If, in popular culture, the POW experience from World War II is the movie The Great Escape, then this book could be considered its antithesis. Instead of the daring-do of an irrepressible Steve McQueen as he clears a barbed-wire fence on a motorbike, we have here men and women doing their best simply to endure. Not all succeeded, and the fate of Yakov Dzhugashvili – the captured son of Joseph Stalin – was a case in point about how a sentry’s bullet did not play favourites:
He put one leg through the trip-wire, crossed over the neutral zone and put one foot into the barbed wire entanglement. At the same time he grabbed an insular with his left hand. Then he got out of it and grabbed the electrified fence. He stood for a moment with his right leg back and his chest puffed out and shouted at me ‘Guard, don’t be a coward, shoot me!’
The German guard in question duly did so. “A shot rang out, followed by a blinding flash, and poor Jakob [sic] hung there, his body horribly burnt and twisted,” recalled another witness, ‘Sergeant’ Thomas Cushing. He left out the small detail that the luckless man had been outside their shared hut in the first place because he, Cushing, chased him with a knife after a brawl broke out between the Russian and Irish prisoners.
But then, Cushing was a slippery individual. German military intelligence in the form of the Abwehr was interested in the recruitment potential of Irish-born POWs from the British Army, and Cushing was among those receptive to what his captors had to offer – or, at least, was willing to let them think so.
One could never quite tell with someone like Cushing, who claimed membership in the IRA during the Irish War of Independence (when he would have been ten), fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War (doubtful) and claimed the rank of sergeant while in Friesack Camp (he wasn’t). A chaplain at Friesack probably had the measure of the man when he described Cushing as someone who would “do and say anything to get out of prison.”
An equally crafty – though perhaps more admirable – Irishman in the camp was Colonel John McGrath, who also volunteered his services. In his case, he did so to undermine the German operations from within. When opportunity came in the form of a visiting priest (and a fellow son of Erin), Father Thomas O’Shaughnessy, McGrath had a list of the names of other inmates being trained by the Abwehr for sabotage missions smuggled out on the person of the padre at, as it turned out, no small cost to himself.
The subtitle here is somewhat misleading, as Irishmen like McGrath and Cushing are merely one of the many nationalities present in this book who found themselves at the mercy of the Third Reich, though McGrath fits the role of central character best of all; appropriately enough, given that it was the sighting of his name, in an unexpected place, which inspired historian Tom Wall:
At the entrance to the exhibition in the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site, there is a large wall map listing the names of prisoners from each country held in that notorious place. A figure of ‘1’ is superimposed on a map of Ireland. On a visit, intrigued by who this fellow Irishman might be, I began a journey of discovery. I soon learned he was John McGrath, from Elphin in Country Roscommon.
McGrath’s undercover work came with painful consequences. The Abwehr caught wind of his leakage, not through Father O’Shaughnessy – who was as good as his word in taking the information brief, first to London and then to the Irish Government – but when a coded message to Dublin was broken.
After some “intensified interrogation”, with the threat of execution as a spy, McGrath spent ten months in solitary confinement before being transferred to Dachau, where he became part of a group of around 160 prisoners, representing 18 European countries – the Prominenten – gathered for use as bargaining chips by high-ranking Nazis desperate to save their own skins as the war turned against them.
While this gave the Prominenten value, one of them, the former French statesman, Léon Blum, was all too aware of the perilous situation this status put them in, as he noted in his diary:
When you say: ‘I offer to exchange Mr. so and so, who is in my hands, for this other,’ it necessarily means: ‘if you refuse to bargain, I will do away with Mr. so and so.’
Blum had good reason to worry; in post-War trials of high-ranking Nazis, plans for Operation Volkenbrand – Fire Cloud – emerged, where the Luftwaffe was to bomb Dachau out of existence. Alternatively, its residents could be shot or poisoned. “Shoot them all! Shoot them all!” Hitler ranted during a conversation in his bunker where the Prominenten were among the topics, though it was debatable as to which of his many enemies the unhinged Fuhrer was referring to.
Finally, it was decided by the authorities to evacuate Dachau. The Prominenten at least left by bus, a relative luxury compared to how the ordinary prisoners were forced to march on foot, a sign of the importance that the German high command placed on them. A good character reference on a witness stand after the War could make all the difference in a war crimes court, after all.
Even then, there was no guarantee of survival for the hostages as they were taken southwards, their intended destination being the Alpine fortress where the regime was expected to make its last stand. Their SS guards might keep them alive – or just as easily kill them to avoid any inconvenient finger-pointing later. One German assured a British POW, with whom he had become friendly, if not quite friends, that he would give him, if needs be, a clean end, via Nackenschuss – a pistol shot to the back of the head – of which he was an expert.
It was intended as a favour. Perhaps it was. It was hard to be sure in a nightmarishly uncertain world, where clear concepts held less and less meaning. Even ‘captor’ and ‘captive’ were becoming blurred, as it was suggested to the former that they relinquish command to the latter. This was while an attack by anti-Nazi partisans was being planned with the knowledge of some of the prisoners, and to the alarm of the others who feared being caught in the crossfire just when the end of the fighting was in sight.
Despite the setting, this is less of a war book and more of a study of human nature. Considering the range of personalities and situations, it can be a difficult work to take in at one go and rereads might be needed to fully grasp some of the nuances. Everything, from the inner workings of Reich politics to the ethnic tensions between Germans and Italians in South Tyrol – where the Prominenten and their escorts ended up – is grist to the mill here, but especially the different ways individuals, whether heroes, villains and everything in between, will respond when pushed to extremes.
Some just give up, such as poor Dzhugashvili. Others rise to the occasion as best they can, like McGrath. But liberty for those who survived brought challenges of a different, more insidious sort. McGrath returned to his former managerial job in the Theatre Royal in Dublin but soon resigned due to nerves unhealed from his time as a prisoner. When he died, just seventeen months after his homecoming, it was Father O’Shaughnessy, appropriately enough, who delivered the last rites. Those wanting a Second World War book of a different sort, stripped of the usual heroics, would be well recommended to try this one.
Since early in 1922, like many other towns in Ireland, it had played host to two armed and hostile factions, each claiming the mantle of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). One supported the Anglo-Irish Treaty and by extension the Free State born from that agreement, with the other adamantly opposed to both. It was an impossible situation, one that could not last indefinitely, as proved in June 1922, when simmering passions finally boiled over into outright violence in Dublin.
Sligo took its time in following the capital’s example. The pro-Treaty IRA, already in possession of the Sligo Prison and Courthouse, moved to commandeer a garage on the 28th June, placing themselves directly opposite their anti-Treaty counterparts in the Police Barracks, over which a flag emblazoned with the words I.R. Rebels, 1916 fluttered. Both parties then busied themselves in fortifying their claimed strongholds, such as in the coils of barbed wire looped outside the courthouse, while several families on that street hurriedly left their homes to stay with friends in other parts of town that would hopefully be less in the firing line.
Two days passed and each side had yet to make a move. Though menace hung heavily in the air, there were people, reported the Sligo Independent, who could not help but be drawn by the novelty of being in the middle of a not-yet-warzone:
From about 7:30 pm in the evening crowds began to gather in the vicinity of the Courthouse and Barracks to watch operations and remained until almost midnight. The tension was even greater than the previous evening, and it was commonly reported that the [anti-Treaty] Executive Forces had got a few hours’ notice to leave the barracks.
That the Anti-Treatyites did the following morning, the same day that Major-General Seán Mac Eoin returned to take charge of the pro-Treaty forces in Sligo. He had been on honeymoon in neighbouring Donegal when news of the outbreak in Dublin came through, recalling him to his command post. Mac Eoin arrived in time to find the Police Barracks ablaze, its anti-Treaty garrison having pulled out in the early hours of the morning before torching it and the adjoining Recreation Hall in a ‘scorched earth’ tactic. Civilians who tried to reach the Town Hall where the firehose was kept were turned back at gunpoint by those same arsonists.
Mac Eoin was not so easily deterred. He marched to the Town Hall, a squad of his soldiers in tow, and came back with the firehose in hand. Seeing that the Barracks and Recreation Hall, both burning fiercely, were beyond help, Mac Eoin instead turned the water on their surroundings.
It took three hours for the Barracks to burn, during which a number of bombs carelessly left behind were heard exploding. By the time the flames died down, the two buildings were ruined shells, but the rest of Sligo was safe, from the fire at least. Mac Eoin, along with some local men, earned praise from the Sligo Independent “for their fearless work” in firefighting.
There just remained the other kind of fighting to be done, of which much was promised. After all, the Anti-Treatyites had only quit one base and not the war, withdrawing instead to either the countryside or to Sligo Military Barracks in the appropriately named Barrack Street. Despite the arson and the drama, blood had yet to be spilled, unlike in Dublin, although Sligo could hardly be described as peaceful either.
Determined to maintain the initiative, Mac Eoin stationed his soldiers around the town, where they stopped and searched a number of motorcars, and detained in the Courthouse a number of youths known to hold Republican views, although most of these were soon released. When a Ford van carrying three men drove from the Military Barracks to a garage in Bridge Street, Mac Eoin rushed to the scene. The vehicle occupants were demanding free fuel from the garage owner when Mac Eoin arrived to hold them up with a revolver until his subordinates came to remove the three miscreants to the prison.
The streets were by then occupied only by armed men from either faction, all civilians having the sense this time to remain indoors. The Anti-Treatyites did not remain in the Military Barracks for long, evacuating it on the midnight of the 30th June. As with the Police Barracks, they left nothing for the opposition, having sprinkled the interior with petrol before setting it alight. The fires ate hungrily until only bare walls were left standing amidst smoking ashes.
The Anti-Treatyites, said to be numbering several hundred, next moved to the Drumcliffe district, leaving their opponents to patrol the streets of Sligo. Several arrests were made, including one by Mac Eoin personally, according to the Sligo Independent:
At about 6 o’clock in the evening, a Republican policeman named Jack Pilkington, of Abbey Street (brother of Com.Gen. [Liam] Pilkington, Irregular forces) was arrested by Major-General McKeon in Bridge Street, and it is alleged that some ammunition was found in his possession. He was conveyed to the Jail, but was released in a couple of hours time.
Others who had likewise been picked up continued to be detained, so it seems that Jack Pilkington was not taken to be a great threat. A more dramatic depiction of the encounter between him and Mac Eoin was narrated years later by Calton Younger, in which Mac Eoin, in fact, had had a narrow escape. As Younger profusely thanked Mac Eoin in his acknowledgements, it can be assumed that it was he who relayed to the historian how he had been standing by while Sergeant Ingram did his best in starting the engine of their recalcitrant motorcar. As the nub of the conflict had shifted out of Sligo, the town seemed secure enough for the Major-General to take his leave and head eastwards to Athlone, where his responsibilities as GOC (General Officer Commanding) Western Division awaited.
But Sligo still had a surprise to offer, when a shriek from a woman to his right alerted Mac Eoin to Pilkington sneaking up on him with his revolver aimed. Pilkington – referred to by Younger only as “a young man, a brother of a Republican leader” – had time to squeeze off a shot, the bullet grazing the forehead of his quarry, before the other man sprang at him. Mac Eoin heard the click of the revolver’s hammer as Pilkington attempted a second time but either the gun was empty or jammed – and then Mac Eoin was on his would-be assassin, seizing first the revolver, which he threw to the ground, and then the two grenades Pilkington had on him.
A strong man, as befitting a former blacksmith, Mac Eoin took Pilkington by the scruff of the neck in one hand and his trousers’ seat in the other, and tossed him into the river. And that was that. Sergeant Ingram finally got the car going, and Mac Eoin climbed on board, along with his bride, Alice, Captain Louis Connolly and the Rev. Patrick Higgins of Ballintogher. With Ingram at the wheel, the party began the drive to Athlone.
Whichever version of events is more plausible – the Sligo Independent’s or Younger’s – is a question left to the reader.
The car had only made two miles out of Sligo before becoming the target of shots in a roadside ambush. Mac Eoin and Captain Connolly leapt out, pistols drawn, an act more daring than prudent – after all, driving on out of harm’s reach would have been the safer option. Incredibly, this display was enough for a cease-and-desist order to be called from amongst the ambushers, either due to Mac Eoin being recognised or, as speculated by Younger, because a woman was seen to be in the car.
Exerting the same ‘take charge’ attitude shown in Sligo, Mac Eoin called the enemy officer over, followed with another demand, this time to surrender, which Gilmartin – as named in Younger’s book – obligingly did. With this easy victory, Mac Eoin let Gilmartin and his men go. No harm, no foul, after all, and, besides, he probably did not have space in his car for prisoners.
Similarly submissive were the three passengers in another car encountered further on. They claimed to be in the same army as Mac Eoin, as supported by their green uniforms, but when an unyielding Mac Eoin told them, all the same, he could not leave soldiers of his to their own devices, the trio confessed that they were Anti-Treatyites. Mac Eoin ordered them out of their car and to surrender their guns, which they did meekly. They were equally acquiescent when Mac Eoin next told them to get back onboard, turn their motorcar around and drive ahead of his own.
A road-block was next. When Mac Eoin instructed his commandeered advance guard to clear it, the other men uncharacteristically refused. Suspecting that this was more due to fear than defiance, a hint at the possibility that the barrier was mined, Mac Eoin decided to go back the way he had come and chance another route, after first disabling the other vehicle and leaving the trio stranded.
As the party of four neared Athlone, more obstacles appeared, this time in the form of tree-trunks laid across the road at Glassan. Whoever responsible had been careless enough to leave their bicycles – about twenty, in number – propped up against a wall. Mac Eoin was about to wreck them until Alice urged her husband against further delays. Since it was already past midnight, Mac Eoin drove to a nearby friend’s house to spend the night. In the morning, he issued word to a unit of his in Ballymahon to remove the offending trunks.
“There he learned how much he owed to his wife’s fatigue, or perhaps to her intuition, the previous night,” explained Younger:
The bicycles belonged not to the Republicans who had felled the trees but to a party of his own troops who had begun to clear the road and who had taken cover when McEoin’s [alternative spelling] car approached. Had McEoin begun to break up the bicycles, the clearing party, uncertain of the identity of the people in the car, would have taken them for Republicans. McEoin would have found himself ambushed by his own men.
Compounding the dramatic irony and tragic potential, narrowly unrealised, was how the Pro-Treatyites had been led by Mac Eoin’s brother. The fratricide of the Civil War had almost become literal.
In Athlone, Mac Eoin found an island of relative calm amidst the chaos, the town having “been immune so far from the horrors of the conflict,” according to the Westmeath Independent. The newspaper attributed this privileged state:
…to the precautions taken by the troops stationed at the Custume and Adamson Castle Barracks. Soldiers from those barracks are mounted on guards on all the local bridges, and on the roads verging on the town, night and day. Pedestrians after a certain hour at night are challenged and questioned. Provided their answers are satisfactory they are allowed to pass on. All motorists are held up, their cars searched, and the occupants questioned.
Athlone had also benefitted from not having to share itself with more than one army at the start, unlike Sligo. Outside the town was a very different scenario, however. On the 5th July, the day after Mac Eoin reached Athlone, a pro-Treaty patrol – from the newly christened ‘National Army’ – was moving between Moate and Ferbane in a Lancia car and a Ford when they were fired upon. By the time the troops fended off their assailants, 20-year old John Blaney had been shot in the head and slain.
As a local man, whose family lived on Wolfe Tone Terrace, his death was keenly felt by many:
The sad scenes witnessed at the bier in the morgue…were most affecting. The bereaved father, brothers, sisters, relatives and friends gathered round with tear-dimmed eyes, mourning the loss of their affectionate son and brother. With them the utmost sympathy is felt by the citizens of Athlone, irrespective of creed or class, in the terrible affliction.
That was not to be the only skirmish that day. Later in the evening, people were alarmed when a lorry hurtled into Athlone on three wheels, the fourth having been punctured, and with its engine close to overheating. When it reached Custume Barracks, the driver and his passenger, both covered in blood, practically fell out and had to be taken at once to the military hospital. The news they brought back was urgent: their ten-man squad had left Longford for Athlone when an ambush stopped them at Tang.
While the other eight stayed behind, Harry McDermott, wounded in the face and hands, and Campbell, bleeding from a bullet to the abdomen – their ages being nineteen and eighteen respectively – drove the lorry at punishing speed to Athlone for reinforcements. By the time these arrived on the scene at Tang, Brigadier-General Dinnegan had also been severely wounded. One week into the war and the casualties were rising, bit by steady bit.
The Soldier’s Song
Those who thought that the day had seen enough drama were proven wrong when the crack of rifles and machine-gun rattles were heard from the direction of Cornamaddy at 7:30 pm, loud enough to rouse a relief force from Custume Barracks, led by Mac Eoin in his motorcar:
To all appearances a big battle was in progress, and rumours were current as to heavy casualties. The firing continued to range in intensity for half an hour. Crowds of people assembled along the side-walks from the Ballymahon Road to Custume Barracks, awaiting news from the seat of war.
Contrary to rumour, no losses had been suffered by the time the troops returned to Athlone, jubilantly singing The Soldier’s Song through the streets, with the cheers of onlookers as a chorus. Despite this triumphalism, the facts remained that the IRA – that name permitted to the Anti-Treatyites at least – had been bold enough to spring another attack – on a Red Cross lorry and a military truck at a crossroads in Cornamaddy – and escape without harm, despite searches in the nearby woods and bog by the National Army. Athlone was seeming less like an oasis of peace and more as a besieged fortress, its populace hemmed in and the rest of the area vulnerable.
“People living in the outlying districts are in a state of terror only equalled by that experienced during the Black-and-Tan regime,” reported the Westmeath Independent, one of the few sources of information at hand for an area otherwise cut off from the media:
We are reliably informed that parties of armed men visit the farmhouses nightly and take out the young men at the point of the rifle or revolver and force them to fell trees and trench the roads.
Whether Athlone or elsewhere, “the Free State were very frightened of us,” remembered Michael Kilroy, the commander of the Mayo IRA. Once his troops had swept the opposition out of Mayo – an easy enough feat to perform, he was sure – Kilroy would lead them on to Athlone, where “I heard that MacEoin was boasting how impregnable his barracks was there. Petrol in cans up a ladder would take it, we thought.”
Perhaps it is little wonder then, as Con Moloney surveyed the national picture from the current IRA headquarters in Limerick, the Adjutant-General of the anti-Treaty forces did not rate Mac Eoin’s position a strong one. “We expect to capture a few small posts in his area within the next week. We will keep him busy in any event,” Moloney wrote in a report on the 9th July. He went so far as to speculate on how committed the enemy general really was to the contest: “It is possible that we may be able to keep McKeown [alternative spelling] neutral. In any case he is now entirely on the defensive.”
In defence of Kilroy’s and Moloney’s retrospectively hubristic assessments, from where they stood, the war was all but won. Counties in the Irish North-East “are practically in our hands,” according to Moloney, “except for a few posts in the Roscommon area and McKeown’s troops in Sligo.” The National Army was not doing much better in the Third Southern Division (Offaly, Laois and North Tipperary) either, where:
We occupy Birr Barracks and another two posts. McKeown advanced on one of these posts, but was forced to return again to Athlone. F.S. [Free State] forces in his area are cut off from each other by Road, Rail and Wire and will not be able to attack here until Kilkenny and Thurles are removed.
With much of Munster also in Republican hands, “generally speaking, we are having the best of the matter, and things are settling down to real business. I expect we will control say from the Shannon to Carlow in a day or two.”
The Anti-Treatyites were confident enough to attempt an assassination on Mac Eoin – if not neutral, he could at least be dead. Some IRA officers in Mayo who had sided with the Treaty were held prisoner in a house, with the expectation that Mac Eoin would come to their aid. Preparations were made for his arrival by the ambush team, who mined the road and took up position in a wood opposite a rocky peak of slate that would hopefully ricochet their bullets back into the kill-zone.
Which was all for naught as Mac Eoin never appeared and alive he remained. In a quirk of fate, one of the ambushers-to-be, Broddie Malone, was later a captive in Custume Barracks in Athlone, supervised by the man Malone had targeted. If Mac Eoin knew, then there were no hard feelings, for, according to Malone, “MacEoin was decent to me and to the men.”
But that lay in the future. Writing on the 13th July, four days after his first optimistic analysis, Moloney announced more good news for the IRA and bad progress on Mac Eoin’s part: “Athlone attempted to march on one of our posts in 3rd Southern area, but were forced to return again to base.”
Speaking to Younger, Mac Eoin made no mention of either of these two setbacks in the Third Southern areas. He did, on the other hand, lament a failed attempt on IRA-held Collooney, Co. Sligo, as initially reported by the Irish Times:
On Monday evening [10th July] a strong force of National troops arrived in Sligo and subsequently left for the Collooney area. Firing began at about 11 o’clock, and continued until the late hour on Tuesday morning. It is anticipated that the next few days will see the end of the struggle.
As it turned out, the engagement did not last the second day, as the Pro-Treatyites fell back prematurely, seemingly due to a confusion over orders – assuming it was an honest mistake and not a dishonest one as Mac Eoin suspected: “Whether it was the typists who carried out the operation orders, or who it was, I don’t know.” Though not present, Mac Eoin darkly hinted to Younger that the reason for the defeat was not so much the opposition without as the traitor within: “At this stage, some of our forces and some of our staff were not loyal.”
Mac Eoin, Younger noted, “seems glad that he does not know who among those he trusted let him down.”
Regardless, the anti-Treaty stronghold in Collooney remained a nut in need of cracking. If treachery had indeed been the cause of the initial failure, then Mac Eoin avoided a repeat by the ruse of taking his one hundred and twenty soldiers on the evening train from Athlone to Dublin, ostensibly for training, and then switching at Mullingar for the line to Longford, Boyle and finally Sligo town. By 6 o’clock on the morning of Saturday, the 15th July, they had reached the outskirts of Collooney, meeting up with an allied detachment under Colonel Anthony Lawlor.
Lawlor’s men covered the northern road into Collooney, while Mac Eoin took charge of the south side. The Major-General sent two messages: the first to the town’s Catholic priest and Protestant minister to lead their congregations to safety, and then an ultimatum to the enemy garrison, calling on them to surrender. When a volley of shots gave a wordless answer, the battle for Collooney was on.
The Battle of Collooney
MUTINEERS’ BRIEF STAND
The following official bulletin was issued by G.H.Q., Irish Army, at 3:45 pm on Saturday [15th July 1922]:
“Collooney, a stronghold of the Irregulars in the West, has been taken by our troops, after four hours’ fighting. Seventy prisoners, with arms and ammunition and a store of explosives, were captured.”
Our Boyle Correspondent says that the National troops, who were commanded by Major-General McKeon, were equipped with machine guns and artillery. The Irregulars at Collooney numbered about 400, and they put up a strong resistance. Four snipers in the tower of the Protestant church kept up the firing until the shells from an 18-pounder made the position untenable.
(Irish Times, 17th July 1922)
Things did not go quite so smoothly as this article might suggest, and Mac Eoin was to describe to Younger a much more rough-and-tumble affair. The aforementioned 18-pounder, which had seen action less than a month earlier against the Four Courts in Dublin, was positioned in a sawmill when the enemy machine-gun nest in the church tower identified it as an immediate target. A bullet scored a groove over the scalp of a surprised Sergeant Kenagh, narrowly avoiding worse.
As Kenagh ducked behind the shield of his artillery piece and scanned the surroundings for the perpetrators, Mac Eoin:
…showed him and [Kenagh] levelled the gun at the tower. The first shell went straight through a window in the belfry and exploded. Every bell rang and the whole of the top of the tower was blown up into the air, sandbags, machine-guns, Irregulars and all, and it landed and got jammed in its usual place as if nothing had happened.
Colonel Lawlor tried to follow up this stroke of good shooting with a bayonet-charge on the IRA position – except that none of his soldiers would do so. It was left to Mac Eoin to lead the assault by his own ‘men’ – to use the term loosely as none were over eighteen years of age – jumping over the church wall and into the graveyard, to find “sixteen fellows, with rifles and all, lying on the flat of their backs. Not only did they put their hands up, but they put their feet up too,” Mac Eoin triumphantly told to Younger.
A Soldier and Statesman
The prisoners were moved to the rear, and the push into Collooney resumed. As before, as he had always done, Mac Eoin led from the front – no Douglas Haig, he – even if such boldness almost came at a fatal price:
I was standing at a hall door when a machine-gun opened up on me and it cut the track of myself in the hall door and cut my tunic and coat to ribbons. A young soldier from Killaloe saw where the machine-gun was placed and he jumped out into the street, went down on one knee and fired, wounding the gunner.
The struggle took the better part of the day, with shots continuing to be heard throughout the night, but the town was officially Mac Eoin’s by morning when the anti-Treaty commander, Frank O’Beirne, and twenty-two of his subordinates surrendered in a house by the train station. Also in Mac Eoin’s possession, and equally appreciated, were a number of salmon that had been left to boil in a huge iron pot:
During the fighting the fire had gone out and the water had already boiled away. And here the salmon was – beautifully cooked and still piping hot – enough for us all and the sweetest meal I ever touched in my life.
Collooney was added to the tally of Free State gains elsewhere in Ireland that week: Dundalk and a fort on Inch Island, Lough Suilly, Co. Donegal, as part of a determined drive by the beleaguered Pro-Treatyites to regain the initiative. But neither of the others impressed the Special Correspondent of the Irish Times as much as the Sligo win: “Except in the West, where General McKeon has won a distinct and important victory at Collooney, there has been no engagement which ranks above the dignity of a skirmish.”
Republican dispatches speculated no further about Mac Eoin’s dedication. Returning to Athlone, he was, in addition to being feted as a conquering hero, presented with a bank draft of £279 by Father Crowe on behalf of the townspeople. It was an overdue wedding present, explained the padre, but also a mark of appreciation from those who:
…regard you not only as a great soldier, but as a great statesman and a man with a clear political outlook; one who is prepared to be the protector of the people, and who has urged that the army should be the guardians and not the dictators of the civil population.
A cult of personality had its benefits in regard to morale. “To flatter you a little sir, but it is the truth, the boys are saying ‘Up McKeon and into it,” so Mac Eoin was informed by Lawlor in a dispatch from the Claremorris warzone in November 1922. “By-the-way the hospital is called ‘Hospital McKeon.’”
While taking Lawlor’s self-confessed brownnosing into account, Mac Eoin’s enemies also acknowledged this adulation, even if they had cause to resent it. Arrested by the Free State, Michael O’Donoghue was taken to Longford town for detention in its barracks. As it was fair day, there were large crowds of people about, some of whom noticed the anti-Treaty POW being marched through their midst. O’Donoghue found himself surrounded by the sticks and cudgels of a jeering, inebriated mob, much to his terror.
“Sean McKeon, the local hero, had gone Free State and, being the military idol of the midlands, anyone hostile to him, that is any “Irregular”, was regarded as anathema,” O’Donoghue explained in his reminiscences, a touch sourly.
Despite all the bullets spent in Collooney, no fatalities were inflicted on either side but, of injuries, there were plenty, some of whom were taken to Athlone Military Hospital. Convalescents included a man caught in an accidental explosion in Sligo, suffering wounds to the face as well as his hands, both of which had been amputated, though at least his eyesight – previously feared lost – was recovering. The brush with death by another soldier, from when a bullet struck beneath his heart, merited Mac Eoin’s bedside congratulations.
Such gestures did not go unappreciated. A visiting journalist who accompanied Mac Eoin noticed how:
The General, who visits all his wounded soldiers each day, displayed a fatherly interest in their condition. He chatted freely and gaily with the patients, whose faces lit up with smiles at his approach.
A more sombre paying of respects was in Longford, where Mac Eoin attended the funeral of Lieutenant Patrick Callaghan, killed in an earlier engagement near Collooney. Callaghan had served under Mac Eoin as part of their IRA Flying Column, taking part in clashes against British forces at Granard and Ballinalee in November 1920, as well as the capture of the Arva and Ballymahon police barracks.
“Commandant Callaghan is said to have been Major-General McKeon’s right hand man in his mobile column,” noted the Sligo Independent, “and was carrying a revolver and holster which had belonged to one of the Black-and-Tans.”
The suggestion that Callaghan had been in command at the time of his death, and thus in a way responsible for it, was enough for Mac Eoin to write to his Chief of Staff, Richard Mulcahy, on the 26th July 1922, full of outrage on the deceased’s behalf:
I knew Callaghan RIP and the statement contained in the letter in question was a deliberate lie. He was not in charge of the men, as the O/C of the Division was there and most likely he was in charge. Even if Callaghan was in charge it would not be his first time to be in charge in an ambush and come out successfully.
The author of this offending rumour was unknown, though Mac Eoin guessed it was “one of those who envy the success of the National Troops and is doing his best to cause disturbance by circulating infamously slanderous information.” Another record defended was Mac Eoin’s own, which suggested that not all of the news coming into the capital from the West was complimentary. “I am not going into the question but believe me that there is no laxity of descipline [sic] among the troops in my command,” he told Mulcahy tartly.
“These bills have been accruing for months and you may remember when you were here last they were giving me considerable trouble and there has been no improvement since,” Mac Eoin wrote to Collins, now his Commander-in-Chief, on the 22nd August 1922. Custume Barracks had debts waiting to be honoured since March, and Mac Eoin, public darling he may have been, was not naïve enough to think that the vendors of Athlone could be kept waiting indefinitely. “These will require an immediate improvement or we will be in as bad favour with the people as the Irregulars – perhaps worse.”
‘A Ladder of Rifles’
As Collins was shot and killed in an ambush the same day, he might have already been dead by the time Mac Eoin sent his complaint to him. However strained their last communications to each other, Mac Eoin attended the funeral, walking behind the tricoloured-draped coffin at the heart of the procession through Dublin. “Big, forceful, and prematurely grey,” was how one reporter described him. Also showing the weight of grief and war was Mulcahy, who had big shoes to fill as the new Commander-in-Chief, “a frail figure, with drawn, tense features and downcast gaze.”
But affairs of state wait for no man, and both Mac Eoin and Mulcahy had plenty to attend to, civilian as well as military, in the opening of the Provisional Parliament on the 9th September, in Leinster House, Dublin. The two generals forewent their uniforms, Mulcahy appearing in “his old brown homespun”, according to a journalistic eyewitness, while a plain-garbed Mac Eoin “looked as if he had just stepped out of Conduit street.” After the start of the session, there was little else to be done or said, save the constant interjections by Laurence Ginnell, the one anti-Treaty representative present, as well as the only attendee who refused to sign the rolls. Instead, the TD for Longford-Westmeath repeatedly and loudly demanded to know if the assembly before him was truly Dáil Éireann or a partition parliament.
Ginnell was finally ejected. Not many seemed sad to see him go, with “Sean MacEoin being the only Free Stater to get up and shake hands with him before he was put out,” recalled his wife, Alice Ginnell.
Mac Eoin was not quite so magnanimous later that month in the Dáil, on the 28th September. Dr Patrick McCartan, the TD for Monaghan, moved for an immediate truce in the war, to last no less than fourteen days. With the choice before the Government now to either negotiate with the enemy or exterminate them, McCartan believed that peace should be given one more chance. Give the irregulars a ladder to climb down on, he urged.
McCartan’s proposal attracted some support in the chamber but also opposition, notably from Mac Eoin who, having just returned after two weeks of hard campaigning on the other side of the country, was in a no-nonsense mood. No one in Ireland was no more inclined than he towards such a ladder, he told the Dáil, if he thought it would accomplish anything. But a similar offer had recently been made to him for three days of ceasefire in the West, except this pause in the fighting was intended on the part of the Anti-Treatyites to allow a shipment of arms to reach Sligo. Had that gunrunning attempt succeeded, then the irregulars would have been in a position to not so much negotiate terms as dictate them. That would be their ladder.
“A ladder of rifles,” interjected Denis J. Gorey, the TD for Carlow-Kilkenny.
‘All the devilments imaginable’
Mac Eoin had been equally hard-nosed earlier that day in the Dáil, this time as part of the debate over the establishment of Military Courts for war prisoners, with the powers to impose terms of penal servitude…or even the death penalty. Amendments to have detainees treated as POWs, with the rights and recognition that came with this status, or to have the courts chaired by legal professionals, were defeated by the Government representatives, who were determined not to allow even beaten subversives an extra inch.
Putting Military Courts under civilian oversight would be giving authority with one hand and withdrawing it in the next, Mac Eoin warned. Practically curling his lip as he addressed the chamber:
Personally speaking, he did not think that there was necessity for any legal advisor – (laughter) – because all the legal advisors he knew they could compare with some of the members of the House – (laughter) – they play acted with words and phrases, and were up to all the devilments imaginable. (laughter). When they came down to hard realities, there was not one gram of common sense in all their knowledge.
An army officer quite appreciated the position of those who fought in arms against him. Although he had been in arms against the officer, yet they were of the same way of thinking, and the officer appreciated the position and would act justly and could have sympathy with, and appreciation of, the man’s position. Such an officer should be made President of the Court, and not the legal advisor.
This lofty statement did not quite convince Thomas Johnson. The Labour Party leader voiced his doubts as to whether even Major-General Mac Eoin, a man Johnson praised as being second to none in ensuring the subordination of military authority to the civil one, would keep a cool head when deciding the fate of his enemies. Had Mac Eoin not publicly stated months ago, at the inquest into the slaying of George Adamson in Athlone in April 1922, that he would have shot dead the guilty party if he could?
“That is one of the things we want to try to guard against,” Johnson declared.
That was different, Mac Eoin replied. He did not deny voicing his intent to kill or the intent itself, only that there had been no other recourse at the time. Now there was, in the form of the Military Courts, the implication being that he would have no need to act illegally if he had the state to do so legally instead.
