“It is awfully funny being ‘on the run’!” wrote Countess Markievicz to her sister Eva, in January 1920. “I don’t know what I resemble most: the timid hare, the wily fox, or a fierce wild animal of the jungle.” For three months, she had been a free woman, since leaving Cork Jail, on the 18th October 1919, in time for a police constable to be shot dead in Dublin later that evening.
The British authorities claimed a connection between that and her release; in any case, the situation was sufficiently unsettled in Ireland for a state crackdown on the burgeoning Republican movement, with house raids, arrests and, for some, deportations, hence the necessity of Markievicz staying one step ahead of the foreign foe.
Not that she appeared terribly concerned, at least in another letter to Eva: “I go about a lot, one way or another, and every house is open to me and everyone is ready to help.” When she felt like stretching her legs, she took a bicycle around Dublin, the startled expressions of policemen at the sight of a notorious rebel as she whizzed by amusing her considerably.
“There are very few women on bikes in the winter, so a hunted beast on a bike is very remarkable,” she pointed out.
But then, Markievicz was far from an ordinary individual. With a flourish, she signed the letter with the initials ‘I.C.A, T.D.’ after her name, the first set from her time in the Irish Citizen Army, which she had helped lead during the 1916 Rising, and the other due to her Dáil Éireann seat. Whatever her commitments, she took them seriously. When municipal local elections were held in January 1920, Markievicz publicly spoke on behalf of several female candidates in Dublin, despite her outlaw status and the threat of capture. At one such rally, as she related:
I wildly and blindly charged through a squad of armed police, sent there to arrest me, and the crowds swallowed me up and got me away. The children did the trick for me.
But luck and pluck could only take her so far, and she was finally caught in September 1920, while driving back with Seán MacBride from a trip to the Dublin mountains. After all the close shaves, it was an absurdly minor oversight that undid her:
The police pulled us up because of the tail lamp not being there: they asked for a permit; [MacBride] had none, so they got suspicious and finally lit a match in my face and phoned for the military.
Confinement to Mountjoy did little to stem the flow of her correspondence. It was not all business; Markievicz thanked her sister for the fruit sent to her in prison. Eva was holidaying in Florence, and Markievicz was eager to hear the details. “You’ll be glad to hear that I am not on hunger strike at present,” she added near the end, almost as an afterthought.
To read her words is to be yanked back into the cut and thrust of Irish politics and war at a time when a thin line, at best, existed between the two. Despite the hardships, Markievicz thrived, and her letters show a remarkable range of interests, from cosy family chitchat to the finer points of literature. But a hunger for current affairs was never far from the surface, whether Ireland’s or elsewhere; Russia, for instance, pricked her notice. “I haven’t given up on the Bolshies yet,” she wrote. “I believe that they will greatly improve conditions for the world.”
On that particular point, the two siblings were not entirely in accord, though Markievicz sought to mollify the other somewhat: “I agree with you disliking the autocracy of any class, but surely if they have the sense to organise education, they can abolish class.” While she admitted the possibility of Communism becoming another tyranny, “it would be worth it in the long run. After all, as she blithely put it, “the French Revolution gave France new life, though all their fine ideas ended in horrors and bloodshed and wars. The world, too, gained.”
Quite what the Bolsheviks would have made of the aristocratically-born Countess is another, unasked question. But then, Markievicz wasted little time worrying about what society thought. Her life was her own, and she lived it with scant regrets. In January 1924, barely a month out of her latest spell in prison – courtesy of her fellow countrymen this time – she explained to Eva her approach to the challenges in her life, such as the hunger strike she and the other Republican prisoners had just undertaken.
“I always rather dreaded a hunger strike,” she admitted:
But when I had to do it I found that, like most things, the worst of it was looking forward to the possibility of having to do it. I did not suffer at all but just stayed in bed and dozed and tried to prepare myself to leave the world.
The good news was that the prolonged starvation had alleviated her rheumatism. “Now, old darling, I must stop. Writing on a machine always tempts one to ramble on and on.”
Judging by the rest of her letters collected here, the typewriter was hardly the one to blame. Not that the reader, whether a learned historian or neophyte seeking to know more, is likely to mind. Few voices from the era were as loquacious or engaging as Countess Markievicz’s, as this book shows.
It was not the first time that the death of John Phillips had been reported, having been erroneously done so twice before the 2nd April 1917, when the long-standing Member of Parliament (MP) for South Longford, who had been in poor health for some time, breathed his last at the age of seventy-seven. It was the end of an era in more ways than one.
“During his long career he was one of the staunchest Nationalists in Co. Longford, and in his earlier days he was one of the most vigorous,” reported the Longford Leader. Phillips had been a leading Fenian in the county before choosing, like so many of his revolutionary colleagues, to throw his support behind the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), under the leadership of Charles Stewart Parnell, as a constitutional alternative when the physical force methods of the Fenians appeared to be going nowhere.
During the Parnell Split of 1890, Phillips remained loyal to his leader. It was a choice that placed him in the political minority, a characteristic decision, considering how, throughout the years, Phillips proved willing to put himself at odds with others, as alluded to gently in his obituary:
At times he might have differed from some of the local national leaders, yet there was never at any time one who was not prepared to acknowledge the honest and well meaning intentions of Mr Phillips.
The voters evidently agreed as they elected Phillips, first to the Chairmanship of Longford County Council in 1902, and then as their MP in 1907, a role he held until his demise. It had been an eventful life and a worthy career, but power abhors a vacuum and the question now was who would replace him.
And a fraught question it was, for the upcoming by-election would take place in a very different environment to when Phillips entered the political stage. For one, the electoral franchise had been expanded, ensuring that it now “embraces all classes in the community, and from the highest to the lowest, every man on the voters list will be entitled to cast his vote for the man of his choice.”
This was a heady responsibility indeed and, deeming itself duty-bound to offer a few words of advice, the Longford Leader urged for a spirit of inclusivity:
Let every man whoever he may be, be heard at the coming election with respect and without any stifling of free speech. Let the electors be given an opportunity of hearing to the full the pros and cons of the different arguments put forth by each side…If the electors follow these lines we are quite confident that the election will not be a curse but a blessing to this part of Ireland.
Noble words, but confidence was one thing the newspaper and its political patrons in the Irish Party were lacking. Times had changed and, more than that, the electoral franchise had shifted with it, as the once-almighty IPP found itself under threat from a new and hungry challenger.
“It is announced in Longford that Mr. John MacNeill, who is at present in penal servitude, will be put forward as Sinn Fein candidate for the vacancy,” read the Irish Times, printing in italics the name the IPP least wanted to hear.
‘An Issue Clear and Unequivocal’
None were more conscious of the looming threat to the Irish Party’s hegemony – and, indeed, its survival – than its Chairman.
“The remarkable and unexpected result of the election in North Roscommon has created a situation in which I feel it my duty to address you in a spirit of grave seriousness and of complete candour,” John Redmond wrote on the 21st February 1917 in what was intended as a letter to the press, to be read by the Party faithful, still reeling from the shocking defeat eighteen days ago on the 3rd February, when Count George Plunkett scored a victory at the aforementioned by-election.
And a crushing victory it was, with the dark horse candidate trouncing his IPP opponent by 3,022 votes to 1,708, more than twice as much. As if to rub salt into the wound, Plunkett had promptly declared his intent to abstain from taking his seat in Westminster, an antithesis to the strategy the Irish Party had long pursued towards its Home Rule goal since Parnell. This announcement of the Count’s had come as a surprise to many in his constituency, as their new MP had said little during his campaign, having not even been present in Roscommon until two days before polling.
He had been in England for the most part, exiled there by the British authorities on suspicion of his role in the Easter Rising, ten months ago. Such punishment had been mild compared to that of his son’s, Joseph Plunkett, executed by firing squad, and it was seemingly as much due to empathy for a father’s loss as anything political that the Count succeeded like he did.
Which raised a question Redmond felt compelled to ask.
“If the North Roscommon election may be regarded as a freak election, due to a wave of emotion or sympathy or momentary passion,” he wrote, “then it may be disregarded, and the Irish people can repair the damage it has already done to the Home Rule movement. If, however –” and it was a big ‘if’ – “it is an indication of a change of principle and policy on the part of a considerable mass of the Irish people, then an issue clear and unequivocal, supreme and vital, has been raised.”
On the Defence
What followed in the letter was a brief rumination on recent history, from the start of the Home Rule movement in 1873 to its recent acceptance by Westminster in 1914. With the promised gains of a self-governing Ireland, free from the diktats of Dublin Castle:
It is nonsense to speak of such an Act as this as worthless. Its enactment by a large majority of British representatives has been the crowning triumph of forty years of patient labour.
True, Home Rule hung in suspension, not yet in effect, but only, Redmond assured his readers, until the end of the current war in Europe. And yes, there remained the ‘Ulster question’, with truculent Unionists threatening partition, but Redmond was confident that this would be “quite capable of solution without either coercion or exclusion.”
What otherwise was the alternative? If physical force methods were to take the place of constitutional ones, and withdrawal from Westminster adopted in support of complete separation, the consequences would be:
Apart from inevitable anarchy in Ireland itself, not merely the hopeless alienation of every friend of Ireland in every British party, but leaving the settlement of every Irish question…in the hands of Irish Unionist members in the Imperial Parliament.
Whether the electorate cared about such details, however, was yet to be answered. Redmond was honest enough to admit the central weakness of his party, namely that it had been around for so long, with the resulting “monotony of being served for 20, 25, 30, 35 or 40 years by the same men in Parliament.”
If so, Redmond was prepared to make capitulation into a point of principle, as he closed his letter with the following proclamation: “Let the Irish people replace us, by all means, by other and, I hope, better men, if they so choose.”
It was probably because of this depressing note on which it ended, reminiscent of a disgraced Roman about to enter a warm bath and open his veins, that three of Redmond’s colleagues – John Dillon, Joe Devlin and T.P. O’Connor – met to dissuade their leader from publishing the missive. Redmond could wallow in all the gloom and doom he liked, but the Irish Party was not yet done and its adherents, as was to be shown in South Longford, remained ready to slug it out to the bitter end with the Sinn Féin challenger.
Flush with success following the Roscommon breakthrough, the victors were nonetheless going through their own bout of second-guessing each other. As president, Arthur Griffith, had summoned the Sinn Féin Executive, co-opting a few more members, but “no one seemed to know what to do,” recalled Michael Lennon, one of the new Executive inductees. “Sinn Féin had three or four hundred pounds in the bank but organisation there was none.” Instead, “things political were somewhat chaotic just now.”
Compounding problems was the same man who had achieved their first victory. While Plunkett was happy to use the Sinn Féin name for his Roscommon campaign, he evidently did not consider himself beholden to the party, as he was soon busy setting up a network of his own, as Lennon described:
Count Plunkett and his friends were organising a Liberty League with Liberty Clubs, but this was being done without any reference to Sinn Féin or to Mr. Griffith, then probably the best-known man out of gaol.
Griffith had the brand recognition but not the political muscle, nor did his powerbase: “It is now abundantly clear that at this stage the founder of the Sinn Féin movement had a large but scattered following.”
Worse, the ardent republicans who were flocking to the Sinn Féin banner had little time for the Sinn Féin president. His proposed model for Irish self-rule, a ‘dual-monarchy’ akin to the Austria-Hungarian one, married to a return of the 1782 Constitution between Westminster and Ireland, ensued that he was seen as only another compromiser in their eyes, and they did not bother hiding how they regarded:
…Mr. Griffith with unconcealed contempt and aversion, referring to him and his friends as the “1782 Hungarians,” a clownish witticism at the expense of a policy which, at least, ensured a practical method of securing Ireland’s recognition as a sovereign state from England.
Even though some time had passed when he put pen to paper, Lennon burned with the injustice of it all.
The Plunkett Convention
Still, the two leaders were able to keep their growing rivalry out of public view – that is, until the 19th April 1917, when delegates from the various Sinn Féin branches throughout the country – accompanied by representatives from the Irish Volunteers, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Cumann na mBan and the Labour Party – gathered inside the Mansion House, Dublin. The large clerical presence was also noted, as were, according to the Irish Independent, “many ladies and gentlemen well-known in literary and artistic circles.”
They had all come in response to an open invitation by Plunkett, who, fittingly enough, presided over the assembly as the Chair. He was soon to make clear just how seriously he took his authority.
“The meeting was like all political meetings of Irishmen,” wrote Lennon witheringly:
In the early stages there were pious utterances about freedom and the martyred dead, all present cheering and standing. Then, after the platitudes had been exchanged, sleeves were tucked up.
Onstage, in full view of the attendees, Count Plunkett locked horns with Griffith. The main point of contention was how and in what shape the new movement was to proceed, with the latter favouring an alliance of like-minded groups under the umbrella-name of Sinn Féin, against the Count’s preference to start anew in the form of his Liberty Clubs.
On the question of abstentionism, Plunkett was adamant – on no account would they send any more Irish representatives to Westminster, a point on which Griffith was apparently less dogmatic, to judge from his silence over it. As the tensions mounted, Griffith took Plunkett aside – and then announced to a shocked audience that the other man had denied him permission to speak.
“Callous and Disdainful”
Lennon could not but cringe as he remembered how:
There was something of a scene, dozens rushing to the platform and everyone saying that the leaders must unite…The scene was most discouraging, and I think the delegates who had come from the country were rather disappointed at the obvious division among prominent people in Dublin.
With the movement teetering on a split barely after its inception, Father Michael O’Flanagan stepped in. The priest had played a leading role in Plunkett’s election in Roscommon, where he had distinguished himself as a speaker and organiser. Such talents had earned him the respect of everyone involved, making him ideally suited to play the role of peacemaker. After a quiet word between him and Griffith, it was agreed that a committee be formed, consisting of supporters of both Griffith’s and Plunkett’s, including delegates from the Labour movement.
With this ‘Mansion House Committee’ serving as a venue for both factions to each have their say, Sinn Féin would continue organising about the country, as did Plunkett’s Liberty Clubs. It was not an ideal solution, more akin to papering over the cracks than filling them in, but it allowed the convention to end in a reasonably dignified manner.
Besides, there was still the common enemy to focus on. Before the convention drew to a close, Griffith read out an extract from a letter by Sir Francis Vane, who had exposed the murder of civilians by British soldiers during Easter Week. Vane met with Redmond in the House of Commons on the 2nd May 1916, before the executions of the Rising leaders took place. Redmond, Vane believed, could have used his influence to save their lives, and yet did not. Instead, his manner, Vane wrote, had been “callous and disdainful.”
Griffith let that sink in. “This man,” he said, twisting the knife, “should be smashed.”
The Most Important Thing
Afterwards, Griffith and a few others withdrew to the front drawing-room of 6 Harcourt Street, where Sinn Féin had its offices. Father O’Flanagan was reading out a poem he had written for use at the Longford election when the door was thrown open and a pair of men strode in, one strongly-built, the other frail and sickly. It was Michael Collins and Rory O’Connor, two of the strident young republicans from Count Plunkett’s hard-line faction. As was to be typical of him, Collins took the lead in speaking.
“I want to know what ticket is this Longford election being fought on,” he demanded as soon as he caught sight of Griffith, seated in the middle of the room. Griffith was unperturbed as he smoked his cigarette, but whatever answer he gave – Lennon could not remember the specifics – only infuriated Collins.
“If you don’t fight the election on the Republican ticket,” he thundered, “you will alienate all the young men.”
Lennon, for one, was taken by surprise:
This was likewise the first time I heard anyone urge the adoption of Republicanism in its open form as part of our political creed. Mr. Griffith remained silent and composed. Mr [Pierce] McCann suddenly intervened by asking: “Isn’t the most important thing to win the election?”
Collins treated this as the foulest of heresies. The Roscommon election had been conducted under the Republican flag, he railed, and so the same must be done in Longford. Having played the diplomat before, Father O’Flanagan tried again:
He said that although the tricolour was used at Roscommon, the idea of an independent Republic was not emphasised to the electors, and that the people had voted rather for the father of a son who had been executed.
With neither side giving away, the argument cooled somewhat, enough for Collins, his piece thus said, to withdraw with a wordless O’Connor to a nearby table, where they counted out the donations from the Convention. But the question was not yet settled, with neither Collins nor Plunkett appearing the type to let it drop.
“It was difficult to work in harmony,” Lennon wrote with feeling.
Among the many remaining matters to resolve, the most pertinent for Sinn Féin was who was to be its candidate in South Longford – or, indeed, if there was to be one at all. The Irish Times had first announced Eoin MacNeill, the imprisoned Chief of Staff of the Irish Volunteers, but his controversial decision to cancel the 1916 Rising at the last minute, leading to a clash of orders and general confusion, made him too controversial a choice within the revolutionary movement.
At a meeting with Count Plunkett, Michael Collins, Rory O’Connor and the trade unionist William O’Brien, Griffith proposed J.J. O’Kelly, the writer and editor, better known by his pen-name ‘Sceilg’. South Longford would be a harder nut to crack than North Roscommon, Griffith warned, being an IPP bastion as well as a generous contributor of recruits to the British Army. O’Kelly’s role as editor to the Catholic Bulletin, a journal sympathetic to their cause, should at least be a start in countering these disadvantages.
The others disagreed, preferring that a prisoner from the Rising should be their man, and so they settled on Joe McGuinness, a man otherwise unknown to the public. The decision made, Sinn Féin moved swiftly, and the Irish Times reported on how, less than a week after John Phillips’ death:
At a conference of Sinn Fein representatives in Longford on Saturday [7th April], Mr. Joseph McGuinness, a draper in Dublin, who is now undergoing three years’ imprisonment in connection with last year’s rebellion in Dublin, was selected as their candidate in South Longford.
However, it seemed that the said representatives had neglected to inform McGuinness of his nomination before making it public. A couple of days later, the selection committee was called together again with the news that the inmates in Lewes Prison, England, where McGuinness was housed, had decided that none of them would stand in any election.
As O’Brien recalled: “We were very disconcerted at this announcement.” Their grand scheme to dethrone the IPP and revise the game-plan for Irish freedom looked in danger of being stopped in its tracks. In response, the committee sent an emissary over to Lewes to contact McGuinness through the prison chaplain:
Michael Staines was selected for this job and it was subsequently learned that the statement was correct but when our message reached McGuinness the matter was re-discussed and it was decided to leave each prisoner free to accept or reject any invitation he might receive to contest a parliamentary constituency, and so we went ahead with McGuinness as candidate.
Further details on the controversy were provided in later years by Dan MacCarthy, a 1916 participant who had been sent out to Longford to help manage the Sinn Féin campaign, setting up base in the Longford Arms Hotel. Initial impressions were not encouraging – they had no funds and little in the way of organisation but, after forming an election committee of his own, including the candidate’s brother, Frank, and his niece, and hiring a few cars, they were able to drive through the area, setting up further committees of supporters as they did so to help shoulder the workload.
In a taste of the ferocity to come, they were attacked in Longford town after returning from a meeting by a crowd consisting mostly of women. There was no love lost between Sinn Féin and the dependents of Irishmen serving abroad in the British Army, or ‘separation women’ as these wives were dubbed, and a member of MacCarthy’s party needed stitches after being struck on the head with a bottle.
At least Sinn Féin had the advantage of having the one candidate to promote. The Irish Party, on the other hand, wasted precious time vacillating between three prospective names. “I think that this was responsible for our eventual success,” MacCarthy mused.
He was hard at work when Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith arrived unexpectedly to see him, bringing the unwelcome news that a letter had come in from McGuinness, demanding that his name be withdrawn:
Collins and Griffith added that they had not mentioned this to anybody in Dublin and that I was the first to know of it. I said: “What are you going to do?” and they said they were going on with it for the reason that a man in gaol could not know what the position was like outside.
Still, it was not a secret that could be kept forever. MacCarthy, acutely aware of the damage this sort of publicity could do, suggested that they find themselves a printer they could rely on to keep quiet. As they did not know of any in Longford, MacCarthy decided that they should go outside the county, to Roscommon, and meet Jaspar Tully, a local bigwig who owned, among other things, a printing press for his newspaper, the Roscommon Herald.
Tully was not the most obvious of allies, for he had run as the third candidate in the North Roscommon election against Plunkett but, while he was not of Sinn Féin, he loathed the IPP, and that was enough. MacCarthy, Collins and Griffith wrote up a handbill, explaining the Sinn Féin position should McGuinness’ decline become public knowledge, and had 50,000 copies printed in Roscommon in readiness.
MacCarthy’s instinct for who to trust had proved correct:
The secrets of this handbill was well kept by Jaspar Tully and his two printers. Although they worked all night on it and knew precisely what its contents were, they disclosed nothing.
As it turned out, the handbill was not needed. MacCarthy learnt that the Lewes prisoners had had a rethink and, while the majority remained convinced that parliamentary procedure was not for them, a significant minority decided to trust their comrades at liberty – significant enough, in any case, for McGuinness to keep his name on the ballot and allow Sinn Féin to proceed with its campaign. MacCarthy and his colleagues could breathe a sigh of relief.
‘A Most Deplorable Tangle’
The Irish Party, meanwhile, were showing themselves to be far less adroit at hiding their disarray. Redmond was suffering from eczema – an apt metaphor for the state of his party – when he received a letter from John Dillon, the MP for East Mayo. Writing on the 12th April, Dillon warned him that “the Longford election is a most deplorable tangle.”
And no wonder, given that they had yet to decide on the most important question: “All our reports go to show that if we could concentrate on one candidate we could beat Sinn Fein by an overwhelming majority.”
Instead of one contender to rally behind, the Parliamentary Party was split between three competing ones: Patrick McKenna, Joseph Mary Flood and Hugh Garrahan.
Meanwhile, “the Sinn Feiners are pouring into the constituency and are extremely active, and we of course can do nothing.” For Dillon, the whole mess “most forcibly illustrates the absolute necessity of constructing without delay some more effective machinery for selecting Party candidates.”
Which was an extraordinary statement. Dillon was speaking as if he and his Chairman were complete greenhorns entering politics for the first time. The Longford Leader bemoaned the “lassitude and indifference which has led to the decline of the Irish National Organization” in the county. Had the IPP adherents listened to the advice of J.P. Farrell, the MP for North Longford – not to mention the newspaper’s proprietor – and held a national convention to settle the question of the candidacy, it could have:
…defied any ring or caucus or enemy to defeat them. Now they are faced with not one but many different claimants between whom it is impossible to say who will be the successful one.
If the matter was not solved, and soon, the Longford Leader warned, then the election might very well result in a Sinn Féin win. If so:
It will be further evidence for use by our enemies of the destruction of the Constitutional Movement and the substitution of rebellion as the National policy. And yet we do not believe that any sane Irishman, and least of all the South Longford Irishmen, are in favour of such a mad course.
Not that the Irish Party could take such sanity for granted. Acutely aware of the growing peril, its leaders scrambled for a solution. On the 13th April, Dillon wrote to Redmond about a talk he had had with Joe Devlin, their MP for Belfast West: “We discussed your suggestion about getting the three candidates to meet.”
Dillon was also wondered whether it would be worthwhile to send someone to meet the Most Rev. Dr Joseph Hoare, the Bishop of Ardagh, though the lukewarm Church support received so far enraged Dillon. “The blame of defeat of the constitutional cause will lie on to the Bishops and priests who split the Nationalist vote,” he fumed.
A Decision Made
It says much about the level of lethargy the IPP had sunk to that it was not until the 21st April, more than a week since his last letter, that Dillon could inform Redmond that McKenna, Flood and Garrahan had agreed to stand down and leave the selection process in the Chairman’s hands.
Four days later, Redmond was able to write to Dr Hoare that McKenna had been picked to run as the IPP’s sole candidate. In contrast to Dillon’s choice words about workshy clergy, Redmond took care to thank the Bishop profusely
I need scarcely say how grateful I am to your Lordship for your action in this matter…another added to the many services which you have given to the Irish Cause, and the Party and the Movement will be forever grateful.
The Bishop of Ardagh was similarly appreciative in his own letter the day after: “We will all now obey your ruling, and strive for Mr. McKenna. I hope we shall reverse the decision of Roscommon.”
Conscious of the fragility of both Redmond and the party he led, Dr Hoare added: “I hope you will soon be restored to perfect health, and that your policy and Party will remain, after the Physical Force had been tried and found wanting.”
The Bishop added his public backing to the private support on the 4th May, when he signed McKenna’s papers inside the Longford courthouse. Elsewhere in South Longford that day, at Lanesborough and Ballymahon, some men who were putting up posters for McKenna were pelted with stones and bottles by a crowd and their work torn down.
Tricoloured ‘rebel’ flags could be seen flying from trees, windows and chimneys all over the contested constituency, save for the town of Longford. But even there held no sanctuary for the IPP, as one of its supporters, John Joseph Dempsey, was put in critical condition from a blow to the head, delivered in public on the main street.
Despite such incidents, the Irish Times believed that the election so far had been “rather tame.” That changed with the arrival, on the 5th May, of four MPs: John Dillon and Joe Devlin for the IPP, as well as Count Plunkett and Laurence Ginnell on behalf of Sinn Féin, at the same time and at the same station. Rival crowds had gathered to greet their respective champions but, despite some confusion on the platform, the two factions were able to withdraw to their separate hotels in an orderly manner.
This lull did not last long. Later that day, as speeches were being delivered in front of the hotel that served as the IPP headquarters, a pair of motor cars drove towards the audience, the tricolours fluttering from the vehicles marking their occupants as Sinn Féiners. The crowd parted to allow through the first car, possibly out of chivalrous deference to its female passengers, but the second vehicle was mobbed as it tried to follow, with the loss of one of its tricolours, torn away before the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) could intervene and prevent worse.
By the next day, the 6th May, the Irish Times had found that:
Longford was crowded with partisans, who seem to have flocked to their separate standards from all parts of Ireland…The flags of the rival parties are displayed at every turn, and incessant party cries become grating to the ear. Nothing is being left undone by either side to further its prospects.
The newspaper judged Sinn Féin to be the superior in terms of organisation, with more speakers at hand than needed and a fleet of motor cars at their disposal. But the IPP appeared to be making some overdue headway, particularly in Longford town, where Dillon and Devlin were due to speak.
A procession of their supporters were preparing to set off for the rally when a line of cars, bedecked with green, orange and white flags, drove into view. As before, a rush was made by the crowd to seize the offending tricolours, and a melee ensued as the passengers fought back. Sticks were wielded and stones thrown, until the RIC again came to the rescue and forced a passage through the press of bodies for the vehicles to motor past.
Order had been restored – until, that is, the IPP procession, en route to hear Dillon and Devlin, again encountered the same Sinn Féin convoy, and another scrum unfolded in the street.
“The opposition was particularly strong in Longford town,” remembered Kevin O’Shiel, a Tyrone-born solicitor and Sinn Féin activist. “Indeed, it was quite dangerous for any of us to go through the streets sporting our colours.” There, and in the other towns of the county, the IPP could finally flex its muscles again, with rallies that “were larger and more enthusiastic than ours, all colourful with Union Jacks and flags.”
