Straight Outta Cork: J.J. Walsh and his Role in the Irish Revolution, 1913-22

‘All Creeds, Classes and Parties’

If Irish politics in 1913 was not for the faint of heart, then nowhere was that more evident than Cork City. Over the course of months, Nationalist Ireland had been in turn electrified by the possibility of Home Rule, enraged by the intransigence of Unionism and then militarised by the creation of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) in the North. Determined not to let the Orange faction have the final say, talk was of a counter-army, one that would ensure Home Rule stayed on the table.

1914-ireland-propaganda-home-rule-1d-harp_180587208483When theory became practice in Dublin with the public inauguration of the Irish Volunteers, on the 25th November 1913, onlookers in Cork began working to become more than just spectators. To this end, bundles of cards were circulated about the city and surrounding area, bearing the following invitation:

Leanfam Go Dlath Chlu Ar Sinnsir.


Ticket of Admission to PUBLIC MEETING

to be held at 8:30 o’clock in the


On Sunday night next, 14th December, 1913,

To Form a Cork City Corps of the


Professor Eoin MacNeill, B.A., Dublin and Local Speakers will address the Meeting.

Volunteers embrace men of all Creeds, Classes, and Parties.

Only Citizens ready to join should attend, as capacity of hall is limited to 1,500.

J.J. Walsh (GAA)

Liam De Roiste (Gaelic League)

Diarmaid Fawsitt (IDA)

Maurice O’Connor (UCC)

Muscail Do Mhisneach A Bhanbh[1]

J.J. Walsh

The initials after the names might have raised a few brows, for “no one in the group had any delegated authority from their respective organisations to act on the Committee or promote the meeting,” recalled one contemporary. In particular, with regard to the self-appointed representative of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), whose name topped the list on the invitation, “the County Board afterwards hotly debated J.J. Walsh’s action to which some of its members strongly objected.”[2]

Which was all in a day’s work for James Joseph (J.J.) Walsh, whose aim from the start was to get things done, the sensitivities of others be damned. Disgusted at both the passivity of Ireland under British rule and the slovenly standards of the GAA in Cork, he decided to correct both errors with the same answer. “I happened to be one of those who realised the potentialities of the GAA as a training ground for Physical Force,” as he put it in his memoirs.

By organising as many Hurling and Gaelic Football Leagues as he could in Co. Cork, Walsh was able to breathe new life into the national sports, while squeezing out the competition: “War was declared on foreign games which were made to feel the shock so heavily that, one by one, Soccer and Rugby Clubs began to disappear.”

With one coup down, Walsh aimed for a second: securing by election the post of Chairman of the GAA County Board. Now he was free to mould the Association for Cork in his own energetic image. Finishing GAA duties at one or two in the morning and then arriving at seven for work at the Post Office became the norm in his life, but the rewards were worth it in his view: “By such super-human efforts was the manhood of the Rebel County being licked into mental and physical shape for the historic events to follow.”

Michael Collins casting the sliotar, or ball, at the start of a hurling game in Croke Park, 1921

Walsh was clearly not one to sell himself short. With the Irish Volunteers in the air, the Physical Force methods Walsh aspired to were one step closer to becoming a reality – what else, then, was Walsh to do but help make the Volunteers as much a success in Cork as he had done with the GAA?[3]

A Bloody Baptism

To the surprise and delight of the inauguration organisers, when they arrived at Cork City Hall at the designated date and time, the building was packed wall to wall, with more attendees filling the galleries above and others forced to stand outside for want of space. The call to arms had clearly hit a collective nerve, though nothing was ever entirely straightforward in the political snake-pit that was Cork.

Cork City Hall, burnt down in December 1921 and later rebuilt

Liam de Róiste had earlier warned of the possibility of trouble being attempted at their meeting, but Walsh was dismissive. Taking the lead, he opened proceedings with a lengthy speech. Diarmaid Fawsitt followed by reciting the manifesto of the Dublin Provisional Committee, whose Chairman, Dr Eoin MacNeill, spoke next, first in Irish – its revival and usage being a passion of his – and then English.

So far, so good; there had been but one heckler, which, in Corkonian terms, made for a positively sedate affair.

The mood in the hall chilled somewhat when MacNeill raised the subject of the UVF. Did more than raise, in fact – he praised it. By taking up the gun, he said, Unionists had shown the rest of Ireland the way. The fact that the Ulster Volunteers had done so in direct opposition to the rest of the country seems to have escaped him.

It certainly did not escape the rest of the room.

Eoin MacNeill

When MacNeill proposed three cheers for Edward Carson and the UVF, some of his audience had had enough. Standing up in an angry wave, they booed and hissed, all the more when others tried hushing them. From the platform, Walsh appealed for calm, only to be rushed by the wilder members of the crowd, who climbed on the stage, waving sticks or throwing chairs about, one of which struck Walsh on the head, felling him, before order could be forcibly restored, the rioters ejected and the meeting resumed, though MacNeill wisely refrained from speaking again.[4]

He had had it lucky compared to Walsh. “Smothered by blood, some good companions had me removed to the South Infirmary,” Walsh related in his memoirs. Though he missed the rest of the proceedings, it had all given him much food for thought.

While it was lamentable that “many on the platform scuttled on the approach of trouble, and left the principles to their fate”, the fact that others had held their ground was encouraging, as were the scores of enrolment forms, passed around at the end of the inauguration and sent back to the stage once filled in. “Such was the blood-baptism of the Volunteers in what up to then we were pleased to call Rebel Cork.”[5]

ed73-cork_volunteersPrestige and Personalities

That they had got to that point at all was a minor miracle, a triumph of persistence and graft against suspicion and conformity. “It may not be inappropriate to mention that prior to 1916, Cork City and County was a hot-bed of parliamentary factionism,” Walsh recalled. Hostile blocs rallied around the totemic figures of John Redmond and William O’Brien, the former as head of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), the latter a local maverick with a formidable backing of his own.

William O’Brien

“The clash arose over some vague, undetermined contentions elevated into high principles.” Looking back with a jaundiced eye, Walsh had only contempt for the pair of them, Redmond for his shoneen ways, and O’Brien as an unabashed egoist. Otherwise, “beyond prestige and personalities, there were no factors of consequence at issue.[6]

Whatever the factors, the consequences could be real, and frustrating, enough. When the idea of the Irish Volunteers was first mooted in Cork, de Róiste was astonished at the reticence of the others in the Celtic Literary Society:

Their view was that it was a matter for Mr. Redmond and the Irish Parliamentary Party. I wrote to a prominent public man, a O’Brienite supporter, who I believed to be a good nationalist and an independent-minded man. His reply was a letter full of party bitterness and denunciation of the Redmondites.

Cork’s grandees seemed united only in their hatred of each other. With official channels either closed or more trouble than they were worth, de Róiste, Walsh and other like-minded souls sidestepped them to form their own bloc, gathering in the rooms of the Cork Industrial Development Association to chart how best to move forward. They were a diverse collection, as a list of names and descriptions provided by de Róiste for posterity makes clear:

Maurice Conway, a supporter of William O’Brien…Maurice O’Connor, a student at University College Cork (later state solicitor); Seán Jennings, a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians; Sean O’Fuill, a supporter of Sinn Féin (at the time a wholesale newsagent); Denis O’Mahony, former member of the Celtic Literary Society, but later a supporter of the Irish Parliamentary Party; Diarmuid O’Donovan, a member of the Gaelic League.

Liam de Róiste

As the four names on the invitation card and the credentials after them would indicate, the standing of these individuals were cultural and educational – the GAA, Gaelic League, IDA and UCC – rather than political. This is not to say that they were societal outsiders, ‘the men of no property’ as lauded by Wolfe Tone – Walsh was Chairman of the Cork County Board of the GAA, after all. But, if Walsh neglected to advertise that particular position on the invitation, then that was perhaps because he was swimming against the tide: his efforts to use the GAA as a launch pad for the Volunteers coming up against the rest of the Board and their reluctance to get involved. For all his past success at proselyting, there were limits as to how far he could bring people around to his own radical beliefs.

Nonetheless, Walsh was “an energetic man,” as described by de Róiste, and proceeded to write to Dr Eoin MacNeill, inviting him to do in Cork what the professor had begun in Dublin. His success at securing MacNeill’s promise to attend was contrasted with the local outreach efforts: two prominent men in Cork, both adherents of the IPP, consented to de Róiste’s request to join the embryonic Provisional Committee being drawn up, only for the pair to pull out.[7]

ed15-volunteeradAnother disappointment was John J. Horgan, a solicitor and member of the National Directory of the United Irish League, a grassroots organisation allied with the IPP. De Róiste met him at the Imperial Hotel in the hours before the meeting in Cork City Hall, the latter in the company of no less than Sir Roger Casement who, like MacNeill, had come from Dublin to lend his support. In contrast, Horgan, while privately expressing sympathy for the new movement and its aims, declined to speak on the platform that night, thinking it indiscreet for a man of his political responsibilities to do so.

“So, he did not come” – or so de Róiste believed.[8]

Harry Lorton, who would go on to enlist in the Cork Volunteers, was watching from the galleries in City Hall when the ruckus broke out. As the stage was stormed:

I saw John Horgan get upon a chair and shout, “Come on, boys,” waving towards the platform with a blackthorn stick which he carried. I rushed downstairs and up to the platform. I pulled Horgan down.[9]

“Cheers for John Redmond!” was a war-cry de Róiste heard on the lips of one of the disruptors. Little wonder, then, that many of the meeting’s organisers were convinced that the trouble had not been the result of overheated passions, brought to the boil by an unwise remark from MacNeill, but a calculated flaunting of muscle by the gatekeepers of the status quo.[10]

Friends and / or Foes

Trouble notwithstanding, the Cork Volunteers had been established; success aside, the tribalism continued, not so much like a dog returning to its vomit as the Biblical adage goes, but a dog that never left. It was the only barrier he could never surmount, Walsh lamented, during his role as organiser for the Volunteers.

Irish Volunteers

His first tour took him through West Cork, with Bandon, Dunmanway, Bantry, Skibbereen and Clonakilty along his itinerary:

At Bantry there was the unique spectacle of no less than three potential armies. At the entrance we met and addressed the O’Brienites. In the middle of the great square were a few Sinn Feiners, while at the other end we addressed the Redmondites. It was a tiring experience, but compensation was in store in Skibbereen where we were played into the town by a brass band.

Even better was the distinctive green-grey uniform of the Volunteers making its fashion début, with Walsh wearing his for the first time – the first such appearance in Co. Cork, he believed – as part of a midnight review of the Clonakilty corps. Looking the part of a soldier as well as acting it was a publicity putsch in itself.

Advertisement for uniforms, as the Irish Volunteers moved into the mainstream

As momentum slowly, if steadily, built up, the Cork City company, consisting of about fifty members, established a routine march every Sunday afternoon, beginning in the Cornmarket and then through the rest of the city. The spectacle attracted considerable attention, albeit not always of an appreciative kind: “Invariably we were stoned by the citizens.”

Even so, they made enough of an impression for their opponents to reconsider their standoffishness:

After some time the Redmondites got the hint to come along. Their example was soon followed by the rival political party [the O’Brienites]. We were now in a position of having great masses of men to lick into military shape, and as a consequence little progress in training was being made.[11]

‘If you can’t beat them, join them,’ was the IPP’s attitude…and then, once on board, take over.

Irish Volunteers

With more Redmondite recruits came demands for Party representation on the Provisional Committee, whose members acceded by co-opting four more colleagues, each of them handpicked by the IPP. Relations between the old and new leadership remained cordial enough for a joint enterprise in gun-running to be ventured on the 4th August 1914. Past attempts elsewhere in Howth and Kilcool had succeeded; now Cork was to have a go in Skibbereen, where Volunteers were ordered to travel by train.

Tomás MacCurtain

The night before, on the 3rd August, Harry Lorton – who had rushed to the stage in City Hall during the violence, and now sat on the Provisional Committee – was in the Fisher Street Hall when Tom Barker, a journalist from the Cork Examiner, entered. He had, Barker said, important news to give to the Chairman or the Secretary of the Committee, which were Walsh and Tomás MacCurtain respectively.

Though Walsh was not home when Lorton knocked, the latter was able to track down MacCurtain for Barker to pass on his message on behalf of John Redmond: the plan for Skibbereen the next day was cancelled. Lorton knew enough to understand that the anticipated guns were not coming after all. When he was finally able to relay this to Walsh, the Chairman was visibly disappointed.

The Split

Worse was to happen.

Walsh was not present when Captain Maurice Talbot Crosbie, one of the Redmondite nominees on the Committee, announced at the Cornmarket parade his offer to the British Government: to put the Cork Volunteers at the behest of the War Office in the increasingly likely event of hostilities breaking out in Europe. This was presented by Crosbie as a fait accompli and, not surprisingly, the rest of the Committee concluded that the Colonel had no right to make a unilateral decision, let alone one of such magnitude.[12]

But, of course, it had not been unilateral on Crosbie’s part, far from it – everything said by him or any of the other IPP adherents came straight from Redmond’s mouth. When war was declared all over the Continent, and Britain joined, none but he had greater opportunity to make a difference for Ireland.

As Walsh envisioned:

Had the Leader of the Irish Race, at home and abroad, declared the independence of his country when the war broke out in August 1914, as we did in 1918, he would have rallied behind him the thirty millions of Irish scattered all over the globe, and the British fables of Freedom, Civilisation and Christianity would have been blown sky high at the very outset.

For a certainty, under such circumstances, America would not have dared to enter the war on the side of Britain, and equal certain would have been Britain’s defeat. In either event we would have, in all probability, have secured the independence of our country.[13]

Instead, Redmond threw the weight of the Irish Parliamentary Party, and with it the strength of Nationalist Ireland, behind the British war effort, with “a levity amounting almost to treachery in disposing of the blind loyalty reposed in them by their countrymen.”[14]

John Redmond on a recruitment poster for the British Army

After almost three decades, when Walsh put pen to paper for posterity in 1944, it was still a source of amazement and disgust for him. He was to have the last laugh when, in the 1918 General Election, a mere four years after Redmond’s fateful decision, one made at the height of his prestige, Walsh rode the wave of the new power in Ireland over the old:

Liam De Roiste and myself got the amazing total of twenty-two thousand votes each in Cork City. Sinn Féin swept the country from end to end. Its opponents were nowhere.[15]

But vindication and the IPP’s electoral annihilation lay in the future. When Redmond delivered his speech in Woodenbridge, urging Irishmen to enlist for King and Country, the Irish Volunteers, in keeping with Ireland overall, were firmly in his corner.

ed36-maryborough1Cork was no different. In a showdown in the Cornmarket, before the city and country units assembled and arranged, Walsh held the line for the original non-political policy, as did de Róiste and Fawsitt, all Committee members since the start. Arrayed against them were John J. Horgan, and Colonel Crosbie, both Johnnies-come-lately, but with a stronger hand in the struggle for hearts and minds:

The first four speeches passed without incident, though I may remark here that I made on that occasion one of the few good public speeches in my career. Then an impassioned appeal to the Redmondites from one of the lesser speakers caused the ranks to break, and from then forward pandemonium reigned.

The seriousness of the situation will be better appreciated when it is recalled that the majority of the thousands lined up carried arms and that discipline existed only in name. The Redmondites were now ready for anything and whole companies moved towards the platform, brandishing their deadly weapons.

Without any doubt the weak elements standing for Sinn Féin on the platform and elsewhere would have been cut to pieces were it not for the timely intervention of Captain Crosbie.[16]

It was the inauguration meeting in Cork City Hall all over again: a seething horde against the thin green line on the stage, their safety hanging in the balance. Crosbie’s rescue was not surprising, as it was he who had driven Walsh through West Cork on his first tour as an organiser, despite his support for the IPP; Crosbie – in a most un-Corkovian manner – was not one to turn political disagreement into mortal enmity if he could help it (perhaps not incidentally, he was not from Cork, being a Kerryman).[17]

Crosbie’s assistance in the Cornmarket enabled Walsh to restore some semblance of order, though it was touch and go. He was to remember “that brief interlude was possibly the most exciting that I have ever experienced” – no small statement from a man who survived the Easter Rising, the War of Independence and the Civil War in succession.[18]

But, if the harm to his physical well-being had been avoided, the damage to the Cork Volunteers had not. By the end of the episode, the majority had left to side with the IPP, while to the rump went the toil of rebuilding the movement into a force worthy of the name again.