And this was from the man previously lauded as a model of chivalry. The preceding fortnight had evidently done much to harden Mac Eoin but, then, nothing about it had been easy. Despite early wins in the first few months of the Civil War, the Free State remained in a position of weakness, or so it felt to Mac Eoin when reporting his woes to Mulcahy on the 4th September 1922.
The money shortages he had complained about to Collins had not abated, leading to his “men waiting for supplies which were promised for Friday last, but have not yet arrived.” Mutiny was increasingly a danger, to the extent that an outpost in Leitrim, “Dromahaire has been lost this morning – as far as I can learn handed over to the enemy.” The loyalty of National Army that Mac Eoin had defended before was no longer something even he could take for granted, leading him to urge Mulcahy to “do something about pay for Regulars at once.”
Pressing Back the Forces of Disorder
If he was looking for sympathy, then Mac Eoin had turned to the wrong man. “I fear very much that you are being let down in your area,” Mulcahy wrote to Mac Eoin in a cutting but not untypical-for-him letter:
Personally, I cannot sense that there is any solid administration or organisation over the area pressing back the forces of disorder. I am afraid that I begin to find this, namely, that the people of the area feel that no impression at all is being made on the situation, and that they are beginning to whisper to themselves that they have no confidence in ‘Sean McKeon.’
The main danger, as Mulcahy saw it, was that their troops were spread too thinly about their freshly won gains, sitting exposed in small bases and left “at the mercy of any small band of Irregulars with a ‘punch’ in them.” Instead, Mulcahy wanted these outliers pulled back, regrouped and retrained – his strategy for the next few weeks counted on it, as he instructed Mac Eoin: “You will understand that it is absolutely necessary to have at our disposal central force enough to allow elasticity in our plans.”
The costs of this was the abandonment of civilians to the rapaciousness of hungry IRA bands and garden-variety criminals, the fear of which prompted a solicitor in Roscommon to urge Mac Eoin, on behalf of the great and the good of society, “the priests, bankers and the townspeople of Elphin”, not to remove his soldiers as planned. The response – “he was told that…they would have to stand up with a good show of civic spirit against any robbers” – was unlikely to have been overly reassuring.
So Mac Eoin relayed to Mulcahy. The Major-General was evidently sympathetic to their plight, much to Mulcahy’s frustration at what he saw as his subordinate’s foot-dragging:
I am sorry that you allowed yourself to give in in any way on the point of your removal, because it opens the way for further representation when you come to move them now in a few days.
Delays would do no good, Mulcahy warned, for his mind was made up:
You must set yourself absolutely to have everything prepared for the systematic putting into operation of the scheme on and from 22nd [August]. I give into you as far as that date, in view of the fact that you probably have committed yourself to it, but we must go straight ahead with our own work immediately and there should be no further postponement.
The pair would never enjoy a harmonious working relationship, but worked together they did all the same, enough, by early September, for Mac Eoin to have the manpower available for a renewed push in Sligo, which had remained contested despite his previous win at Collooney. This second wind came not a moment too soon, for the Anti-Treatyites were undertaking a surge of their own. Several Free State posts had been attacked, and though most held out, Ballina did not.
Mac Eoin dispatched Lawlor to retake the town, which the latter accomplished with minimal effort as the IRA occupiers had already abandoned their prize, in keeping with the hit-and-run tactics they favoured. Lawlor was presumably expecting a similarly easy time on his journey through the Ox Mountains to Tobercurry, where Mac Eoin was waiting with the rest of their army. If so, then it was a bad miscalculation.
“The road made a series of s-bends round low, bumpy hills. We had a number of vehicles and we couldn’t see more than one car’s length in front of us,” Lawlor recalled to Younger. “They ambushed us, got us badly. Colonel Joe Ring was with us, a great old fighter, and I said for him to take one side of the road and I’d take the other.”
TROOPS AMBUSHED –
COMMANDER AND DRIVER KILLED
News reached Boyle on Thursday evening [14th September] that Commandant Ring and the driver of an armoured car have been killed in an ambush at Bonniconlon, on their way to Tobercurry, on Thursday morning by a big party of Irregulars. It is also reported (but not confirmed) that General Lawlor, commanding the troops in that area, is wounded…The death of Commandant Ring…is greatly regretted all over the country.
It was learned from official quarters last night that Major-General McKeon was not with the party of troops which was ambushed.
(Irish Times, 16th September 1922)
Mac Eoin was present, however, to pass judgement on the ten Anti-Treatyites taken prisoner in the effort to fend off the ambush. After Lawlor and his surviving party made it to Tobercurry, they brought their catches to Mac Eoin, who “ordered a court-martial and they were sentenced to death, the whole lot,” according to Mac Eoin in Younger’s book.
That did not sit right with some in the town, either out of the personal connections with the condemned or general humanity. An appeal for clemency was made to Mac Eoin, much to his annoyance: “I told them they’d had none for Joe Ring and those fellows on the road, so it was hard for one to expect me to have it. Then I say, ‘Very well. Here they are for you. Take them yourselves and be accountable for them.’”
Mac Eoin may have been misremembering things somewhat, for the Military Courts had not yet been formed and, without them, he had no authority to sentence anyone to death. Not that he would have carried out the penalty anyway, for, as he assured Younger: “I had no intention of shooting them.”
Either way, there was still a war to fight and the West to pacify:
CAPTURES IN SLIGO –
BIG ENCIRCLING MOVEMENT
Troops under the command of Major-General McKeon and Brigadier-General Lawlor are carrying out a successful series of operations on a large scale, with Sligo as a base.
On Monday morning [18th September] national troops advanced on the irregular headquarters at Rahelly…The irregulars hurriedly vacated Rahelly House, leaving behind them beds, bedding, and cars and bicycles. They retreated to a wood, which was later shelled by an 18-pounder gun. Sniping continued until night set in, and all the time the encircling movement was being carried out, and the area in which the irregulars and their armoured car now are appears to be completely cut.
(Irish Times, 20th September 1922)
The armoured car in question was the Ballinalee, named after Mac Eoin’s hometown in Longford in an affectionate gesture that became ruefully ironic when the vehicle fell into IRA hands and turned against its former users. And a formidable weapon it could be: Mac Eoin’s strategy to divide his forces into columns and sweep them through the north of Sligo and Leitrim, buttressed by motorcars and field guns, was halted in its tracks when the soldiers under Mac Eoin’s direct command reached Drumcliffe Bridge, a day after they set forth from Sligo town to the sound of a whistle blown by Mac Eoin.
The other side of the bridge had been demolished, with the metal bulk of the Ballinalee waiting menacingly by. Against this, Mac Eoin had an armoured car of his own and an 18-pounder, though the original nine shells of the latter had been reduced to three by that time. Whether the trio would be enough remained an open question when the Ballinalee withdrew, giving Mac Eoin the pleasant surprise of an uncontested crossing.
Breaking the Resistance
That more or less set the tone for the rest of the fortnight: the Anti-Treatyites would appear to block the way and exchange shots before backing away, allowing the National Army a gradual, but nonetheless steady, advance, enough for it to be reported as such:
RESISTANCE BROKEN –
SEARCHING FOR BODIES IN SLIGO
The operations of the troops in the Sligo-Leitrim area, which had begun a week ago under the direction of Major-General McKeon and Commandant-General Lawlor, continue. The back of the irregulars’ resistance in that sector is now completely broken, and the troops are mainly occupied in searching for dead and wounded in the mountains, and endeavouring to round up isolated parties of irregulars.
(Irish Times, 25th September 1922)
One of those picked up was a lad who, Mac Eoin guessed from the way he was out of breath, had been running dispatches. After three or four rounds of ammunition was found on him, the youth confessed his belonging to the other side. All he asked was to see his mother and sister before being taken away; his sibling, he explained, being due to leave the next day for Australia. Mac Eoin agreed to this and escorted his charge to a nearby thatched cottage, where the mother and sister begged the Major-General to let their kinsman go. She would see that her son stayed at home and out of trouble from now on, the mother promised.
Deciding to take a chance, and perhaps moved by the plight of a woman who would otherwise be left on her own, Mac Eoin acceded. “When you got that kind of assurance it was usually honoured,” he explained to Younger. “Anyway, I found that this was much better than taking prisoners.”
There were, of course, other ways of avoiding the burden of captives:
FIGHT IN THE MOUNTAINS
PROMINENT LEADERS DEAD
Heavy fighting developed during the push of the national troops in the mountains near Sligo on Wednesday [20th September], and many casualties were caused among the irregulars, some of the most prominent leaders being among the dead.
A fierce engagement took place on Wednesday afternoon near Ballintrillick.
It is stated that troops came upon a large party of men, who were engaged in the preparation of an ambush. Both parties were armed with rifles and machine guns, and an engagement immediately developed. The irregulars endeavoured to fight their way back to the hills, when they came in contact with another body of troops. It was here that most of the casualties occurred, and that some prisoners were taken.
(Irish Times, 22nd September 1922)
“That was the end of the war in Sligo,” a phlegmatic Mac Eoin said at the conclusion of Younger’s chapter on this episode. “They had their funerals three days later and after that we had none and neither did they.”
The way he told it, the dead men were the crew of the Ballinalee, which had been sighted on a road by Benbulbin Mountain. Finding the path blocked on both ends, the Anti-Treatyites abandoned their transport and headed uphill, the only escape route left to them – or so they thought, for another group of Pro-Treatyites had been sent from the other side of Benbulbin to cut off such an attempt. Though Mac Eoin was not present, he believed that “when the crew of the armoured car appeared over the crest, my men opened fire and killed them all…which was in accordance with my orders.”
While this falls short of the contemporary reportage of the deaths as part of a ‘fierce engagement’, Mac Eoin was untroubled and unfazed about what he depicted as just another act of war, no less legitimate than the countless others conducted: “We had had most of the funerals up till then and I felt that when they were under arms and on the alert they couldn’t complain if they were shot at.”
Lawlor, who had been coordinating ground manoeuvres in the area, was less judgemental but also vague – evasive, a cynic might think – in his own version of events to Younger: “I sent my men up the mountain and what happened then no one knows.” Except, presumably, the soldiers involved, but Lawlor did not seem in any great hurry to ask them.
That Mac Eoin felt the need to justify the deaths alone might raise the brows of his readers, if only by the merest fraction. Other accounts would emerge to portray Benbulbin as not quite the open-and-shut case of Mac Eoin’s narrative. If the pro-Treaty general had a sympathetic ear in Younger, then his enemies could find a like-minded historian of their own.
“There was a Free State round-up, personally conducted by MacEoin. All the back of [Brian] MacNeill’s head was blown away which would show that he ran for it,” Tom Carney told Ernie O’Malley during an interview in 1950, twenty-eight years later. “[Harry] Benson was found at the bottom of a ravine after a few days had passed by, and he had several bayonet wounds in him.”
Carney was not a witness – otherwise he probably would have not lived to tell the tale – and he had his own reason for disliking Mac Eoin (as described further), but other accounts would flesh out this alternative take on the one initially reported. One document, now in the Bureau of Military History Contemporary Documents, outlined how four of the IRA ‘prominent leaders’ – Brigadier Seamus Devins, Adjutant Brian MacNeill, Lieutenant Patrick Carroll and Joseph Banks – were caught off-guard by Free State soldiers in the guise of allies. After being disarmed and identified, the four were shot dead, despite the reservations of some of their captors. Two more Anti-Treatyites, Harry Benson and Thomas Langan, were entrapped by the same ploy elsewhere and likewise killed, a bayonet being used for posthumous mutilation.
Of the six victims, Brian MacNeill is particularly notable in that his father, Eoin, was not just on the other side of the Treaty divide but a Cabinet Minister in the Provisional Government, no less. More than ninety years later, in 2013, Brian’s nephew, Michael McDowell – who had had a high-profile political career of his own – presented a documentary on the deed, A Lost Son.
“Sifting through the military reports, McDowell unravels a web of duplicity. He persuasively argues that there was a cover-up by senior officers, who lied and fabricated evidence to conceal a premediated atrocity,” according to one reviewer. “McDowell concludes that the killers were acting on the orders of Seán MacEoin…In a humiliating blow to MacEoin’s prestige, Brian MacNeill’s IRA unit had previously captured an armoured car [the Ballinalee] in what was the likely motive for the atrocity.”
Even Younger seemed to sense something was amiss and perhaps sought to mollify any unease on the part of his readers with an anecdote about Mac Eoin tracking down a watch that had been robbed from one of the bodies on Benbulbin and delivering it to the deceased’s widow. Whether the Major-General actually ordered the massacre is another matter, with speculation about wounded pride as a motive being just that – speculation. It is not as if other prisoners had not been taken alive during the Sligo campaign, and even his antagonists described Mac Eoin on other occasions as displaying the same mercy, or at least sense of fairness, that had prompted him to famously spare the helpless Auxiliaries after the Clonfin Ambush in February 1921.
One IRA combatant at Collooney, Broddie Malone – the same who had earlier tried to assassinate Mac Eoin – believed that Lawlor had wanted to use artillery to blast the cottage Malone and his comrades were sheltering in, only for Mac Eoin, who knew them from before, to countermand him and spare their lives. Captured instead, Malone and some other Anti-Treatyites were put to a roadside trial. A National Army sergeant accused the ‘defendants’ of gunning down the late Lieutenant Callaghan while he had had his hands up in surrender, but another Free State soldier testified that Callaghan had died fighting behind a machine-gun. Overseeing the proceedings as an impromptu judge, Mac Eoin allowed the charges to be dropped.
And then there was Robert Briscoe when Mac Eoin chanced upon him stepping out onto a Dublin street. To Briscoe, his foe presented:
A grand burly figure of a man he was, magnificently attired in a new green uniform with red and white service stripes, gold stars on his shoulders, and a shiny Sam Browne belt in the holster of which was a great, ugly .45 revolver with a bright green lanyard.
As Mac Eoin reached for this weapon, Briscoe make a calculation, turned and walked the other way, trusting in his adversary’s well-known code of honour. The gamble paid off. “Briscoe, you bastard,” he heard Mac Eoin roar after him. “You know I wouldn’t shoot a man in the back!”
Years later, Briscoe would make a point of thanking Mac Eoin whenever they met. “The greatest mistake I ever made,” was Mac Eoin’s response, with a shake of his head.
The Man in Charge
Not every portrayal is quite so benign, however, and stories of Good Mac Eoin sit uneasily next to those of Bad Mac Eoin. When Ernie O’Malley, as Acting Assistant Chief of Staff to the IRA, asked, on the 30th October 1922, for names of pro-Treaty officers “who have ill-treated prisoners, or who have acted on the murder gangs” in order to know who was to be “shot at sight”, he added in his dispatch that Mac Eoin and Lawlor were to be included to the list.
Tom Carney had a personal encounter with this dark side of Mac Eoin’s while held inside the old British barracks in Longford. He was retiring to bed when three uniformed men, each in a state of inebriation, entered the storage-room being used for detainment. Mac Eoin was one of them:
They walked down. MacEoin was threatening the prisoners with revolvers in their backs and bombs and they said what they wouldn’t do to the prisoners if they tried to escape. Mac[Eoin] was very drunk and he said, ‘Hello, you don’t know me now. Do you remember the man in charge?’ But it passed off for he didn’t do anything.
Other guests of the government were not so lucky. Noel Browne would recall from his childhood in Athlone “seeing row after row of tricoloured-covered coffins, side by side. To me they were just so many colourful outsize parcels, in a great room in some building.” The sight made so little impression on young Browne that his older self would think it a missed opportunity to not display the bodies, in all their grisly horror, to better deter impressionable minds from repeating the mistakes of the previous generation.
By the time Browne met Mac Eoin, both were Ministers in the Inter-Party Government of 1948-51, with the former general, then in his 50s, appearing to Browne as “a gentle, peaceful man.” When their Taoiseach was going through a particularly difficult time, Mac Eoin “was his usual pleasant reassuring self in his attempt to comfort [John A.] Costello.” His wartime exploits in two conflicts were no secret but, according to Browne:
It was generally believed by the public that in spite of being a soldier, with the soldier’s awful job of daily learning how to kill other men more cleverly, MacEoin…neither wanted to kill, nor be killed.
When discussing his painful memories of that turbulent period, Mac Eoin told Browne, with whom he had struck up a rapport, that he would have preferred to turn his efforts to stopping the Civil War, not fighting it.
Which, of course, was not quite how it played out. Browne was perhaps taking his fellow Minister’s genial demeanour and worthy words a little too much at face value: as GOC Western Division, Mac Eoin was in charge of the five executions at 8 am, on the 20th January 1923, that filled the coffins young Browne beheld. One of the deceased was a local man, the other four from Galway, and the charges against them were unauthorised possession of arms and ammunitions.
In this, Mac Eoin could claim to be only following procedure. Six other death sentences were carried out elsewhere in the country that morning: four in Tralee and two in Limerick, all for the same offences. His thoughts on this matter are unrecorded but, then, the court-martials and their resultant executions were policies Mac Eoin had pushed for in the Dáil. His argument then had been for legally sanctioned killings as an outlet for feelings otherwise to be satisfied by extrajudicial murders.
Mac Eoin’s own behaviour, however, would indicate that one did not necessarily preclude the other.
A Bad Shot
Among the detainees held in the Custume Barracks of Athlone were two senior IRA officers, Michael Kilroy and Tom Maguire, as noted by O’Malley on the 14th January 1923. Though O’Malley was by then himself a captive, he was able to smuggle a letter out of Mountjoy Prison to his Chief of Staff, Liam Lynch. Both Kilroy and Maguire were in danger of being put before a firing-squad, but there was apparently resistance within the Free State authorities to do so, or so O’Malley heard: “I think the enemy are pressing [Seán] McKeown to try them, but I could not vouch for this.”
Kilroy would confirm Mac Eoin’s efforts on his behalf. The fortunes of war had turned drastically since the time Kilroy anticipated the burning of Custume Barracks down around Mac Eoin. After he was brought to that same building, badly wounded from a bullet to the back and under threat of more to his front:
We were to be executed at the time of the Bagenal arrests, and MacEoin made a special journey to Dublin to save me and he said to me, ‘I don’t know the result but I did my best.’
As Kilroy lived to tell his tale, it can be surmised that Mac Eoin’s best was good enough. Kilroy was recounting this to O’Malley in the 1950s, in one of the interviews the latter conducted with former IRA combatants. Right after Kilroy said this, he revealed a very different aspect of his saviour, involving the misfortune of a fellow inmate, Patrick ‘Patch’ Mulrennan, in October 1922:
Mulrennan was shot sitting beside Paddy Hegarty in Athlone. Lawlor fired a few shots at him, then Lawlor and MacEoin were going around making a sport of the prisoners, hitting them with sticks. MacEoin would say when Lawlor fired, ‘You missed him.’
Casually inflicted misery seems to have been a feature of Custume Barracks, enough for another of its unwilling residents, Johnny Grealy, to consider Mountjoy a palace in comparison. Along with the limited food, if it could be called as such, “MacEoin wouldn’t allow the fellows back into the huts once they got out for exercise so they had to walk the compound even in the rain from 10 or 11 until the evening and then we were closed into the huts again,” Grealy said in his own interview.
As for the case of Mulrennan, while Kilroy did not include the results of his shooting, Grealy was able to provide a fuller picture:
Patch Mulrennan raised a window and went in to boil water one day. Someone shouted at him that MacEoin and Tony Lawlor had come in. Lawlor fired as Patch was coming out the window. ‘You missed,’ said MacEoin.
‘Well, I won’t miss this time,’ said Tony Lawlor, and he fired again and Patch died there and then. 
Here, Mulrennan’s death is instantaneous. In Tony Heavey’s version, Mulrennan survived long enough for his wound to become infected, fatally so. The details provided by Heavey differ to Grealy’s, but the main point is the same:
Tony Lawlor and MacEoin arrived in the compound. Mulrennan…was sitting down hammering a ring on the floor outside the door…Some fellows, who were in the room, cleared out when they saw MacEoin and Tony Lawlor. MacEoin said something to Tony Lawlor, and Lawlor fired at Mulrennan. MacEoin is alleged to have said, ‘That was a bad shot,’ and Lawlor said, ‘I won’t miss this time,’ and he hit Mulrennan in the thigh. It was neglected, the wound, and he died.
“You’re a bad shot, Tony” – that line, or its latest variant, would be repeated in the Dáil in February 1928, almost six years later, by Dr P.J. O’Dowd, the Roscommon TD for the Anti-Treatyites in their current political guise of Fianna Fáil. O’Dowd was raising the subject as part of his financial appeal for Mary Mulrennan, the deceased’s mother, though the chance to rake the government over the Civil War coals as well was probably too tempting to pass up.
While O’Dowd named Lawlor as the shooter, he refrained from doing so to Mac Eoin, referring to him only as “Colonel Lawlor’s senior officer.” Mac Eoin – by then Quartermaster-General of the National Army – was not present to defend himself or his subordinate, leaving representatives from his party to receive the charge. Due to an escape attempt earlier that day, argued the Minister of Defence, Desmond Fitzgerald, prisoners had been ordered to stay out of certain buildings. The shots fired had been at those who were where they should not have been.
Besides, added Fitzgerald, there was a certain matter of a war being on at the time. Whether these are reasons enough is a question left to the reader.
 O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Keane, Vincent) The Men Will Talk to Me: Mayo Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2014), p. 66
 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. 43-4
The fundamental thing to remember about the General Election of June 1922 is that it was a face-saving fraud and always intended to be, a parliamentary Potemkin Village rather than an honest attempt to uncover the public desire. After all, that was not really in doubt: people wanted the Anglo-Irish Treaty, or rather the peace it represented for Ireland after two and a half years of shootouts and slayings in its fields and streets as the Irish Republican Army (IRA) pitted itself against the might of the British Empire. It was the policy of the Fenians writ large, the reclamation of Irish nationhood by strength of arms and the backing of a loyal populace.
And yet, by the start of 1922, if the IRA still had the weapons, then the support was less certain. With hindsight, “it may be that we were expecting too much from people who had suffered so greatly and who now felt that peace, even without full freedom, was what they really wanted,” wrote Liam Deasy in his memoirs. By then, Deasy was a sadder but wiser man, having lived through the collapse of the Republican cause in the Civil War and his own narrow escape from a firing-squad. At the time, however, Deasy was prepared to fight to the death for his ideals, as were the rest of the IRA bloc hostile to the Treaty, and popular will be damned.
“This should not be wondered at,” Deasy explained to his readers. “We were never unduly influenced by election results.”
It was about sticking to one’s principles. “If all the people of Ireland but ten men voted that the nation go over to the Islamic faith, their decision would not bind the ten men,” wrote Aodh de Blácam in Poblacht Na h-Eireann – The Republic of Ireland, the newsletter for the anti-Treaty viewpoint, in May 1922. “If all Ireland but ten men voted that the Archbishop of Canterbury be head of Irish Christians, those ten men would yet owe that dignitary no allegiance.”
Maybe not – but would these hypothetical ten men allow the rest of the nation to bind itself? Putting principles first could become elevating them above all else, even if it meant riding roughshod over others. While Deasy might not have considered his comrades to be overly susceptible to democracy, with de Blácam poo-pooing the very concept of majority rule, the power of a public vote was still recognised, enough for the need to thwart it.
“No election on the issue at present before the country to be held while the threat of war with England exists,” insisted Poblacht Na h-Eireann in April 1922.
‘Without Prejudice to their Present Respective Positions’
Unwritten was the reason why: because the Anti-Treatyites would lose, which would force the Treaty sticking point to breaking point and open warfare. Robert Brennan had been increasingly and uncomfortably aware of this nightmarish scenario ever since reading in a newspaper about the signing of the Treaty while in Berlin as an Irish envoy. He instantly returned to Dublin and chanced upon a jolly Arthur Griffith in the Mansion House. If Griffith assumed Brennan would be supportive of his decision to put his name to the Treaty, then Brennan wiped the smile off his face by telling him that he had made a terrible mistake. Even if the alternative was further war, said Brennan, then at least the revolutionary movement would have faced it as one body.
“The person who talks like that is a fool,” Griffith snapped. Nonetheless, the two men remained on friendly terms, an amiability not commonly shared in Ireland as divisions widened into an outright schism.
While he never wavered in his opposition to anything short of an Irish Republic, Brennan grew impatient with his military allies, such as Liam Mellows and Ernie O’Malley, whom he viewed as naively unprepared, to the point of delusional, for conflict, even after their seizure of the Four Courts in April 1922 brought that grim possibility all the closer. And then Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera, each representing their own faction, were able to hammer out an electoral rapprochement on the 20th May, signing what would become known as the Pact.
This came not a moment too soon for Brennan, a solution in the eleventh hour that promised both peace and the protection of the anti-Treaty presence in the Dáil, for candidates from the two sides were not to run against each other. Instead, they would be standing on the same platform, not as Anti-Treatyites, not as Pro-Treatyites, but as Sinn Féiners first and foremost, just like before.
The situation could allow for no other option, as the opening clause in the agreement proclaimed:
The national position requires the entrusting of the Government of the country into the joint hands of those who had been the strength of the national situation during the last few years, without prejudice to their present respective positions.
“When the Pact was unanimously adopted by the Dáil, the feeling of relief was profound because the shadow of civil war had been lifted,” was how Brennan described the mood. Which made the news that some were seeking to throw the toys out of the pram all the more shocking.
A young man of Brennan’s acquaintance – given the pseudonym of ‘Dan Smith’ in his reminiscences:
…came into my office [on O’Connell Street] with a sensational report. He had been present at a secret meeting of an Independent group that morning. Darrell Figgis, who was not a member of the group, had attended and made a speech urging the group to put forward candidates in opposition to the Sinn Féin panel of candidates at the election.
It was no secret that Figgis, a long-time Sinn Féin activist whose curriculum vitae included organising the Howth Gun-Running in 1914, had come down firmly on the side of the Treaty. Less clear was why he wanted to undermine the Pact but, whatever the motive, to Brennan, “this was treachery, because Figgis, as a member of the Sinn Féin Executive, was bound in honour to uphold the Pact.”
As proof of these machinations, ‘Smith’ gave Brennan a verbatim report of this meeting. Brennan wasted no time in getting to Suffolk Street, where he met with de Valera in the latter’s office, along with Erskine Childers and Austin Stack. The decision was made to publish the report in a special STOP PRESS edition of Poblacht Na h-Eireann, on the 30th May 1922, under the dramatic headline TREACHERY TO THE PACT – THE PLOTTERS.
The ‘treachery’ in question had taken place at the close of a special session of the National Executive of the Irish Farmers Union (IFU) at 37 Upper Fitzwilliam Street, Dublin, on the 25th May. Figgis’ choice of venue was unusual in that he was in no way connected to anything agricultural. He also admitted, after being introduced to the room, that his position was a delicate one since he was a member of the Sinn Féin Standing Committee, which had just signed off on the Pact five days ago. Anything Figgis did was to be understood as purely personal and in no way on behalf of anyone or anything else.
With that said, his view was that the Treaty, warts and all, represented the best chance the country had, particularly at developing industry and the economy. With that in mind, those with expertise at turning a profit should have an opportunity to contribute to the forthcoming government.
Ireland had a greater proportion of its population out of work than was the case in any other country. The figures were, roughly, 150,000 unemployed – who represented a population of 500,000 – which meant that one-eighth of their people were out of work and suffering from hunger. These problems should be solved by the business people of the country, and these people should get into Parliament.
Which was not going to happen with any sort of Pact Election, rigged – ‘crooked’ to use Figgis’ word – as it was in favour of a forced equality between pro and anti-Treaty adherents that would do no more for national stability than before. Instead, the three groups currently excluded, representing Irish commercial, industrial and farming interests, should stand together on a common platform. The Dáil already had a pro-Treaty majority, though a slight one, and if reinforced by Independent delegates of the same opinion, it would strengthen the likelihood of the Treaty being implemented.
The boldness of this proposal made some attendees hesitant. A Mr Beamish from Cork expressed his view that, if Republican voters were to stick to Republican candidates, and Pro-Treatyites to likewise back their own, then there was not much room left for any third options. That was, after all, how the Pact had been designed to operate.
Not so, replied Figgis, as he thought it likely that seventy percent of the electorate would choose a non-Sinn Féin candidate before a Sinn Féin, or ‘Panel’, one. The strategy would only work if, say, farmers’ candidates refrained from standing in rural areas, and instead targeted Republican-held spots. In the Kildare-Wicklow area, for example, there were four anti-Treaty seats that were for the taking if planned accordingly. In places where neither the agricultural nor business communities were strong, by pooling their votes they could cut the ground from underneath the Anti-Treatyites.
“The farmers want a farmers’ party,” said the IFU Chairman, Sir John Keane, as he seconded this strategy, “but that would not prevent us from working together.”
That appeared to be the consensus in the room. County Clare was raised as another case in point: its business element was small but what there was could lend its support to an agrarian nominee in the absence of an industrial one and push the vote accordingly in their mutual favour. In other counties, the reverse could be applied. Having been frozen out of the election before, there was now a chance for the farmers and businessmen to push their way in from the cold.
The country was tired of elections, Figgis remarked as the meeting drew to a close, the implication being that now was the time to get down to work.
A Mystery Man
Perhaps it was understandable that Brennan and other Republicans would react so strongly to this democratic putsch. Figgis and his IFU audience had talked not just of putting forward their own candidates, alongside the Panel-approved ‘official’ ones, but in targeting anti-Treaty-held seats specifically. A more blatant violation of the neutrality the Pact was intended to uphold could scarcely be imagined, to the point that David Lloyd George wondered to his Privy Council if this precipitated a split between Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith, given the latter’s closeness with Figgis.
The British Prime Minister was not alone in speculating. To Joseph Connolly, there was no way Figgis would have done what he did “without the full consent and approval of Griffith.” Connolly was in New York at this time, representing the Irish Republic as Consul General, and so lacked a front-row seat to the drama at home, but he knew Figgis enough to dislike him, regarding the other man as “something of an interloper, a careerist or an opportunist.”
This was apparently a widely shared opinion in the Irish revolutionary movement, with Griffith a notable exception, and his friendship with Figgis was one Connolly struggled to understand. The implication Figgis’ behaviour had for Griffith’s own conduct was disturbing to Connolly: “It is not to me a pleasant recollection of Griffith, but what seems to be the clear facts of that move must be recorded.”
Not that much was clear about the whole affair, with undisputed facts hard to come by. Poblacht Na h-Eireann chose to treat Figgis as a rogue element, albeit one whose misdemeanour threatened a wider indictment if unchecked. As a Sinn Féin official, Figgis’ partisan actions had thrown the credibility of his fellow Pro-Treatyites into jeopardy. While his previous record of service to Ireland was well-known and respected, “Mr Figgis should be promptly disowned by his party.”
The man in question was quick to defend himself via a letter to the press, published on the 31st May, the day after Poblacht’s exposé. None of the Pact’s seven clauses forbade what he had said or done, Figgis wrote; indeed, Clause Four specifically stated that “every and any interest is free to contest the election with the Sinn Fein panel.” The only limitation was on pro and anti-Treaty candidates on the aforementioned Panel running against each other. Otherwise, all was as it should be. The liberties of the Irish people and their right to a free election, had been safeguarded, despite the efforts of some in the spirit of the old Irish Parliamentary Party who used to argue that any opposition to it was de facto treason against the national interest.
In case readers missed the historic allusion:
The issue is the same to-day, not because of the Pact, but because of the attempt to misuse the Pact. Let us remember that we have had no elections since 1918. Some of the present members of the Dail have never been voted upon by the people. The rest have not been voted upon since December, 1918. We are, therefore, almost as far from a genuine election as the Irish Party was.
All of which was anathema to what Sinn Féin stood for, in Figgis’ view. Sinn Féin, a name Figgis had worn as far back as when it was dangerous to do so, was “not a close political corporation. It is itself a composition of many different parties,” out of which the electorate would select whoever they deemed best:
That is the simple issue before us. The people of Ireland are free and responsible, and no one can restrict that freedom or diminish that responsibility.
Not even, Figgis added pointedly, the “artificial restriction of candidates.”
A Tipperary Case Study
Knowingly or not, acting alone or in concert, Figgis had thrust an awkward question into the spotlight: what was the general election for? For democracy and liberty, Figgis had argued, but others looked to different priorities. Given the current circumstances, unity and good government was paramount, Commandant-General Dan Breen told a convention of the Irish Farmers Party in Tipperary Courthouse, on the 5th June 1922. To this effect, he asked them to withdrew their candidates, giving the outgoing Dáil representatives for North, Mid and South Tipperary a clear run and a chance to work together. The coming parliament would only last a short while anyway, before another election – and then the farmers of Tipperary could send their own to the Dáil.
That was good enough for the Farmers Party, and their two aspirants, Hassett and James Duggan, were stood down. Not so pliable was Daniel Morrissey, who held his ground on behalf of Labour, despite Breen’s appeal in a one-on-one talk to “close the ranks”, to which Morrissey had replied, as he explained to the Nenagh Guardian:
It is not Labour’s fault that the ranks were divided any more than it was Comdt.-Gen. Breen’s; neither am I sure with it being either of their faults if they are not now closed…There are many starving labourers in the country as well as others who may be excused if they fail to see that the “country was above all interests” to the members of the late Dáil.
Breen had a response of his own, written in a tone more of sorrow than anger for the pages of the same newspaper:
I interviewed a Mr Morrissey of Nenagh, but the arguments which moved the farmers of Tipperary failed to move him.
He was a worker, Breen declared, and would not have asked fellow workers to step aside in the election if he thought their interests would be at risk. As it was:
Our country is above all interests. On the declaration of the poll, I hope to see Tipperary stand on the National record where it has stood for the past four years.