At one such event, on the 7th May, Dillon took the stage in the market square of Longford town to make the case for the constitutional movement. The issue was now clear, he said. In North Roscommon, there had been no such clarity. The electors there had voted for Count Plunkett out of sympathy for the hardships the old gentleman had endured by the loss of his son and his own exile. No political case had been made by the Count’s supporters, not even a warning that he would refuse to take his seat at Westminster.
But now, in contrast, South Longford was faced with a clear choice: to continue the pursuit of Home Rule, and the connection with Great Britain that it entailed, or abandon that in favour of complete separation in the form of an Irish Republic.
The latter policy was nothing novel. Others had previously tried to force it on Parnell, heaping on him the exact same abuse now levelled at Redmond: he was a traitor, he was a sell-out, a tool of British imperialism and so on. Yet, as history showed, the alternative to the slow-but-steady approach produced only disaster:
If the constitutional party were driven from the battle, and the counties were to adopt the program of Sinn Fein and the Republican Party, it could only have one result in the long run – an insurrection far more widespread and bloody than the rising of last year, followed by a long period of helplessness and brutal Orange ascendancy, such as followed 1798 and 1848.
Contrary to what was being said in regards to the Rising, the Irish Party had not been negligent, continued Dillon. There were thirty men now alive thanks to the efforts their MPs had made in saving them from a firing-squad. While sixty others languished in penal servitude, there would have been over three hundred in such a plight, including the prisoners freed from Frongoch five months ago, had it not been for the IPP:
The party did not look for gratitude, nor expect it, for their action in these matters, but solid facts could not be dislodged by lies, no matter how violently their opponents screamed.
Joe Devlin was up next. Echoing his colleague, the MP for Belfast West posed his audience two stark choices: the Constitutional movement or armed rebellion, with no halfway house possible. The former had brought Ireland to the brink of self-rule through bloodless means. Were they to cast that aside in favour of a violent gamble for an impossible end? Ireland had had enough of war, Devlin said. It wanted peace.
At least one foe in the crowd was impressed. “Joe was an extremely eloquent speaker with an extraordinary emotional ring in his penetrating tenor voice,” Kevin O’Shiel recalled, “which his sharp Belfast accent accentuated, particularly to southerner ears.”
The Ulsterman was also willing to role his sleeves up in a fight. Reaching into his bag of oratorical tricks, he waved a large green banner, adorned with the national symbol of a harp in gold, declaring:
Here is the good old green flag of Ireland, the flag that many a heroic Irishman died under; the flag of Wolfe Tone, of Robert Emmet, of Thomas Davis; aye, and the flag of the great Charles Stewart Parnell.
As his audience applauded, Devlin moved in for the rhetorical kill:
Look at it, men and women, it has no yellow streak in it, nor no white streak. What was good enough for Emmet, Davis and Parnell is good enough for us. Long may it fly over Ireland!
Devlin clearly did not intend to leave the ‘green card’ entirely for the challenger’s use. He and Dillon departed from Longford on the following day, the 8th May, the latter needed for his parliamentary duties in Westminster. He was confident enough to write to Redmond, proclaiming how:
Our visit to Longford was a very great success [emphasis in text]. So far as the town and rural district of Longford goes, we are in full possession. Our organizers are very confident of a good majority.
Nonetheless, he signed off on a jarringly worrisome note: “If in the face of that we are beaten, I do not see how you can hope to hold the Party in existence.” The use of ‘you’ as the pronoun hinted at how Dillon, a consummate politician, was already shifting any future blame on to someone else.
Devlin was not the only IPP speaker to distinguish himself with turns of phrase and a willingness to make an issue out of flags. “Rally to the old flag,” the MP for North Longford, J.P. Farrell, urged his listeners. “Ours is the old green flag of Ireland, with the harp without the crown on it. There is no white in our flag, nor no yellow streak.”
Another slingshot of his was: “Don’t be mad enough to swallow this harum scarum, indigestible mess of pottage called Sinn Féin. You will be bound soon after to have a very sick stomach, and jolly well serve you right.”
Another Member of Parliament – Tommy Lundon of East Limerick, O’Shiel thought, though he was not sure by the time he put pen to paper for his memoirs – went further when he proclaimed how the tricoloured flags the opposition were so fond of waving had, upon inspection, revealed themselves to have been made in Manchester.
“There’s Sinn Féin principles for you,” he crowed.
The other side, meanwhile, were giving as good as they got. When a number of Irish Party MPs and their supporters arrived in Longford by train, they were met at the station by a crowd of children carrying Union Jacks.
To their excruciating embarrassment, in an election where the definition of Irishness was as much at stake as a parliamentary seat, the newcomers had to march through town accompanied by a host of the worst possible colours to have in Ireland at that time. The culprit was a Sinn Féin partisan who had bought the Union Jacks in bulk and handed them out to whatever children he could find, the young recipients being delighted at the new toy to wave.
“The Sinn Féin election committee was not responsible, but the IPP did not know that and they were very angry,” according to one Sinn Féin canvasser, Laurence Nugent. It was a low trick but Nugent was unsympathetic. “But why should they [be]? It was their emblem. They had deserted all others.”
It was a point Nugent was more than happy to press. When John T. Donovan, the MP for West Wicklow, was on a platform speaking, Nugent called out from the crowd, asking whether Donovan would admit that Redmond had sent him a telegram on the Easter Week of the year before, with orders to call out the National Volunteers to assist the British Army in putting down the Rising.
When a flummoxed Donovan made no reply, not even a denial, there were shouts of ‘Then it’s true’ from the onlookers. Nugent could walk away with the feeling of a job well done.
‘Clean Manhood and Womanhood’
The scab of 1916 was further picked at by Laurence Ginnell, the maverick MP for North Westmeath who had thrown himself into the new movement. Speaking at Newtownforbes – an audacious choice of venue, considering that it was McKenna’s hometown – on the same day as Dillon and Devlin, the 8th May, Ginnell repeated the allegation that the IPP representatives had cheered in the House of Commons upon hearing of the executions of Rising rebels.
While not saying anything quite as inflammatory, his partner, Count Plunkett, likewise wrapped himself in the mantle of Easter Week. “I would not be here today,” he told his listeners. “If I thought the people of South Longford had anything of the slave in them. To prove they are not slaves, let them go and vote for the man who faced death for them.”
Other Sinn Féin speakers there included his wife, Countess Plunkett, and Kathleen Clarke, widow of the 1916 martyr. They returned to Longford town in a convoy of thirty, tricolour-decked cars, cheered at different points along the way – that is, until they reached the main street, where a different sort of welcome had gathered. ‘Separation women’, armed with sticks, rushed the cars, singling out the one with the Count and Countess Plunkett, and Ginnell, on board, while pelting the Sinn Féiners with stones, one of which struck the Countess in the mouth, while their chauffeur was badly beaten.
Throughout South Longford, the RIC found itself frequently called upon to step in and prevent such brawls from escalating. Other notable victims of the violence raging through the constituency were the visiting Chairman of the Roscommon Town Commissioners, and Daniel Garrahan, uncle to one of the original IPP candidates, who was held up in his trap and pony, and assaulted.
“Party fighting for their lives with porter and stones,” Ginnell wrote to his wife in a telegram. But he was undeterred. “Clean manhood and womanhood will prevail.”
Ginnell received a telegram of his own from the Sinn Féin election committee, on the 8th May, warning him that an attack had been planned for when he left his accommodation. “In the circumstances we would suggest that it might be best not to leave the hotel this evening.”
Not all encounters were violent. Patrick McCartan, a Sinn Féin canvassers, was able to observe a range of reactions:
Some of them were friendly. Some of them just told you bluntly that they were going to vote for McKenna. I remember a woman who was a staunch supporter of McKenna. Her husband was not in, but she knew McKenna and McKenna was a decent man, and they were going to vote for him and that was all about it.
Nonetheless, McCartan and the woman were able to part on good terms. As they shook hands, he asked her to pray for the freedom of Ireland. “God’s sake!” she exclaimed. “Ye may be right after all!”
‘A Powerful Hold’
Amidst the noise and turmoil, the loyalties of two distinct demographics could be seen.
At the forefront of pro-McKenna crowds were the ‘separation women’. Their choice of Union Jacks for flags to wave was probably not appreciated by the Irish Party, but there was no doubting the women’s zest. An Australian soldier on leave found himself the centre of attention from a harem of admiring females, one of whom threw her arms around his neck and called: “May God mind and keep you. It’s you who are the real and true men.”
On the other side, the young men of the constituency were standing with Sinn Féin, prompting the Irish Times to marvel at how:
The more closely one gets in touch with the situation in South Longford the more one is convinced that Sinn Féin has a powerful hold on the youth of the country. Whether the real import of its doctrine is understood is not clear. Indeed, the youthful mind is not inclined to bother about ascertaining it.
If every Longford youth had a vote, so the Irish Times believed, then Sinn Féin would win without a doubt. The generation divide had even entered family households, where it was reported that sons were refusing to help with farm work, and daughters striking on domestic duties, without first a promise from their fathers to cast a vote for McGuinness.
In some families, however, such bolshiness was not necessary, as Sinn Féin activists skilfully played on the fear of conscription, with warnings that every young man in the country would be called up for the British Army unless their candidate was elected. “This threat seems to be having its desired effect in remote rural districts, where farmers, apprehensive for their sons, will vote for Mr McGuinness.”
Not that the fight was finished. Thankfully for the Irish Party, sniffed the Irish Times, “youthful fervour does not count for much at the polling booths.”
Assisted by veteran campaigners, including MPs, the Parliamentary Party was working hard to make up for the slow start and the other side’s zeal, and could already claim the majority of votes in Longford town. The question now was whether this would be enough to offset the rural votes, the bulk of which were earmarked for McGuinness as shown by the number of tricolours festooning the branches of trees.
South Longford was on a knife-edge, poised to tilt either way for McKenna or McGuinness – just the time for a dramatic intervention in the form of not one, but two, letters from the country’s highest spiritual authorities.
The first was an ecumenical piece, signed by eighteen Catholic bishops and three Protestant prelates. Topping the list of signatures was Cardinal Michael Logue, Primate of All Ireland, with Archbishop William Walsh of Dublin, Primate of Ireland, directly following, in a reflection of their place in the hierarchy of the Irish Catholic Church.
“Fellow countrymen,” the letter began:
As there has been no organised effort to elicit the expressions of Irish opinion regarding the dismemberment of our country, and it may be said that the authoritative voice of the Nation has not yet been heard on this question, which is one of supreme importance.
The dismemberment in question meant the proposed Partition of Ulster, specifically the six counties in the North-East corner with prominent Unionist populations, from the rest of Ireland. In the absence of any such organised efforts, the Princes of the Catholic Church and their Protestant allies moved to fill the leadership vacuum:
Our requisition needs no urging. An appeal to the Nationalist conscience on the question of Ireland’s dismemberment should meet with one answer, and one answer alone. To Irishmen of every creed and class and party, the very thought of our country partitioned and torn as a new Poland must be one of heart-rending sorrow. 
No reference was made to any particular political group. Yet no reader could have thought it anything but a criticism of the Irish Party, on whose watch in Westminster this Polandification was threatening to happen. Archbishop Walsh went further with a letter of his own, published in conjunction with that of his fellow clergymen:
The question may, perhaps, be asked, why a number of us, Irish Bishops, Catholic and Protestant, have thought it worth our while to sign a protest against the partition of Ireland. Has not that miserable policy, condemned as it has been by the unanimous voice of Nationalist Ireland been removed, months ago, from the sphere of practical politics?
Nothing of the kind. Anyone who thinks that partition, whether in its naked deformity, or under the transparent mask of “county opinion,” does not hold a leading place in the practical policies of to-day, is simply living in a fool’s paradise.
As a final sting, Dr Walsh added in a postscript:
I am fairly satisfied that the mischief has already been done, and that the country is practically sold.
Practically sold? Again, no names were cited, but they did not have to be, and the Fourth Estate quickly picked up the cue. “The venerated Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Walsh, has sent out a trumpet call against the treachery that the so-called Irish Party are planning against Ireland,” thundered the Midland Reporter.
Those newspapers allied to John Redmond scrambled to respond, with the Freeman’s Journal taking the time to deny in a lengthy rebuttal the accusation that its patrons had ever thought of being acquiescent to a national carve-up. Which was only further proof of guilt, according to the Northern Whig: “As is evident from the troubled and rather incoherent comments of their official organ, the Redmondite leadership were as ready to partition now as they were last June.”
‘Between Two Devils and the Deep Sea’
While most other news outlets did not venture quite that far, they were still in full agreement: Archbishop Walsh was the hero of the hour, Partition was a dead issue, and so was Home Rule if it fell short of anything but an intact Ireland. If His Grace was the instrument of this reversal, then the Irish Independent had been his mouthpiece in its publication of his letter.
The hostility of the newspaper was well-known to the IPP leadership. “Between the Sinn Fein, the anti-exclusionists of Ulster, and the Independent,” complained Dillon in a letter to T.P. O’Connor on the 19th August 1916, “we are between two devils and the deep sea [emphasis in text].”
He and his colleagues might have brooded on the bitter irony of how the spectre of Partition was being used as a rod to beat them with; after all, they had lobbied as best they could in Westminster to prevent such a possibility. “Do settle the Irish question – you are strong enough,” Willie Redmond, brother of John, had urged the Prime Minister in a letter on the 4th March 1917:
Give the Ulster men proportional and full representation and they cannot complain. If there is no settlement there will be nothing but disaster all round for all.
But David Lloyd George could not be budged into overriding the Orange veto. “There is nothing I would like better to be the instrument for settling the Irish question,” he told Willie silkily, two days later. “But you know just as well as I do what the difficulty is in settling the Irish question.”
And that was that. Two months later, Nationalist Ireland was closing ranks against its former standard bearer, leaving the Irish Parliamentary Party out in the cold, while its challenger swooped in for the kill. A printing press in Athlone was used to publish the Archbishop’s damning words in pamphlet form, while Sinn Féin activists gleefully bought up every newspaper copy they could find with the letter, some bringing bundles of them from as far as Dublin, ready to be handed out in Longford on the morning of the 9th May – polling day.
The Irish Party could at least take solace in how it had not been completely deserted by the ecclesiastical powers, as Bishop Hoare entered the Longford Courthouse to cast his vote for McKenna. Cheers greeted His Grace’s arrival, though that might have been deference for a man of the cloth rather than support for his political stance, as there was further acclaim when a man called for applause for Archbishop Walsh.
As the polls closed at 8 pm, spokesmen for Sinn Féin anticipated a win by three hundred votes. More demurely, those for the IPP predicted a small minority for McKenna.
In private, Dan MacCarthy had discussed the probabilities with Griffith. Whether a victory or loss, MacCarthy estimated it would be by a margin of twenty votes. Either way, it was going to be close.
On the 10th May, MacCarthy watched as the ballots were collected inside the Courthouse to be counted by the Sub-Sheriff’s men. The one assigned to McKenna’s papers started by separating them into bundles of fifties but, when that seemed inadequate to the sheer volume before him, he switched to the system the McGuinness counter was using and piled them by their hundreds.
The high turnout was testament to the passions the election had inspired in South Longford. The hundred-strong batches of ballot papers for each candidate were piled criss-crossing each other, allowing for the Sub-Sheriff to make reasonable progress in counting. But not quickly enough for the IPP representative, who passed a slip of paper through the window before the Sub-Sheriff could declare his findings.
Kevin O’Shiel was among the crowds outside. When the Sinn Féin supporters saw the note:
We were dumbfounded, our misery being aggravated by the wild roars of the triumphant Partyites and their wilder “Separation Allowance” women who danced with joy as they waved Union Jacks and green flags.
O’Shiel was in particular dismay. After all, having bet ten pounds – a hefty amount back then – on McGuinness succeeding, he now looked to be leaving Longford a good deal poorer than when he had entered.
Lost and Found
Inside the Courthouse, however, one of the Sinn Féin tallymen, Joe McGrath, was protesting that the count did not match the total poll. Seeing a glimmer of hope, MacCarthy demanded that the process be gone through again.
Among those present was Charles Wyse-Power, a solicitor who had come to Longford on behalf of Sinn Féin in case the IPP tried declaring McGuinness’ candidacy invalid on the grounds of him being a convicted felon. Seeing their supporters, including Griffith, standing mournfully outside on the other side of the street, McGrath urged Wyse-Power to go and announce the decision for a recount, as much to reassure their side as anything.
Wyse-Power did so. Calling for silence, he announced that a bundle of the votes had been overlooked and, as such, a recount was in order. Seeing that he might not be soon short a tenner after all, O’Shiel could only hope for the best:
A drowning man hangs on to a straw, they say, and we certainly (myself in particular) held with desperation on to the straw Charles had flung us.
As it turned out, as MacCarthy described:
The mistake was then discovered that one of the bundles originally counting as 100 votes contained 150. Having discovered this, it tallied with the total poll, giving McGuinness a majority of 37.
Frank McGuinness, standing in for his imprisoned brother, unfurled a tricolour from a window of the courthouse, shouting out that Ireland’s flag had won, to the cheers of his supporters and some flag-waving of their own. For all the jubilations, it had been a painfully close call. “I don’t think that McGuinness would have won that election had it not been for the letter of Archbishop Walsh,” said a relieved O’Shiel.
MacCarthy was not so sure. The letter had come too late in the election to change anyone’s minds, he believed, which would already been made up by the time Sinn Féin workers were pushing printed copies of the Archbishop’s words into people’s hands on polling day. In his opinion, the delay of the IPP in selecting a sole candidate had been its losing factor.
On that, he and the Longford Leader were in agreement. For even after McKenna had been chosen over Flood and Garrahan, the newspaper bemoaned:
The selected Nationalist Candidate had a great deal of uphill work to face, even while the other two candidates had withdrawn. As against the Party candidate the Sinn Feiner had a whole fortnight in which to over run the constituency and they did so in great style.
It was a moxie that even an avowed enemy like the Longford Leader was forced to admire:
For two consecutive Sundays they had the ear of the people at all the masses in all the chapels, and no one who knows how hard it is to get an Irishman to change his view once he has made his mind up but must admit that this was a serious handicap.
But perhaps the explanation is as simple as the one offered by Joseph Good, a Sinn Féin activist: “This victory can be attributed to Joe McGrath’s genius for mathematics.”
‘A Confusion of Factions’
Up, Longford, and strike a blow for the land unconquered still,
Your fathers fought their ruthless foe on many a plain and hill.
Regardless of the whys and whats, a win was a win. The RIC on standby were drawing up between the two groups of partisans to prevent a repeat of the violence but that proved unnecessary. When McGuinness proposed a vote of thanks for the Sub-Sheriff and his team, the request was seconded by McKenna, who took his defeat with good grace, saying that, sink or swim, he would stand with his old party and old flag. That his defeat had been so close, he said, showed that the fire lit in North Roscommon had dwindled already to a mere flicker.
The Sinn Féiners, naturally, did not see things that way. The man of the moment, McGuinness, was absent, as much a guest of His Majesty in Lewes as ever, but others were there to inform the tricolour-bearing crowd, after they had returned to the Sinn Féin campaign headquarters in town, what that day’s result meant.
For Griffith, this had been the greatest victory ever won for Ireland at the polls, and in the teeth of stern opposition at that. Cynics had scoffed that Sinn Féin won North Roscommon only by concealing its aims – well, there could be doubting what such aims were now, Griffith declared.
Count Plunkett predicted that this was but the beginning, with more elections to follow that would sweep the IPP away. Privately, he and Griffith continued to loathe each other, and their struggle for the soul of Sinn Fein had not yet ended but, in the warm afterglow of success, they could put aside mutual acrimony – for now.
Elsewhere in the country, the results were nervously anticipated. When a placard was shown from a window of the Sinn Féin offices in Westmoreland Street, Dublin, the audience that had gathered there broke into applause. More crowds greeted the returning Sinn Féin contingents at Broadstone Station with waved tricolours, which were promptly seized by killjoy policemen, who dispersed the procession before it could begin.
Not to be deterred, a flag with the letters ‘I.R.’, as in ‘Irish Republic’, was flown above the hall of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in North Frederick Street. If Sinn Féin had shied away from running on an explicitly Republican policy, at least for now, then there were some who knew exactly what they wanted.
“Up McGuinness!” cried a party of students as they paraded through Cork, waving tricolours, while a counter-demonstration of ‘separation women’ dogged them, singing ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’ and ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’, in between cheers for the Munster Fusiliers and other Irish regiments their menfolk were serving in.
In Lewes Prison, whatever doubts the captive Irishmen had had about the value of contesting elections were forgotten as their excitement at the news almost brimmed over into a riot. McGuinness was hoisted onto a table in a prison hall to make a speech, the building ringing with the accompanying cheers. It was only with difficulty that the wardens were able to put their charges back in their cells.
More muted was the reaction in Belfast, where the chief interest among Unionists was the impact the result would have on the Home Rule proposals, due to be submitted to Westminster in the following week. The odds of such a measure succeeding now looked as shaky as the IPP itself. If Archbishop Walsh’s intervention had hardened Nationalist Ireland against Partition, it equally made Protestant Ulster even more sure not to be beneath any new parliament in Dublin.
Indeed, Ireland looked more uncertain a place than ever. “The country is a confusion of factions,” read the Daily Telegraph. “A unanimous Nationalist demand, which could be faced, and which could be dealt with through an accredited leadership, no longer exists.” The old order may have been as dead as O’Leary in the grave, but what would come next had yet to be seen.
In the early hours of the 28th June 1922, as he had readied the men of his battalion inside Portebello Barracks for the assault on the Four Courts – the main part of which would fall to his men – Commandant Padraig O’Connor was in a pessimistic mood. He went so far as to make a wager with his second-in-command that not only would they fail, but the Provisional Government of the Irish Free State, in whose service they were about to risk their lives, would lose the war. O’Connor doubted they would last more than a few days.
The reasons, as he explained to the other man, were obvious:
We numbered 800 all ranks, the second Eastern division was 500, with 200 from Kilkenny and it was reckoned we would have 1000 men available in Dublin. To oppose this force the Irregulars had in Dublin an estimated force of 3000 men, and there was in the country a force of 20,000 to 30,000 Irregulars.
Furthermore, O’Connor thought it implausible that the anti-Treaty leadership would be stupid enough to allow themselves to be boxed in the Four Courts. In addition to the garrison there, several other units of the Dublin IRA (Irish Republican Army) who opposed the Treaty were positioned about the city and would surely challenge them every step of the way. Nonetheless, O’Connor pushed aside such doubts when the time came at midnight to move out.
Urban combat was nothing new to him. An experienced soldier, O’Connor had cut his martial teeth against the British during the War of Independence, learning as he did so the value of caution. He accordingly moved his battalion in a piecemeal manner, allowing time to pass before the next unit advanced. Any ambush on the way would not find his charges bunched up as targets.
And yet, as the soldiers advanced through the dark, deserted streets, the resistance O’Connor was anticipating to find never materialised. There was a spark of alarm when a shot went off in Clanbrassil Street but that turned out to be an accident by one of his men. Contrary to his fears, the way to the Four Courts had been left entirely open to them.
Coming Right in the End
Still, O’Connor would not be claiming that wager just yet. His battalion continued over the Liffey to Smithfield, west of the Four Courts, while the other units allocated to the operation took up their own assigned posts, until the target was surrounded. In the Four Courts Hotel, across the river from its namesake, Commandant Paddy Daly would direct the proceedings.
O’Connor could see that the Free State soldiers in the match factory opposite the Four Courts’ record office had been able to barricade their windows unmolested, with the Anti-Treatyites facing them doing nothing to interfere. But, if the enemy had been bizarrely complacent before, that stopped when the boom of an artillery gun signalled the start of the attack.
Almost as if waiting for such a provocation, the Four Courts garrison unleashed a storm of their own, to O’Connor’s horror:
The echo of the 18 Pounder had scarcely died away when every weapon at their command was discharged in to the factory windows. The fire was so heavy the flash of fire lit up the room almost as brilliantly as the street light before it splintered into a thousand fragments in the first few seconds. The intense fire punctured the tanks on the roof and deluged the room.
Seeing that they had been temporarily outgunned, O’Connor called on his men to withdraw to a more sheltered area of the factory.
Despite this small victory, the garrison could do little but stay pinned in place while the Free State ordnance pounded away. The barricades in the Four Courts’ windows were methodically dismantled by a Lewis machine-gun that tore into the lower tier of sandbags until they collapsed, taking the ones on top with them.
When the rotunda was struck, those beneath its dome felt themselves stretched up to their full length by the shockwave before coming back down again, along with the debris that showered them. When one asked Liam Mellows how long the war was going to last, he had no easy answer to give. “It will last a long time.”
“Will it last five years?” the other ventured.
“Oh, no, it will last much more than that,” Mellows said. “But they’ll come right in the end.”
Die Hard Chiefs
When an 18-Pounder of theirs blew through the records office wall, it was decided among the Free State command that the time had come to storm the building. First, though, an attempt at a negotiated surrender was made.
As O’Connor recalled:
It was a most unusual ceasefire; the bugler sounded the call outside the Brigade command post, the Four Courts Hotel and each bugler took up the call until bugle calls were being sounded all around the area. The silence that followed was unbroken and one found that one instinctively lowered his voice to a whisper when speaking.
The anti-Treaty IRA leadership, or the ‘Die Hard Chiefs’ as O’Connor dubbed them, were willing to listen but no more than that. Mellows, Rory O’Connor, Joe McKelvey and Seán MacBride stood at the gates of the Four Courts as their Free State counterparts conveyed the terms. As these were for unconditional surrender, they were instantly rejected. With nothing else to say, the two sides proceeded to pass the rest of the parley with idle chit-chat.
“When are you coming in with us, Paddy?” Mellows asked Paddy Daly.
“Tomorrow, with the bayonets,” replied a tactless Daly, chilling the previously amiable mood.
“Call yourself an Irishman,” MacBride snapped.
“I don’t know, but I did not have to write letters to the papers to prove I was,” Daly retorted, referring to the French-reared MacBride’s public assertion of his Irishness. McKelvey had to take an enraged MacBride by the arm and practically pull him away.
“Good night, Paddy,” Mellows said to Padraig O’Connor.
“Good night, Liam.”
And that was that. The men returned to their respective posts and the buglers called again, this time to announce the resumption of the barrage. “The din was awful for a while and then it steadied down to an occasional shot,” O’Connor wrote in his memoirs. He was finding that one could get used to just about anything.
A Purity of Purpose
As the days stretched from the 28th June to the 30th, it occurred to the men inside the Four Courts that the new Dáil, elected by the general election earlier in the month, was due to meet. When Ernie O’Malley asked if there were any TDs among them, Peadar O’Donnell mentioned Mellows and wondered if he would give them to a speech to mark the occasion.