Walsh would not be around to help this time, his efforts having caught the notice of the British authorities. The morning after the drama, he was visited by police detectives, who had come all the way from Dublin Castle to inform him that he had until the end of the day to leave the country.[19]

Members of the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP)

‘A Virulent Enemy’

Brooding on the injustice inflicted on him, Walsh found a way to strike back, even from his legally-mandated place of exile in Bradford, England, via a vitriolic letter to the Cork Corporation upon hearing of its consideration to bestow the freedom of the city on the Lord Lieutenant. This broadside worked better than he could have imagined:

Two days later, the Postmaster of Bradford [Walsh’s employer]…called me to his office and began by expressing amazement that his staff should have sheltered such a virulent enemy. There is no need to go into details. I was literally kicked out there and then. Without hesitation I at once faced for home and, strange to say, it never dawned on the British to prevent my return.

Diarmaid Fawsitt

Walsh returned to his home county a hero, with a public reception greeting him at Glanmire terminus, organised by his former Committee peer, Diarmaid Fawsitt. Walsh got as far as Mallow before his arrest off the train by British soldiers to deliver him before a judge, “who now enjoys more than one lucrative post in this country,” Walsh added in his memoirs, his off-the-page eye-roll practically high enough to reach the ceiling.

If the Bradford Postmaster had inadvertently done Walsh a favour, then so did this fortunate judge, when he offered him the choice of residing at either Co. Down or Dublin. In picking the latter, Walsh now had the chance to be part of the event that would change, change all utterly – to borrow a line from W.B. Yeats – but he could be forgiven for not being appreciative at the time. Two police detectives would unfailingly trail him every time he stepped outside, making Walsh as popular as the plague, all of which wore on his nerves.

Circumstances looked brighter when Walsh opened a tobacconist on Blessington Street, and he fell in with the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) American Alliance:

It boasted of a membership of about thirty, and met to exchange views every Sunday morning. Many of its members…were also attached to the Volunteers. This was my only direct or indirect contact with the Volunteer movement while under police observation in Dublin and up to Easter Week.[20]

When the big moment came on Easter Monday, Walsh was as bewildered as anyone over the conflicting orders. Even as the crack of gunfire reached where Walsh and the rest of his Volunteer battalion waited in Fairview, they remained as they were, lined up and in formation, ready for anything…if they only knew what to do. Finally, their commanding officer gave them leave to go, with instructions to reassemble in two hours’ time, at 3 pm.

The Hibernian Rifles

Walsh made his way back to Blessington Street, still in his uniform and with his rifle on his shoulder, passing people either afraid or just confused by the swirling rumours. After a quick lunch:

The idea struck me to mobilise my colleagues of the Hibernian Organisation. I got in touch with Mr. Scallan [sic], the Secretary, and within a couple of hours we had rounded up twenty of its thirty members. At six o’clock, Scallan and myself handed our little company over to James Connolly, at the GPO. From this forward we were known as the Hibernian Rifles.[21]

At least, this was how Walsh presented it in his autobiography. When reviewing the book for the Bureau of Military History (BMH), John Scollan, the aforementioned Secretary, would express doubt on a number of points, such as whether an officer of the Irish Volunteers had the authority to dismiss anyone once mobilised for the Rising, at least without permission from GHQ.[22]

Scollan also contradicted Walsh’s depiction – while making allowance for the effect three decades has on the memory – of the Hibernian Rifles as coming into being, almost spontaneously, at the start of the Rising; in Scollan’s amendments, the group had been around since 1915, with Walsh no less its Vice-Commandant, subordinate only to Scollan as Commandant. The two men had gone together to see Eoin MacNeill, as Chief of Staff of the Irish Volunteers, at his house on Herbert Park Road to discuss a possible partnership between their two militias. Scollan said nothing about whether the talks were fruitful, but the Hibernians Rifles were clearly intending to be proactive.[23]

Irish Volunteers

Quite a different account, then, to Walsh’s, though it must be added that Scollan was commenting purely for the sake of the historical record, and not to criticise a man he praised as “a good patriot, a gallant, generous and charitable man.”[24]

Other contemporaries would agree that the Hibernian Rifles had been in existence sometime before the Easter Rising, and not just in Dublin. James McCullough was secretary for the Hibernian Rifles in the town of Blackwaters, Co. Armagh, and knew of other branches in Armagh city and Dundalk, Co. Louth. He arranged for a delivery of guns from Scollan in Dublin in August 1915; however, the British soldier paid to pilfer them from his barracks was caught and the gun-running fell through.[25]

Despite their participation in the Rising, the Hibernian Rifles were a relatively obscure group, as much then as today, not even warranting a mention in the Proclamation of Independence beside the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army. Nonetheless, some accounts of them and their contributions do exist, the most comprehensive being Scollan’s in his BMH Statement.

Hibernian Rifles uniforms (note the ‘HR’ on the cap), in Dublin City Hall

Laying the Groundwork

The AOH American Alliance, which sent Scollan to Dublin from Derry in 1911 as its National Director, had no connection with the mainstream AOH, nor sympathy with the latter’s pro-Redmond stance, deciding, instead of relying on constitutional means for Irish independence, to set up “an organisation of a military nature,” as Scollan phrased it. This initiative began in 1912, predating the Irish Volunteers as an armed Irish Nationalist group.

Edward Walsh, a member of the Hibernian Rifles, killed in the 1916 Rising

Scollan said little about the ideology behind either the AOH American Alliance or the Hibernian Rifles, only that the latter “was a semi-public organisation open to all religions of all natures”, and possessed of a democratic inclination, judging by how “each Company elected its own officers and Non-commissioned officers. This was on the American model.” Attempts to procure rifles betrayed military aspirations, though broom handles had to act the part during drills more often than not, and the small size of offshoots in places such as Derry, South Armagh, Dingle, Cork, Belfast and Castlebar – no more than thirty or thirty-five members each, Scollan believed – barred anything too ambitious.

Further stifling growth were defections to the more successful Irish Volunteers. Unsurprisingly, the two home-grown armies eyed each other warily, true to the Irish inclination to disunite in a common cause. “We remained a distinct and separate organisation from the Irish Volunteers,” so Scollan described:

A big proportion of our members did not want any connection or co-operation with the Volunteers. In fact we did not want them and they did not want us.

This was despite his and Walsh’s outreach attempt at MacNeill’s house in 1915. They were on better terms with the Irish Citizen Army, and it was through James Connolly that Scollan learnt of plans for a national uprising. By 1916, the Hibernian Rifles had overcome its limitations enough to boast of a large hall at 28 North Frederick Street, in which a number of rifles were stockpiled, and even a newspaper that it printed.[26]

North Frederick Street, Dublin (today)

Scollan gives little detail about Walsh’s role in all this, besides his rank as Vice-Commandant, and it is left to other sources to flesh out the part Walsh played in the lead-up to Easter Week. Patrick O’Connor attended the North Frederick Street hall as part of the AOH American Alliance, whose numbers he put to be around a hundred. O’Connor made no mention in his BMH Statement about the Hibernian Rifles, and might not even have known of their existence as a separate membership, but he was willing to fulfil his duties as outlined by Walsh during his induction:

These were to find out as far as possible the strength of military garrisons and their activities in Dublin city. My chief source of information was obtained from ordinary soldiers with whom I had drinks in various public houses. The information obtained would be given verbally by me to J.J. Walsh.

O’Connor had no idea if any of the others in the AOH American Alliance were performing the same sort of espionage work or to his level. Walsh, in any case, was grateful for anything received and “expressed great pleasure at the information that I gave him from time to time.”[27]

Sean McDermott
Seán MacDiarmada

Clearly, then, Walsh was more involved in planning the Rising than even his memoirs let on, at least at a ground level. He was trusted sufficiently for the underground leadership to use his shop in Blessington Street as a drop-off point for sensitive material, though perhaps not trusted too much. When Seán Mac Diarmada and Kitty O’Doherty, the Quartermaster for Cumann na mBan, stopped by to leave some dispatches, sometime before the Easter Week of 1916, Walsh engaged them in conversation. He was particularly keen to expound on his idea of importing small quantities of munitions in wooden boxes all along the coast.

Mac Diarmada was fuming by the time he stepped out, according to O’Doherty: “He said people like J.J. Walsh could ruin us with talk like that, he wished they would keep their mouths shut.”[28]

Easter Week

Another difference between Walsh’s and Scollan’s accounts is that the former has the Hibernian Rifles summoned up to help in the Rising at the last minute, while, in Scollan’s, they were already waiting on the Monday in the North Frederick Street hall. No orders accompanied the news that the Irish Volunteers had seized the General Post Office (GPO), but Scollan decided that if there was a fight on, the fight was on.

The General Post Office, Dublin

Not all were so gung-ho, as only half of the sixty men present opted to follow their leader. Under instructions from Connolly, once he was made aware of his new allies, the remaining thirty or so Hibernian Rifles reached the GPO by evening, and committed themselves to the enterprise by breaking and then barricading the upper-storey windows. Tuesday morning saw the Hibernian Rifles sent out to Parliament Street. Climbing on to the roof of the Exchange Hotel, they traded rifle-fire with British troops in City Hall at the other end of the street. An enemy attempt to storm the Exchange was met with further volleys, downing some assailants, at the cost of one Rifleman, Edward Walsh, disembowelled when hit in the stomach.

The Exchange Hotel, Parliament Street, Dublin

Two more were lost, taken prisoner during the retreat from the Exchange, back to the GPO later that day.  While the Hibernian Rifles had acquitted themselves well, the excursion was something of a missed opportunity, as Scollan bemoaned:

En route we passed the Telephone Exchange and I never could understand why it was not taken as it only had a small guard of British soldiers. The British afterwards paid tribute to the assistance this was to them in quashing the Rebellion.[29]

Walsh showed a similar interest in information warfare. On the Tuesday, without waiting for instructions, he took advantage of the GPO’s telegram room. Having worked before as a telegraphist for the Cork Postal Service, he needed no introduction on using the machinery. Posing as a GPO superintendent, Walsh was able to glean how the rest of the country stood – to his dismay, the answer overall was ‘quietly’. With exceptions like Galway and Enniscorthy in Co. Wexford, the Volunteers had not risen in rebellion as they were supposed to. All Walsh could do in response was break the hard truth to the rest, as well as attempt some second-hand rallying:

In each case, and in the hope that the news might reach the local Volunteers, I painted a picture of the bloody and successful rebellion in the capital. In this way Connolly, Pearse and their associates knew how matters stood in the country on the opening day…the information I was able to convey represented the facts of the situation as they subsequently turned out to be.[30]

Michael Staines

Not everyone appreciated his candour. When the no-nonsense Michael Staines entered the telegram room, he was aghast to hear Walsh creating:

…consternation by telling the men that neither Cork nor Kerry were out. I told him it was foolish to spread such a report and, as he did not agree with me, I reported it to Pearse, who gave instructions that I was to tell him that he must cease or be shot, although I don’t believe it was ever intended.[31]

Walsh was almost shot for real on the Wednesday, when Connolly dispatched him and another man in a car to the Royal College of Surgeons with a message for the rebel garrison there. Crossing O’Connell Bridge exposed their vehicle to British rifles from the northern end of Trinity College, and it was only by the other man jinking wildly that the pair escaped with just a bullet-hole in a cushion. More shots greeted them from the enemy-occupied Shelbourne Hotel when they stopped at the College, and again from Trinity on the return drive to the GPO, but the two men made it back unscathed.[32]

The Royal College of Surgeons, Dublin

Lucky Stars

Individual strokes of good fortune, however, could not add up enough to outweigh the accumulated bad: the confusion on the Sunday that resulted in the majority of Volunteers retiring before the rebellion had even begun, the squandered chances to seize vital sites like the Telephone Exchange and Trinity College, and the failure to prevent the British from encircling Dublin, bringing to bear artillery that the rebels could never match.

Irland, Osteraufstand in Dublin 1916
Dublin at night during the Rising

With much of the city centre ablaze, the GPO became untenable, and so the decision was made to evacuate. Even then, Walsh did his best; if Staines had been displeased before at his effect on morale, now he endeavoured to make up for it. His old friend from Cork, de Róiste, was to meet someone who had been in the GPO and retained a vivid impression of Walsh:

“You know”, said he, “’twas hard to prevent J.J. from making speeches. When the Post Office was blazing, with flames rising up behind him, just before we left the place, J.J jumped up on a sorting table and made a speech to cheer us up. ‘Twas a great sight and we cheered.”[33]

Walsh’s leather lungs and penchant for oratory would come in handy for his public career but, for now, survival was the priority. Pulling out of the GPO, the men took refuge in the row of abandoned houses on Moore Street. Looking out from the windows, they could see the splayed bodies of civilians, a white flag still in the hand of one, and, further on, the British-held barricade at the end of the street. The only way out was through this, and so the rebels mustered behind the front door of their refuge, steeling themselves to creep out into the yard and then dash towards the target.

British TroopsWalsh was among them, deferred to as the man in charge. Someone was loosening the door-bolt as quietly as he could, as if the slightest whisper could alert the British machine-guns waiting for them outside, when another officer, Diarmuid Lynch, appeared. One witness:

…overheard him asking Walsh if Commandant Pearse was aware that we were about to go into action and J.J. said that he thought not. He was then told to hold back until Commandant Pearse was informed.[34]

Much to everyone’s relief, new instructions came: they were to wait until the cover of darkness. By the time that came, the Rising was over: Pearse issued the order to surrender, and the last hold-outs of the Irish Republic were marched down Sackville (now O’Connell) Street, past the dead and dying, to the Rotunda Hospital, to be lined up by British soldiers and identified by police detectives.

Prisoners from the Rising being marched away by British soldiers

The bulk of the prisoners, those not intended to be executed, at least not right away, were then herded towards Kilmainham Jail, Walsh being among then. By then:

After the experiences of the past week many of us felt more dead than alive. We were reduced to that state of exhaustion when death seemed almost welcome.[35]

Walsh had recovered sufficiently to fall on his knees in profuse prayers of gratitude after a British officer visited him in his cell to state that his sentence of death…had been commuted to penal servitude, that pause in the officer’s mouth feeling as long as a year to a nerve-wrecked Walsh.[36]

Willie Pearse

He had just shared a fifteen-minute court-martial with Willie Pearse, Seán McGarry and John McGallogly. Still in uniform, Walsh argued that, as an ordinary Volunteer – the Hibernian Rifles by now discarded – he could not be held responsible for the decisions of his superiors. Whatever the truth of his rank and culpability, his defence evidently worked, for he was not among those removed that night to the prison yard, Willie Pearse included.

“There are some missing,” Walsh observed as the remaining inmates were gathered the next morning. He had apparently slept through the sounds of the firing-squad.

“You may thank your stars you are not missing, too,” replied the Sergeant in charge.[37]

In and Out / Highs and Lows

Unlike James Connolly, Patrick Pearse and Willie Pearse, this was not the end of Walsh’s story, far from it. He would never fight as a soldier again, instead serving in a different sort of combat. “Between Easter Week and the Truce, apart from numerous police-stations and military barracks I did time in no less than twelve civil prisons, including two of the convict category,” Walsh noted in his review of this period. “It was a pretty generous experience for one lifetime.”[38]

Mugshot of J.J. Walsh immediately after the Rising

While less dangerous than the streets of Dublin during Easter Week, it required a similar sort of fortitude:

The times were very trying. For my own part, life was completely insecure over the period 1914 to 1924. It needed a good physique and a steady brain to make it bearable at all, during those long and exhausting years.[39]

Highs punctuated the lows. When Walsh and the remaining prisoners were released in August 1917 as part of a general amnesty, they returned to an Ireland that hailed them as heroes. A few months after the reception in Dublin, so rapturous that Walsh had feared being crushed by the adoring crowds, he was addressing a meeting in Cork City Hall, dressed in the same arrow-studded garb he had worn in prison, now displayed as a badge of honour.[40]

Crowds greeting freed prisoners in Dublin, June 1917

Cork City Hall had been the same building in which Walsh and the rest of the Volunteer Committee had launched the Cork Volunteers. The reaction then had included a riot and a chair to his head. Now he was at the fore of another new movement, except this time he did not have to worry about being stoned in the streets when parading, or pushed aside by sharp-elbowed Redmondites. Irish resistance to British rule was stronger than ever, and the authorities hastened to match it head-on.