It was a matter of politics, not personalities, and nowhere did either Breen or Morrissey behave with anything less than civility, in print or in person. Indeed, Morrissey spoke of being treated with “nothing but the greatest courtesy from Comdt.-Gen. Breen.” A letter from a Seamus Nolan, also published in the Nenagh Guardian, took on a harsher tone, however:
It is lamentable that Mr Morrissey was not more vocal in support of his countrymen when the fight [against Britain] was on: and that he now holds up for his own glorification the sacrifices made by genuine Labour men throughout the country. But it is doubtful if Mr Morrissey can claim to be the spokesman of Labour in Tipperary, having regard to certain incidents which occurred at the meeting which selected him.
What occurrences were these, Nolan did not elaborate. Two years later, Breen was similarly snide in his autobiography, refusing to refer to Morrissey by name, only as “the Labour candidate” who “cared nothing about the idea of presenting a united front to the enemy. He was ambitious for power and insisted upon going forward.” This depiction jars sharply with the public exchange between the pair at the time, but then, Breen was writing in the aftermath of defeat, amidst the ashes of the Republic, a bitter and sullen man.
The Surrender Business
Elsewhere in Ireland, other candidates not already on the Panel were made to feel like the poor relations at the feast. At Ennis Courthouse, Co. Clare, the three contenders selected as Labour, Farmers and Independent respectively withdrew within minutes of the deadline to do so, leaving the constituency wide open for the four Panel candidates, pro and anti-Treaty alike. With no other contenders, the seats would go to them by default.
The cheers from the onlookers showed the popularity of this decision, and further applause greeted Éamon de Valera when he appeared on the Courthouse steps, the same ones he had stood on when elected in Clare for the very first time, back in 1917 – a parallel the Chief was not slow to draw. That election then had been a triumph for the dead, de Valera told his audience, just like he believed the present one was. After all, were they not here today because of the ideals for which others died?
Such lofty talk belied the darker goings-on beneath the surface of consensus. Patrick Hogan, the erstwhile Labour selection in Clare, had “got cold feet when it came to the point because of local pressure there from the people who wanted no election so that their nominees would be returned unopposed,” according to William O’Brien, a leading trade unionist in Dublin. O’Brien sent his Labour comrade letters and telegrams, urging him to be firm, along with an encouraging telephone call, but the strain proved too much for Hogan. Nor was Hogan’s case unique, for O’Brien, as did the other Labour aspirants, “got anonymous letters and protests continually” over their decision to stand.
At least neither Hogan nor O’Brien suffered actual violence. Others were not so spared. That Denis J. Gorey, the Farmers Party selection for the Carlow-Kilkenny constituency, took a double-barrelled shotgun to bed on the 4th June indicates something was already in the air when the sound of footsteps roused him to his feet in the middle of the night. Despite the insistence of the four uninvited callers at his front-door that they just wanted a chat, Gorey refused to come out.
When one reached inside his jacket, so Gorey told the Kilkenny People:
He was too slow, and I “got the drop” on him with my empty gun. I ordered them to stand back. They did. I asked were they going to speak or not, and the leader said, shaking his head, “Oh, if that’s the way you are going to get on” and looking disgusted at my manner the four turned about and walked away back through the yard without saying a word, evidently shocked at my idea of hospitality.
Gorey knew he did not have long to prepare before the next ‘social call’. Bereft of ammunition, he settled on the upstairs corridor as the best redoubt for a last stand with his sons, using knives and whatever else at hand if it came to it. Mrs Gorey was dispatched to summon help, for which her family was still waiting when the ‘visitors’ reappeared first.
They were at least cordial enough to open with a call for the Gorey household to submit. However:
I wasn’t in the surrender business, and said so. I got three minutes or take the consequences. I chose the consequences, so the fight started, revolvers first. I advised going on, and the rifles began. One bullet about 18 inches over my head came through the window shutter, plaster, and out through the other window, covering me with broken glass and plaster. I again advised going on. A few more revolver shots and rifle fire at the back, and then silence. I understood I used some “language” by way of encouragement to help my visitors to fight. If so I apologise; I don’t like “language.”
Without anything stronger than bad words to throw back, the defenders of the Gorey Alamo had no choice but to endure the twenty minutes of fusillades before Mrs Gorey returned up the drive with an armed posse of their neighbours. The assailants pulled back, ending the siege that had, thankfully, not seen any casualties save the damage to the house. The four Panel candidates for the Carlow-Kilkenny constituency instantly decried the affair, with the two pro-Treaty men, W.T. Cosgrave and Gearóid O’Sullivan, presenting a united front of condemnation with the Anti-Treatyite pair, James Lennon and Eamonn Aylward.
Nowhere were the political leanings of the raiders explicitly stated in the Kilkenny People, but a defiant (and waspish) Gorey left little doubt as to his suspicions:
I am certainly for the Treaty, but if my country needs a fighter, old as I am, I guarantee that I will put in more real fighting in seven days than one of the anti-Treaty men could put in seven lifetimes.
Other non-Panel nominees were not so much encouraged to step back as forced down. On the night of the 3rd June, Godrey J. Greene also found his house surrounded. Unlike Gorey, he was able to shoot back; unlike Gorey, he submitted after a wounded arm made further resistance unfeasible and withdrew from the electoral contest in Waterford-East Tipperary. Elsewhere, nomination papers for Bernard Egan failed to reach Westport, Co. Mayo, in time for him to run on behalf of the Farmers Party in North-West Mayo when the courier was waylaid.
Those responsible were persistent: the night before, so it was reported, “two armed men called on Mr. Egan and unavailingly tried to persuade him to withdraw his candidature.”
‘The Rule of .45’
But the worst treated was Darrell Figgis, when he suffered an invasion of his flat in Kildare Street, Dublin, just before midnight on the 12th June. The three youths who barged in when Mrs Figgis answered the door told her husband they were acting under instruction; that said, two held him down on a chair while the third cut off a chunk of his beard. They would have moved on to his hair if Figgis had not persuaded the trio that they had fulfilled their orders enough.
Any doubts as to culpability was answered in the publication of Robert Briscoe’s recollections in 1958, in which the author treated his part in the assault as if it had been no more than a spirited lark. Figgis had been annoying him and his fellow Anti-Treatyites for quite some time, “strolling dapperly down O’Connell Street in smartly cut clothes, with his red hair gleaming like newly polished boots and a fine, red, square-cut beard that was his special pride.” Between his peacocking and high-profile partisanship, “it seemed proper to close his mouth.”
But his was one mouth not to be closed. Speaking to the press after his ordeal, Figgis said:
…that he had nothing to say against the men in question…the offence lay not with these boys, but with the men who had charged them, and, finally, with the leaders of those who opposed the Treaty, unless they specifically repudiated this act and took measures to see that proper discipline was observed, and that other acts of a like sort did not occur in the future.
Which was unlikely.
“We have the rule of .45,” Briscoe had overheard Seán Etchingham saying sardonically in response to someone questioning the procedures of the IRA Convention they were attending. Held at the Mansion House in March 1922, the event presented a study in contrasts: grim young warriors standing in the genteel reception room, beneath the crystal chandelier and surrounded by oil portraits, their shabby tweed coats militarised by Sam Browne belts and holsters containing .45 calibre service automatics. Dick Barrett was to brandish such a weapon at the manager of a bank Briscoe proceeded to use to launder bank notes robbed earlier as part of the ‘levy’ imposed by the anti-Treaty IRA Executive, by then headquartered in the Four Courts, which had likewise been occupied by force.
Figgis, Gorey and Greene were but the latest victims of this ‘Might Makes Right’ mentality that showed no signs of abating. After all, the shadow of the gunman was what enabled the Anti-Treatyites to bring about the Pact Election and its shielding of a vote that otherwise would have cost them. “They feared that the Irish people would be stampeded by England’s threat of war into approving [the Treaty] against their real desires,” Briscoe explained.
How fortunate, then, that the masses of Ireland had leaders who knew their wants better than they did.
A Bombshell (?) in Cork
Intimidatory incidents like Briscoe’s and Gorey’s aside, the anti-Treaty IRA held their hand. If the likes of Briscoe and his superiors truly wanted to sweep the board clean, then they had the guns and numbers to do so. That the general election was proceeding at all made Richard Mulcahy confident enough to drop by the O’Kelly residence in St Stephen’s Green, Dublin, with his wife Mimi in an open-topped car, and invite the other couple to accompany them in enjoying the afternoon sun. Seán T. O’Kelly was reluctant, until Mulcahy pointed out that for two brothers-in-law, each on opposite sides of the Treaty divide, to be seen together would send out a signal for how well the accord they had helped to broker was working.
Besides, he added, there was some business he wanted to go over. O’Kelly gave in and the four got on board, where:
Mulcahy then told me, in the presence of our wives, that Mick Collins had given much thought to the setting up of a coalition government. That he meant that it should consist of persons who would work harmoniously together.
For the Minister of Finance, Collins wanted O’Kelly and had tasked Mulcahy with relaying the offer. Far from flattered, O’Kelly was instead taken aback at Collins’ presumption that he would be the one unilaterally making all the selections. When he pointed out that the Republican Party Executive would surely expect a say, Mulcahy replied that Collins was insistent on the matter. But O’Kelly could be equally hard-nosed and the ride ended with the foursome having a distinctly non-political tea in the Malahide Hotel, after which they drove back.
That was the first and the last I heard of Michael Collins’ proposition that I should be Minister for Finance in the coalition government, which it was agreed under the Dáil Pact should have been set up if the Pact had been permitted to operate.
O’Kelly seems to have kept this exchange to himself and preparations for the general election went ahead. Figgis’ attempt at gate-crashing had unsettled the Anti-Treatyites, but they nonetheless went through the motions of democracy, working together with the Pro-Treatyites in the printing of posters and other promotional material that listed the names of Panel candidates who the public were supposed to dutifully and unthinkingly put their pencils beside in the polling booth.
O’Kelly may have declined a place on any coalition, at least if offered by Collins, but the issue remained forefront in the minds of his colleagues. Harry Boland would be frequently dispatched to ask Collins about how the setting up of their shared cabinet-to-be was faring, though to little avail:
Sometimes Boland would return and say Collins was too busy to see him. Sometimes he would meet Collins and report afterwards that Collins said he was faced with great difficulties and asked us to be patient.
Getting a concrete answer out of Collins, even by a friend like Boland, was proving akin to pulling teeth. But then, Collins was under pressure, namely from his British partners, who regarded the Pact with alarm and suspicion. If Anti-Treatyites were to enter government in any shape or form, then what were the odds of the Treaty and its thorny terms being implemented? Very little, was the fear in Downing Street.
Collins had already refused one meeting in London, though Griffith went. What he said, O’Kelly did not know, but he presumed Griffith had told the British Ministers of his own dislike of the situation – that was hardly a secret. When Collins gave in to another summons, early in June, and travelled to the heart of the enemy Establishment:
We hated to see him go but we still believed he would stand up to the pressure of Lloyd George, [Winston] Churchill and their associates. We believed that if Michael Collins stood firmly by the Pact and all it implied and if he were assured that he had the united people of the old Movement behind him, backed up by a reunited army, all would yet be well.
The problem was that all was not well; indeed, very far from it. “Thus was the Pact burst and repudiated by one of its two signatories,” O’Kelly wrote in conclusion of this chapter in his life’s story:
Thus also was the law of the land repudiated by the Minister who was to be the builder of the Coalition government. This, I believe, should be regarded as the real starting point of the civil war which followed soon after the bombshell was thrown by Michael Collins in Cork.
The ‘bombshell’ in question was a speech made on the 14th June, from a hotel window to a crowd standing patiently in the pouring rain. After thanking his fellow Corkonians for the magnificent welcome laid out for him, Collins announced that he was now speaking, not from a political script, but his own mind. On Friday, the 16th, in two days’ time, they were to cast their votes. His advice, then, was for the citizens of Cork to choose the candidates they thought best.
“[Collins] had broken his own Pact,” wrote Ernie O’Malley, sharing in O’Kelly’s interpretation of what had happened.
Both O’Kelly and O’Malley, of course, were writing from hindsight and possibly a need to extract their side from any liability in the conflict to come. As speeches go, Collins’ was not, on the face of it, a particularly dramatic one; certainly, he was not telling his audience not to vote for a Panel name. Adding to the ambiguity, or perhaps a sign that he feared he had said too much, he spoke the following day in Clonakility, as part of his tour of his South Cork constituency, this time urging listeners to put aside political views – which could only mean views on the Treaty – and vote for the current agreement in the spirit of unity as it was intended.
His last words to the electorate before polling day were thus a vouch for the Pact; in that regards, he was in tune with many others throughout the country who were also standing. In York Street, Dublin, Countess Markievicz and Alderman Charles Murphy shared a platform with Alderman Thomas Kelly and Dan MacCarthy, despite the anti and pro-Treaty stances of the latter and former respectively – a significant gesture in itself.
There was no question of the Treaty being an issue in this election, Markievicz said, that was something for consideration later. For now, they wanted law and order in Ireland, crops sown and work for the unemployed, for people to be content, with happy homes and better lives. They wanted unity to deal with the lingering question mark of North-East Ulster. Thus, she advised the electors to return the Panel candidates to their seats.
All of which was good, worthy stuff. That sense of consensus seemed to have trickled down to the public as a whole, at least to judge by the capital. “It would be hard to find a parallel to yesterday’s elections in Dublin,” reported the Irish Times on the 17th June. “Owing to the Collins-de Valera pact here was a complete absence of that acute party feeling which used to impart bitterness and excitement into such contests.”
There were, however, exceptions. Counting the paper ballots in the National University on Merrion Square, Dublin, where six candidates were competing for its four constituency seats, was coming to an end when fourteen or fifteen men entered the room and held up its occupants at gunpoint. The ballot-boxes were then removed outside to a waiting motorcar.
“Good evening, gentlemen” said the last of the intruders before departing.
It had been a spur-of-the-moment decision to do so, Ernie O’Malley later told in his memoirs. He was minding his own business in the Four Courts when Rory O’Connor invited him to pay a visit to the National University, being anxious, O’Connor said, to see if the votes had been evenly distributed between pro and anti-Treaty Panel candidates. Although O’Connor acknowledged the potential embarrassment if nothing was found to be amiss, neither he nor O’Malley was troubled much about the almost casual theft they were committing.
Inspecting the pilfered papers that evening, back in the Four Courts, the two IRA leaders learnt that O’Connor’s suspicions had not been groundless, as the total tally revealed:
Professor Michael Hayes (Panel, pro-Treaty) – 529
Professor Eoin MacNeill (Panel, pro-Treaty) – 528
Professor William Stockley (Panel, anti-Treaty) – 528
Professor William Magennis (Independent) – 483
The remaining two contenders, both falling short of the required support, were Dr Ada English (anti-Treaty) and Professor Conway (Independent). Previously, the National University had been equally shared by two Pro-Treatyites and two Anti-Treatyites. Now, with Magennis ascendant, the balance had shifted to three against one. If the Pact had worked as intended, then English would have been returned to her seat, Magennis kept out with the other Independent and the status quo preserved.
Adding to O’Malley’s sense of betrayal, since he could read the names and addresses of individual voters on their ballot papers, he realised that “the Republicans had voted for Panel candidates; a few of the [Free] Staters had, but the majority, including some of their outstanding men, had broken the Pact” by voting for everyone but Anti-Treatyites.
The Main Political Result
As the last of the votes were tallied, the full scale of the Republican defeat became glaringly evident. Before, the twelve seats for Dublin City had been a ratio of seven to five, with Pro-Treatyites holding the narrow advantage. They retained their seven seats, but their anti-Treaty counterparts had been vanquished: one went to Labour and three to Independents, including Darrell Figgis, giving him the last laugh.
Only Seán T. O’Kelly kept the Republican flag flying in the city and even he had to wait until the fifth recount before securing his Mid-Dublin seat. O’Kelly took the reversal to his cause with good grace, seconding the vote of thanks by the Lord Mayor to the Returning Officer, and acknowledging that the process had been performed fairly and efficiently.
The pro-Treaty Panel winners refrained from saying anything too controversial, besides Dan MacCarthy’s complaint about the shortage of polling booths and his hope that things would be improved next time. Alfie Byrne, a former Home Ruler who had reinvented himself as an Independent (the first step in what was to be a highly successful career), was less diplomatic, stating that his victory equated to one for the Treaty and a message to President Griffith to get on with implementing it.
If so, then it was a very loud message. Breaking down the numbers, the Irish Times noted how:
The main political result at once leaps to the eye. In Dublin, 72,285 citizens voted for the Treaty and 10,929 voted against the Treaty. In other words, Dublin voted 7 to 1 in favour of the Treaty. In the County of Dublin, the figures are still more remarkable. The pro-Treaty candidates received 46,936 votes, while the Republican votes amounted to 4,819. The county voted 10 to 1 in favour of the Treaty.
Proportional representative only rubbed salt into the Republican wound. Recently adopted for Irish elections, its novelty was enough for at least one newspaper to provide instructions: no longer was a single X before the name of choice enough – “in fact to use it would spoil the paper,” warned the Anglo-Celt – but instead a row of numbers, based on preference, with 1 for the most favoured candidate, 2 for the second preference and so on.
“The Proportional System may seem a little involved at first,” read the Anglo-Celt soothingly, “but by remembering the foregoing hints, all electors should be able to mark their papers correctly.”
A (Mis)calculated Risk
In South Dublin at least, the electors had grasped the innovation sufficiently to show the anti-Treaty nominees could not even trust what preferences they did get:
The two Republican candidates, Madame Markievicz and Mr. Murphy, held between them 5,258 votes, and it seemed certain that one of the two would be returned. But when Mr. Murphy, at the third count, was declared defeated, the supporters of Mr. Murphy, instead of giving the second choice en bloc to Madame Markievicz, showed divided views.
Only 692, or a little more than half, gave a second choice for her, although she was the second Republican candidate, while 397 gave the next choice to Mr. Kelly, the pro-Treaty candidate. This, in effect, destroyed the chance of the return of a representative of the Republicans.
Elsewhere, each constituency told its own tale. Labour was the big winner in Carlow-Kilkenny, where Padraig Gaffney topped the poll at 10,875 votes, with W.T. Cosgrave (7,071), Denis Gorey (6,122) and Gearóid O’Sullivan (2,681) earning enough of the electoral goodwill of their own to merit the remaining three placements. Gorey had not endured the siege of his house for nothing, it seemed. The four were Treaty supporters, while both the anti-Treaty contenders, Eamonn Aylward (3,365) and James Lennon (1,113), had been side-lined due to the majority of Labour voters giving their second preferences to a Treaty candidate.
Pact or no Pact, the electors knew their own minds.
In the constituency of North, Mid and South Tipperary, things had been tighter, with the Anti-Treatyites retaining half of the four seats on offer:
Seamus Burke (Panel, pro-Treaty) – 9,309
Daniel Morrissey (Labour) – 7,819
Joseph MacDonagh (Panel, anti-Treaty) – 5,962
Patrick Moloney (Panel, anti-Treaty) – 4,960
Showing that one could never take the public for granted, and perhaps a sign that the Pact still held meaning for some, Moloney owed his win to the transfer of second preferences from Burke, despite the two men being on opposite sides of the big debate. Trailing at the bottom was the anti-Treaty Patrick O’Byrne, whose pittance of 586 votes was noted with some nonplus. Also eliminated, and “an even greater surprise,” noted the Nenagh Guardian, “was the defeat of Dan Breen [in neighbouring Waterford-East Tipperary] who had been selected by both sides of the Pact and whose election was regarded as certain.”
Clearly, then, very little was certain in the days to come. Exactly how Breen planned to square his support from both sides of the Treaty split upon election is an interesting conundrum: he presumably assumed that the contradiction would be rendered irrelevant and national divisions submerged beneath the wave of mutually reinforcing votes for Panel nominees, allowing former comrades to arise as one once more. That had been the aim behind the Pact in the first place, albeit one that had gone badly awry – at least for the Anti-Treatyites.
“They calculated that in this way they would have the same position in the new Dáil as in the old,” wrote Collins, doing his best not to overtly gloat. “But their calculations were upset by the people themselves.”
The question, then, was: what next?
The whole point of the Pact had been to remove the element of chance, rendering the process as a choreographed game of musical chairs in which everyone shuffled about, putting on a display of activity, before resuming the same seats as before. Confidence could reach the point of complacency: as election agent for the Anti-Treatyites in South Galway, Pádraig Ó Fathaigh had assumed the Pact would enfold as intended. News that fellow Sinn Féiners were forgoing this to lend a helping hand to the Labour campaign angered him; even so, he had found alarming the indifference of his two candidates, Liam Mellows and Frank Fahy:
Both refused to hold any meetings, to canvass or do anything to further their interests as candidates. I told them that the electors would become careless if they did not meet them, and would consider they were being made little of.
It was advice to which the Anti-Treatyites should have paid heed. Instead of rubber-stamping the names before them, the contumacious masses actually took the election literally. Since the rules of the Pact had been so wilfully overturned, did that mean the next intended stage – the joining of the pro and anti-Treaty parties into one ruling body – was likewise to be pushed aside?
So pondered the Irish Times:
The results of the elections, which are regarded everywhere as a Treaty triumph, are likely to change the plans of the Republican section. It is probable, says our Political Correspondent, that the Coalition Government provided for in the Collins-de Valera pact will not now function, and that the onus of administrating the Treaty will be left to Messrs. Griffith and Collins, who will have the benefits of an appreciable majority.
Which assumed Republicans would be gracious losers. Judging by contemporary reactions, many did not see themselves as having lost at all. The election did not even warrant a mention at the IRA Convention, held in the Mansion House, a mere two days later on the 18th June. Instead, the agenda was about whether to attack the remaining British troops in Dublin, thereby restarting the war and derailing the Treaty for good. There was no talk of ‘coalition’ then, nor of ‘mandate’ or ‘working majority’ which the attendees failed to form even amongst themselves. The Convention ended in a tantrum: denied another war, Rory O’Connor withdrew with a splinter group to the Four Courts and locked out the rest, creating a schism within a schism.
Even Anti-Treatyites who paid attention to the poll results did not seem fazed by their crushing defeat. While acknowledging that “the elections showed that the people favoured the Treaty and our party lost many seats,” Harry Boland still waited for “a call from Mick [Collins] as to the men on our side who would be required to fill the posts in the Cabinet, in accordance with the agreement.” Boland was writing this to a friend on the 13th July 1922, a fortnight into the Civil War and less than a month before his death.
De Valera also nurtured fantasies of a world where the Pact had averted disaster. “Had Mick and Griffith died before they broke the pact,” he wrote on the 10th September, “I believe the four of us – [Austin] Stack, Mulcahy, [Eoin] MacNeill and myself, could have worked the pact and beaten England by it.” Notably, there is no sense of responsibility on either Boland’s or de Valera’s part, both preferring to point fingers at others, whether the Pro-Treatyites or the British. Or both together. As it had been British artillery in Irish hands bombarding the Four Courts, it was obvious to Boland that the ongoing conflict was a “British manufactured war on the Republic.”
Coming to Heel
Blaming the ancestral foe provided a useful balm in Republican reminiscences. “In the House of Commons on June 26th ,” wrote Seán T. OKelly:
Lloyd George and Churchill in the course of speeches on the situation in Ireland insinuated that an ultimatum had been served on Collins. That nature of this ultimatum was not specified but it seems reasonable now to infer that Collins was ordered to have the Republican forces driven out of the Four Courts or that they, the British, would order their own forces to undertake this task.
Despite this fluttering red flag and the shift of the domestic position in favour of the Pro-Treatyites, O’Kelly was dumbfounded when artillery shells began pounding the Four Courts. Assuming Collins was merely playacting to placate his British partners, O’Kelly tried contacting him, first by phone and then letter, to no avail. O’Kelly was in the Hammond Hotel, O’Connell Street, hoping against hope that the brink could be stepped back from, when word reached him that the Pro-Treatyites were now turning their attention – and their guns – to there as well.
To O’Kelly, the only explanation for this shocking turn of events was that “the British by their threats had forced Collins to come to heel again.”
He was not altogether wrong, as a letter had arrived from Downing Street, demanding immediate action against the Four Courts and all other armed holdouts. But Collins needed no prompting. As he saw it, the electoral majority had granted the Pro-Treatyites carte blanche to do what they will, Pact or no Pact – which may have been his intent from the start. Behind closed doors, Collins, Griffith and the rest of the Cabinet agreed to jump on the first casus belli that came their way. When this appeared in the form of General ‘Ginger’ O’Connell’s arrest in Dublin by Anti-Treatyites, the civilian and military leadership of the nascent Free State convened to ponder how long a war might take. About a week, maybe two, assured Gearoíd O’Sullivan as Adjutant-General.
It was a bad miscalculation, one of many in 1922. Both sides had grasped the Pact Election as an opportunity, ostensibly for peace, but mostly to wring whatever advantages they could. For the Anti-Treatyites: an election in name only in return for a deal; for the Pro-Treatyites, a deal in name only in return for an election. Naturally, when it all went belly-up, the whole ridiculous business became another slingshot in the ‘blame game’ exchange.
“The Collins-de Valera Pact might have saved the nation, but the wiseacres again, agreeing to the Pact when they were weak, broke it when they thought they were strong,” O’Malley wrote to the press in August 1922. He was by then conducting a guerrilla war against the Free State and its supporters, such as Piaras Béaslaí who did not quite refute the charges of opportunism when he described how Collins and his cohorts had previously been “hampered by their small majority in the Dáil, and the absence of a clear mandate from the country on the Treaty issue, but the result of the General Election placed them in a strong position to assert their authority.”
And assert they would. Two very different versions of the same event, but a word used by both is ‘strong’ and, at the end of the day, that was what really counted: not honour, not mandates, not brotherhood, not even pacts, but strength.
 Deasy, Liam. Brother Against Brother (Cork: Mercier Press, 1998), p. 43
Poblacht Na h-Eireann – The Republic of Ireland, 25/05/1922
 O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Dolan, Anne, introduction by Lee, J.J.) ‘No Surrender Here!’ The Civil War Papers of Ernie O’Malley, 1922-1924 (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2007), p. 117 ; Béaslaí, Piaras. Michael Collins and the Making of a New Ireland, Volume II (Dublin: Edmund Burke Publisher, 2008), p. 262
Béaslaí, Piaras. Michael Collins and the Making of a New Ireland (Dublin: Edmund Burke Publisher, 2008)
Breen, Dan. My Fight For Irish Freedom (Tralee: Anvil Books, 1964)
Briscoe, Robert and Hatch, Alan. For the Life of Me (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1958)
Collins, Michael. The Path to Freedom (Cork: Mercier Press, 1996)
Connolly, Joseph (edited by Gaughan, J. Anthony) Memoirs of Senator Joseph Connolly (1885-1961): A Founder of Modern Ireland (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1996)
Cronin, Sean. The McGarrity Papers (Tralee: Anvil Books, 1972)
Deasy, Liam. Brother Against Brother (Cork: Mercier Press, 1998)
Jones, Thomas (edited by Middlemas, Keith) Whitehall Diary: Volume III, Ireland 1918-1925 (London: Oxford University Press, 1971)
O’Brien, William (as told to MacLysaght, Edward) Forth the Banners Go (Dublin: The Three Candles Limited, 1969)
Ó Fathaigh, Pádraig (edited by McMahon, Timothy G.) Pádraig Ó Fathaigh’s War of Independence: Recollections of a Galway Gaelic Leaguer (Cork: Cork University Press, 2000)
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)
Unlike before, there were no armed guards at the entrances to the National University, Dublin, allowing anyone to walk in off the street to see the Dáil in action, on the 20th May 1922. Not that many did and the few members of the public, who had gathered outside, passed the time by reading newspapers when not gazing indifferently up at the top-storey windows. Either politics had become old hat or people were losing faith in parliamentary procedures making a difference. After all, previous attempts had recently been made to resolve the deadlock in the country, only to end in miserable failure each time.
A very different atmosphere was found inside the building. Delegates talked and mingled, their conversations punctuated by the odd burst of laughter as they waited in the long hall, beside the chamber where they were to formally meet. As one attendee observed:
A group of anti-Treaty deputies sitting on the broad staircase leading to the Science room, rows of them, all smiling as if they were having their photographs taken.
Liam Mellows struck a casual pose, his legs far apart and hands deep in the pockets of his riding-breeches, as he chatted with Richard Mulcahy. That the two enemies were so relaxed in each other’s company was proof enough that some novelty was in the air. In contrast, the President of Dáil Éireann, Arthur Griffith, sat silently, arms folded and head down, a frown creasing his face.
Showing more spark was his colleague Michael Collins, who moved between the partisans of the anti-Treaty side and his own, perfectly at ease as he posed questions and smiled at the replies. When Harry Boland flitted by, those he passed thought they could recognise Griffith’s handwriting on the sheet of paper he held, but Boland moved too quickly for them to be sure.
Boland’s appearance was taken as a signal that the Dáil was about to open and, by unspoken agreement, the assembled deputies streamed into the chamber and took their seats. As the Speaker, Eoin MacNeill, rose to begin, the light from the lower windows framed him from behind, almost like a halo.
He read out the document that Collins and Éamon de Valera, on behalf of the pro and anti-Treaty parties respectively, had just put their names to. It was an agreement that, for the upcoming general election, candidates would be put forward from a ‘National Coalition Panel’ consisting of both the opposing factions. Instead of competing against each other, Pro and Anti-Treatyites would run on the same platform, under the same Sinn Féin name and for the sake of the same ideal: unity.
There had been little enough of that as it was.
Griffith then stood up and, with a funereally air, moved that, on the basis of what they had just heard, the Dáil should thus call for such an election.
“Does that mean that the House approves of the agreement?” asked de Valera.
When Griffith answered that it did, de Valera was all smiles: “Then I have great pleasure in seconding the President’s motion.”
As the deputies left the room, their business complete, Collins continued mingling with the opposition, calling out to Anti-Treatyites who, months before, had been his comrades-in-arms, then sworn foes, and now bosom buddies once again. De Valera was more circumspect as he quietly took his leave, looking younger than he had for a long time. Griffith had already departed, walking straight ahead without sparing as much as a glance for anyone, a hint that all was not well behind closed doors. It was left to Mulcahy to provide some sort of explanation, albeit a terse and indirect one, to the mystified journalists inquiring about the meaning of what they had just seen.
“It means that we have not adopted the solution suggested by the Irish Times,” he said cryptically.
‘Wrangling Over a Corpse’
The newspaper in question certainly made its surprise known in its coverage of this latest twist in the Irish tale. What baffled its editorial was why the Pro-Treatyites had agreed to such a thing, since “a general election on the issue of the Treaty would have returned the Provisional Government to office with an overwhelming majority.”
Yet, despite their strong hand, “Mr Collins and Mr Griffith have consented to allow Republicans into the new Parliament in their present strength and to give them a virtual equality in the next Executive.” Adding to the confusion, with the promise of more to come, was how “the new Executive, which was to have enforced the Free State Constitution, will contain, by pre-arrangement, declared enemies of the Free State.”
And this was after Collins:
…declared a few days ago that, if the peace negotiations [between the pro and anti-Treaty sides] should fail, he would begin to enforce the law in the teeth of political resistance. The negotiations have succeeded and the resistance presumably has been turned into co-operation.
A co-operation, that is, with “the tyranny of the ‘gunmen’.” So much, then, for all the tough talk about the law and its enforcement. The only explanation the Irish Times could think of for this startling submissiveness was that both Collins and Griffith:
…are appalled by the state of Ireland, that they have asked the Republicans to combine with them in a great effort to restore order, and that an agreement is the price of such co-operation.
While the newspaper clearly did not overly care for this price, it announced itself – contrary to what Mulcahy might have assumed – prepared to make the best of the situation at hand:
In Heaven’s name, then, let the effort be made without further loss of time. The country is far advanced on the road to ruin, and, if matters do not improve quickly, the two parties in the proposed “Coalition” Executive will find themselves wrangling over a corpse.
Hyperbole, this was not. Ireland had been dangerously in a state of disarray since December 1921, with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which ended one war – with Britain – and opened another conflict – with itself.
Stampeded into War
Though the agreement had been ratified by the Dáil a month later, that did not mean it was accepted by all, particularly those in the Irish Republican Army (IRA) for whom anything less than a Republic was unacceptable – and this British-mandated Free State that the Treaty allowed fell very, very short in their eyes. When a sixteen-strong Executive was formed in March 1922 – consisting of men such as Liam Lynch, Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows, Ernie O’Malley and others who already held senior posts in the IRA – its first act was to pledge fidelity solely to the Republic, with no room for the Treaty, the Free State, the Provisional Government – and possibly for democracy.
“A resolution to proclaim the elections which were to be held in Southern Ireland was discussed at a meeting” of the IRA Executive, recounted O’Malley in his memoirs:
The Treaty would be the issue of elections to be held in the twenty-six counties only…Unless England withdrew her threat of war no election should be held. There was a majority in favour of proclaiming the elections, but no decision was arrived at, as a unanimous vote would be needed to take such an important step.
While a potentially catastrophic line had avoided being crossed, the possibility remained; after all, the Executive had not decided not to forbid a future general election. It was not so much the principle of one that the Executive opposed; just that, in such a contest, the anti-Treaty partisans would almost certainly come off the worst.
This risk was forefront in the minds of the five Republican representatives who met in the Mansion House, Dublin, at the start of May 1922, opposite another quintet from the pro-Treaty grouping, as part of the ten-person ‘Peace Committee’. Set up at the behest of the Dáil, the Committee was to explore potential avenues for a compromise – and the sooner the better, for while they sat and talked behind closed doors, contingency plans were being laid in preparation for the worst.
