would settle itself as similar causes of agitation had settled themselves elsewhere. Then, suddenly, we were told that the bulk of the Civic Guard had mutinied and that they had chased certain of the higher officers, including Michael Staines…Joe Ring and others, out of the camp.[25]

To add insult to injury, the Civic Guard had only been in existence for a few weeks. With the finger of blame needing to be pointed: “According to the report that reached the Government, Staines behaved with singular ineptitude…All Ministers took the view that when Duggan and Staines knew that the situation was really threatening, they should have given a full report to the Government.”[26]

Rory O’Connor

‘Ineptitude’ might be a bit harsh, considering the hurdles Staines faced from the start. The anti-Treaty IRA was never anything but hostile to the fledgling police force; the Civic Guard was both unnecessary and tainted by its (alleged) acceptance of Black-and-Tans, Rory O’Connor told a journalist. What O’Connor did not add was that he was in secret contact with some of the recruits, who had been playing their employer false from the start and were only waiting for the chance to wreak havoc.[27]

And they did. Staines would indignantly learn, as he was campaigning to hold his parliamentary seat in the general election, that some of his supposed subordinates had left their Kildare Barracks on the 15th June 1922 to post handbills around his Dublin constituency “containing baseless statements intended to injuriously affect my candidature as TD,” so he informed the later inquiry into the mutiny. Staines kept his seat but worse betrayal was to follow a mere two days later when Anti-Treatyites from the Four Courts, led by O’Connor, looted Kildare Barracks of its armoury. Adding insult to injury was how this had been done with the connivance of some of the garrison.[28]

Michael Staines and Thomas Murphy, campaigning together in June 1922 (source: https://www.gettyimages.ie/detail/news-photo/sinn-feiners-michael-staines-and-thomas-murphy-in-dublin-news-photo/3421457)

Even without such saboteurs, it is unlikely that the Civic Guard would have gone off to a smooth start, if only for its use of former RIC men in positions of command. As many of the rank-and-file had been trying to kill Crown police personnel only months before as part of the IRA, this was a provocative arrangement. Staines defended it to the inquiry as both necessary – the former RIC men possessing “special qualifications for the posts to which they had been appointed” – and entirely proper, the credentials of the new officers being “satisfying to the Provisional Government” on account of them either having resigned from the RIC or worked as IRA moles within it.[29]

Separating the Sheep from the Goats

None of this was enough for the malcontents, however. But the villain of the piece, in Staines’ eyes, was his Assistant Commissioner, Paddy Brennan, whose unsanctioned absence from Kildare Barracks allowed the dissent to fester at the cost of them all:

I feel that throughout I have had insufficient support from officers who should have known that the weakness in my authority was the sure prelude to the disappearance of their own, and I think they have behaved most unfairly to the men in not explaining matters to them, and bringing them to a sense of their duty.[30]

That is, at least, one version. In reviewing the whole sorry affair, historian Brian McCarthy found more than enough blame to go around, from the arrogance and entitlement of the mutineers to the tone-deaf failure of the Provisional Government to anticipate the resentment the ex-RIC appointments would engender.

As for Staines, McCarthy is particularly damning in his verdict:

While his nationalist credentials as a 1916 veteran and Sinn Féin TD initially satisfied the recruits, he was not keen to take on the role and proved a weak leader. His lack of leadership skills quickly became evident and when threatened with a mutiny over the issue of RIC leadership in the new force, he effectively abandoned his position, fled from his base and Kildare Barracks and was consequently unable to regain control of the force.[31]

Ernest Blythe

Whether anyone else could have done better is debatable; Staines had at least tried to put his foot down on the parade ground on the 15th May 1922, challenging anyone unwilling to obey orders to step forward. The assembled men did more than that, openly revolting and driving their Commissioner and his aides out of Kildare Barracks. A last-ditch attempt by Staines to restore order by calling in armoured military cars floundered when the army officer in charge refused to proceed any further; in this, Staines made the wrong call and the officer the right one, Blythe judged, as the last thing the Provisional Government needed was two of its own bodies at each other’s throats.

If Staines had needed reinforcements, the Cabinet agreed upon reviewing the debacle, he should have requested them “before he made any attempt to separate the sheep from the goats, and not to send for them after the mutiny had broken out.” The steady nerves and finesse Staines demonstrated throughout his IRA career had clearly deserted him at this last hurdle.[32]

While his policing tenure may have been short-lived and ignominious, there is one postscript of note. Staines remained as Commissioner until September 1922, enabling him to put the Civic Guard at the disposal of the Free State when the Four Courts were attacked in June 1922, triggering the Civil War. Armed policemen were placed accordingly around various government buildings in Merrion Square, Stephen’s Green, Kildare Street and other parts of Dublin, as well as elsewhere in the country where railway stations, bridges, culverts and communication centres needed guarding.

“The men were frequently under fire at their posts in the [Dublin] City and Suburbs, where such attacks and sniping were of nightly occurrence,” Staines told the Military Pensions Board in 1925.[33]

A sentry on duty during the Civil War

Staines was not recording this for the sake of posterity; whether the Civic Guard at the time could be counted as part of the ‘National Forces’ would make all the difference in the amount of money he could claim for his past services. This led to some debate on the Board – as someone pointed out, ‘not an unarmed force’ is not quite the same thing as an armed force – until it was decided that the police then did indeed come within the framework of the National Forces. Trust Staines to spin gold even out of straw of failure, ‘cunning twister’ that he was.[34]


[1] Staines, Michael (BMH / WS 944), pp. 25-6

[2] Ibid, pp. 25, 29-30

[3] Gibbons, Seán (BMH / WS 927), p. 56

[4] Ibid, p. 55

[5] Staines, pp. 26

[6] Irish Times, 04/10/1921

[7] Gibbons, p. 55

[8] Staines, pp. 25, 30

[9] Duff, Douglas V. Sword For Hire: The Saga of a Modern Free-Companion (London: John Murray, 1934), pp. 88-90

[10] Staines, pp. 27-8

[11] Irish Times, 05/10/1921

[12] Brennan-Whitmore, W.J. With the Irish in Frongoch (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013), pp. 28, 166-8

[13] Ibid, pp. 172-3

[14] Ibid. p. 82

[15] Irish Times, 11/12/1921

[16] Staines, p. 13

[17] Irish Times, 11/12/1921

[18] Sturgis, Mark (edited by Hopkinson, Michael) The Last Days of Dublin Castle: The Mark Sturgis Diaries (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1999), p. 220

[19] De Burca, Padraig and Boyle, John F. Free State or Republic? (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2002), p. 57

[20] ‘Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, signed in London on the 6th December 1921: Sessions 14 December 1921 to 10 January 1922’ (accessed on the 11th March 2018) CELT: The Corpus of Electronic Texts, https://celt.ucc.ie/published/E900003-001/index.html, pp. 296-8

[21] De Burca and Boyle, p. 62

[22] Staines, pp. 24-5

[23] Ibid, p. 24

[24] Dáil Éireann. Official Report (Dublin: Published by the Stationery Office, [1922]), p. 302

[25] Blythe, Ernest (BMH / WS 939), p. 154

[26] Ibid, pp. 154-5

[27] McCarthy, Brian. The Civic Guard Mutiny (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012), pp. 79-80

[28] Ibid, pp. 124, 127-9

[29] Ibid, p. 142

[30] Ibid, p. 144

[31] Ibid, p. 210

[32] Blythe, pp. 154-5

[33] ‘Staines, Michael’ (Military Service Pensions Application, WS24SP6787), pp. 14, 98

[34] Ibid, WS24SPE7, pp. 39, 41



Brennan-Whitmore. W.J.. With the Irish in Frongoch (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013)

Dáil Éireann: Official Report (Dublin: Published by the Stationery Office, [1922?])

De Burca, Padraig and Boyle, John F. Free State or Republic? (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2002)

Duff, Douglas V. Sword for Hire: A Saga of a Modern Free-Companion (London: John Murray, 1934)

McCarthy, Brian. The Civic Guard Mutiny (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012)

Sturgis, Mark (edited by Hopkinson, Michael) The Last Days of Dublin Castle: The Mark Sturgis Diaries (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1999)

Bureau of Military History Statements

Blythe, Ernest, WS 939

Gibbons, Seán, WS 927

Staines, Michael, WS 944


Irish Times

Online Resource

CELT: The Corpus of Electronic Texts

Military Service Pensions Application

‘Staines, Michael’

Book Review: Soldiers of Liberty: A Study of Fenianism, 1858 – 1908, by Eva Ó Cathaoir (2018)

“There is no time to be lost,” Pierce Nagle told a covert meeting of Fenian officers in Tipperary, in September 1864, as he read out a call for action from their leader, James Stephens:

This year – and let there be no doubt about it – must be the year of action. I speak with a knowledge and an authority to which no man could pretend, and I repeat, the flag of Ireland – of the Irish Republic – must this year be raised. As I am much pressed for time, I shall merely add that it shall be raised in flow of hope such as never beamed around it before. Be, then, of firm faith and best cheer; all goes bravely on.

Stirring words, but his audience might have been more cautious if they had known that Nagle had purloined the letter while its courier was passed out drunk. Further cause for alarm was how Nagle, their supposed comrade in the fight for Irish freedom, was a police informant. Instead of burning the incriminating message immediately after, Nagle passed it on to his paymasters in Dublin Castle, who were already concerned at reports from across Ireland of illicit drills, unruly crowds and mutinous murmurings.

A Fenian flag from 1867, more information here: https://www.fotw.info/flags/ie_fenwc.html

Nagle was not the only inside source: a former militia sergeant who had switched to the Fenians in Cork turned his coat again and told a magistrate that his comrades were planning to storm police barracks, steal its weapons and burn the local bishop in tar for his opposition to them. Cork, in particular, was identified by the Lord Lieutenant, Lord Wodehouse, as a hotspot for sedition, as “the feeling in favour of it amongst the small shopkeepers and the young farmers is strong,” he told the home secretary. And not just Cork: “Parts of Kerry, Tipperary and Kilkenny are also affected with a very disloyal spirit.”