“The only way to speak to John Bull is through the barrel of a gun,” Walsh told an audience in Cavan during a political rally in 1918, and was promptly arrested.

Thomas Ashe

And thus began three years alternating between in or out of one jail or another. Sentenced to five years, Walsh took part in a hunger strike in Mountjoy Prison, as did others, in solitary with Thomas Ashe. Walsh survived the harrowing force-feeding process of his mouth forced open for a rubber tube to be inserted; Ashe did not, and the public outcry resulted in Walsh and the other strikers being released…for a few months in Walsh’s case, until another seditious speech sent him back to Mountjoy.[41]

If exile to Dublin in 1915 had allowed him to make his revolutionary premiere in the Rising, then Mountjoy provided another stage for the spotlight, namely the spectacular breakout on the 29th March 1919. A rope-ladder was tossed over the wall, allowing no less than twenty prisoners in the exercise-yard to clamber up and over to where Dublin Volunteers were waiting to hand each of them a bicycle and a slip of paper with an address to which to ride.

The front of Mountjoy Prison

On the Run

A Mutt-and-Jeff comedy ensued when Walsh – a tall man at nearly six feet – was given a bicycle some inches too small for him, while the diminutive escapee directly ahead, Piaras Béaslaí, had one several inches too big. Nonetheless, with no time to waste, as described by Michael Lynch, one of the Volunteers on the scene:

J.J. got up on the bicycle, hit the handlebars with his knees and swerved along the road. He bumped up on the path at a publichouse, almost rolled around a policeman who stood with his mouth wide open, bumped on the road and then sauntered on like a duck. Both of them made their way up Drumcondra.

Piaras Béaslaí

Even climbing the rope-ladder, minutes before, had veered on the slapstick. Beaslaí had hesitated upon reaching the top of the wall, obviously not eager to jump down, even with an outstretched blanket waiting for him. Walsh, scrambling up behind him on the rope-ladder, had to shove him over with the top of his head:

“Get down to hell out of that!” said J.J. Piaras landed on the flat of his stomach into the blanket, and he had barely time to extricate himself when J.J. was in it too.

“J.J. Walsh told me afterwards how humorous this episode really was,” Lynch wrote.[42]

Robert Brennan

Perhaps a sense of humour was as essential as a good physique and steady brain. Despite being a TD for Cork since the 1918 General Election, Walsh remained in Dublin, sharing the dangers there with the other personnel in the underground government; one of whom, Robert Brennan, was to collect several anecdotes of Walsh’s chutzpah during these years on the run. In one, Walsh, upon seeing a couple of British Army lorries outside the house he was due to reside, stopped his bicycle to ask a policeman on duty what was happening.

The policeman replied that a hunt was on for someone but he did not know who, to which his inquirer declared: “I’ll tell you. They are searching for J.J. Walsh of Cork and that’s me.”

And, with that, J.J. Walsh of Cork peddled away before the other could react.

On another occasion, Walsh answered the door of his latest abode, to find two other gentlemen from the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) asking for J.J. Walsh. Walsh told them that the person in question was inside, by the fireplace, and walked out, making his escape for yet another time, while the other two walked in obliviously.

“This was typical of J.J.,” Brennan recalled wryly.[43]

British soldiers at a checkpoint in Ireland

And that was how life went, lucky one day, in a cell the next, until the Truce of July 1921 put the war on hold. With the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921, the revolution was faced with an opportunity for peace that some wanted, others did not. As TD for Cork Borough, Walsh shared in the responsibility of deciding whether to ratify the Treaty and, on the 3rd January 1922, he arose from his seat in the National University – the setting for the debate – to address his colleagues in Dáil Éireann and give them his opinion.

The National Concert Hall, Dublin, formerly the National University, where the Treaty debates were held

His opening suggestion, that the chamber adjourn for lunch before he began, sent a spasm of horror through some of his listeners as to what that implied about the length of the impending rhetoric. Two hours, at least, feared one of the journalists present. But Walsh was merciful, keeping his speech to a relatively brisk half-hour.[44]

Debating the Treaty

Perhaps this restraint from excessive verbiage was due to his, as he put it, “bluntness and directness, which has made me unpopular with a great majority in the Dáil.” When there were dissenting cries of “No! No!”, Walsh expressed relief, though his subsequent holier-than-thou presumption probably caused some to reconsider their feelings of goodwill towards him:

Now, my friends, I have, unlike other people, made it my business to visit my constituency in the interval since the adjournment over Christmas. The City of Cork has played a not unimportant part in the events of the last four or five years; and though I have not counted heads, nor taken a vote of the people, I will honestly as a plain, honest man, say that I feel that nine out of every ten people in Cork City are in favour of the ratification of this Treaty.

And thus so was he. Others in the room were following their conscience in taking the opposite stance but, really, what precedence did the scruples of individuals have over the lives and liberties of the populace, on whose behalf they, as elected representatives, had gathered in the first place?

Treaty debates
Inside the Treaty debates

As for unity, a subject much aired and pored over already:

The Cork City electorate in the Municipal Elections of 1920 only voted 50 percent for the Republican candidates – slightly over 50 per cent – twenty-eight or twenty-nine candidates. If we were to ask the people of Cork to vote for or against the Treaty we would have 90 percent voting for it. That is a unity that this country, neither for a Republic nor at any other stage of its history, ever enjoyed.

Another hotly-held topic was the Oath of Allegiance, on which his own view was “elastic”: if a British soldier offered him a rifle in return for swearing fidelity to the Crown, Walsh would take both, and then take the Oath again if it meant ammunition to go with the weapon. It was a case of pragmatism over principle, for “war knows no principles, and you who have lived through the last half-dozen years will not deny the truth of that statement.” Even what he took exception to most about the Treaty was based on something physical: the British retention of the three stipulated ports in Cork and Donegal. But, still, “nobody has told me how we are to rid ourselves of that. The British Army and Navy alone dominate the situation.”

Pro-Treaty poster

Which was the crux of the matter: for all the talk of an Irish Republic, which would supposedly be torn from them in the event of the Treaty and the continuation of Ireland in the Empire, was not the country already under Imperial domination?

Let us consider the position we are in today. We have in this country been forced, under an ideal Republic, to utilise the Postal and Telegraph service of the British Government. We have been forced in order to get claims endorsed to go into their law courts, to carry their soldiers, police and sailors on our railroads. We have come here under a British Act of Parliament, and we meet here today with the consent of the British Government. That is the position, and you call yourself a Free Republic.

Compared to this stark reality, what use was the ideal of an Irish Republic, for that was all the opposition offered: an ideal. Instead, consider the case of the Boers in South Africa, who likewise had fought the might of the British Empire, to the achievement of nothing but unconditional surrender:

And what do you find today? You find the hitherto divided states sealed up into a solid Boer bloc in South Africa, one solid force in a position to re-assume the Republican ideal at any time they like.

Similarly, the Germans in the Great War, not even four years past, had submitted in the face of complete destruction, and had already succeeded in unburdening themselves of much of the Versailles Treaty, another imposed ‘agreement’ which, in time, was shown up to be toothless. It was all about playing the long game:

If we proceed on the assumption that we are military tacticians – I don’t claim to be a military tactician – I have done very little fighting in my life but, as an ordinary civilian, I will put it this way to the military tacticians. We found ourselves in 1914 with a dozen strong entrenchments separating us from complete victory.

In the interval, we have brought down eleven of these impediments, and we find that by rushing the twelfth and last one that it means our annihilation, our defeat and demoralisation, and instead of those of us who are voting for the Treaty – instead of submitting ourselves to that demoralisation, we are entrenching here; we wait for reinforcements and we wait for supplies and, at an opportune moment, we march on.

Walsh finished with a joke and a dig at the Anti-Treatyites: once, when he was holidaying in the United States, he was standing on the bank of the Niagara River, pondering the best way of crossing. There was a bridge some way up, but did a better means exist, he asked a local. Well, if by better, he meant the shortest, Walsh was told, jump in then and swim.

J.J. Walsh (in cap), on his way to the Treaty debates

“That is what the opponents of this Treaty are proposing to the people of Ireland,” Walsh concluded.[45]

Life Under Siege

Whether Walsh’s speech made a difference, his vote, when the debates were done and it was time to decide, helped do so. The Treaty was ratified, drawing one war to a close…and setting the scene for another. The boom of artillery guns, hard at work against the Four Courts, was already audible around Dublin when it was decided that, in June 1922, the various Ministers in the Provisional Government should decamp to state buildings for the duration of the struggle to bring the anti-Treaty faction to heel.

The attack on the Four Courts, Dublin, in June/July 1922, and the start of the Civil War

Arthur Griffith slept in the Cabinet room, while George Gavan Duffy hosted Walsh and Ernest Blythe – the Postmaster-General and Minister for Local Government respectively – in his office, the three men sleeping on the floor on mattresses that were rolled up in the mornings and left in the corner with their bedclothes. As civil war dragged on, past its estimated length of a week or two, Walsh and Blythe bonded, while Gavan Duffy became the odd man out, in the Provisional Government as well as a roommate.

George Gavan Duffy

Had he known of the consequences of the conflict, Gavan Duffy started to say, he would never have agreed to help start it. Equally annoying was his insistence on the legal rights of captured Anti-Treatyites; Walsh and Blythe, in contrast, were of a rougher mentality, neither afraid to step on toes, even in the pursuit of humour, as Walsh displayed in his own particular style, to Blythe’s amusement:

One Sunday immediately after the O’Connell Street operations [July 1922] J.J. and I were going out for the day. Gavan Duffy said he would go out with us. J.J. very portentously advised him not to go, saying that after all he and I [Blythe] had done nothing but, as members of the Government, to authorise the operation then in progress, whereas Gavan Duffy had, in addition, signed the Treaty, so that while we might be allowed to pass through the city without being fired at, no one on the other side could see Gavan Duffy without boiling up in a rage and pressing a trigger.[46]

Gavan Duffy gamely laughed along, but this jest, along with all the others – Walsh found him too tempting a target – did little to dissuade him from resigning his post. The others were not aggrieved to see him go; unlike their fair-weather former colleague, they were in it for the long haul.[47]

Ernest Blythe

Living besieged in the Government buildings became the norm, with partitions set up in the laboratories of the Board of Works as temporary bedrooms that felt less temporary by the day, and food from local restaurants brought to the antechamber of the Cabinet room as an impromptu dining-hall. If such bunker-like conditions were constrained, they were at least bearable. Humour helped alleviate the stress, and Walsh and Eoin MacNeill – two men whose paths had crossed over the years – sparred over who could provide the best.

To an anecdote Walsh told of someone jabbing Mary MacSwiney with a pin to test the rumour of a wooden leg and getting no reaction, MacNeill quipped that MacSwiney was set to ‘stump’ the country in the next election. On another occasion, MacNeill sketched some possible designs for new stamps for Walsh’s consideration as Postmaster-General: they were of Walsh and Tim Healy, two Corkonians who despised each other – as Corkonians are wont to do – the former down on one knee to kiss the latter’s ring.

“J.J. took the joke in good part,” Blythe assured the readers of his BMH Statement, “but did not agree to the recommendations which we all made that the design should be accepted” – more’s the pity, perhaps.[48]

From Poacher to Gamekeeper

As Postmaster-General, Walsh was a natural selection – few others in the Treaty debates would have thought to cite the postal service when making a point about the state of the nation. As far back as Walsh’s 1915-6 exile in Dublin, Griffith had made note of Walsh’s interest when in the ‘Ship’ pub in Abbey Street together. “There goes our first Postmaster-General of the Republic,” Griffith had said.[49]

P.S. O’Hegarty

Turning a bar-room joke into public policy years later was oddly fitting, given the chaotic circumstances the new state was born into. Also serendipitous was the choice of P.S O’Hegarty as Postmaster-Secretary. He and Walsh had been old friends and postal co-workers back in Cork, and had even applied at the same time to do a tuition course at King’s College, London, for training as a Supplementary Clerk, the cream of the professional crop. O’Hegarty passed the application but Walsh did not, rejected on the grounds of his ‘grossly insubordinate record’.

Walsh took it hard at the time, but “on reflecting on the verdict in later years, I had to concede that the viewpoint had something to commend it.”[50]

Being a rebel outside the system does not necessarily translate to liberal permissiveness once inside, as the Postal Strike of September 1922 bluntly demonstrated. Indeed, the problem, Blythe complained, was that the previous regime had set too good an example: “No strike would have taken place if the British Government had remained in power here and had refused to make concessions.” While Blythe conceded the inadequacy of pay and conditions for Post Office employees, “the strike took place because there was a new Irish Government in power, which seemed weak and likely to yield.”[51]

The new elite: The Executive Council of the Provisional Government, 1922

If so, then the strikers had badly underestimated the new powers-that-be, particularly their Postmaster-General. While some in the Cabinet, such as Joe McGrath, favoured a quick and conciliatory resolution, Walsh approached the situation like a commander marshalling his troops, almost as if he took the ‘general’ part of his title literally. “We used to be amused at J.J, who spent every morning doing the round of the other Ministers and gingering them up for fear that they should weaken and make a settlement which would be equivalent to a Government surrender,” Blythe recalled.[52]

The ‘Mailed’ Fist

‘Surrender’ was as far from Walsh’s mind as it had been when bracing for a charge of the barricades on Moore Street during Easter Week or hauling himself up a rope-ladder to escape Mountjoy Prison. Ruffling him further was the sense of betrayal, fused with the anger of a man who had suffered for a cause while others watched from the stands:

The Post Office staff, which had never dared say “boo” while the British were here, took strike action before we had time to get into our stride. We could scarcely help feeling aggrieved at what we considered a stab in the back, and in particular, observing that though the Postal Workers’ Organisation covered the thirty-two counties, the strike was confined to the twenty-six.

The twenty-two years that had passed by the time Walsh penned his memoirs, in 1944, had clearly not mellowed him. Such wounded self-righteousness made repression easier to justify: “On our side Volunteers [soldiers] were fitted out on motorcycles, with the necessary arms for their protection. They worked admirably, and as the weeks passed by, our forces everywhere gathered strength and more and more offices were opened for public business.”[53]

Striking postal workers, September 1922

This brisk description does not quite do justice to what happened. When talks between the Provisional Government and the Postal Workers’ Organisation, ongoing since February 1922, broke down for good in September, and picketers mustered at various postal points in Dublin, soldiers from the National Army were called in. Shots were fired over the heads of strikers in Crown Alley, while constables from the DMP – the same body which had hounded Walsh and his colleagues while they were on the run – arrested around ninety strikers in College Green and Amiens Street.

Nearly all were released before the day was out but, lest that be seen as leniency on the Government’s part, more troops, backed by two Lancia armoured cars – a familiar sight in Dublin during the British suppression – raided the headquarters of the Postal Strike Committee in the Moyalta Hotel on Amiens Street. Nonetheless, the pickets continued in Dublin and elsewhere – as did the hard-edged response. Strikers in Limerick were assaulted without warning, on the 27th September 1922, by soldiers in plainclothes, beating men and women alike with knuckledusters and the butts of revolvers.

A Lancia armoured car

By the end of the month, the strike was done, the result being a complete defeat for the strikers. The Government’s sole concession was a promise not to victimise returning workers, and this was over Walsh’s strenuous objections, who wanted examples made. Considering the number of postal staff soon dismissed or demoted for their participation in the strike, and the promotion of others who had continued to work throughout, it would appear that Walsh ended up having his vindictive way.[54]

J.J. Walsh_Cartoon
Cartoon of Walsh (Source: NLI)

When Countess Markievicz caricatured Walsh, it was as The man of ‘letters’ with the ‘mailed’ fist, the appendage in question clenched around a hapless victim. While making allowances for wartime propaganda, and if one can forgive the pun, it is not an entirely unfitting depiction, one which Walsh might even have approved.

In concluding this chapter of his life, Walsh adopted the tone of a conqueror staring down on the bowed heads of a subject people. “The strike collapsed, and the leaders threw themselves on the mercy of the Government,” he gloated. “That they were treated leniently may or may not have been wise, but at this critical junction to smash such a well-organised strike was a salutary lesson to that general indiscipline which just then seemed to run riot through the land.”[55]

And a salutary lesson, as well, to anyone who thought to tangle with James Joseph Walsh of Cork.