The IRA Executive had already claimed the Four Courts for its headquarters, around which snipers would be posted in the event of a war with the Free Staters. O’Malley went further in arranging for barrels of petrol and paraffin to be stored in the cellars in order to raze the Four Courts utterly should it fall into enemy hands. Elsewhere in the city, bridges were to be destroyed and street barricades raised to trap the enemy in place for counterattacks.
A Let Down
Even if not all of the Peace Committee attendees were aware of these preparations, they must have anticipated the consequences if they failed. For the next three weeks, both halves did their best, often sitting long into the night. While all ten agreed on the benefits of a general election in breaking the deadlock, for the Anti-Treatyites it meant exposing themselves to the judgment of an unfriendly electorate.
“It would in effect be penalising them for their vote against the Treaty,” as how Kathleen Clarke, the Chairwoman of the Committee (and widow of the 1916 Signatory), put it. Which was fine by their pro-Treaty counterparts, who argued that the Dáil needed a solid working majority; not so much for Clarke and her colleagues, also desirous of a bloodless resolution but not at the cost of political hara-kiri.
A climb-down on the Anti-Treatyites’ part suddenly materialised when one of their five, Harry Boland, came back, uncharacteristically late from lunch, to inform the other five that they could go ahead and permit a general election, even if it meant writing off some of their seats.
“The Chief says we can agree,” Boland added, referring to de Valera.
This, Clarke and Liam Mellows refused to accept. When a conference of anti-Treaty politicos was held that night in their Suffolk Street offices to confirm, de Valera denied agreeing to any such thing, claiming a misunderstanding on Boland’s part, despite the other man’s heated protestations to the contrary. The stormy exchange dragged on even after the meeting closed, with the two men remaining behind in the room to argue it out while Clarke and another female deputy, Madge Clifford, waited in a taxi outside for Boland to accompany them.
Minutes ticked by. When Clarke went back inside and up the stairs, she heard through the door Boland and de Valera still speaking to – or, rather, shouting at – each other. “It’s alright, Chief, you let me down,” Boland said.
Having reached the top of the landing, Clarke made a noise to alert the pair of her presence. Without another word, Boland finally took his leave and came down the stairs with Clarke, joining her and Clifford in the ride back to their respective accommodations. Of what had transpired between him and their political potentate, Boland said not a thing.
The next day, Clarke, Mellows and Boland sat across from Seán Mac Eoin, Pádraig Ó Malley and Séamus O’Dwyer, and repeated their line that, while a general election was permissible, anything that would benefit one side at the expense of the other – as in their own – was not. With a stand-off reached and nothing beyond, all that was left for the Peace Committee to do was admit its failure to the Dáil,
Still, the three weeks of talk were not a complete waste. A proposal for a Coalition Government, one consisting of members from both sides, had been drafted on the last day of the Committee and forwarded to the Dáil as the best that could be offered for the moment. Next up was the turn of Collins and de Valera, the standard-bearers of their respective parties, to sit down together in the hope of a breakthrough. The next Dáil session was due for the 20th May 1922, during which the two leaders would announce their results – if there was anything worth showing, that is.
Picking the Fruit
A crack in the impasse was hinted at when John Chartres called in at 91 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin, the house of Seán T. O’Kelly, at 10 pm on the Friday of the 19th May. Chartres had worked as a secretary for the Irish Plenipotentiaries who had negotiated the Treaty in London, while O’Kelly was TD for Dublin Mid, and though each had chosen different sides – Chartres for the Treaty, O’Kelly against – the pair remained friends.
The news was not good, Chartres confided in O’Kelly, for while he was convinced of Collins’ desire for peace, he was also certain that his talks with de Valera would only result in more dashed hopes. To prevent this, he begged his host, in the course of the two or three hours they spent conversing, to step in:
He insisted also that now was the right moment. The atmosphere was propitious and action taken by us that same night, if we would agree to intervene, was sure of good fruit.
Midnight had long passed by the time Chartres took his leave. Seán O’Kelly continued talking, now with his wife, Mary Kate O’Kelly (née Ryan), who had been present, about what their guest had brought to his attention. O’Kelly was sceptical as to the sincerity of the other side, who were sure to insist that the Treaty be included in any deal, with Mary Kate being more hopeful. Her sister, Mimi, after all, was married to Richard Mulcahy, giving her as much personal stake as anyone in the matter.
With sleep that night an impossibility, the couple decided that Mary Kate would use her connection and call Mimi that Saturday morning, before 8 am, and arrange a get-together between their husbands. When Richard Mulcahy, on the other end of the phone, suggested they meet in the government buildings, O’Kelly counter-proposed the more neutral territory of the Gaelic League on Ely Place. This was agreed, and when the pair met at 9 am:
I outlined to Mulcahy my plans for an agreed peace. They were only a rough outline but were on the lines of the pact that was agreed later that day. Mulcahy, after some criticism of some of the details of my proposals and making some suggestion of amendments here and there, said he believed the proposition I made would be acceptable to his side.
Would it be so to Collins, O’Kelly asked? The Corkman wore a variety of hats: Chairman of the Provisional Government, Minister for Finance and, perhaps most importantly, ‘the man who had won the war’. Obtaining his support was critical, which Mulcahy thought likely. To make sure, he offered to bring the man in question over so O’Kelly could hear for himself. He drove off in his car and returned to Ely Place, a speedy ten or fifteen minutes later, with Collins beside him.
After O’Kelly repeated what he and Mulcahy had gone over, Collins said he was willing to try but – in an echo of O’Kelly’s question about him – what were the chances of bringing de Valera on board? He and Collins were due to meet again at noon, the last such encounter before reporting to the Dáil. O’Kelly promised to talk to de Valera. In addition, he offered to attend the summit between the two leaders if he could, with the addition of Boland since he and Collins were still close.
O’Kelly found de Valera in the Republican Party offices in Suffolk Street, chairing a gathering of their colleagues in preparation for the Dáil session. De Valera had already informed them that the odds of any sort of breakthrough with Collins later that day was remote, but O’Kelly asked if he could announce something important:
I then told of my own meeting with Mulcahy and Collins that morning. I told the whole story and its beginning and end. I added my firm conviction that Collins and Mulcahy really wished for peace, an agreed election and later a coalition government.
Not all present were so trusting, but the notion at least was not dismissed out of hand. De Valera had to depart for his appointment with Collins, leaving O’Kelly to oversee the rest of the discussion. O’Kelly told them of his intent to join the pair in their talk and, after some questions, the others agreed to grant him carte blanche to do what he judged best.
From Abuse To Agreement
Off O’Kelly went to the Mansion House, accompanied by Boland, where they met Mulcahy, who told them that so far no progress had been made between de Valera and Collins, and that was the way it looked to stay. Undeterred, O’Kelly entered the meeting-room, with Boland and Mulcahy in tow, to find the other two seated at a table.
How far had they gone in looking through the Peace Committee proposals, O’Kelly inquired?
“We haven’t got past the first b_____ line,” Collins replied, his language being saltier than O’Kelly’s, who primly censured the expletive in his memoirs.
Well, I suggested, let us now start with the last paragraph of that report and work backwards. I am going to act as the chairman. Thus, we five started. There was heated argument, there was abuse, which sometimes almost led to violence but after about three hours [of] argument the Pact was made and signed by the two leaders.
By then it was 4 pm. Lunch had been completely forgotten, as everyone suddenly and keenly realised. The Lord Mayor, Laurence O’Neill, came to their rescue with sandwiches and coffee, while his secretaries typed up copies of the Pact. They were late enough as it was, since the Dáil was supposed to open at 3 pm, and so both Collins and de Valera agreed to quickly convene their respective parties in private and secure their consensus before announcing anything.
O’Kelly accompanied his leader as:
De Valera made his report to the anti-Treaty deputies. After a good many questions had been asked and explanations given his report and the Pact he had signed was unanimously approved.
At the other end, however, things did not go so smoothly.
O’Kelly was in the council chamber of the National University in anticipation of the Dáil, when Boland appeared with the request from Collins to see him outside. There was a bump in the road, a doleful Collins told O’Kelly, in the form of Griffith, who was furious with what Collins had brought to him. Other pro-Treaty TDs such as Seán Milroy and Seán McGarry were in angry agreement with the President, and it looked as if the Pact would grind to a halt before it had even began.
O’Kelly was not impressed. “You are running away,” he told the other man:
Can’t you be a man of your word? You are the Boss. You have signed the Pact. You have the power to force it through. Go back and do so.
O’Kelly expected an enraged Collins, one who would curse and shout and match him, verbal blow by verbal blow. Instead, ‘the man who had won the war’ took the challenge on the chin, with a resigned – even mournful, O’Kelly thought – manner. He would go back and try again, he said.
O’Kelly lost track of time as he waited for Collins to return. When he did, it was to again admit defeat. Griffith was not to be moved. Could O’Kelly try instead? O’Kelly thought it a strange request under the circumstances but said that he would.
When Griffith came out, he and O’Kelly met in one of the empty classrooms inside the University. They talked for about fifteen minutes, or rather O’Kelly did, as he pointed to the state of their country. Former comrades were at each other’s throats and internecine strife liable to erupt at any moment. Should Griffith bar the Pact from passing and the worst happened, then the blame would fall on his shoulders. If nothing else, the Pact would provide breathing space and maybe – who knows? – some sort of lasting solution would be found in the meantime.
O’Kelly was begging by the time Griffith relented. He would withdraw his opposition, he said, and was as good as his word when the Dáil finally opened and it was given to him as its president to formally propose that the deputies approve the deal. They did so, and the Pact became, as O’Kelly put it, the law of the land.
As if it was as simple as that.
From Mick to Mr Collins
If not quite the father of the agreement, then Boland could claim at least to be its midwife. “I worked very hard to secure unity and am quite happy with the present situation,” he wrote in a letter on the 30th May 1922. “The whole game is now in the hands of Mr Collins.”
Which, as dear a friend as Collins was, did not leave Boland entirely at ease:
We shall see how he will act. I, for one, would like to think that he will direct all his actions towards the Republic. I cannot say that I doubt him; yet I am uneasy as to his intentions.
Overlooked in these reluctant suspicions was Griffith. Holding up the Pact, even if only for a short while, was one of the few displays of power he managed for, despite his exalted role as President, Griffith was becoming an irrelevance, a totemic figure much honoured but barely consulted. “There were always a lot of men in and out to see him,” remembered his secretary, Elizabeth MacGinley, “but nothing of any importance was every discussed, at least when I was present.”
Even Collins’ visits were rare, and the only discussion of note between them that MacGinley witnessed was about the Pact:
Griffith was totally against it and I was present when he tried to prevail on Michael Collins to abandon the idea. But Collins had given his word and believed the arrangement wold be successful and would bring about a reconciliation between the parties. Therefore, in spite of his eloquent pleading Griffith failed to divert Collins from his purpose.
It was not the first time the two leaders of the Free State differed on what direction they should take the country. According to Ernest Blythe, “Griffith seemed to me to have made up his mind at a comparatively early stage that the conflict was inevitable,” while Collins swung from pugnacious anger to diplomatic restraint.
As an example of these shifts in mood:
Once he came back after having been prevented from visiting Terence McSwiney’s grave in Cork, he appeared to be fully determined on drastic action, but within a few days he was in a different frame of mind.
If Collins blew hot and cold, then Griffith at least knew his own mind – his problem was, however, that he seldom expressed it. The only speech that Blythe remembered him delivering to the Cabinet was in March 1922, during the stand-off in Limerick between pro and anti-Treaty forces that was threatening to spill out into violence, only three months after the Treaty ratification.
To Griffith, it was a moment of decision, the time for them to take responsibility as a government now that they were one. If there was to be a war, best get it over and done with, rather than let the country rot with lawlessness. Inwardly, Blythe agreed but kept his silence, aware that it would be the Corkman making the final call.
As Collins could not bear the thought of turning guns on his old comrades, he eagerly grasped the olive-branch proffered by Mulcahy, who vouched for Liam Lynch’s ability to mediate a climb-down for both sides in Limerick. Though Lynch was in the anti-Treaty camp, he was also desirous of an amicable solution. In that, Collins had much in common with him – more so, in any case, than he had with Griffith, who began to refer to his minister, with icy civility, as ‘Mr Collins’, rather than ‘Mick’ or ‘Collins’ like before.
It is questionable whether Collins noticed the difference, considering how withdrawn Griffith had become. “His silences were the most expressive evidence” of his dissatisfaction, according to MacGinley. “I rarely heard him discuss the situation with anybody.”
A Hair’s Breadth
Little wonder, then, that Griffith was increasingly isolated inside the government whose prerogatives he championed. The decision to go ahead with the Pact was a particularly painful moment for him. Several others among the pro and anti-Treaty deputies, seated together, had chosen in its favour before the vote came round the table for the President’s turn.
As he waited, Blythe could not help but notice the state Griffith was in:
He worked nervously with his neck-tie in silence. He took off his glasses and wiped them, and I noticed that his hand was shaking so that he could hardly hold them. He put on his glasses, fiddled with his tie again; again he took off his glasses and wiped them, the whole thing occupying, it seemed to me, three of our minutes while dead silence reigned round the table.
In that brief, but excruciating, amount of time, Griffith held the balance of power in the room. Had he said no, the Pact would be dead in the water and the Cabinet split – not that, in Blythe’s opinion, many would be too upset, considering the reservations about the Pact by many, even those who had already consented.
As it was, Griffith sealed the deal with a simple “I agree” and that was that.
Before reconciling itself to the outcome, the Irish Times may have been speaking for itself when it declared how “the Irish people have run the whole gamut of astonishment and disillusionment in recent months.” Griffith’s about-turn, in particular, was worthy of note:
On Friday last Mr Griffith announced that the issue of the Treaty, the whole Treaty, and nothing but the Treaty, would be submitted to free elections in June. Within twenty-four hours the new agreement, to which Mr Griffith assents, was given to the world, and the word ‘Treaty’ is not mentioned once.
Far from resolving the controversy that had been blighting Ireland, this new-fangled Pact seemed set only in making it worse: “The Free State Party has given everything to the Republicans, including things which it had no title to give. What have the Republicans given in return?”
The answer was simple: peace. And yet where were the guarantees of even that?
Will the Freemasons’ Hall, the Four Courts and other public and private buildings in Dublin be restored immediately to their proper uses? Will the Republican forces in the South combine to suppress the raids and bank robberies which are destroying the country’s trade?
The text of the agreement offers no clue. We cannot believe, however, that the bargain is so one-sided as it seems to be. Mr Griffith, a man of strong and consistent principles, can have made his strange volte face only under the pressure of some truly compelling argument.
Griffith would not have disagreed, at least about the ‘pressure’ part. Feeling that the choice had been less a case of ‘compelling’ and more one forced on him, he made no secret of his dislike, either of the Pact or of the Chairman to his own government, being “within a hair’s breadth of breaking with Collins,” in Blythe’s opinion – as though the country needed a further split. If the stress of it all had been enough to drive Boland and de Valera into a shouting match, then pro-Treaty partnerships were likewise straining at the seams.
Sneaking Through a Verdict
Collins himself would come to regard the whole episode as something of an old shame if his subsequent explanation is something to go by. “An agreement was reached between Mr. de Valera and myself for which I have been severely criticised,” he admitted in his public writings:
It was said that I gave away too much, that I went too far to meet them, that I had exceeded my powers in making a pact which, to some extent, interfered with the people’s right to make a free and full choice at the elections.
On that particular point, he offered no rebuttal. When interviewing Collins some months later, in the midst of the Civil War, the journalist Hayden Talbot noted the reticence of his subject against expressing any sort of personal opinion on the Pact, preferring to stick to the dry facts and nothing further.
To even a devoted follower of Collins, “perhaps all that can be said in [the Pact’s] favour was that it was an attempt to make the best of a bad job, a last desperate effort to find a way out in face of the threat of civil war,” wrote Piaras Béaslaí:
Without it, in view of the attitude of the armed [anti-Treaty] Irregulars, it would have been impossible to hold a free election. The opponents of the Treaty, in fact, used the threat of the guns to secure a representation which they could not have obtained on the free vote of the people.
Despite his own success in the election-to-come, voted to the seat of Kerry-Limerick West, Béaslaí claimed that, if not for the fact he was out of the country at the time, he “would not have consented to being put on the panel, as I disproved of the ‘pact’ on principle.”
But, if Collins was genuine to a fault in his desire for peace, and sentimental towards wayward comrades-in-arms like Lynch and Boland at the expense of offending current allies, he also had a calculating side, in Blythe’s view: “Collins, in entering the Pact, was undoubtedly actuated mainly, if not entirely, by a desire to get some sort of a popular verdict over the Treaty.”
For the Irish Times was quite correct in guessing that any gains from the Pact were not limited to one side – in the long run, anyway. Previously, Collins had tried to arrange with de Valera a plebiscite on the basis that:
Collins knew such a plebiscite would show an overwhelming majority for the Treaty and should justify any action that might have to be taken if the recalcitrant armed forces continued along the path they had been taking.
While de Valera had rejected the idea of a plebiscite, Collins was sure that a general election, Pact or otherwise, would be the next best thing: “Collins felt that even under the Pact a test of popular opinion could be obtained.”
And now Collins was about to have one. As for what would happen next, well, who could say…?
Tyrone accent, small brown eyes, regular nose, pale complexion, long face…has a habit of looking in a shifty way from side to side and downwards when speaking to anyone…keeps hands in trouser pockets; peculiar gait, takes long steps and looks shaky at the knees when walking.
(Police description of Patrick McCartan, May 1916)
Choosing the Best Man
Politics makes for strange bedfellows, even for the Irish Times, but, so explained its editorial, a higher principle was at stake: should the Presidency of Éire be defined by party machinery or individual worth? While elections in Ireland were nothing new, the one in June 1945 for the head of the twenty-six county state was a first. Dr Douglas Hyde had secured that honour seven years by unanimous agreement of the nation’s elite; among his many achievements, Hyde belonged to no political camp and was thus an uncontroversial choice. But now the electorate had come to a three-pronged fork in the road, with a trio of candidates before them: two titans in Seán T. O’Kelly and Seán Mac Eoin, and a third hopeful, Dr Patrick McCartan.
That McCartan was running at all was a surprise, considering he had only just about secured the minimal number of signatures on his nomination papers, these being from TDs and senators in the Farmers Party. This was despite McCartan not standing on their platform, or for any faction for that matter, as opposed to the blocs – and powerful ones at that – behind the other two contenders: Fianna Fáil for O’Kelly and Fine Gael for Mac Eoin.
Which made McCartan’s chances something of a long shot but, for some, his independent status was part of his appeal. “We are glad Dr McCartan has been nominated,” wrote the Irish Times:
We believe that he is a true patriot whose abiding interest is the welfare of the State. Undoubtedly his candidature will have a profound effect on the outcome of next week’s election. By his challenge to the two big parties he has shown himself to be a man of courage as well as of principle. He is fighting a lone battle; but we are convinced that he will not lack popular support.
There were grounds for believing the last point: a straw poll conducted by the newspaper put its favourite’s support at 30.75%, not so far behind Mac Eoin’s 32.48%. The remaining 36.75% had O’Kelly at the fore but, if his lead was formidable, the gap did not appear insurmountable. While the other two had national records second to none – from O’Kelly playing “a man’s part in the Rising of 1916” to Mac Eoin’s time as “active guerrilla leader” during the War of Independence – McCartan’s own was “impeccable”, having been “throughout his life…closely associated with the Irish independence movement.”
For readers scratching their heads at why a broadsheet of genteel respectability was cheerleading for such an unrepentant Fenian, the Irish Times admitted that “this newspaper hardly can be accused of active sympathy with his political ideals.”
We are convinced that, of the three candidates, he is the most suitable. We do not wish to disparage either of his rivals. They are both men who have done the State some service…The fact is, however, that they are both party politicians, for which reason we cannot support them…The electors’ duty is to choose the best man, and ignore all party ties.
Whether the electorate did just that on the big day, the 16th June 1945, is a matter of debate. When the first preference votes were totalled, it was a resounding win for The Powers That Be:
Seán T. O’Kelly – 537,965
Seán Mac Eoin – 335,543
Patrick McCartan – 212,791
An overall majority had been denied to all three contenders, necessitating a sequel count based on the second preference votes, but it would be between O’Kelly and Mac Eoin, the underdog having been edged out. The Irish Times put on a brave face when O’Kelly was announced as the new President of Éire, taking solace in how the Fianna Fáil standard-bearer had not had an easy victory. That the Independent had earned support at all was seen as a win in itself.
We feel that Dr McCartan, whose chances of success from the very beginning were slight, has done a national service by his courageous candidature, which, of course, has been financed out of his own pocket. He had proved that there is still a hard core of intelligent opinion in this country which is prepared to turn a deaf ear to the platform bellowings of the politicians.
Which, again, is debatable. Either way, this sort of quixotic endeavour was characteristic of McCartan. He had been the dissenter in the system, an eternal maverick, even as far back as January 1916 when, at a meeting of the Supreme Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), he had voiced doubt about the wisdom of rebellion without first securing popular support.
The Supreme (Committee)
Though this caused a stir from a number of those present, Denis McCullough, as Chairman of the Supreme Council, was more understanding. Shushing the critics, to whom any chance of a fight against the British occupation must be seized and without delay, McCullough pointed out that the question was a fair one and the condition McCartan raised entirely in keeping with their Constitution.
On the other hand:
I stated that we had been organising and planning for years for the purpose of a protest in arms, when an opportunity occurred and if ever such an opportunity was to arrive, I didn’t think any better time would present itself in our day.
With both differing strands of thoughts – McCartan’s caution versus hard-line pugnaciousness – appeased, the subsequent discussion was conducted in a more judicious manner, ending in an agreement to carry out such a ‘protest in arms’ upon any of three contingencies:
Any mass arrests of Irish Volunteers, particularly their officers.
Conscription imposed on Ireland.
The premature ending of the Great War, at least on Britain’s part.
A compromise had been reached: commitments made without too much of a commitment. To take the IRB – as well as the Irish Volunteers which the Brotherhood had been infiltrating since their formation in November 1913 – into more of a war footing, a Military Committee was formed, consisting of Tom Clarke, Seán Mac Diarmada, Patrick Pearse, Éamonn Ceannt, Joseph Plunkett and, later, Thomas MacDonagh and James Connolly.
“I think that they were given limited powers of co-option,” McCullough wrote years afterwards, in 1953, to the Bureau of Military History (BMH). “However, I am not certain of these latter details about the Military Committee.”
It says much that not even the President of the IRB’s ruling clique was entirely sure about the goings-on of one of its junior bodies. McCartan provided more details in his own reminiscences about the aforementioned gathering, such as Clontarf Town Hall as its location. He also recalled himself saying: “We don’t want any more glorious failures,” which was what presumably provoked the hullabaloo that McCullough described and was enough for one other attendee, Diarmuid Lynch, to later write of McCartan as being against the whole idea of an uprising.
“This was not true,” McCartan clarified to readers of his own BMH Statement. It was just “I did not want our people to rush out into a revolution unprepared and without practical hope of success” and was unafraid to say so, even to a roomful of his peers. Not that the others on the IRB Supreme Council had anything stronger to contribute:
I remember Pearse saying in a vague sort of way, “Around Easter would be a good time of the year to start a revolution”. Pearse spoke more like as if he was thinking aloud when he said this, rather than making a definite proposal.
McCartan did concede the possibility that he was misremembering things – such are the perils of recording decades after the event. He was sure, however, that no definite date for insurrection was set at the meeting – he had been there, after all – nor had it been beforehand. Otherwise, “I’m certain Tom Clarke would not have concealed such important news from Denis McCullough and myself.”
Time had perhaps allowed him to make a generous appraisal. In the immediate aftermath of the 1916 Rising, however, McCartan may have been of a very different certainty. By mid-1917, he was in New York, on behalf of the underground Irish government, where he met two other revolutionary expatriates, Frank Robbins and Liam Mellows. Easter Week had marked all three, albeit in different ways: Robbins had fought in Dublin as part of the Irish Citizen Army, while Mellows commanded the Irish Volunteers in Co. Galway.
Mellows was supposed to have been McCartan’s superior officer, had McCartan led the Tyrone Volunteers to him as intended, but obviously very little had gone as planned and it was left for the trio to make the best of things with each other in a foreign land. Mellows and McCartan quickly grew close, much to Robbins’ chagrin, for, while he and Mellows were walking together, Robbins asked the other man why he was in a gloomy mood.
“If I had known as much in Easter Week as I know today, I would never have fired a shot,” Mellows replied. The authority of the IRB Supreme Council had been usurped, Mellows explained, and its prerogative stolen by the Military Committee in order to launch the Rising under false pretences. Mellows went so far as to call the Committee a junta, an opinion Robbins suspected was more McCartan’s than Mellows’ own. Though Mellows hotly denied this was the case, an unconvinced Robbins insisted on setting straight the record as he saw it: the men of the Military Committee such as Clarke, Pearse and Connolly were heroes who had laid down their lives for Ireland, however much McCartan badmouthed them to justify his own dereliction of duty.
Mellows was thankful when Robbins was done, saying he had helped set his mind at ease. Robbins was troubled all the same; McCartan had been in the United States for less than a fortnight and already he was raising awkward questions about the rights and wrongs of Easter Week.
Making Sense of Things
(From Patrick McCartan’s interview with the Pension Advisory Committee on 28th July 1940)
Q: Were you in touch with them here in Dublin at that time – the three weeks before Easter Week ?
A: I could not tell you. I was up in Dublin sometime or other and saw Tom Clarke. He told me to see Pearse. I saw Pearse, and Pearse told me that our function would be to go to a place called Belcoo [Co. Fermanagh]. That there was a plan – there was to be a German landing. If there was a German landing, we were to go to Belcoo and join up with Mellows in Galway. He did not say Mellows. I had to keep the line of the Shannon. He said there might be other instructions later. He did not give me the instructions in case of no German landing and that puzzled us. The idea of that I could not tell you.
Q: For the three weeks before Easter Week, were you doing anything particular?
A: Not that I know of. I came up on Holy Thursday [the 20th April 1916]. I got word on Holy Thursday and I came up to make sure – I think it was Burke, now Dr Burke. I came up on Holy Thursday and saw Tom Clarke. He was enthusiastic about it and he expected a German landing. Going home on the train [to Co. Tyrone], I saw in the evening paper where the Aud was captured and Saturday I sent up my sister and two Miss Owens to make sure: one of them came back on Saturday night and had seen Tom Clarke and he said it was hopeless but we must go on. On Sunday, the other two arrived back with [Eoin] MacNeill’s message [cancelling plans for the Rising]. The Belfast men came down to Tyrone. I did not know they were coming until they arrived.
Q: That was on Sunday [the 23rd April]?
A: Saturday or Sunday. We sent them back on Sunday after getting MacNeill’s message.
Q: It was Friday, probably, you were coming home?
A: Friday, I think it was.
Q: On Saturday, you sent your sister and the Misses Owens to Dublin and they returned?
A: One of them returned on Saturday night by the mail train and the other two on about 2 o’clock on Sunday.
Q: And the Belfast men came on Saturday night?
Q: On Sunday of Easter Week, the Belfast men went back?
Q: You remained at home that day?
A: I suppose I went back and pretended to be as innocent as I could.
Q: During Easter Week?
A: Monday, I got word from Pearse. The message was “We started. Carry out your orders”. Matt Kavanagh’s brother brought it to me. That was about dark on Monday evening and I sent word around that we were going to Clogher and got Fr. O’Daly out of his bed at 4 o’clock in the morning. On Tuesday, we had all the fellows mobilised and then our orders were to go to Belcoo. We did not know what we were going to do. That night, Fr. O’Daly and Fr. McNeillus came and then that night I spent telling the rest to go home. We did not know what to do.
Q: Wednesday, Thursday and Friday?
A: Wednesday, I don’t know what I was doing.
Q: For the rest of the week, were you a sort of standing to?
A: Our idea was to start out again as soon as we would get out [sic] bearings and see what we could do. I did not go back to work after that at all. Where I was or what I was doing, I don’t know. Fr. Daly and Father Coyle and myself [and] Fr. McNeillus, we were meeting and discussing business.
Q: For the rest of the week you were waiting then?
A: After Thursday, they began searching every house. I just escaped out of my father’s house that day.
Dealing with the North
If Ulster does not loom large in the memory of the Rising, then, in fairness, it was never intended to be more than an afterthought. This was made plain to McCullough when summoned to a meeting with Pearse and Connolly in Dublin. Despite his presidency of the IRB Supreme Council, as well as rank of commandant over the Belfast Volunteers, McCullough listened passively as Pearse laid out the plan of action.
Once the Rising was decided on, McCullough would receive a coded message a week beforehand. Come zero hour and he was to mobilise his subordinates, armed and equipped accordingly, and march them all the way to Tyrone, join up with the Volunteers there, and then continue towards Galway, where Mellows was to take overall charge. All of which was quite an undertaking, considering how this was to be done on foot, to say nothing of the limited armaments of the Belfast men, for surely the various barracks and garrisons of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) along the way would resist.
When McCullough pointed this out:
Connolly got quite cross at this suggestion and almost shouted to me “You will fire no shot in Ulster: you will proceed with all possible speed to join Mellows in Connaught, “and”, he added, “if we win through, we will then deal with Ulster”…I looked at Pearse, to ascertain if he agreed with this and he nodded assent, with some remark like “Yes, that’s an order”. That interview is perfectly clear in my mind, and was exactly as I set it down.
McCartan was given similar instructions by Pearse, who told him, in response to the question of any RIC strongholds facing them: “Don’t waste time dealing with police” – which did not in itself make the problem go away. McCartan at least had the promise of German reinforcements – which McCullough did not, if his memory was as clear as he claimed – as relayed to him by Clarke while staying the night in the latter’s house. McCartan had received word in Tyrone on the morning of Holy Thursday, the 20th April 1916, about a shipment of arms the Aud was bringing for the rebellion, but details were so vague that he went down to Dublin to have them clarified.
There was nothing to worry about, Clarke assured him, not with five thousand – at least! – of the Kaiser’s finest on their way. By the time McCartan left for the Friday morning train back to Tyrone, he was as giddy as Clarke – until, that is, he read of the arrest of Roger Casement and the Aud’s capture while sitting in the carriage with his newspaper. While he did not think these twin blows would be enough to derail their enterprise, the mood in the North was apprehensive enough already, even amongst Those In The Know. While passing through Monaghan on the way to see Clarke, McCartan was warned by a priest, Father McPhillips: “Tell them in Dublin not to do anything until the British try to enforce conscription and then the whole country will be behind you.”
Another man of the cloth, Father Eugene Coyle, had attended a gathering of Volunteer officers a day or two earlier, on the Tuesday or Wednesday of Holy Week, in Beragh, Co. Tyrone. McCartan and McCullough were present, along with another Fenian-minded priest, Father O’Daly, and several other insiders. Though Father Coyle was to describe it as a ‘council of war’, the mood was far from belligerent, particularly when the latest missive from Pearse, outlining the joint role of the Tyrone and Belfast contingents, was read out.
If McCullough had been apprehensive upon hearing it the first time, then the others were no less dismayed: the distance to cover was formidable, their men undersupplied and the countryside they were to enter strongly held by the enemy. When one of the attendees, failing to read the room, suggested they begin by blowing up trains carrying British soldiers from Derry to Dublin, the threat to civilian life was deemed too great by the rest. The proposal was quickly dropped.
The presence of Fathers Coyle and O’Daly would not have surprised the RIC District Inspector (DI). When writing his report in May 1916 about the disturbances in Tyrone of the month before, DI Conlin noted how “Dr Patrick McCartan, a dangerous IRB suspect” had a way of attracting “considerable clerical support, because he was very astute and had the art of hiding his real sentiments from those to whom he did not wish to reveal them.”
No dissembling would have been necessary with Father Coyle, who had been converted to physical force methods even prior to knowing McCartan. Alarmed at the rise of the Ulster Volunteer Force in his parish of Fintona, Co. Tyrone, Coyle decided it was only just that his congregation should likewise exercise their right to bear arms. Paying for fifty rifles from his own means, which he distributed to the Fintona Volunteer Company, brought him to the attention of McCartan, then the medical officer of the Gorteen Dispensary District.
“Dr McCartan and I became great friends,” Father Coyle told the BMH. “I had great admiration for the work he was doing in organising the Volunteers and the IRB all over the north of Ireland.”
The respect went both ways, with McCartan allowing his priestly friend to sit in on IRB conclaves, where he also made the acquaintance of McCullough and Father O’Daly. Coyle’s religious scruples held him off from taking the Fenian oath – secret societies being frowned upon by the Church – though not from accompanying McCartan in the latter’s car to Dublin and driving back with guns purchased out of McCartan’s medical salary. Father Coyle’s martial philosophy was more reactive than proactive – “I believed that defensive military preparation by our people was the keystone of our national wellbeing,” as he put it – while his friend’s was willing to risk an outright insurrection – when the time was right, that is.
In McCartan’s view, the time was most certainly not right, so he told Father Coyle sometime in early 1916. He was not alone in thinking so, as he relayed to his priestly confidant about an IRB summit in Dublin from which he had just returned:
A small minority of the delegates expressed the opinion that the Rising should be postponed until the country was better organised, as in many counties there did not exist any organisation whatever…The position in the north then was that in all areas except East and South Tyrone and Belfast City there was no organisation. In the south, with the exception of Dublin, Galway South and Wexford, there was little evidence of any effective organisation.