But then, the Powers That Be hardly needed traitors and espionage to know that dissent was in the air, thanks to the radical press. ‘The approaching crisis,’ went one headline in the Irish People, and while the topic was ostensibly about potential revolutions elsewhere, in Europe, only an ingénue could fail to see the parallels the newspaper was drawing closer to home. Nonetheless, Dublin Castle hesitated to act for fear of intruding on the sanctity of freedom of speech, long a cornerstone of the British state.

“Press prosecutions are always odious,” admitted Lord Wodehouse, even as he railed against “openly treasonous” material that was being “distributed broadcast through the country and eagerly read by the shopkeepers and peasants.” What’s more, “the office [of the Irish People] is the headquarters of the conspirators.”

James Stephens

Which was why, when it was time to make the mass arrests of Fenian suspects in Dublin and Cork, the office in question was among the places on the police target list. After detaining everyone on the premises and smashing the newspaper’s type, the constabulary would seize and destroy copies of the final issue, for the 16th September 1865, wherever they could be found in the country. Having escaped the initial roundup, Stephens remained at large until his arrest two months later, in November, though neither this setback nor the subsequent legal proceedings dampened his revolutionary ardour. If anything, he seemed to relish the challenge.

“I defy and despise any punishment it can inflict on me,” he told the court, setting a precedent for future generations of Irish Republicans in his refusal to recognise it. “I have spoken.”

Stephens had a presence to match his words. While physically unimpressive in the eyes of a reporter from the London Times – “rather below the middle stature…the front and top [of his head] being entirely bald” – this same onlooker could not help regarding the prisoner with something close to awe:

His manners are gentlemanly, saving a certain abruptness and impatience. He was, however, apparently very much at ease during the day, not at all like a prisoner charged with a great crime, but rather like an attorney watching a case, with a full consciousness of his own superior ability and the goodness of his cause, with sovereign contempt for ‘the other side’.

Charles Kickham

Not many journalists today would write with such gusto. But then, this was a society very much engaged with the written word, from the Fenians’ use of the Irish People as a propaganda tool to the literary ambitions of one of Stephens’ co-defendants, Charles Kickham, whose novel, Sally Cavanagh, had been serialised the year before, in 1864.The title character is forced to endure the unwanted attentions of the landlord when her husband emigrates for want of wages. Sally, of course, resists, as is only proper for a virtuous wife and the stand-in for the Irish nation, leading to one tragedy after another: sent to the workhouse, her children dying in poverty and, finally, going mad just before Mr Cavanagh is able to return with money.

If the melodrama sounds a bit much for modern tastes and its allegory clankingly obvious, then many of Kirkham’s contemporaries would have seen much to relate to in Sally Cavanagh’s plight. The Famine, after all, had been less than three decades ago, when, instead of the expected harvest in 1845, “the air was laden with a sickly odour of death, as if the hand of death had stricken the potato field, and that everything growing in it was rotting.”

So remembered Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, later a man whose funeral became one of the great set-pieces of Irish history, but then a fifteen-year-old boy who had helped bury a starved woman – his poem ‘Jillen Andy’ was written in her memory. Like many other survivors, Rossa blamed the disaster on Perfidious Albion and, while the author Eva Ó Cathaoir notes that the reality was a good deal more complex, with fingers also to be pointed at the realities of human nature – Rossa himself noted how his wealthy relatives refused to assist the rest of the family – the memories of the countrywide death and degradation lived on, fuelling future attempts to shake off the Saxon yoke.

Illustrated depiction of the Great Famine

The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) was one such enterprise. Stephens took its oath upon its establishment in Dublin, March 1858, and wasted no time in setting off across Ireland, establishing contacts and setting up cell-like ‘Circles’. Many were the IRB’s tactics employed in its goal of an independent nation: infiltrating British forces stationed in Ireland seemed a promising option – after all, 40% of such soldiers were Irish-born, compared to a third of the United Kingdom’s total population – as well as facilitating an invasion/reinforcement of Irish-Americans, recruited from Civil War veterans. Such attempts were considered threatening enough by the authorities to take stern measures, arresting suspected Fenian operatives and putting the Royal Navy on the alert for any Trans-Atlantic incursions.

Nothing came of any of these schemes and perhaps nothing would have even in better circumstances. But the defeat of the Fenians, time and time again, did nothing to stop Fenianism permeating Irish society as a whole – quite the contrary, if anything – as Ó Cathaoir meticulously outlines to her reader.

Charles McCarthy
Memorial cabinet card for Charles McCarthy

Charles McCarthy’s death in 1878, shortly after his thirteen years in prison (being one of the British soldiers covertly sworn into the IRB), allowed public sympathy to turn his funeral into a nationalist demonstration. Fifteen thousand people were reported to have paid their respects on one day alone; this despite his body being barred from church grounds on account of the hostility of Cardinal Paul Cullen to whom Fenianism was “a compound of folly and wickedness wearing the mask of patriotism.” But even Hierarchy apathy was not unanimous. While raising funds for the remaining political prisoners, Archbishop Thomas Croke argued that the likes of McCarthy were worthy not just of sympathy but admiration.

For all “the freaks and infidelity of a few amongst them,” Croke told a disapproving Cullen, “I cannot agree with your eminence that the Fenians have effected no good. They have given us a tolerable land bill and disestablished the Protestant church.”

Not directly, of course; William Gladstone could claim the most credit for the aforementioned, having taken office in 1868 with the intent of solving, or at least mollifying, the problems that had long poisoned Anglo-Irish relations. When the town commissioners of Nenagh proposed a vote of confidence in the Prime Minster, Peter Gill, a radical journalist, remonstrated. Surely the town worthies should thank the Fenians instead, whose actions, however unsuccessful, had drawn Gladstone’s reforming attentions in the first place?

Whether feared or loved, scorned or praised, hopeless failures or moral victors, the Fenians could never be ignored, either by contemporaries or those seeking to understand how Ireland got to be the way it is – and the latter would do well to start here with this engrossing book.


Publisher’s Website: The Lilliput Press


Peculiar Organisations: British Counter-Insurgency and Intelligence in Dublin during the Irish War of Independence, 1920-1

Predator / Prey

It was the classic tale of The One That Got Away: sometime in 1921, Douglas V. Duff was walking along Sackville (now O’Connell) Street, Dublin, killing time before catching his train back to his post in Galway. Dressed as he was in civilian clothes, it was unlikely anyone gave Duff a second glance, which was just the way he preferred it, being uncomfortably aware that, as a constable in the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), and not just any constable but a Black-and-Tan at that, he was very much in enemy territory.

The Father Theobold Mathew statue in O’Connell Street, Dublin, close to where Duff had his encounter

Part of the British Empire the city may have been but Duff did not delude himself as to who its streets really belonged, nor did he harbour illusions about the risks Ireland had for men like him. Any doubts about the state of the country had been clarified when he stepped off the ship at the North Wall. Several Crossley tenders were waiting to take Duff and the other recruits to the Constabulary Depot in Phoenix Park but it was the four coffins, draped in Union Jacks, on the quays that drew his attention. All victims of ambushes, he was told.

Taking the hint, Duff behaved with suitable caution during his service in Ireland. Nonetheless, when his companion, a cadet in the Auxiliary Division, grabbed his arm and told him who he had just seen on Sackville Street, Duff felt anything but cautious:

Startled – thrilled – I looked and saw that it really was the man whose description hung on every Police Barracks wall in Ireland, together with the announcement that £10,000 was the reward for his capture, and we knew that the authorities cared very little if he were brought in alive or dead.

How often was one likely to see Michael Collins in broad daylight, strolling about town as if without a care in the world? The rebel leader remained blissfully oblivious as the two foes closed in from behind, not even appearing alarmed when the cadet took him by the shoulder and announced that he was under arrest. The only response Collins made was pointing to three men standing by some nearby hoardings. This trio would have been the very picture of idle loitering – that is, if not for the way they were intently watching the unfolding scene with their hands poised in their pockets.

The Big Fella

All it would take, Collins informed his two ‘captors’, was for him to raise his hand and the pair of them would be shot dead. Any help would not arrive until long after he was gone. Recognising discretion as the better part of valour, Duff and the cadet moved aside, allowing Collins to continue on his way with a cheery farewell of “Goodbye, boys.”

And so Duff lost his chance at fame and fortune – and yet, as a wise man by the time he penned his memoirs, he could appreciate his luck as he found it:

Chap-fallen though I felt at the time, I am very glad that I was not the means of capturing the gallant man who so chivalrously spared us, after we had run our heads so hard into the very jaws of the lion.

It is a good story – perhaps a little too good (Duff had a book to sell, after all). But Duff’s account is notable, other than being one of the few perspectives we have from a Black-and-Tan, in how little he glorifies his service in Ireland or tries to convince his reader that it was anything other than an ordeal.

Douglas V. Duff

Before his encounter with Collins, Duff had been delivering dispatches from Galway to Dublin Castle, an assignment he hated due to how nerve-racking he found the journey to the city. Alone and unarmed save for a small grenade Duff kept hidden underneath his train-seat (!), he was entirely at the mercy of whoever took an interest in him. The first time he was sent, his pistol had been confiscated en route at Streamstown Station, Co. Westmeath, by a ‘Shinner’ or Irish Republican Army (IRA) officer – and more might have been taken had Duff not convinced the Irishman that he was but a harmless tourist concerned for his safety.[1]

Enter the New Man

Ormonde Winter

Even senior members of British military personnel could have related to Duff’s stories of being waylaid and the impunity by which it was done. Close shaves had practically become a part of life and those at the very heart of the Crown counter-insurgency, like Ormonde Winter, were not immune.