[1] Walsh, J. J., Recollections of a Rebel (Tralee: The Kerryman Ltd., 1944), p. 23

[2] Lorton, Harry (BMH / WS 77), p. 2

[3] Walsh, pp. 16-9

[4] De Róiste, Liam (BMH / WS 1698, Part I), pp. 124-5

[5] Walsh, p. 24

[6] Ibid, p. 25

[7] De Róiste, pp. 121-2

[8] Ibid, p. 124

[9] Lorton, p. 2

[10] De Róiste, p. 125

[11] Walsh, pp. 26-7

[12] Lorton, pp. 4-5

[13] Walsh, pp. 32-3

[14] Ibid, pp. 31-2

[15] Ibid, p. 24

[16] Ibid, pp. 27-8

[17] Ibid, p. 26

[18] Ibid, p. 28

[19] Ibid, p. 33

[20] Ibid, pp. 34-5

[21] Ibid, pp. 36-7

[22] Scollan John Joseph (BMH / WS 341), pp. 2-3

[23] Ibid, p. 4

[24] Ibid, p. 5

[25] McCullough, James (BMH / WS 529), p. 4

[26] Scollan, John Joseph (BMH / WS 318), pp. 2-6

[27]O’Connor, Patrick J. (BMH / WS 608), p. 3

[28] O’Doherty, Kitty (BMH / WS 355), p. 8

[29] Scollan, WS 318, pp. 6-8

[30] Walsh, pp. 37-8

[31] Staines, Michael (BMH / WS 284), p. 14

[32] Walsh, p. 38

[33] De Róiste, Part II, p, 143

[34] De Burca, Feargus (BMH / WS 694), pp. 22-3

[35] Walsh, p. 39

[36] Ibid, p. 41

[37] McGallogly, John (BMH / WS 244), pp. 13-4

[38] Walsh, p. 52

[39] Ibid, p. 55

[40] Ibid, p. 45

[41] Ibid, pp. 47-8

[42] Lynch, Michael (BMH / WS 511), pp. 164-6

[43] Brennan, Robert (BMH / WS 779, Part III),  pp. 118-9

[44] De Burca, Padraig and Boyle, John F. Free State or Republic? (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2002), p. 39

[45]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, pp. 186-90

[46] Blythe, Ernest (BMH / WS 939), pp. 148-9

[47] Ibid, p. 151

[48] Ibid, pp. 172-5

[49] Noyk, Michael (BMH / WS 707), p. 10

[50] Walsh, pp. 10-1

[51] Blythe, p. 166

[52] Ibid, p. 167

[53] Walsh, p. 62

[54] Brennan, Cathal, ‘The Post Strike of 1922’ (Accessed on 28/08/2020) The Irish Story

[55] Walsh, p. 63



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

Walsh, J.J., Recollections of a Rebel (Tralee: The Kerryman Ltd., 1944)

Bureau of Military History Statements

Blythe, Ernest, WS 939

Brennan, Robert, WS 779

De Burca, Feargus, WS 694

De Róiste, Liam, WS 1698

Lorton, Harry, WS 77

Lynch, Michael, WS 511

McCullough, James, WS 529

McGallogly, John, WS 244

Noyk, Michael, WS 707

O’Connor, Patrick J., WS 608

O’ Doherty, Kitty, WS 355

Scollan, John Joseph, WS 318

Scollan, John Joseph, WS 341

Staines, Michael, WS 284

Online Sources

Brennan, Cathal, ‘The Post Strike of 1922’ (Accessed on 28/08/2020) The Irish Story

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 20/08/2020) CELT: The Corpus of Electronic Texts

‘Tinkering with the Honour of the Nation’: The Second Offaly Brigade in the War of Independence, 1920-1

News From the Front

Richard Mulcahy

One could almost hear the grinding of teeth from Richard Mulcahy, Chief of Staff to the Irish Republican Army (IRA), as he received the latest dispatch from Co. Offaly, concerning an attempt to waylay a British troop-train in February 1921. Two months had passed before a missive from Seán Mahon, O/C of the Second Offaly IRA Brigade, reached Dublin, apologising to Mulcahy for the delay. He had been busy inspecting the various battalions under his authority, Mahon explained; also, Fleming, commander of the First Battalion which undertook the ambush, had been sick for some time and recently relieved of duty.

With these excuses down for the record, Mahon next provided statements from three participants in the ambush, all telling much the same story: how, on the morning of the 26th February, Mahon had called in on his Quartermaster, Seán Robbins, to inform him about the incoming train. Robbins passed this on to Fleming, who came to see Mahon for his orders, which were to mobilise as many IRA members as possible.

This Fleming did, and he brought the selected men to the railway line in anticipation of the enemy transport, but an aeroplane passing overhead unsettled them, for there was no cover to hide for miles. Fleming decided to dismiss all but eight of his subordinates in order to keep the party small and, hopefully, less noticeable. The plan had been to derail the train and then launch an all-out attack on its stranded carriages but, with the reduced numbers, this was amended to a derailment only. However, by the time the remaining eight got into position to do just that, the train was already passing by, as had the opportunity.

IRA men at ease

To Mulcahy, this was not good enough, the report doing no more than confirming the “whole story of incompetence and slovenliness.” From now on, Mulcahy warned in his letter of reply to Mahon, the Offaly officers were:

…to recognise that work of this kind is simply tinkering with the honour of the nation and playing with the lives of the men who are acting under you, and that there must not be a repetition of it. Unless each individual Officer in Offaly no. 2 shows that he appreciates the responsibilities he shall have to go, and I am taking steps to ensure that a stricter watch will be kept over them in the future.

Mulcahy intended to see this followed through. Writing to his colleague in the IRA GHQ, he told Eamon Price, the Director of Organisation, that Mahon must be stripped of command on account of his failure. Replacing him was to be a man by the name of McAllister, sent by GHQ and accompanied by a vigorous new training programme for the Second Offaly Brigade.

The Chief of Staff was guarded about the chances of improvement, telling Price that “it may be that [McAllister] would fail at this work, but it is possible that we may get some use out of him.” Besides Mahon, other Offaly officers were to be cashiered if deemed necessary until the area was left with the best or the least worst, depending on what came first.[1]

Offaly Coat of Arms

Guerrilla Days

Presumably ‘McAllister’ was a nom de guerre in the event of IRA correspondence falling into British hands. Identifying this individual is complicated by how no less than three organisers were sent in succession to the Second Offaly Brigade, to help stimulate an area GHQ clearly believed lacking in the appropriate martial spirit.

Jeremiah_MeeThe first was none other than Jeremiah Mee, one of the policemen in the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) who had mutinied at Listowel, Co. Cork, over ‘shoot-to-kill’ orders and subsequently resigned to begin a new career on the other side as an IRA operative. Mee arrived sometime at the end of 1920 or early 1921, but his opinion of the job before him was a low one, considering it:

…impossible to carry out a major operation in the area, and his advice to us was to carry on with the road blocking and sniping of convoys as much as possible.[2]

So remembered Patrick Riordan, Vice O/C of the Fourth Battalion within the Second Offaly Brigade. Riordan had been with the revolutionary movement since 1918, when Offaly consisted of a single brigade until August 1920, when it was divided into two such units, and Riordan’s Coolderry Company found itself in the second, southern one.

In keeping with the rest of the county, the War of Independence in Co. Offaly evolved gradually, from painting seditious slogans on walls and the flaunting of tricoloured flags, to regular parades and drilling, and then coordinated assaults on RIC bases. The first engagement was against Clara Barracks on the 2nd June 1920. Riordan did not participate directly, being assigned instead to the blocking of outlying roads in order to impede enemy reinforcements.

Newspaper headline on the attack on Clara RIC Barracks, 2nd June 1920

Three weeks later, another operation was launched, this time against Borrisokane Barracks on the 26th June, and Riordan’s company was again busy in road-obstruction. Though Borrisokane is in North Tipperary, it was close enough for the Offaly IRA to cooperate on this occasion with its neighbouring brigade.

Though both the sieges of Clara and Borrisokane Barracks failed to penetrate their walls, they kept the pressure on Crown forces. Riordan’s Fourth Battalion encompassed Birr, Coolderry, Clareen and Rathcabbin; by mid-1920, its two main points of contention were Crinkill Military Barracks, occupied by the Leinster Regiment, and Birr, likewise heavily garrisoned, in this case by the RIC.

Sic transit gloria mundi: The remains of Crinkill Military Barracks, burnt in 1922 during the Civil War

A direct attack on either was out of the question, but Riordan and his comrades took solace in how the enemy rarely ventured out of their strongholds, and even then only in large numbers. It was an admission that the countryside belonged to the IRA, a point underlined by the trenching of roads, the destruction of bridges and the odd sniper-shot to alarm or scratch even the strongest of British convoys.[3]

Hit and Miss

This was a low-key style of warfare which Mee advised them to continue with, but the next organiser from Dublin, Liam Hogan, nurtured greater ambitions for South Offaly, as Riordan described:

Hogan was keen to carry out a big operation and he decided to attack the night patrol of RIC men and Black and Tans in the town of Birr. This patrol consisted of anything from 12 to 20 men armed with rifles and revolvers. Several meetings were held beforehand and we submitted particulars of the time the patrol usually left the barracks, the route taken and the approximate distance between the files.

In order to augment the advantage of surprise: “Hogan’s idea was to launch the attack by men positioned at street corners and in gateways.”

The night of the 5th March 1921 was selected as the date of this mission, with twenty-six men from the Third and Forth Battalions mustering outside Birr, armed with shotguns, revolvers and a handful of rifles. In charge, and wise enough to temper boldness with caution, Hogan sent out three sets of scouts, each consisting of two men on bicycles, into town from separate directions. It was not long before the waiting party heard shots ringing out.

St Brendan’s Church, Birr, Co. Offaly

As one of the three cycling pairs had neared the Catholic Church in Birr, the RIC were waiting to fire upon them, wounding Laurence Langton, the Vice O/C of the Third Battalion (IRA officers being expected to lead from the front) and subsequently capturing him. But the heaviest blow was to the IRA morale, when the remaining outriders pedalled back to alert the others about the policemen in and about Birr:

This was a most unexpected development, as no enemy forces, except the regular patrol (who, by the way, did not come out that night), were expected to be out of the barracks.

Clearly, the RIC had been forewarned somehow. Hogan called off the ambush for a more opportune time, which he judged to be the 11th March, six nights later. The group of fifteen IRA men, including Hogan and Riordan, waited in Birr at Bridge Street, guns at the ready, but the police patrol did not get that far, instead cutting its time short with an early return to the safety of Birr Barracks.

Emmet Square, Birr, Co. Offaly

Hogan was recalled to Dublin, having tried his best. A third hopeful organiser, Thomas Burke, arrived as a replacement in time to take over from Seán Mahon as Brigade O/C upon the latter’s arrest and imprisonment. It was not quite the way envisioned by Mulcahy when he decided to replace Mahon; nonetheless, Burke held the rank by the time of the Truce in July 1921.[4]

The Active Service Units (1)

Top-down or bottom-up? To be directed from above or entrusting the grassroots to do their part? That was the constant question in the relationship between the IRA units and their GHQ, one that was never entirely put to rest. Judging by his letters, Richard Mulcahy saw his duty as that of a teacher and guide: a pushy, opinionated, constantly frustrated one, that is, but willing to play a hands-on role in the war.

To that effect, General Orders were issued sometime in 1921 – probably March – for the forming of flying columns or Active Service Units (ASU). They were to consist of eighteen foot-soldiers, along with two squad commanders and one unit commander, making it twenty-one members altogether. Numbers were to be allocated to each man, by which to be identified, instead of names, for security’s sake. As for recruitment eligibility:

The men for the A.S.U. will be drawn from each Battalion and will consist mostly of officers, possibly experienced ones. Men from the ranks will not be drawn save (a) when their area is too hot to hold them. (b) when they possess technical knowledge – e.g. motor-driver, machine-gunner. (c) when they had had considerable fighting experience. (d) when they are likely to assume commissioned rank.[5]

This was not a new development; rather, a codification of what was already in the field. For a while, in early 1921 as the pace of the insurgency quickened, the Offaly Second Brigade could boast of two such columns. One was based in Clara, under the command of Thomas Fleming. As O/C of the First Battalion, his was a natural appointment, with a respectable curriculum vitae that included the attack on Clara Barracks, helping to obtain arms, destruction of enemy supplies and a six-week stint in jail.

IRA Flying Column

Fleming was on less sure ground when it came to his short-lived time in the column, as he told the Pension Advisory Committee, fourteen years later, in 1935:

Q: Had you any ASU in your area?

A: I had. I was in charge.

Q: When was it formed?

A: It was formed the latter part of March [1921].

Q: How many were in it?

A: Twenty-three.

Q: You were in charge?

A: There was a chap sent down from Dublin first, named William Hogan. He was recalled and I was put in charge.

Q: What month?

A: Last week in March or early in April. I cannot be definite.

Q: Had you that going up to the Truce?

A: No, we disbanded it in April.

Q: It was only a month in existence?

A: Fifty percent of my area was boggy, and Headquarters came to the conclusion that it could not be operated.

Q: You were disbanded by Headquarters?

A: The Brigade O/C.

Q: Who was he?

A: John Mahon.

Q: What was the idea, that the area was not suitable?

A: It was all bog and flat. We could only come together at night and disband in the daytime, if we had to keep it up as it should have been but we could not do so.

Q: Had the ASU three scraps when they were together?

A: No.[6]

Clara Bog, Co. Offaly, of the type of marshland that made the work of flying columns so difficult

Later that day, Fleming amended his previous statement to the Board: his ASU had indeed been disbanded in April 1921, albeit temporarily. The unit was revived soon after for an operation in Banagher, but the difficulties and false-starts that were a constant feature of the war continued:

Q: That did not come off?

A: The whole place was full of [British] military.

Q: Your intelligence system was bad?

A: It was good in one place and bad in another. On the whole, the intelligence was bad. It was good in my battalion area.

Q: You mention going to Banagher?

A: There were about forty fellows in that thing. The Brigade O/C was in charge.

Q: In Banagher?

A: Yes, Seán Mahon.

Q: Were they called out for another job after Banagher?

A: They were brought to Portumna. Then Commdt. Burke said it would be madness to go to Portumna.

Q: What month was that?

A: April.

Q: And the thing practically did not function after that?

A: About the latter end of April. It was in small units.

Q: It was finished as a column?

A: As a column, yes.[7]

IRA men standing to attention

The Active Service Units (2)

The other flying column produced by the Second Offaly Brigade was based in Kinnitty and led by Joseph Connolly, who described it as such:

There were ten permanent men in my active service unit. This number was augmented as required from the local companies in whose area we were operating. Each of the ten permanent men was armed with a service rifle and revolver.[8]

Michael Cordial, as one of the column, remembered it differently, in that the group consisted of a mere five: himself, Connolly, Michael Seery, Michael Carroll and Joseph Scully, each armed with a Lee Enfield rifle captured in an earlier raid.[9]

Lee Enfield rifles, highly prized weapons of the IRA

Regardless of the column’s exact composition, it was with four men that Connolly went to Kinnitty on the 17th May 1921, in response to an alert that a RIC patrol would be passing through. The ASU had already been hard at work in stripping motorcars of material for creating road-mines, prompting sweeps by British forces and arrests of IRA members, though not of ones already on the alert.

“In most cases the raids proved futile,” Connolly recorded. Judging it time to take the fight to the enemy, and:

Having organised the ASU, we spent some time doing special training, as well as arranging for billets in different parts of the area. We lay in ambush at different places, but the enemy did not come.

Connolly hoped that Kinnitty would prove the exception. His column had already spent two days waiting in the Mountbolus district for a Crown patrol, but the dispatch that arrived on the morning of the 17th May promised better odds of success, despite the distance of ten miles from Kinnitty. With only two hours to spare, Connolly procured a car from a local sympathiser to drive him and his four comrades to Kinnitty.