In this, O’Donnell was wrong, as Mellows had failed to be re-elected. At the time, it had been regarded by some as a particularly shocking rejection on the part of an ungrateful electorate. “Deputies who had served the nation with unquestioning fidelity and purity of purpose are excluded from the Government of the Republic which they helped to create and defend,” lamented Poblacht Na h-Eireann, the mouthpiece of the anti-Treaty cause. “We need mention no other name than that of Liam Mellows to show how far the nation has departed from the spirit of the last four years.”
There were, in any case, more immediate matters for the Four Courts’ defenders to be concerned about. The munitions block had been on fire for some time, the crackling flames creeping down from the roof to the lower storeys. Afraid that the ammunition might detonate at any moment, the defenders hastily withdrew into the rest of the complex, taking some solace in that the fire would serve to keep the enemy at bay as well.
O’Malley was waiting in the yard, by the front entrance, while eyeing a nearby Lancia lorry as a potential target, when he was thrown against the iron bars of the gate by the force of an explosion. The fire had reached the munitions as feared. Fragments of stone and wood and scraps of paper came down in a charred hail, while a thick column of smoke rose from where the munitions block had been.
Bullets began ringing off the bars O’Malley was sheltering behind, accompanied by the smaller percussions of grenades being hurled against the walls or into the yard. O’Malley wisely chose to dash back inside the building.
The interior was in a scarcely better condition, its corridors and rooms littered with broken masonry and smouldering records, but it afforded some protection for now. When O’Malley found Rory O’Connor and Joe McKelvey in conversation, O’Connor called him over and said that the time had come to surrender. What ammunition that had not just gone up in smoke was in short supply, escape through the flooded sewers was impossible and whatever help there was outside did not seem in any hurry to arrive.
These were not facts O’Malley could deny. But that did not make them any easier to accept. He asked Mellows, who was peering at them through a shell-blown hole in the wall, what he thought.
“The Republic is being attacked here,” Mellows replied. “We must stand or fall by it. If we surrender now, we have deserted it.”
‘The Wilderness of the Treaty’
In this, he and O’Malley were in full accord. McKelvey, O’Connor and some of the other Headquarters staff were not so sure. Neither was Father Albert Bibby, a Franciscan monk who had come to grant them absolution. Nobody had any idea at the time about how pointed a weapon the power to bestow – or deny – this blessing would become.
With his brown robes and sandaled feet, Father Albert struck an incongruously medieval figure amidst the sound and fury of modern warfare. He preached to them the example of Patrick Pearse who had surrendered to save lives, but entreaties fell on the deaf ears of Mellows and O’Malley.
When O’Connor and McKelvey tried raising the subject once more, Mellows was adamant: “I’ve already told you what I thought, and still think.”
It was the Easter Week of 1916 all over again. Then, Mellows had stood unmoved in an old abandoned country house in Co. Galway while another man of the cloth, Father Thomas Fahy, urged him to see the necessity of surrender. Pearse had already done so in Dublin, and Fahy invoked his name in support of such a step – as Father Bibby would do six years later – but Mellows had remained closed to any argument but his own, even while the certainty of those around him crumbled, and the choice slipped out of his hands.
Better to live to fight another day, so decided the Galway Volunteers, as they voted to disband and return to their homes. Even then, Mellows had preferred to go on the run than submit – but that was not an option in the Four Courts, encircled as it was by Free State guns. O’Malley began to cry as even he bowed to the inevitable, but Mellows merely went along with the rest.
At 3:30 pm on the 30th June, a white flag was waved. Half an hour later, the one hundred and forty men who made up the garrison came out with their hands raised. With barely a word said, the beaten men were lined up against a wall and divided into groups, to be driven off in lorries to Mountjoy Jail.
Despite the relative silence of the proceedings, the battle for the Four Courts finished, not with a whimper but with a bang when, just after 5 pm, the back of the structure was rocked by a massive detonation. The fire had reached the ammunition stocks there and the results could be seen in the column of black smoke rising a hundred feet in the air, and felt in the debris of dust and charred scraps of paper that scattered about the surrounding area.
This was not yet the end, as a further series of blasts continued within the Four Courts, thwarting the efforts of firemen to save what was left of the historic building and forcing the would-be rescuers back, some with injures from the falling stone and metal fragments. It was not until evening that the nearby inhabitants felt safe enough to venture out on to the pavements.
The drama was done – for now. For, even as he and his comrades were marched away to captivity, Mellows continued to take the long view. “There’s one thing this will do,” he told O’Donnell beside him. “They’ll save the people from wandering about for a guardian in the wilderness of the Treaty.”
‘Striking and Vapouring’
It was a defiant response to the shame of surrender, and one typical of Mellows: impassioned, implacable and infused with a self-righteousness that left no room for the possibility that maybe, just maybe, he bore some responsibility for the debacle. For the leadership of the IRA Executive, in which Mellows had played a prominent role, had been an unmitigated disaster. Risk evaluation, cause and effect, empathy for an alternative point of view and other concepts with more than one syllable had seemed utterly beyond their grasp.
How a group of otherwise capable men could fail so utterly baffled Padraig O’Connor as he entered the captured yard of the Four Courts, packed as it was with stolen cars. He assumed that such theft had been for the purpose of goading the Provisional Government into making the first move but, as he reviewed the events of the past few days, the less sense they made, for he could discern no clear thought process at all in the actions of the Anti-Treatyites.
After all their defiance, with the seizure of the Four Courts and other buildings throughout the country, the bank raids and rampant thievery:
It must have been apparent that there would have to be a flop of the Government, or a fight. When it came to a fight they were fully aware that the Four Courts were about to be attacked. They did nothing about it…The way down to the Four Courts was left open and they took the attitude “Hit me now with a child in my arms”. They were so close to the problem they could not see the details.
At almost every point, the Anti-Treatyites made their enemies’ work easier for them. Holes had been bored through each floor of the Four Courts – presumably for easier access – and then covered with blankets, so that, when these caught alight, the draught through the gaps guaranteed that the flames would spread throughout the rest of the building.
O’Connor searched in vain for some kind of explanation of their behaviour, only to run into one logical wall after another. Had the garrison expected the people of Dublin to rise up on their side?
If so, why had they spent so much time on details like the elaborate sandbag barriers outside the Four Courts?
If they were confident of success, why allow themselves to be hemmed into a defensive position?
If they had feared to lose, why did they not use their superior numbers to crush the Pro-Treatyites before they reached the Four Courts?
If, if, if…
O’Connor concluded that such speculation was pointless. He and the anti-Treaty leadership were of just too different mindsets to understand each other. For Mellows, merely resisting was victory enough for the Republic. To O’Connor, all the ‘Die Hard Chiefs’ had accomplished was inflict “as much damage possible without winning, and then went to the Gaols and camps as martyrs in the cause of Kathleen [Ni Houlihan].”
Even defeat and incarceration taught them nothing: “They continued the attitude striking and vapouring which with them passed as pure idealism and maybe it was, of sorts.”
Letters from Mountjoy
Four months later, Liam Lynch was writing as Chief of Staff of the anti-Treaty IRA to O’Malley. Lynch had escaped Dublin on the day the Free State began shelling the Four Courts and so avoided the captivity that had befallen so many of his colleagues on the IRA Executive.
O’Malley was another exception. Despite surrendering with the rest of the Four Courts garrison, he had managed to slip away and rejoin the Anti-Treatyites still at large. Lynch had appointed him as Acting Assistant Chief of Staff, with instructions to set up base in Dublin and continue the war from there, while Lynch directed the overall strategy from Munster.
And there was a lot to direct, not only in Ireland. “Any chance of getting in touch with Mellowes [alternative spelling] for information regarding America which would be helpful to Officers?” he wrote to O’Malley on the 7th September 1922.
Of particular interest were the munitions already purchased there, such as the Thompson machine-guns detained by the American Government and waiting to be delivered. Lynch was aware of Mellows’ previous sojourn in the United States and it was on that basis he was sure he “would be able to give a good deal of information and advice which would be valuable.”
For Mellows was not idle during his confinement in Mountjoy Prison. “Are we in touch with general situation? Well, yes! As far the newspapers allow us to be,” he wrote in response to O’Malley on the 23rd August.
Letters between the two men had been smuggled in and out of Mountjoy, allowing O’Malley to give a general outline of the war, for which Mellows thanked him. He was of like-mind with O’Malley’s opinion on their propaganda: “Agree with you as to poorness. Needs badly to be livened up.” The problem was that their material “seems to me to be too personal.”
Otherwise, he kept an upbeat tone: “The F.S. [Free State] seems to be a bit groggy these days.” Although Mellows did not say as much, he was writing a day after the death of Michael Collins, whose loss had knocked some of the stuffing out of Pro-Treatyites. It was enough for the prison governor, Paudeen O’Keefe, to gloomily predict the imminent return of the British.
Which would amount to a victory for Mellows’ and O’Malley’s cause, nullifying as it would the Treaty and possibly reuniting the sundered IRA factions against the common foe. It had been a cherished dream for the anti-Treaty leadership, though Mellows did not allow such happy possibilities to distract him from assisting O’Malley with character references.
A fellow prisoner, Seamus O’Donovan, had informed Mellows about a large amount of raw material for explosives hidden about Dublin from his time as the IRA Director of Chemicals. Mellows was quick to grasp the possibilities.
“If a good chemist or engineer were available, a lot of stuff could be turned out,” he told O’Malley:
Can you supply such a man for this purpose? Ryan, O/C Engineers, 3rd, has been mentioned, but it is not certain whether he is free or not. A better man would be John J. Tallon who worked for D/C [O’Donovan] at F.[our] C.[ourts] up to the attack. As he lived out, he was not captured.
For further information, Mellows recommended O’Donovan’s sister and supplied her address in Drumcondra. In the meantime: “Keep up the heart old son. Regards from us all. God bless you.”
Judging the Situation
Mellows did not limit his advice to details, for there was the bigger picture to consider. “I wish to point out that the matter of establishing a Prov. Republican Govt. has become imperative because of the possibility of the English taking a hand sooner or later,” he wrote on the 29th August.
For Mellows, the current war was as much against the ancestral foe as fellow Irishmen “duped or dazzled by the Free State idea.” The latter enemy, however, were perhaps a greater danger than the other, threatening as they did to outflank the Anti-Treatyites on home ground:
For the British to calumniate Republicans and belittle their cause by besmirching them is one thing; but for F.S. (and supposed potential Repubs.) to do it is another – and different, and worse thing; because the British will not use British arguments to cloak their arguments but Irish ones.
To prevent such muddying of the ideological waters, it was essential to set up the aforementioned Provisional Republican Government, he wrote, “otherwise it becomes a fight (apparently) between individuals” in the public mind, rather than one cause against another, as Mellows preferred to have it seen as.
And it was on the strength of what the Anti-Treatyites could offer the country that they would win or lose – of that, Mellows was sure. Military might alone would be insufficient, and Mellows was prepared to criticise his comrades at liberty for their narrow thinking:
During the past six months we suffered badly because responsible officers, in their desire to act as soldiers, and because of an attitude towards “politicians” acquired as a result (in my opinion) of a campaign directed towards this end by old GHQ, could only judge of situation in terms of guns and men.
In contrast, Mellows wished to use every available resource at hand.
Whether smuggled in, or via a guard with unorthodox reading tastes, a copy of the Workers’ Republic passed to the hands of the Mountjoy residents. The Communist Party, on whose behalf the newspaper spoke, was not, by any measure, particularly influential in Ireland. “A small number of persons in Dublin known as the Communist Party,” was how the Publicity Department of the Free State sneeringly put it.
Nonetheless, the Workers’ Republic offered a simple, striking vision, as presented in its edition for the 22nd July 1922. Under the tantalising headline HOW THE REPUBLICANS MAY WIN, Seán McLoughlin – the former ‘boy-commandant’ of the Easter Rising – expounded on how:
The way is clear. Victory lies with the side that can attract to itself the masses, the workers of the towns and cities, and the landless peasants.
The Anti-Treatyites had so far been stymied by their limited objective, and that was “a purely sentimental one as far as the masses are concerned – the establishment of a Republic.” Alone, this was not enough to vanquish the Free State. Neither could the Labour Party by itself. But, together:
The Labour Party, supported by the Communist Party, backing the Republicans and appealing to the people with a proper social programme will be absolutely invincible.
As for the programme in question, it should:
…be based upon the present needs of the masses, comprising confiscation of the land, the big estates and ranches to become the property of landless peasants, social ownership of creameries, etc.; confiscation of all heavy industries, banks, etc.; repudiation of all debts, and the controlling and running of industry; land and housing to be in the hands of councils elected by the workers and peasants.
This provided enough of an inspiration, or at least a starting-point, for Mellows’ own sermon, written over the course of three letters, on the 26th and 29th August and the 9th September 1922. In what is known collectively today as Notes From Mountjoy, he spelled out an ambitious set of policies to cut the authority out from underneath the Free State while winning the hearts and minds of the masses.
It was on these texts that Mellows’ reputation as a pulpiter of Republican Socialism rests, earning him the admiration of other notable figures, from Peadar O’Donnell – who would become a writer and activist of some note himself – to Gerry Adams, who described Notes as being “as relevant today as they were when first written.”
Apostle of the Creed
As a fellow resident of Mountjoy, O’Donnell was able to converse at length with Mellows, often while scrubbing the floors together or some other work duty. These talks made a deep impression on O’Donnell, who celebrated Mellows in his memoirs as “the greatest apostle of the creed of [Wolfe] Tone in our day.”
O’Donnell may have served as Mellows’ own St Paul, as historian Diarmaid Ferriter puts it: “O’Donnell was determined to propagate Mellows’s memory despite the scant body of material left behind.”
Scant, maybe, but Notes was at least an attempt at providing the Anti-Treatyites with a political policy, something they otherwise lacked besides simple repudiation of the Treaty.
Much of the content was unremarkable in itself, filled with the expected denunciations of the Free State, along with detailed musings on the sort of propaganda best to deploy. But it was the social dimensions that Mellows expounded on that elevated his work above the usual Civil War polemic, as well as earning a chariness from Official Ireland in the years to come.
While reprinting the Notes in 1965, the Irish Communist Group ruefully noted how difficult the work had been to find, let alone read:
One can see the Blue Paper in the National Library in Dublin if one meets a co-operative librarian who knows where it is kept. It is not catalogued. Over the past forty years there have been mysterious references to the Notes in Irish left wing circles, but these have only been published once (in the 1950s by the “Liam Mellows” branch of the Labour Party in Dublin).
It had not always been obscured. Indeed, the Free State was only too happy to publish Mellows’ words, via the Irish Independent on the 22nd September 1922, complete with headlines such as COMMUNIST REPUBLIC and DANGER TO CATHOLICISM, in case readers were unsure as to whether or not they were supposed to approve. Mellows may have deplored propaganda of an overly personalised nature but his Red-baiting opponents were not so finicky.
A month later, the Stationery Office of the Free State printed the letters as part of a 24-page pamphlet, Correspondence of Mr Eamon de Valera and Others. As the title would suggest, Mellows was not even the intended focus. Inside were intercepted letters between de Valera, Lynch, Mellows and other prominent Anti-Treatyites, the reason for their exposure being “to brand the Republicans (including de Valera!) as communists. Unfortunately,” as the Irish Communist Group put it dryly, “they were far from being communists.”
Indeed, Mellows was more amused than anything at this label. “The effort to brand it ‘Communism’ is so silly,” he wrote in a letter to Seán Etchingham, a fellow Anti-Treatyite, on the 3rd October 1922. Yes, he had quoted a Communist paper as part of his work, but “I only referred to the Worker because it had set forth so succinctly a programme of constructive work that certainly appealed to me.”
Besides, trapped as he was behind the walls of Mountjoy, writing was the only course of action left open to him, lest he burn with impatience. “I wish to God I were out,” he told Etchingham. “Haven’t felt such energy for years.”
A Stake in the Country
Motivating Mellows in particular – as he explained in the first of his letters, on the 25th August 1922 – was the conviction that, for the Republicans to win, they had to look beyond themselves and rediscover their radical roots:
We are back to Tone – and it is just as well – relying on that great body, ‘the men of no property’. The ‘stake in the country’ people were never with the Republic. They are not with it now and they will always be against it – until it wins.
Among the pillars of society which had turned against the Republic was the Church, for which Mellows’ pen abandoned its usual analytical tone and almost flew off the page in rage:
Hierarchy’s abandonment of principle, justice and honour by support of Treaty. Danger to Catholicism in Ireland from their bad example – their exaltation of deceit and hypocrisy, their attempt to turn the noble aspect of Irish struggle and to bring it to the level of putrid politics; their admission that religion is something to be preached about from pulpits on Sundays, but never put into practice in the affairs of the Nation.
On a calmer note, if Republicans knew what they were against, then the question remained of what they were for. The Republic, yes, but what did that amount to?
According to Mellows, all they had to do was go back to basics, by way of the Social Programme that the Dáil had adopted in its first meeting, three years ago, in January 1919. Doing so would require no great shift in thinking, assured Mellows, for the Programme was already present on paper, if not yet in practise. The challenge lay in making clear to potential converts among the ‘men of no property’ what was meant by it. Mellows’ suggestion was that:
It be interpreted something like the following, which appeared in the Workers Republic of July 22nd last: ‘Under the Republic all industry will be controlled by the State for the workers’ and farmers’ benefit.” All transport, railways, canals, etc, will be operated by the State – the Republican State – for the benefit of the workers and farmers.
Continuing the line from the Workers’ Republic, banks likewise were to be nationalised, with the lands of aristocrats seized and divided up for others. This would not make any more enemies, for the moneyed classes were already on the side of the Treaty, so who cared about them?
All of which would suggest the Labour movement as a natural ally. While Mellows criticised Labour for its “unprincipled attitude”, he nonetheless pushed for it to be kept on board. After all, a number of Labour leaders, including Thomas Johnson, William O’Brien and Cathal Shannon, had visited the Four Courts earlier in the year and complained of the slackness in the Dáil about implementing the Social Programme:
We should certainly keep Irish Labour for the Republic; it will be possibly the biggest factor on our side. Anything that would prevent Irish Labour becoming Imperialist and respectable will help the Republic.
The willingness to court others besides fellow doctrinal Republicans, and his citation of socialist policy from a Communist newspaper, did not make Mellows particularly open-minded, however. No one else seemed worthy of an outreach effort, and even Labour grew stale as a possible auxiliary. Writing to Austin Stack on the 1st September 1922, in the last of his three letters, he washed his hands of Labour, accusing it of having “deserted the people for the flesh-pots of Empire.”
This was while the situation was exceptionally ripe for anyone with a social programme to offer:
Starvation is facing thousands of people…The Free State government’s attitude towards striking postal workers makes clear what its attitude towards workers generally will be. The situation created by all these must be utilised for the Republic.
To help this utilisation, and to break things down to their most basic for even the dimmest reader, Mellows provided Stack with the positions their side should represent:
REPUBLIC – Workers – Labour.
While, on the other hand:
FREE STATE – Capitalism and Industrialism – Empire.
‘Fleshpots of Empire’
Such ideas, and the passion in which he argued them, was a new development for Mellows. As an elected representative, he had spoken to the Dáil, first during the Treaty debates at the start of the year – where he had earlier used the phrase ‘flesh-pots of Empire’ – and afterwards as part of the anti-Treaty block. And yet, while arguing passionately for the Republic throughout, he had been silent on what form of society this Republic would take. Social policy in general, let alone any particular ideas, had not featured in any of his speeches.
This sudden conversion surprised even O’Donnell, who had watched with Mellows from a barricaded upper-story window in the Four Courts as the Free State forces below set up positions to attack. The sight of a pair of civilians, diligently on their way to work amidst the unfolding militancy, prompted O’Donnell and Mellows to speculate on the role of trade unions had James Connolly been alive to guide them.
It was the first time I heard Mellows on the play of social forces in the crisis of the Treaty. I was present at the Dáil Éireann session when he made his speech against the Treaty but while what he said then impressed me greatly it gave no indication of the pattern of ideas he uncovered now.
For all his admiration, O’Donnell was to criticise Mellows for not addressing these issues at any of the three IRA Conventions in mid-1922:
He might not have carried the Convention – and he might – but anyway his views would have been argued over, and the dynamics of struggle, once the Republic was attacked, would have favoured them. His message from jail would then have been understood.
Maybe. Maybe not.
Socialism was very much a minority stance among the IRA. When Todd Andrews met O’Donnell during the Truce of 1921, he was amazed to hear such talk as ‘uprising of the masses’, ‘the gathering together of the workers, small farmers and peasants’ and other class warrior tropes. Never before had Andrews heard this sort of language. Despite some ideological flirtation while in O’Donnell’s company, he instantly put these thoughts aside when the two men parted company.
Perhaps Mellows was simply ahead of his time. More than a decade later, socialism would receive a far warmer reception at the IRA Convention of March 1933, where the question of whether the Irish Republican Army should fight for social change as well as the Republic took centre stage. While Mellows was not around to advocate, his old friend was happy, as one of the delegates, to act as the Aaron to his Moses.
“Is capitalism for or against us?” O’Donnell asked rhetorically. “We cannot make progress unless we destroy capitalism.”
Against the accusations of Communism, and the assumption that such ideology was incompatible with Republicanism, he cited the example of his long-dead mentor: “Mellows was a great mind. He took the Workers Republic as his guiding line and that is supposed to be a Communist paper.”
Opposing him in this line of thinking was Tom Barry, who argued against complicating matters. To him, the reason the Civil War had been lost was because they spent too much time on distractions. “We took social action in 1922/23,” he claimed. “We failed in 1922 because we were dabbling in politics. During the day, officers were politicians – in the evening, they were in charge of Brigades. I want to avoid a repetition of this.”
Just because Mellows had said something did not make it so, Barry argued: “Mellows was not infallible in these important matters. It was simply his opinion. We in 1922 would not accept his suggestions.”
But Barry was in the minority this time, and Mellows in the ascendant from beyond the grave. “Mellows realised that, in 1922, the masses did not understand that we were fighting their fight,” said Seán McCool, a delegate from Donegal. Another attendee spoke of Mellows in the same breath as heroes like Wolfe Tone, Robert Emmet and Patrick Pearse.
At the end, O’Donnell’s motion for a social programme to go hand in hand with the IRA’s military goals was passed, the text giving full credit to its inspiration:
That the Convention believes that the draft programme of Liam Mellows provides a plan for the preparations of the armed insurrection and directs the Army Council to outline the manner in which the Army will co-operate with the Workers and small Farmers in their economic struggle while pressing forward with the greatest energy to put the Army in a position to avail of the situation which is developing.
Even Barry was prepared to go along with this shift in strategy, as he was the one to second the motion. In addition, a copy of Mellows’ original 1922 programme was to be printed in the IRA newspaper, An Phoblacht.
Carried away somewhat with his success, O’Donnell proclaimed that, if there was no armed insurrection within the next two years, those present at the convention would have failed in their task. Not for the first or last time, Republican Socialism was to forget to walk before trying to run.
Patriotism and People
In the years to come, O’Donnell lamented what might have been had Mellows lived: “It is a matter of regret that no fuller statement of his views had been secured while there was yet time.”
The extent in which Mellows actually believed in what he wrote, however, besides as a tool to rally support in a life-and-death struggle, is debatable. After all, he had come to such views, as even O’Donnell acknowledged, rather late in the day.
Had the Civil War never happened, if the Anti-Treatyites won early on, or the Treaty been rejected from the start, would Mellows have been nearly as interested in wealth distribution? He talked of the heavy-handedness the Free State was employing towards striking workers but gave no indication that a Republican government would be any more lenient towards dissent.
Certainly, the behaviour of the IRA Executive left much to be desired. When the Dáil voted to accept the Treaty, the Executive had resisted with the threat of arms, until either the offending agreement was dropped or the country dragged back into war with Britain, whether or not anyone else wanted it.
That other people could hold views different to his was a concept Mellows struggled with. Disagreement was treated as the direst of heresy, and even close colleagues were not immune to his censure. When Lynch – in the lead-up to the Civil War – had dared negotiate with the Pro-Treatyites, Mellows helped banish the Chief of Staff and his supporters from the Four Courts, leaving the Executive adrift in confusion until that fateful day on the 28th June 1922, when the Free State artillery boomed against their diminished defences.
Mellows criticised his allies for thinking only in military terms, but he was just as obtuse in his dealings with others. At his worst, he could border on solipsistic. Kathleen Clarke found out the hard way just how little her opinion mattered to Mellows, for all her past work, when she visited him and Oscar Traynor – a Dublin IRA officer – in the Four Courts in mid-1922.
To her inquiry about what the Executive intended to do from there, “they gave me no answer, and adopted an air as if it was no business of mine.” She warned them of the inevitable disaster should they continue with their course of action, to which Traynor mumbled something, while Mellows remained aloofly silent. Hurt and annoyed, Clarke left, surprised in particular “by the attitude of Mellows; he knew very well how closely I had worked with the leaders of 1916.”
While Mellows later expressed interest, in his Notes, about utilizing the masses against the Free State, that did not necessarily equate to concern for them besides as assets to be used. Contempt laced his words as he, looking ahead in the event of a Republican victory, anticipated a need for a rationing programme. He was not so naïve to think that a win alone would bring ease to the country, and many luxuries taken for granted, such as tea, sugar and foreign-made flour, would have to be foresworn in the lean times ahead. People would complain but what of it?
As a matter of fact, Ireland suffered nothing (comparatively speaking) either during the Great War or our war. English people (and English women) cheerfully put up with severe deprivations and we Irish think our Cause worth putting up with anything. But do we? Judging by the whines and grumbles, one is tempted sometimes to say “Certainly not”.
Mellows loved the Republic – but then, abstract entities that require nothing beyond what one chooses to give are easy to put on a pedestal. He loved Ireland – while passing through Slievenamon on the train in August 1920, he remarked, with tears in his eyes: “Is not Ireland a lovely spot, is it not worth fighting for and dying for?”
Whether he would have had much patience for the inhabitants of the country he planned to build, however, with their whines and grumbles, is another question.
A Difference in Outlooks
Among Mellows’ converts was O’Malley, who was enthused enough about the proposals coming out of Mountjoy to write to the Chief of Staff about them. “I had a note from the QMG [Quartermaster-General, as in Mellows] in which he states that the programme of democratic control adopted by AN DÁIL coincident with Declaration of Independence January 1919 should be translated into something definite,” he told Lynch on the 3rd September 1922. “I will forward some of his suggestions when I get them typed.”
Lynch, however, did not appear in any great hurry to act on these ideas. “Note the suggestion as to Republican Democratic Programme etc.; the moment I consider has not yet arrived for such action,” he replied to O’Malley nine days later, on the 12th September.
While Lynch assured him that “I will give the matter immediate consideration”, for the moment he preferred Mellows’ more practical considerations: “The QMG is right on the necessity of concentrating on Intelligence and Propaganda, leave nothing undone in these matters.”