Appointed Deputy Chief of Police in mid-1920 as a cover for his real role of Chief of the Combined Intelligence Services, Winter had a foreboding forecast of what awaited him when he entered his temporary headquarters at Park Lodge in Dublin. Sentries and barbed wire protected the building, as well as loop-holed steel shutters over the windows and guns at hand during mealtimes – the last precaution proving something of a liability when one of the stewards used one to shoot himself in a fit of depression – and this was during Winter’s first few weeks in Ireland![2]

Dublin Castle entrance (Palace Street Gate)

Moving out of Park Lodge and into the protection of Dublin Castle in early October 1920 allowed the Deputy Chief of Police/Chief of the Combined Intelligence Services a chance to build up the resources at his disposal, practically from scratch – almost two years had passed since the opening shots of the guerrilla campaign at Soloheadbeg in January 1919 and the British state was only just starting to get to grips with the challenge in its Irish backyard. Doing so was possible as India showed but the secret service there had taken years to turn into something competent and Winter, as an old colonial hand, doubted he had the luxury of time.[3]

Complicating his job was how the traditional source on Irish rebel doings was in short supply. “The Irishman’s appetite for gold had been replaced by a surfeit of terror,” as he put it in his memoirs.

Placard found on the body of a victim of an IRA murder

In the space of eight or nine months, Winter could procure only about sixty spies and most of these were dropped due to lack of results. One exception he had hopes in was Vincent Fovargue, a ‘turned’ IRA man whose ‘escape’ from detention Winter staged for the benefit of a good cover story. The would-be agent was later found shot dead on a golf course. Prisoner interrogations likewise proved a dead-end more often than not, since the prior British policy of blanket amnesties had left IRA detainees feeling they had little to fear from the threat of lengthy jail sentences.[4]

But Winter was a trier if nothing else and found another window into the insurgency: correspondence by the IRA leadership from and to their subordinates that the police and British military were liable to uncover in their raids. Of the ten sources of intelligence cited by Winter, from the age-old methods of informants and interrogations to more innovative attempts like listening devices and the reading of letters from gaol, he found captured paperwork to be far the most productive.[5]

Black-and-Tans searching Irish suspects

“It was fortunate that the Irish had an irresistible habit of keeping documents,” Winter gloated. In this, he was inadvertently aided by the IRA GHQ in its demands, issued in mid-1920, for any planned operations to be first submitted to Dublin in writing.  “Nonsensical, unnecessary and farcical,” was the opinion of one IRA officer on this high-risk insistence.[6]

‘The Wolves From the Lambs’

A policy was formulated accordingly by Winter:

Immediately after any raid, all documents were at once admitted by its personnel to a close scrutiny, epitomes completed, and copies made for distribution. Some idea of the amount of work involved may be gathered from the fact that in the Dublin District area from October 1920 to July 1921, 6,311 raids and searches were carried out, and over 12,000 epitomes of captured documents, some consisting of over 200 pages of foolscap, were circulated.

Tellingly, Winter had to stress to the police and soldiers involved the importance of collecting all documents, however minor at first glance, before they got the point. The British machine was only just grasping what it should have known at the start. Winter’s efforts paid off: a Central Raid Bureau was painstakingly formed, complete with a card index and photographic library, allowing Winter to finally get on top of the situation:

A list of all persons arrested was forwarded to me, and the duty devolved on me deciding who should be liberated, interned or prosecuted from the evidence available on the Raid Bureau. During a period of three months, 1,745 arrests were made in the Dublin District alone, in addition to large numbers from the outlying Counties, and so much of my time was spent in sorting out the wolves from the lambs.[7]

One would think that the Chief of the Combined Intelligence Services would have delegated such a time-consuming chore. Perhaps that says something about the resources the British state was willing (or not) to provide – or maybe more about Winter’s micromanaging. He was certainly a hands-on boss, such as on the 2nd July 1921, when news of an IRA-related murder in the Irish midlands reached him. Deciding that this latest killing warranted his personal attention – and possibly to escape the confinement of Dublin Castle – Winter gave orders for a drive to the outskirts of the city. From there, an aeroplane would fly him as the quickest means of transport.

His car was turning left on Cork Hill, with Winter:

…seated on the near rear seat; and I was putting a cigarette in my mouth a shot rang out and a bullet hit my hand an inch below the junction of my thumb and forefinger, passed through my hand and made its exit two inches below my little finger, breaking no bones but severing an artery.

As if that was not enough: “Then came a hail of bullets from every direction.”

IRA members

Thanks to his gun and those of his armed escort, Winter was able to fight off the ambushers, even claiming credit in his memoirs for the slaying of one of them. His experience in hospital seems to have been equally as unpleasant as that of being shot, with a probe pushed through his wound, followed by a dose of antitetanic serum and several sleepless nights: “However, this enforced insomnia gave me plenty of time to ponder on Sinn Fein in general, and their activities in particular.”[8]

Winter does not inform his readers on whether he reached any sort of epiphany on this. A month and a half after his brush his death, the Truce of July 1921 came into effect and subsequently the Anglo-Irish Treaty. While Winter does not seem to altogether approve of this agreement, quoting Winston Churchill’s cutting remarks that “no British government in modern times has ever appeared to make so sudden and complete a reversal of policy”, he also did not sound too distraught about the end of his duties in Ireland.[9]

British troops departing from Dublin, 1922

‘The Heart and Soul of the Whole Conspiracy’

Winter’s narration of his time at the head of the British intelligence service in Ireland is a mix of the sensible and the silly. An example of the latter was the printing apparatus of the Irish Bulletin being seized and used to send out bogus and mocking pseudo-versions of that Republican organ. When it was made known that, from now on, all genuine issues would be known by a special stamp, Winter had that forged and added it to more of his ‘fake news’; amusing, maybe, but what difference was that really going to make?[10]

1100097809_previewAs an historic source, his book has its flaws. No one who suggests that it was the IRA who murdered Tomás Mac Curtain for his supposed wavering or that Dick McKee, Peadar Clancy and Conor Clune were killed while assaulting their guards inside Dublin Castle (with a smuggled grenade, no less) can be read without the slightest raising of the brow. But Winter does clearly convey how the British counter-insurgency was not working on any sort of pre-approved system or formula, being instead an ad hoc, whatever-works-works process.[11]

As Winter was based in Dublin, his experiences and anecdotes tended to involve that city – perhaps a little too much so. At least one British Army source thought the Dublin location of senior policemen to have been problematic since it encouraged the officials to regard themselves as essentially city inspectors rather than seeing Ireland as the big picture.[12]

But then, Dublin was of vital importance, both for the Crown and the Irish insurgency:

Dublin was, and is, the heart and soul of the whole conspiracy. It was the principal military base for all Ireland, also the headquarters of the Viceroy and the Commander in Chief, as well as the site of large and important military stores of explosives and arms.[13]

Written sometime between the Truce of July 1921 and the signing of the Treaty in December, Record of the Rebellion was a review of the Army’s performance in Ireland. Volume IV, ‘Dublin District Historical Records’, dealt with the place in question specifically; after all, “the situation in Dublin was so unique that it was worth considering in some detail.”[14]

Much of the piece is concerned with the logistics of urban conflict, such as the right way of conducting a house-to-house search or how to fine-tune the hours of a city curfew. Regarding intelligence, Record divided the question of responsibility into four distinct periods:

    1. Performed by the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) until the end of 1919, when the IRA campaign of assassinations and intimidation proved too much for the DMP to continue.
    2. The military taking over in early 1920. Progress was limited at first, with the lone junior army officer in charge being “very limited [in what he could do] as he had no organised means of obtaining intelligence.” Personnel in general was scarce, with no intelligence officers higher than at a regimental level, and even these were largely working on their own initiative rather than as part of any overall strategy.
    3. Military intelligence services were reorganised, under a specially selected officer, known as the Special Branch. This worked directly for the army authorities, with brigade and battalion intelligence officers appointed, all of which allowed for a successful coordination between intelligence and ‘street level’ activities. While sources of knowledge remained limited, results overall were good.
    4. This arrangement came to an end in early 1921, when the Special Branch was transferred, with its records, to the Chief of Police, merging with Police Intelligence.

Special Branch was henceforward known as D Branch, headed by the Director of Police Intelligence (Winter, unnamed in the text), who ran what was now a part intelligence, part executive organisation.

‘Bloody Sunday’ in November 1920 was noted as a heavy blow. Several of the most promising intelligence officers had been lost, and the rest found their new headquarters at Dublin Castle and the Central Hotel to be as much constrictive as protective. Nonetheless, it is interesting that this coordinated massacre, often celebrated as the ‘smashing’ of British intelligence, only “temporarily paralysed” the Special Branch in the opinion of the Record.

uneblodysToo Many Cooks over a Broth

Far more damaging to army intelligence was the internal interference, specifically its amalgamation with the police. This, as Record described in detail, was:

…a grave mistake. For personal reasons it was wholly unpopular among the personnel of the Special Branch, and unfortunately personal considerations can rarely be left out of account in questions connected with secret service. The organisation continue to work for the army, but was responsible to a new master, the Chief of Police, consequently the driving power behind the agents gradually diminished.

As a result, what had been a smoothly running machine became entangled in its gears:

Duplicate organisations both to check the police information and to act as a liaison became necessary. The result was delay in taking action, overlapping in work, and a registry created on the lines of compromise and satisfactory to neither military or police.

Neither intelligence nor executive but a mix of both, too self-contained and wilful for the Army’s liking, and overly reliant on enthusiastic amateurs for its members, D Branch was a poor fit for the Dublin war in the Record’s estimation: “A peculiar organisation, as secret services organisations generally are.” That anything was accomplished at all was more due to the talents of individuals than any structural strength:

If all intelligence and all operations in the city had been controlled from one office better results might have been achieved and a great deal of friction and irritation would certainly have been avoided.