Kinnitty (today), Co. Offaly

The police had already passed by, Connolly was told upon arrival, and so the ASU settled in the village in anticipation of their return:

I decided that Michael Carroll and I would occupy the old burned down RIC barracks. I instructed Michael Cordial to take Joe Scully and Jim Gleeson to the chapel yard and take up positions there, and to attack the rear of the patrol.[10]

These names tally with those provided by Michael Cordial in his account, with the exception of Jim Gleeson/Michael Seery. Otherwise, the layout of the ambush party matches in both versions, with Cordial noting how the trees and shrubbery in the chapel-yard provided decent cover.[11]

‘This Hitherto Tranquil and Orderly Locality’

“The decision as to whether and when fire was to be opened rested with me,” according to Connolly. In order to maximise their firepower and economise bullets:

I gave definite instructions to the party that each man was to pick off his man according to the position he occupied, i.e. the right-hand man of the attack party was to fire on the man on the right side of the patrol, the centre man of the attacking party to fire on the centre man of the patrol, and the man on the left to pick off the man on the left side of the patrol, so that with our first volley we would kill or wound five of the enemy.[12]

They did not have long to wait for the targets to appear, the seven RIC men cycling together until they split, three moving along the Main Street and the remaining four continuing on a different route that took them right in front of the ambush party in hiding. Connolly and Carroll signalled the attack with an outburst of bullets, with the other three following suite immediately after, unloading a few volleys before retreating to safety; at least, according to Cordial.[13]

A RIC patrol

Connolly tells a slightly different version, in that the shootout between his subordinates and the RIC, who dismounted from their bicycles to return fire with their rifles, lasted for an hour or more and only ended when word of military reinforcements, incoming on lorries, forced the ASU to break off their attack. Considering the hit-and-run nature of the guerrilla war, a fight of that length seems unlikely; in any case, the enemy had been left bloodied and broken, and Connolly could count his column’s first strike a success.[14]

Whether local opinion would have agreed with that upbeat assessment is another matter. The area had so far avoided the turmoil of the rest of Ireland but now, reported one newspaper:

The happy peace so long enjoyed by Birr and other districts in South King’s Co. was shockingly broken on Tuesday by a tragic occurrence in Kinnitty, which occasioned general consternation in this hitherto tranquil and orderly locality.

Of the two RIC men wounded from the encounter, the worst hit was 22-year-old Constable John Dunne, a native of Co. Galway, who lived for only two hours before expiring. A week later, the other casualty, 26-year-old Constable Edward Doran from Athy, also perished of his injuries in Birr Military Hospital, despite the efforts of surgeons summoned from Dublin. A bullet had shattered Doran’s thigh, making recovery unlikely from the start.

All places of business were closed for the funerals in Birr, and window-blinds respectfully drawn by private residents as the cortèges passed, the coffins draped in Union Jacks and escorted by police and military guards of honour, as well as the relatives and friends of the deceased, to the mournful tune of Beethoven’s Funeral March from the army bands at the head of each procession.

The decorum appears to have been more than just lip-service, for the Very Rev. Archdeacon Ryan condemned the killings from the pulpit during Mass, describing Dunne and Doran as “harmless and exemplary in conduct in the discharge of their duty.”[15]

RIC policemen

Civilised Warfare

It was around this time that an aeroplane flew over Birr to drop notices that were headed: “To members of the I.R.A.”, warning that they would be treated as prisoners of war only if commanded by a person responsible for his subordinate, wore a distinctive sign or uniform recognisable from a distance, carried arms openly and generally conducted themselves in accordance with the established laws of war. “Any civilised nation would lawfully execute men dressed in civilian clothes who tried to kill soldiers or police,” the notes added ominously.[16]

IRA members

The authorities did more than caution. Amidst the sweeps by British military and police that followed the Kinnitty Ambush, Cordial’s brother, William, was arrested at the family home, and found his captors to be unusually lenient, suspiciously so:

An officer offered to give him a chance to escape and advised him to make a run for it to a wood what was about 150 yards away. He refused to move which was fortunate for himself, as at least a dozen soldiers concealed at the fringe of the wood, had their rifles trained on him.

As if that was not enough, William Cordial and a second prisoner that day:

…were twice taken down from the lorry and put against a wall to be shot but on each occasion was saved by an intervention.

Michael Cordial did not record who his brother had to thank on either occasion, but noted how Kinnitty was visited by Black-and-Tans, who had prepared petrol-cans on the street in readiness to burn the houses when a priest persuaded them otherwise. If Constables Dunne and Doran had been harmless and exemplary in their conduct, the same could not be said of every man in Crown uniform, particularly as the struggle in Co. Offaly became defined by tit-for-tat acts of violence against whoever was at hand.

The Cordial family continued to suffer, with frequent raids in which, on one occasion, the elderly father was forced to his knees at the end of a rifle and told to say his prayers. At this point, his daughter grappled with the man holding the gun, disarming him in front of the rest of his party who did nothing to intervene one way or another. They did, however, warn the old man that he would be shot if Michael was not present next time they called. Cordial Senior very sensibly stayed away from home, as ‘on the run’ as his son, until the Truce in July 1921.

Black-and-Tans hold up a suspect (staged photograph)

Perhaps it was as much due to this backlash as logistics that Connolly was informed that:

The Brigade Staff decided that a unit of five men was too small to carry on as an Active Service Unit and we received orders to disband and to dump the rifles, which we concealed in a sandpit.[17]

There was still a war to wage, nonetheless. When an IRA scout saw a man being dropped off by a RIC party near Mountbolus, he passed on word to Connolly, who arranged for the interloper’s arrest. Connolly gave scant details in his later account, only that the wannabe spy was “tried by courtmartial and sentenced to death. The sentence was duly carried out.”[18]

A placard left on the body of a victim, executed by the IRA as a suspected spy


While RIC policemen and British soldiers were Crown agents, and spies the enemy within, not every incident was so obvious. On the 30th June 1921, eleven days before the Truce put the war on hold, two young brothers were making hay in a field when they found themselves surrounded by a group of masked men – numbering around forty, according to witnesses – who led them at gunpoint back to their nearby house at Coolacrease, Cadamstown. Once there, Richard Henry and Abraham Pratt Pearson were told, in front of their three sisters and two visiting female cousins, that the family home was to be razed.

However bad, that appeared to be the worst of it, as one of the Pearson sisters told a reporter from the King’s County Chronicle. “I knew they were going to burn the house,” she said, “but I did not think there was going to be any shooting.”

There was. While some of the intruders searched through the building, breaking furniture or sprinkling petrol over the interior, others took Richard and Abraham to the backyard and shot them at least six times each, while their kinswomen were forced to watch.

IRA men

Dr Frederick Woods was summoned from his home in Kinnitty by a caller who said there had been shootings at the Coolacrease House. He arrived by bicycle, to find the two Pearson brothers, both grievously wounded, on a mattress in a field. Testifying later at the enquiry at Birr Military Barracks, Dr Woods described how:

Richard seemed to have bled considerably, having superficial wounds in the left shoulder, right groin and right buttock, in addition to which there were several wounds in the back, one of which had probably penetrated the lung. He also found a wound in the left lower leg, also of a superficial nature. They might have been caused by rifle or revolver bullets, which, in his opinion, were fired at close range, the wound being saturated with blood.

William Pearson
William Pearson

Police came to take the wounded pair to their barracks in Birr, though Richard, 24-years-old, did not last two hours upon arrival, while Abraham, 19, died the next morning. Both were unmarried and living with the rest of the Pearson family. The father, William, was away at a wedding and a younger brother had been with friends; had either been present at the time, they too would have been killed, according to Cordial, who left  an account of the incident, more than three decades later, as part of his submission to the Bureau of Military History (BMH) in 1957.[19]

According to Cordial, the bloodbath was a culmination of a feud with the Pearsons, who were “violently opposed to the National Movement and they looked with contempt on local Volunteers or IRA men”:

Things reached a climax some time before the Truce when they [the Pearsons] fired with shotguns on a small party of Volunteers who were blocking a road. One Volunteer, a man called Heeney, was seriously wounded. A full report on the matter was made to the Brigade staff who after serious deliberation ordered that the four male members of the Pearson family should be executed and their house burned down.

Michael Cordial
Michael Cordial, in the uniform of the Free State, in which he later served

As Quartermaster of the Third (Kinnitty) Battalion, Cordial was presumably part of this discussion, though – unlike in the rest of his BMS Statement – he made no mention of his own role, if any, preferring to leave an impersonal – a cynic might say studiously so – narrative. When he came to the actual event, the details provided match those given by the unnamed Pearson sister: thirty IRA men captured Richard and Abraham in a hay field, and shot them in the yard of their house, which was then put to the flame. Proper protocol for capital punishment was observed, as Cordial told it, with the two brothers informed of their impending fates and a firing-squad assigned to the task.

“Heavy explosions were heard while the house was burning which indicated that a large amount of ammunition was stored in it,” Cordial added, portraying the whole episode as a conflict between armed combatants, each side a danger to the other, as opposed to a family bushwacked without mercy or warning. Coolacrease was perhaps not quite the sort of military operation Mulcahy had in mind when he prodded the Second Offaly Brigade to do better – and compared to more celebrated feats from the time, it falls somewhat short – but war is war, and the results are as they are.[20]

The ruins of Coolacrease House

See also:

Undefeated: The Attack and Defence of Clara RIC Barracks, June 1920

Sieges and Shootings: The Westmeath War against the RIC, 1920


[1] University College, Dublin, Richard Mulcahy Papers, P/A/17

[2] Riordan, Patrick (BMH / WS 1688), p. 8

[3] Ibid, pp. 3-4, 6-8

[4] Ibid, pp. 8-9

[5] Mulcahy Papers, P7/A/17

[6] Military Service Pensions Collection, ‘Fleming, Thomas’ (MSP34REF6846), p. 24

[7] Ibid, p. 28

[8] Connolly, Joseph (BMH / WS 1599), p. 4

[9] Cordial, Michael (BMH / WS 1712), p. 4

[10] Connolly, pp. 4-6

[11]Cordial, p. 4

[12] Connolly, p. 6

[13] Cordial, p. 5

[14] Connolly, p. 7

[15] King’s County Chronicle, 19/05/1921, 26/05/1921

[16] Ibid, 26/05/1921

[17] Cordial, pp. 5-6

[18] Connolly, p. 7

[19] Stanley, Alan. I Met Murder on the Way: The Story of the Pearsons of Coolacrease (Quinagh, Carlow: Published by the Author, 2005), pp. 21-7

[20] Cordial, pp. 6-7



Stanley, Alan. I Met Murder on the Way: The Story of the Pearsons of Coolacrease (Quinagh, Carlow: Published by the Author, 2005)

Bureau of Military History Statements

Connolly, Joseph, WS 1599

Cordial, Michael, WS 1712

Riordan, Patrick, WS 1688


King’s County Chronicle

University College Dublin Archives

Richard Mulcahy Papers

Military Service Pensions Collection

Fleming, Thomas, MSP34REF6846

Book Review: Richard Mulcahy: From the Politics of War to the Politics of Peace, 1913-1924, by Pádraig Ó Caoimh (2019)

9781788550987Life was not easy for Richard Mulcahy. As Chief of Staff of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), he had endured months as a fugitive from the British authorities, hunted amidst the streets of Dublin and at grave peril to his wellbeing. With the Truce in July 1921 drawing the war to a pause, Mulcahy could have expected some peace of his own. Instead, no sooner had one conflict ended did another intensify, except this was with someone he should have called a comrade: Cathal Brugha, the iron-willed, not to say highly-strung, Minister for Defence in the underground government that they both belonged to.

A shared cause did nothing to assuage tensions between the two leaders, as the latest flashpoint in their simmering row erupted over typewriters, of all things: the owner of a company specialising in their manufacture had had a number stolen from his Dublin office by the IRA. He fired his secretary in the belief that she had been the inside woman for the robbery, and was consequently warned to leave the country.

Cathal Brugha

It was a half-silly, half-squalid affair but, with peace established, the exiled businessman applied for permission to return home. Mulcahy forwarded the request to Michael Collins, unwittingly turning a simple matter into a complicated one when Brugha, for reasons of his own, decided that Collins had erred in his assignment, and contacted Mulcahy to that effect, much to the other man’s displeasure.

“I consider the tone of your letter…is very unfortunate,” Mulcahy wrote back icily, which only enraged Brugha further in his own reply:

Before you are very much older, my friend, I shall show you that I have…little intention of taking dictation from you as to how I should reprove inefficiency or negligence on the part of yourself or the D/I [Director of Intelligence, Collins].

Mulcahy proceeded passively-aggressively by refusing to attend further staff sessions, earning his suspension by Brugha. Mulcahy was thenceforth to surrender all documents, books and other material connected to his duties. Luckily, a higher authority stepped in before things escalated any further: Éamon de Valera stood by as Brugha tearfully apologised, or at least close enough for Mulcahy to accept.

It was all rather undignified. De Valera had played peacemaker, but he also contributed his own share of drama. “Ye may mutiny if ye like, but Ireland will give me another army,” he hotly proclaimed in a gathering of the GHQ Staff when truculence towards his proposed reforms wore down his last nerve.

Éamon de Valera

The Irish Plenipotentiaries had just departed for talks in London in October 1921 and, since a failure to strike a deal would probably result in renewed war, it was important to have the IRA so prepared; in de Valera’s view, this meant ensuring that the military relationship with the civilian government, which he headed, was a clearly defined subordinate one. Considering how they had been bearing the brunt of the Anglo-Irish struggle, Mulcahy and his colleagues took this implied lack of faith in their loyalty rather personally, as they did de Valera’s outburst.

“I didn’t think that there was a man in Ireland that would speak like that [to Mulcahy]”, said a white-faced Seán Russell after the contentious meeting.

Mary MacSwiney

Given the esteem Mulcahy was held in revolutionary circles, it came as a surprise, even a shock, when he threw in his support for the Treaty. “Dick wouldn’t do such a thing,” Mary MacSwiney insisted when she first heard, while Pax Ó Faoláin could not comprehend “how a great Irish-Irelander like Richard Mulcahy could accept a treaty that gave away six of our counties and that allowed the exercise of only limited sovereignty over the other twenty-six.”

While others were at a loss to understand, de Valera knew where to point the finger – the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and its lobbying behind the scenes:

MC [Michael Collins] had got the IRB machine working. The Dail members of the IRB were told that acceptance of the Treaty would be the quickest way to the Republic and a lot of other stuff which time alone will explode.

Or to put it more succinctly: “Curse secret societies.”

Two themes dominated Mulcahy’s career as a soldier, at least how historian Pádraig Ó Caoimh presents it: fraught relationships with civic authorities and his IRB membership, both of which continued in the Free State, to Mulcahy’s ultimate detriment.

He had only himself to blame. When allegations surfaced of an IRB presence in the upper echelons of the Free State military in April 1923, Mulcahy not only confirmed but defended this fact, praising the Brotherhood as:

…a machine that, in the first place, has pulled the country through the very difficult situation it got into, and which, in the second place, will be the home for the development of all those particular characteristics which will go to make an Irish character we may be proud of.

A ‘machine’ – both de Valera and Mulcahy referred to the Brotherhood as such but, while the former said it as an accusation, to the latter that meant opportunities to be wrought. After all, what was the spirit of the IRB but that of Patrick Pearse, Tom Clarke and other names so revered?

Free State soldiers on parade

With that in mind, the IRB Constitution was rewritten to accommodate initiates within the Free State forces. While de Valera had identified Collins as the prime mover behind the fraternity, now it was Mulcahy taking the lead, meeting with his fellow government minister, Kevin O’Higgins, on how best to frame the new order. Going by the minutes of their conversation, O’Higgins, while not opposed per se to the IRB, had reservations about its long-term effects, something Mulcahy refused to even considering as a possibility:

O’Higgins: Urged the very great danger of persons being put into pivotal positions, purely because of belonging to certain organisations; that it would lead to serious abuses, and serious weaknesses.

Mulcahy: That it would never happen and that it was absurd to think that it ever would.

O’Higgins: Put it up that certain pivotal people at the present moment were only there because they were of the Organisation (IRB).

Mulcahy: Who else could be in their places?

Kevin O’Higgins

O’Higgins had other concerns. If the IRB looked poised to be a separate power in the Free State, then the Army already was a law unto itself, particularly in Kerry, where the bitterness of civil war was starkly demonstrated in a string of ugly incidents. As the military authority, Paddy O’Daly, had the most to answer, yet Mulcahy defended him every step of the way.