The Chief of Staff continued with a relaxed attitude towards Mellows’ proposal that they make the 1919 Social Programme their own, as he wrote to O’Malley on the 17th September: “This step I consider not urgent at the moment, but Executive can consider this matter later.”
Lynch was at least willing to entertain such policy, as he asked O’Malley in another letter on the same day for a copy of the suggested Programme be sent to him. Also, Mellows was to be kept in the loop regarding political and strategic developments, and his opinions on them requested “from time to time, that is if he can fully judge the situation from inside.”
As the slightly condescending tone would indicate, Lynch was not necessarily appreciative of all Mellows had to offer. “I fear his ideals prevent him from seeing the same Military-outlook as others at times,” Lynch confided in O’Malley a day later, on the 18th September.
The Government of the Republic
Nonetheless, Lynch was willing to go through with one of Mellows’ suggestions: the establishment of a Republican Government. This was done on the second day of the Executive meeting – the first since the Civil War began – in Co. Tipperary, in October 1922, when de Valera was called upon, as the former President of Dáil Éireann:
To form a Government which will preserve the continuity of the Republic. We pledge this Government our whole-hearted support and allegiance while it functions as the Government of the Republic.
With de Valera so empowered, he could select his own Cabinet, with positions for Minister for Home Affairs, Minister of Finance and so on. Word filtered through to Mountjoy that Mellows had been made Minister for Defence, for all the good that did, locked up as he was.
Nonetheless, it gave his fellow prisoners reason to believe that things were in motion with the situation outside. Mellows, for one, hoped to have fleshed out his newfound ideas into a more coherent policy, ready to engage with the challenges in the country, by the time he was free. For a tunnel was being dug in conjunction with the Anti-Treatyites still at large, who had chosen a house near Mountjoy before setting to work, digging a shaft through the scullery floor, from which to continue on towards the jail.
Meanwhile, the war ground on. Little changed with the formation of the Republican Government – not that there was any reason for a puppet government to make a difference, and a puppet was all it was. Support from the IRA Executive was far from unconditional, however ‘whole-hearted’ it professed to be. Power would remain in the hands of military men like Lynch.
Whether this fell short of Mellows’ aspirations is another question. He had been realistic enough in his writings about the limitation of any such authority for the time being. There was little expectation that this Republican shadow-state was expected to do anything; for Mellows, its role as a counter-measure to the Free State’s so-called Dáil was sufficient, and Lynch had produced at least that much.
As for the economic policies Mellows espoused, nothing was said about them at the Executive meeting nor attempted afterwards. “I know of no alternative policy to present one of fighting we could adopt,” Lynch told Deasy candidly in early September 1922. “At present it is a waste of time to be thinking too much about policy.” Only after the war was over and the Republic established for good would they think about how it was to be run.
Operation Order No. 11
In this, he differed completely from Mellows. But then, Lynch had the power and the other man, while he lingered behind bars, did not. As Robert Brennan had warned Mellows in the Four Courts months previously, it was force that mattered now and nothing else. The rule of the gun was supplanting that of the law, and Mellows was about to discover for himself the grim truth of Brennan’s admonitions.
With the Free State resorting to the shooting of captured Anti-Treatyites, regardless of morals or legalities, Lynch reacted in kind with Operation Order No. 11 on the 30th November 1922. All members of the Free State authorities, whether civilian or military, who had endorsed the execution policy were to be killed on sight.
This fierce new strategy bore the first of its putrid fruit on the 7th December 1922. Seán Hales and Pádraic Ó Máille were leaving the Ormond Hotel for a meeting of the Dáil, in which both men were TDs, and Ó Máille the Deputy Speaker. They were about to drive away in a sidecar when a group of six men stepped forward and opened fire with pistols.
Hales crumpled in his seat, riddled with bullets in the temple, throat, thigh, arm and left lung. On the other side of the carriage, Ó Máille, despite his own wounds in the back and arm, retained enough presence of mind to order the driver to head straight to the nearest hospital, for all the good it did Hales, who died within minutes of arrival.
When the news reached Mountjoy, O’Donnell attempted to commiserate with Dick Barrett, who had known Hales, a fellow Corkman, before the split. Barrett was unsympathetic. “Ah, shag him, why did he join them,” he retorted before storming off, the vehemence catching O’Donnell by surprise.
The Book of Cells
The days inside crawled by, the enforced idleness compelling inmates to improvise on activities. Mellows began a journal, whose title, The Book of Cells, was a pun on the famous Celtic manuscript. Other puns were exchanged between him and O’Donnell, such as one of the former’s: ‘When is a colt not a colt? When it is a forty-five.’
Both men agreed that the humour needed a little work.
At other times, Mellows and O’Donnell competed over satirical pen-pieces of the various Pro-Treatyites for the pages of The Book of Cells. Mellows did one on Eoin MacNeill, so O’Donnell one-upped him with a sketch of Ernest Blythe. When rumours were heard about the Free State’s plans to transport the prisoners to some island, Mellows took this as an inspiration for a short story, ‘Islanditis’, which endeavoured to make the threat seem like more of an exciting adventure.
Other intellectual pursuits of Mellows’ was the setting up of classes and seminars for the prisoners, bereft as they were of any other type of education for the foreseeable future. The topic of one such symposium was ‘Women in Industry – Equal Pay for Equal Work’, which O’Donnell attended on the 7th December, having had a talk of more immediate importance earlier that day with Mellows and Rory O’Connor. The tunnel-in-the-works, their best hope for freedom, had reached to under the exercise yard, O’Donnell learned.
It was only a matter of time.
After the debate on gender equality, O’Donnell strolled about the ground floor of the prison, thinking of nothing in particular, until the wardens ordered their charges back into the cells for the night. First, he stopped by Mellows’ room to tell him a joke he had heard. When McKelvey asked after the cause of the merriment, Mellows turned to repeat it to his cellmate.
“That was the last I saw of him, chuckling softy in the corridor,” O’Donnell remembered.
Blood for Blood
O’Donnell was briefly disturbed that night by the flash of a light through the door, next to which he had his mattress. Peering through to the corridor beyond, O’Donnell could see one of the wardens, accompanied by the governor, Paudeen O’Keefe, who had a piece of paper in his hand. O’Donnell and his two cellmates strained their ears to listen, but whatever the men outside were doing, they did it too quietly for O’Donnell to understand. After a while, he lost interest and went back to sleep.
It was not until the morning, when in the prison chapel for Mass, that O’Donnell learnt the reason for the governor’s nocturnal visit: he had been waking Mellows, along with O’Connor, Dick Barrett and Joe McKelvey, with orders for them to dress and pack their belongings. Unaware of the reasons why, the four men were escorted out of C Wing and to separate rooms, where they were each handed a document, informing them that they were to be shot as a reprisal for Seán Hales.
“I just went wooden. I was completely devoid of all feeling,” O’Donnell described. “I saw men sob and I heard men curse but the whole chapel was detached.”
And detached O’Donnell stayed, sitting numbly in the chapel even when Mass was done, before moving to the sacristy – though he did not remember doing so – where he met Father McMahon, the only one of the prison chaplains who O’Donnell semi-respected. It was only when McMahon told him of the executions, with the reassurance that he had given Mellows absolution, something otherwise denied to the prisoners, that O’Donnell snapped out of his vacantness and rounded angrily on the surprised priest.
The question of absolution had been a thorny one in Mountjoy ever since the episcopal intervention in the form of the Bishops’ pastoral letter in October 1922, which had brought the Church Hierarchy firmly in favour of the Free State. To O’Donnell and many of the other inmates, the prison chaplains had become another set of enemies to contend with.
“The bishops were leading a clerical faction while [Michael] Collins was leading a lay-faction,” was how O’Donnell put. “The spirit of Cromwell had returned to Ireland and Maynooth was its tabernacle.”
Memories of absolution denied to unrepentant Anti-Treatyites inside prisons such as Mountjoy were still fresh enough for Canon John Pigott to write in the 1960s, at the behest of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, an account of his visit to Mellows, O’Connor, Barrett and McKelvey on the night of their deaths. Of those final hours, “there have been many different and very contradictory accounts of what actually happened.”
Pigott bemoaned how many of these reports “were spread abroad for their propaganda value without any regard for the truth.” In particularly, Pigott was keen to correct the impression that Mellows had gone to his end denied the spiritual comfort of the Last Sacrament:
That lie has been so persistently repeated by a small anti-clerical group that it is possible that a number of our people believe it.
As Pigott remembered, he was telephoned, between 1 and 2 am on the 8th December, from Mountjoy and told that there were to be executions of some of the prisoners, one of whom, Rory O’Connor, had asked for him. Then a chaplain for the Free State military, Pigott was not the most obvious choice, but he and O’Connor evidently knew each other from before.
In any case, he dressed in time for the car to come and drive him to the prison. Taken first to O’Connor’s cell, he found his friend pale but composed and accepting of his end. He was next asked by Father McMahon to see Mellows, with whom, McMahon explained: “We have not been getting on at all.”
Mellows was clearly going to be a more complex case than O’Connor. Pigott found him to be:
In a strange mood for one who was to die in a few hours. He was obviously agitated and talkative, and I believe, elated that he was going to die for Ireland. He said he had written to his mother, and handing me the letter he said: “Read that”.
Pigott did so, and was shocked to read Mellow informing his mother that he was being denied the sacraments in his final hours. He urged Mellows not to send such a piece and to use the short time left to pray for God’s forbearance. Pigott then withdrew, sensing that nothing would be gained by staying to argue. Father McMahon had apparently tried that already, only to leave Mellows as truculent as ever.
Pigott next saw Mellows, with the three other condemned men, shortly afterwards in the chapel. While Father McMahon performed Mass, Pigott stood inside the altar rails, facing the kneeling prisoners while he recited with them the prayers. O’Connor, Barrett and McKelvey received the Holy Communion which was to be their Viaticum, but Mellows, Pigott noted with dismay, did not.
Pigott made getting Mellows alone his priority, but time was running out as Mass ran to the length of an hour, and then an hour and a half. When McMahon was at last done, the four were ushered out of the chapel, Mellows at their head, with O’Connor in the rear, accompanied by Pigott.
As the prisoners were blindfolded, en route to the yard, Pigott saw his last chance to ensure Mellows’ spiritual salvation slipping away. Running up to the front of the line, Pigott took the cloth off Mellows’ head and said: “Liam Mellows, you are not going out there without Viaticum.”
“Ah! It’s too late now,” Mellows replied, according to Pigott’s account. “I have held them up all the morning.”
The priest insisted that this was not so, and that there was time yet for him to make his peace with the Almighty. “That he was now ready to do, I had not the slightest doubt,” Pigott remembered, salvation seemingly a question of timing as much as anything.
He took Mellows by the arm, back down the corridor to a room he had seen was open when he passed, while Father McMahon retrieved the sacramental instruments from the chapel. Then McMahon got down to work. Though long-delayed, the Last Rites took only a short while; Mellows, as Pigott put it, “was a deeply religious man, and his fervent prayers at the end had gained him a very special Grace from God.”
As they went to rejoin the others, Mellows took out a small crucifix from his pocket. “I want you to give her this when all is over,” he told Pigott, meaning his mother. “It was out in 1916, too.”
There was one more detail Father Pigott had almost overlooked. As Mellows was being blindfolded again, the priest remembered the letter from before, and asked if he would like to write a few more words in light of his shriven state. Mellows declined, saying: “There is no time now.”
It took a few minutes for Mellows, O’Connor, Barrett and McKelvey to be lined up in the yard, their backs to the wall, before the firing squad. As Father Pigott delivered the Last Absolution, he saw Mellows shuffle the gravel beneath his feet so that he could stand more firmly.
“Slanlibh [goodbye], lads,” he said, the crucifix firmly in hand.
In another instant the sign was given: the volley rang out: the men fell, and Canon McMahon and I anointed them where they lay on the ground.
The process had not been flawless, for McKelvey still lived, if barely, requiring one of the two Free State army officers on standby to deliver the coup de grâce. For the other three victims, at least, death had been instantaneous.
It was by then after 9 am, and Father Pigott, who was due to give Mass for the soldiers in Griffith Barracks, had to dash away, late enough as he was. He had reached the outer gate of Mountjoy when he remembered the crucifix, and so doubled back to pick it up from where it had fallen in the yard.
That cross would provide some solace to the priest, as it had to the condemned man, when it fell to Pigott to break the news to the bereaved mother. “Next day, with a heavy heart I called to the door in Mount Shannon Road [the Mellows’ household]. I felt I could never face the ordeal had I not in my pocket that little Crucifix ‘that was out in 1916 too.’”
However tragic, Father McMahon, for one, was heartened by how Mellows had not gone to meet His Maker burdened with sin. “I’m sorry for any wrong I have done,” Mellows had said, as the priest relayed to a distraught O’Donnell to comfort him.
In a way, it did. McMahon seems to have missed – though O’Donnell did not – that Mellows had not repented of anything specific, certainly not for his actions against the Free State and all it stood for. To the very end, Mellows had been unwilling to concede an inch.
 O’Connor, Diarmuid and Connolly, Frank. Sleep Soldier Sleep: The Life and Times of Padraig O’Connor ([Kildare]: Miseab Publications, 2011), pp. 91-6
 Griffith, Kenneth and O’Grady, Timothy. Curious Journey: An Oral History of Ireland’s Unfinished Revolution (Dublin: Mercier Press, 1998), p. 284
 O’Malley, Ernie (Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam; Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk To Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018), p. 26
 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. 161
 Greaves, C. Desmond (introduction by Adams, Gerry) Liam Mellows and the Irish Revolution (Belfast: An Ghlór Gafa, 2004), p. 3
 O’Donnell, Peadar. The Gates Flew Open (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013), p. 5, 27 ; Ferriter, Diarmaid. A Nation and Not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution 1913-1923 (London: Profile Books Ltd, 2013), p. 31
 Mellows, Liam. Notes from Mountjoy (London: Irish Communist Group, 1965), p. 17
 ‘Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, signed in London on the 6th December 1921: Sessions 14 December 1921 to 10 January 1922’, CELT: The Corpus of Electronic Texts, p. 231 (Available at https://celt.ucc.ie/published/E900003-001/index.html, accessed 11/03/2018)
 O’Donnell, Peadar. There Will Be Another Day (Dublin: The Dolmen Press, 1963), p. 9
Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001)
Brennan, Robert. Allegiance (Dublin: Browne and Noble Limited, 1950)
Clarke, Kathleen (edited by Litton, Helen) Revolutionary Woman (Dublin: The O’Brien Press, 2008)
Correspondence of Mr Eamon de Valera and Others (Dublin: Stationery Office, 1922)
Ferriter, Diarmaid. A Nation and Not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution 1913-1923 (London: Profile Books Ltd, 2013)
Greaves, C. Desmond (introduction by Adams, Gerry) Liam Mellows and the Irish Revolution (Belfast: An Ghlór Gafa, 2004)
Griffith, Kenneth and O’Grady, Timothy. Curious Journey: An Oral History of Ireland’s Unfinished Revolution (Dublin: Mercier Press, 1998)
Hopkinson, Michal. Green Against Green: The Irish Civil War (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan Ltd., 1988)
Mellows, Liam. Notes from Mountjoy (London: Irish Communist Group, 1965)
O’Connor, Diarmuid and Connolly, Frank. Sleep Soldier Sleep: The Life and Times of Padraig O’Connor ([Kildare]: Miseab Publications, 2011)
O’Donnell, Peadar. The Gates Flew Open (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013)
O’Donnell, Peadar. There Will Be Another Day (Dublin: The Dolmen Press, 1963)
O’Malley, Ernie (Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam; Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk To Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018)
O’Malley, Ernie (edited by 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)
Poblacht Na h-Eireann – The Republic of Ireland
Bureau of Military History Statements
Fahy, Thomas, WS 383
O’Donoghue, T., WS 1666
Moss Twomey Papers
‘Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, signed in London on the 6th December 1921: Sessions 14 December 1921 to 10 January 1922’, CELT: The Corpus of Electronic Texts (Available at https://celt.ucc.ie/published/E900003-001/index.html, accessed 11/03/2018)
Since its armed takeover, on the 14th April 1922, by the anti-Treaty faction of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the Four Courts in Dublin had been, in the words of one of its garrison, a “veritable fortress”. Which was appropriate, given that it served as the base for the IRA leadership, the sixteen-strong Executive. As a mark of its importance, the building complex was reinforced with sandbags and barricades in its windows, behind which sentries with rifles and machine-guns watched over the city.
The overall impression was one of rough, unvarnished power:
Everything concerning it, emanating from it and centring it was purely and principally military; nothing was left to chance, as a military post and general Headquarters…In other words, it was the core, the very essence of IRA activity and of IRA administration.
Entry was strictly limited to those issued with a pass by the garrison command, whether for its soldiers or the odd guest. One of the latter was Robert Brennan, who came sometime in May 1922, in response to an invitation by Liam Mellows, the Quartermaster of the IRA Executive.
They had known each other since 1911, when Brennan had come across a troop of Fianna Éireann boys in Wexford, the one with unusually fair hair catching his attention in particular. When introduced to this golden youth, Brennan found himself “looking into the blue eyes of Liam Mellowes [alternative spelling], full of good humour, enthusiasm, optimism and comradeship.”
Such virtues had waned somewhat by the time the two men met again inside the Four Courts, eleven years later. Despite his own rejection of the Treaty, Brennan made clear his disapproval of his fellow Anti-Treatyites and their antics when he turned down Mellows’ offer to be their Director of Publicity.
He could not, Brennan explained, because there was nothing more that publicity could do: they had abandoned all authority save that of the gun and no amount of public relations could hide that unpalatable fact.
Mellows was hurt at the accusation. “The Republic is being undermined,” he replied. “What else could we have done?”
“Possibly nothing,” Brennan said bluntly. “Your job is to get the other fellow to submit or submit yourselves. The time for publicity is passed.”
“Well, we’re going to act.”
“By attacking the British.”
“But they are going out.”
“We’ll attack them before they leave.”
When an unimpressed Brennan told him what he thought of that, Mellows insisted: “It’s not as crazy as you think. It’s the only way we can unite the Army.”
In that regards, Mellows had a point. A common foe would certainly do wonders in bringing the sundered comrades together again. But it was a sign of how topsy-turvy the world had become that a man whose efforts to free Ireland of foreign rule had been second to none was now, in all seriousness, suggesting the return of British soldiers for want of any other solution.
When Ernie O’Malley walked in to ask Mellows about the tunnels to be dug for an escape route. Brennan made his excuses and left, more depressed than ever at the insanity unfolding all around him.
A glimmer of hope came to a country poised on the brink of fratricidal war when, on the 20th May, Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera put their names to an agreement. A general election would be held and contested by both their respective factions, but with everyone standing on the same Sinn Féin platform, without reference to the Treaty, either in regard to the candidates’ opinions or for the country in general – the matter being considered too prickly to be grasped just yet.
In truth, it was intended to be an election in name only with the voters doing nothing more than rubber-stamping the names presented to them, but that the two sides could agree on anything at all was heralded as a major breakthrough. Former comrades who had been at each other’s throats now mingled freely inside the National University, as TDs waited for the Dáil session to open so they could give this accord the official seal of approval. Mellows stood with his legs far apart, his hands deep in the pockets of his riding-breeches while he chatted with Richard Mulcahy.
After all the gnawing tension, the announcement of this ‘Pact Election’ was “greeted with relief by all of us,” remembered Máire Comerford, a secretary in the Sinn Féin offices:
Everything looked brighter after that…Now, with the Pact, friendly exchanges of arms going in between Free Staters and Republicans…and a conference between the rival armies which had reached the point of agreement, it seemed certain that there would be an agreement.
Mellows took full advantage of this, visiting Beggars Bush barracks to see Seán Mac Mahon, Quartermaster to the Free State forces. Joining him on a number of these visits was Tony Woods, son of Mary Woods, whose home on Morehampton Road, Donnybrook, had provided a base for Mellows during his gun-running days as Director of Purchases.
Probably because of his acquaintance with Mellows, Tony Woods had been transferred to his staff and travelled with Mellows to Waterford to help arrange the arms-landing there, via the Frieda, in November 1921. Woods remembered his commanding officer as a “low-sized man with a very high forehead; extremely witty and a great story-teller.”
The purpose of the meetings in Beggars Bush, as with Mellows’ previous duty, was that of weapons. The Free State owned the City of Dortmund, another ship used to smuggle in guns, and it was a sign of the heady new rapprochement that half the shipments went to the Anti-Treatyites while the pro-Treaty IRA kept the rest. Woods was uncertain of the details at the time, but the idea was that these weapons would make their way up to Ulster, where the Northern IRA was still engaged with British forces.
As well as in Beggars Bush, Woods joined his commanding officer for clandestine visits to Sir John Rogerson’s Quay to meet a mystery contact of Mellows’. There, they received implements for the purpose of overturning trams to form barricades and listened to some far-fetched scheme to flood the British market with forged pound notes.
Though Woods never caught the contact’s name, he suspected he was a Communist, Mellows being open to such company. This put him at odds with his more conservatively-minded peers, for whom Bolshevism and their Catholic faith could never meet, let alone mix. While Mellows was “religious in his own way,” Woods thought, “he nonetheless tended towards socialism.”
Moderates and Extremists
Even as relations between the Pro and Anti-Treatyites began to thaw, those within the IRA Executive conversely took a turn for the worse.
Perhaps it was the lack of a firm guiding hand that caused cracks to form in the Executive. Maybe its components were too strong-minded to ever coexist comfortably with one another. Authority nominally rested in Liam Lynch as their Chief of Staff but, having bucked military discipline once before, it was no great taboo to do so again, and it soon became apparent that different groups were acting on their own volition without consideration for the rest.
“Thus the Rory O’Connor element was doing one thing and the Lynch party something different,” was how Joseph O’Connor – a Dublin member of the Executive (and no relation to Rory) – put it, a sigh almost audible in his words. When a number of bank robberies were carried out, Joseph was not even sure if it had been Lynch or Mellows who authorised them.
Another Executive insider, Liam Deasy, was similarly in despair. He was close to Lynch, and it pained him how, for all of his fellow Corkonian’s accomplishments in the fight against Britain, it was “painfully obvious that he was not considered sufficiently extreme by some of his colleagues.”
Deasy characterised these tensions as “a clash between the moderates and the extremists.” He counted Lynch and himself as the former, while identifying Mellows, along with Rory O’Connor and Séumas Robinson, as among the latter. Mellows was at least more personable than O’Connor, but that small mercy did little to alleviate the tensions, the result of which led to:
…many unpleasant incidents reflecting badly on the elected Executive. Worse still it appeared as if a number of independent armies were being formed on the anti-Treaty side.
The hurt and anger are still discernable in Deasy’s words, written years later in his memoirs: “Although we were regarded as moderate, we felt that our policy was consistent and meaningful.”
This policy in question was that, by keeping the anti-Treaty IRA armed and intact, they could push for – or force – a more republican-orientated Constitution for the new government, one without the burden of the Oath of Allegiance that so stuck in many a craw. Not that there was any need to worry, reassured Mulcahy and Michael Collins, for such a constitution was already on the cards. This was good enough for Lynch and Deasy, who “had at the time, no reason to doubt the credibility or integrity of those who had given that promise.”
Which was one of the points on which the ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists’ on the IRA Executive differed. Todd Andrews became acquainted with Mellows while performing clerical work in the Four Courts as part of its garrison. When Mellows entered his office, where he was working alone, the two struck up a conversation on the state of affairs. Andrews found him to be “a low-sized man with thinning sandy hair and merry blue lively eyes. His whole personality seemed to radiate kindness. He was a dea-dhuine (decent man).”
Andrews was flattered that someone so important would take the time to ask his opinions. When the topic of conversation came to that of their Chief of Staff, the kindness became rather less evident, for it seemed to Andrews that Mellows was “critical of Liam Lynch for placing too much trust in Collins’ and Mulcahy’s good intentions.”
Seán MacBride was unaware of much of this drama, having been in Berlin for the past ten days on Mellows’ behalf. Most of his work in Ireland involved the secretarial side of the IRA, such as the paperwork dealing with the numbers of the various anti-Treaty units throughout the country, but the cosmopolitan 18-year-old (and future politician) was also sent abroad by Mellows on occasion for certain assignments.
This time, it was to contact an arms dealer called Hoover, who the IRA suspected of double-crossing them. MacBride succeeded in convincing Hoover to accompany him back to Ireland for a meeting, set for the morning of the 18th June, the plan being for MacBride to arrest the miscreant then and there. Hoover was none the wiser as they caught the early morning mail-ship to Dublin, where they separated, Hoover heading off to the Shelbourne Hotel while MacBride made his way to the Four Courts.
Upon arrival, MacBride availed himself of a wash and some food before chancing upon a flustered Mellows, much to the latter’s relief, for an IRA convention was set to start and no one could find the notes prepared in advance. As MacBride hurried off to help find them, he saw O’Malley, his superior as the Director of Organisation.
O’Malley was only just getting up, having toiled well into the night. He quickly brought his young assistant up to date with recent developments. There had been backroom talks between the heads of the pro and anti-Treaty IRAs, he explained, about healing the breach and reuniting former brothers-in-arms.
Which was a noble goal in principle. As certain members of the Executive would hold positions on the proposed new Army Council and thus retain some influence, it might even be said to be a good deal. But, in practical terms, such a move would also mean coming under the control of the Free State and all that – specifically the Treaty – entailed.
When these proposals had been put before the IRA Executive, they were voted down by fourteen to four, although it was also agreed for a convention to be summoned, the third in three months. There, the questions could be put to their followers and decided on for good.
“Of course all these things came on me like a bombshell, as when I left the whole Executive was quite united,” MacBride recalled. Clearly, a lot could happen in ten days.
There was no time for MacBride to deal personally with Hoover, whose appointment in the Four Courts was almost due. So he delegated the arrest to someone else, while he tracked down the necessary documents for the convention, to be held in the Mansion House.
It took an hour for MacBride to finish checking the credentials for the various delegates at the door, and then another lengthy period of time as the question of who among the Executive was to be the chairman was discussed – and discussed – and discussed. Such was the tenseness of the atmosphere that even a simple matter as that was anything but. Finally, Joseph O’Connor was chosen for the role and the convention could begin.
As MacBride remembered – and there would slightly different versions of that event from other attendees – Mellows opened by reading a report on the general state of affairs. When he was done, Tom Barry, the famed guerrilla commander from West Cork, rose to make a proposal. Instead of the one on whether to reunite with the Pro-Treatyites, as many in the hall had been expecting, it was that an ultimatum be delivered to the British Army still stationed in Ireland: withdraw within seven-two hours or face war all over again.
MacBride had been warned beforehand by O’Malley, but most of the others present were caught by surprise. It took another lengthy, drawn-out process, with various speakers chipping in, for it to be generally understood that Barry’s war motion was intended to be an alternative to the reunification one.
In MacBride’s opinion, “it was very foolish of Barry to have put forward such a resolution at the Convention.” While he agreed with what the Corkman was trying to do, “by putting it forward at a Convention without consulting anybody, as he did, was putting those who supported that policy in a very awkward position.”