Far from being wiped out by Bloody Sunday, there was more British intelligence branches than ever by 1921. Instead, the problem seemed to be there too many, or at least too much overlap in their respective spheres:

    1. D Branch, headed by the Chief of Police – Collating intelligence for Dublin District using informants/agents’ reports (both police and military), DMP reports and captured documents. Responsible for passing information to the below organisations.
    2. General Staff (British Army), Intelligence, Dublin District – Keeping the General Officer Commanding (GOC) updated as to the structure, tactics and intentions of the IRA. Intelligence provided from its own military sources as well as from D Branch.
    3. Raid Bureau, headed by the Chief of Police – Filing all reports on raids, as well as receiving captured documents and weapons.
    4. Registry, headed by the Chief of Police – registering information as it was obtained, and maintaining the personal files and cards on all suspects.[15]

Sir Warren Fisher

If it all looked complicated on paper, then, unsurprisingly, that is exactly how it was in practice. Not that the British state could say it was never warned; a report by Sir Warren Fisher in February 1921 called for an end of inter-branch infringements with the creation of a uniform command system in Dublin, nothing of which was done by the time the war came to a halt five months later in July.[16]

“There were at least three rival intelligence agencies employed by the British and as usual they were all jealous of one another,” remembered one senior DMP officer with a sigh.[17]

Inside Men

The root cause of this unseemly disarray, according to General Nevil Macready, the GOC for Ireland, was because the plan had been to use military intelligence in conjunction with the police system while the latter was being rebuilt:

Events proved, however, in the long run that it would have been better to have relied on a purely military organisation, to be placed at the service of the police, instead of attempting a dual organization, which, with the best of goodwill on both sides, never worked altogether smoothly owing to a diversity of system and the lack of unity in control.[18]

Sir Nevil Macready

In this, Macready echoed the analysis found in the Record. Considering how both the general’s memoirs and the Record were written by soldiers, it is unsurprising that the two texts often shared the same worldview. Neither, for example, had much time for the politicians back home – Macready bemoaned the fluctuating demands from Downing Street, and its inability to settle on either coercion and conciliation as the policy for Ireland, while the Record would point to “political considerations”, along with “legal technicalities” (like the Army’s lack of authority for summary executions), as the reasons for the failure to crush the insurgency.[19]

One notable divergence, however, is that Macready was fully aware of the IRA’s own intelligence system “which spread its tentacles throughout every grade of the population”, most notably in its informants positioned “throughout the police and Government offices in Dublin.” For all his disdain for everything Irish – much aired throughout his two-volume autobiography – Macready was astute enough to grasp the perils of employing the same demographic the enemy also drew from: “These men, mostly of the same social class as the rebels, were many of them in sympathy in Sinn Fein.”

In comparison, Record’s awareness of the problem seems to have been rather limited, putting the “continued leakage of information” down to “injudicious talking in some cases” as well as “deliberate treachery in others”, and even in the cases of the latter, suspicion fell no further than on clerical workers or repairmen working in barracks. Even at the time the Record was written, in late 1921, its authors should have known about the number of DMP officers who had been not so much leaking as pouring state secrets to Michael Collins – admittedly more of a police problem than an Army one, but a major cause, all the same, of why the British counter-insurgency struggled to contain, let alone defeat the IRA.[20]

Winter was even worse, making no reference at all in his memoirs to either David Neligan, Eamon Broy or James McNamara, all prominent DMP moles who had been working to undermine Winter’s intelligence system as arduously as he built it. Perhaps Winter found it too awkward to talk about, but this omission does lead to some curious blind spots in his narrative that might otherwise compliment British counter-intelligence, such as the arrest of Eileen McGrane, Collins’ private secretary. This not only came with a vanload of captured paperwork from her office – a major coup in itself – but led to Broy’s exposure when some of these catches were traced back to documents he had typed, a fact (ruefully) described by Broy in his own reminiscences but not in Winter’s.[21]

Eamon Broy (in the uniform of his later career in the Gardaí

Spilled secrets also snagged McNamara, though, in this case, it was largely his own fault. A dispatch to Dublin Castle, complaining about reports of American sailors handing weapons to the IRA, found its way into the eager hands of the Sinn Féin Publicity Bureau. Its publication provoked a diplomatic row between the United States and Britain but also gave McNamara away since he was the confidential clerk who had handled it. McNamara’s sacking and Broy’s imprisonment left Neligan as the last of the top DMP spies, much to his consternation.

“It set me wondering when my number would come up!” he wrote later.[22]

Spy Game

David Neligan

It never did. Neligan’s cover survived to the end of the War; indeed, his former superiors in Dublin Castle, still none the wiser, would express surprise at how quickly he obtained his new job in the Irish Provisional Government at the start of 1922. His insider status at the British headquarters allowed him access to the ‘G-man’s diary’, a large calf-bound tome with all the daily reports of DMP detectives recorded. While Neligan had a poor opinion on the type of updates – quantity over quality seems to have been the order of the day – “all the same there was always a danger a G-man might stumble on something, as they knew a lot of people.”

Similarly, whenever Neligan found himself in another police station in Dublin, he took the chance, if he could, to peruse the Occurrence Book that covered anything of note. One such nugget was the role of a certain army captain in the raid on the Exchange Hotel which saw the killing of John Lynch on the grounds that the Sinn Féin County Councillor had allegedly opened fire on the soldiers first with a revolver, a claim Neligan did not believe for a second: “Lynch was an elderly man who, though a sympathiser, was never in the army wing of Sinn Fein.” The captain’s name was passed on to Collins to add to the list of British secret servicemen in Dublin: come November 1920 and the man was among the dead of Bloody Sunday.[23]

Photo believed to be of the so-called ‘Cairo Gang’, consisting of British agents in Dublin,

There were, however, limits to what even a well-placed source like Neligan could provide. After taking a lunch break from his secret office in Mary Street, Collins decided on a hunch not to return, and fortunately so, for the place was searched later that day by Auxiliaries. Though they found nothing more incriminating than a fountain pen and a personal letter, it had been a close shave. Worse were the implications of the incident happening at all, according to Neligan:

This raid smelled of treachery and was certainly no fluke. Especially, as, some days earlier, they had raided next door to another secret office.

Despite Neligan being in the perfect place to root out this betrayal, “we never discovered the source of this information. It looked as if someone had betrayed him. It shook him at the time.” The strain was beginning to show on the famously daredevil Collins, his pale, careworn appearance shocking Neligan on one occasion in early 1921. IRA success at thwarting British spies had not been able to stem the problem altogether, as Neligan lamented: “So many worked for the British that it was impossible to counter all.”[24]

While Collins would remain at liberty until the Truce of 1921, not everyone would be so lucky. Eileen McGrane’s arrest and the loss of the documents in her keeping had been due to a “person of loyalist viewpoint”, according to Broy – whether anything was done about this grievous breach in security is not recorded by him. Another critical capture was that of Seán Mac Eoin, picked out from the train at Mullingar station by the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). Mac Eoin had been returning to his command area in Longford after reporting to GHQ in Dublin, the sort of journey that was as much a danger for country IRA officers as it was for soldiers on the other side like Duff.

Seán Mac Eoin

Mac Eoin’s presence in Dublin and itinerary back home had been leaked by a female acquaintance who he was using as a courier to the rest of the Longford IRA. The woman passed on the orders as instructed – and then went straight to her uncle, a retired RIC constable. At least, this is the conjecture on the part of Ann Farrington, the manager of the Crown Hotel in Dublin, who claimed to have seen Mac Eoin together with the unnamed woman in question.[25]

Regardless of the truth of this, the police team at Mullingar was unlikely to have been there by coincidence. Mac Eoin’s loss was a matter of considerable vexation to Collins, who ordered several attempts to rescue him (none of which succeeded), as well as a blow to the Longford IRA, who were never quite the same without their talented commander.[26]

Murder Gang?

Little wonder then that IRA Volunteers in Dublin sometimes grew a little highly-strung. The first time Dan Breen arrived in the city in early 1919 from Co. Tipperary, along with Seán Treacy, Seán Hogan and Séumas Robinson, they could walk around together freely and undisguised. This was despite all four being Ireland’s most wanted men from their role in the Soloheadbeg ambush. The DMP by that time had had a ‘live and let live’ attitude with the rebels, if they were not actively aiding their cause, and those policemen sent up from Tipperary were sensible enough to turn their heads should they chance upon any of the quartet.[27]

Left to right: Séumas Robinson, Seán Treacy, Dan Breen, Seán Hogan

As time went on, the pressures of being on the run began to get to Breen:

I was becoming obsessed with the idea that if I remained in Dublin my days were numbered. The British had touts and spotters everywhere. They had promised liberal rewards for information, at this time they were masking desperate attempts to restore their Secret Service and match it with ours.

Letters were opened in the post; hotel servants were bribed; an elaborate system of telephone-code was arranged for the touts and spotters. Is it surprising that in such circumstances I was often hard pressed to make my escape.[28]

It was not just paranoia. One of these escapes was from a tram near the city centre, when five plainclothes policemen stepped on board. Sitting on a three-seater bench at the rear of the upper half, just at the top of the stairs, Breen kept his cool as two of the newcomers sat on either side of him, while a third stood opposite, holding the railings. Knowing he was cornered, Breen continued to do nothing, as much for lack of options as anything. He was starting to relax as the tram passed through Parnell Street, thinking that perhaps the recognition had not been mutual, when he saw the pair seated next to him reaching for their hip-pockets.