Nonetheless, the Rising was set to go ahead, much to McCartan’s frustration. His IRB co-conspirators could not seem to think in terms outside of Dublin’s, he complained. If it was fine for the big city, it was the same for everywhere else, went the attitude.
Both he and Father Coyle knew better. When McCartan was singled out for his alleged culpability in the subsequent debacle, Coyle hastened to set the record straight or at least place it in context. “Why specially condemn him for inactivity when in areas like Cork and Kerry with friendly populations, with better organisation, more men, more arms and better equipment, no action took place,” he asked, defending the honour both of his friend and the North’s.
And yet, perhaps there is more than a hint of hindsight in such remarks, composed decades afterwards when the Rising might have appeared doomed from the start. Other sources, written mere weeks after the venture, present McCartan in a much more confident, even cocksure light. A letter of his in early June described how he had, on the Easter Tuesday of the 25th April, proposed to a RIC sergeant that he and his colleagues:
…would get their jobs under the new government if they did not actively oppose us. And I advised him to pretend to do his duty but not be too officious and to pass the word to those whom he could.
McCartan obviously was envisioning himself as someone with a say in this new state of affairs. The sergeant instead reported this seditious offer to his superiors, leaving McCartan open to charges under the Defence of the Realm Act and with no choice but to go into hiding:
Of course I was an ass for saying anything to him but at the time I was certain we would have a walk-over as I thought the Germans were here.
Evidently, news of the Aud’s capture had not deterred McCartan from believing in the story Clarke had spun for him about overseas reinforcements. While he knew all too well now that this had been a forlorn hope, at the time: “I thought the hour for discretion had passed.”
This was not necessarily post factum bravado on McCartan’s part. The RIC report of DI Conlin, written on the 23rd May 1916 to explain to his employers in Dublin Castle how Tyrone had fared, made a point of identifying McCartan as “not only a local leader in the rebellion movement but…was a leader in the higher councils of the Dublin rebels.” Such as the trust bestowed in him that “he had control of large funds from America for propaganda work…I have evidence of large payments made by him to such men as T.C. Clarke of Dublin, who has since been shot, and to Professor MacNeill and others connected with the Sinn Fein movement.”
And McCartan led not just from the shadows. Although the authorities had him under enough surveillance to record his visit to Dublin on Good Friday, as well as observing him and several others in Tyrone “making final preparations for the rising,” Conlin mistakenly believed Easter Wednesday, the 26th April, to be the set date for action. Even when news reached the RIC in Omagh of the fighting in the capital, the warning was considered insufficiently clear for the police to do much more than stand by. Conlin seemed unaware of the divisions within the rebel leadership, and the contradictory orders about whether or not the Rising was to go ahead, attributing instead its failure in Tyrone to the “special zeal, energy, tact and wholehearted devotion to duty” of the RIC.
Self-congratulation aside, the District Inspector was correct in his report that the majority of Tyrone Volunteers simply decided to sit things out:
When the Sinn Feiners assembled at Eskerboy on night of 26 ult. they numbered only 105 all told. The question of attacking the police barracks at Carrickmore was put to a vote, and there was a majority of 3 or 4 against the attack because the forces were not sufficiently strong.
Dr McCartan and the more violent of his supporters fought hard to lead the attack. He failed to carry his point but he had not yet given up hope of raising the republican flag in Tyrone, and he expressed himself to that effect and promised that a sufficiently large force would be in readiness in a day or two.
McCartan never got the chance. On the next day, continued Conlin, three hundred British soldiers drove into Carrickmore and aided the RIC in raiding:
…the home of Dr McCartan’s father where the meeting had been held the previous night, and seized several thousand rounds of ammunition and 15 or 20 automatic revolvers and cartridges and other equipment. This military demonstration and the seizure of the ammunition put the finishing touches on the rebellion in Tyrone.
That McCartan was able to take his two revolvers with him, while fleeing his father’s house in Eskerboy just in time to avoid arrest, was a small victory, though it did little to mitigate the loss of the rest of the arsenal. The Tyrone Volunteers had been in two minds about rebellion, or at least about putting the principal into practice, but now the choice had been made for them, and there was nothing else to be done except lie low and hope the military and police parties would pass them by.
If the Volunteers had really been debating the merits of attacking Carrickmore RIC Barracks, then this meant a departure from Pearse’s instructions to do nothing against the police in Tyrone. As Seán Corr remembered it, however, the question had been no more ambitious than whether to seize explosives from Carrickmore quarry, which ended in the decision not to. Other insider accounts give the impression of an army that had already lost its spirit, going through the motions while waiting for it all to end one way or another.
“When I met [McCartan on Monday evening] he seemed to have had a bad time and showed the effects of it,” recalled Jim Tomney. Tyrone had by then suffered its sole casualty of Easter Week: McCartan’s car, left a burning wreck after soldiers paid a call to his house. With the promise of worse to come, now that the authorities were on the alert, a shaken McCartan told Tomney “that he was not in favour of doing anything further.”
Flight or Fight
(From Patrick McCartan’s interview with the Pension Advisory Committee on 28th July 1940 – continued)
Q: You went on the run?
A: I was on the run from that on [until] about February or January of 1917. It was the end of January because I was arrested on the 28th February.
Q: The 21st or the 22nd February?
A: Sometime like that.
Q: You were deported then?
A: I was in Oxford and Fairford, and we came back for Joe McGuinness’ election.
Q: You escaped from there in May 1917?
Q: You assisted at the election?
Q: It was at that time that you were ordered to go by the Provisional Government?
A: We called it a Provisional Government. It was really the Supreme Council of the IRB.
Q: You could not get a boat to Russia – you were ordered to go to the USA and make your contact there?
A: That is right.
Q: About what time did you leave for there? In June?
A: Yes. The prisoners got out of Lewis [sic] Jail about June. Three weeks before that. It was after McGuinness’ election. I went to London and gave a statement to the Russian – to a secret agent. Then I went to Liverpool looking for a boat and there I saw about the prisoners getting out and crossed over in the boat with them here. I got a statement signed by the officers which was presented to President Wilson.
Q: De Valera signed the statement?
A: Yes and MacNeill and all the officers.
Q: In addition to the Supreme Council of the IRB, you had now the sanction of all the released prisoners?
A: Yes, all the released prisoners really.
Q: With that statement, you left?
A: Yes. I sailed on the Baltic as a seaman. I forgot the exact date. Whatever date they got out, it was on the following Wednesday.
For Frank Robbins, McCartan’s arrival in New York was the start of one headache after another. He and Mellows made the acquaintance of the newest entrant in the Gaelic American newspaper offices, the base of operations of John Devoy, the hoary old Fenian legend. McCartan had only just stepped foot on American soil and already he was at the centre of a crisis.
He had brought with him a document, stating the case of Irish freedom, and addressed to President Woodrow Wilson and the United States Congress. The twenty-six signatures at the end, all of which belonged to Volunteer officers who were newly released from prison, made this as official a statement as could be made by the independence movement. Elaborate preparations had gone into its making: written in indelible ink on starched linen, which had then been washed into a state pliable enough to be sewn onto the inside of McCartan’s waistcoat.
There was just one problem, as McCartan revealed to the others in the room: he had left his waistcoat, and the document within, on the ship.
Whether this was something important or not, McCartan could not seem to decide, at least in front of Devoy, Mellows and Robbins. Fed up with the dithering, Robbins finally undertook to retrieve the document himself. Knowing McCartan had spent his Atlantic crossing on the forecastle of the Baltic ocean liner, Robbins would sneak on board, find the rogue item of clothing and bring it and the contents back. McCartan appeared relieved at hearing this and followed Robbins and Mellows to the harbour of the West Side, where the Baltic was docked. Robbins left the other two on a street corner and, assuming the confident air of a man who had every right to be where he was, tried walking past the guard-sheds of the dock.
Unfortunately, the watchman on duty was not so trusting as to let Robbins pass without a challenge. Nor was he swayed by Robbin’s sob-story of being a down-on-his-luck sailor who had missed his previous ship and was desperate to find employment on another. No pass, no entry, the sentry insisted, forcing Robbins to return, defeated, to where Mellows and McCartan were waiting.
Though the story was to have a happy resolution, Robbins found the whole thing more than a little frustrating:
I do not know how the document was brought ashore eventually but there is a point of view held that it was through the influence of Clann na Gael [the Irish-American organisation headed by Devoy] that this problem was overcome. Dr McCartan in his book “With De Valera in America” says he took it ashore with him on the Sunday, the day the ship docked. Yet on Monday he was deploring its loss, and was party to, and in agreement with my effort to get it by boarding the ship. However, I have given the facts as known to me.
“Frank, McCartan will never make a revolutionist,” Devoy told Robbins one day. “He can never make up his mind about anything which is very important, and I attribute this to being an inveterate smoker.”
Regardless of suspect tobacco habits, Robbins was stuck with McCartan for the meantime. Devoy put his own doubts aside to add the newcomer to the circuit of speakers in talks organised by Clan na Gael, in which McCartan performed to packed houses, sharing the stage with other activists such as Mellows, Sidney Czira (née Gifford) and Hannah Sheehy-Skellington, while Robbins sang suitably rousing songs like Call of Erin, Wrap the Green Flag Round Me and Armed for the Battle.
But patriotic productions were only part of the agenda for McCartan and his stateside peers. Whatever its faults as a military operation, the 1916 Rising had at least set the Irish revolution in motion, and McCartan, whatever his private views about the Easter Week of the year before, was eager to play his part. When Czira told him that a German friend of hers, Lucie Haslau, had bade farewell to some of her compatriots from the German Embassy who were homebound, given the state of war that now existed between their country and America, McCartan was surprised – and intrigued.
What routes were they using, he wanted to know. McCartan returned to Czira’s flat in Beekman Place, New York, the next morning, at a notably early hour. Mellows was with him, the two men being eager to learn if they could take the same ships as the departing diplomatic staff for business of their own in Germany.
Caught in the Act
(From Patrick McCartan’s interview with the Pension Advisory Committee on 28th July 1940 – continued)
Q: When were you arrested in Canada?
A: That was in October 1917. The same year.
Q: You spent ten weeks in jail there?
Q: You were arrested there attempting to go to Germany for special explosives?
A: That is right.
Q: At that time, you were working specially for this group of officers?
A: I don’t know who was in charge then but the question was whether these could be used or not. First, I was to go to Liverpool to organise for the use of them and then it was decided for two to go to Germany. Mellows and I were to go. Mellows was to go first and I was to stay behind representing and then it was necessary to make a second trip.
Q: You were working at any rate for some GHQ and you were working still on the instructions received from [Éamon] de Valera and the others officers there?
A: That is right.
Q: Did you return then to New York after that?
A: They sent me back to New York for trial. I went on a seaman’s passport under an assumed name.
Q: How long were you held?
A: They kept me in the Custom House in the Secret Service place for a couple of days.
Q: You were released then?
A: I was brought into court and got out on bail, first trial.
Our Gallant Allies in Europe
An American-German-Irish alliance had long been identified as the ideal leverage by both revolutionaries and their opponents. While discussing the history of resistance to British rule in Tyone, dating all the way back to the O’Neills in the 16th century, DI Conlin, noted, in his report of May 1916, how:
…this appealed to the sentiment of extremists amongst the Irish in America, and brought unlimited funds through the Clan na Gael, which have doubtless been augmented since the outbreak of war by subscriptions from German-Americans to foster rebellion in Tyrone.
And at the centre of this Transatlantic-Continental conspiracy was, of course, McCartan:
…delegated to Tyrone, his native county by the American Clan na Gael to spread the Sinn Fein and revolutionary movement. His private papers, bank accounts, etc., which I have seized, prove this conclusively.
Even after the absence of their ‘gallant allies’ when it mattered on Easter Week, McCartan stayed true to his Teutonophilia. “Hurrah! Hurrah!! Hurr-ah!!! Great news in yesterday’s papers!” he wrote excitedly, on the 4th June 1916, about the naval news on the Battle of Jutland. “Brittania who rules the waves admits the loss of fourteen warships and others missing. Our cause is not therefore hopeless.” It was time, thus, to renew strategic ties: “We want a representative in Berlin to take [Roger] Casement’s place, and he should get there quickly.”
In the event of no takers, he offered himself for this diplomatic role:
…for I am convinced it is the proper thing to do. If an Irishman arrived there, “to put conditions in Ireland before the German Government” and publish the fact, it would serve both Germany and Ireland. Even though it were impossible for an expedition to come here it would frighten John Bull into giving better terms to Ireland in the coming or promised reform. It would also keep up, or help at least to keep, the enthusiasm of the Irish in America for Germany and perhaps influence the presidential election and Wilson. If the expedition came here it would prepare the mind of the people for it and give them heart.
In other words: whatever happened, an envoy in Berlin could only benefit their cause. Almost a year later, McCartan saw the opportunity to put his theory to the test. Czira answered his request by putting him and Mellows in touch with Frau Haslau and allowed the budding cell the use of her flat for meetings, though she kept her own involvement to a minimum, save counsel. When Haslau asked if she could include a fellow worker in German propaganda, a Dr von Recklinghausen, Czira advised her and Mellows against this, fearing the doctor was too high-profile.
Nonetheless, she did not forbid it and her warning went unheeded, as did her urging of McCartan not to tell Devoy what they were doing. She regarded the Clan na Gael head as a petty tyrant, while Devoy resented the Young Turks who were bucking his authority. McCartan attempted to straddle both horses, continuing to associate with Czira and her allies, while arguing to them that it was unfair to leave the ‘Old Man’ in the dark.
Besides, Devoy had German contacts of his own, exchanging word via a cablegram between Europe and New York, and was sufficiently informed to host a gathering in the Astoria Hotel with McCartan, Mellows and Donal O’Hannigan, the commander of the Louth Volunteers during Easter Week. Devoy assigned to the others their destinations: O’Hannigan was to return to Ireland and await contact with German operatives, with McCartan and Mellows making their way to Germany.
Everything seemed to be laid out smoothly – except for how, as McCartan, Mellows and O’Hannigan left the Astoria, they were tailed by four strangers who O’Hannigan assumed to be police detectives. Though the trio were able to give their shadowy escorts the slip, it was clear that they had not been as discreet as they should, McCartan especially.
As if Dr von Recklinghausen was not inconspicuous enough, McCartan was warned by Devoy not to be paying calls to a certain German woman – Haslau, presumably – who was already known to the American authorities. McCartan continued doing so anyway. Another blunder was when he and Mellows were at the New York Shipping Board for their seamen’s papers in preparation for their Atlantic crossing. As befitting men on a secret mission, both gave false names and provided forged birth certificates as ‘proof’ but, when McCartan was asked by the official at the desk to name his previous ship of employment, he answered incorrectly, as he did immediately after about whether he had been a sailor or foreman before. Though the official made no comment, anyone checking McCartan’s statements against the Board books could tell that something was amiss.
While McCartan was able to secure the necessary paperwork, according to Robbins:
Mellows also informed me that McCartan, who was employed as a cook, was ordered to report daily at 7 am to the ship while she was in port in New York. This he failed to do, on many occasions turning up as late as ten o’clock.
Between this and that, it is little wonder , when the time to move finally came, that their mission was halted in its tracks, like Easter Week all over again. McCartan had set off in October 1917, stopping off in Halifax, Canada, where he was detained by the authorities. A week later, Mellows too was arrested, still in New York, with his fraudulent seaman’s passport on him. Neither would be leaving American shores quite yet, though McCartan at least had the distinction publicly bestowed on him by the media as the “First Ambassador to the Irish Republic.”
(From Patrick McCartan’s interview with the Pension Advisory Committee on 28th July 1940 – continued)
Q: During ’18, you were still there in America?
A: Yes, I was still there.
Q: Were you acting as an envoy there?
A: Yes. That was the best period of work I had, because de Valera came in 1919 and Harry Boland, of course, they took the…
Q: Were you officially working there as envoy right up to the time they came?
A: Yes. I gave statements to the State Department, all that kind of thing. The 1918 Election was here, I sent a note to the Legation in Washington [that] Ireland was separated from the British Empire.
Q: That would be after they proclaimed the Republican Government here in 1918?
A: I did not wait for the Proclamation. As soon as the result of the Election [came in], I acted.
Q: You had been acting as envoy prior to that?
Q: Full time?
A: Yes. I delivered a statement up to [President Woodrow] Wilson or his secretary any time I got one. Then we protested about the Conscription of Irish Nationalists also, and the Conscription here in Ireland, [we] sent it to the State Department.
Q: Before de Valera came over, were you officially appointed by the Republican Government at that time?
A: When Harry Boland came, he gave me the official note appointing me by de Valera as head of the elected Government – he called it, he signed it – of Ireland.
Q: From that on, you were acting in that capacity?
A: Until I went to Russia in 1920. December 29th, 1920, I think, I sailed for Gottenburg.
Q: Who sent you to Russia?
A: De Valera. He gave me one of those printed documents with instructions. It was in Irish and French.
Q: You arrived there?
A: 14th February .
Q: You returned to Ireland what time?
A: I left Moscow, February, March, April, May, June, 14th June ‘21. I was exactly there four months. Then, I think, I spent about a month or so in Berlin, as John T. Ryan.
Q: You were full time there?
Q: Did you return here?
A: I returned here then during the Truce, I could not give you the exact date, I have not the old passport.
Q: You were there up to the time of the Truce?
A: I was. As a matter of fact, the Truce took place when I was in Germany.
Russia had been McCartan’s original intended destination, back in mid-1917. After his arrest and a spell of deportation in England, he had returned to Ireland, participating in whatever opportunities came his way such as canvassing in the South Longford by-election, but otherwise at a loss of what to do. In the wake of Easter Week, the IRB Supreme Council had been reformed without him, though it is unclear if this was an act of exclusion or his own decision.
If the former, then debarment did not stop the Secretary of the Supreme Council, Seamus O’Doherty, from sharing news with him or asking for advice; if the latter, McCartan still itched to contribute to the cause. The O’Doherty family house in Dublin provided a venue for him and like-minded souls to drop in and chat about the state of affairs, and it was during one of these symposiums, between McCartan, O’Doherty and Kevin O’Shiel – another Tyrone-born activist – that the notion of sending an emissary to the Soviet Union on behalf of the Irish Republic was born. O’Doherty forwarded this suggestion at the next Supreme Council conclave, which confirmed it, at least according to McCartan’s account, which makes it all sound very much an ad hoc process, as was the subsequent change of plans to send McCartan to America instead, based on how catching a boat there seemed easier.
Such extemporaneous spirit continued when McCartan finally made contact with the Soviet Union, through the Russian Mission in the city of Reval (modern day Tallinn), Estonia, which he reached on the 6th February 1921. He had hoped to mitigate the worst of this impromptu as far back as May 1920, when the idea of a Soviet outreach was next mooted. “As far as I am personally concerned I’ll go only on condition that I get plenary powers and that I shall have absolute authority no matter who is sent to make final decision in case of disagreement,” he wrote from New York. “This may seem at first sight an extraordinary demand but it is the only satisfactory course.”
Otherwise, standing as a warning was the historical example of Benjamin Franklin during his ambassadorial tenure in Paris – who “had no end of wrangles with his colleagues and in the end had to take the bull by the horns and act as his own judgement dictated” – and, more recently and closer to home, Roger Casement, whose lack of full authority “left him to an extent powerless and even suspected.” McCartan had no intention of letting history repeat itself where he was concerned – but, when the time came, history appeared to have had the last laugh.
Upon meeting Maxim Litvinoff in the Russian Mission in Reval, on the 9th February, his Russian counterpart:
He seemed at first to study me as a sort of curiosity and asked me if I had any programme or plan to submit. As the Cabinet, so far as I know, never sent any recommendations nor suggestions after the receipt of the proposed Treaty and as President De Valera did not give me any specific instructions I was evasive and said that it was considered better to discuss proposals with them as we could only be expected to view the situation largely from an Irish point of view but we desired that whatever agreement, if any, we might make would be to our mutual advantage.
Unfortunately, Litvinoff saw through this prevarication: “He openly expressed disappointment and intimated that it was folly for me to proceed if I had no plan to submit.” At least Litvinoff was willing to discuss the situation with McCartan, specifically whether the Soviet Union would recognise the Irish Republic. The chief sticking point was the treaty being negotiated with Britain, which would react poorly to a separate deal with a country it considered part of its domain. Still, McCartan suspected Litvinoff was not completely averse to tweaking the lion’s tale; when he asked the Russian if he trusted Britain, Litvinoff answered with a sardonic laugh.
Despite the earlier brusqueness, the meeting ended on a positive note: McCartan could proceed to Moscow and meet Santeri Nuratova, Assistant Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs.
Mission to Moscow
Arriving in Moscow on the 14th February, McCartan made a point of being at the Foreign Office exactly on time. He did not have long to wait before his interview with Nuratova, who repeated Litvinoff’s line that the Anglo-Russian treaty-in-the-making was the hurdle to an Irish-Russian one, and the Soviet Union wanted the former very keenly, certainly more than the latter. When McCartan speculated on the chances of these talks with Britain falling through, Nuratova set him straight: “I may tell you confidentially they will not break down for we want the agreement. It is essential for us.”
The Irishman was again left in suspense as Nuratova said he would have to wait until the next day to learn if he could meet the next rung on the Soviet Foreign Affairs ladder: Georgy Tchitcherin, Secretary of State. When McCartan received the affirmative by a telephone-call to his hotel, he was once again punctual for the appointment. Tchitcherin was not, being delayed – so McCartan was told – by a few minutes. Which was not an auspicious start, nor was the opening awkwardness and confusion when the two men met:
Mr. Tchecherin appeared an extremely gentle sort of man, very polite and a trifle nervous. Both of us seemed embarrassed as to how to start. He mumbled rather than asked whom and what I represented. I submitted my credentials from President de Valera and he seemed to read and re-read them.
They were dated Dublin December 15. He asked if I came from Dublin and then asked how I came from New York while the credentials were signed in Dublin. He wanted to know if our Government were in New York. I explained all this. Then he suddenly asked me what I wanted and I said recognition by the Soviet Government and a discussion of co-operation which might be of advantage to both.
When Tchecherin queried Ireland’s sovereignty, considering how the country was still occupied by its neighbour, McCartan had his responses ready: did George Washington not lack full control of the American Colonies when receiving recognition from France against the same enemy as now? Had the Allies not acknowledged in Paris an independent government for Bohemia while it lay under the Austrian thumb? No other government admitted the Soviet Union as one of its own, even though it was accepted as a fact by the peoples of the world. Ireland, likewise, was denied official approval, even while the government McCartan represented ruled Ireland more truly than the British military did.
This question of recognition led to another: Tchecherin had read in the papers about the possibility of President de Valera accepting something less than a Republic, like Dominion Home Rule. Was this true?
Not at all, assured McCartan:
If we said we would accept Dominion Home Rule we would give away our whole case for nothing. Surely he could himself see that it would be very poor statesmanship for President de Valera to say he would accept Dominion Home Rule. There was one real danger of a compromise but it was one with which we were not likely to be confronted. If the British Government threw a genuine measure of Dominion Home Rule at us and virtually said ‘take it or leave it’ we might be compelled to operate it as many of our people might consider it more than they had ever hoped for in their lifetime. In such a case we would have to accept it or run the risk of splitting the people again into fractions.
But, as McCartan had said and what he stressed, this sort of make-or-break offer was very unlikely to happen. As the interview drew to a close, Tchecherin asked what was the likeliest outcome to expect.
“An Irish Republic or a land in ashes,” McCartan replied, “for it is going to be a fight to a finish.”
A Fight to the Finish or Finishing the Fight?
There is no reason to think McCartan did not mean those words; indeed, one handshake made under the table – which did not reach the official memorandum – was for the Soviet Union to smuggle 50,000 rifles to Ireland. McCartan and Harry Boland were to handle the logistics, with the help of their Irish-American contacts and the Irish Overseas Shipping and Trading Company acting in Dublin as the front for surreptitious imports. As with other similarly grand guns-running plans during the War of Independence, this one fell through when the American authorities caught wind of it at their end and alerted their British counterparts. At least McCartan left Russia with his public mission a success, as an accord had been struck that made the Irish Republic the first nation to recognise the Communist state.
Which was ironic, considering how its ideology would be as welcome as the Bubonic Plague in a staunchly Catholic Ireland – but one thing at a time. The possibility that McCartan had assured Tchecherin was impossible – that Britain would offer Ireland something less than a Republic – had just become a reality with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921. McCartan returned to Dublin to attend the Dáil debates as the TD of the Leix-Offaly constituency, a seat he had won uncontested seven months ago in the General Election of May 1921. Such was Sinn Féin’s dominance that its candidates had not even needed to be in the country. But now this sort of absentee representation was no longer permissible. It was time to stand in the Dáil and be literally counted – for the Treaty or not?
Where McCartan stood on that question was one Dan MacCarthy dearly wished to have answered. As Whip for his faction, it was McCarthy’s duty to rally the other pro-Treaty TDs; a stressful job, as evidenced by how intent he seemed, during one parliamentary session, at poking holes in his cushioned seat with a pen-knife. When his neighbour, Ernest Blythe, asked about the matter, McCarthy replied that McCartan, who he had been led to believe shared their support of the Treaty, had asked to be put down on the list of opposition speakers.
Messages remained mixed in the lead-up to McCartan’s allocated timeslot. When President de Valera tried stopping the Treaty dead in its tracks on the opening day of Dáil debates, the 14th December 1921, by questioning the credentials of the Irish Plenipotentiaries in negotiating the agreement in the first place, McCartan spoke up in their defence.
“I do not think the question arises,” he said. “The Delegates had powers to conclude a Treaty. They had plenary powers and it is for us now to accept or reject what they had agreed to.” Perhaps he was remembering his own struggles to have his right to represent taken seriously in Moscow. On the other hand, six days later, on the 20th December, McCartan announced himself “as one who stands uncompromisingly for an Irish Republic.”
Burying the Republic
Later that day, his turn came to rise and explain exactly where he stood. Bitter and vehement were his opening words: “It appears to me, since the opening of the Session, there has been a deliberate attempt to shirk responsibility for the way we find ourselves today,” he said, pointing a metaphorical finger of accusation:
The people elected us to direct the destinies of Ireland at this period and we elected a Cabinet. I submit it was their duty in all conditions, in all circumstances, to lead us, the rank and file, in the best possible way. I submit that they have failed.
The Plenipotentiaries were not to blame for the present disarray. That there was division at all showed the rot and how it had started from the top:
From when representatives had earlier gone to London to ascertain if Irish aspirations could be reconciled with the British Commonwealth.
From when Irishmen in the Dáil announced themselves to be not doctrinaire Republicans.
From when the Cabinet had failed to resign en masse rather than bring them all to this current point.
Because of this, and because of that, the Republic was dead. It had been sold. Partition acquiesced to with the willingness to grant Ulster exclusivity, and all this before the Plenipotentiaries had set foot inside Downing Street. This was not what men had died for. This was not what Tom Clarke died for. Clarke was the noblest of them all, a man McCartan had known intimately, and Clarke had not died for the Treaty or for Document No. 2 or External Association with Britain or Internal Association or anything of the sort. And yet that was the situation they were facing, a situation some preferred to turn away from, nursing wounded pride and resentment rather than to confront like statesmen.
Others present tried to shout him down, calling out ‘No! No!’, but McCartan would have his due:
You can contradict me when you rise to speak. I submit it is dead, and that the men who signed the document opposite Englishmen wrote its epitaph in London. It is dead naturally because it depended on the unity of the Irish people. It depended on the unity of the Cabinet. It depended on the unity of this Dáil. Are we united today as a Cabinet, united as a Dáil? United? Can you go forth after the decision is taken and say the people of Ireland are united? Can you even say the Irish Republican Army is united? You may say it is. I have my doubts. I think any thinking man has his doubts.
But, if not the Treaty, then what was the alternative? What choice could be made?
I as a Republican will not endorse it, but I will not vote for chaos. Then I will not vote against it. To vote for it I would be violating my oath which I took to the Republic, that I took to the Irish Republican Brotherhood. I never intend violating these oaths. I took these oaths seriously and I mean to keep them as far as I can. I believe just the same rejection means war. I believe every man who votes for it should be prepared for war. But you are going into war under different conditions to what we had when we had a united Cabinet, a united Dáil and a united people.
The choice, then, was no choice at all in a literal sense: McCartan would neither vote for nor against the Treaty. Constituents in Edenderry, Co. Offaly, were sufficiently alarmed by their representative’s doleful words and finicky neutrality to wire him a petition, “signed by all classes and creeds”, urging him to consider his own words and get behind the Treaty, lest his withheld support amounted to its repudiation and the chaos that would surely follow.
In the end, McCartan did indeed vote for the Treaty, his name – in its Irish equivalent of Pádraig Mac Artáin – appearing thirty-third on the list of sixty-four representatives in favour, against the fifty-seven naysayers. Which, Blythe believed, was McCartan’s intent from the start, his rejectionist stance which had so worried MacCarthy being an artful ploy to make the reveal of his true commitment all the more dramatic.
Maybe. One could never take anything about McCartan for granted, that most quicksilver of men during this period of flux. Not for nothing did District Inspector Conlin bestow on him the highest accolade as a conspirator and most questionable trait for a co-conspirator: “Very astute and had the art of hiding his real sentiments from those to whom he did not wish to reveal them.”
The full details about what happened at Mountjoy Prison are very difficult to get. However, piecing together the scraps of information which people in the neighbourhood and people in touch with the prison staff are able to provide, it is possible to reconstruct a story of the sensational occurrence.
(Sunday Independent, 15th May 1921)
A Rescue Launched
The Irish Republican Army (IRA) now had possession of the coveted transport. John McCaffrey and four other Volunteers climbed on board the armoured car and drove down the North Circular Road to pick up Joe Leonard and Emmet Dalton. As seasoned combatants, the pair would be spearheading the rescue of Seán Mac Eoin under the guise of British officers who had come to Mountjoy to transfer the prisoner. It was a daring performance, one which both men were suited for in their own separate ways, as Leonard described.
Other than the khaki uniforms they wore and the military vehicle bringing them:
Emmet, having served as an officer in the British Army knew how to serve a prisoner removal order to the authorities, and I had served six months in Mountjoy Prison and had stood-to for the escape of twenty prisoners over the wall [in March 1919], and so knew the prison fairly well, and besides Emmet’s second uniform fitted me to perfection.
If Mac Eoin was in the Governor’s office as intended, then his liberators would be spared having to search for him. The final touch to the script was the IRA party who would present themselves at the prison entrance as soon as the metal-plated motor was inside with the intent of bamboozling the sentries into reopening.
Dalton waved some official-looking papers at the iron gates, which yawned opened to receive them, closing behind with a clang. Two more gates parted in succession before the car, whose driver manoeuvred in a wide turn once across the inside yard until it was facing back to where it came. With a small advance, the car was ‘carelessly’ blocking the inner two gates from closing, leaving only the front one shut.
If onlookers thought this unusual or suspicious, they made no protest as two men in British uniforms strode over to the Governor’s office in a perfect imitation of Important People With Important Things To Do. All was proceeding like clockwork…until, instead of Governor Charles Munro alone at his desk, Leonard and Dalton found him with seven of his aides and the door closing behind them. Was this a trap? Had they been rumbled?
Except Munro was polite enough:
…receiving us very nicely until he mentioned that he must ring up the Castle for confirmation of the order to remove McKeon [alternative spelling]. I sprang up for the telephone and smashed it while Dalton held the staff at bay and then began tying the staff up with the hope of securing the master keys, when a cannonade of shots met our ears.
Something had definitely gone wrong. With nothing left to be done, Leonard and Dalton beat a hasty retreat from the office to the outside steps of the jail…and into bedlam.
A Rescue Aborted
The other five men had been waiting with the car, expecting Leonard and Dalton to return with Mac Eoin between them, and for the second team outside to help distract the sentries on the wicket gate next to the main one.
“However, things did not work out according to plan,” recalled John McCaffrey:
…because the next thing I observed (having at this stage put my head outside the turret) was one of our two men producing revolvers and holding up the warders at the main gate.
Seeing this commotion, a British soldier called on the visitors to halt. At the same time, he raised his rifle and fired, narrowly missing Tom Keogh, one of the other IRA men who had been standing beside the vehicle:
As he was getting ready to fire again Tom Keogh very slowly and deliberately pulled out his revolver and shot the sentry. He immediately stepped over, picked up the sentry’s rifle which had fallen to the ground and threw it on to the back of the car. He then climbed into the car.
More gunshots were coming down from a prison lookout post. Caffrey struggled to return fire with the machine-gun mounted on the top of the armoured car but could not raise it sufficiently high. It was then that Leonard and Dalton reappeared and not a moment too soon; even without Mac Eoin, it was time to go – that is, if they could manage even that.
With more Tommies bearing on them, Leonard picked up the rifle from the downed soldier and:
…ordered the British military back, and on their refusal to obey, knelt down and threatened to fire on them – they seeing an officer kneeling in the firing position, broke and retired to their quarters, but the Police advanced from another position.
Leonard and Dalton leapt on board their ride and roared at the driver to step on it. The car drove through the front entrance, now ajar thanks to the team outside who were supposed to rush the gates as a diversion – and had done so perhaps a little too well, for the guards had drawn their guns and opened fire, wounding one assailant, attracting the attention of the rest of the prison, and forcing Leonard and Dalton to withdraw from the Governor’s office.
Leaving No Stone Unturned
All things considered, it was miraculous that the IRA team escaped at all – but Mac Eoin remained under lock and key. He had arranged for an interview in the Governor’s chamber, where his rescuers were to find him, but a relief force of Auxiliaries had come earlier that morning. Procedure dictated that the inmates be confined to their cells for the newcomers to inspect for identification purposes. Mac Eoin’s protests about his impending interview were to no avail, and it was left for him to ruminate on another missed chance and for others to ask what that had been all about.