As if to pour oil on to the fire, Mellows followed up with a “very depressing speech”, which exposed all too “clearly that there was a very big split in the Executive.”
Anyone previously unaware of these festering divisions could be left in no doubt now. On one side was Liam Lynch, the Chief of Staff, who was pushing for the reunification proposals, with the support of Liam Deasy and Seán Moylan. Arrayed against them in favour of a more hard-line approach were Mellows, Rory O’Connor and Tom Barry.
MacBride lost track of the proceedings, as speech after speech was delivered, blurring into one. When the war motion was finally put to the vote, MacBride was one of the two tellers. Barry’s proposal was found to have passed by a couple of votes, a razor-thin majority which was immediately challenged on the basis that certain delegates had not been present at the previous convention in May, thus invalidating their contributions. When the objection was upheld, a revote was made, this time resulting in the defeat of Barry’s motion.
This was too much for Mellows and Rory O’Connor, who left the room when the reunification proposals were brought up in turn. With them followed half the remaining participants, including MacBride. He found O’Connor and Mellows conversing outside with Joe McKelvey, a third member of the Executive. Another convention would be held, the trio announced to those who had accompanied them, in the Four Courts the next day.
There was just two further matters to see to, both of which Mellows assigned to MacBride: return to the convention and alert the rest as to what had been said. Also, he was to retrieve Mellows’ hat, left behind in the commotion.
MacBride did so. “There was an absolute stillness and I could hear my steps like shots from the top of the room to the door. A few more delegates came out.”
Amputation and Isolation
When Joseph O’Connor called in on the Four Courts the following morning, he was barred by the sentry, who pointed to a set of photographs at hand and said he had been instructed to refuse entry to anyone depicted. The faces were those who, like O’Connor, had stayed behind at the convention instead of leaving with the dissenters.
O’Connor was shocked. He had watched for some time, with growing dismay how fissures formed in the Executive, but this exclusion was the final straw. When O’Connor could not even see anyone in charge for an explanation, he turned instead to the rest of the Executive, who had likewise been expelled from their own headquarters.
And so it was a diminished body who gathered at Gardiner’s Row for an uncomfortable session. Lynch, in particular, was outraged but, since there was little any of them could do, it was decided to take no action for the moment. While O’Connor was departing Gardiner’s Row, he came across Mellows, who urged him to return to the Four Courts. Clearly, there were second doubts about the wisdom of such a heavy-handed approach.
As O’Connor was still in a sour mood, it took some persuasion on Mellows’ part for him to agree to meet with the Executive mutineers, who were in the midst of setting up a war council of their own. After O’Connor explained to them at length the lunacy of having two separate anti-Treaty armies in Dublin, concessions were made in the form of Lynch and his adherents being allowed inside the Four Courts again. Lynch had by then resigned as Chief of Staff, with McKelvey taking up the role instead, for what it was worth, as his authority did not extend to anyone other than the occupants of the Four Courts.
It was a peculiar situation. Having witnessed the debacle of the convention, Todd Andrews was so disgusted that he announced to his senior officer, Ernie O’Malley, his intention to resign. O’Malley talked him out of it, but the fact remained, in all its spiteful absurdity, that “the Four Courts garrison had amputated their most powerful limb, effectively isolating themselves in the last bastion of the Republic.”
‘The Straight Road to the Republic’
Two days later, on the 20th June, three or four army lorries drove Mellows, Rory O’Connor and other senior officers from the Four Courts to Bodenstown to mark the anniversary of Wolfe Tone’s birth. Ireland, the republican cause and the IRA, whatever the particular faction, may have been in pitiable disarray, but there were still rituals to perform and commemorations to attend.
The day was a dark and muggy one, with an overcast sky, perfectly suited to “suggest the pathetic fallacy to match our gloomy mood,” remembered Andrews, who had joined the pilgrimage. The others huddled around Mellows as he made a speech at Tone’s graveside, full of denunciations of those who were trying to undermine the Republic – and that included anyone, whether Free State or faint-hearts like Lynch who talked the talk while lacking the nerve when it counted.
It was an attitude summed up by MacBride who, unlike Andrews, was in full agreement with such a viewpoint:
It was far better to break off quits from those who were prepared to compromise on such a vital question, that of the control of the Army, and of the working of the Treaty. As in fact they had already done when they acquiesced in the proposals by which the control of the Army was to be given to the Provisional Government.
Far from being a calamity:
It probably would have been even better if such a split had come before, however weakening it might have been; it was far more weakening to have the Army controlled by people, who, although sincere, did not put their heart into it and who still believed their opponents could be trusted in negotiations.
‘The straight road to the Republic’ was how Mellows had explained it to a friend, Frank Robbins, who visited him in the Four Courts the day after its takeover. Robbins had urged him to compromise or else prepare for war, but Mellows had dismissed the possibility of either happening, unable or unwilling to face the looming consequences of his actions, even when they were explained to him.
And perhaps that was his fatal flaw, and the reason he and the others were so daring, and so dogmatic, because, almost to the last hour, none of them truly believed that things would reach the point of war.
A war with Britain, yes, another one would be ideal, as Mellows had explained to Brennan. What better way to bury the hatchet than by planting it inside the skull of a common foe? But a war against fellow Irishmen? Even a precocious young cynic like Andrews assumed the Pro-Treatyites would never go so far as to attack them, however fragmented they were. For this would mean civil war, and such a thing was clearly an impossibility.
“Something would still be done to avoid that contingency,” was how Andrews remembered the thinking at the time. “I never thought it could happen that IRA men would try to kill fellow IRA men.”
Mellows happily sleepwalked into disaster with the rest. In the week before the 28th June 1922, when – to steal a line from W.B. Yeats – ‘all changed, changed utterly’, Mellows sent for Sheila Humphreys, a member of Cumann na mBan who had sheltered IRA leaders like Richard Mulcahy and Cathal Brugha during the War of Independence, back when they were all on the same side. She met him at the home of Mary Woods on Morehampton Road, Donnybrook, another republican safe-house for troubled times.
There, Mellows cheerfully outlined to Humphreys how the Pro and anti-Treaty IRA factions had acceded to a policy he had long hoped for: uniting against Britain, specifically British rule in the North. If the enemy would not come to them, then the Fenian Mohammed would go to the imperial mountain.
With that in mind, he instructed her to pick six other women from Cumann na mBan and go with them to Co. Donegal to set up a field hospital in preparation for the operations to come. In addition to first aid equipment, he provided a revolver each for the women, including spare ammunition and explosives.
Some of these had come off the City of Dortmund and shared between the rival parties during the earlier lull in tension. Other firearms from the cargo were still inside the Four Courts by the time of the 28th June, when all hell broke loose. With the benefit of hindsight, Tony Woods pointed out that this “will give some idea of the speed with which events moved in the weeks preceding, and how suddenly completely personal relationships came to be broken.”
Over the next few days that led up to the 28th June, events moved with considerable speed, indeed.
A stand-off unfolded on the 26th in South Dublin, as a body of pro-Treaty IRA men rode in on lorries from Beggars Bush to confront the Anti-Treatyites who had held up a garage in Lower Baggot Street. All its cars had already been driven away to the Four Courts, and the anti-Treaty men who remained were in the process of wrecking the garage machinery when their Free State opponents arrived to box them in.
As reported by the Irish Times:
Negotiations were entered into between the leaders of the two parties, and it is understood that the official forces demanded complete evacuation on the part of the raiders and also, it was stated, the return of the “commandeered” cars.
The trapped Anti-Treatyites were given three hours, until 6 pm, to comply. After two and a half, the twenty workmen held prisoner inside were allowed to leave. Soon afterwards, the Pro-Treatyites manoeuvred one of their armoured vehicles to the front of the garage, training its machine-gun on the closed gate, while the rest of the squad positioned themselves for the threatened assault.
As 6 o’clock approached, it looked as if fire would be opened at any minute, but at the stroke of six the gate was opened, and the Beggars Bush forces were admitted.
It appeared that some of the Anti-Treatyites had already absconded via a back entrance. Those still present were detained, though only one was made a prisoner – the commanding officer, Leo Henderson. Despite the non-violent (‘peaceful’ would be too strong a word) resolution, it had been a close thing.
“Indeed,” wrote the Irish Times, “it seemed at one time as if a conflict between the forces of the Provisional Government and certain irregulars was imminent.”
The Four Courts garrison issued a protest to the media at Henderson’s treatment as a common prisoner in Mountjoy Prison. They quickly made their displeasure known in a more direct way when, in a tit-for-tat move, Lieutenant-General J.J. ‘Ginger’ O’Connell was held up while leaving a friend’s house on Leeson Street.
That O’Connell had seen fit to make personal calls, while uniformed and unattended in public, does not suggest that the sense of danger among the Pro-Treatyites was high. But that changed. Contrary to their demands for a full return, only two of the sixteen cars stolen from Lower Baggot Street had been given back and now, with a general of theirs a captive in the Four Courts, a decision was made.
Despite the commotion over Henderson, the talk at the IRA Executive conclave inside the Four Courts, on the 27th June, was about nothing in particular. Even the news that Michael Collins had just returned from London, where he had been castigated for his failure to break the impasse, did little to worry them.
At the end, as Joseph O’Connor made to leave, he was informed by his adjutant that their pro-Treaty opponents in the city had been confined to their barracks, as if in readiness for…something.
When O’Connor passed this on to Liam Lynch, the other man merely said: “I suppose it is in connection with the arrest of Ginger O’Connell.” He added, almost as an afterthought: “You had better tell McKelvey.”
When O’Connor did so, McKelvey at least had the presence of mind to alert the Dublin IRA about the city to stand to until midnight. Mellows chose that moment to invite O’Connor to tea, “being anxious to tell me of IRB [Irish Republican Brotherhood] activities in having the Treaty accepted.”
That the IRB was at the root of their problems was a conspiracy theory favoured by many of the Anti-Treatyites, including Mellows. Long gone were the days when he had been an active operative for the Brotherhood, on whose behalf he travelled the length of the country to prepare for the Easter Rising.
When O’Connor declined the offer on account of having to be with the rest of the Dubliners, they agreed to meet instead on the following evening. Clearly, neither of them suspected that anything was especially amiss.
That was the last time the pair were to see each other, as O’Connor mournfully recounted:
At four o’clock the following morning the attack on the Courts started and I never saw Mellows again. What a pity, for of all the men on the Executive, he was the one I most loved.
During the previous four months of trouble and anxiety we had become very close friends, in complete sympathy with each other’s national outlook, and I certainly would have liked to have got that story.
O’Connor departed the Four Courts, accompanied by Liam Lynch, with Mellows and most of the other Executive members remaining. By 10 pm of the 27th, the rumours of an impending assault had become definite when a visiting Franciscan friar informed them that Free State soldiers were leaving the Curragh, Co. Kildare, in the direction of Dublin.
The lovingly-crafted fantasy world that Mellows had inhabited for the past few weeks, in which everything was fine and all would sort itself out, was about to be rudely intruded.
Suddenly alert to the inadequacy of their defences, neglected during the past few weeks of inactivity, the senior garrison officers hurriedly – and belatedly – consulted each other on what to do.
Always one of the more aggressive among them, O’Malley wanted word sent to the Dublin IRA for them to post snipers over the routes to the Four Courts to stop the Free Staters in their tracks, with preparations to be made for a counter-attack. But McKelvey disagreed on the grounds that they should retain the moral high ground of not casting the first blow. O’Malley, Mellows and Paddy O’Brien, the garrison commander, were exasperated at this indolence, however well-meant, but McKelvey’s motion to hold their ground and do nothing else was carried by the rest of the Executive.
As armoured cars drove up, the Anti-Treatyites were forced to watch impotently from the windows, under orders not to shoot, while enemy soldiers disembarked to cut the wires of the mines planted outside, rendering useless even these token precautions. At least the defenders could busy themselves by erecting more coils of barbed wire, cleaning their guns and checking the ammunition stocks, but otherwise did nothing as more vehicles arrived, the Lancia lorries parking before the gates as if to point out how thoroughly besieged the occupants were becoming.
Under the dome of the rotunda, the leadership met again, with Mellows, McKelvey, Rory O’Connor, O’Malley, O’Brien and others sitting in a half-circle on the floor. Some wanted to escape while they could and join the anti-Treaty units outside the city but Mellows was unsure.
“We don’t know what the country will do,” he pointed out, meaning the other Anti-Treatyites. At last he seemed conscious of the damage their bickering had caused. Even if the rest of the anti-Treaty IRA decided to join them, it might not be in time to make a difference.
“We have created the Four Court situation,” he concluded, according to O’Malley’s recollections. “We should face the responsibility.”
He was seconded by Rory O’Connor. As they represented the Republic, he said, it was only right they stay to defend it, regardless of how poor a strategy that was. Paddy O’Brien protested, urging the Executive to slip away while he and the rest kept the Pro-Treatyites busy, but was once again overruled.
Not so manageable was Séumas Robinson, the O/C of the South Tipperary IRA. To him, staying put like so many eggs in a basket was pure idiocy. After an attempt by Mellows and O’Connor to persuade him otherwise degenerated into a heated row, Robinson stormed off into the night. It was another loss for the Executive, one final split in a movement bedevilled by them.
Still, for some, the glass before them was half-full. As the defenders prepared for the showdown, resigned to a fight many suspected they could not win, Mellows paced the grounds with a rifle slung over his back, finally in his element.
“God, it’s good to feel myself a soldier again after all these futile negotiations,” he told O’Malley, patting the barrel of his gun.
 Deasy, Liam, Brother Against Brother (Cork: Mercier Press, 1998), pp. 39-40 ; O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Bielenberg, Andy; Borgonovo, John and Ó Ruairc, Pádraig Óg; preface by O’Malley, Cormach K.H.) The Men Will Talk to Me – West Cork Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2015), p. 199
 Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001), pp. 221, 237
O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Bielenberg, Andy; Borgonovo, John and Ó Ruairc, Pádraig Óg; preface by O’Malley, Cormac K.H.) The Men Will Talk to Me – West Cork Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2015)
O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012)
Robbins, Frank. Under the Starry Plough: Recollections of the Irish Citizen Army (Dublin: The Academy Press, 1977)
For Ernie O’Malley, life in Dublin was rapidly becoming an ordeal. For one, the Gaelic League Hall in Parnell Square, that the anti-Treaty Irish Republican Army (IRA) had decided upon for its headquarters, was too small and limited in office amenities for such a purpose. It got to the point that he and some others resorted to supping in the homes of obliging friends elsewhere in the city, doing so in rotation so as to not wear out their welcome, while jumping at reports of Free Staters – as their pro-Treaty rivals were dubbed – coming to arrest them.
And then there was the issue of money, or rather the lack of. What aggravated O’Malley in particular was how the Provisional Government was refusing to pick up their tab for expenses with local traders. It was a strange complaint, considering how O’Malley openly regarded the new authority with hostility and yet expected it to support him and his colleagues, but the Pro-Treatyites had access to funds that the anti-Treaty IRA did not.
Besides, O’Malley was indignantly aware of how the money raised from bonds sold on behalf of the Irish Republic were now going – diverted, as far as he was concerned – into buying munitions for the Free State.
The anti-Treaty leadership decided to even out the financial inequality with a series of bank raids throughout the country – let the Free State foot the bill for that. Still, it did not change the fact that, with every passing day, their enemies were getting stronger while they themselves stagnated for want of direction.
On the 13th April 1922, O’Malley was in the Orange Hall in Parnell Square, one of several other buildings in Dublin the Anti-Treatyites had taken as their own. While he was perusing through biscuit-tins for something to go with his tea, Liam Mellows came to inform him that he and the rest of the Army Council – formed out of the sixteen-strong IRA Executive – had decided to take over the Four Courts that night.
Entering the Four Courts
After expressing some mild concern as to whether they could hold the Four Courts, large as it was, O’Malley acquiesced and accompanied Mellows back to the Gaelic League Hall with his biscuits in hand. There they waited with the rest of the assembled party, simmering with barely contained excitement. At last, after weeks of tedium doing nothing, something was about to happen.
They set off after midnight, O’Malley and Mellows at the head of their group as they approached the imposing shape of the Four Courts in the dark. As if on cue, the heavy front-gates swung open from the inside upon their arrival. O’Malley and Mellows stepped through to see the night watchmen under guard by some other IRA men, who had climbed over the railings at the rear of the building.
The captives were ordered to go home. As they disappeared into the night, O’Malley tensed at the sound of marching boots coming their way. The Anti-Treatyites waited in the shadows by the front entrance, unsure as to which side these newcomers were on.
When they came into view through the open gates, O’Malley could tell by their casual dress, as opposed to the green uniforms of the Free Staters, that they were friends, some Tipperary men that Mellows had summoned for aid beforehand. The Four Courts had fallen without a shot needing to be fired, the only casualty being when one young man was wounded in the stomach by an accidentally discharged firearm and needed to be taken to hospital.
So quick had been the takeover that two policemen came by to relieve their co-workers on watch, unaware of the change in management, and were promptly detained. They were also released but not before breakfasting with their captors, the refreshments having been taken from the Four Courts Hotel by the quays. While Mellows and O’Malley were leading the capture of the courthouse, some others had forcibly entered the hotel by breaking through a window and ordering the guests to leave immediately.
In keeping with the maxim that an army marches on its stomach, large quantities of meat were taken from a bacon factory, along with bread out of a bakery in Parnell Square. Other nearby establishments were similarly plundered for food, indicating that the Four Courts occupation was not going to end anytime soon.
The citizens of Dublin had remained largely oblivious throughout the night. Some were woken shortly after midnight by the rumble of lorries passing through the streets. Gunshots were also heard, though not enough to cause a general alarm, such noises having become familiar enough by now in the city.
It was not until daybreak that the inhabitants realised that something was amiss, or at least more so than usual. Young men in civilian clothing could be seen blocking up the lower windows of the Four Courts with furniture, books and sacks filled with earth from the yard at the rear of the building. Other youths were stationed outside, some bearing arms, and maintained a stern front, revealing nothing by way of information to the curious crowds gathering nearby.
Inside, Mellows was entertaining the others while they worked by singing ballads such as The Croppy Boy and Come All Ye Brave United Men. A practised singer, he gave “the proper stress and intonation in his inimitable way,” to O’Malley’s appreciation. Mellows appeared more cheerful than he had been for a while, invigorated by finally having something to do.
A Challenge Laid
On the first day in the Four Courts, Mellows was confronted by Frank Robbins, a trade unionist and long-time friend since their days together in the United States. The two men had taken separate political paths, with Robbins deciding that the Treaty represented the best hope for Ireland.
When Robbins told Mellows that by taking the Four Courts, he had in effect challenged the Provisional Government to do something – and if it failed to do so, then the British Government would. The latter did not confirm or deny this, merely smiling sadly before changing the topic.
For all his evasions, Mellows showed that he had understood fully the truth of Robbins’ words when he submitted a public letter, dated to the 14th April and signed by himself as the Secretary of the Army Council. He announced that the Council was “prepared to discuss measures by which the unity of the Army is maintained”, but only on the following terms:
To maintain the existing Republic.
That Dáil Éireann, as the Government of the Republic, be the only Government of the country.
To maintain the Army as the Irish Republican Army, under the control of an elected independent Executive.
Disbanding the Civic Guard, with policing to be left to the IRA, as decided by its Executive.
All financial liabilities of the Army to be discharged, and future requirements met, by the Dáil.
No elections on the issue at present before the country to be held while the threat of war with Britain exists.
All of which would amount to a total surrender on the part of the Pro-Treatyites. Before, there had been some doubts as to how far the anti-Treaty IRA would go. “One cannot believe that the new Army Council will take the tremendous responsibility of trying to kill the elections,” wrote the Irish Times as it struggled to come to terms with the enormity of the Four Courts occupation. Mellows had answered that question in his letter’s sixth point.
If it fell short as a declaration of war, it was nonetheless an audacious move. The question now was whether the country was ready for such a step…or, for that matter, if Mellows and the rest of the Executive were.
Robert Briscoe was among the many agonising over what to do. He had played his part in the War of Independence as a gun-runner, helping to smuggle in weapons from Germany, where he had built up a healthy network of contacts and suppliers. At the IRA Convention of the 26th March 1922, he let his fellow attendees know that should push come to shove, and war resumed, he would be the man best placed to handle shipments.
By April, however, Briscoe was having a crisis of faith. Despite his upbringing in Dublin, as a Jew he felt out of place in a question between Irishmen. Besides, while he believed wholly in the justice of the Republican cause, “it was one thing to take arms in defence of one’s country, it was quite another to fight over the form of its government,” as he put it.
Desperate for answers, Briscoe sent word to Mellows. It was an apt choice; hearing Mellows talk in New York five years before in 1917 had convinced him to join the fight for his country’s freedom in the first place. Mellows arrived at the house of Briscoe’s mother in Monkstown, Dublin, and did not disappoint. For five hours, Briscoe and his mother sat in the parlour, listening spellbound as Mellows delivered a powerful call for action:
Never was he so brilliant, so ardent and so emotional. I knew that this great effort he was making and the intensity of his feeling was not to save one poor soldier for Ireland. It was because of his love for me. He was wrestling for my soul with the devil of doubt.
Briscoe felt as if he was undergoing a religious revival as each of his doubts was meticulously demolished. He had already risked his life for Ireland, so who had more of a right to choose what to do? What’s more, Mellows expounded, this right was as much an obligation as anything, for, having performed his duty against tyranny before, could Briscoe, in good conscience, walk away now?
Furthermore, Mellows said, Briscoe:
…was bound by a still higher [obligation] to choose, because this was an ethical question and every human being by virtue of his divine humanity is obliged to make his choice between right and wrong.
To assuage Briscoe’s last mental hurdle – his reluctance to shed the blood of fellow countrymen – Mellows promised that the Anti-Treatyites would make no first moves in starting a civil war. That was enough for Briscoe. Mellows said he must choose, and choose he did when he went down to the Four Courts the next morning and enlisted in its garrison.
Money and What to do With It
Serving directly under Mellows, Briscoe spent most of the following two months moving between Ireland and Germany. True to his word at the March convention, he got back to work doing what he did best.
That the Anti-Treatyites had the weapons they did was partly down to his earlier efforts, such as helping to organise the journey of the Frieda, the gun-running ship that had reached Waterford in the November of the previous year. As he surveyed the results of his labours in the form of ammunition stored in the cellar beneath the Four Courts, he felt an odd mix of pride and dismay.
On the 2nd May, a fortnight after joining the Four Courts, Mellows called him to his office at the back of the building complex. To Briscoe’s amazement, Mellows sat surrounded by wastebaskets, all full to the brim with freshly printed bank notes. As if that was not enough, Mellows opened a wardrobe door to show that that too was packed with money.
It added up to £40,000 in new notes, with about £10,000 worth of older money, Mellows explained to his dumbfounded subordinate, who was starting to make the connection with the raids on several bank branches the day before. The money shortage O’Malley had fretted about was solved, at least for now.
But, first, there was the question of how to manage the ‘levy’, as Mellows called it. Being brand new, the notes could be easily identifiable and blocked by the Free State authorities. Mellows tasked Briscoe with laundering the money into used currency that could be spent with impunity.
Briscoe was up for the challenge. He stuffed £10,000 worth of the new notes into a small bag and, accompanied by a veteran of the Cork IRA, Dick Barrett, took a cab to the bank where he already had an account of his own. He asked to see the manager, hoping that no one would notice the bulge in his suit where his automatic rested in a shoulder strap.
The manager was happy to see the two customers in his office. He was probably less so when Barrett took out his own pistol, placed it on the desk and told him to telephone the teller downstairs and have him change some banknotes into different denominations.
The manager took the matter in his stride. With an eyebrow slightly arched, he called the teller and repeated the instructions, almost word for word. Barrett then waited in the office with the manager while Briscoe went downstairs to be served accordingly.
Mellows was delighted when Briscoe returned with old notes, the money now usable. With £30,000 left to do, Briscoe contacted a number of friends, including the Woods family whose house in Donnybrook he and Mellows had often used as a hideout, and persuaded them to give a number of cheques in return for the money. It all worked like clockwork, and the Anti-Treatyites were finally able to pay their way.
Years later, when Briscoe, now a TD for Fianna Fáil, rose to give his first speech to the Dáil, he was met with jeers of ‘bank robber!’ from the opposing benches. “I have to admit they were not entirely unjustified,” he conceded in his memoirs.
A Soldier’s Position
The resort to criminality did not sit well with everyone. “There were many actions taken by our forces with which I did not hold, such as the bank raids,” wrote Joseph O’Connor (no relation to Rory), a Dublin IRA commander. As the IRA Executive struggled to maintain cohesion, O’Connor was not even clear if it had been Liam Lynch or Mellows who had ordered the bank robberies he found so distasteful.
“Still, I was a soldier and obeyed orders,” was how O’Connor put it, “and I presume a great many others found themselves in the same position.”
As a member of the Executive, O’Connor sat in on its sessions, which he considered “often far from satisfactory and we seemed to be unable to reach decisions.” Mellows would act as chairman but neither he nor Lynch, despite the latter’s rank as Chief of Staff, possessed the clout to impose any sort of direction.
Having taken such a defiant stand, the IRA Executive proceeded to do…nothing. Besides meetings. There were a lot of meetings, much to O’Malley’s despair, since “there was no attempt to define a clear-cut policy. Words ran into phrases, sentences followed sentences.” There he would sit, holding in the urge to scream and dash out, the others stifling yawns as one speaker after another played at being Cicero, “picking up a sentence, inverting it, developing it as a theme, playing with it. Then silence, in which we all sat in a kind of vacuity.” It got to the point where O’Malley was suffering from headaches even before the assemblages began.
A chance to break the deadlock came when President Arthur Griffith introduced a delegation of five men – Seán O’Hegarty, Tom Hales, Dan Breen, Humphrey Murphy and Florence O’Donoghue – to the Dáil on the 3rd May 1922.
“They were five widely different types,” wrote the Irish Times correspondent. “One of them, Mr Hales, from Bandon [Co. Cork], is a great, burly giant of a man, of the Viking type, with flaxen hair, clear blue eyes, and a complexion like that of a girl of sixteen.” Another Corkman in the group, O’Hegarty, was his physical contrast, being “slightly built, and has a long, rather ascetic type of face.”
‘A Political Dodge’
But what bound them was more important than how they differed. Each of the five held prominent ranks in the anti-Treaty IRA, and all were prepared to put their names to a statement of intent: that the direction the Army and the country as a whole was moving in, that of conflict and fratricide, was an intolerable one.
Acting as the group’s spokesman, O’Hegarty told of how he had reached out to meet Collins and Mulcahy, with whom they agreed to gather half a dozen officers from each side. Together, they might just be able to find enough common ground to broker a solution.