Dublin trams

But Breen was quicker, pulling out his own revolver and chasing the trio down the stairs, following them as they jumped from the moving tram, into Dorset Street. Not wanting to risk a fire-fight, and conscious of enemy reinforcements that were liable to appear, Breen walked away, managing to lose his pursuers in the crowd of pedestrians.[29]

He would live to fight another day, having had a narrow escape from the ‘Murder Gang’, as he and other IRA men would know it by:

This group was composed of about fifteen RIC men from various parts of the country where the IRA were most active. Each had been attached to the political branch of the force in his own district for a number of years, and it was his business to know all the Volunteers in the neighbourhood. They were now on the lookout for country Volunteers in the streets of Dublin, and it was their business to murder them.[30]

From then on, Breen would make sure of not going anywhere unless in the company of Seán Treacy who was, like Breen, quick with a gun. Treacy would not survive the war, dying in a shootout on Talbot Street in October 1920. In the hours before, Breen had seen one of the policemen from the tram encounter trailing him and Treacy, presumably all the way to where the latter would be gunned down. When the body was brought to Dublin Castle, Winter was able to identify it with one of his photographs from his considerable collection.[31]

Crowd gathered around the bodies of Seán Treacy and three others killed in the shoot-out on Talbot Street, October 1920

Identification Squad?

As two men on opposing sides in a war, Breen and Winter probably would not have seen eye to eye on a lot of things. Winter’s depiction of this ‘Murder Gang’ in his own autobiographical output, however, does chime for the most part with Breen’s (albeit with a far less sinister name bestowed). With the DMP too intimidated (or compromised) to perform much in the way of intelligence work, and the IRA leaders in Dublin so far unknown to the authorities, Winter:

…asked [General Henry] Tudor [Police Advisor to Dublin Castle] for permission to form an “Identification Squad” under the leadership of a reliable Head Constable. These men were either old members of the Special Branch or experienced members of the local police, and two of these were selected from each county. Their duties were to wander the streets in twos or threes, attired in plain clothes. This led to a few arrests.[32]

Winter did not give his readers the name of this Head Constable, although he was, of course, aware of it, and would go on to write in support of Eugene Igoe’s pension application in 1922, emphasising “the Head Constable’s loyalty and devotion to duty and his quite exceptional danger.”[33]

Joe Howley

To be a member of the Crown forces in Ireland at this time was indeed a risk, although, to hear his enemies speak of Igoe, the danger was as much from him as to him. Charlie Dalton and the rest of Collins’ ‘Squad’ first became aware of Igoe and his group with the slaying of a Volunteer called Joe Howley, shot dead at Broadstone Station in January 1921. While the Squad had made assassination its speciality, repeating a Bloody Sunday on this new foe was complicated by members of the latter being not nearly as careless as the British officers gunned down on November 1920. Their walks across the city were intentionally varied, making tracking difficult, and the physical appearance of many, including Igoe’s, an unknown, prompting the Dublin IRA to invite Thomas Newell, a Volunteer from Galway who had known the Head Constable in his native county.

Dalton was alone in the Squad’s office on Crow Street when Newell rushed in to say he had aspied Igoe and his colleagues walking up Grafton Street, towards St Stephen’s Green. After sending instructions for the rest of the Squad, on ‘stand by’ in their other base at Upper Abbey Street, to assemble at St Stephen’s Green, Dalton went with Newell. His plan was to ambush the enemy on the west side of the square in the assumption they were heading to Harcourt Street Railway Station; instead, the two IRA pursuers found themselves surrounded by their intended targets on Grafton Street, near Weir’s jewellery store.

Weir’s Sons jewelry store, Grafton Street

The Igoe Gang had developed the technique of strolling along the streets in a loose, seemingly casual formation that could nonetheless regroup in strength, like the fingers of a clenching fist, when a Volunteer was chanced upon. This tactic worked a treat on Dalton and Newell, who were then escorted, quietly but firmly, to Dame Street and stood against a wall, a policeman on either side of both captives and far apart enough for them not to hear each other’s answers as Igoe questioned them in turn. Pedestrians meanwhile passed by, oblivious to the double interrogation going on and, in one version of Dalton’s story (he told the tale twice in his memoirs), he even spotted Vincent Byrne and other Squad members hurrying to the intended rendezvous spot.

Newell finally lost his temper and admitted who he was, giving the game away and ending their talk. Dalton was told to walk away and not look back; convinced that the policemen were still following him, he managed to move slowly until turning a corner, upon which he broke into a run and did not stop until reaching his father’s workplace in the city, practically collapsing as he stepped over its threshold. He recovered sufficiently to get back in touch with the rest of the Squad and though they returned to Dame Street, Igoe, Newell and the rest were already gone.

Members of the ‘Squad’

Dalton later heard that Newell had been shot – “riddled” as he put it – and badly wounded. So distressed was Dalton by the experience that he later refused an order to identify Igoe at a restaurant the Head Constable was said to be dining in – and this from a hardened killer who had pulled a trigger on Bloody Sunday. Despite the Igoe Gang now being the number one target for every Dublin-based IRA unit, “many abortive attempts were made, without the desired effect” and it remained “one of the most difficult and dangerous forces opposed to the IRA in Dublin” until the Truce.[34]

“I am sorry to say that this was the nearest we ever got to the Murder Gang,” said another Squad member, William James Stapleton, about Dalton’s and Newell’s failed venture to trap Igoe. “I think, if we have any disappointments I consider, this to all of us would be one of the major ones.”[35]

The Coup de Graces That Never Were?

However good they were at their job, whether as a ‘Murder Gang’ or ‘Identification Squad’, Igoe’s team was not enough to make a critical difference in the Dublin war; even Winter regarded its impact as more physiological than anything else: “No longer could the [IRA] leaders visit the city in safety.” That Winter believed, even by the time he penned his autobiography in 1955, that the IRA leadership were visitors to Dublin and not residents exposes a blind spot in his knowledge, and yet another damning indictment of the British counter-insurgency’s failure to fully grasp the nature of its challenge.[36]

British soldiers overlooking Dublin

Nonetheless, Winter’s tenure as Chief of the Combined Intelligence Services, from October 1920 to July 1921, saw a number of wins scored in Dublin:

  • The location and death of Seán Treacy on October 1920.
  • The location and capture of Dick McKee and Peadar Clancy, Commandant and Vice Commandant of the Dublin IRA Brigade respectively, in November 1920.
  • The identification of every Volunteer in a Dublin IRA company due to the interrogation of Vincent Fovargue.
  • The unmasking of James MacNamara and Eamon Broy as IRA moles within the DMP.
  • Raids on two of Collins’ personal intelligence offices as well as that of Mulcahy, resulting in the seizure of a cache of sensitive documents, including Sinn Féin and IRA codes.[37]

Major-General Gerald Boyd

Would all this have been enough had the war continued on past July 1921? Certain British sources assumed so. “Well, Jeune, I think we have broken the back of the movement now, don’t you?” Major-General Boyd, GOC of Dublin District, told intelligence officer Captain R.D. Jeune at the start of 1921. Jeune concurred, with an estimation of six more months before the victorious end.[38]

Unlike Jeune, the Record hedged its bets on an exact finish, but nonetheless believed that the Dublin IRA had been reduced to a shadow of its former self by the time of the Truce: “The coup de grace might have taken a little longer, but, given real power [emphasis in text], it was inevitable.” That this ‘real power’ had been constantly withheld was apparently the fault of politicians in Whitehall, not the Army’s. Yet, at the same time, the Record complained of its difficulty in identifying suspects, even important ones such as Collins and Mulcahy, both of whom had been arrested, twice and once respectively: “In all these cases no one was present who knew Collins or Mulcahy by sight, and they were released” – hardly the sign of a military machine on the verge of a breakthrough.[39]

On the other side of the question, could the IRA have continued on in Dublin? Even the best of its operatives were struggling with the mental pressures of life on the run – Dalton’s encounter with Igoe frayed his nerves enough to put him out of commission for weeks. And, as Assistant Director of Intelligence, Frank Thorton doubted that the insurgency in Dublin was sustainable for much longer, although he put that down to its paucity in weapons and ammunition rather than any skill or effort on the part of the British.

British soldiers and Irish civilians in Dublin

Such a shortage did not deter plans for a major operation, one to wipe out every enemy agent, Secret Service man, Auxiliary and Black-and-Tan in the city. To this end, the Dublin IRA Brigade was mobilised, along with the Squad and every other armed unit at hand, and the man put in positon, waiting for the allocated time to strike. With only half an hour left, instructions came through to stand down. Negotiations that would result in the Truce were due to commence, and jaw-jaw over war-war was now the order of the day.[40]

At least, this is according to Thorton, written at the end of his reminiscences. It was a good way to end his story, perhaps a little too good – another tale of The Ones That Got Away.