“The object of this exploit, it is believed,” read the Irish Times, “was to release an important political prisoner.”
Even after that failure, with the trial date drawing near, Michael Collins did not lose hope of an armed intervention, all the while preparing the legal defence – which, under the circumstances, would be very much a last-ditch effort. In this, he was assisted by Michael Noyk, a long-time legal advisor for the revolutionary movement. Charles Wyse-Powers would defend Mac Eoin in court, as per Noyk’s recommendation, but, when he took ill, Noyk arranged for Charles Bewley to take up the duty instead.
The Mullingar IRA Brigade, meanwhile, was granted a chance to redeem itself. Mac Eoin’s arrest at Mullingar Railway Station could have been avoided if the local Volunteers had intervened as ordered – but there was no point crying over a lost opportunity when another presented itself. Since Mac Eoin’s prosecution hinged on witnesses, the simple solution was to kill them before they could step foot inside the courtroom.
The various Auxiliaries, Black-and-Tan and other policemen from the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) who had seen Mac Eoin in action, and earmarked to testify to that effect, were to pass through the Mullingar area to Dublin, so the tip-off went. Armed with an assortment of rifles, shotguns and revolvers, around fifty or sixty men from the Brigade mustered at Griffinstown, near Kinnegad, hiding behind the roadside fence or in some nearby ruins.
That the turnout was as large as it was by Westmeath standards, and overseen by their Brigade O/C, showed that the Mullingar IRA was at last taking things seriously – until undone by their habitual incompetence when the mine laid on the route detonated prematurely, blowing a massive hole in the road as well as their chances, for surely the incoming convoy had heard. The would-be ambushers hastily withdrew, closing yet another window of opportunity for Mac Eoin – not that they need have bothered, for the information the Brigade had received was wrong, and the witnesses were coming by a different way, through Meath, by-passing Mullingar altogether.
Insurgents elsewhere were feeling the strain. In Mac Eoin’s home county of Longford, “from the time Seán was arrested we did not seem to have the same ‘luck’ in our operations and the enemies [sic] morale had gone up,” recalled his brother, James. “They had become increasingly bold now, and were putting the pressure on very severely since they had got Seán behind the ‘bars’.” The loss of its commander had left the Longford Flying Column floundering, with no one able or willing to fill his shoes.
With a few weeks left to go, and options rapidly running out, Collins showed Noyk a plan of Dublin City Hall, where the court-martial was to take place, and asked if he could use his access to Mac Eoin, as part of his legal counsel, to smuggle in guns for him. When the time came, an armed Mac Eoin would be assisted in breaking out by Dublin IRA men posted at hand.
While he understood how important rescuing his friend was to Collins, Noyk had to point out that the likely security on the day – from armed guards in the court to machine-gun posts on the roofs outside – made escape a slim possibility. Always willing to temper emotion with logic, Collins conceded on that and dropped the idea. When Noyk saw Mac Eoin brought to the dock on the 14th June 1921, cuffed and flanked by burly policemen who stayed by his side throughout the proceedings, he knew he had made the right call in dissuading any further breakout efforts.
‘Feloniously, Wilfully and of Malice Aforethought’
The charge sheet was duly read out to the assembled court:
The Accused, John Joseph McKeon…a civilian, is charged with committing a crime within the meaning of Regulation 67 of the Restoration of Order in Ireland Regulations, that is to say, murder, in that he…on 7th January 1921, feloniously, wilfully and of malice aforethought did kill and murder District Inspector [DI] Thomas McGrath.
When asked how he pleaded, Mac Eoin’s response went beyond a simple ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’, as he made clear to refute the claim that he was a mere civilian:
As a soldier of the Irish Republican Army, I have committed no break either of national law or international law. I admit no offence and I plead not guilty.
The case for the prosecution relied on two points of evidence: RIC witnesses who placed Mac Eoin at the scene of the crime and as its perpetrator, and his alleged confession when arrested in Mullingar. The first of the former, Sergeant Ryan, had been stationed in Ballinalee, Co Longford, at the time, and whose duties included accompanying DI McGrath and four other uniformed colleagues as they approached a lone house in the countryside on the 7th January 1921.
As guided by the Counsel for the Prosecution, Ryan described how he was walking directly behind McGrath as the DI led the way:
Q: What happened?
A: When the Officer [McGrath] turned to step into the doorway, this man, John McKeon, flashed and shot him down in the gutter. He put out his hand like that [witness gestures] and shot him down. I had a full view of him.
Q: You saw the accused come to the doorway and present his revolver or automatic pistol and fire a shot?
Q: About how far away would you be from the accused when he fired?
A: I would be about three feet from him,
Q: With the District Inspector between you and this man?
Q: Have you ever seen this man before? I do not want you to tell us anything about where you saw him.
A: Yes, I had.
Q: Did you know this man by sight?
A: Yes, I knew the man well by sight.
Q: Is that the man, the accused there, who fired the shot?
A: Yes, that is the man.
Q: Have you any doubt about it?
A: No, no doubt at all.
Q: He fired one shot, you say, at the Inspector?
Q: Was that all?
Q: What happened to the Inspector?
A: He fell down dead in the gutter in my opinion; he never moved. He fell down on his face.
A Dying Confession?
The second buttress in the prosecution’s case was the confession, as related by another police witness who had been present in Mullingar on the 2nd March:
Q: Tell us what happened after he was recaptured?
A: He was then taken into the Police Station and he asked for a priest and a doctor.
Q: Where was he wounded?
A: He was wounded in the breast.
Q: By a rifle shot?
A: By a rifle shot. He was taken in to the Police Station and he asked for a priest and a doctor, and they were brought and attended to him immediately.
Q: Did the doctor attend to him?
A: Yes, the doctor attended to him.
Q: Did he dress the wounds?
A: Yes, he dressed the wounds.
Q: Did the priest see him?
A: He did. He then made the following statement to me and to all the other police who were present, but I took it down as I was the sergeant.
Q: He made a voluntary statement to you, then?
A: Yes, after the priest and the doctor had gone. Of course, he was apparently in a dying condition at the time.
Q: While the priest and the doctor were there, nothing happened?
Q: It was not until after they had left that he made a statement?
A: That is so.
Q: Was he in bed?
A: No, he was sitting on a form near the window. He was then apparently in a dying condition.
Q: Tell us a little more about that.
A: He was very pale.
Q: Did he speak distinctly?
A: He spoke distinctly but in a weak voice.
Q: When the priest and the doctor had gone, did he say anything to you or to anybody who was there?
A cynic might wonder why a man, dying or otherwise, would admit to a hanging offence in earshot of his mortal enemies and only after other witnesses had left. In any case, Mac Eoin and his legal allies had no delusions as to the odds of acquittal. While a capable lawyer, Bewley was hamstrung by how, as Noyk observed:
There was very little to defend in one sense. The only possible defence was that the night was dark and as there was a lot of indiscriminate shooting by the RIC themselves, one of their bullets might have hit Inspector McGrath who was in charge of the party.
However, when a prejudiced courtmartial, as in all the other cases, was functioning there was no possibility of that defence being successful though Mr Bewley made the most of what he could in that direction.
Mac Eoin likewise acknowledged that Bewley did his best, even in what the former called a “queer, one-sided trial.” After all, the only witnesses Bewley could call to counteract the official version of McGrath’s death were Mac Eoin’s IRA comrades, who were hardly likely to enter a British court of law unless in chains. Though Bewley succeeded in pointing out discrepancies in the witness testimonies, “it was all talk, talk, talk, talk, and with one obvious result,” that being the inevitable pronouncement of death.
All that was left for Mac Eoin to do was go down fighting – one way or another.
The prosecution rested its case. Papers were shuffled and a few whispered words exchanged about the chamber. Bewley asked permission for his client to address the court, as well as the courtesy of his handcuffs being removed. Both requests were granted and Mac Eoin, after rubbing the stiffness out of his wrists as best he could, discreetly took out of his pocket one of the two slips of card, torn from a cigarette packet.
On each was written a different phrase. If Mac Eoin had been fatalistic upon his arrest – “I know I am for a firing-squad, anyway,” he was reported to have said – now he resorted to a gambler’s toss of the coin. Should the card he drew be the one that read ‘Trust in God, go ahead and do your best!’, then he would seize the revolver off the policeman beside him, firing in one hand while using the other arm to hold his captive as a human-shield.
All the while, Mac Eoin would somehow endeavour to reach the window, through which he would leap to freedom…that is, if he could avoid a broken leg from the thirty feet drop. And make it past the loops of barbed-wire across the outside steps. And not get cut down by a bullet at any point in the process. He would at least have the assistance of Collins’ rescue team, armed and ready in the Royal Exchange Hotel on Parliament Street, opposite Dublin City Hall – contrary to what Noyk believed, Collins was keeping that option open – but Mac Eoin did not rate his odds of success very highly at all.
He might have had a better chance than he thought. Almost three decades later, Mac Eoin made the acquaintance of Noël Browne as part of the Inter-Party Government of 1948-1951. To Browne, his fellow Cabinet Minister was a “gentle peaceful man”, his warrior days long behind him – until Mac Eoin gave a practical demonstration on how to disarm someone by pinning Browne’s hand behind his back. Despite the twenty-two years’ difference between them, the younger Browne was helpless to break out.
In any case, Mac Eoin drew the card with the words ‘Trust in God, have patience and wait!’ That was fate’s signal that he should accept things for the moment and stay put.
‘…Have Patience and Wait’
But, if he would have to endure proceedings stoically, then there was no reason to do so passively. “The closing stage of the trial before Court Martial in Dublin yesterday of John Joseph McKeon of Ballinalee,” reported the Evening Herald on the 15th June 1921, “was marked by a remarkable speech by the accused from the dock.” The first draft had been smuggled out beforehand by Noyk and handed to Collins, who made some slight amendments before Noyk passed it back to his client on the morning of the trial. Otherwise, the words Mac Eoin delivered were his own.
“Officers and gentlemen of the court-martial,” he began:
When you opened this court-martial this morning, I told you I was an officer of the Irish Republican Army and that, as such, claimed treatment as an officer. But, gentlemen, you are here to try me, not as an officer, but as a murderer. Why? Just because I took up arms in defence of my native land? The defence of one’s native land has ever been a privilege to the people of all nations.
As such, as a soldier, he had always abided by the rules of war, including fair treatment of all prisoners he had taken, some of whom would testify to the truth of that. In contrast had been the treatment meted out to him in Mullingar, when his captors had beaten him with rifle-butts.
I have no reason to disparage them in any way or to say anything that is not true, but they did that. I will not say that they did it according to their orders and I will not say that they did it without orders…I was called a murderer in the Day Room of the Barracks. Anyone can understand easily that when I went into the Day Room there was a hubbub – “McKeon the murderer is in.” Yes, but I say: “McKeon the man was in.”
When Mac Eoin had found himself cornered by Crown forces in a cottage in Ballinalee on the 7th January 1921, five months ago, his intent had not been to kill DI McGrath, at least not specifically. Since there were two elderly ladies with him inside, Mac Eoin had had no wish to stand his ground and bring the war to them; instead, he charged out to meet his foes head-on, regardless of the numbers arrayed against him:
Fire was opened by both sides simultaneously. After the first exchange, I noticed that the officer [McGrath] had fallen and that his men were running away down the road. But I wish to emphasis that I fired at enemy forces, not at any particular individual.
McGrath, he explained, “had simply fallen in the fight” as a casualty of combat. It was an explanation, not an excuse. He was no murderer, as the people of Longford and his comrades-in-arms well knew, and he praised both, the former group for their confidence in him, and the latter for gallantry and loyalty, even in the face of overwhelming odds. As for his audience:
From you, I crave no mercy and no favour. I am an officer of the Irish Army and I merely claim the same right at your hands as you would have receive at mine had the fortunes of war reversed the positions. If you do not give me that right, and if you execute me instead, then there is one request that I make. It is that you give my dead body to my relatives so that my remains may be laid to rest amongst my own people.
At this, the speech came to its end. Back went on the handcuffs, and it was left to Bewley to step back in for the rest of his dogged defence.
Strictly speaking, what Bewley introduced next was not evidence of his client’s innocence; if anything, they confirmed his military activities against Crown rule in Ireland – not that Mac Eoin had denied them. Bewley admitted as such, explaining that the witnesses he now called were as character references for the accused. It was an unorthodox approach, and even more so because the witnesses in question had been on the receiving end of the Clonfin Ambush, which Mac Eoin had led as the IRA Longford Flying Column commander, on the 2nd February 1921.
And yet, as men like Cadet Smith took the stand, it was apparent that there was some truth to Mac Eoin’s claim to have followed battlefield decorum:
Bewley: Were you in the first or second lorry at the time of this ambush?
Smith: In the second.
Bewley: You saw the first lorry blown up in front of you?
Smith: I saw the mine go up.
Bewley: And then your lorry was stopped?
Bewley: Was fire then opened upon you?
Bewley: After putting up a fight for some considerable time, I understand you surrendered?
Bewley: Before you surrendered, did you hear him call on you to surrender or anything of that sort?
Smith: Several people called on us to surrender.
Bewley: There was no ill-treatment of any of you after the surrender?
Bewley: After the surrender and you had been disarmed, did you speak to McKeon?
Smith: I spoke to McKeon. First of all, he shook hands with me and told me we had put up a good fight. After that, he left me and I went up to him again after a time and asked if I could go and get some water for some of our men who were wounded. He gave me permission to go and said he would send one of his men with us and I went with another cadet and got the water.
Bewley: Did you see any attempts at violence at any of your party?
Smith: We saw one of the men on the other side of the road hit Cadet Maddock across the face and also make a statement that he wanted to shoot us but McKeon stopped him.
Bewley: After a while, did you see McKeon doing anything for any of your wounded?
Smith: He attempted to help DI Taylor to bandage his wounds but he did not have time because the police arrived.
Bewley: He left because your reinforcements were coming up?
Smith: That is correct.
Bewley: Do you know whether he made any arrangements about your taking one of your lorries to go away in?
Smith: Yes, he said that we could have one of our lorries to take the dead and wounded away in and also that he would send a doctor along to us.
The next witness, Cadet T.J. Wilford, corroborated Smith’s testimony, as part of which he recounted an exchange between the defendant and another of the Auxiliaries at Clonfin that day, called Keeble:
I heard [Keeble] say “Now you have killed three or four of our fellows and wounded several of them, are you going to take our lives as well?”, and McKeon said “No, I am going to let you go, and get your wounded away as best you can.
Perhaps it was just as well that the Mullingar Volunteers had failed to kill the witnesses. All that was left was the summing up of the respective counsels, though there was a brief diversion into theology when the Judge Advocate brought up how Mac Eoin had supposedly uttered an act of contrition into the ear of the fallen McGrath:
Judge: You will probably think that [from] the evidence that the District Inspector was dead before he could have done that is true. However, it may be what is a little difficult to understand is why this whispered act of contrition was necessary if the accused was engaged in an act of legitimate warfare as is alleged in this case.
Bewley: The act of contrition has a rather different signification.
Judge: I may be wrong. I am not a member of the Roman Catholic Church and I entirely withdraw it.
Bewley: If I might state it to the Court very shortly, an act of contrition is a sentiment of contrition for all the sins of his past life which a dying man would naturally wish to express personally, and if the dying man appears to be so weak that he would not be able to express it, any Catholic would consider it his duty to repeat the act of contrition into his ear, and if the District Inspector assented to it, it would be the same as if he himself had expressed it.
Judge: You mean the accused is in this case saying something to the District Inspector which he thinks the District Inspector would himself have liked to express?
Not withdrawn was the inevitable penalty for murder, as DI McGrath’s death remained as per British law, and Mac Eoin was duly sentenced to death. The day after, he was transferred to the condemned row in Mountjoy. Seeing Arthur Griffith, Michael Staines and Eamonn Duggan in the exercise-grounds outside his window, he threw out to them the paper notification of his sentence, folded up in a match-box, for them to retrieve.
With word getting around of his impending fate, Mac Eoin could enjoy at least a certain celebrity as a member of the ‘Big Four’, whose cells adjoined each other’s. One half of the quartet, Mac Eoin and John Donnelly, were under sentence of death, while the other pair, Frank Carty and Christie Carberry, had had the distinction of lengthy jail terms bestowed on them.
Donnelly’s trial had been two days before Mac Eoin’s for his part in an ambush on Brunswick Street, Dublin, during which he received four bullets and required two operations to survive. While in the prison yard together, Mac Eoin confided in Donnelly the latest scheme to get them out; when one had failed, another was grown, like the heads of the legendary Hydra. This time it was by the IRA engineers, tasked by an unabating Collins with tunnelling along the canal side of Mountjoy and into the yard. Complications arose, however, thwarting escape yet again, and though Mac Eoin assured Donnelly that other plans were in the Collins pipeline, the sand in the hourglass for both of the condemned was fast running down.
With nothing else to do, Mac Eoin:
…told me on exercise that one of the Chief Wardens, Mr Breslin, had smuggled in two revolvers, one for Mac Eoin and one for me, and on the morning that we were to be executed, we were to die fighting sooner than be hanged. We were just getting transferred to the condemned cells when the Truce [of 11th July 1921] came in.
Even with hostilities at a halt, Mac Eoin was not out of the fire quite yet. As a prequel to the peace talks in London, it was decreed that all elected representatives of Dáil Éireann who were under lock and key – totalling thirty-five TDs, scattered about in institutions like Mountjoy, Dundalk, Shrewsbury and Dartmoor Prisons, Ballykinlar and Curragh Camps, and Spike Island – be released in time to attend a Dáil session on the 16th August 1921.
Not that anything in Ireland was ever quite so simple, for, in a pronouncement from Dublin Castle on the 6th August:
His Majesty’s Government have decided that one member, J.J. McKeon, who has been convicted of murder, cannot be released.
What with all the ambushes, assassinations and gunplay dominating the headlines and history books, it is easy to forget that the War of Independence was as much a political as military one. Mac Eoin was TD for the Longford-Westmeath seat, a standing he had probably not given much thought to – the 16th August was to be the first opening of the Dáil in a long, long while – but which reared up as one of utmost importance now.
In response to the caveat:
It was officially stated last night [7th August 1921] on behalf of Dáil Éireann that there can be no meeting of Dáil Éireann until Commandant J.J. McKeon is released. It was added that the refusal to release him appears to indicate a desire on the part of the English Government to terminate the truce.
Further pronounced was how, unless Mac Eoin was freed within the next forty-eight hours, the Truce would indeed be considered null and void. Just when Mac Eoin, and Ireland as a whole, had been granted a respite, circumstances were conspiring to steal even that. With no Truce, the war would be resumed, and Mac Eoin’s sentence carried out, barring one of Collins’ attempts at playing Scarlet Pimpernel finally succeeding in the eleventh hour.
Wit and Wisdom
Mac Eoin’s fate had already been of intense interest to figures on both sides of the Anglo-Irish divide, such as Frank Heming, Assistant Secretary to the Chief Secretary of Ireland’s office. According to a conversation with Mac Eoin in the Irish Embassy in London, in the very different time of 1938, Heming had already saved Mac Eoin’s before, in June 1921, when he was first scheduled to be hanged.
Recognising the spanner that Mac Eoin’s death would throw in the burgeoning peace talks, Heming went so far as to enter 10 Downing Street unannounced, to the back-garden, where David Lloyd George was trying to relax with his grandchild. More politics was the last thing a peevish Prime Minister wanted to spend his rare break discussing, but Heming persisted, so he recounted to Mac Eoin:
Mr Heming told me he was explaining in detail what he considered would be the reactions to my execution when at this point the grandchild caught the Prime Minister’s hand and said, “Granddaddy! Come and play!”, to which he replied, “I cannot play now. I have to decide whether a man will live or die”, and that the child replied, “Let him live, Granddaddy! And come on and play!”; then Lloyd George turned to him, Heming, and said, “There is your answer! Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings comes the decision.”
That is, if Lloyd George really allowed young children to decide state policy. A more hard-nosed analysis was provided by General Nevil Macready, commander of the British Army in Ireland, however little he liked the posting, loathing as he did the country and its convoluted ways. To him, the insurgency of the past three years had been nothing more than “an orgy of murder”, with culpability firmly on rebel shoulders.
Nonetheless, Macready kept himself objective when Alfred Cope, Assistant Under-Secretary for Ireland, came to seek his views on the Irish threats to refuse any further peace overtures should Mac Eoin not be freed. Why Mac Eoin should have been singled out in the first place, Macready did not know, putting it down to “some inscrutable reason” – one could imagine his eyes rolling to the heavens as he wrote this in his memoirs – of his civilian overseers in Westminster. In any case, he told Cope he would not protest Mac Eoin’s release, seeing it as a political rather than military responsibility. He repeated this answer when asked again, this time officially by his government.
Privately, Macready rather liked Mac Eoin, in so much as he liked anything Irish, having chatted with him a few times while the latter was recuperating in the King George V Military Hospital from the bullet-wound received in Mullingar. Mac Eoin was one of the few IRA men Macready had met possessive of a sense of humour, a distinction he shared with Collins. Hibernian humour was a subject on which Macready had much to say. “Although the Irish as a race are devoid of humour,” he advised, “it is essential to the peace of mind of anyone who has dealings with them.”
The exception to the rule, Mac Eoin “struck me as a more cheery individual than most of his fellows,” who tended to be of a “fanatical, bitter cast of countenance,” as Macready found them.
Mac Eoin’s wit was on display during a visit in Mountjoy by Canon Markey, a priest from back home in Longford. To the padre’s blasé assurances that everything would be alright, Mac Eoin retorted that he had never known of anyone dropped with a rope around their neck and being the better for it. But Canon Markey was a man of boundless faith, and repeated to the Doubting Thomas before him that Mac Eoin would indeed be fine.
The Final Lap
And he was.
Finally released as demanded and advised, Mac Eoin was awarded a hero’s welcome in his native Longford, the first time he had been back since his fateful departure for Dublin in February 1921, six months ago. Over a hundred people were present on the 11th August 1921, at his reception in St Mel’s College, Longford town. More crowds waited at Ballinalee as Mac Eoin drove there the following day to his home, accompanied by his mother and sister in the car, passing bonfires that lit up the morning darkness.
Yet more multitudes pressed to watch as he travelled next to Bunlahy, Granard, Clonfin and then back to Ballinalee, in what “can only be described as a triumphal march,” according to the Irish Independent, during which Mac Eoin was often obliged:
…to descend from his motor to return the hearty welcome given him. Old women knelt down on bended knees as if in reverence to the great hero, whilst old men and children approached him with tear-dimmed eyes.
Similarly appreciative were his fellow TDs and comrades-in-arms at the opening of Dáil Éireann in the Mansion House, Dublin, on the 16th August 1921. When his turn came to stand and take the oath of allegiance to the Irish Republic, it prompted a burst of applause. In his début as a political figure, Mac Eoin looked different to what many had been expecting of the famed guerrilla warrior but, then, so did many others, such as a boyish Collins and a delicate-seeming Richard Mulcahy.
All three had previously attended another, more low-key meeting, one for the Supreme Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. A long-time initiate in the secret fraternity, Mac Eoin was now elevated to its ruling council, as part of which he was directed by Collins, its president, to propose the election of Éamon de Valera for another presidency, that of the Irish Republic, at a parliamentary session on the 26th August 1921. Though the ironic hindsight – given the schism between Mac Eoin and de Valera to come, centred around the issue of a very different type of oath of allegiance – would border on ridiculous, it was a great honour for Mac Eoin, and Collins clearly had big plans for the man on whose behalf he had spent so much time and effort.
But it was not all business between the pair. As Mac Eoin told Brian Farrell in an interview for Radio Telefis Éireann, many years later, on the 24th August 1962:
Farrell: [Collins] had the reputation in his play hours of being a very boisterous man. Did you ever have any contact with this apart from your initial contact?
Mac Eoin: Only once, the day I was released. When I met him at Vaughan’s Hotel he jumped from the top of the steps outside the hotel down on top of me and flattened me on Parnell Square. That was the affectionate way he had of greeting me.
It was with a stroke of luck that the two passengers found an empty train carriage as the space and privacy allowed them to store their parcel on the luggage rack. The package was not one they would otherwise have treated so casually, given how it was full of ammunition. With that, the pair settled down to a leisurely return journey from Dublin to Co. Longford, where both of them – Seán Mac Eoin and James Brady – were active members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
It was on IRA business that Mac Eoin had visited Dublin, in response to the mailed orders of Cathal Brugha, the Minister for Defence for the underground rebel government. Mac Eoin was somewhat surprised – the Minister did not usually contact others directly – and not wholly thrilled at the summons, given how he was a hunted man, wanted by the British authorities in connection with a number of ambushes that he had led as O/C of the Longford IRA flying column.
In addition, there was the murder charge concerning a police officer, cut down by gunfire while investigating a house Mac Eoin and some others were in. If caught, he would almost certainly be executed. But Mac Eoin was a soldier, and soldiers follow orders, so he journeyed to the big city in the last week of February 1921, accompanied by Brady, who had served as a driver in one of the column’s ambushes.
Following the directions he had been given, Mac Eoin went alone to the candle factory on Bachelor’s Walk that served as Brugha’s headquarters. The Minister got briskly down to business, cross-examining his guest on his military progress for the past year. Brugha was a thorough interrogator but Mac Eoin had taken the precaution of bringing a diary – the handwriting artfully indecipherable to all but himself – and was able to answer each of the questions posed to him.
This took some time. When Brugha was finally done, he moved to the next item on his agenda. As Mac Eoin recalled:
He told me that his reason for asking me so many searching questions was a big one, that he wanted to take me away from the Longford work, and give me a far more difficult job – in London. How would I like that?
Choosing his words carefully, Mac Eoin replied that he would do whatever instructed. Liking or disliking was not a factor. Brugha appeared satisfied at this and proceeded to inform him that he was to undertake the most important mission so far in their war against Britain.
Mission to London
This was nothing less than the assassination of the entire British Cabinet. Fighting the Crown forces on Irish soil was all very well, Brugha explained, but would not in itself save Ireland. For every foe slain could simply be replaced, with the campaign of murder and arson continued in Ireland, and the people of Britain none the wiser about the crimes committed in their name.
Striking at the heart of the Westminster Establishment, well, that would be a very different matter, one which the British public would have no choice but to sit up and take notice of. Mac Eoin was thus to lead the selected team to London, with each member allocated the name of the Government Minister he was to execute. Logistics would be left to Mac Eoin to handle – that is, if he accepted.
Brugha stared at Mac Eoin straight in the eye, waiting for the ‘yay or ‘nay’, leaving the other man distinctly uncomfortable; not so much with the morality of the operation – if it was legitimate to kill the invader of your country, surely it was equally just to do so to the one who sent him in the first place – but the practicalities.
After a minute of silence with which to muster his thoughts, Mac Eoin:
…explained that I thought I was not the man to lead such a party…Did he realise that I was only a plain, simple country lad, inexperienced and untraveled, who had never been beyond Dublin, and, even in Dublin, would be a poor leader of a mission.
Not at all, Brugha brusquely reassured him in his not-very-reassuring manner. Mac Eoin was just the man for the job – which, by the way, was to start on Wednesday, in two days’ time.
This startled Mac Eoin into further protest. There were duties of his back in Longford that would need to be settled, he said. Though Brugha initially resisted sparing Mac Eoin any further time, he at last relented: Mac Eoin could head off to London on the Friday instead. The pair shook hands, sealing the deal, upon which Mac Eoin took his leave to seek the rest of the IRA leadership in Dublin.
If Mac Eoin had been surprised and more than a bit flustered at Brugha’s briefing, then Michael Collins was aghast when Mac Eoin relayed the details of the undertaking to him. “You are mad!” Collins said. “Do you think that England has only the makings of one Cabinet?”
As if not angry enough, Collins was flummoxed as to why Mac Eoin was wasting time in Dublin when he already had more than enough work to do in his native county. Collins ordered him back to Longford henceforth, to which Mac Eoin – however little he liked the situation – stood his ground, pointing out that Brugha, as Minister for Defence, could not simply be overruled, least of all by a mere verbal command. Calming down, Collins promised to provide him with a more concrete directive in writing.
In this, Collins was true to his word. When they met next on the Wednesday, Collins handed Mac Eoin a letter from Brugha, cancelling the mission to London. As good and dutiful a soldier as he was, Mac Eoin doubtlessly breathed a sigh of relief – whatever arguments Collins had made or strings he pulled behind the scenes had worked. Mac Eoin was now free to return home, to pick up the fighting from where he had left off in Longford, and not a minute too soon.
That is, if he made it back at all.
A Soldier’s Attempt
From the Irish Times, 4th March 1921:
A report that McKeon [alternative spelling], the rebel leader in Ballinalee, who was wanted by the police on several charges, was captured at Mullingar on the arrival of the night mail on Wednesday [2nd March 1921], is confirmed at Longford.
It is stated that the fugitive, who travelled in a third class carriage, was surrounded by the military and police, and that in an attempt to escape he was fired on and seriously wounded. McKeon, who is a blacksmith by trade, had been “on the run” for many months.
From the sworn testimony of a police witness for the prosecution during the court-martial of Séan Mac Eoin, three months later, on the 14th June 1921:
Q: Were you stationed at Mullingar with a party of police in March of this year?
Q: On the 2nd March, were you at the Railway Station?
Q: On the arrival of the 9 o’clock train from Dublin that night?
Q: Did you see some male passengers on the platform?
A: Yes, a number of male passengers were taken from the train after it came in and lined up on the platform and searched. Among them was a man who gave his name as Smith from Aughnacliffe.
Q: When you heard him say that did you say anything?
A: Yes, I recognised him and I said: “You are John James McKeon from Ballinalee.”
Irish Times, 4th March 1921:
As the police and military were marching the prisoners from the station…McKeon made a dash for liberty…Shots rang out, and McKeon was struck, but continued to run.
Being a very quick runner, he had gained considerable ground when he was again hit, the bullet passing through the right breast. When he was turning into a gateway he was hit in the arm, and felled. He was then taken to the police barracks in the town under a heavy escort, and his condition is considered precarious.
Q: Did you proceed to take him to the barracks?
Q: Was he handcuffed on the way to the barracks?
Q: During the journey to the barracks, did he make a determined effort to escape from the escort?
A: He did.
Q: Was he recaptured?
A: He was.
Q: During the process, was he fired at and wounded?
Q: On the way to the barracks after being wounded, did he say anything?
A: Yes. Going on towards the barracks he turned to me and said, “You are right, I am the man. I made a soldier’s attempt to escape and failed.” Then, after a pause, he said: “I know I am for a firing squad, anyway.”
A Mullingar Mess
To add insult to injury, the whole debacle could have been avoided. Mac Eoin’s capture had been the consequence of carelessness, by others – and himself.
While contemporary accounts indicate that the discovery of Mac Eoin in Mullingar had been by chance, Mac Eoin later told a different spin on the story to Ann Farrington, manager of the Crown Hotel, adjoining the Gresham on O’Connell Street, where Mac Eoin stayed while in Dublin, as did a number of other rebel leaders such as Collins, Eoin O’Duffy and Dan Breen. Mac Eoin had a number of aliases under which to sign in – ‘Mr Brown’, ‘Mr Black’, ‘Mr Green’ and so on – but he was less cautious during his last stay, when he had with him a female acquaintance, who he intended to use as a courier for orders to his Longford IRA column.
As the pair sat opposite each other at a table in the hotel smoking-room:
He took a sheet of paper and started writing out the message and when he had finished he put it in an envelope which he closed and handed to her. He was not aware that she had followed every word as he wrote it and therefore knew the contents of the message.
What followed then is a matter of conjecture on Farrington’s part, but, according to her, the girl – who Farrington had never seen before or since, and whose name is unknown – passed on the envelope as instructed, and then went to her uncle, a retired RIC man:
Evidently the uncle went to the Tans and told them about the message which gave the clue about the train he intended to travel by. As a result the train was met in Mullingar by the Tans who started to search for McKeon.
As for further details, Farrington wrote, “probably Seán himself would be able to give the information.”
Mac Eoin did not, making no mention of any double-crossing colleen or leaked itinerary in his own account. He noted, however, that his train stopped at a different platform in Mullingar Station than expected, one crowded with RIC personnel and British soldiers, who ordered the passengers out before lining them up for inspection. With them was a Head Constable who had previously escorted Mac Eoin to jail in 1919 and was thus qualified to recognise the fugitive – as indeed he did.
Even so, Mac Eoin could have escaped, as one of the other senior policemen present, District Inspector Harrington, was one of Michael Collins’ many agents within the Crown forces. Mac Eoin was to learn that Harrington had been instructed by Collins to alert the Mullingar IRA of Mac Eoin’s arrival and for them to stop the train and take him off before it pulled into the station – “a tip that the Mullingar Brigade, never any good, had failed to act upon,” as Mac Eoin stingingly put it.
He would have been even angrier had he known the difference a simple bicycle could have made. A telegram from Dublin Castle to the Mullingar police had been intercepted by another rebel mole, this being Jimmy Hynes, the principal telegraphist in Mullingar Post Office. Upon Mac Eoin’s arrest, Hynes asked his IRA contact what had happened. Had he not received the warning Hynes had sent?
“Yes,” said the other man, “but I could not get a bicycle.”
‘Alas and Alas!’
Mac Eoin’s arrest was a heavy blow, not least to Collins, who would be preoccupied by his fate for as long as it hung in the balance. Michael Noyk, an in-house solicitor for the revolutionary underground, described Mac Eoin as being “one of the special favourites of Michael Collins,” who paid tribute to him as being worth four or five other men.