“In the case of any Officer who has given distinguished service of lasting benefit to his Country,” Mulcahy replied when questioned, “I was not prepared lightly, and on no evidence, to place him in the degrading position of answering to a low charge.”

Paddy O’Daly

Murdering POWs by tying them to landmines or dragging women out of their homes for a lashing was apparently what amounted to a ‘low charge’ in Mulcahy’s esteem. O’Daly had been one of his few reliable soldiers during the Civil War, and Mulcahy was clearly not one to forget loyal service, but public priorities had changed by the time of the Army Inquiry in March 1923, and his decision to stand by his subordinates was now seen as embarrassingly indulgent, if not alarmingly immoral.

Perhaps if Mulcahy had had a more congenial relationship with his civilian colleagues, he might have emerged from the inquiry with his standing intact. But he had grown too used to marching to the beat of his own drum without a thought for the rest of the band.

Ernest Blythe

Earlier, in the midst of the Civil War in September 1922, he had taken the liberty of covertly meeting with de Valera in the hope of a peaceful solution. A worthy effort, perhaps, if unsuccessful, but that liberty was not his to take. The Cabinet had already ruled that anything short of unconditional surrender on the part of the Anti-Treatyites was unacceptable. Mulcahy had in effect gone behind their collective backs, leading to an excruciatingly awkward session when he confessed, as Ernest Blythe described:

When he had finished there was a dead silence for what seemed like minutes. All of us realised that the only thing that it was proper to say was that General Mulcahy must hand in his resignation. In view of the state of affairs generally, and in view of the way in which the Government was cut off from the Army, none of us felt that we could make that demand.

When the silence had lasted so long that the Cabinet meeting seemed on the point of becoming rather like a Quaker prayer meeting, Mr. Cosgrave said. “That’s all,” got up and left his chair, and all of us left the room without a single comment on General Mulcahy’s disclosure.

Mulcahy at least kept his rank – for the moment. Irony abounded: he had risked all in parlaying with an enemy he had had little time for even when allies. Where de Valera failed in bringing the headstrong general to heel, the Army Inquiry succeeded with a housecleaning of the military high command. Mulcahy was among those forced to resign, a humiliating slap in the face for a man who had just succeeded in two back-to-back wars.

Richard Mulcahy

Retracing such a journey has clearly been a labour of love for Ó Caoimh, whose bibliography is an exhaustive list of archival memorandum, personal reminisces and subsequent historiography, allowing us an unrivalled peak into Mulcahy’s thoughts. Note ‘thoughts’, not ‘feelings’, which are scant: the subject might as well be carved from a block of wood for all the emotion on display, save for the occasional slip of annoyance at whichever politico was trying to boss him around.

“Socially distant, politically complex and militarily circumspect” is how Mulcahy, while in his mid-thirties, is summed up. One senses this is a biography that introverted man would have approved of: long on the public, short on personal, with details of his private life reserved for the footnotes. State-building requires focus, after all, and Ó Caoimh’s work goes a long way in reminding us of the central role Mulcahy played in the Irish one’s formative years. Readers beware, however, of the sickly stink of suspicion wafting from almost every page.

Publisher’s Website: Irish Academic Press

See also: Career Conspirators: The (Mis)Adventures of Seán Ó Muirthile and the Irish Republican Brotherhood in the Free State Army, 1923-4

Raising the Banner: The East Clare By-Election, July 1917

A Time of Great Moment

William Redmond

Change was in the air, of a very great sort indeed, in East Clare as the by-election there opened on the 10th June 1917. Its previous Member of Parliament (MP), Major William Redmond, had fallen in battle three days earlier, another name on the causality list from the Western Front in France. And while he was both mourned and celebrated as a gallant soldier who did his duty as he saw it, politics stops for no man and a vacancy waited to be filled. Not just for a Parliamentary seat, though that would be contested hotly enough, but for the soul of Ireland, as confused and rudderless as it was.

Since the days of Daniel O’Connell and Charles Stewart Parnell, the Nationalist tactics of choice had been of the constitutional kind. Self-rule for Ireland was to be achieved in the debating chamber of Westminster, through its elected representatives in the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) and, for a while, it had looked as if that would succeed, with independence, or at least a measure of it, achieved by way of Home Rule.

But that seemed far less certain now. The time had come for the electorate of East Clare to consider exactly where it stood, as the Clare Champion proclaimed to its readers in a masterpiece of overblown prose:

We know that in the past Clare had been called upon in times of great moment to decide in matters destined to change the entire future of our history, and we know that as if by special inspiration our people were made the chosen instrument of a power which struck telling blows for progress and National freedom.

So taken was the newspaper with the responsibility thrust on its namesake county that it sounded as if its writer was about to pass out from giddiness:

Is it simply a repetition of history – remarkable in itself to all outward appearances, but signifying nothing beyond the mere element of chance that thrusts on the people of East Clare a responsibility of supreme National importance just now, or is there behind it all something more than we mere mortals can gauge.

On that weighty query, who could say? A more grounded one, the Clare Champion continued, was how “to-day it is not alone a question of policy, but of aim.” The constitutional policy of old would now have to contend with a brash new challenger in the form of Sinn Féin, with each side representing two competing visions for Ireland: Home Rule within the British Empire versus a complete severance in the form of an Irish Republic.

Home Rule poster

“We are assured,” the newspaper wrote, “that the dream of an Irish Republic is a fantastic chimera and unrealistic dream. Perhaps so,” it conceded, before adding, with a note of defiance, “but we think nothing should be shut out.”[1]

The Rising That Wasn’t

Such grand talk aside, Clare had been something of a revolutionary backwater lately, as shown by how the Easter Rising of the previous year caught the rebels-in-waiting there largely by surprise. The Irish Volunteers and those of them sworn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) had been aware that something was in the works, especially as communiques came from Dublin, via Limerick, in March and April 1916, but vague enough were the details for them to assume that any insurrection would wait until June or July to happen.

Irish Volunteers

It was not until Holy Saturday, the 22nd April, that Joseph Barrett, captain of the Ballyea Company, received word to have his men ready on the following Sunday. He followed through on his order and about thirty Ballyea men assembled with their weapons and equipment, along with twenty-four hours’ worth of rations. In addition to fighting when necessary, they were to gather enough carts and horses to bring in an expected shipment of guns due to be landed on their side of the Shannon – an assignment for which Barrett did not anticipate much in the way of difficulty.

And so they waited…and waited, and waited some more at the allocated site until the day passed into Easter Monday and Barrett, for want of further instructions and with the promised weapons nowhere in sight, dismissed his charges. It was not until he reached Ennis that he learnt about the countermanding order, published in the Irish Independent, cancelling the insurrection.

The countermanding order, as published

Barrett was cooling his heels in the Old Ground Hotel, owned by his aunt, when a Head Constable of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), with whom he was friendly despite their differencing politics, entered and told him of the battle being waged in Dublin even as they spoke. “Go home, you, and stay at home,” the policeman warned.

Barrett did not go home. Instead, he contacted the other wannabe rebel officers, only to learn that they were as much in the dark as him. By the following day:

On Tuesday, I heard from some source that the Volunteers were out not only in Dublin, Galway and Wexford, and, in the absence of any instructions from Limerick, I was in a quandary as to what action I should take. Eventually, I and the other officers of my Company decided to do nothing in the absence of orders.[2]

At Whitemount, where some other Volunteers had mustered, a teacher dropped by to pass on instructions from their absent commander, Tomás Ó Loughlin, to attack the nearby RIC barracks. Believing that any such orders from Ó Loughlin would have been delivered in person, the Volunteers not only refused but came to the conclusion that the messenger was treacherously trying to lure them into a trap. The hapless teacher had his house fired on, though luckily no one inside was hurt.[3]

Such was the confusion and disarray in Clare during Ireland’s fateful week.

Irish Volunteers

The absence of activity at least saved the Clare Volunteers from the mass arrests made by the authorities in other areas. While a handful of leaders such as the Brennan brothers were deported to England, the bulk of the organisation remained intact. Things remained quiet until the following spring, when the Irish Volunteers began to organise anew. Fresh recruits were not found wanting, much to Barrett’s delight, as companies swelled to double their size.[4]

A Stronghold Shaken

Another Clare man who missed his chance to be part of the big event was Hugh Hehir. Despite his enrolment in the Dublin Volunteers, he was holidaying for Easter in his native Clare, unaware of any conspiracy, an ignorance he attributed to his lack of contact with the rebel leadership. After hearing of the fighting in Dublin, Hehir had hurried back to the city, only to be detained on arrival by British forces.

Irish prisoners in Frongoch Camp

Later interned in Frongoch Camp, he was not released until August 1916. Without a job, having been fired from his old one in the civil service, Hehir returned to his home county to find Clare in a very different state than before:

Up to 1916 that County was a Redmondite stronghold, but after the executions this feeling changed over and men, who had previously followed the Irish Party, were beginning to lean towards Sinn Féin.

Hehir was to claim credit for the setting up of one of the first Sinn Féin clubs in Clare, shortly after the party’s election win for South Longford in May 1917. In this he worked in tandem with his parish priest, Father James Clancy, who lent his support in an address to a meeting of thirty or forty young men that Hehir had helped set up.

Peadar Clancy

Upon word of William Redmond’s death, an informal gathering of local Republicans was held. With the idea of replicating the South Longford result, it was decided to put forward Peadar Clancy, one of the Rising combatants still in prison, and a Clare man to boot, as their man for the now vacant parliamentary seat.

It was to put a more official seal of approval on the choice of candidate that a larger convention was held on the 13th June, in the Old Ground Hotel. But this second event proved a good deal less harmonious than before as, according to Hehir:

A great many names were put forward, including Dr [Richard] Hayes of Limerick, Arthur Griffith, Eoin MacNeill, and Peadar Clancy, and even my own name was mentioned.

Seán Milroy

Also in attendance was Seán Milroy, on behalf of the Sinn Féin Executive in Dublin, the only contact the Clare grassroots seemed to have had with the central body. Whether Milroy expressed a preference was not recorded by Hehir. Perhaps the question was overly sensitive for the Dublin leadership to weigh in on too strongly.[5]

Of Shirkers and Fighting Men

Indeed, the convention was soon teetering on the edge of “pandemonium”, according to another participant, Art O’Donnell. Local pride rose to the fore when it was suggested that a Clare man should be run for the Clare seat. The name of an otherwise ignote Michael Duggan was mentioned on the virtue of his residence in Scariff but this possibility failed to merit a seconder and so withered on the vine.

When Arthur Griffith was proposed, Austin Brennan – brother to the commander of the Clare Volunteers – denounced him for having “shirked the Rising.” Clare had no need for such shirkers, only fighting men, added Brennan.

Arthur Griffith

An example of such a martial type was provided by the next speaker, Father Alfred Moloney, who, after calling for order in an increasingly fractious debate, proclaimed that: “Clare can have its fighting man and that man is [Éamon] de Valera”:

He was the man who made the Notts and Derbys [the Sherwood Foresters, recruited from Nottingham and Derbyshire] bite the dust in the streets of Dublin, he was the last man to surrender in 1916, you are all acquainted with these facts and I now formally propose him as our candidate for Clare.[6]

Michael Brennan

A third account, albeit partly a second-hand one, is provided by Michael Brennan. He and his brother Paddy were hiding out in Dublin after their escape from prison, when they received word that a meeting in Ennis of local Sinn Féin members and Irish Volunteers had asked Michael to stand. Even absent, the Brennan brothers held a lot of clout in their home county, with Paddy as O/C of the Clare Volunteers and Michael the Adjutant.

The latter was thus a natural choice, but he declined, writing to another sibling, Austin, still in Clare, to press for de Valera instead:

[Austin] replied that he was doing so against strong opposition as all the old people and nearly all the clergy wanted [Eoin] MacNeill. Later, he informed us that when the convention was held in Ennis the majority was clearly in support of MacNeill.

Which presented a problem before things had even begun. As Chief of Staff of the Irish Volunteers, MacNeill had on paper the perfect résumé. But his countermanding order on Easter Sunday, which had thrown the Rising into confusion, and in Clare to a complete halt, damned him as another ‘shirker’ in the eyes of many.

[Austin] secured an adjournment and, after private discussions, he announced that if [Eoin] MacNeill were selected, the Volunteers wouldn’t accept him because of his action in the Rising, but would run de Valera as the Volunteer candidate.

Catching the balance between the political, in the form of Sinn Féin, and the military aspects that the Irish Volunteers represented, was a delicate process, one which the revolutionary movement would never entirely achieve, with disastrous consequences for the country five years to come. For now, however, in Clare, “this settled the question and eventually de Valera was agreed to unanimously,” Brennan concluded.[7]

The anointing of the Clare candidate – a first step in what was to be an incomparable political career – was clearly a story in which everyone had their own take. Whatever the differences, Hehir’s, O’Donnell’s and Brennan’s versions agree in presenting the decision as one that occurred on a local level, rather than the Sinn Féin grassroots relying on guidance from their parent party.

Eoin MacNeill

Also notable was how Griffith and MacNeill had been in the consideration before unceremoniously dropped. The former was no less than President of Sinn Féin, and both were recognised figures across the country, but neither could claim a part in the Rising, and this alone disqualified them, even against a relatively unknown de Valera, who nonetheless had emerged from Easter Week with a military record.

And that alone made all the difference, even though the oddity of the winner’s name raised a few eyebrows when the convention attendees left to announce the results. “There were all kinds of attempts made to pronounce it,” admitted one, “and some unkind comments were made about the people who were responsible for selecting the man who bore such a name.”[8]

‘A Vigorous Canvass’

In contrast, the Irish Party managed to pick its own aspirant with the minimum of fuss when, on the 16th June 1917, a group of local IPP worthies gathered at a hotel in Limerick and, after some discussion, agreed to support one of their number, Patrick Lynch, in running for the East Clare vacancy. An accomplished barrister, the 51-year-old Lynch had served as junior counsel for William Redmond during the latter’s original election to the seat, back in 1893, and so was a deserving choice for the torch to be passed on to, as the others seemed to agree.

“The meeting was a very harmonious one,” wrote the Irish Times, “and Mr Lynch, who is a native of the County Clare, is personally very popular, left by the evening train to Ennis to arrange for a canvass of the division.”

There was no time to waste, for:

Already the Sinn Féin party have instituted a vigorous canvass, and, as political organisation on the other side, owing to the long interval since there has been a contested election – twenty-two years – become rather lax, they will have a certain advantage in the early start.

All was not lost as “there are indications, however, that Mr Lynch’s candidature will be pressed forward from now on with whole-hearted earnestness.”[9]

But, behind closed doors, the upper echelons of the party Lynch was now to represent wished to have nothing to do with the contest. The two electoral defeats earlier in the year – North Roscommon in January, South Longford in May – had left the leadership skittish of a third.

“I am strongly against the Party identifying itself with Lynch’s candidature in East Clare,” John Dillon wrote to the IPP Chairman on the 21st June 1917.

John Redmond replied a day later with a simple: “I agree about East Clare.”

John Redmond (left), with John Dillon (right)

Writing as the secretary of the Party offices on Sackville (now O’Connell) Street, Dublin, Annie O’Brien took a different view. “We have information from a number of sources concerning East Clare, and so far everything seems to justify one in confidently expecting Mr Lynch to win the seat,” she reported to Redmond on the 19th June 1917. This was optimism of a sort that even a faithful follower like her had not been expecting. “There seems to be a surprising unanimity of opinion about it.”

In support of this opinion, she quoted a Sinn Féiner in that “Lynch is a strong candidate – he had defended one half of the murderers in Clare and is related to the other half,” in reference to his prior legal work with the Land League.[10]

It was the sort of credentials that would go down well in East Clare, an area where, in the opinion of another contemporary, “’extreme’ men had always been numerous.”[11]

These were all points to be considered for, even after two by-election victories, Sinn Féin could ill-afford to take a third for granted:

The fact that the late Willie Redmond had been one of the most popular members of the Party and that the candidate, Lynch, belonged to a powerful local family, possessing an intricate network of cousins throughout the constituency, gave our people great concern.