When it was proposed in the Dáil for a committee to be formed on these inclusive lines for such a purpose, Mellows, as the TD for Galway, was the first to speak – and to object. To him, this motion was “plainly another political dodge.” So long as the Treaty remained, unity was an impossibility. He repeated what he had said four months earlier at the Treaty debates:
You can have unity tomorrow on the question of the maintenance of the Republic but you will not have unity in this country either among the people or in the army upon any other basis.
What had happened to the country? Mellows wondered out loud, seemingly more in sorrow than in anger. What had happened to their movement?
This movement was a wonderful movement, because Ireland had been placed on a pedestal. An attempt is being made now to take Ireland down from that pedestal.
The hypocrisy of the Treaty was more than Mellows could stomach. Were those present going to pretend a loyalty to the British Government they did not feel, or mouth words of allegiance to a foreign king they had no intention of keeping? Only the straight road would lead to the Republic, and it was on those grounds that Mellows made his intentions to vote against the proposal known.
Nonetheless, the motion was passed. An old hand at committee talks, Griffith suggested that each side contribute no more than five members, as anything extra would become unwieldy. After an interval of twenty-five minutes, the names were submitted. Michael Collins read out those of Seán Hales, Pádraic Ó Máille, Seamus O’Dwyer, Joseph McGuinness and Seán Mac Eoin for the Pro-Treatyites, after which Seán T. O’Kelly gave that of Kathleen Clarke, P.J. Ruttledge, Seán Moylan, Harry Boland and Mellows to represent the anti-Treaty party.
Considering his open disdain for compromise, Mellows was an unusual selection. But then, given his command in the Four Courts, he was a man of no small influence. Perhaps it was thought better to have him – to steal a phase of Lyndon B. Johnson’s – inside pissing out than outside pissing in.
Mellows was not alone in his concerns. That the five IRA officers had presumed to speak out was taken as a breach of discipline by O’Malley, who could be something of a martinet where his own viewpoint was concerned. To his further annoyance, Lynch did nothing to reprimand them.
If anything, the Chief of Staff was supportive of their efforts, meeting a day later, on the 4th May, at the Mansion House, Dublin, with Eoin O’Duffy, his counterpart in the Free State forces. Also in attendance with Lynch were Seán Moylan and Mellows – whatever the latter’s stated doubts – as were Seán Mac Eoin and Gearóid O’Sullivan alongside O’Duffy. After a three hour talk behind closed doors, a ceasefire was signed between the two armies. It had come not a moment too soon, for there had been shootings and skirmishes throughout the country, in Donegal, Athlone, Mullingar and Kilkenny, resulting in a number of injuries and even deaths.
Sitting together in the Mansion House was the ten-strong committee the Dáil had appointed, with Mellows and Mac Eoin also present. The latter in particular was seen hurrying between the two groups, dressed in his green uniform with a revolver in his belt. Although held separately, the two sets of talks were by no means apart, as the other military officers in the building would drop by to converse with the Dáil Committee attendees.
Encouragingly, “the general feeling was of friendliness and good-will,” reported the Irish Times. In a tone of cautious optimism, the newspaper pointed out how:
The fact that even a temporary truce could be arranged in a highly charged atmosphere is taken as a good omen that a lasting peace may be reached after a cool review of the entire situation.
There was even talk of the two halves of the fractured IRA being healed. If such a reunification came about, the Irish Times predicted that “the political path should be appreciably smoothed.”
The Dáil that assembled on the 10th May had to endure a tedious preamble, sitting through a stupefying discourse on local government affairs before the findings of the Dáil Committee could be announced. The latest speaker was just in the middle of his point, amidst an atmosphere of languor, when the news came that the Committee members were finally in the building.
The effect, as described by the Irish Times, was electrifying:
The whole atmosphere of the place changed in a twinkling. The drowsy apathy of the members gave way to a buzz of excitement, which was followed by a tense silence as Mr MacNeill read out the laconic report which had been handed to him.
The report was that of failure. The Committee had met no less than eleven times, seeking a basis of agreement which, by the end, remained as elusive as ever. Both wings of the Committee promised to deliver their separate reports by the following day, neither of which seemed terribly important at that moment.
“Is it understood that the truce continues in the meantime?” Seán Milroy, the TD for Fermanagh and Tyrone, asked plaintively.
It was a question to which no one present had a ready answer. Mellows had departed by then, as had the rest of the failed Committee. Despite knowing what the verdict would be, he had seemed as shocked as anyone, staring vacantly ahead with a grim expression.
Tammany Hall Methods
When Mellows next spoke to the Dáil, a week later on the 17th May 1922, he was in a defensive mood. “I listened to this tirade that went on here in the last few speeches trying to put the blame for failure to reach an agreement upon the Republicans,” he said. “I am not going to say anything to them.”
He and the four other anti-Treaty delegates had entered the talks, Mellows said, with every intent of reaching an understanding with the opposite side. But when the talks came to the subject of a possible coalition government, consisting of members of both parties:
It is quite plain now, as it became quite plain to me towards the end of the Conference that our ideas of a coalition were not the same, and that there is, perhaps, a fundamental difference.
Our idea of a coalition was a coalition formed to save the national honour, a coalition formed to preserve the position of Ireland…we did not go there to make any bargains over seats in this Dáil, which we have no rights to bargain about.
For Mellows, such horse-trading was too much: “We have not yet descended, thanks be to God, in this country, I hope, to the position of what was aptly described once here as Tammany Hall methods.”
The contemptuous allusion to the notoriously corrupt politics of New York touched a nerve in another deputy in the chamber. Like Mellows, he had been part of the Committee talks, albeit on the other side of the table as a Pro-Treatyite:
I stand before the Dáil and before Ireland as the culprit who has sunk so low as to make a suggestion that I thought was uttered in good faith and uttered for the safe-guarding of this nation and not to degrade it to Tammany Hall methods.
So spoke Seán Mac Eoin, the renowned ‘Blacksmith of Ballinalee’. As Mellows had already said, the assumptions behind a possible coalition government had differed considerably between the two Committee halves.
“To have a coalition government, you could get nowhere without some definite basis,” Mac Eoin lectured.
That basis, he said as he recounted his version of evente, had been the Treaty. The opposition must either reverse course and work with the Treaty or stand aside and let the rest take on the responsibility. If said conditions were unacceptable, then Mac Eoin wished they had saved everyone time and made that clear “less than five minutes after we started.”
“It was made,” Mellows interrupted.
But Mac Eoin was having none of it: “Now, Liam, I know whether it was or not.”
Who Dares to Speak of Easter Week?
Regardless of culpability, such pettifogging only highlighted the gulf between the two sides. Still, his exchange with Mac Eoin must have made an impression on Mellows for, on the following day, he sought to correct an impression he may have given.
“Would I be in order in referring to something I said yesterday relative to one of the reports?” he asked in the Dáil. “It is in the form of an explanation.”
“It is not likely to lead to any controversial discussions?” asked Eoin MacNeill warily, in his role as Ceann Comhairle.
“No,” Mellows assured him. When he had used the expression ‘Tammany Hall methods’, Mellows explained, he had not meant to single out the other side. “I referred to all of us.”
“I hope none of us will say anything more serious than that,” said MacNeill, before the reports on the Departments of Labour, Education and Publicity were read out in turn, making for a considerably calmer session than the previous ones.
But it was not long before the wounds of the Treaty split gaped open again, with deputies on either end picking at the ragged edges. The next day, on the 19th May 1922, Kevin O’Higgins approvingly quoted a bishop who decreed anyone who killed without a democratic mandate a murderer. Mellows interrupted with just two words: “Easter Week.”
O’Higgins ignored him, but the point had been made: if the Irish Revolution, which included many in the Dáil chamber, had not had to obey orderly procedures before, why start now?
Sometime in early 1921, Frank Robbins paid a visit to 21 Mountshannon Road, Dublin, the home of the Mellows family. He had called on them several times already since his return from the United States of America, hoping to find that his friend Liam had likewise come back.
Robbins was unsurprised to see the Union Jack prominently displayed on the mantelpiece, knowing that Mellows Senior had been an officer in the British Army. Liam had appeared set to follow in his father’s footsteps when enrolled as a cadet at the Military Academy in Phoenix Park, but he ended up taking a very different course in life. Robbins attributed this to the influence of the family matriarch, a Wexford woman with some notably republican viewpoints.
On that occasion, Sarah Mellows gave her guest an address not too far from Mountshannon Road, with instructions to ask for a Mr Nolan. Such cloak-and-dagger games were nothing new to Robbins, by now a seasoned revolutionary in the Irish Citizen Army. He had been trying for a while now to bring it and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) together on a more cooperative basis, albeit with little success.
When Robbins arrived at the address, he found that the man calling himself ‘Mr Nolan’ was not anyone he knew. He understood enough to leave some telling details with the stranger, including where to find him. Sure enough, a few days later, Liam Mellows dropped by Robbins’ house, in time to lend a helping hand with his infant daughter.
The second time Mellows came was on the 25th May 1921, the day the IRA set fire to the Custom House by the Liffey. He was dressed in feminine attire, a choice of disguise which had served him well when fleeing the country in the wake of the 1916 Rising, wearing a nun’s habit.
This time, the pretence was less convincing. Robbins was not home, and his sister refused to admit the peculiar visitor until Mrs Robbins, who had nursed Mellows when he was sick in New York, vouched for him. Mellows had come to ask Robbins about that day’s casualties, as the Dublin IRA, despite the success of their operation, had had many of its combatants taken prisoner by British forces in a botched withdrawal from the burning Custom House.
Mellows and Robbins were good friends as well as comrades-in-arms, having struggled together in the byzantine politics of Irish-America, and now bound in a common cause for national freedom. But that did not mean they always agreed. While discussing matters one day in Sackville (now O’Connell) Street, Robbins asked after Michael Collins, Mellows’ colleague in the IRA GHQ.
“Oh, he pays too many visits to pubs,” Mellows replied.
Robbins was shocked at this casual disrespect and said as much. Didn’t Mellows know, Robbins said, that pubs were the safest places for Collins to conduct his business?
As Mellows apologised profusely, Robbins saw that his brusque manner had upset him. Confused at why his friend would say something so mean and out of character, Robbins could only hope that this would not be the start of something.
A Soldier’s Heart
If Mellows was frustrated, then he had much to feel frustrated about. He had led men before with a gun in hand, when the Galway Volunteers rose up during the Easter Week of 1916, but now, as the IRA Director of Purchases, his war was to be a very different one, a battleground of logistics, paperwork and meetings.
All of which went against his desire to be in the thick of things and, throughout the War of Independence, “his eyes turned longingly towards the ‘Flying Columns’ in the hills of Ireland,” remembered Mary Flannery Woods, a close friend:
But though he dallied with the idea of joining one of them, he recognised that his duty lay in the line his ability demanded – organisation – and he with a soldier’s heart, stifled his longing and ‘kept to his last’.
The first time Mrs Woods met Mellows was in November 1920, shortly after his return from the United States. He came to her house at 131 Morehampton Road in Donnybrook, Dublin, walking straight into the hall without a word, and then asking for ‘Mr Quinn’. That was the name that Seán Etchingham, the Wexford TD and IRA man, went by.
Despite the stranger’s brusqueness, Wood gave him the benefit of the doubt on the basis of his resemblance to Barney Mellows, a prominent IRA member, and brought him upstairs to where Etchingham was hiding. She “knew by Seán’s shout of welcome that I had made no mistake” – after, Barney and Liam were brothers.
Number 131 Morehampton Road was an open house for ‘on the runs’ like Mellows and Etchingham. Mellows used it as his base of operations, staying for periods of six weeks or less until his duties as Director of Purchases called him away to assist with smuggled shipments of illicit weaponry. Woods would drive him in the mornings to Kingsbridge Station to take the first train out, with Mellows posing as a businessman, complete with a copy of the Irish Times tucked under his arm, and his distinctly fair hair and moustache darkened the night before with dye.
Sometimes there would be hauls coming, sometimes not. Mellows learned to diversify his dealings – a shop in Liverpool was one regular supplier, while Woods once saw a furniture suite that had come in from America, loaded with guns. Mellows was careful not to bring any of these procurements to 131 Morehampton Road, relying instead on a network of agents to distribute them to the rest of the IRA.
Even in the gunrunning lull-times, work never ceased, as couriers were forever dropping by Morehampton Road. When Mellows was out – as he often was, sometimes not returning before the early hours of 4 or 5 am – Woods would hide their dispatches until he was back. If someone was waiting for a response, Mellows took the time to talk to them, sometimes doing so until dawn, after which he would grab an hour or two of sleep before resuming another day’s business.
In the event of money being delivered, Woods would issue a receipt for the IRA GHQ, allowing Mellows to keep track of the flow of orders and purchases in a notebook. Finances were the ultimate responsibility of the Minister for Defence, Cathal Brugha, who ran a tight ship, fiscally speaking, and would – so Mellows bemoaned to Woods – “sit all night with his mouth like a rat trap over half a crown if it went wrong.”
Another GHQ colleague who Mellows did not entirely get along with was Collins. The IRA Director of Intelligence was intruding too much on Mellows’ sphere of responsibility for his liking:
[Mellows] said he was interfering with his job as Director of Purchases by buying arms across the water and paying more for them than he was. He was buying them, he said, not to use them but to prevent him (Liam) from getting them.
As a close friend of both men, Woods was saddened to hear this. That Mellows was among the most good-natured of men made the revelation – “that Mick and Liam were not in each other’s confidences” – all the harder.
The Scottish Connection
Another cause for doubt was the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). Mellows had been an inductee since before the Easter Rising – indeed, he had helped facilitate the underground fraternity in many parts of the country. The IRB continued, running parallel to the IRA, with which it shard many members, as well as the same revolutionary goals, but its secretive nature and lack of accountability made some wary.
When the Supreme Council of the IRB issued a circular in late 1920, asking for all its initiates to trust in any changes about to be made, Seamus Reader asked Mellows what this meant:
He told me that there would be another circular sent out and warned me that there was hedging going on, that there was danger of a split. He asked me to make sure this would not occur in Scotland. He did not give me any further information about the trouble.
No trouble occurred in Scotland, at least where the IRB was concerned. As one of the IRA’s sources for weapons – with Reader responsible for over a hundred detonators shipped to Dublin in 1917 – the country was an important strategic base, and one that merited Mellows’ personal attention.
By then the IRA Director of Organisation for Scotland, Reader was summoned to a meeting in Glasgow on the 3rd May 1921. He found several others, there including Mellows and D.P. Walsh, the GHQ purchaser for Scotland since 1920. Walsh was explaining to Mellows that some of the Glasgow Brigade were set on rescuing Frank Carty, who had been arrested while seeking to purchase arms for the Sligo IRA, from police custody.
Obviously displeased at what he was hearing, Mellows asked Reader for his views. Reader began by saying that he knew nothing about such plans, before making his opinion clear to Mellows. As the Scottish police were an unarmed police force, any attack on them, he warned, would endanger what support Irish republicanism had among the general public.
Mellows was evidently of like mind, as he strongly advised Walsh against any such efforts, citing the disruption an official backlash would have on their arms-running. But Walsh insisted that it was too late to call it off, so determined were the Glaswegian Volunteers to save Carty.
Reader suggested a compromise: that the rescue be delayed until Carty had been handed over to the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) escort which would be coming over to bring him to trial in Ireland. Walsh agreed to this and promised to pass it on later that night at another meeting where the rescue plans were to be finalised.
With the issue seemingly settled, Mellows asked the others for an account of the munitions collected so far. Reader said that they were unsure but he would look into it and tell Mellows the following night.
The next day, shortly after noon, Reader received the alarming news that the armed attempt to spring Carty had been carried out after all, resulting in the death of a Scottish policeman and the wounding of another. In the resulting wave of police raids, as Mellows and Reader had feared, several arms dumps were uncovered and nearly all the men responsible for their purchases arrested, including Walsh.
Reader was among those picked up, though he was released when the murder charge against him, on account of the slain policeman, was dropped. After avoiding Mellows for fear of leading the police to him, he was able to see him again at a subsequent meeting. Mellows told him he had to leave Scotland and appointed Reader to take immediate charge.
An emergency session was called for all the Scottish IRA officers still at liberty. There, it was arranged that the remaining supplies be gathered in a safe-house, and then shipped over to Ireland, ending up mostly in the hands of the South Tipperary Brigade.
Many of the other arms-running operations were similarly hit-and-miss. As Eamon Dore, an intelligence officer in the Limerick IRA, remembered:
Just before the Truce, Liam Mellows, whom I knew of old, called on me in connection with a scheme he was engaged on at the time – to smuggle arms through the port of Limerick.
He had enlisted the aid of a Customs Officer named Cullinan, and the arrangements were just completed when the Truce came. Some arms actually did come in during the Truce through this arrangement, but nothing of any great consequence.
Shortly after the Truce of July 1921, a crowd of the revolutionary elite met in Vaughan’s Hotel, Dublin, to see Harry Boland off to America. The attendees – which included Collins, Mellows, Rory O’Connor, Liam Tobin, Frank Thornton and Etchingham – were in a celebratory mood, with Collins reciting Kelly, Burke and Shea, while Mellows sung the old Scottish song, McDonnell of the Glens.
But beneath the good cheer lurked a feeling that the Truce would prove only a temporary reprieve. “Many more of us will die before an Irish Republic is recognised,” Mellows remarked.
It would prove to be a prescient statement, though he was almost certainly assuming that any such deaths would be from against the British. He was not alone in such fatalism. In Co. Cork, Liam Lynch, O/C of the First Southern Division, believed that the ceasefire would last no more than three or four months, and planned accordingly.
Mellows was similarly concerned with making the most of the available time. He was now assisted in his duties by Una Daly, the sister of an IRA member who had introduced her to Mellows. The two men had been trying together to ship arms from Liverpool, when Mellows asked if Una would do some secretarial tasks for him.
She took up work in 131 Morehampton Road, sometimes sleeping in the room Mrs Wood had put at their disposal as an office. Daly typed for Mellows, doing her best to keep up with his indefatigable pace, and once stayed up two whole nights to finish the latest workload before them.
Mellows, she noticed, was receiving a lot of callers from England and Scotland. More unusual were the six visitors from Hamburg, Germany, who came over on a boat captained by Charlie McGuinness, one of Mellows’ most active gun-runners. Two of them stayed at the Woods home, where they passed the time by singing German songs.
Despite the efforts of their hosts to put them at ease – including a trip to the Gaiety Theatre for a Shakespeare play – and the relative calm in the city during the Truce, one seemed particularly on edge. A model of discretion, Daly did not inquire as to who these foreign gentlemen were or why they were there at all.
The Landing in Waterford
As the Sinn Féin TD for Waterford City, Dr Vincent White was visiting Dublin in the autumn of 1921 when he met Mellows. The IRA Director of Purchases appeared “very pre-occupied” and with good reason, for he confided in White about the shipment of munitions that were due from Germany. As the Waterford coast had been decided upon as the best landing site, at either Helvick Head or near Ardmore, Mellows told White that he would be relying on him for his cooperation in landing the guns safely and then transferring them to their prepared dumps in the Comeragh Mountains.
This caught White by surprise, particularly since, as he pointed out to Mellows, his home in Waterford City was over thirty miles from both Helvick Head and Ardmore. As Mellows was not one to take ‘no’ for an answer, White finally agreed to take charge of his end of the operation. “This time, I was certainly getting a new type of job,” he noted dryly.
The only details he knew for sure was that a Captain McGuinness, so Mellows told him, would be the name of the skipper of the gun-running ship. White was leaving his house on Broad Street, Waterford, on the 11th November 1921 when a stranger approached him to ask if he was Dr White. He affirmed that he was and, guessing the other man’s identity, asked in turn if he was McGuinness.
Appearing relieved at this recognition, Charlie McGuinness confirmed that he was and explained his plight. He had been sailing off the coast for the past few days on the Frieda, looking for a signal that was supposed to appear but never did, and exhausting himself in the process. The lack of food and water had forced him to disembark, with his vessel left hidden in a creek off the Little Island in the Suir.
White let him have a much-needed sleep in his house. When McGuinness awoke, considerably refreshed, the two discussed their plan of action. White would contact the O/C of the Waterford City IRA Battalion, and have him arrange for lorries and cars to take the arms from the Frieda to the Comeragh Mountains. McGuinness would lie low in White’s house until the night, which was a wet, drizzling one, and all the better for the cover the weather would provide.
McGuinness and White were rowed by a friend of the latter downriver, the darkness dotted by the lighted windows of the houses about them, until they reached the beached Frieda, where the German crew were waiting with their cargo. The rest of the proceedings went ahead like clockwork. The requisite men and vehicles had been assembled, and the guns were removed from the ship’s hull.
White and McGuinness watched with satisfaction as the last of the lorries climbed up the hills, laden with weapons, before the two men returned to Broad Street. White was to remember that night with pride: “It was the second successful gun-running exploit following the landing of arms at Howth a year before the Rising of 1916.” Fittingly, Mellows had been involved in that earlier one as well.
McGuinness continued on to Dublin with his crew. The Germans soon proved to be something of a nuisance, as no one knew what to do with them. Having given up on McGuinness as drowned, Mellows was delighted to see him again, though enraged to learn of the laxity of the Waterford IRA in failing to send the appropriate signals to the Frieda.
Regardless of such failings, the rearmed IRA was in a better position than ever to resume the war with Britain – that is, until the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on the 6th December 1921 turned such certainty on its head, forcing each and every participant in the revolutionary movement to evaluate exactly where they stood.
Like Stars of Constancy
Mellows was to make his own feelings on the issue abundantly clear when he bumped into Robbins on Sackville Street on the 7th December 1921, the day after the Treaty was announced. Mellows was accompanied by Séumas Robinson, a leading IRA officer in Tipperary, and a third man whose name Robbins had forgotten by the time he penned his memoirs, in which he recalled how:
The conversation had hardly opened when Mellows, with a great deal of emotion, left no doubt as to his views on the Treaty. He made statements to the effect that John Redmond could have got better terms without firing a shot.
As Redmond’s reputation was only a little better than Dermot MacMurrough’s as far as any good Irish freedom fighter was concerned, Robbins considered this statement a highly unfair one, given the hard-fought circumstances in which the Irish plenipotentiaries had put their names to the Treaty. He tried persuading Mellows to take a more reasonable approach, as he saw it, but a street pavement is rarely the best place for a constitutional debate, and the conversation ended inclusively between the two comrades.
Robbins recalled an earlier talk he had had in New York, in which Mellows declared that the road to Irish freedom would not be an easy one. The pair could agree on that at least.
Before the Treaty could be accepted in full, it required ratification by Dáil Éireann. That elective body had usually gathered in Dublin at the Mansion House, inside its Round Room, a large circular annex that possessed the suitable gravitas for such august occasions. But, with the Mansion House now festooned with Christmas holly and other seasonal decorations, it was decided that the classically-columned University College would provide a more appropriately solemn venue to hold the debates.
Its limitations would quickly grow apparent to Robert Briscoe. Although not a TD and thus ineligible to contribute, Briscoe attended almost every one of the sessions that took place from December 1921 to January, becoming an expert on the merits of the College. He found acoustics to be negligible due to the low ceiling, and that the long length of the narrow room ensured it was hard to see as well as hear any speakers on the other end.
Not that Briscoe had any difficulty understanding his friend when it came to his turn to speak as the TD for Galway:
Liam Mellows! I remember him standing there facing that long room, square and sturdy, with his gold hair lighting the gloom and his blue eyes like stars of constancy.
Reporters attending the show were similarly smitten. “With fair hair brushed back, rugged countenance lit up by profound conviction and a rather discordant voice vibrating with the intensity of his beliefs,” wrote one.
Letting the Situation Develop
Beforehand, while the Dáil debates were enfolding, Mellows had met with a number of like-minded souls, each one a high-ranking IRA officer, at 71 Heytesbury Street. Like 131 Morehampton Road, it had long served as a sanctuary for ‘on the runs’. There, the Delaney family tried to be of good cheer until, sensing the need for privacy, they withdrew for the night, leaving the drawing room to their guests.
Staring at the others across the polished table, Ernie O’Malley (O/C of the Second Southern Division) was struck by their appearance: a sombre Rory O’Connor (Director of Engineering), his black hair streaked with grey; Liam Lynch (O/C of the First Southern Division), fidgeting with his glasses while muttering to himself; a dishevelled Séumas Robinson (O/C of the South Tipperary Brigade), a clenched fist held to his chin. O’Malley felt as bad as the others looked, wanting nothing better than to cry from frustration at the thought of the Treaty being imposed on them.
Only Mellows, their Director of Purchases, was unfazed, appearing “energetic, business-like, efficient, anxious to settle down to work”, in contrast to the gloom of the rest.
As the group chewed over their options, it became apparent as to why Mellows was so at ease. “Let the situation develop,” he declared. “The Republican Army will never stomach the Treaty.”
He had been sitting through the Dáil sessions, but with no doubt as to where the final decision would lie. The others were not so sure. O’Connor wanted to break away from GHQ, dominated now by Treaty supporters, as soon as the debates were done. Robinson and O’Malley liked the sound of that, though the latter admitted his doubts as to who else they could trust to follow them. Lynch voiced no strong opinion either way.
Without a clear consensus, it was agreed to wait and see how things developed, keeping in contact with each other all the while. O’Connor then cracked a joke, and soon the cabal were enjoying a more genial evening, the weight of responsibility lifted off their shoulders, at least temporarily.
The Fear of the People
Mellows was as every bit as energetic, business-like and efficient as before as he addressed his fellow Dáil delegates in the University College:
I have very little to say on this subject that is before us, because I stand definitely against this so-called Treaty and the arguments in favour of acceptance—of compromise, of departing from the straight road, of going off the path, and the only path that I believe this country can travel to its freedom.
To the disappointment of those who took Mellows at face value about having little to say, he launched into a speech of not-inconsiderate length. For him, all the talk he had been hearing about the Treaty as a ‘stepping stone’ towards the Republic was absurd, for such a thing already existed. Anyone arguing otherwise was putting the cart before the horse, for “there is the Irish Republic existing, not a mandate to seek a step towards an Irish Republic that does not exist.”
Mellows urged his audience to face facts. After all, “we are not afraid of the facts. The facts are that the Irish Republic exists. People are talking to-day of the will of the people when the people themselves have been stampeded.” Those advocating the Treaty were not doing so on account of its merits. Instead, they “are in favour of the Treaty because they fear what is to happen if it be rejected. That is not the will of the people – that is the fear of the people.”
The will of the people, Mellows continued, had already been expressed three years ago, at the first session of the Dáil Éireann in January 1919, and that had been for the declaration of the Republic:
The Irish people have, thanks be to God, the tradition of coming out and speaking their true selves no matter how many times they may be led astray. Has the whole object of this fight and struggle in Ireland been to secure peace? Peace we have preached to us here day in and day out – peace, peace, peace –
“Peace with honour,” another delegate interjected.
“Yes, that is what we want,” Mellows replied. “We do not want peace with surrender, and we do not want peace with dishonour. If peace was the only object why, I say, was this fight ever started?”