Efforts to rescue Mac Eoin began a day or two after his arrest, when Collins dispatched seven members of his ‘Squad’ to Leixlip, Co. Kildare, through which, it was believed, Mac Eoin would be transported en route to Dublin. Collins would have sent more but those were the most to be found at such short notice.
Time, after all, was of the essence.
The selected men drove to Leixlip, keeping their eyes along the road for the Red Cross ambulance Mac Eoin was supposed to be hidden in and their firearms ready should the chance of a hijack arise. It did not and, with no sight of the desired vehicle, the would-be-rescuers returned to Dublin, where Mac Eoin already was, having been delivered by a different way as it turned out.
Perhaps this failure was just as well. Inside the ambulance with Mac Eoin had been two policemen and an army officer, all armed with guns that they intended to use on him in the event of trouble, as they warned at the start. Mac Eoin protested that this was hardly appropriate for the Red Cross; besides, he was still weak from the wounds received from his ill-fated dash for freedom but the officer replied: “We know you too well to take any risk” – which was a compliment of sorts.
The ambulance drove first in the opposite direction towards Longford, then doubled back through Meath and reached Dublin by the Trim-Belfast road – a roundabout route, but it did the trick of outfoxing any ambushers. After more than two years of insurgency, the British were becoming savvy to Ireland’s ways.
The first stop was the King George V Military Hospital, for a bullet still lay buried beneath the skin at the back of Mac Eoin’s shoulder, requiring an operation to extract. This process was not a pleasant one, for Mac Eoin refused any anaesthetic stronger than a localised sort for fear of spilling any incriminating secrets in a drugged state.
But the pain was worth it, with the offending item successfully plucked out, and Mac Eoin had the first glimmer of hope when the hospital chaplain startled him with word from the ‘Big Fellow’: Collins was planning to send a group of his followers disguised in British uniforms on the following evening, at 11 pm:
I need not say that this was joyful intelligence to me. I slept very little that night, but did not care, and every hour of the next day was long in passing until night should come – and the fateful eleven o’clock. But my fate was settled two hours earlier for, on the stroke of nine o’clock, I was astonished to see a military officer walk into me – attended by his satellites. But alas and alas! They proved to be real Britishers.
There was nothing be done but allow himself to be transferred to his accommodation at Mountjoy Prison. Since he was still on the mend, he was allowed a ground-floor room in the hospital wing, facing the main building, which Mac Eoin could see through a window with about half a dozen iron bars across.
A formidable obstacle, to be sure, but one that would hopefully be breached by the hacksaw that a female visitor had smuggled in under her overcoat, complete with instructions from Collins – who was not one to give up – for Mac Eoin, at the assigned time on a certain date, to saw his way through. Then Mac Eoin was to cross the yard to the prison wall, in time for the wicket gate there to be opened by men from the Dublin IRA, waiting on the other side.
in his weakened state, Mac Eoin succeeded in cutting through the bars, working at intervals to allow for the turnkey on duty to pass by obliviously. Only the last few inches of metal remained, and Mac Eoin rested in bed, mustering his strength for the final push, when a doctor stopped by to check on him. Shocked at his patient’s high temperature, the conscientious-but-meddlesome physician ordered the warden to remove Mac Eoin to a different room, one on the third floor for the fresh air.
“And another bright hope of Séan MacEoin was nipped in the bud,” the man in question later bewailed in the third person.
A Rescue Planned
With the days counting down towards Mac Eoin’s court-martial and the almost inevitable sentence of death, only the direct approach was left to try.
The germ of the idea came when Michael Lynch noticed the armoured car outside the Dublin Corporation abattoir on North Circular Road every morning to escort the van picking up the daily meat for the British Army. Lynch was in an unusual position, being Superintendent of the butchery as well as O/C of Fingal IRA Brigade, a combination of civilian and guerrilla duties that required him to be absent from work during the day until he could enter the slaughterhouse at night when everyone else had gone.
It was his wife, from their house opposite the abattoir gate, who drew his attention to the armoured vehicle, and Lynch, seeing its potential for the IRA’s own use, relayed this to Collins. Collins was infuriated at what he saw as a fool’s errand but Lynch was adamant. He had been observing the car for some time from his window and how sloppy the crew had become through routine, to the point of leaving their ride unguarded save for a mere padlock on a chain. Collins sent two of his Squad, Joe Leonard and Charlie Dalton, to the Lynch residence to gauge the potential prize for themselves.
What they reported back must have satisfied Collins for, at a subsequent meeting, he announced to the others that the car was to be seized and put to use for a very special job: the liberation of Seán Mac Eoin from the bowels of British captivity.
But, first, planning was key. With help from a sympathetic warden in Mountjoy, one of the many pair of eyes and ears so essential to the rebel underground, Collins:
…got all the local information about wardens, position of Military guards, police and auxiliary relief times. Seán McKeon had been instructed to get an interview on any complaint pretext, every morning at 10 a.m. with the Governor, and so be on the outside of three obstructing gates when an attempted rescue would be made.
Taking the armoured car would be the first step in this complicated scheme. In preparation for this, Lynch procured some Dublin Corporation uniform caps for the IRA men assigned to the mission to wear inside the abattoir, which they did for five consecutive day beforehand, in order to keep the soldiers who came by complacent.
But there was still so much that could go wrong. Even if only one or two of the targets stayed inside the car, they could slam the door shut and deny the ambushers access. In addition, Lynch was aware that some of the IRA men involved had a tendency to shoot first and ask question afterwards. With his wife, sister and children in their house across from the abattoir, the last thing Lynch wanted was a stray bullet. To help put his mind at ease, Paddy Daly, the officer in charge of this step of the rescue, agreed that, once things began, he would remove the Lynch household upstairs and lock them in a bedroom.
The only thing left to do…was do.
“Well, good luck,” Collins said as the men set forth, “but whatever happens, come back.”
Daly and Mrs Lynch were watching through the window of the latter’s home as the armoured car stopped by the abattoir as expected on the 14th May 1921. What was not expected, but feared, was how the passengers had not all disembarked, putting the plan too gravely at risk to proceed. It would have to wait until the following morning….and then Mrs Lynch saw the remaining soldiers step out on to the pavement. Daly had turned to leave when Mrs Lynch shouted out, snapping his focus, and the plan, back on. He blew a whistle and the IRA men on standby rushed to perform their roles.
“In less time than it takes to tell we had taken over the car,” described one participant, John Caffrey, proudly.
Lynch would recall a more chaotic, bloodier scene in which a soldier reached for his firearm, only to be cut down by a bullet. Upon hearing the commotion, a second serviceman, acting as an orderly, dashed outdoors:
When he saw the guns in the hands of our men, he pulled up with a jerk. Unfortunately, another man behind him, not realising what was on, bumped into him, pushed him forward, and he emerged from the building, with his right hand down low on his thigh, steadying his butcher’s sheath. Our men told me afterwards that it looked as if he was in the act of pulling a gun, and they fired.
Unfortunate, indeed; of the wounded pair, one would later expire in hospital. The rest of the soldiers quickly surrendered, allowing their vehicle to be boarded and then driven off at great speed. The whole incident, according to one eyewitness, had lasted for no more than ten minutes.
Four months into the Truce between the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and British forces in Ireland had passed since July 1921, and while the country overall was in a tentative peace, the same could not be said for the Mid-Limerick Brigade. Long the problem child of the IRA, the Brigade took a dysfunctional turn for the worse when its O/C, Liam Forde, received a message dated to the 1st November 1921, giving him notice that:
At a fully attended meeting of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Battalions of the Mid-Limerick Brigade it was unanimously decided on that pending further action which they were about to take and which may effect [sic] their relations with the Mid-Limerick Brigade as presently constituted they will not attend any Brigade Council for the present.
The five signatures at the end showed the gravity of the situation: Martin Cooke, Michael Conway and John Clifford headed the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Battalions respectively, making their threat to withdraw a plausible one. As for the other two signatories, neither Richard O’Connell nor Seán Carroll held rank at present, but both could claim a respectable war record: O’Connell had formerly led both the 4th Battalion and the Brigade’s Flying Column – earning him imprisonment in Spike Island, out of which he had escaped five weeks before – while Carroll had succeeded him as the column’s leader.
However alarmed, Forde could not have been surprised; relationships within the Mid-Limerick Brigade had been sour ever since the Easter Week of 1916. Now three out of his four battalions were announcing their intent to break away; if permitted, the move could cripple the Brigade. Forde wasted no time in contacting the chain of command, the closest being Ernie O’Malley as O/C of the Second Southern IRA Division. When O’Malley’s attempts at mediation failed, the problem was moved further up to GHQ in Dublin, which dispatched its Deputy Chief of Staff, Eoin O’Duffy, to Limerick.
The subsequent meeting was at least well attended, with the entire Brigade and battalion staff present, as was the Divisional O/C. Despite the floundering of his own efforts, O’Malley was a particularly useful addition, having spent time in Limerick as an IRA operative, and was able to fill O’Duffy in on some of the local context:
I learnt from Comdt. O’Mailley [alternative spelling] that the object of Nos. 2, 3 and 4 Batts. was to form a Brigade of their own. I took the opinion of the Officers of No. 1 Batt. in this matter, and they stated that it would be very difficult for them to carry on the fight without the co-operation of the other Battalions.
Of the four battalions present – there had been a fifth, until the Brigade reshuffle earlier in the year – only the 1st were content with how things stood, so they told O’Duffy. True, there had been some trouble before but that was water under the bridge. About the other three, it appeared that their threat to form their own brigade had, in fact, already happened a few weeks ago. The 1st Battalion – encompassing Limerick City – thus stood alone, a vulnerability underscored by how two of their arms dumps had been raided by men from the three separatist country units.
O’Duffy talked to the representatives from the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Battalions, taking the time to deal with each separately before reaching a verdict. He found that they had all been motivated by anger against the 1st, whose officers dominated the Brigade’s upper echelons. In his report to GHQ, O’Duffy listed the primary bugbears:
Brigade officers being largely from Limerick City and thus not appreciative of the conditions beyond.
On the other side, rural men not understanding urban combat.
The failure of the City Battalion, the 1st, to do its bit.
A lack of support from the Brigade Staff and City Battalion to their country subordinates.
Loose lips on Limerick City Volunteers, resulting in the frustration of operations in the county.
An unequal and unfair distribution of weapons, with the three battalions besides the 1st losing out.
That oldest of grievances – money, again at the expense of the country units.
While this was a lengthy list, the root cause could be boiled down to one constant: none outside the 1st Battalion had a good word to say about it. The sickly suspicion that had plagued Limerick City for the past few years appeared to have spilled out to the rest of the Brigade.
‘A Peculiar Situation’
Controversy had long dogged the 1st Battalion; indeed, whether it had even existed past a certain point in time, at least in any meaningful sense, would be a matter of some confusion in the years to come. While drawing up a picture of the Mid-Limerick Brigade in 1936, the Advisory Committee of the Pensions Board asked what became of the 1st, for while they had records for all five battalions before 1919, post-1919 saw no reference to the City unit at all.
“It seems extraordinary to us here that, in one particular Brigade, you should have certain battalions such as 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th, and no 1st Battalion,” said one baffled Board member.
As historical advisor, Forde was at hand with an explanation, albeit one that only scratched the surface of the controversy:
That is an old-standing fued [sic] in Limerick. It is a peculiar situation. That 1st Battalion dropped out. What happened was, it resulted from the 1916 Insurrection. Ernest Blythe came to Limerick, and the 1st Battalion was suspended. Then the 2nd Battalion sprung into existence in the city, and it formed the nucleus of the Mid-Limerick Brigade.
The 1st Battalion was never reinstated, and some time having passed, the members of this who were anxious to participate in the activities down here, merged into the 2nd Battalion. There was a certain amount of rivalry between the 1st and 2nd Battalions in Limerick. The 1st still functioned and carried out parades, etc., and were not recognised by Headquarters, and when the 1st Battalion disappeared the title of the second Battalion remained.
As with much in Ireland, it all came back to the Rising, a “matter much debated,” continued Forde. “In Limerick, a number of Battalions were mobilised, and went under arms to participate in the trouble, and because of the action of the superior officer, if you like, those prepared to fight were demobilised, not called upon to do so.”
And that was the crux of the problem that begat all the others. If the Rising had rallied the country together, its failure also threatened, conversely, to drive apart its participants – or participants they would have been, if not for the flurry of orders and countermands and counter-countermands that caused the majority of Irish Volunteers to retire without firing a shot. To put the issue to rest, the Executive of the Irish Volunteers appointed an investigatory committee which, after some delay, delivered its findings in March 1918.
The Volunteers of Cork, Kerry and Limerick were relieved of responsibility for the débacle; considering the circumstances, they had had little choice in what they did, or did not, do. There was, however, one lingering point to be made about Limerick:
With regard to the surrender of arms, it is to be deprecated that at any time arms should be given up by a body of men without a fight. But we do not see that any good purpose will be served by any further discussion on the matter.
Not that Michael Colivet, the commander of the Limerick City Regiment had had many options. The Easter Week of 1916 had begun miserably enough, with his subordinates trudging back to the city under weeping skies, their plans and hopes dashed by the decision to accept Eoin MacNeill’s instruction that their uprising was off over Patrick Pearse’s exhortation to press on.
Limerick seemed deserted, almost as if the place had forgotten about them, and not even the marching tune struck by the regimental band could raise their spirits, nor the lack of reaction from the British garrison disguise the fact that the occupying power retained control. A vote on the Tuesday by the officers to continue their ‘wait and see’ stance was confirmed by ten to six, though morale was not so depressed that they accepted British demands to hand over their weapons. However meagre the armoury, it was the only point of pride left.
The Volunteers only broke on the Friday, when it was clear that the enemy was poised to seize the arms anyway. Even then, Colivet and his staff decided to hand the guns over to the Lord Mayor of Limerick, not to the British Army directly.
When this proved too subtle a distinction for the post-Rising inquiry committee, Colivet demanded a reconsideration, or at least a clear ruling on his conduct, as opposed to the tut-tutting and clicking of tongues in the first report. It was not merely a case of ego on Colivet’s part, for the original ambivalence left him open to accusations of dereliction in his duty, as noted in the sequel paper, issued by the Volunteer Executive in March 1918:
Commandant Colivet of Battalion 1 Limerick City has on behalf of self and said Battalion objected to above report out of grounds (1) that he was not furnished with particulars of evidence tendered to the Committee so as to enable him to meet any adverse evidence or charges, (2) that in consequence of (1) the report has, in his opinion, pronounced unjustifiable the surrender of arms by the Battalion at the period mentioned.
The Executive have considered the matter and desire to say in regard to No. 1 as the report has not condemned Commandant Colivet it was not necessary to furnish him with evidence. In regard to No. 2, the report made no pronouncement on this head.
If Colivet had not been judged unworthy, then the Executive had not exactly given him a ringing endorsement either. It was thus unsurprising that when Ernest Blythe came to Limerick in July 1917, as part of his work in reorganising the Irish Volunteers, “a great deal of strained feeling between the officers” was still to be found.
One Step Forward, Another Back
Sinn Féin had just won its third parliamentary seat in East Clare, with its ranks swelled by the mass release of Rising prisoners. But, while Nationalist Ireland was moving ahead at an increasing speed, Limerick remained stuck in a rut, brooding over the missed opportunity of the past year, with the officers of its Volunteers doing no more than they had done – justified or not – on Easter Week. Though Blythe had no great desire to dwell on the past, he came round to the idea that the current leadership in Limerick had passed its expiration date.
“No appeals to them were of any use at the point,” he later wrote, indicating that he had at least tried.
When worthy efforts proved for naught – the start of a trend in Limerick – Blythe tried instead with a group of Young Turks, including Peadar MacMahon, Peadar Dunne and Jim Doyle – veterans of Dublin during the Rising – and those local Volunteers, such as Johnny Sweeney and Martin Barry, who were frustrated with the current inertia. Dismissing the 1st Battalion as a lost cause, it was agreed to set up one of their own – the 2nd.
Recruitment, with Blythe as a speaker, was successful in attracting a sizeable following of youths not previously connected to the Volunteers, enough to start a company:
We then fixed a place outside the city where they could drill, and Peadar McMahon arranged for a drill instructor for them. More men were got in, and ultimately elections of officers were held. A little later, on the outskirts of the city…I held another meeting and got a second Company established. A third meeting was held in a quarry on the outskirts of the city, not far from the railway station, and a third Company was established.
Clearly, there was a demand for Blythe to supply, even if the inductees were not always as committed as they were to their social duties. “Between sodalities and confraternities there was not so much as one night in the week in which everyone was free,” Blythe recalled with a sigh. “I do not suppose there is any city in Ireland which has so many religious societies as Limerick has.”
Needless to say, Blythe and his allies did not seek permission from the pre-existing Volunteer staff; indeed, as Blythe initially took advantage of the rooms used by the 1st Battalion, it could be said that the 2nd was raised under false pretences. Regardless, the new group swelled to include four companies, sufficient to form the 2nd Battalion for real. The old and the new both marched in the parade in honour of Thomas Ashe, recently deceased from his hunger strike, with the 1st taking the lead and the 2nd – “which was rather bigger” – next in formation.
Despite their joint appearance, relations between the new battalions remained chilly, and Blythe was to ponder, with the wisdom of hindsight:
I am not sure if we did right in creating a new organisation; perhaps if we had continued to urge the existing officers to undertake some activity, our appeals, plus the changing temperature of the country, would have sufficed to induce them to make the moves that would bring them recruits and strengthen the movement.
Maybe. Either way, the damage was done. When Blythe was offered a job in West Cork by the Gaelic League – an opportunity the cash-strapped Blythe could not refuse – some assumed that the 1st Battalion was behind it in order to remove a rival leader. Suspicion, to the point of paranoia, was now the order of the day. “It was a long time before there was the right feeling and proper discipline in Limerick,” wrote Blythe.
Not that Blythe was entirely blameless. With Colivet struggling for his post-Rising reputation, Blythe saw fit to weigh in with a mocking piece of doggerel about the former’s performance to date:
The non-combatant Colonel of the non-combatant corps,
Was a-drilling of his regiment down by the Shannon shore,
Parading all the city streets dressed in his jacket green,
And saying in a martial tone the things he didn’t mean.
A fight broke out in Dublin and the Colonel’s courage shook.
He said: “I don’t believe in fighting and I think we’ve done enough,
We’ll beat the whole world at this noble game of bluff.”
The Dalton Affair
Judging by subsequent mishaps, ‘right feeling and proper discipline’ were as elusive by the end of 1921 as it had been at the start. Nothing illustrates this better – if that is the appropriate word – then the case of James Dalton, gunned down outside his house on Clare Street, Limerick, on the 15th of May 1920. The party of assassins – numbering between four and six youths, according to witnesses – left nothing to chance, opening fire with revolvers at point-blank range on the 48-year-old man and continued to do so mercilessly after Dalton collapsed. Even when the assailants fled, one lingered long enough to shoot twice more into his victim’s prone back.
Anyone at a loss for a motive could have read one in the graffiti about the streets: A bullet is waiting for Dalton the spy. Word was that Dalton had been spotted leaving the house of a police detective at night.
As Ireland slid into guerrilla warfare between the Irish Volunteers – rechristened the IRA – and Crown forces, murders such as Dalton’s would become all too frequent as the former made plain the penalty for those believed to be talking to the authorities. What made this case notable – besides its public viciousness – was that Dalton had also been a participant in the Limerick IRA. The insurgency had executed a traitor in its ranks, so it seemed, but, for a historian shifting through the various reminiscences of the time, that is not quite the full picture.
“Whisperings, underhand rumblings – all these things were taking place to blacken the character of the Executive of the 1st Battalion,” to which Dalton belonged, so described John Quilty. A fellow Volunteer, Quilty was called upon – ‘subpoenaed’, as he put it – to testify on Dalton’s behalf. Held over a shoe-shop in O’Connell Street, the courtroom may have been of a makeshift sort, but the consequences to Dalton should it deem him guilty of untoward motives were real enough. Indeed, Dalton had called the inquiry in the first place, desperate to clear his name lest his comrades take allegations of his disloyalty to their logical conclusion.
As it was, Dalton was judged innocent. As it was, he was murdered all the same, and not just – according to Quilty – because of some ill-advised social call:
It is common property that certain members of the 2nd Battalion were anxious to dishonour him, or attribute dishonour to the 1st Battalion, by saying all kinds of things about him, which I feel were not correct.
“I believe,” wrote Quilty, years afterwards:
That the attempt and subsequent death of Jim Dalton was caused by certain members of the 2nd Battalion, who were suffering from a terrible hatred of the 1st and were anxious to put Dalton away in order to discredit the 1st Battalion.
If true, then Dalton’s public slaying was not so much ‘in-house cleaning’ but an act of aggression between two hostile factions. If true: Quilty had been close enough to Dalton to act as a character witness, and it is understandable that Quilty would think the best of his late friend. He was not, however, the only one to believe that Dalton’s death had been not only a mistake but a crime.
“Poor Jim was no informer,” insisted Kevin O’Shiel, who had made Dalton’s acquaintance while canvassing together in the South Armagh by-election of 1918. Adding to the confusion, O’Shiel blamed the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) for the slaying, or rather “an undisciplined group” within the secret society, without reference to Limerick’s internal issues.
Which is not to say that the strife between the two battalions did not spill over into the IRB, their feud leaving few things in the local scene unscarred. Despite his own membership, Richard O’Connell, O/C of the 5th (Caherconlish) Battalion, did not think much of the Brotherhood, a disdain he partly attributed to who else belonged:
Most of its members in Limerick City belonged to the 1st Battalion. We did not look with high regard on the members of the 1st Battalion, and the IRB being identified with the 1st Battalion, we did not bother much about it either.
The one service O’Connell performed for the fraternity was luring out Martin Barry, one of the suspects, who just happened to be Quartermaster of the 2nd Battalion. “When Dalton was shot, the IRB was doing its best to trace the person or persons who had done the shooting,” O’Connell remembered.
Barry was a hard man to find, as befitting a guerrilla fighter, but O’Connell succeeded, allowing the IRB to arrest him, or so O’Connell described, making it seem like a Brotherhood, rather than an Army, affair. Perhaps lines were sufficiently blurred to make little difference. Barry endured a week of confinement before being released due to lack of evidence, leaving Dalton’s murder as one of the many lingering mysteries from the era.
Ruffling the Surface
Clearly, there was very little that was straightforward in Limerick, even with a war on. Instead of focusing minds and rallying enemies together against a common foe, the conflict only exacerbated the one between the separate Limerick City battalions. “Between these two units relations were such that any concerted action by the Volunteers in the city was next to impossible,” remembered Jack MacCarthy, who had fled police crackdowns in his native East Limerick to take refuge in the city, one of the many IRA members ‘on the runs’.
To his shock, the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) dominated the streets in a way it had ceased to do elsewhere in Ireland, its blue-uniformed sergeants and constables swaggering about “with impunity, largely because of almost complete inactivity on the part of the Volunteers in Limerick City. Apart from two or three incidents of no great magnitude, this situation persisted up to the Truce.”
Ernie O’Malley was to record a similar impression from his foray into the city in May 1921, as part of inspection duties on behalf of the IRA GHQ. This was despite the warnings of the Mid-Limerick Brigade O/C; too many soldiers about, too many spies, O’Malley was told. On the streets, he witnessed stop-and-searches by the RIC and military, conducted with kicks and the butt-ends of rifles for no other reason that O’Malley could fathom save the intoxication of its culprits. He later watched from his safe-house for the night as three men were dragged out on to the street and hauled away into lorries.
All this was enough for O’Malley to write off the city for any contributions to the insurgency: “We would have to rely more on the material resources of Limerick than on the driving force of her officers,” who “did not seem to ruffle the surface of enemy occupation.” He seconded MacCarthy’s prognosis for this martial malaise: “Internal trouble: a row between our first and second battalions. It had meant jealously and bitterness; our effectiveness there suffered.” Though O’Malley toured the country extensively and appreciated the difficulties of the various Volunteers he encountered, the Limerick ones were singularly troubled, for which he had no solution.
These dismissals were not entirely fair on the part of MacCarthy and O’Malley, for effort was made by some to ensure that their city was not entirely left out of the struggle for Irish liberty. Michael Stack joined the 2nd Battalion as soon as it was formed, taking part in the preliminary organising, training and gathering of weapons that defined much of 1919 for the burgeoning IRA.
More dramatically, in April 1919, he took part in the rescue of Robert Byrne from the hospital where he was recovering, under armed watch, from the hunger strike undertaken in protest at his imprisonment by the British authorities. Stack led the Volunteers posing as well-wishers for the other patients, but what was supposed to be a swift ‘in and out’ turned bloody when the policemen on duty reacted quicker than expected, one shooting Byrne in bed before Stack shot and wounded him in turn. Stack then gunned down another guard, Constable O’Brien, killing his victim this time, as Byrne was hustled out, successfully so, or so it seemed, for Byrne died of his own injuries later that night.
While far from a success, “this exploit was really the start of IRA activities in Limerick city,” according to Stack.
Blood on the Streets
The subsequent imposition of martial law in Limerick allowed the 2nd Battalion another chance to buck British rule, this time in the form of a week-long general strike, organised by the Battalion staff in conjecture with the Trade Union Councils. Martial law was lifted as a result of the strike, both that and the rescue attempt being “a great impetus to the movement and was responsible for considerably increasing the strength of the 2nd Battalion,” which swelled from a hundred members to four hundred, providing enough for four companies.
Stack had been one of the only two participants in the rescue operation to carry guns, a sign of how rare they were, but raids on the homes of former soldiers in the British Army allowed the 2nd Battalion to accumulate more. So empowered, Stack led a party in waylaying Sergeant Wellwood, in February 1920, as the policeman was making his way to the William Street Barracks. Wounded by bullets, Wellwood still managed to reach the safety of the barracks’ gate before his assailants could seize his revolver. A second attempt was made on another RIC man in Thomas Street, with a similar result: though bloodied, the target made it to his lodgings in time to deprive the Volunteers of his weapon.
If the primary aim of these two attacks had been robbery rather than assassination, then an ambush on a mixed RIC-military patrol in O’Connell Street was specifically to pick off a particularly troublesome Sergeant Conroy. “The Battalion Commander did not issue any instructions to this effect but a few of us took it upon ourselves to watch him and, when an opportunity presented itself, we were to eliminate him,” as Stack put it.
Stack and another Volunteer opened fire from the corner of Cecil Street and then hurried into new positions to shoot again on the enemy patrol as it retreated to the William Street Barracks. Conroy was injured, enough for Stack to chalk it up as a win, though three passers-by were killed in a crossfire, which Stack blamed on the return-shots of the patrol.
Regardless of culpability, it was probably inevitable – between the civilian deaths and these ‘wildcat’ operations – that the Brigade O/C, Peadar Dunne would want to have a word with Stack:
[Dunne] severely admonished me for carrying out activities without any instructions from Brigade or Battalion Headquarters. He said that, by our actions, we had spoiled the chances of Brigade in carrying out much bigger engagements that they had in mind.
Considering how Stack thought “the Brigade and Battalion staffs were most inactive,” in contrast to how “a number of us were actively engaged in harassing the British forces in every possible way we could,” it was unlikely that he was impressed at such claims of ‘bigger engagements’ in the works. Refusing to come to heel on Dunne’s demand, Stack decided to leave for a busier warzone – East Limerick, perhaps, or elsewhere in Mid-Limerick outside the city. He ended up in Dublin, enlisting in the IRA there and finding a more fitting environment – and appreciative superiors – for his warrior talents.
Papering Over the Cracks
If discipline was to be prized in the Limerick IRA, even at the expense of personal initiative, then its command did little to set an example – or commands, rather, for the Volunteers in the city remained split between the two opposing battalions. The best that could be said was that the murder of James Dalton, while the nadir of their relationship, was at least not replicated or retaliated against; instead, a sullen kind of cold war lingered over the ranks.
An attempt to start over again was made in 1919, according to Morgan Portley, who attended a conclave of O/Cs from the five battalions in the Mid-Limerick Brigade, the 1st and 2nd included. Portley represented the 5th (Caherconlish) Battalion at the meeting, held in the Railwaymen’s Club at the corner of O’Connell and Hartstonge Streets, and presided over by no less than Richard Mulcahy, over from Dublin to give the GHQ stamp of approval for what transpired.
An election of Brigade staff was in order, and it would be Portley and Seán Carroll who would be acting as counters, by Mulcahy’s instructions. Mulcahy had already taken the pair aside to explain that, since:
There was, at this time, a dispute, between two city battalions and General Mulcahy pointed out that as Commandant Sean Carroll and myself belonged to battalions outside the city and had no connection with the dispute, we were in a neutral position and best suited to act as umpires.
Which was wise. In regards to the election, it was a simple enough affair:
We handed a piece of paper to each battalion representative with instructions to write the name of the candidate of his choice on the paper, which should then be folded. We collected and counted the votes and General Mulcahy announced the result for each vacancy. Commandant Peadar Dunne was elected Brigade O/C., Michael Doyle, Brigade Adjutant, and Martin Barry, Brigade Q.M.
All of whom were of the 2nd Battalion. As for their rivals:
The officers of the 1st Battalion, Limerick City, failed to secure any post on the brigade staff and, as a result, took no further part in the movement.
Barry would later come under suspicion for Dalton’s murder, so perhaps it was not just wounded pride on the part of the 1st that prolonged their standoffishness. Either way:
Regular Brigade and Battalion Council meetings were now held, but the 1st Battalion in Limerick City was not represented. The Brigade O/C., Peadar Dunne, gave considerable attention to the battalions in the county, but was more or less handicapped by the disunity in the city.
Patrick Whelan would provide his own version of events, one more sympathetic to both battalions. An earlier attempt to bridge the divide had been tried in March 1918 and even made progress – up to the choice of Adjutant for the proposed consolidated battalion. Members of the 1st Battalion, including Whelan, wanted one of their own, George Clancy, while the 2nd pushed for its man, Joseph O’Brien. Since each candidate won the same number of votes, the issue was deadlocked, with neither side willing to climb down.
It was then that Mulcahy was summoned on behalf of GHQ. After a session with the 1st Battalion failed to dissuade its members from their choice of Clancy as Adjutant:
Mulcahy returned to Dublin and furnished his report to GHQ. On receipt of Mulcahy’s report, HQ immediately suspended each of the five companies [of the 1st], together with all battalion officers of the original battalion. At various periods in 1917, 1918 and 1919 several of these officers were arrested, but the battalion continued to function, carrying out route parades and drilling as usual and ignoring the suspension order of GHQ.
Whelan was among those detained at His Majesty’s pleasure, being sent to Wormwood Scrubs in January 1920, along with a number of other officers from both battalions. Even if GHQ wanted nothing to do with the 1st, and others dismissed it as defunct, then members like Whelan at least shared in the suffering. Upon his release five months later, in May 1920, Whelan was approached by the Lord Mayor of Limerick, Michael O’Callaghan, who had hopes for a reconciliation, claiming that some of the 2nd were eager to bury the hatchet. Another wave of arrests in October 1920, including Whelan’s again, put a halt to any overtures, and Limerick City was left as rudderless as before when it entered the new year.
A Narrow Escape
Which is not to say 1920 had seen nothing from Mid-Limerick, though anything of note was largely limited to outside Limerick City. The Brigade had expanded to include three more battalions: the 3rd (Castleconnell), the 4th (Adare) and the 5th (Caherconlish), overseen by a Brigade staff. Despite the status of the 1st as a nonentity in the eyes of GHQ, as well as its brother-battalions, the numbering system stayed the same, as described by Richard O’Connell:
The 2nd remained the 2nd; then the 3rd, 4th, and we were the 5th Battalion [Caherconlish]. That was what comprised the Mid-Limerick Brigade. The 1st Battalion was inactive, and therefore was ignored by the other units of the Brigade, but the 1st still constituted the 1st Battalion, although we tried to make the 2nd Battalion the 1st, with a corresponding change in the other numbers. It did not materialise just then, however, and the inactive 1st Battalion held its numerical identity.
Recently released from prison and still wanted by the authorities for his seditious activities, an ‘on the run’ O’Connell was appointed O/C of the 5th, as part of which he led the attack on the Murroe RIC Barracks in January 1920. As with Stack and his escapades in Limerick City, this was not sanctioned by the rest of the Brigade command. Instead “we just thought of doing this, and we did it.”
‘Doing’ did not go so far as actually succeeding, for the mine that was intended to blast a hole through the wall of the building instead blew outwards, sparing the barracks from the worst of the impact and prompting the Volunteers to retreat after a few parting gunshots. Waging war on police fortifications proved easier when they had already been evacuated, as most of the ones in Ireland were by the time the IRA was ordered to raze whatever targets they could at Easter 1920.
The empty RIC barracks in Caherconlish, Ballyneety, Ballysimon and Murroe all went up in flames, but leaving the ones in Croon and Fedamore untouched due to their still being occupied by Crown forces. The Croon Volunteers instead turned their attention to the town courthouse, resulting in the deaths of two of their number when the pair were trapped inside the burning premises.
The kidnap of Major-General Cuthbert Lucas provided one of the more light-hearted episodes in the war. First captured in Co. Cork in June 1920, Lucas had been passed on to the Clare IRA and then to Caherconlish where the 5th Battalion held him in the house of a doctor who was away on holiday. Despite the circumstances, Lucas proved a genial captive and his captors amiable ‘hosts’, allowing him out for daily walks, albeit under armed guard.