So remembered Kevin O’Shiel, a Tyrone-born barrister who had canvassed for Sinn Féin before in South Longford. To be defeated in East Clare “would be, obviously, a very serious reverse.”[12]

Cartoon from the pro-Sinn Féin newspaper, ‘The Roscommon Herald’, 28th June 1917, depicting John Redmond (left) and Patrick Lynch (right)

A State of Feeling

It was a scenario that Joseph Bryce, the Inspector General of the RIC, was also pondering in his monthly report for June. “The election in East Clare will no doubt affect the future of the situation,” he wrote to his employers in Dublin Castle. “Should the Constitutional candidate be successful it is possible that the Sinn Fein movement…may receive a check.”

This, however, would not necessarily pacify Ireland, for Sinn Féin, thwarted politically, “may eventually divide into two parties, one moderate and the other extreme.”

Sinn Féin election poster for East Clare, with Éamon de Valera in uniform and in the dock, and Patrick Lynch in barrister’s robes and wig

While the RIC “have not detected any preparations for an immediate armed rising, nor is there reason to believe that the disaffected are sufficiently armed and equipped for such an undertaking,” the increasingly truculent mood of the Sinn Féiners, expressed through rebellious songs and speeches, the wearing of Volunteer uniforms and the flaunting of tricolours:

Disclose a disloyal and rebellious state of feeling that will render the task of the Police in keeping order extremely difficult.

A Sinn Féin win in East Clare could only worsen things further, Bryce predicted, for “in the event of De Valera, the rebel leader, being elected….it is not unreasonable to expect that the revolutionary party will acquire an increased influence and become more aggressive,” perhaps to the point of deciding “to precipitate disturbances in the country.”

With Morton’s Fork before them, Bryce submitted to his superiors that, whichever way East Clare turned, the legal power conferred on the RIC in its defence against sedition be extended and enforced. If there was a war coming, the Inspector-General wanted his colleagues to have as many weapons as they could at their disposal.[13]

Royal Irish Constabulary

The Contest Begins

Acutely aware of the stakes involved, both for themselves and the country as a whole, the two sides threw themselves into the fray. When de Valera arrived in Ennis on the Saturday night of the 23rd June 1917, “so many republican flags were displayed in the process from Ennis station to the Old Ground Hotel,” remembered one of his entourage, “that it appeared to us who were marching at the rere [sic] as if the road was one great blaze with the falling sunshine on the orange of the banners.”[14]

Éamon de Valera, speaking while surrounded by a crowd

Taking inspiration from the said tricolours, de Valera declared that he stood for the Sinn Féin flag, not the Union Jack. The election, he said, was not just a contest between him and Lynch, but one of principle – was Ireland to be a free country or, as his opponent would have it, a mere province?

‘Murderer’, he had been called. It was a term he denied but, if the Irish people judged it a fitting one, he would hang his head accordingly. For it was time for the electors to show their feelings, and de Valera appealed to them to support with their vote the principle in which the men of Easter Week had risked, and for some laid down, their lives.[15]

“The meeting went off very well and de Valera spoke very well and carried the crowd with him,” remembered Dan MacCarthy, who had been sent ahead to East Clare to organise the Sinn Féin efforts. Being an unknown quality, and a political neophyte to boot, de Valera had been a cause of some trepidation to MacCarthy as he set up the welcoming crowd at the station. MacCarthy was now committed to the success of a man who:

…had never addressed public meetings before, and knowing that he would be what I might term the professor type used to lecturing class indoors, I felt that he had not got the voice required for outdoor public speaking.

This worried me very much because I felt that if de Valera was to get the crowd on his side he would have to introduce fiery speech and bring home his points in a loud voice.

When the two met for the first time in Ennis, just before the candidate was due to take the stage, de Valera had assured the campaign manager that he would try his best. Watching his candidate at work was enough to soothe MacCarthy’s fears as he “then felt convinced that we were going to win and I told him so.”[16]

Pleading the Past

Lynch, meanwhile, had his own case to make, which he did in Tulla on the 24th June, the day after de Valera’s debut. This election was undoubtedly one of the most important in Ireland since 1828, he said, with a reference his audience was sure to catch, for that was when the great Daniel O’Connell had been elevated as an MP – and for Clare, no less.

Charles Parnell

Indeed, this was perhaps even the most important election for over a century. Was the country to abandon the cause long pursued by Charles Stewart Parnell, Michael Davitt and John Redmond? Were they ashamed of what it had already accomplished, such as the Land League policy? Would Ireland surrender all representation in Parliament – which was what Sinn Féin would amount to – and leave itself open to taxation without appeal?

Were they to be taken away now from the path of patriotism at the mere suggestion of people to whom he would give credit for at least meaning well, but whose views, and purposes, and objects he would not place on this question on a par with those of Parnell and Davitt?

That bit received cheers, and Lynch might have taken hope from this, and by the enthusiasm of his audience in general, that he and the Irish Party stood a fighting chance. As Lynch’s citation of famous names indicated, the Parliamentary movement could boast a proud heritage to fall back on.[17]

But would the past be enough to win the present and secure the future?

Lynch could at least count on the support of Ennis Urban Council who, at a special meeting, unanimously passed a resolution in his favour, and calling on the electorate to do likewise in what was described – echoing Lynch’s words in Tulla – as:

One of the most serious contests they had ever had. It was a question of constitutionalism versus revolutionary methods, and surely in the terrible conflict they were going through, that the world had entered upon, this was no time for preaching revolutionary ideas.

Thus spoke the worthies of Ennis. By conflict, they meant the trenches and foxholes of France or the straits of the Dardanelles, but a turmoil closer to home was demonstrated later that evening in Ennis, when a group of young men, identified as de Valera supporters, came in rough contact with a cordon of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). The Sinn Féiners broke through and made it to O’Connell Street, only to be stopped by a baton charge from police reinforcements, injuring several participants and dispersing the crowd in short order.[18]

1801b3fe7e76948a232ae1f930b54d5fFour days later, on the 28th June, the O’Connell Monument in Ennis became the centre of a territorial dispute, when Sinn Féiners pulled down the crêpe there in mourning for William Redmond and draped the column with a tricoloured flag. Retaliation was struck later that day when a party of IPP partisans tore down the enemy colours in turn and replaced them with crêpe as before.

“A scuffle ensued between supporters of each party, but no damage was done,” reported the Irish Times.[19]

‘Hang de Valera on the Sour Apple Tree’

There had already been a murder attempt in the election when, on the 24th July, a group of Sinn Féiners were stopped near Broadford, while on the road from Limerick to Clare, by a heap of boulders. As the party disembarked from their car to move the obstacles, rifle-shots were fired from the cover of a nearby grove. The bullets – fifteen in all, it was estimated – whizzed past the men, with one piercing the door of the driver’s seat and another hitting a petrol can, but otherwise causing no harm beyond a fright.[20]

Even before, no one in East Clare could have been naïve to the possibility – nay, probability – of violence. Irish elections had long been tempestuous affairs, and the Longford one the month before was especially marked. While waiting in Limerick for the train to Ennis, Kevin O’Shiel caught a glimpse of the challenges ahead of him as a Sinn Féin canvasser.

Kevin O’Shiel

The wives and dependants of men serving in the British Army, the so-called ‘separation women’, had gathered at the station to cheer on the IPP adherents. As they waited for their own train ride, they sung British military songs such as ‘It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary’ and ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’, along with the classic ‘God Save the King’ and, more ominously, ‘Hang de Valera on the Sour Apple Tree’.

The last was given a hearty repeat at the sight of any Sinn Féiners. O’Shiel felt relief at his plain choice of dress, without the usual tricolour badges or ribbons that marked one of his ideological persuasion. Otherwise, he feared, “it would unquestionably have led to a much closer intimacy between me and those fair ladies than I would have cared for.”

Joseph McGrath

O’Shiel arrived in one piece to Ennis to find a town as sharply divided as the rest of Ireland. The Old Ground Hotel served as the Sinn Féin headquarters, and there he met de Valera for the first time, along with other prominent faces in their shared cause, such as Countess Markievicz, Harry Boland and Darrell Figgis. Of particular interest to O’Shiel were Dan MacCarthy and Joe McGrath, the pair he accredited with pulling off the past successes in North Roscommon and South Longford.

Life in the hotel was not exactly comfortable, packed as it was with campaigners, forcing them to share beds – sometimes three or four together – when not making do with the lounge chairs and sofas, or even the floor. Despite such trials and tribulations, morale could not have been better.

“Nothing could damp down the atmosphere of enthusiasm that prevailed,” wrote O’Shiel, “everybody seeming to be animated by a terrific and wholly altruistic purpose.”

Old Ground Hotel, Ennis (today)

Outside, however, was a different tale. Ennis was solidly pro-IPP and fiercely anti-Sinn Fein, and the Old Ground Hotel stood as a citadel in an enemy town, a reminder to de Valera, O’Shiel and rest of their compatriots that the struggle for the county, and the country as a whole, had not yet been decided.[21]

Out About Town

O’Shiel experienced that fact for himself one evening, as he and a group of fellow Sinn Féin canvassers, including the famed Countess Markievicz, were taking a respite in the sitting-room of the Old Ground Hotel. Upon hearing of a pro-Lynch rally in O’Connell Square:

Madame Markievicz was quite excited by the news, and thought it would be a splendid idea for some of us to sally forth and hear what they had to say.

Kevin O’Shiel and another man – who goes unnamed in O’Shiel’s account – in the lounge accepted her invitation, and the three set out, accompanied by the Countess’ fat little dog, adorned, like its owner, in the Republican emblazonry of green, white and orange. Her interest, it seems, was as much to win hearts and minds as to size up the competition, according to O’Shiel:

Madame believed intensely in the fundamental goodness of human nature – that is to say, in the best human nature, which, as everybody knows, is Irish human nature!

These decent Claremen on the other side were Irishmen, the same as ourselves, and Madame was convinced that they had only to receive the message of the new evangel when the scales of darkness would fall from their eyes and they would behold the light and turn from their schism.

The trio joined the crowd that had gathered around the platform set up for the occasion, from where a succession of IPP spokesmen addressed the square. O’Shiel was conscious of the unfriendly glances he and the other two were receiving, marked out as they were as interlopers by their tricoloured heraldry, but, for now, the focus was on the stage and any violence restricted to the language coming down from it, as the latest Demosthenes-to-be harangued the opposition, in an impressive baritone, as “factionists”, “German agents” and “betrayers of Ireland’s cause.”

Countess Markievicz

While this went down well with most of the audience, to judge from the responding applause, it was too much for one listener:

Madame could not stay quiet for long under such a diatribe and was soon making sharp comments to us on his statements, showing how wrong or inaccurate they were. She possessed a clear, penetrating voice that carried quite a bit from her.

Soon, to O’Shiel’s dismay, he and the other pair found themselves the target of shaken fists, angry eyes and insults like “gaol-birds”, “killers” and “cut-throats.” Curses escalated into shoving, with Markievicz’s dog sent scampering off in a panic and her hat yanked off her head. Her cry to return what she had worn in Easter Week failed to calm their assailants down – unsurprisingly so – and relief only came when a squad of RIC constables pushed through to surround the three Sinn Féiners in a protective circle.

Royal Irish Constabulary

With batons bared, the policemen edged towards a nearby lane, remaining in a line at the narrow entrance to seal the trio off from the angry mob, who raged on the other side but otherwise made no effort to break through. When these passions had sufficiently cooled, the three Sinn Féiners were able to return to their hotel, escorted by the constables, to Markievicz’s disgust at having to rely on a police force that many in Sinn Féin regarded as agents of British rule:

She resented their presence, and more so, their protection, a resentment which, I can truly say, I certainly did not share!

O’Shiel thanked the RIC for the narrow escape, while Markievicz remained surly to their rescuers. When one of the policemen provided the Countess with her rescued hat, it was an inadvertent rubbing of salt on to the wound.[22]

Moving Heaven and Hell

The passing of June into July saw a surge of rallies from both sides. Lynch’s campaign was reinforced by the arrival of half a dozen Nationalist MPs into East Clare, “the first indication that Mr Lynch has the official support of the Irish Parliamentary Party,” observed the Irish Times, something previously conspicuous in its absence:

Hitherto he has depended mainly on his intimates and relatives, of whom he had many in the district, but family ties would not be sufficient to counter the activities of Sinn Féin.

The question before Clare, Lynch said at one such rally in Feakle, was between naked revolution or the constitutional way. The previous two by-elections of the year had not been sufficient to supply an answer: North Roscommon was won not for Sinn Féin, but out of sympathy for Count Plunkett’s loss of a son, executed after Easter Week. South Longford was won not for Sinn Féin, but on behalf of the men in English prisons. Only here and now, in East Clare, would the decision be made on how Ireland was to proceed.

Sharing the platform in Feakle was the Very Rev. Canon Hayes, who put the case for the status quo in forceful, even apocalyptical, terms. Sinn Féin, he said, was a policy of socialism, bloodshed and anarchy. It may have won over the young and the naïve, those who had no knowledge of civic affairs or record in public service, but if this new movement was to have it way, then there would be nothing left in Ireland save disunity and secret sects:

The Church had spoken and had pointed out the perils to all of them. One of the sins that called to Heaven for vengeance was murder, and who was audacious enough to tell him there was not murder in Dublin during Easter Week? Dublin ran with the blood of innocent victims, and he noted that the man who had come to Clare for the votes of the Clare people adopted Easter Week as his policy.

To Canon Hayes, that was damning enough. His last words to his audience was for them to reclaim their religion and their country from the spiritual danger Sinn Féin posed.[23]

Not every churchman was so aligned, however. “We are faced here with desperate opposition,” wrote the Vice-Chairman of Ennis Urban District Council to the IPP leadership, on the 4th July. Problems included how “the Bishop and a section of the clergy are arranged against us, and the junior clergy in particular are moving heaven and hell to get De Valera elected.”[24]

Father Michael O’Flanagan, one of Sinn Féin’s most prominent clerical advocates

Elsewhere in the constituency, de Valera enjoyed a hearty welcome in Scariff, being carried in a chair through the street while escorted by a two thousand-strong procession, past houses outside of which tricolours had been hung. There had been attempts, de Valera said when he mounted the stage, to paint his followers as an unruly mob when, really, they could not be more orderly.

There was, after all, no country more law-abiding than Ireland – when the law was legitimate, that is. The fact that the Irish Party was still in existence, instead of being swept away a long time ago, was due to the innate loyalty of the Irish people; a people who, if organised and united, could never be ruled by Britain. The IPP knew this truth but preferred to stick its head in the sand like an ostrich, while Sinn Féin wanted to proclaim it to the world. Sinn Féin wanted Ireland for the Irish, free of any foreign power. Sinn Féin wanted a free and independent Republic.

Éamon de Valera delivering a speech

“As far as one can see, Mr De Valera has taken over the leadership of his party,” read the Irish Times with more prescience than it knew, “and how far some of his colleagues will follow is being watched with interest here.”

Volunteering for the Revolution

Certainly, de Valera was no backroom leader, being present all over the constituency at the expense of a moment’s rest. If enthusiasm alone was the deciding factor, then the Irish Times believed that de Valera would win hands-down. He had other factors on his side. As he returned from another successful rally, this time at Gort, he was presented with a cigarette case by women from Cumann na mBan. As he gave his thanks, de Valera urged the women, and anyone else in earshot, to provide financial support to the Irish Volunteers.[25]

Cumann na mBan

For the Volunteers and Sinn Féin were two groups joined at the hip, with companies of the former standing guard at the latter’s meetings, hurling sticks in hand. If the Irish Volunteers were the army, then de Valera was their general as he went about East Clare in olive-green khaki, adorned with a Sam Browne belt and sword-strap – minus the sword – while escorted all the while by a bodyguard of Volunteers, many of whom also in uniform to provide a suitably martial impression.

Such display was not just for show. On polling day, the 10th July, O’Shiel was handing out pamphlets with Arthur Griffith when a brawl broke out nearby. O’Shiel had forgotten the cause by the time he penned his life’s story but the rest of the incident would stay with him:

Soon a wild, milling mob swelled into the narrow hall of the town hall, and I was sure we were going to be “done for”. However, with the help of other supporters, we managed to slam the large door against them, until the streets were cleared and we were rescued – this time, not by the RIC, but by a detachment of the Irish Volunteers.[26]

If the fire of the Rising had burnt itself out by the end of Easter Week, then embers could still be seen, hot and glowing, amidst the ash, with sparks that some were determined to feed into a roaring blaze again.