Peace with Honour
It was not just a question for the present, but of the future as well. A peace brought about by the Treaty would result in no such thing, “because there will be restless souls in the country who will not be satisfied under this Free State to make peace in this Free State possible.”
For an awestruck Briscoe, Mellows “spoke like a prophet”, his warning all too true in the unsettled era to come.
Had he lived, Mellows would not have been surprised at all. Any unity the country had had for the past few years, as he lectured the Dáil, had been on the basis of the Republic:
Destroy that basis and you cannot have unity. Once you take yourselves off that pedestal you place yourselves in a position to pave the way for concession after concession, for compromise after compromise. Once you begin to juggle with your mind or conscience in this matter God knows where you will end, no matter how you try to pull up later on.
As he neared the end, Mellows apologised for the duration of his address. He attributed it to how strongly he felt, since ideas kept leaping to mind as he talked. For him, it was a matter of ideals:
…for which one has struggled and fought, the ideals for which one is prepared to do the same again, but for which one is not prepared to compromise or surrender no matter what the advantages may be.
And, with that, Mellows finished off, being rewarded with a round of applause from his audience. Among them, Nora Connolly, daughter of the Easter Rising martyr, thought the verbal display from her long-time friend so marvellous that surely no one would bring themselves to vote for the Treaty after that.
It had indeed been a fine performance. Witnesses were transfixed as Mellows spoke, his voice rising, before growing mordant, then scornful, laying angry emphasis on every word when he denounced the cowardice of others. Éamon de Valera watched him intently, a finger to his chin. Others interposed with the occasional ‘hear, hear’ or the odd burst of hurrahs at the rhetorical high points.
Not all were so enchanted. Some of the other delegates passed the time by reading newspapers, the length of Mellows’ oratory, and that of the debates in general, perhaps getting to them.
A whiff of awkward comedy was inadvertently introduced on the following day of the 5th January when Seán Milroy, the TD jointly for the Cavan and Fermanagh-Tyrone constituencies, alleged personal attacks made against him in the pages of a newspaper, a copy of which he held in his hand. Craning their necks, the reporters on duty thought it looked like the Republic of Ireland, to which a certain TD contributed.
Milroy stressed his reluctance to suggest that anyone should be ejected over this content, while introducing in the same breath that same possibility. Some of his audience could not help wondering “how the House would receive a motion to expel Liam Mellowes [alternative spelling], journalist, without interfering with the privileges of Liam Mellowes, Deputy for Galway.”
Briscoe was at the IRA headquarters in Parnell Street when a man came running to announce that the Treaty had been accepted by a vote of sixty-four to fifty-seven. The news came like a kick to Briscoe’s stomach, made worse by the paltry difference in votes. Nobody else in the headquarters could speak, as everyone stared dumbfounded at one another.
The day after, on the 8th January, Briscoe was part of a gloomy little gathering that included Mellows and Robinson. None of them knew what to do. The thought of staying in an Ireland set on remaining inside the British Empire was almost too much to bear.
When it was suggested that they follow the example of the Wild Geese and move abroad to find some other country in which to fight the ancestral enemy – India, proposed Séumas Robinson – they went so far as to take this fancy seriously. Anything had to be better than their current plight.
“We were as despairful as only ardent young men can be,” recalled Briscoe, “for the cause which had been the mainspring of our existence seemed forever lost.”
This could not have been an entirely unexpected outcome for Mellows. Just before the vote was taken in the Dáil, he had given a flag to a friend, Seán Hartney, with instructions to fly it over the General Post Office (GPO) if the result was in favour of the Treaty. When Hartney did just that, he noticed that the flag was a Tricolour with a small Union Jack sewn in a corner. To those who saw it, the symbolism would have been clear.
What do revolutionaries do when their revolution comes to a screeching halt? The answer, for some, was to keep on going, Treaty or no Treaty.
Two months later, on the 22nd March 1922, Richard Mulcahy publicly warned that an IRA convention, set to be held in four days’ time, had been banned on the orders of the newly formed Provisional Government. Such restriction made little impression on Rory O’Connor, speaking on the same day. Both men held positions of authority, Mulcahy as Minister of Defence, with O’Connor as GHQ Director of Engineering, but their political stances were by then poles apart.
The proscribed convention would go ahead, promised O’Connor at a press conference. He did not represent GHQ. Instead, he spoke for – in his estimation – 80% of the IRA. His right to do so was derived from consultations he had made with the Army rank and file, through the various divisions and down to their companies. During the Treaty debates of December and January, O’Connor went on, officers from the South and West brigades had come to see both him and Mellows, expressing their view that the IRA, as well as the country in general, had been badly let down.
O’Connor was upfront about the measures to be taken in response. At the forthcoming convention, it would be proposed:
…to the effect that the army re-affirmed its allegiance to the Irish Republic, and, further, that the army returned to the Constitution under which it was ruled when it was known as the Irish Volunteers; that an Executive should be appointed by the Convention; and that the Executive should have complete control of the army.
Given how such a motion would amount to an independent military, unfettered by civilian oversight, it is unsurprising that the Provisional Government should have tried to abort it. O’Malley had already shown how dangerous such a thing could be.
The first flashpoint had been in Limerick, triggered over the takeover of barracks vacated by the British Army. Upon hearing that pro-Treaty IRA units had been drafted from Clare to occupy them, the Limerick Brigade pre-empted with the seizure of a number of buildings under O’Malley’s leadership. Though the Castle remained in GHQ hands, the Limerick dissenters were reinforced by like-minded compatriots from Tipperary and Cork.
But the Anti-Treatyites were far from united. When O’Malley visited Dublin to ask for O’Connor’s help, the other man refused, preferring to try working with Mulcahy and the rest of GHQ for the time being. Lynch was likewise adverse to taking things further, as shown by how he travelled to Limerick to negotiate an end to the standoff before it could spiral out of control.
“We had won without firing a shot,” O’Malley later crowed. “We had maintained our rights.”
It was perhaps a case of seeing the glass as half-full, but O’Malley had grounds for his triumphalism. Limerick had exposed the lack of control GHQ and the Dáil could exercise over men who did not wish to be controlled. Yet it also showed how uncertain the Anti-Treatyites were on how to proceed.
Mulcahy’s banning of the March convention was what galvanised them into a united front. O’Malley answered a summons to Dublin from O’Connor to attend a conclave of sympathetic officers, including Mellows, Lynch, Seamus O’Donovan, Seán Russell, Joe McKelvey and Oscar Traynor.
Angered by what they saw as Mulcahy’s intransigence, they agreed to go ahead with the convention, going so far as to elect Lynch as their Chief of Staff – in which capacity Lynch would remain, save for a brief interval, until his dying breath – and appointed the others present to different positions in an impromptu committee, such as Mellows to Quartermaster-General.
As promised, the convention met in the Mansion House on the 26th March, drawing the attendance of over two hundred delegates from the IRA brigade areas, even those where the senior officers were largely pro-Treaty. Which is not to say this was the last word on where allegiances lay.
“It is not suggested that all formations which sent delegates to the convention were solid blocks of anti-Treaty opinion,” wrote Florence O’Donoghue, a Cork intelligence officer who was one of the attendees, “neither would it be true to say that there were no anti-Treaty elements in the formations which refrained from attending.”
The political disjuncture, while growing ever stark, could still allow for shades of grey in between the black and white. The Fourth Northern Division was one example of the contradictions of such ambiguity. The Ulster-based unit had sent representatives, even while its O/C, Frank Aiken, endeavoured to remain uncommitted to either side.
In itself, the convention was uneventful. That it had happened at all was incendiary enough. Presided over by Mellows, a number of resolutions were passed, headed by: “That the Army reaffirms its allegiance to the Irish Republic.” There was no more room to be had for any such loyalty towards GHQ or the Dáil.
The Straight Road to the Republic
The Provisional Government responded in kind. On the 30th March, the Irish Times reported how:
Following the holding of the IRA convention in Dublin on Sunday, and the suspension of a number of officers for having attended, General Headquarters, Beggars Bush, have made appointments in many instances where vacancies have occurred on the Headquarters staff.
Mellows was among those replaced, his role as Director of Purchases given instead to Joe Viz, who had worked as his assistant. O’Connor, Seán Russell and Seamus O’Donovan were likewise superseded from their GHQ posts.
It is unlikely that they cared overly. A sixteen-strong Executive, headed by Lynch, and including Mellows and O’Connor, had assumed responsibility for the anti-Treaty IRA. It was headquartered in the Gaelic League Hall, one of the row of late 18th century houses on the west side of Parnell Square, right in the heart of Dublin.
O’Malley did not think much of the building’s defensive capacities, but then, that the Anti-Treatyites were there at all, in defiance of whatever the Provisional Government did or demanded, was a victory in itself. Anyone who thought the Treaty controversy settled had only to see the armed guards by the doors of the Hall and the sandbags in its lower windows to learn otherwise.
This descent into fortified camps and hostile factions was regarded with dismay by many who otherwise counted themselves as Mellows’ friends. Robbins tried intervening with a heart-to-heart in the Kevin Barry Hall in Parnell Square. From 10 pm to 3 am, they fought a bare-knuckle war of words, ultimately to little effect.
For Robbins, the patriotic zeal that had led him to raise a tricolour over the Royal College of Surgeons six years ago during the 1916 Rising had been tempered by sobering realities. The sufferings of the Flood family in particular convinced him that there had to be an easier way than that of the gun.
He had played football with some of the Flood boys, and worked with two of them in the Dublin Dockyards. All eight sons were involved in the independence movement, with some paying a heavy price. Frank had been hanged with five other imprisoned IRA members on the 14th March 1921. Seán died soon after completing a five-year jail sentence, while Thomas, captured in the Custom House attack, was narrowly saved from sharing Frank’s fate by the Truce of July 1921.
When Robbins met a fourth brother, Peter Flood told him that all he wanted was to live for Ireland, rather than dying over it, there having been too many unnecessary deaths already. In light of the tragic family history, Robbins was deeply moved on hearing this.
In contrast, Mellows still “had a hard and fast approach. Nothing but the straight road to the Republic would do,” Robbins complained.
Yet when the possibility of civil war was raised, Mellows dismissed it out of hand, to Robbins’ incredulity. How in the current state, Robbins asked, with two armies implacably opposed to each other’s goals, could civil war be anything other than inevitable?
Mellows did not see it that way. The straight road to the Republic would be maintained, he said, and at the same time there would be no civil war. “We regard ourselves as engineers mapping out a new county,” he declared, rather loftily.
“Good engineers would not drive into impossible obstacles,” Robbins retorted. “They would find a way of circumventing or evading the problem.”
But to Mellows, such talk could only amount to the one thing he would have nothing to do with. “No, there must be no compromise,” he said.
“Then there must be a civil war.”
“Such will not happen, but the straight road to the Republic must be maintained.”
They were going in circles by then. When the conversation finally ended in the early hours, the two parted, still friends but on separate paths that could only diverge as time and circumstances pressed on.
A Lot of Sick People
Mutual incomprehension was the order of the day. Too many seemed incapable of understanding an alternative point of view, and Mellows was as guilty as any of this. When he met Joseph Lawless, a Fingal IRA officer, on a tramcar passing through Nassau Street, Dublin, his first instincts were to go on the attack. Sitting next to Lawless, Mellows asked, with a hint of accusation: “I thought you were sick?”
As Lawless recalled:
I was in the uniform of the National Army at the time and understood his remark as meaning that he thought my sympathies lay with the anti-treatyites, and was surprised to see me in uniform.
Lawless pretended to take his question at face value, replying that, au contraire, he was feeling better than ever. Unsatisfied, Mellows repeated himself, putting the emphasis on the final word of ‘sick’. Lawless had had enough:
I replied that I believed that there were a lot of sick people going around just now, but that, fortunately I was not among the number.
Mellows dropped the quasi-interrogation at that, and the rest of the ride together was passed in awkward silence.
Amidst the growing tensions, Robbins was prevailed on by William O’Brien, the General Treasurer of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU), to use his friendship with Mellows and set up a meeting with Lynch and O’Connor. Quite what the union leader thought he could offer or accomplish is unknown, but Robbins agreed to do so. What was there to lose anyway?
Setting off from Parnell Square on the night of the 13th April 1922, towards Barry’s Hotel on Gardiner Row where Mellows was staying, Robbins saw a large number of men moving quickly in the opposite direction. Upon arriving at the hotel, he asked the porter to inform Mellows that he had a visitor. Instead:
A tallish man with rimless glasses appeared and, in a voice of some arrogance, asked who I was and what was my business. I am afraid the same attitude was adopted by me, as I replied, “I came here to see Liam Mellows, and who might you be?”
The other man introduced himself as Liam Lynch. Mellows was not here, he said, and repeated his question as to Robbins’ business. Robbins held his ground, stating that his business was with Mellows alone. Faced with a stalemate, Lynch put an end to the display of raised heckles and brusque statements by informing his unwanted guest not to bother, as Mellows would not be back that night.
Robbins was left to be on his way. It had been a prickly, uncomfortable encounter, and worse was to follow. He learned that while he was fencing verbally with Lynch, the Four Courts in the city centre had been occupied by the anti-Treaty IRA, escalating the situation to a dangerous new level.
A Last Meeting
Undeterred by the rise in tension, Robbins called in on the Four Courts the next day, on the 14th April. Admitted without much difficulty – security there would tighten in time – Robbins was led to the main section of the complex, where Mellows was at a meeting with other IRA officers. When that was done, the two men were able to talk beneath the dome of the building.
After the opening pleasantries, Robbins asked why had such a drastic move been taken. Space, Mellows replied. None of the other sites in Dublin the Anti-Treatyites had already occupied – the Gaelic League Hall in Parnell Square, the Kildare Street Club, Port Sunlight on Parliament Street, or the Masonic Hall of Molesworth Street – were sufficiently large for a proper base of operations. It was an answer Robbins found hard to take seriously.
“Liam, are you quite sure it is only because you want a suitable headquarters?” Robbins pressed. “Is there another motive?”
“That is all,” Mellows insisted. When his friend remained unconvinced, he said: “Well, what do you think it is?”
“Liam, this is the last vestige of British authority left in this country,” Robbins said, by which he meant the Treaty. “Your action is a direct challenge to that authority.”
If the Provisional Government did not rise to the challenge, Robbins warned, the British would return, and then Ireland “will cut a very sorry figure in future.”
To this, Mellows offered only a smile, though Robbins thought it a very sad one. Left unstated was how a British comeback would accomplish exactly what Mellows wanted, nullifying as it would the hated Treaty and reuniting the IRA against a common enemy. Far from blundering into war, as Robbins accused, Mellows knew what he was doing – or, at least, thought he did.
When Mellows tried changing the topic, Robbins, impatient with such evasions, got down to the reason he was there in the first place. After he relayed the request from O’Brien for a sit-down between the Anti-Treatyites and some ITGWU representatives, Mellows agreed to arrange one.
That was the last time he and Robbins met or spoke. The meeting happened, as Mellows promised, in the Four Courts but ended with nothing to show, an all-too-common result in a country lurching towards disaster, with no one capable of stopping it.
 Briscoe, Robert and Hatch, Alden. For the Life of Me (London: Longmans, Green and Co. Ltd., 1959), p. 130
 De Burca, Padraig and Boyle, John F. Free State or Republic? (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2002), p. 45
 O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012), pp. 61-3
 ‘Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, signed in London on the 6th December 1921: Sessions 14 December 1921 to 10 January 1922’ (accessed on the 11th March 2018) CELT: The Corpus of Electronic Texts,https://celt.ucc.ie/published/E900003-001/index.html, pp.227-31
McGuinness, Charles. Nomad: Memoirs of an Irish Sailor, Soldier, Pearl-Fisher, Pirate, Gun-runner, Rum-runner, Rebel and Antarctic Explorer (London: Methuen and Company, 1934)
O’Donoghue, Florence. No Other Law: The Story of Liam Lynch and the Irish Republican Army, 1916-1923 (Dublin: Irish Press Ltd., 1986)
O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012)
Robbins, Frank. Under the Starry Plough: Recollections of the Irish Citizen Army (Dublin: The Academy Press, 1977)
Bureau of Military History Statements
Daly, Una, WS 610
Dore, Eamon T., WS 515
Lawless, Joseph V., WS 1043
Moylan, Seán, WS 838
Noyk, Michael, WS 707
Reader, Seamus, WS 933
White, Vincent, WS 1764
Woods, Mary Flannery, WS 624
‘Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, signed in London on the 6th December 1921: Sessions 14 December 1921 to 10 January 1922’ (accessed on the 11th March 2018) CELT: The Corpus of Electronic Texts,https://celt.ucc.ie/published/E900003-001/index.html
Safe in New York, if unsettled, Patrick Callanan pined for his friend and former commanding officer, Liam Mellows. Other Irishmen had joined him in the United States, also fleeing in the wake of the failed Easter Rising, but Mellows was not amongst them.
Callanan had discussed him with John Devoy when he visited the offices of the Gaelic American newspaper – of which Devoy was editor – after coming to New York in November 1916. Callanan reassured Devoy, a Fenian old-timer and one of the most powerful men in the Irish-American community, that Mellows was on his way. And yet, with no further word, Callanan could not help but worry.
His own journey had been an arduous one. After the disbandment of the Galway Volunteers at Limepark House on Mellows’ reluctant orders, Callanan was among those forced to go on the run. He first hid out with his cousins in Co. Galway, before moving to Co. Clare and then Waterford town, from where he took a boat to Liverpool, and then another to Philadelphia.
The Atlantic crossing took nineteen days, at risk all the while from German submarines. When nearing the mouth of the Delaware River, the crew was told to extinguish all lights lest they betray their position to any lurking U-boats. After disembarking safely, Callanan pushed on to New York, where Devoy and the Irish-American organisation he headed, Clan na Gael, welcomed him with open arms as a fellow revolutionary.
Provided with some money by Devoy for living expenses. Callanan could at least take a well-earned. But waiting idly did not suit him, nor did it for many of his compatriots in the city, and the initiative was made – without consulting Devoy – to contact the German ambassador, Count Johann von Bernstorff.
Following some consultation with Berlin, Bernstorff was able to report back the willingness of his government to land arms and soldiers on the west coast of Ireland. Considering the lacklustre support Germany had granted to the previous uprising earlier in the year, this was a questionable claim, but Callanan took it at face value.
Callanan was abed one night in December 1916 when he was woken by someone pulling at him. To his surprise and joy, it was none other than Mellows. The two comrades-in-arms had not seen each other since leaving Limepark House, eight months ago. After sleeping the rest of the morning in bed together, Callanan took him to the Gaelic American office and introduced him to Devoy, who was quite taken with the newcomer, praising him as the most capable man who had yet arrived (Callanan did not seem offended by this), and going so far as to offer him a job on his newspaper.
Devoy would not be quite so amiable when learning of the contacts made with Count von Bernstorff. The émigrés had gone behind his back, on his territory of New York no less, and Devoy was fiercely intolerant of anything that encroached on his prerogatives. His anger was a sign that life in America for the Irish exiles would not necessarily be an easy, nor a straightforward, one.
The War Continues
Callanan let Mellows in on the arrangement for Germany to supply arms and men to Ireland. Having been let down before by their ‘gallant allies in Europe’, Mellows thought it best to proceed with care by first sending a man to Germany and another two to Ireland to ensure the whole process went smoothly. Callanan went along with Mellows’ amendments to the plan without a murmur. After examining some maps together, they agreed that the Martello Tower near Kinvara, Co. Galway, would make the best landing site.
It would be but another move in the fight for Irish freedom, which had been paused but never ceased as far as Mellows was concerned. He was especially keen to correct all talk to the contrary, as Callanan described:
At this time rumours were current in America that there would be no more fighting in Ireland and that all we wanted was to be represented at the Peace Conference [when the First World War was over]. Mellows resented this very much and he stated at several meetings that Ireland would fight again, and what we wanted was arms.
Even when Callanan moved to Boston, the two men remained in contact. One Saturday – the day he usually visited New York to see Mellows – Callanan found his friend in an especially serious mood.
Mellows told him that he had been in communication with a German woman living on the West Coast. She was willing to offer a boat of hers at their disposal if a crew could be provided. For this, Mellows tasked Callanan with finding four or five others to serve as firemen and coal-passers, while he would inquire after engineers.
The plan was for Mellows to lead the others in sailing through Russian waters to Germany, taking the lengthier westwards route rather than the more direct Atlantic one to avoid the British navy. In Germany, the boat would be loaded with munitions and then landed in Ireland, as previously discussed.
Fired up, Callanan agreed to do his part and succeeded in recruiting four sailors-to-be, but when the pair met again on the following Saturday, Mellows admitted to being unable to muster enough engineers. The plan was cancelled and, while it would not be the only arms-running attempt, it was but the first of many setbacks Mellows faced in the Land of the Free.
A Great Spirit
In the meantime, there were other ways to further the cause. To his delight, Callanan found that in the States “a great spirit prevailed at this time, especially among those of Irish descent. They were all very anxious to hear about the happenings of Easter Week.”
It was a zeitgeist Clan na Gael was keen to tap into it, and Mellows spoke on behalf of the society at a series of meetings. As one of the participants in the Rising, and a leading one at that, Mellows made for an especially effective speaker, holding his audiences spellbound with his tales of the heroics from that fateful week.
His oratory, remembered one witness, Robert Briscoe, “made you see things he had experienced, and dream the same great dreams.” Though the revolution had been bloodied, Mellows assured his listeners, it had not been broken. It lived on, seething beneath the seemingly pacified surface of the country. This was music to Briscoe’s ears. The vision Mellows invoked “struck deep into my soul, bludgeoning my common sense.”
Since landing in the United States from Dublin in December 1914, Briscoe had lived the life of a Horatio Alger hero, earning his first dollar as a humble packer before partnering in a lucrative company that produced Christmas tree-lights. But the American dream proved not enough, as Briscoe found his thoughts returning to his homeland, piqued in particular by the news of Easter Week.
Hearing Mellows speak confirmed to Briscoe what he had to do. Turning his back on his thriving business, he took on the duties of shipping guns to Ireland. In time, he would become a close friend of the man who had made him a convert.
While Mellows was helping to clear the doubts of others, he was having some of his own. “If I had known as much in Easter Week as I know today I would never have fired a shot,” he told Frank Robbins as they were walking together in New York in mid-1917.
Like Mellows, Robbins had fought in the Rising, except in his case he had been a sergeant in the Irish Citizen Army (ICA), in charge of occupying the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin. Released from Frognoch Camp in August 1916, his defiance, like that of Mellows’, remained undimmed as he assisted in the ICA revival, or at least tried to, as it lacked the necessary funds and contacts to make much of an impact anymore.
But Robbins did not allow himself to despair. When asked by Tom Foran, the General President of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU), to head Stateside and connect with the Union’s erstwhile leader, Jim Larkin, Robbins readily accepted.
Reaching New York in late 1916, Robbins made the acquaintance of many in the radical Irish-American scene, including Devoy and Mellows, the latter he came in contact with through a mutual friend, Nora Connolly, daughter of the Easter Week martyr, James Connolly. Both Robbins and Mellows had been close to her father, but they had not met until Nora passed on Mellows’ address at 73 West 96th Street, where he was staying with the Kirwan family.
Robbins was thrilled to meet a man who had been so influential in revolutionary circles back in Ireland, and who continued being so in New York, recognised by all, according to Robbins, as the de facto leader of the ‘1916 exiles’. The appreciation was reciprocated, with Mellows giving Robbins a copy he had signed of John Mitchel’s classic Jail Journal.
Doubts and Uncertainties
And so it was with some surprise that Robbins heard Mellows express such bitter incertitude. Only the Supreme Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) had the authority to declare an uprising, Mellows said, and that had been appropriated. To Robbins’ astonishment, Mellows castigated those responsible as a junta which had ignored everyone else in its pursuit of its own intrigues.
Robbins thought this change of heart was due to what certain other Irish émigrés had been saying, but Mellows adamantly denied this to be the case. Robbins then methodically dissected Mellows’ volte-face.
He had been singing the praises of the Rising, while eulogising James Connolly, Tom Clarke, Patrick Pearse and all the others who had laid down their lives to rejuvenate Ireland’s soul, bringing the cause of national freedom to the world stage, and saving its manhood from British servitude. With all that said, if Mellows now believed the opposite, he should go back before the people of America and tell them so.
“But before you do that, I would ask you to examine the whole matter thoroughly,” Robbins continued. For if Mellows was still uncertain, he would have to give the benefit of the doubt to those who had made the ultimate sacrifice and whose efforts, Mellows had to agree, were now bearing the fruits the two of them were looking forward to gathering.
“Thanks, Frank,” Mellows replied, “I never looked at it that way. You have eased my mind considerably. I was very worried about the whole matter.”
Another disagreement was when Mellows posed the question as to what form of government a free Ireland should take. As Robbins was a staunch republican, and knew Mellows to be the same, he assumed his friend was jesting in his contention that the people should be free to choose, whether it be a republic or monarchy, but the conversation grew heated as Mellows refused to back down.
“He continued to uphold the view that it was for the people to decide,” Robbins wrote years later, still in shocked wonder. He assumed that Mellows “had not expected opposition from me but having taken the stand he would not retreat. So the talk ended in disagreement,” and not for the last time.
By a quirk of fate, Mellows would end up opposing the Anglo-Irish Treaty as an unacceptable compromise, while Robbins, who had denounced anything short of a Republic, accepted the agreement for something that fell short of that ideal. But such contradictions and tragedies were to be for the future.
The Search for Guns
Mellows came to trust Robbins enough to bring him in on his latest German gun-running mission. The version he had arranged with Callanan had been elaborated into three separate landings in Co. Wexford, Down and Clare. In preparation for this, Mellows was to work on a fruit-boat from New York to Montevideo, and from there take another to Spain, where a submarine would pick him up for the final leg of the journey to Germany. Thinking he was looking for assistance, Robbins volunteered his services, but Mellows at first demurred.
‘Our friends down town’, by which Mellows meant Clan na Gael, had ruled this to be a one-man job. Robbins was a little mystified at this, and wondered if Mellows had simply failed to be assertive: “It was not for me to make a comment but I thought that had Mellows pressed the need for a second it would have been conceded.”
Regardless, it was agreed between the pair that Robbins would play a part after all, by searching around the docks for some helping hands. He believed he was aiding his friend by covering for his personal deficiencies:
He was not very conversant with dockside life…In many ways I found him to be a bit of an introvert which made it very difficult for him to mix with the many different kinds of men one meets in sailors’ haunts.
(Which – considering Mellows’ past success with making friends in Fianna Éireann and the IRB, and then the Irish Volunteers, to say nothing of his exploits in escaping from England in time for the Rising, and the subsequent flight to America, the latter which saw him surviving the toils of working life on board a ship – seems an unfair statement on Robbins’ part.)