[1] Duff, Douglas V. Sword For Hire: The Saga of a Modern Free-Companion (London: John Murray, 1934), pp. 54, 78-81

[2] Winter, Ormonde. A Winter’s Tale: An Autobiography (London: The Richards Press, 1955), p. 289

[3] Ibid, p. 293

[4] Ibid, pp. 295, 300, 305-6

[5] Ibid, pp. 294-5

[6] Ibid, p. 303 ; Walsh, Richard (BMH / WS 400), p. 66

[7] Winter, pp. 304-5

[8] Winter, pp. 333-4

[9] Ibid, p. 342

[10] Ibid, pp. 307-8

[11] Ibid, pp. 291, 322-3

[12] Sheehan, William. Fighting for Dublin: The British Battle for Dublin, 1919-1921 (Cork: The Collins Press, 2007), p. 147

[13] Ibid, p. 79

[14] Ibid, p. 138

[15] Ibid, pp. 143-7

[16] Hittle, J.B.E. Michael Collins and the Anglo-Irish War (Washington, DC: Potomic Books, 2011), p. 190

[17] Neligan, David. The Spy in the Castle (London: Prendeville Publishing Limited, 1999), p. 73

[18] Macready, Neil. Annals of an Active Life, Volume II (New York: George H. Dolan Company, 1925), pp. 462-3

[19] Ibid, p. 463 ; Sheehan. Fighting for Dublin, p. 79

[20] Ibid, pp. 463-4 ; Ibid, pp. 42-3

[21] Winter, p. 328 ; Broy, Eamon (BMH / WS 1280), pp. 105, 108

[22] Neligan, p. 130

[23] Ibid, pp. 106-7, 123, 154

[24] Ibid, pp. 146-7

[25] Broy, p. 105 ; Farrington, Ann (BMH / WS 749), pp. 4-5

[26] Stapleton, William James (BMH / WS 822), p. 51 (for an example of the attempts made to rescue Mac Eoin) ; McKeon, James (BMH / WS 436), p. 21 (on the state of the Longford IRA after Mac Eoin’s arrest)

[27] Breen, Dan. My Fight for Irish Freedom (Cork: Mercier Press, 2010), p. 78

[28] Ibid, p. 131

[29] Ibid, pp. 133-4

[30] Ibid, p. 131

[31] Ibid, 134-5, 137 ; Winter, p. 319

[32] Winter, pp. 337-8

[33] Hittle, p. 279

[34] Dalton, Charles. With the  Dublin Brigade: Espionage and Assassinations with Michael Collins’ Intelligence Unit (Cork: Mercier Press, 2014), pp. 152, 224-31

[35] Stapleton, p. 77

[36] Winter, p. 338

[37] Hittle, pp. 231-2

[38] Sheehan, William. British Voices from the Irish War of Independence, 1918-1921 (Cork: The Collins Press, 2005), p. 90

[39] Ibid. Fighting for Dublin, pp. 74, 80

[40] ‘Dalton, Charles’ (Military Service Pensions Application, DP/4), p. 101 ; Thorton, Frank (BMH / WS 615), pp. 59-60



Breen, Dan. My Fight for Irish Freedom (Cork: Mercier Press, 2010)

Dalton, Charles. With the Dublin Brigade: Espionage and Assassination with Michael Collins’ Intelligence Unit (Cork: Mercier Press, 2014)

Duff, Douglas V. Sword For Hire: The Saga of a Modern Free-Companion (London: John Murray, 1934)

Hittle, J.B.E. Michael Collins and the Anglo-Irish War (Washington, DC: Potomic Books, 2011)

Macready, Nevil. Annals of an Active Life, Volume II (New York: George H. Dolan Company, 1925)

Neligan, David. The Spy in the Castle (London: Prendeville Publishing Limited, 1999)

Sheehan, William. British Voices from the Irish War of Independence, 1918-1921 (Cork: The Collins Press, 2005)

Sheehan, William. Fighting for Dublin: The British Battle for Dublin, 1919-1921 (Cork: The Collins Press, 2007)

Winter, Ormonde. A Winter’s Tale: An Autobiography (London: The Richards Press, 1955)

Bureau of Military History Statements

Broy, Eamon, WS 1280

Farrington, Ann, WS 749

McKeon, James, WS 436

Stapleton, William James, WS 822

Thorton, Frank, WS 615

Walsh, Richard, WS 400

Military Service Pensions Application

‘Dalton, Charles’, DP/4

Woe to His Enemies: Joe McGrath and the Scramble for Power in a New Ireland, 1921-4

Tying the Loose Ends

Thomas McLaughlin

It was a plan intended to revitalise Ireland but the Shannon Scheme had barely begun before grinding to a halt, its continuation uncertain and its future in doubt. Two years before, in 1923, an excited young engineer, Thomas McLaughlin, had brought to the attention of the Minster for Industry and Commerce, Joe McGrath, a daring alternative to the use of peat and coal that seemed inadequate for the needs of the new Irish state: a hydroelectric dam of the sort McLaughlin had just witnessed in action in Bavaria. And not just Germany – France, Switzerland, Sweden, Canada and the United States were also embracing this innovation in power generation.

“Why not in Ireland?” McLaughlin asked.

The Irish Government could think of a few reasons as to that: doubts in McLaughlin’s ability to pull off what he promised, their laissez-faire faith in private enterprise over public works and the sheer incongruity of applying what sounded almost like science fiction to the slump economics of 1920s Ireland. But, by June 1925, McLaughlin’s enthusiasm and the demands of a country increasingly ill-served by its patchwork of small private electricity firms were enough to convince President W.T. Cosgrave to sign into effect the Shannon Electricity Bill. The otherwise unremarkable village of Ardnacrusha, Co. Clare, was chosen as the site of the dam-to-be on the Shannon River, and the services of 3,000 labourers were advertised accordingly.

Turbines under construction at Ardnacrusha, 1920s

And that’s when the problems really began. The offered wage of thirty-two shillings for a fifty-hour week seemed absurdly miserly and the conditions workers were expected to live in – sometimes no better than the floor of a barn – downright Dickensian. With the unions calling for a strike and not so much as a sod yet turned, Cosgrave was, in the words of one of his Ministers, Ernest Blythe, “at a loose end.”

In was brought McGrath, the man who had first listened to McLaughlin’s proposal. No longer was he the Minister for Industry and Commerce, having resigned a few months before due to that peculiar business with the military. Now appointed the Director of Labour for the Shannon Scheme, his brief was first to get the Government’s flagship project going and then to keep it that way.

And he did. Ruthlessly. First, according to Blythe:

He brought with him to Ardnacrusha some of the men with whom he had been associated in Army Intelligence, or whom he had got to know at the time of the [Army] Mutiny.

When the issue of pay for the workers caused talks with the unions to flounder, McGrath decided to bring in his own for the first and form his own for the second. The aforementioned ex-servicemen provided the basis of this alternative workforce, with decoy ‘unions’ set up in the Ardnacrusha camp to block troublemakers and weed out uppity types, as well as providing a mercilessly effective informer network. For those problems that lingered, a ‘heavy gang’ was at hand to enforce ‘law and order’ – as defined by The Man, of course.

Joe McGrath

In the space of three months, the strike was broken. McGrath, to quote one historian, “had out-flanked and out-played the unions.” With victory won and his foes crushed, McGrath was free to continue on for the next four years as Director – or Dictator – of Labour “in conditions never far from toppling into anarchy.”

However perilously close, total disarray was nonetheless avoided, despite the stories in the newspapers of workers and their families living in pigsties or of the fifteen men paying rent to sleep together on old hay thrown on the floor. When pressed by muck-raking journalists, the Camp Commandant at Ardnacrusha alternated from denying the problems or refusing responsibility for them – as Captain W.J. Stapleton had been handpicked by McGrath for the position, he was hardly going to do or say anything different.

After all, “it was popularly believed that hereafter, a man working on the Shannon Scheme could not curse the weather without his words being reported to Joe,” as Blythe admiringly described. July 1929 came and the Cosgrave administration’s bold new step into the future was launched – as per schedule – on the 22nd, for which Blythe knew who they had to thank: “[McGrath] ensured that Ardnacrusha came in on time to the delight of the Government.”[1]

W.T. Cosgrave (front, in the bowler hat) and other dignitaries at the opening of the Shannon Scheme, Ardnacrusha, 1929

“Our First Duty”

A very different McGrath had stood before the Dáil Éireann three years previously in the National University, Dublin, on the 7th January 1922, to explain why he was voting for the motion before them: the ratification of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. For the past fifteen years he had been a Republican, he said, back when Republicanism was neither widespread nor particularly popular. Even so, he did his best to have like-minded candidates elected, which meant going into the homes of prospective voters in Dublin, slums and all, to state the case for Sinn Féin.

Treaty debates
The Treaty debates, held inside the National University (now the National Concert Hall), Dublin

“Oh, you are the same as the others,” one man – McGrath judged him to have been a hungry man – had told him. “If you people get into power, the workers will be just the same.”

McGrath had replied that, as far as he and his Sinn Féin colleagues could manage, workers like him would be put on the level that they should be. Whether this promise had made any impact on the hungry man is unknown but the exchange left its mark on McGrath, as had the words of the Democratic Programme which Sinn Féin adopted when finally triumphant in the 1918 General Election.

demprog2019jpgIts length deterred McGrath from quoting it in full; instead, he read out one choice passage:

It shall be the first duty of the Government of the Republic to make provision for the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of the children; to secure that no child shall suffer from hunger, cold, lack of clothing or shelter, but that they shall be provided with the means and facilities requisite for their proper education and training as citizens of a free and Gaelic Ireland.

“There you have it,” McGrath told the assembled TDs in the chamber. “Our first duty.”

Thanks to the Treaty and the powers it conferred, they would at last have the means to put the ideals of the Democratic Programme from paper into practice. Not that anyone in the opposition would concede as much or that there was anything good in the Treaty; in that, they were very well-disciplined, McGrath noted sardonically. And yet these same naysayers were prepared to consider the “alternative proposals” that had been brought before the Dáil the other day – by this, McGrath meant Document No. 2 – which would have bound Ireland just as much to the British Crown as the Treaty.

At this point, President Éamon de Valera, as Document No.2’s originator, felt obliged to step in, with Mary MacSwiney as backup:

De Valera: Again I ask you is it fair to have that document [No. 2] discussed in detail when I have been prevented from bringing forward that document and explaining it as an alternative?

McGrath: I am not discussing it. I am only giving my reason why I would have as much objection to that document as to the Treaty.

MacSwiney: The oath is not in the document.

McGrath: It is there in the document.

Éamon de Valera

McGrath’s speech was shifting from the practicalities of the Treaty to the perceived hypocrisies of its opponents. Had not Deputy Harry Boland, who he saw was present, told him he was returning to the United States on the President’s instructions “to do an awful thing”, as McGrath put it: preparing the American people (or at least the Irish portion) for something short of a Republic?