O’Connell was with him, along with Mick Brennan of the Clare IRA, on one such occasion:
When we were out in the middle of the field, a big three-year-old bull attacked us, and we had to run for the ditch, the three of us. Lucas, who was a very lively man, got up on the ditch and we followed. While we were on the ditch, Mick Brennan pulled his gun, and the bull was underneath us. Mick was going to shoot the bull, and I said, “Stop.’ That bull won’t be paid for if he is shot.”
Respect for private property prevailed over self-preservation but it was only narrowly that the trio escaped the horns of the bull, enraged as it was by the interlopers in its domain. Lucas, for one, saw the funny side in a letter to his wife: “Imagine. Two officers of the Irish Army and a British General. A bull frightened us.”
When Lucas slipped out of a window one night, it was not treated by his captors as a particular loss. “No one was very sorry about his escape,” O’Connell later wrote. However likeable, “the business of holding him prisoner was a considerable lot of trouble.”
The Flying Column
Readers of O’Connell’s reminiscences could be forgiven for not assuming there was a war on. The pace appeared about to quicken in September 1920, when the Brigade O/C decided it was time for a flying column to make an appearance in Mid-Limerick:
Brigadier [Peadar] Dunne came out to me. There were about ten of us “on the run” at the time and there was a share of lads from Limerick who were “on the run” also. He suggested that the Column would be formed. We formed the Column. I was appointed Column Commander by Dunne and given the power to act on my own initiative whenever I thought it necessary to do so without reference to him.
Before taking the fight to the British state, there was still the antipathy within to contend with:
At that time another move was made to link up the 1st Battalion. A meeting was held at a place called Drombane, attended by Colivet and Liam Forde from the 1st Battalion, and the rest of the Battalions were represented at it. At that time we were making arrangements to have an attack on a police car that used to go from Bruff to Limerick City, and Colivet did not like the idea. He went away without making any arrangements.
Failure almost worsened into disaster. The peace talks had been held in the back of a farmhouse in Drombane, the same hideout for the members of the newly-formed column. The day after the latest inter-battalion pow-wow that went nowhere, the sentries rushed into the farmhouse to warn the others of an incoming sweep through the area by British forces. They were already close to being surrounded, save for a single gap in the enemy cordon, through which the column hastily escaped.
The plan for the ambush on the police car would have to be dropped but a new one was formed, to be done in Ballynagar, against another RIC vehicle that was foolish enough to be taking the same route each morning. As good Catholics, the column men first made confession to the sympathetic parish priest of Fedamore and then assembled by the roadside, a hay-bogey ready to be pushed into the path of the incoming lorry. Then the attack would be sprung. But first, the Volunteers paused to permit a pony and trap through, inadvertently allowing the lorry, coming up closely behind, to drive past before the hay-bogey could be used to stop it.
“They got clean away,” O’Connell lamented. Also “at that time an order was in force that we were not to fire on any enemy forces without giving them the option of surrendering, by calling on them to surrender. This order was issued by the Brigade” – noble, perhaps, but hardly practical in a hit-and-run engagement.
Success – of sorts – was finally achieved on the 10th November 1920, at Grange, in partnership with the East Limerick Brigade Column. The former lined the wall on the west side of the road, with its Mid-Limerick counterpart opposite it on the eastern side. Also present was a company of local Volunteers, overlooking a bend in the road from a hill, though the limited range of their shotguns would achieve little except noise.
O’Connell could not see the British patrol when it appeared but knew from the sounds that it consisted of more than the anticipated lone motor – about ten lorries, he guessed. Also heard was the single gun-crack, followed by several more from the Volunteers closest to the leading two vehicles in the convoy, and then every IRA man who could was firing away, prematurely so, before all the targets could come into view.
A whistle-blast from the East Limerick-held side signalled withdrawal, for it was now evident that the ambushers were outnumbered. O’Connell left behind five of his column who were waiting in a cottage down the road, unaware of the retreat, but he remembered in time to hurry over and alert them. The two columns separated, each unit making their way back to their respective territories.
As with much of the war, the 1st Battalion was unrepresented in the Mid-Limerick Column; by its own choice, too, if the behaviour of Colivet at Drombane is anything to go by. A notable exception was Liam Forde, “the only one out of the 1st Battalion that was anxious to fight,” recalled O’Connell. While the two men would become bitter rivals when O’Connell helped lead the schism from Forde’s leadership of the Brigade in late 1921, O’Connell was willing to give the other his due in this, at least: “He came to the Column and he said, ‘I want to remain with the Column’. He remained with us then.”
Which was only to be expected, given how Forde had been in the thick of things from the start. In Dublin during the start of Easter Week in 1916, Forde had had a front-row seat to the confusion that doomed the Rising. When he suggested to Seán Mac Diarmada that, considering the state of things, their enterprise be cancelled, the other man had flown into a rage.
The next morning, on Easter Sunday, the pair read together Eoin MacNeill’s fateful commanding order in the Irish Independent, which only made Mac Diarmada angrier – and more determined, walking all the way to Liberty Hall, accompanied by Forde, to consult with the rest of his militant coterie. Forde breakfasted with Tom Clarke, James Connolly and Éamonn Ceannt – not something everyone could boast of – before making his way back to Limerick, carrying Patrick Pearse’s instructions to the rest of the Irish Volunteers there to “hold yourself in readiness for further orders.”
Limerick’s ultimate role – or lack of – would have been all too well known but, lest his readers deem Forde a shirker:
I would point out that I was one of the six members of the [Limerick Volunteer] council who strongly advocated taking part in the fight for freedom. I also strongly opposed the surrender of arms. I personally did not surrender my rifle…I am aware that Commandant Colivet, in his statement to the Pensions Board, referred to me as the one and only exception who did not comply with the order for the surrender of arms.
Forde’s rifle, and those of six other Volunteers which he got his hands on, would finally see action in the service of the Mid-Limerick flying column.
Forde stayed with the 1st Battalion until February 1921 when, concluding that the regiment was a ‘dead letter’, he defected to the 2nd. The refusal of his former comrades in the 1st to work with his new ones in the 2nd had been frustrating him for a while – “it serves little purpose to set out the reasons put forward by the 1st Battalion officers for their attitude in this manner,” he wrote with a sigh – despite his own efforts at healing the breach. Soon after the switch, he was promoted to the Brigade staff, a meteoric rise in recognition of his long-time commitment – or perhaps because of a dearth of talent and enthusiasm otherwise.
As a case in point: In an interview between Peadar MacMahon and Richard Mulcahy in 1936, the subject of Limerick and its internal mishaps was touched upon, in particular the short-lived tenure of Michael de Lacy as Brigade O/C. MacMahon briefly served as an IRA organiser in the city, while Mulcahy had had his own experiences there, with both having certain choice words to say:
Mulcahy: Surely De Lacy had no guts or drive in him.
MacMahon: He had no drive in him; I don’t know anything about his guts. I think he was the laziest man I ever met. I had occasion to visit him in a house a couple of times when he was on the run. He had letters from GHQ and he never bothered replying to them. He wouldn’t give you a decision on anything. He was a nice, pleasant man but that was all…I don’t know how he was ever appointed because he really was the laziest man I ever knew.
Certainly, an officer’s life brought its share of risk as well as responsibility, as shown by the arrest of the Brigade O/C, Peadar Dunne, in March 1921. Forde stepped up as his successor and not a moment too soon, for the future of the Mid-Limerick Brigade was hanging in doubt:
When I took over command I found that things were not too happy with the Brigade in its relationship with GHQ, and Headquarters were about to insist that the Brigade would merge with and form part of the East Limerick Brigade.
This had been under discussion for some time. The shared ambush at Grange had done little to endear the Mid-Limerick Brigade with its eastern neighbour, and the continuous state of disarray by the former made some wonder if it was worth the bother.
On the 12th January 1921, the Vice-Commander of the East Limerick Brigade wrote to his O/C, Seán Wall, with a copy earmarked for GHQ, reviewing the current state of the war. The Brigade had accomplished twelve engagements against Crown forces in the previous year, not including those that had fallen through for whatever reason but nonetheless attempted. It was an impressive record, which the author put down to East Limerick being the first area in Ireland to form a flying column.
In contrast, continued the Vice O/C:
As far as we know, there has been scarcely a military activity of any consequence in two Brigade areas adjoining ours – Mid Limerick and West Limerick. Two such inactive areas on our borders are a danger to us in our operations and I therefore respectfully make the following suggestions –
(a) That three or four Battalions of West Limerick Brigade nearest to us be included in our Brigade.
(b) That all Battalions in Mid-Limerick between us in the city be included in our Brigade.
(c) That all arms, ammunition and men in these districts be placed at our disposal so that the burdens and trials experienced by the civil population consequent on military operations be equally distributed over the whole county.
(d) That, as an alternative to the foregoing suggestions, East Limerick be appointed Headquarters for the whole county and city and that the Brigade be empowered to spread the offensive operations over the whole county and city and to organise the men of the county, to use their arms to the best advantage.
This proposal was nothing less than the dissolution of not one, but two brigades and their takeover by another. A bold move, but the Vice-O/C was “of opinion that they will be quite willing to co-operate with us if we are commissioned by GHQ to approach them.”
A Clean Sweep
Actually, the Mid-Limerick Brigade was not, or at least not with Forde as its new O/C:
I wrote requesting Headquarters to stay its hand and give me a chance of tightening up the general looseness that was so apparent in the carrying out of the duties of the Brigade. My request was granted and with the proverbial ‘New Broom’ energy I set to work.
The début for this refreshed policy was again in conjuncture with East Limerick as part of a planned attack on a Black-and-Tan squad, dubbed the ‘Green Hornets’ at Shraharla Chapel, in May 1921. Forde and about fourteen other men from his Mid-Limerick column had reached the main road, at the prearranged site near the chapel, when the would-be ambushers were instead surprised by two British military lorries appearing from around the turn in the road, each filled with soldiers, followed by five more – or so Forde described. Others remembered four vehicles altogether. Either way, the Irishmen were outnumbered and outgunned; the only factor in their favour being that the other party seemed equally off-guard:
I can never understand why the enemy did not rush our small unit; it might be due to a faint-hearted officer, or, perhaps, they were not in a position to gauge our numerical strength.
A running-battle ensued, as the column men let off shots to cover their retreat to the chapel, where their East Limerick allies should be waiting, while the soldiers kept up volleys of their own. Two Volunteers were killed, with a couple more captured, before the rest made it to where some cover gave them the chance to turn and hold their ground. With the British now caught in the open and pinned down, the IRA managed to slip away.
Losses had been suffered, but it could have been worse in Forde’s view. Besides:
I think it is only fair to say that, while my name is not mentioned in connection with this engagement in “Limerick’s Fighting Story” [book, first published in the 1940s], there are plenty living witnesses to verify that it was I who marshalled and led the column in this engagement, and it was I who made all the arrangements for the bringing of the column into the East Limerick area.
(Officially, the column was commanded by Seán Carroll after O’Connell’s arrest earlier in the year. Carroll only appears in passing in Forde’s account; to judge by comments like the one above, Forde was sensitive to his portrayal and frequency in the historical record compared to that of others.)
Contact at last having been made with the East Limerick IRA, the two columns billeted in Lackelly, with the intent of carrying out the original plan against the ‘Green Hornets’. These Tans had taken a page out of the insurgency’s book and patrolled on bicycles in a flying column of their own, and it was this that enabled the ‘Hornets’ to surprise four Volunteers – two from Mid-Limerick, the other pair from the East – in a farmyard on the morning of the intended ambush and cutting them down in a flurry of bullets.
Forde and sixteen others hurried to the sounds of gunfire, where the ‘Hornets’ were exchanging shots with another IRA sub-group, this one under Carroll’s command. Carroll would later lead with Richard O’Connell a breakaway faction from Forde ‘s authority as Brigade O/C but, for now, there was only the struggle together to survive.
The combined Irish numbers had the Tans cornered in a field of uncut hay. Forde downed a foe with one shot, broke the pin of his rifle in attempting another, and then found that the man next to him had a gun-jam of his own. Hoping to bluff his way to victory, Forde:
…then asked the enemy to surrender, but the reply was “No b….. surrender”. All this happened in a split second, and I am prepared to swear as to the truth of this statement, as it sounds far-fetched. The enemy, realising that there was something amiss, rushed our position.
As it was just Forde and two others holding the line at that particular point, and with one working rifle between them, the trio had no choice but to hurry aside and let the Tans break through. Bloodied and spent, both sides withdrew to lick their wounds and count their dead – six altogether on the Irish side from the two engagements.
Out and In and Out of Harmony
Its excursion done, the Mid-Limerick column pulled back to its area. While its fortunes had been no better than mixed, that things had happened at all was enough for Forde to conclude:
…having filled key positions here and there with men of the right calibre, the work of the Brigade ran smoothly and in a short time we had the good will and respect of GHQ.
Which was perhaps a trifle optimistic. GHQ was niggardly in its respect and rarely bothered with good will if the opposite could be given. When Forde led an attack on Fedamore RIC Barracks on the night of the 21st April 1921, by luring out the policemen and then opening fire with revolvers and shotguns, the IRA succeeded in wounding three and killing a fourth, so the report to GHQ read.
Mulcahy, however, was unimpressed.
“There does not seem to be any reason why this operation should not have been a much more finished piece of work,” he wrote back in his role as IRA Chief of Staff:
Events may occur which will prevent an actual operation, but there is no reason at all any planning of operation should not have a perfect finish, and I want you to give and to see that your Officers give particular attention to this. Slovenly or incomplete plans mean work in which there is little satisfaction, and they are very bad from the training and discipline and every other point of view.
But then, condescending and irritated was how Mulcahy generally talked to his subordinates, particularly those in IRA units that had not, in his view, been carrying their share of the load. Still, by this time, there were reasons for the Mid-Limerick Brigade to be confident in catching up: the 1st-2nd Battalion rivalry had finally been put to rest in April 1921, with an agreed merger of the two units at the Catholic Commercial Club in Barrington Street. This reduced the battalions from five to four, which were renamed accordingly.
The new start brought a second wind, with a number of bridges between Co. Limerick and Clare blown up by the Mid-Limerick Brigade engineers; one of whom, Robert de Courcy, went so far as to draw up plans for a gun large enough to hurl bombs. Parts were surreptitiously taken out of Limerick Power Station and put together at the Fianna Hall. When the scratch-built cannon was judged ready, Mulcahy and Cathal Brugha from GHQ were among those in attendance of its demonstration at Killonan.
The gun was fired – and promptly exploded, sending a metal fragment into the face of one onlooker, breaking his teeth and almost killing him.
‘An Attitude of Revolt’
If no plan survives contact with the enemy, then Limerick was where none remained upon meeting your ally. The improvements in the months before the Truce of July 1921 were not enough to placate some in the Mid-Limerick Brigade, namely the heads of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Battalions (formerly the 3rd, 4th and 5th respectively, before the 1st and 2nd ones amalgamated) announced their decision at the start of November 1921 to withdraw from the Brigade and form their own.
Since there were no guarantees that the Truce would hold, and bloodshed between Crown forces and the Irish Republican soldiers not resumed, this partitioning would put the war effort in this corner of Ireland in grave peril, so reported Eoin O’Duffy:
If the City Batt. were cut off from the surrounding country Batts….the former would be considerably hampered in carrying out operations against the enemy, particularly as the new Brigade would be very likely be out of harmony with the City.
Not that the country units would perform much better, in O’Duffy’s scathing view:
From what I have seen of them, I believe that without Limerick City control, these Batts. would become mobs. They certainly would not enforce discipline, when they have shown so little respect for discipline themselves.
Which, for a martinet like O’Duffy, was the ultimate crime. This perhaps coloured his dismissal of the reasons cited for the mutiny, which included a disconnect between the Volunteers of Limerick City and those in the countryside, and an unequal treatment of the two demographics, with the urban 1st Battalion keeping a disproportionate share of the guns available. All lies or exaggeration, the Deputy Chief of Staff informed his colleagues in GHQ. While all the Brigade staff had expressed their willingness to step down to diffuse the situation, “I am satisfied, and the Div. Comdt. [Ernie O’Malley] agrees with me, that none of the Brigade Officers could be efficiently replaced.”
Which sounds like a very different O’Malley who left Limerick convinced that nothing useful was to be found there. Culpability instead fell on the Brigade separatists, against whom O’Duffy recommended the harshest of measures: the O/Cs of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Battalions to be stripped of rank, dismissed from service or, at minimum, have their positions ‘considered’. As for Richard O’Connell and Seán Carroll, they were to “be expelled from the army in ignominy, and their names read on parade.”
O’Duffy was evidently of the ‘justice not just done but seen to be done’ school of thought. He conceded that “the recommendations made above may appear drastic,” but it was for the best, for the malcontents “have been most unscrupulous in their allegations, and even when allegations were clearly disproved, they still maintained an attitude of revolt.” All of which placed “them in the same category as the enemy.”
But then, this was Limerick, and the distinction between friend and foe was not always an obvious one.
 Military Archives – Cathal Brugha Barracks, Michael Collins Papers, ‘Mid Limerick Brigade. Letter from Intelligence Officer, Mid Limerick Brigade to Director of Information, with related material’, IE-MA-CP-04-30, pp. 3-5
 Military Archives – Cathal Brugha Barracks , Military Service Pensions Collection, ‘Mid Limerick Brigade GHQ’, MA/MSPC/RO/133, pp. 52-4
The facts of the case with regard to the shooting of Sergeant Thomas Keighary were not immediately clear, at least not to the reporters enquiring at Navan Police Barracks, Co. Meath, save for the basics: shortly after 11 pm on the 1st December 1920, the summons for spiritual assistance reached Father O’Reilly, who hurried to Kilcarne village and delivered the last rites to the wounded policeman. Keighary died shortly afterwards, the victim of friendly fire when a lorry from the British Army drove towards a police stop-point at Kilcarne.
The policemen on duty had hailed them to halt, while the soldiers on board the vehicle called out at the same time, but it was dark, with heavy rain further obscuring the view between the two groups, leading to gunshots being fired. Sergeant Keighary was hit in the abdomen, fatally so, and his body removed to Navan Barracks.
A further victim was Richard Seery, whose grocery shop adjoined the scene. A stray bullet caught him, though his injuries were slight. Reporting on the incident, the Meath Chronicle wrote of how:
Residents in the Kilcarne district say they heard at least half a dozen shots, and on looking out, saw some flashes…There are marks of bullets in the door of Mr Seery’s premises, and also under the window.
Needless to say, “the people were very much alarmed.”
Keighary had had twenty years of service in the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), during which he married and had a child. He was by all accounts a popular man, so his death was mourned by many as a tragedy. Still, it was not an unusual occurrence in itself: Ireland was a country at war between the Crown authorities and the Volunteers of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), putting RIC personnel, as upholders of the former, on the front-lines, regardless of likeability.
What was unusual was the difficulty in ascertaining exactly the circumstances behind this latest slaying. When contacting Kilcarne Barracks about the inquest into Keighary’s death, reporters from the Meath Chronicle were told that the policemen there knew nothing, while Navan RIC Barracks informed them that it was a military matter, not theirs. The pressmen went accordingly to the Navan Workhouse, where the British Army was garrisoned, only for the officer on duty to say he knew nothing about any inquiry.
One was eventually held, on the 4th December 1920, at the Navan Workhouse, though the Meath Chronicle only learnt of the date, time and location from a relative of the deceased who had come from Galway to attend. Confidence in the official process was not helped when the journalists arrived at the Workhouse, only to be refused entry on the grounds that the inquiry would be a restricted affair.
But at least it was held at all, and the earthly remains of Thomas Keighary could afterwards be sent to rest in his native soil in Ballinasloe, Co. Galway. A cortège of soldiers and RIC men followed for some distance the motor-hearse carrying their fallen comrade, accompanied by a number of civilians as a tribute to the sergeant’s popularity.
Still, the Meath Chronicle wrote:
The circumstances of the fatal occurrence at Kilcarne are still somewhat shrouded in mystery, as far as the public are concerned, owing to the secret procedure adopted at the inquiry.
All that was available was the official version: that British soldiers travelling by lorry came across their RIC allies in Kilcarne, leading to a deadly misunderstanding, an exchange of shots and the death of the luckless Keighary. Given the state of the country, it was not an implausible story.
An alternative version was not committed to paper until 1951, almost three decades later, and it was only in 2003 that the Bureau of Military History made publically available its archive of first-hand accounts from the turbulent period. One was Eugene Bratton’s, an RIC constable stationed in Navan, Co. Meath, on that fateful night on the 1st December 1920.
Bratton was on duty in the dayroom of the police barracks when his superior, Sergeant Johns, entered, asking for help in the case of a dispatch rider in the British Army whose motorbike had broken down in Kilcarne. Bratton thought it odd that Johns did not go to the soldiers in Navan since it was their colleague who were in need of assistance, but gamely offered to drive them to Kilcarne, only to be rebuffed by Johns, who wanted their usual driver to do so. The driver was duly found, and Johns sent word to Sergeant Keighary, who was out patrolling the town, to report to the barracks.
Bratton did not mention in his Bureau Statement whether he accompanied Johns, Keighary and the other policemen from the barracks in the drive to Kilcarne and what unfolded there: they arrived to find no dispatch rider and, when the two military lorries appeared – so Bratton described – Johns stepped into the glare of their headlights and fired his revolver, provoking the exchange of shots that resulted in Keighary’s death.
All of which matches the official account reported at the time, except that, in Bratton’s opinion: “I believe this was a frame-up with the military – if they were military at all – to dispose of [Keighary].”
Ultimately, we will never know for sure. One could agree with Bratton’s suspicion, especially given the evasive nature of the military inquiry into the incident, and see malign intent in how “there did not seem to be any reason why Sergeant [Keighary] should be especially called in and detailed for this job” by Johns. Another historian could question the wisdom of Johns engineering such a hypothetical set-up, given that there was no guarantee of Keighary being hit, especially in the dark, no more than Johns, who would have to have been incredibly reckless or stupid to provoke a gun-fight with himself on the front line.
As for a motive, assuming the death was indeed an inside-job, Keighary was, according to Bratton, in cahoots with the local IRA, despite their two organisations being mortal foes. Permits were needed at the time for use of a car, so Keighary would steal the relevant paperwork from the County Inspector’s office and pass it on, stamped and ready for use, to the enemy.
As betrayals go, it was relatively tame, especially how much more was being dared by other RIC members – Bratton among them. Spies were a constant thorn in the side of the Navan Volunteers as well, stymieing many of its operations. Suspecting one individual in particular, Bratton passed on the name to Seán Boylan, O/C of the Meath IRA Brigade, who knew all too well the problem of loose lips.
Stopped in their Tracks
It was just one of the many hassles with which Boylan had to contend. Responsibility for waging war against the Crown authorities – particularly in the forms of the British Army and the RIC – in Meath lay with him, as were the journeys to Dublin to report to GHQ on the progress made so far. Unlike some more independently-minded brigades in the country, Meath had always enjoyed a civil relationship with the central leadership. When Boylan arranged a meeting of Meath officers in December 1920, it was attended by J.J. ‘Ginger’ O’Connell, visiting from Dublin on behalf of the IRA GHQ as its Assistant Chief of Staff.
Presiding over the session, held in the old Workhouse in Devlin, O’Connell took the lead:
…explaining the purpose of the meeting, stressed the necessity for the immediate consideration and preparation of plans for attacks on enemy patrols and barracks in the brigade area, so as to relieve pressure by enemy forces in Cork and elsewhere.
It was not as if the Meath IRA had been idle; indeed, it had pulled off a spectacular coup four months ago, in September 1920, with the capture and destruction of Trim RIC Barracks. But there was the big picture to consider, as O’Connell stressed, and Meath could not be resting on its laurels while other counties like Cork or Dublin bore the weight of the national struggle.
To help facilitate this new phase, an inventory of all the guns and ammunition available to the Brigade would be drawn up, with its Volunteers trained in the making and use of home-made explosives. Previous seizures of police outposts in Meath had been accomplished by surprise and deception; from now on, the IRA was to have another weapon in its arsenal, one to help it go toe-to-toe with Crown forces.
Which was all good in theory. To put this into practice, two operations would be launched simultaneously on the night of the 8th January 1921: the first by the 5th (Oldcastle) Battalion against the local RIC Barracks, and the other by the 6th (Navan) Battalion with an ambush on a British patrol.
Both attempts fell through due to similar reasons, according to Boylan.
He had taken care in ensuring that the two units were sufficiently armed for their assigned targets, both in equipment and information. By now ‘on the run’ from his home in Dunboyne, Boylan based himself in the Oldcastle area, allowing him to preside over a couple of meetings where plans for the Oldcastle assault were finalised. Two land-mines were manufactured in the meantime, the ideal tools for blowing through walls. These were carried by horse and trap, escorted by fifty or so Volunteers from the 5th Battalion, all equipped with shotguns and buckshot cartridges, as they made their way from Bollies village towards Oldcastle.
Two priests intercepted them with the shocking news that the RIC garrison was ready and waiting for them, as were British soldiers and an armoured car, on which a machine-gun was mounted. All of which was considerably more than the battalion was prepared for, and so a timely withdrawal was decided on as the best policy.
Still, while it could have been worse:
This was a great blow to the morale of the Volunteers when they realised that the enemy had such first-hand knowledge of their movements. It was thought then that the information was supplied by someone within the ranks of the IRA.
If Boylan had any suspicions as to who this informer was, he kept them to himself when composing his BMH Statement. As for the second debacle of the night, however, he knew where to point the finger.
In preparation for the ambush in Navan, Boylan had given two hundred buckshot cartridges – no small amount in a war where every bullet counted – to Thomas Duffy, Adjutant to the 6th Battalion. Not only did these never reach the rest of the unit, the intended mission was called off when the Navan Volunteers, waiting in position for the enemy patrol to appear, received word from a local man called Quilty that Boylan had come by his house to cancel everything.
This came as a surprise to Boylan when he learnt of it, since he had never as much as stepped foot in Quilty’s residence. It was not until much later in the year, in November 1921, that Boylan was able to hold an inquest into what had happened in Navan that night. When confronted with his failure to pass on the cartridges, Duffy admitted culpability. Of the many thorns in Boylan’s side, Duffy was a particularly persistent embedded one:
Time and again I tried to persuade the officers of Navan (or 6th) Battalion to drop Duffy and have nothing to do with him, but they would not take my advice.
The only question in Boylan’s mind was whether Duffy’s antics were the result of incompetence or something darker:
His father, with whom he lived, was an ex-RIC man, and I had a suspicion then that both Duffy and his father were in constant touch with the RIC in Navan and elsewhere.
Boylan’s distrust appeared to be vindicated by a letter he received from a friendly policeman in Navan, Constable McGarrity, who named Duffy as among the informants in the area during this period. McGarrity, as he explained in writing, had:
Opened Sergeant Neilan’s box on some Sunday about five months prior to the Truce [11th July 1921] and discovered a typewritten letter signed Thomas Eamon Duffy, and initiated in manuscript ‘T.D.’. Owing to the fact that Neilan might come in at any moment, I was too nervous to read the letter through, but I noticed it contained information about the shooting of policemen to take place at a future date.
Sergeant Neilan, according to McGarrity, would send a subordinate to Duffy’s father with banknotes, presumably as payment. That is assuming that McGarrity’s revelation is accurate – even Boylan expressed reservation about that. If nothing else, it shows the elusivity of truth and trust, with one participant in the war breaking ranks to inform an enemy about another enemy in the latter’s camp, who was passing information to the former’s side.
Controlling who knew what would bedevil the Meath Brigade to the end, such as during another attempt by the 5th Battalion in February 1921, this time in ambushing a RIC patrol near Oldcastle. Owing to miscommunication, this mission was delayed, which was just as well:
For, next day, they received information…that the RIC and Tans had actually taken up positions the night before, behind the walls from which the attack was to have been carried out.
It was obvious that the enemy were well informed and that the information was supplied from within the IRA organisation.
Little wonder, then, “around this time a ‘spy’ chasing fever had set in in Volunteer circles,” as described by David Hall, a member of the Dunshaughlin IRA Company. “It was a regular affair to read in the papers that men had been found with labels attached to them which read ‘Spies and Informers Beware’.”
‘A Profound Sensation’
One such incident was in the early hours of the 27th March 1921, when Frank Dooner was called out of his cottage near Kilberry, four miles from Navan, by a group of men who then shot him several times in the stomach. For added measure, Dooner was bludgeoned in the head with the butt-end of a revolver, so much that gun-splinters were imbedded in his scalp. The assassins then fled, leaving behind spent cartridge cases, a piece of paper bearing the words ‘Convicted Spy; let informers beware’ and their victim for dead.
Which, as it turned out, Dooner was not, dragging himself back to his cottage, where his sister found him in bed that morning. She promptly called an ambulance to take her brother to Meath County Infirmary, but the wounds to his abdomen and head were grave enough for him to be transferred to a Dublin hospital. Though the Meath Chronicle could not say for sure whether Dooner would pull through, it was believed that, given that he had made it thus far, he would do so indeed.
The occurrence has caused a profound sensation in the district. Dooner’s aged father is a patient in the Navan Union Hospital and is prostrated with grief as a result of the dreadful occurrence. No information is available as to whether Dooner is able to identify his assailants or to give an adequate description of them, or, as to whether he is in a position to point a motive for the deadly attack made on him.
Given that the assailants in question had already supplied a motive, via the paper left at the scene, the newspaper was perhaps being a little naïve, if not just coy. Unlike Boylan, Seamus Finn, the Adjutant of the Meath IRA Brigade, did not think the leakages responsible for the arrests and convictions of his fellow Volunteers were originating from the inside, instead blaming stray gossip and idle talk that were overheard, pieced together and delivered by those willing to deal with the Crown forces.
For these ‘touts’, Finn had only cold rage:
Whether these spies or informers were doing this work for payment or to prove their loyalty to Britain made no difference to us…Careful watch was kept on the movements of these people and, in some cases, they were actually seen to contact the enemy. Raids were made on the mails and certain sources of information were taped in an effort to get complete evidence in each case.
Finn counted the number of resultant executions as being ten, with twelve other suspects who were left untouched due to the inconclusiveness of their guilt. He assured his readers that “we were very scrupulous and conscientious in this matter and the case had to be clearly proven before the death penalty was sanctioned.”
To the extent that one believes this is a matter for the individual historian. Not all capital punishments were competently applied, as Finn lamented one case which had:
…an extraordinary sequel. The convicted spy was taken out and the execution party fired and, to all appearances, shot him dead. Imagine our very great surprise when we later learned that he had not been killed but survived the bullets which entered his body.
Finn omitted – or had forgotten – the name of the person in question but the story sounds very much like that of Dooner. However gruesome his injuries, Dooner had survived, at least initially. Other victims of the IRA ‘spy chasing fever’ were not so fortunate, such as John Donough, who was taken from his family home in Ratoath village, near Dunshaughlin, on the night of the 13th June 1921 by three armed and disguised men.
Shots were then heard, and when his parents ventured out, they found their son on the village outskirts, dead with a pair of bullet-holes in his chest and another two in his arms, presumably as defence-wounds. Unlike Dooney’s case, no sign or message was left on the scene:
He appears to have been a popular and exemplary young man and the motive which has brought him to an untimely grave is shrouded in mystery.
One thing for sure, reported the Meath Chronicle, was how “a profound sensation and horrified alarm has been caused throughout South Meath.”
Perhaps significantly, both Donough and Dooner had served in the British Army – the former having been demobilised only the previous Christmas – as had Thomas Duke, a 25-year-old gardener who was similarly confronted at his home in Warrenstown, Dunsany, by a pair of masked men on the 14th June 1921. They took Duke at gunpoint along a road, stopping to grant their victim the chance to say his last prayers. Instead, Duke took a different recourse, grappling with his surprised abductors before fleeing for his life.
Duke’s crime had apparently been to slip a note about the location of an ‘on-the-run’ Volunteer to Constable Crean, an RIC man in Dunshaughlin. As Duke and the other man were otherwise friends, the reason for this betrayal is not clear. Duke was, in turn, exposed by Crean, another IRA mole in police uniform. Retribution was assigned to two brothers who went on to botch the job, with Duke escaping into the night and then out of Meath entirely.
The Missing Postman of Navan
Such covert killings were not necessarily limited to one side, however. On the Good Friday of 1921, the body of Thomas Hodgett, the Postmaster in Navan, was pulled out of the Boyne, thus ending five weeks of searching since his abduction in Navan on the night of the 18th February.
His kidnappers had gone to some effort to track him; first knocking on the door of a public-house in Navan, awakening its proprietor, Bernard O’Brien, in bed. Claiming to be police, they demanded Hodgett’s address from O’Brien, and then departed at once, reported the Meath Chronicle:
Mr O’Brien told a representative of this paper at the time that he could not identify the men, but that they were above average height, wearing overcoats, and one had a soft cap and the other a bright grey cap.
Once at the Hodgett residence in Academy Street, the mystery callers again identified themselves as RIC while banging on the front door, although they changed their minds when Grace Hodgett opened it for them, saying instead that they were ‘Sinn Feiners’, with the ominous promise to ‘show what Sinn Feiners would do’. Adding to the surreality of the scene:
They spoke in a tongue which Mrs Hodgett described to a Press representative as “gibberish.” She believed that the men “put on” an Irish accent and she added that she did not believe that the Irish Volunteers had anything to do with it.
Her husband had dressed and was in the process of putting on his footwear when their uninvited guests brusquely ordered him to come, forcing him to leave with one boot unlaced. Witnesses would report hearing gunshots near Blackwater Bridge as well as the sounds of a splash and a motorcar. Blood was found on the bridge the next morning, leading to suspicions of foul play that were at last confirmed when fishermen sighted the remains of Hodgett two months later.