One point of contention was Mellows’ insistence on total secrecy, which was all well and good – until he cited Jim Larkin in particular as someone to keep in the dark. Offended, Robbins asked if this was due to Larkin being a socialist because, if so, Mellows could rule him out as well for he too was one.
A distraught Mellows insisted this was not so, arguing that while he knew naught about socialism, he also had nothing against it, having read James Connolly’s Labour in Irish History and finding it much to his liking. When Robbins pressed for a reason, Mellows refused to say, only that he would divulge at a later time – which he never did.
With this disagreement pushed to the side, the two men got down to business. Robbins was to remain in New York until he received word that Mellows was en route to Spain, at which point he would return to Ireland and alert their fellow revolutionaries to the incoming weapons.
“However, the arms plan never came to anything,” Robbins admitted.
Robbins later found a reason for Larkin being persona non grata to Clan na Gael: the temperamental ‘Lion of Labour’ had delivered a tongue-lashing to Devoy in the Gaelic American office, accusing him of snobbery in favouring the Irish Volunteers with money while ignoring the more working-class ICA members in America. Larkin may have ruled the ITGWU with an iron fist, but he was not in Ireland anymore and, in Devoy, he met his match as an autocrat.
Not that Robbins spared the curmudgeon much sympathy. Although he had been sent to contact Larkin, Robbins was soon disgusted with his bilious rants and found himself much preferring the company of Devoy. He was amazed at the older man’s intelligence and how “he could foresee developments well in advance of most writers.” Devoy’s austere dedication also impressed Robbins. Instead of the money and fame that Robbins believed Devoy could have earned, he:
…preferred to travel a lonely, torturous and unpopular path for the meagre salary of twenty-five dollars per week, which he regarded as being sufficient to take care of his very simple way of life. His only regard was the advancement and, if possible, the achievement of the freedom of Ireland, and be counted as one who had given service to that cause throughout his whole life.
Robbins was a witness to the extent of Devoy’s influence at a packed Clan na Gael convention in the Central Opera House. After a succession of stirring speeches about the historical fight for Irish freedom had put the audience in the appropriate mood, Devoy implored them for funds with which to carry on that same mission.
This prompted a number of delegates to leap to their feet and compete for the stage to proudly announce the amounts they personally, and the Clan clubs they represented, would be donating.
“They were almost shouting each other down in their anxiety to be heard,” wrote Robbins, awed by the memory.
Others were less impressed by the grizzled Fenian. Sidney Czira (née Gifford, sister-in-law to Joseph Plunkett) complained that Devoy tried to separate the ‘1916 exiles’ into different states. The purported reason was to lessen the risk of police surveillance, which Czira conceded was a concern. But she attributed this policy of Devoy’s less to safety and more to his suspicions.
“He had this extraordinary obsession that there was somebody always interfering or intriguing against him,” she wrote with a sigh.
But, of course, even paranoiacs have enemies. One of whom in Devoy’s case would just happen to be Czira.
About March or April 1917, Robbins received a written invitation to Czira’s apartment in Amsterdam Avenue. When he arrived, he found Mellows and other ‘1916 exiles’ also there. Czira explained the purpose of the meeting: she wanted to replace Clan na Gael, whose leadership she believed was out of touch with the struggle back in Ireland, with a new fraternity, the nucleus of which would be the ‘1916 exiles’.
After some discussion, the guests made their way out. Mellows asked Robbins what he thought. Robbins was blunt: what was the point of undermining their number one patron in a country they knew little about? The only thing this could accomplish was the hurting of their own cause.
Mellows agreed – at least, on the surface. Robbins thought that was the end of the matter – until a new organisation did indeed come into being, the Irish Progressive League.
At its forefront was Czira, who threw herself into the fray of activism, as she described:
We set up a shop, the front part of which was devoted to Irish books, pamphlets, periodicals, postcards, badges and the usual propaganda material. This must have been 1918 because we had in the window a map which we used in the way that war maps were used at this time, by sticking pins with little flags to indicate the constituencies in which Sinn Féin were victorious in the election.
As if this was not enough, Mellows set up a society of his own sometime later, the Irish Citizen’s Association, intended for use as a pressure group on Clan na Gael. Such behaviour would forever be a puzzle to Robbins: “In later years I often asked myself if Liam Mellows was partial to the first project and founder of another. Or was he under the influence of someone else?”
It was inexplicable to Robbins that his friend could act this way after they had agreed on the foolishness of such maverick ventures. Perhaps the answer, Robbins speculated gloomily, lay within their national psyche: “Sometimes I think the Irish have an inbuilt genius for disagreement and disunity.”
Clan na Gael
If the Rising of 1916 had ‘changed, changed utterly’ Ireland, in the words of W.B. Yeats, then the entry of the United States into the Great War in April 1917 – on the side of Britain, no less – had a similar effect on Irish-America. Outspokenly pro-German before, Clan na Gael was forced to ask itself if keeping to its stance was worth the hostility from the rest of the country, now on the lookout for unpatriotic malcontents within. The answer, as far as Devoy and the rest of the Clan old-guard were concerned, was ‘no’.
Others like Mellows vehemently disagreed. To those who had risked life and liberty in Dublin’s streets or the fields of Galway during Easter Week, suggestions that they now enrol in the American army and fight alongside the same enemy as before were intolerable.
This clash between pragmatism and principles – not the last in Mellows’ life – soon boiled over into public view, such as when a Clan convention on Easter 1917, for the first anniversary of the Rising, was disrupted by audience members loudly objecting when the platform speakers urged them to enlist. So stormy was the mood that hall stewards ordered the protestors to remove their tricolour badges, which was refused.
Though Czira was not present, being at home with her two-month old baby, she heard much about it when many who were disgruntled at the stance the Clan was taking visited her apartment to discuss what should be done. Of particular concern was the agreement between the American and British authorities that the former could conscript British nationals, among which the Irish who were not American citizens had been classified.
In a series of open-air meetings protesting against enlistment, Mellows took the lead, mixing impassioned oratory with cutting humour. With reference to the poster ‘What did you do in the Great War, Daddy?’ that was plastered about the city, Mellows suggested that an answer should be: “I was tracking around New York the Irish who were trying to obtain their liberty.”
Displeased at this unseemly independence, the Clan na Gael Executive gave Mellows a stark choice: speak no more at such meetings or forget about his Gaelic American job. The man who had disbanded the Galway Volunteers in the face of a hopeless situation only with great reluctance was not going to back down now, and the Clan soon learnt about the sort of enemy its former golden boy could be.
When the first day of a Clan gathering in New York in 1918 passed without any speakers making reference to the ‘German Plot’ – over which a number of arrests had been made in Ireland on allegations of German collusion – there was considerable outrage in the hall. That none of the ‘1916 exiles’ were among those on stage was another cause for resentment.
The second day of the convention came and still not a word was said about the arrests, leading to shouts for Mellows, who was on the premises, to be allowed to speak. Taken to a backroom, Mellows – as he told Czira afterwards – was accused by the Clan bigwigs of being behind the upheaval, which he denied.
As a small compromise, and in the hope of diffusing the tension, Mellows would be allowed on the platform to bow before the audience, but on no condition was he to speak. Of course, as soon as he was on stage, he denounced the arrests and, for added effect, proposed a resolution of protest.
“American papers on the following day commented that although the proceedings were very dull on the first day, they were certainly very lively on the second,” Czira commented dryly.
At least relations between Mellows and Devoy remained cordial, if lacking the same warmth as before. “I fear for the Irish movement in America when the Old Man dies,” Mellows told Robbins in the belief that there was no one who could fill Devoy’s shoes. It was a sentiment he would repeat on numerous occasions, according to Robbins.
Similarly, Devoy continued to hold Mellows in high regard, however personally he took their widening estrangement. A rumour that he had financially neglected Mellows to the point of starvation wounded him, as did the other man’s silence on the issue, which was taken by many to mean an affirmation.
“You know how much I loved Mellows,” he said to Robbins, who had managed to stay on good terms with both. “I loved him as if he had been my own son.”
He said this in the Shelbourne Hotel during his visit to Dublin in 1924. Mellows had been dead for almost two years, put before a firing-squad of his fellow countrymen, but the memory of his failure – or refusal – to dispel the whispers of ill-treatment lingered on as a knife in the old man’s gut.
Mellows caught something of the complexity of their relationship in a letter to Nora Connolly, dated to September 1919:
I broke completely with the Gang. Lots of things happened – more than I can write about and more than was known even among friends. Threatened with expulsion from everything. Told them to do it. They backed down. Resigned from the office at the same time. Was begged to remain by Uncle. Did so.
That Devoy was ‘Uncle’ was telling in the familial choice of word. Despite Mellows agreeing to remain with the Gaelic American, he complained of a “campaign of the most vile and conscious slander” against him.
This toing-and-froing, akin to a fraying marriage, could not last indefinitely. Mellows had been staying in the apartment of Patrick Kirwan, the brother of a leading Irish Volunteer in Wexford, where Mellows’ mother hailed from. Upon his first meeting with Mellows, Kirwan was delighted to learn that they knew many of the same people from Wexford.
The Kirwan home of 73 West 96th Street became a centre for him and his friends. The Kirwans did not seem to mind the constant flow of guests, taking care to make each of them welcome, and Mellows was close enough to the family to stand as godfather to their third son.
After two years of this cosy arrangement, Mellows abruptly left in mid-1919 without warning. The Kirwans found that he had been moving his books out in batches without telling them until the last day. It was only later that they learnt he had relocated to Manhattan’s East Side, the Carmelite School on East 28th Street, where he was employed as an Irish language teacher, having abandoned the Gaelic American for good.
The head of the monastery, Father Peter Magennis, had long been a source of aid for the ‘1916 exiles’. When Czira found it impossible to send letters back home due to the strict censorship, Magennis delivered her correspondence, and that of many others, while he was over in Ireland.
After Mellows collapsed at his first replacement job as a labourer, it was Magennis who had given him the teaching post, a role more suited to his education. His health, until then in a perilous state, began to mend.
Mellows was, according to Robbins, “subject to spells of despondency and was inclined to neglect himself.” When two female friends learnt of his plight, they visited him in the East Side and succeeded in nursing him back to health. It was for this bleak period that Devoy was blamed for starving him. It was an unjust accusation to Robbins’s mind, and Mellows seemed to allude to this misconception in a story he told Czira.
When he was young and sick in bed, he had overheard the doctor attribute his state to malnutrition. Thinking someone was blaming his mother for not feeding him properly, an enraged Mellows tried to rise out of bed and attack the doctor. Still, as Devoy bemoaned to Robbins, Mellows made no effort to correct the impression.
Mellows was still on amiable terms with Devoy when, in mid-1917, Dr Patrick McCartan came to New York and – in keeping with the new tradition for Irish revolutionaries on arrival – visited the Gaelic American offices. Robbins were there with Devoy when Mellows introduced him to the newcomer.
Much like Mellows and Robbins, the thirty-eight year old McCartan had already had a colourful career as an Irish freedom fighter. He had spent time before in America, working as a barman in Philadelphia, where he made the acquaintance of Joseph McGarrity, the leading Clan official in the city.
By 1905, McCartan had returned to Ireland, buoyed by a loan from McGarrity to pursue a medical career, and also to encourage a growth of radical politics in his native Tyrone, a task he fulfilled with enough vigour to be ‘honoured’ in a police report with the accolade of being “the most dangerous man in the county.”
But he was evidently not dangerous enough for some. Despite joining the IRB Supreme Council in July 1915, McCartan was among those side-lined in the planning of the Easter Rising. When the big event came, McCartan was as lost as anyone, and ended Tyrone’s involvement by sending its Volunteers home unbloodied.
After disappearing from the county for some months, McCartan re-emerged in Tyrone at the end of 1916 and was arrested in February 1917, being deported to England along with a number of others. Three months later, he came back to Ireland in time to campaign for Sinn Féin in the South Longford by-election.
“Nothing further was known of his movements until it was announced that he had arrived in America, where he had succeeded in reaching by working his passage as an ordinary seaman,” reported the Irish Times.
Before McCartan had left Ireland, it was decided by the IRB leadership that he would join Mellows on his much-anticipated mission to Germany. Mellows was to handle the purchase of arms while McCartan tended to the political aspect. The duo were allocated some leeway in their plans, depending on circumstances, as McCartan put it:
Mellows and I were left free to do what we thought best on reaching Germany but one or both of us was to accompany the war material, to the arranged spot, on a fixed date. If we could get more than one consignment, either of us was to remain behind to escort the second cargo. Mellows and I were delighted with this plan, for which the Clan undertook to make the arrangements.
There was just one snag: McCartan was an idiot.
Lost and Found
While he talked with the other three in the Gaelic American offices, the subject arose of a certain document that McCartan had left behind on the ship that had brought him over three days earlier. It was a linen document, making a case for Irish independence, addressed to the US President and to Congress, and bearing the signatures of twenty-six individuals from the 1916 Rising. The linen had been specially prepared and starched so that the words could be written in indelible ink, before washed back into a pliable state and then sewn into the lining of McCartan’s waistcoat.
It seemed the perfect cover – until McCartan feared he would be searched on entry to New York. So he left the document on board.
Quite what he had intended to do then was unclear, as was the importance of the document, for during the conversation with the other three, McCartan could not make up his mind on whether it was worth retrieving. Exasperated, Robbins:
…drew Mellows aside and asked him to find out from the doctor if, in fact, the document was important. If it was I undertook to try and obtain it from aboad ship.
When Mellows asked how he intended to do this, Robbins said he would bluff his way through by pretending to be looking for a job. McCartan looked relieved at this plan of action, and so he, Mellows and Robbins left Devoy and went to the West Side where the ships were berthed. Deciding that fortune favours the bold, Robbins pressed ahead:
At the entrance to the docks I walked very smartly in without taking any notice of the guard. As I walked on I heard a voice shout “Halt” but paid no attention. Next there was a rush of feet, a few swear words and I was asked did I want a so-and-so bayonet into me.
Robbins did not. All wide-eyed innocence, he turned to the furious guard, who demanded to see his pass. Robbins tried feigning ignorance as to why a humble job-seeker like him would need such a thing, but when that made no headway with the other man, he spun a sympathy story about how he had missed his ship out due to drink and was in desperate need of another job.
Moved by this tale of woe, but not enough to give way, the watchman asked Robbins if he knew the bosun and, if so, whether he could vouch for him. Robbins confidently said he did but, when the guard left to find the bosun, he knew that the jig was up and retreated to where Mellows and McCartan were waiting.
That was not the end of the missing document, for it finally appeared in the possession of Joseph McGarrity. McCartan had visited his old friend in Philadelphia immediately after landing in New York, during which he might have handed the document to him. If so, that was a severe breach of protocol, given that Devoy was the point-man in America for the IRB.
Still, Robbins was not entirely convinced by this explanation:
Having been present at the discussions…with Devoy, Mellows and himself, I formed the opinion that McCartan was genuinely concerned about leaving the document on the ship, and that it was afterwards rescued by contacts made by Devoy.
Another version of how Devoy retrieved the item was by demanding it in person from McGarrity, who instantly surrendered it. When Clan na Gael ruptured into hostile factions, McGaritty and McCartan would side with the anti-Devoy camp, suggesting that it was not coincidental that McCartan gave the presidential letter to McGarrity over Devoy. If so, then Devoy was being far from unreasonable in seeing plots against his authority.
As for the declaration, it was eventually given to President Wilson, though not on the original linen.
“Frank, McCartan would never make a good revolutionary and do you know why?” Devoy asked Robbins one day in the office. When his companion replied he did not, Devoy explained: “Because he can never make up his mind and I attribute that weakness to the fact that he smokes too many cigarettes.”
Robbins took a similarly dim view of the newcomer, albeit for reasons other than a penchant for tobacco, believing him to be a bad influence on Mellows. When Mellows shocked Robbins by questioning the rightness of the Easter Rising, and his accusations that the IRB Supreme Council had been usurped, Robbins heard the echo of McCartan’s words in Mellows’, and blamed the Tyrone native for filling his friend’s head with such doubts.
In time, Mellows would be similarly unimpressed with McCartan and his unreliability. McCartan “was the only man I could say that Mellows was even bitter against,” recalled Peadar O’Donnell.
For the moment, however, Mellows and McCartan worked closely together, with both becoming regular visitors to Czira’s apartment at Beekman Place. When she happened to mention that a German friend of hers, Lucie Haslau, had told her that she had seen off some members of the German embassy, whose time in America were over due to the wartime severance of diplomatic relations, McCartan was surprised. He had been told by Devoy that there were no ships leaving the States.
The next morning, McCartan returned with Mellows in tow. Mellows asked Czira if her German friend knew whether it would be possible for them to take the same route out. That Mellows had come at an unusually early hour indicates how excited – and impatient – he was.
(Mellows kept a loose schedule in general, to the point of being a night-owl. He would think nothing of dropping by Beekman Place, regardless of the hour. Czira remembered how on one occasion Mellows was leaving in the morning and bade the milkman ‘Goodnight’.)
When Czira returned with Haslau’s answer in the affirmative, Mellows and McCartan asked to be put in touch with her, which Czira did. She urged them not to tell any of the Clan elders like Devoy, but McCartan replied it would not be fair to keep the ‘Old Man’ in the dark.
She also questioned the involvement of a Dr von Recklinghausen, a friend of Haslau’s, who handled German propaganda in the States. Czira urged Mellows against bringing him to their gatherings at her apartment, fearing the German was too obvious a target for police surveillance, but he assured her he would be careful not to be seen in von Recklinghausen’s company. She was further alarmed when Mellows took to meeting von Recklinghausen in Haslau’s flat at the other end of the terrace from hers.
For once, she and Devoy were in complete agreement. He warned McCartan that Haslau’s house was under constant watch by the authorities, but the conspirators continued to meet there regardless. Given that Devoy had already been proved wrong about the lack of ships leaving America, there seemed little reason to heed his caution.
Setting in Motion
When Callanan answered Mellows’ summons to see him in New York after Sunday Mass, he found him with several others, including Robbins. Mellows, he noted, appeared distraught. When asked the reason, Mellows, pent-up for too long, laid his cards on the table.
Clan na Gael could no longer be relied on, he said, with the exception of a few allies such as McGarrity in Philadelphia. With no further hope of smuggling arms from America, they were wasting their time here. The only thing left to do was for them to go back to Ireland, while Mellows intended to reach Germany to find aid there.
Callanan and another man present, Donal O’Hannigan, agreed to return home as soon as possible. Meeting Callanan later in the week, Mellows told him that he had a good chance of making it to Germany via a Belgian relief ship that was waiting by the docks. From Belgium, Mellows explained, he could go to Holland and then onwards to his destination.
Mellows explained this plan to Devoy, with McCartan and O’Hannigan present, in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. That he did so showed that relations between him and Devoy had not yet completely broken down. Indeed, the old Fenian had been busy on Mellows’ behalf, cabling Germany to obtain the password – the not overly imaginative ‘Berlin’ – the others were to use when communicating with German intelligence. When Mellows, McCartan and O’Hannigan were leaving the hotel together, they noticed four men shadowing them, whom they assumed were police agents.
O’Hannigan and Callanan were able to obtain their seamen’s papers without much fuss. The same could not be said for Mellows and McCartan, thanks to the latter’s chronic incompetence.
When the pair went to the Shipping Board, as Mellows related to Robbins, they were questioned about the previous vessels on which they had worked. Which was only to be expected, this being standard practice, but McCartan managed to give the wrong name of his supposed last ship, answering instead with what his seaman’s book said was his second last. He also guessed incorrectly when asked if he had worked as a seaman or a fireman.
The official excused himself for a couple of minutes. When he returned, he stamped their books as being in order. All seemed as it should – except that from then on, Mellows was to complain about a feeling of being constantly monitored. His watchers were less than subtle, such as when the letter box for the Kirwans’ flat – where Mellows was then still living – was broken apart and the opened letters discarded in the hallway, or the stove added to the street corner across from the Kirwans’ apartment to keep the policemen waiting there warm at night.
Czira was surprised when Mellows failed to arrive one evening as he usually did. The next day, with rumours swirling of Mellows’ arrest, she was visited by another of the exiles, a Tipperary man called Michael O’Callaghan. Usually so cheerful, O’Callaghan merely sat there in gloomy silence.
Knowing his volatile reputation – O’Callaghan had fled Ireland after shooting two policeman dead – Czira was afraid to ask anything about Mellows. When O’Callaghan finally left for the night, it was much to her relief. He was arrested almost immediately after, as Czira heard:
He was followed by an American detective and was growing more and more irritated as he walked through the streets, wondering over the fate of Mellows, he suddenly saw in front of him in a shop window a large picture of John Mitchel, grandson of the patriot, who was then running for Mayor of New York and who was an out and out Britisher. (I think there was some pro-British sentiment on the poster.)
This was the last straw as far as O’Callaghan was concerned, and he went up and smashed the window. He was promptly arrested.
When Czira went to Haslau’s flat, she was told by her German friend that she had heard nothing about von Recklinghausen since he and Mellows departed from her house together in the early hours. Haslau then telephoned von Recklinghausen’s apartment, only to be curtly informed by the landlady that not only was he not there, he was not expected back anytime soon.
For he and Mellows had been detained together after leaving Haslau. McCartan was picked up later by the Canadian authorities in Halifax where he was waiting for his outbound ship to be repaired.
While visiting Mellows in Tombs Prison, Robbins was shocked at the noise and confusion. He was led by a warden along a line of half-open cages, to the one where Mellows was waiting with something urgent to say. At first they tried talking in Irish but the din, combined with Robbins’ imperfect grasp of the language, meant that the two men had to switch to English. Even then, the pair had to shout at each other over the babel of voices to understand the little they could.
Robbins left Tombs rather shaken: “It certainly was an experience never to be forgotten.”
Beforehand, while on his way to the prison, Robbins had broken the news of the arrests to Mellows’ friends, such as Nora Connolly, as well as stopping by the Gaelic American offices. Devoy was out of town, so Robbins left a message for him. He did not think anything in particular of Devoy’s absence.
Connolly and another friend, Margaret Skinner, saw Mellows in Tombs later that day and, being more fluent in Irish than Robbins, they were able to discern what Mellows wanted them to know. They then went to the Kirwan house and found behind a picture in the dining-room some papers that the detectives had missed in their search.
‘A Sinn Fein Rebellion’
Nonetheless, the authorities were able to secure a significant cache of paperwork, according to the Irish Times:
A considerable amount of literature and papers, interesting to the American Government, were taken in the raid on Mellowes’s [alternative spelling] and Von Recklinghausen’s premises, but it will be some time before the ramifications of the plot can be thoroughly exposed.
Nonetheless, it was speculated by the New York Times “that the arrests of Mellows and Von Recklinghausen have frustrated a Sinn Fein rebellion, which was planned for next Easter, on the anniversary of the Dublin rebellion.” Whether or not Mellows and his colleagues had had anything quite as ambitious as that in mind is debatable, though the possibility must have been a tempting one.
Also noted was how:
Recklinghausen had been mentioned as an envoy whom Count Bernstorff left here. He is also associated with a group of Turks.
Which made sense, given how Turkey was allied to Germany. According to Czira, however, this supposed Turkish connection came due to a misunderstanding, as a vice-consul for Turkey was living in the flat above her. This entirely innocent diplomat “had made a very bad calculation when he moved into Beehan Place, thinking this was a nice quiet spot!”
Czira, meanwhile, was doing her best, along with Connolly, to help their imprisoned friend. Connolly approached some of the leading Clan na Gael members for help with the bail money, only to be refused. When the two women tried Barney Murphy, the owner of a successful saloon, he listened sympathetically. He was willing to help, he said to them, though he would first have to discuss it with others.
After a couple of days we read in the New York papers that at last somebody put up bail and there was a slightly sarcastic reference to the delay and the unknown person who had come forward.
Murphy, the ‘unknown person’ in question, later told Czira that when he had talked with Judge Daniel Cohalan, a prominent Irish-American politician who was close to Devoy, Cohalan warned him not to get mixed up in ‘this German plot’. Nonetheless, Murphy went ahead and put up the bail money for both Mellows and McCartan, taking care to keep his involvement a secret.
‘Hard, Wretched Days’
Mellows’ case lingered on in legal limbo. Every time he appeared in court, his bail was continued and the case adjourned. With no end in sight by early 1918, Robbins theorised to him that proceedings were being deliberately prolonged by the American Government until the end of the European War, so that it would avoid having to either imprison or deport him, and risk angering its Irish citizens.
The strain wore on his nerves. America was becoming for him a “mild form of purgatory,” he confessed to a friend in August 1918. The plight of Catherine Davis, “a poor Galway woman”, could easily apply to him. He had met her in a New York hospital at her request. Suffering from a heart ailment, she was desperate to hear about her homeland, and her one desire, as Mellows recounted in a letter in January 1919, was to die there. “Her delight was obvious when I answered her salutation in Irish and told her I knew her birthplace well.”
Sometime later, when hearing that Davis was on her deathbed:
[I] called at the hospital…Poor soul! Her one earthly wish will never be gratified. Her days, nay, her very hours are numbered. She didn’t recognise me at first, and then, when she did, was unable to speak: [she] simply held my two hands and repeated time after time, “don’t go.” I stayed with her for about an hour and had to tear myself away. She will never see Ireland again and her heart is broken.
It was a miserable tale that countless immigrants, himself included, could relate to all too well: “To eat their hearts out in exile and to die in the land of the stranger with their thoughts on the land of their love.”
The emotional scars were to stay with him. Even after years had passed, with much that had happened, as Mellows and his companions in the Four Courts awaited the assault by their erstwhile comrades, “he spoke of hard, wretched days in the United States,” wrote Ernie O’Malley.
Mellows would stay Stateside until returning to Ireland in mid-1920 to take up his role in the war against Britain. In the meantime, he remained a fixture on the Irish-American scene, however little he liked it. New York had become a “maelstrom of bitterness and perversity,” where “prejudice is rampant – fierce – unbelievable.”
Still, despite his woes, Mellows never entirely lost his impish sense of humour. Michael Collins would tell a story, one which tickled him considerably, of a performance Mellows delivered during Éamon de Valera’s visit to the United States in 1919. At a large fund-raiser, after some words from de Valera, Devoy, McCartan and Harry Boland, Mellows gave a parody of the speakers before him.
“We collected five hundred thousand pounds for the loan in Dublin. We did. Be Jaysus, we did,” Mellows said in imitation of Boland. He then had to escape the enraged others through a fire escape.
 O’Malley, Ernie (Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam; Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk To Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018), pp. 46-7
Briscoe, Robert and Hatch, Alden. For the Life of Me (London: Longmans, Green and Co. Ltd., 1959)
McCartan, Patrick. With De Valera in America (Dublin: Fitzpatrick Ltd., 1932)
Nelson, Bruce. Irish Nationalists and the Making of the Irish Race (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012)
O’Malley, Ernie (Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam; Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk To Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018)
O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012)
Robbins, Frank. Under the Starry Plough: Recollections of the Irish Citizen Army (Dublin: The Academy Press, 1977)