“Short of an isolated Republic,” de Valera interjected again.

“Something short of a Republic,” McGrath insisted. Boland had spoken before of compromise, even if that word had not been used, and now here he was demanding quite the opposite. “I won’t say what happened in the meantime.”[2]

Taking the Gloves Off

Harry Boland

McGrath’s snideness and insinuations were not one-sided; when he had first started to speak by announcing himself as having always been as “an out and outer” in regards to British rule, Boland retorted with: “You mean a down and outer” – a jab at the perceived defeatism of the Treaty.[3]

That the two men once worked closely together was a sad reflection of those turbulent times. ’12 Sept [1921]. Mon. Leave Dublin for Scotland with J. McGrath,’ Boland wrote in his diary the previous year. Their mission was to see the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, at his summer retreat at Flowerdale House, Gairloch, on the Scottish west coast. There, the pair delivered de Valera’s latest round in the negotiations over Ireland’s exact relationship with its historic possessor – and promptly found themselves trapped between the displeasure of two political titans.

David Lloyd George

For Lloyd George, reference in the correspondence to Ireland as ‘a sovereign State’ was a separation too far. De Valera, in turn, was none too happy to learn that his emissaries had agreed to return to Ireland with his offending letter officially undelivered. Mercifully, it was not all business, with McGrath and Boland treating themselves to the Navan Races together on the 16th September 1921. The British Cabinet was later appraised about the “two Sinn Féin couriers who came to Gairloch, one whom was an out and out extremist” – disappointingly, without a specification as to which of the duo was considered the hardliner.[4]

Flowerdale House, Gairloch, Scotland

Whatever bonds formed did not survive the turmoil of the following year as pro and anti-Treaty TDs continued to gnaw at each other, prompting McGrath to complain during one Dáil session, on the 2nd March 1922, that “there has been too much winking at things here in the Dáil. We stood for it too long.”

At this, his former companion to Gairloch sprang into action:

Boland: Take the gloves off.

McGrath: I will take the gloves off. We have men standing on the platform with Deputy de Valera today who led the attack on me and my colleague in Smithfield five or six years ago and threw lime in our eyes.

Boland: Name!

McGrath: I will name him if it is asked – Councillor Paul.

Boland: Where is he? He is not here.

McGrath: I made it plain that he was on the platform. I have spoken of him standing on the platform with Deputy de Valera.

Boland: Put the gloves on again.[5]

By ‘Smithfield’, McGrath was presumably referring to the General Election of 1918 or the earlier by-elections in which he had played a prominent part as a Sinn Féin organiser. He did not, however, elaborate. Nor did Boland when, later that session, told McGrath: “I was not out with a muck-rake like you anyway.” McGrath first demanded to know what Boland meant by that, then asked for the remark to be withdrawn.

“I never abused personal confidence,” was all Boland said in response, rather cryptically.[6]

A Rough Customer?

The struggle escalated beyond the verbal. As the Civil War raged on, McGrath was appointed Director of Intelligence for the Free State forces and it was “in that capacity [that] he presided over some of the more grisly aspects of the treatyites’ counter-insurgency policy,” according to historian John M. Regan.[7]

Noel Lemass

Actually, pinning anything definite on McGrath is not an easy task. When Cyril Bretherton, a journalist for the Dublin-based Morning Post at the time, wrote in his 1925 book The Real Ireland that “responsibility for the murder of Lemass was brought home with reasonably certainty to Joe MacGrath [sic],” McGrath successfully sued the publishers. The Lemass in question was Noel (brother of the future Taoiseach), found murdered on the Featherbed Mountain, Co. Wicklow, in October 1922.

Bretherton had identified the motive for the deed as revenge for an ambush on Free State officers near Leeson Street Bridge, Dublin. This statement was without foundation, stated the Lemass family, and McGrath similarly denied any involvement in Lemass’ death, as he also rejected another statement of Bretherton’s: “It is considered pretty certain that [McGrath] knows who were the men implicated in the attack made last year on British troops in Queenstown” [now Cobh, Co. Cork]. As The Real Ireland was out of print by the time the libel suit came before the King’s Bench Division in London in 1927, the publishers were happy to withdraw any imputation against McGrath and cover his legal expenses in return for the case being dropped.[8]

Since Bretherton never elaborated further, it is impossible to judge the merit of his claim. On other occasions in the Civil War, McGrath does not come across as especially bloodthirsty or vindictive; quite the contrary, if anything. While a peace-brokering initiative between the warring factions in Dublin came to naught, at least one Anti-Treatyite who attended the meeting in a house at Harold’s Cross walked away thinking the invitation on McGrath’s part had been sincere.

Todd Andrews in later years

“I think…that the McGrath initiative was genuinely well meant, not merely an effort to accentuate division in our ranks for propaganda purposes,” Todd Andrews wrote in his memoirs. “McGrath had a very soft corner in his heart for the men of the Fourth [Dublin] Battalion. In later and less unhappy times he gave generous evidence of this trait.”[9]

The Irish Sweepstakes, set up in part by McGrath in 1930, ostensibly as a charitable venture, allowed him to demonstrate this tender spot. Eithne Coyle had been living in, if not quite poverty, then at least straitened circumstances since her side lost the Civil War:

When the Sweep started in 1930, I wrote to Joe McGrath and told him I had no job. He invited me to come in. Like a lot of Republicans, I got my first steady job there. He was a rough customer, but good at the back of it all.[10]

It was not all goodwill and giving. McGrath had taken some persuading at the Cabinet meeting in December 1922 to agree to the executions of Liam Mellows, Rory O’Connor, Joe McKelvey and Dick Barrett. But agreed to them he eventually did. Reprisal almost came in the form of the Anti-Treatyites’ ‘creasing squad’ who were particularly keen to assassinate the enemy Director of Intelligence. Once, a hit team burst into the Department of Commerce in Lord Edward Street, expecting to find their target.

Anti-Treaty IRA members walking down Grafton Street, Dublin

Luckily for McGrath, he was elsewhere.[11]

‘A Curious Role’

Intrigue did not cease at the end of the Civil War. No sooner had the Free State put down one military uprising when it was confronted with another in the form of the Army Mutiny in 1924. Threatened with redundancy in the event of demobilisation, certain officers formed the Irish Republican Army Organisation (IRAO) to act as a pressure group on the Government. Other grievances included a withholding of promotions, a monopoly on influence by the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and – if one was to accredit any selfless aspirations – a belief that the Free State was losing its Republican roots.

As for McGrath, he, as historian Michael McCarthy put it, “played a curious role in the affair.”[12]

McGrath himself might have countered with ‘helpful’ or even ‘misunderstood’:

My efforts to settle this thing extend over fifteen or sixteen months. I tried everything humanely possible to bring about a settlement, but without result. I am satisfied I took the right action.

Certainly, when McGrath addressed the Dáil on the matter in March 1924, it was with a palpably martyred air:

I do say it is shameful; it is disgusting; and I do hope it will never happen to another Minister of the Free State, that when he takes action for honest motives this method will be used to place him in a false position before the public.[13]

McGrath was speaking the day after a raid by Free State soldiers on Devlin’s Public House in Parnell Street, Dublin. This establishment had been frequented by IRAO members and so it was unsurprising that a number of them were found inside on the evening of the 18th March 1924. What complicated the situation was: (1) the IRAO members were carrying guns, (2) the soldiers lacked the authority to enter Devlin’s.

Devlin’s Public House, Parnell Street, Dublin (now demolished)

A stand-off ensued. The soldiers held off for the moment, keeping the mutineers penned in with the warning that they would be arrested upon stepping outside; meanwhile, the Adjutant-General, Gearóid O’Sullivan, was telephoned for further instructions. By the time O’Sullivan ordered the public house to be breached, the IRAO had barricaded the stairs, readying themselves for a re-enactment of the Alamo.

Liam Tobin

Despite this show of defiance, the soldiers, now reinforced, were able to arrest most of their targets without violence once assurances of safety were given. Two exceptions, Major-General Liam Tobin and Colonel Charlie Dalton, had been able to escape across the rooftops, after which they used their freedom to telephone various Government Ministers.[14]

If it was help the two IRAO men were asking for, then McGrath was willing to give it. Accompanied by Dan MacCarthy, a fellow TD and long-time friend (the pair had worked extensively together in the by-elections of 1917), the Minister for Commerce and Industry arrived on the scene, according to an Army report, and proceeded to take advantage of Devlin’s facilities in asking “permission to stand the prisoners a drink – permission for which was not refused in the circumstances.”

The Minister was not just there to be chummy, however:

Mr McGrath stated to the [IRAO] prisoners that their arrest was not authorised by the Government, but was solely military action. Also that even so they should not have been arrested as the troops had only Warrants to arrest three of them. It was pointed out to Mr McGrath that our instructions were to arrest the whole party and that in any event a warrant was not necessary in the case of officers found committing conduct prejudicial to good order and military discipline.

As if this debate on legalities was not enough of a pain in the posterior for the arrest party:

Mr McGrath was very disagreeable to the Officer i/c. Troops and would have been detained himself were it not for the fact of his position in Government and also that he was under the influence of drink [emphasis mine].[15]

Richard Mulcahy

This last bit was left out when Kevin O’Higgins, as Minister of Home Affairs, read out the report to the Dáil, seemingly with the permission of Richard Mulcahy. The Minister of Defence, explained O’Higgins, had drawn a line with his pencil through the segment in question when asked by O’Higgins if everything written was to be heard. McGrath pounced on this omission in order to challenge the reliability of what the Dáil attendees had just heard: “If the whole of the report is as true as the statement that was not read, very little reliance can be placed on it.”

McGrath was clearly taking it all very personally. First his home been searched in the hunt for Tobin and Dalton – a completely unnecessary act, when “a ring on the telephone would have got the same information from me” – and then he had been forced to play peacemaker at Devlin’s, to the point of getting “between some of the prisoners and one of the officers who took their surrender” lest a trigger-happy trooper caused disaster: “I knew what the firing of one shot would mean.”

Free State soldiers

Between the raid on his house and the innuendos of the report, it was all nothing more than a “miserable, dirty attempt to try to mix up matters to place me in the false position of being one of those responsible for bringing about this most unfortunate position.”[16]

Simmering Slights

W.T. Cosgrave

In truth, McGrath had been performing enough of a role in that for quite some time. Exactly what his goals were is unclear, only that he was happy to help the IRAO in achieving their own agenda by acting as a sort of spokesman or go-between. At a meeting on the 4th July 1923, nine months before the raid on Devlin’s, McGrath outlined to President W.T. Cosgrave the IRAO’s complaints while throwing in his own, according to the minutes:

He, personally, feels that he has been slighted in a number of matters – says that he has the right to make an exposure of the whole business – that he is not going forward for the DAIL [sic] again – that he may come back to public life again in four or five years, but that he requires to mature.

These ‘matters’ were not specified. Judging by his stated ambivalence over standing again for election, McGrath felt that he was at a crossroads in his life. Despite his advocacy on the IRAO’s behalf, McGrath was not always able to articulate its points: “McGrath’s own complaint with regard to Organisation [IRB] matters – his ignorance of the others’ position on the matter – makes inability to say where the ostracisation [of the mutineers] came in.”[17]

During another session with Cosgrave – this time attended by Dalton and Tobin – McGrath seemed to think that the whole matter would blow over. “Oh, they’ll be alright,” he told Cosgrave afterwards. “They have got off some steam.”[18]

The fundamental reason behind the IRAO, McGrath told the President and Mulcahy on the 26th January 1924, was little more than a fear of unemployment: “McGrath particularly mention the cause of men who were at a loose end and who were anxious to remain on in the Army and get definite work.” Overall, his stance was moderate enough: demobilisation was not in itself the problem, just that it was happening when ex-British Army soldiers undeservedly remained in the Free State military, and that while the presence of the IRB was not a particularly good thing, McGrath agreed with Cosgrave that the Army should remain under civilian control, even in the event of a de Valera government (though the odds of that must have seemed slim in 1924).[19]

Irish Free State soldiers on parade

Regardless, the IRAO was a problem that could never quite go away. McGrath proved willing to stick by its cause, even delivering to Cosgrave, on the 6th March 1924, an ultimatum from Tobin, calling for the suspension of demobilisation and the removal of Mulcahy and the rest of the Army Council. Even after this heavy-handed demand and the debacle at Devlin’s, McGrath never abandoned or turned against the mutineers, instead laying the blame on the Government, a point punctuated by his resignation as Minister for Industry and Commerce.[20]

Lingering Questions

Whatever else may be said about him, McGrath was no fair-weather friend. Nor was he a shrinking-violet, being, according to historian Maryann Gialanella Valiulis, “a visible and active actor in the drama of mutiny.” But even with such a high profile, ambiguities abounded: “It is not certain…whether he approved of the ultimatum…or indeed whether he led or simply followed Tobin and Dalton.” As for the possible whys, Valiulis offers two: “McGrath seems to have been motivated both by a desire to redress the alleged grievances of the mutineers and by his own personal ambition.”[21]

Colleagues were divided on which of the two explanations was the likeliest. “His recent action in risking his future career and sacrificing his seat in the cabinet in order to prevent the trouble in the army from growing was worthy of all praise,” wrote Seamus Hughes, General Secretary of Cumann na nGaedheal and an old friend from their Labour movement days (McGrath had leapt to Hughes’ defence, fists flying, when, in July 1919, a trade union gathering at the Mansion House turned rowdy).[22]

Desmond FitzGerald, as External Affairs Minister, took a less rosy view, seeing McGrath’s actions as part of a scheme to drive out one faction in the Government – Mulcahy and the Army Council – in order to replace it with one of his own:

Mcgrath [sic] and certain members of his party – of the non teetotal variety [a reference to the allegation of McGrath’s intoxication on the night of the Devlin’s raid?] – had apparently decided that Mulcahy and the others were not alone to go, but to make way for another gang.

While the plan half-worked in that the Army Council was forced to resign: “They are now suffering from the shock of finding that Tobin is not to be Chief of Staff!” When McGrath and his allies tried playing for time by saying “with regard to government policy that they would ‘wait and see how it succeeded before they said whether they approved or not’,” Kevin O’Higgins cut them off by “telling them it was government policy and they could take it or leave it.”[23]

Kevin O’Higgins

O’Higgins was clearly not in an accommodating mood; understandably so, since, if an Army report is to be believed, a lot worse than political manoeuvrings had come close to happening:

Reports from a source the reliability of which cannot be vouched for, contain statements to the effect that the gunmen of the [IRAO] have made up their minds that they will be avenged in the orthodox way that is by letting a certain amount of blood in the near future.

A number of Government figures were slated to be assassinated accordingly, O’Higgins among them. But the report, based on covert observations made on IRAO gatherings in Devlin’s prior to the raid, hedged on whether murder was to be their definite strategy: “This was their policy sometime ago, but with the exception of one report there is nothing to indicate that they have returned to their former outlook on this matter.”

One thing for sure, however, was the central role the Minister for Industry and Commerce was to play in the putsch:                                    

The [IRAO] bunch are quite convinced also that it is only a matter of time until the President [Cosgrave] will resign, and McGrath has so convinced them of the amount of support he is receiving from various members of the Government Party in the Dail that this crowd are beginning to see visions of him as President in the near future.

Whether McGrath was aware of this ‘certain amount of blood’ due to be shed is not stated by the report. But one thing that is emphasised is the encouragement he was giving the disgruntled officers:

Joe McGrath seems to have again consolidated his position with those people. He has promised them that he has been receiving promises of support from at least 30 T.D.s who are members of the Cumann-nGaedheal or Government Party.

With those he is satisfied that he holds the balance of power and he has now told the [IRAO] crowd that as the Government cannot carry on without the support of the men who are supporting his new party that his policy will be to form a coalition with the Government, his party getting as their portion of the bargain his demands as to the reinstatement of [IRAO] men etc in the Army.

All these were lofty claims on McGrath’s part and high expectations by the mutineers. Maybe it was the fervid atmosphere in post-Civil War Ireland where much had been already done and little seemed impossible – or just the pints at Devlin’s talking when the patrons told the source behind the report: “They say that they expect McGrath to win and when he wins, woe to their enemies.”[24]

For once, it was McGrath who came up short. His resignation as Minister would not be the end of his political career, and politics alone was not his life as his later success in business showed. But the top prize of ultimate power had eluded him, forever as it turned out – which was perhaps the best for everyone.


[1] Corless, Damian. The Greatest Bleeding Hearts Racket in the World: Irish Hospitals Sweepstakes (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan Ltd, 2010), pp. 24-9

[2]Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, signed in London on the 6th December 1921: Sessions 14 December 1921 to 10 January 1922’ (accessed on the 20th June 2022) CELT: The Corpus of Electronic Texts, pp. 304-7

[3] Ibid, pp. 304-5

[4] Fitzpatrick, David. Harry Boland’s Irish Revolution (Cork: Cork University Press, 2003), pp. 232-4

[5] Dáil Éireann. Official Report (Dublin: Published by the Stationery Office, [1922]), p. 203

[6] Ibid, p. 218

[7] Regan, John M. The Irish Counter-Revolution: 1921-1936 (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2001), p. 92

[8] Irish Times, 23/02/1927

[9] Andrews, C.S., Dublin Made Me (Dublin and Cork: The Mercier Press, 1978), p. 256

[10] MacEoin, Uinseann. Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), p. 156

[11] Blythe, Ernest (BMH / WS 939), p. 195 ; Dorney, John. The Civil War in Dublin: The Fight for the Irish Capital, 1922-1924 (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Square, 2017), pp. 216, 224

[12] McCarthy, Michael. High Tension: Life on the Shannon Scheme (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2004), p. 16

[13] Irish Times, 20/03/1924

[14] Valiulis, Maryann Gialanella. Almost A Rebellion: The Irish Army Mutiny of 1924 (Cork: Tower Books, 1985), pp. 71-3

[15] University College Dublin (UCD) Archives, Richard Mulcahy Papers, P7/B/196, p. 131

[16] Irish Times, 20/03/1924

[17] UCD, Mulcahy Papers, P7/B/195, p. 15

[18] Ibid, p. 26

[19] Ibid, pp. 96-7

[20] Ibid, P7/B/196, pp. 8-12

[21] Valiulis, Almost A Rebellion, pp. 116-7

[22] Morrissey, pp. 181, 125-6

[23] Regan, p. 188                                                            

[24] Mulcahy Papers, P7/B/196, pp. 355-6



Irish Times


Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin and Cork: The Mercier Press, 1978)

Corless, Damian. The Greatest Bleeding Hearts Rackets in the World: Irish Hospital Sweepstakes (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan Ltd, 2010)

Dáil Éireann: Official Report (Dublin: Published by the Stationery Office, [1922?])

Dorney, John. The Civil War in Dublin: The Fight for the Irish Capital, 1922-1924 (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Square, 2017)

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

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

McCarthy, Michael. High Tension: Life on the Shannon Scheme (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2004)

Regan, John M. The Irish Counter-Revolution: 1921-1936 (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2001)

Valiulis, Maryann Gialanella. Almost a Rebellion: The Irish Army Mutiny of 1924 (Cork: Tower Books, 1985)

Bureau of Military History Statement

Blythe, Ernest, WS 939

Online Resource

CELT: The Corpus of Electronic Texts

University College Dublin Archives

Richard Mulcahy Papers