Having played a part, albeit at a distance, in de Valera’s selection, Michal and Paddy Brennan returned to Clare. What with the general amnesty for political prisoners, there was less danger of arrest for the moment, and now was the time to take advantage while the lull lasted – not that it would do so for long if the Brennan brothers had anything to do with it.

Irish Volunteers

The Clare Volunteers had by then been established as their own brigade, and Michael, as Adjutant, took charge of their end of the election. With rumours of an impending assassination attempt on de Valera, and in light of the shots already fired in Clare, Michael ensured that the roads the candidate was to take had been supervised by Irish Volunteers the night before.[27]

Making Plans and Making Enemies

Paddy Brennan, meanwhile, was fermenting more long-term plans: to put the Clare Volunteers on a war-footing while escalating tensions with the British state. “We felt the people were ripe for an ‘offensive’ attitude and that we might manage to give them a lead,” was how Michael put it. In this, Paddy neglected to ask their superiors in Dublin for permission since:

He was pretty certain it wouldn’t be approved, but on the other hand, he thought if it worked, GHQ would accept it and issue it as their own policy. (This was in fact what happened a few weeks later).”[28]

The Crown authorities, for their part, were not naïve to the trouble brewing underneath their feet. The gun was becoming the law of the land, as Inspector-General Bryce reported how two men around Corofin had stopped another on his way to the polling station, with a warning not to vote for Lynch and a revolver drawn to punctuate the point.

Not that the violence was one-sided, and Bryce included in his report how the Sinn Féin motorists near Broadford had been sniped at while removing a heap of boulders on the road. The Inspector-General was under the impression that de Valera had been among the ambushed party, though it is hard to imagine that detail being omitted from the other contemporary accounts if true.

Either way, “it is manifest that the Irish Parliamentary party has lost its dominating power in the country and is making no serious effort to regain it.”

Sinn Féin postcard

The causes, Bryce believed, included the failure to secure Irish self-rule after the Rising. Old stalwarts who had been casting votes in Parnell’s name and then for Redmond’s were beginning to think that Home Rule in its present proposal could do with a little more expansion, while the younger generation of Nationalists were already converts to the Sinn Féin faith.

sinn_fc3a9in_election_poster_-_1918Considering the seditious utterances at Sinn Féin rallies, the drilling of the Irish Volunteers and the hostility shown to the RIC:

Political unrest has undoubtedly spread to a serious extent, and although except in the event of invasion or a landing of arms, no immediate rising is probable, it is essential that a strong military garrison should be maintained in the country to guard against possible eventualities.[29]

For now, the Irish Volunteers enjoyed their free rein, to the extent of escorting the ballot boxes being brought in from all over the constituency to Ennis Courthouse. The High Sheriff drew the line at allowing Volunteers to spend the night inside the building with the votes, and so parties of them patrolled outside. Such was the heightened atmosphere, and the suspicion that the other side would try something untoward, that the guard was changed every three hours to keep the men sharp.

When a light was spotted in the upper-storey room where the boxes were being kept, word was quickly sent to the Old Ground Hotel to alert the Volunteer command there. As it turned out, the offending light was merely a reflection in the window from another building across the square.[30]

De Valera, meanwhile, had banned the consumption of drink among his followers for the night, with the added step of shutting down the hotel saloon. “The men who were in the bar that night and who were ordered out, never forgave him,” according to one witness. It was an early glimpse into de Valera’s abilities to exercise command and make enemies.[31]


Michael Collins

When it came to counting the votes on the 11th July 1917, Thomas Pugh was one of the two representatives for de Valera inside the Ennis Courthouse, to which each candidate was entitled. When Michael Collins had asked the week before about their chances, Pugh had left him flabbergasted with the prediction of a win by two thousand votes.

Whatever his confidence, Pugh was not one to take chances. His time as a guest of His Majesty for his part in the Rising had taught him how best to hoodwink the Frongoch wardens. The Courthouse reminded Pugh of a prison, with its high walls keeping the masses at bay, and so it was fitting in a way when he reverted to type. A ticket with a mark for Lynch would be redone in de Valera’s favour, secretly of course, save to an amused Collins who was standing behind Pugh.

“You are a bally ruffian,” Collins said by way of compliment.

When the results were tallied up and the victor known, Pugh scribbled it on the inside of a cigarette case and tossed it out of the window, to be rewarded with a cheer from outside when it was found.[32]

Ennis Courthouse

The High Sheriff made the public verdict official when he read it out to the crowds before the Courthouse:

Éamon de Valera: 5,010

Patrick Lynch: 2,035

One hundred and twenty votes were left over, having been spoiled but, with a majority of 2,975, the winner scarcely missed them.

“What shall I say to you?” said de Valera after the cheers from his followers finally died down. The initial applause had taken several minutes, with flags waved and hats cast in the air, and then a second lengthy burst when the hero of the hour appeared on the Courthouse steps. “I say you are men of Clare. You are just as brave and as true to Ireland as your great ancestors who fought and conquered at Clontarf with Brian Boru.”

Eamon de Valera speaking on the steps of Ennis Courthouse

Anyone wondering as to whether the country truly desired independence could be left in no doubt now, he continued. Questions about Easter Week and the principles underlying the rebellion had been answered. He thanked the men of Clare, as well as the women, for their assistance, the latter having always been seen in Ireland as equals, not servants. De Valera finished by asking for three cheers for the Irish Republic, which was answered with gusto, followed by a rendition of A Soldier’s Song, the anthem of the new movement.[33]

The Changing of the Guard

Sinn Féin postcard

It was a staggering win by Sinn Féin, even to those who had strived for it. “To say that Dev’s more than two to one majority came to the country as a great surprise is putting it very mildly indeed,” recalled Kevin O’Shiel. “True, as his campaign got into its stride, it became pretty clear that he would carry the day, but no one expected such a landslide in his favour.”

As he left Ennis on the train to Dublin, O’Shiel was treated to the view of bonfires being lit on every hill and mountain he passed, and the jubilant people who danced and sang around them. “The whole nation appeared to be en fete as though it had won a great victory in war.”[34]

‘As though in war’, indeed. As some like Inspector-General Bryce feared, while others such as the Brennan brothers hoped, the country was edging ever closer to the real thing. When the Sinn Féin devotees withdrew from the Ennis Courthouse to the Old Ground Hotel, the procession became a parade, with de Valera taking the salute as Irish Volunteers marched past in their companies, the newly-minted MP acting more like a victorious general than a democratic representative.[35]

One soldier had taken the place of another, but de Valera’s militant creed was very different to the constitutional philosophy of the late William Redmond and his Irish Parliamentary Party. It was a truth recognised from the start, such as when, as the election began, a parish priest, Father John Scanlon, declared that a Sinn Féin win in East Clare would be worth ten thousand speeches in Parliament.[36]

In time, this assumption would be put to the test. Change was in the Irish air, of a very great sort indeed, though for better or for worse, well, that remained to be seen.

See also:

An Idolatry of Candidates: Count Plunkett and the North Roscommon By-Election of 1917

A Choice of Green: The South Longford By-Election, May 1917

Ouroboros Eating Its Tail: The Irish Party against Sinn Féin in a New Ireland, 1917


[1] Clare Champion, 16/06/1917

[2] Barrett, Joseph (BMH / WS 1324), pp. 9-11

[3] Connolly, Seamus (BMH / WS 976), p. 7

[4] Barrett, pp. 11-2

[5] Hehir, Hugh (BMH / WS 683), pp. 7-9

[6] O’Donnell, Art (BMH / WS 1322), p. 24

[7] Brennan, Michael (BMH / WS 1068), p. 22

[8] Murnane, Seán (BMH / WS 1048), p. 5

[9] Irish Times, 18/06/1917 ; biographical information from Irish Press, 10/12/1947

[10] Meleady, Dermot (ed.) John Redmond: Selected Letters and Memoranda, 1880-1918 (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018), p. 279

[11] Gwynn, Stephen. John Redmond’s Last Years (London: Edward Arnold, 1919), p. 268

[12] O’Shiel, Kevin (BMH / WS 1770, Part 5), p. 58

[13] Police reports from Dublin Castle records (National Library of Ireland), POS 8544

[14] Nugent, Laurence (BMH / WS 907), p. 107

[15] Irish Times, 25/06/1917

[16] MacCarthy, Dan (BMH / WS 722), pp. 16-7

[17] Irish Times, 25/06/1917

[18] Ibid, 26/06/1917

[19] Ibid, 30/06/1917

[20] Ibid

[21] O’Shiel, pp. 59-62

[22] Ibid, pp. 62-4

[23] Irish Times, 02/07/1917

[24] Meleady, p. 279

[25] Irish Times, 02/07/1917

[26] O’Shiel, pp. 64-5

[27] Brennan, pp. 22-3

[28] Ibid, pp. 23-4

[29] POS 8544

[30] O’Donnell, p. 26

[31] Nugent, p. 110

[32] Pugh, Thomas (BMH / WS 397), pp. 26-7

[33] Clare Champion, 14/07/1917

[34] O’Shiel, pp. 66-7

[35] Clare Champion, 14/07/1917

[36] Ibid, 16/06/1917



Clare Champion

Irish Press

Irish Times


Gwynn, Stephen. John Redmond’s Last Years (London: Edward Arnold, 1919)

Meleady, Dermot (ed.) John Redmond: Selected Letters and Memoranda, 1880-1918 (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018)

Bureau of Military History Statements

Barrett, Joseph, WS 1324

Brennan. Michael, WS 1068

Connolly, Seamus, WS 976

Hehir, Hugh, WS 683

MacCarthy, Dan, WS 722

Murnane, Seán, WS 1048

Nugent, Laurence, WS 907

O’Donnell, Art, WS 1322

O’Shiel, Kevin, WS 1770

Pugh, Thomas, WS 397

National Library of Ireland Collection

Police Report from Dublin Castle Records

The Rover Type: Peadar O’Donnell and the War of Independence in Donegal and Derry, 1919-1921

‘Sublime in Theory’

For good or bad, Peadar O’Donnell never failed to leave an impression on people.

During the lull in the war between British authority in Ireland and the Irish Republican Army (IRA), Todd Andrews – not even twenty years of age and already a seasoned combatant – was ordered up from Dublin to Dungloe, Co. Donegal, to take charge of an IRA training camp, sometime in the latter half of 1921. A city-slicker, Andrews knew little about the county, only that it had felt its fair share of the conflict: shootings, house-burnings, attacks of police barracks, and ambushes on British troop-trains.

IRA training camp, West Waterford, 1921

It thus seemed like an obvious place to invest some time and guidance into. ‘Advancing under fire’, ‘organisation of intelligence units’, ‘use and care of small arms’, along with night-marches and how best to make use of cover – these were among the subjects Andrews prepared to drum into the fifteen men gathered before him in the Dungloe village hall. He had his doubts, however, as to how much he could get through to them, the jackeen prejudice against culchies as slow-witted and thick-tongued being hard to shake off.

Peadar O’Donnell

Besides, Andrews was painfully aware of his own deficiency, namely his rawness as a teacher, and it was with trepidation that he opened with a lesson about unit structure and communication. When this was done, he scanned the group, hoping for someone who could help turn the lecture into a dialogue, and asked the man who appeared older than the rest – at twenty-eight – for his thoughts:

He stood up immediately, pouring out a stream of words arranged in fluent, well balanced sentences full of striking imagery and laced with quotations from James Connolly.

This was rather more than Andrews had been expecting or, indeed, wanted, for if this was the standard of the class, what need would they have of him as an educator? Thankfully:

As it turned out I had no need to feel inadequate because the speaker was Peadar O’Donnell who was to become one of the most remarkable men of our generation.[1]

Tom Barry

Some acquaintances were less enthralled. Michael O’Donoghue and Tom Barry were among the Corkmen who, like Andrews, were sent to Donegal; in their case, it was in mid-1922, in order to continue the campaign against the remaining British presence in what would become Northern Ireland. O’Donoghue was to reminisced about the “lively and protracted discussions on religion, sin and nationality” between the Cork and Donegal officers. As the two eldest members, Barry and O’Donnell tended to take the lead in these IRA symposiums and were consequently held in awe by the others, including O’Donoghue.

To him, O’Donnell’s:

…vocabulary was vast and his speech eloquent, and it was a pleasure and an education to hear him airing his views on a variety of subjects.[2]

But, if O’Donnell was a jack of all trades, he could be a master of none, at least where it counted, being:

…a revolutionary thinker and writer, was of the rover type, too volatile for an efficient Volunteer officer, sublime in theory – military, economic, social, political – but in practice a wash-out. He had no control over the IRA under him and was constitutionally unfit for military campaigning of any kind, guerrilla above all.[3]

O’Donnell would have been the first to agree. “I must say I was not the military type,” he later said in an interview.[4]

‘Four Glorious Years’

Peadar O’Donnell in later years

It would be easy to take such self-abasement at face value, given how little O’Donnell is known as a soldier. As a writer and a political activist, yes, he was to have prolific careers as both in the years to come. But about his IRA service, he seems to have worked his hardest to obscure it. Not for him the reminiscences of Tom Barry, Todd Andrews or Dan Breen, whose tales of daring-do in their memoirs were to keep their names visible to contemporary times.

“It is difficult to persuade Peadar O’Donnell to talk about his military career,” noted historian Michael McInerney. He had the advantage of interviewing O’Donnell but even that familiarity yielded scant insight into what his subject had been doing during the War of Independence: “He was reluctant to talk of his own part in the national struggle until convinced that the interest in the subject was as much general as particular.”[5]

s-l300Those days were possibly still too raw to approach easily, for while “talking to Peadar O’Donnell about the ‘Four Glorious Years’ of 1918-22, one senses a deep, almost bitter disappointment in the words at the outcome of those years.” Though there was “also an exultation as he remembers the heroism and the ‘sheer genius of a whole people in action’,” O’Donnell stayed tight-lipped about his own actions.[6]

Maybe O’Donnell was just a modest man. Or perhaps that time had been too complicated to fully – or easily – explain.

Be that as it may, there was nothing of the shrinking violet or indecisive intellectual when, in December 1920, O’Donnell spoke at the Shamrock Hall in Derry. His intent, he told the IRA Volunteers who used the building as their base, was to find recruits and bring them over the county border to his native Donegal as a flying column.[7]

At least one man present, Seamus McCann, had met O’Donnell before, when the latter worked as an organiser for the Derry branch of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU), back in 1918. “We knew he was alright,” recalled McCann; after all, he and O’Donnell had cooperated in smuggling weapons for the national cause, starting with two pistols and a few bags of gelignite at McCann’s shop in 1919. Though nothing came of a plan of O’Donnell’s in 1920 to rob a police patrol of their guns, he continued using McCann’s premises as a stash-house:

Detonators and gelignite came to my place for him from Scotland; I’d say three times in all, the last being in a suitcase of stuff around the end of 1919 or early 1920.[8]

By IRA standards, O’Donnell was a well-travelled man, as recognised by Joe Sweeney, a Donegal IRA commander, who used him to transport munitions. On one such occasion, late in 1919, it was bombs from Dublin to Donegal, and on others:

Early in 1920 I asked him to go to Scotland to organise the help which Donegal men in the mines there were attempting to give in the way of explosives. I sent him across three times, I think, around St Patrick’s Day 1920 and the last certainly in July 1920.

“His work was extremely useful,” Sweeney added. O’Donnell had earned his trust when, at the end of 1920, he suggested returning to Derry, whose revolutionary landscape he was familiar with, and coming back with a unit of his own to Sweeney’s territory in West Donegal. Sweeney gave this idea his blessing, and off O’Donnell went to turn theory into practice.[9]

Derry City

The Column Forms

O’Donnell’s recruitment drive in the Shamrock Hall paid off in the nine Volunteers who offered themselves for his venture. As part of a flying column, they would be expected to bear the brunt of the fighting against the Crown forces in Ireland but, then, Derry already was a warzone.

The city had not exactly been peaceful before, but things escalated with an ambush of two policemen of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) at the General Post Office in November 1920, wounding one. The resulting stop-and-searches of pedestrians by police and British soldiers grew into arson and shootings, and were matched by IRA reprisals of a similar nature.

Irish civilians held up by Black-and-Tans

“There was the wildest scenes of terrorism and destruction yet experienced in parts of Derry,” reported one newspaper under the headline DERRY NIGHT OF TERROR.[10]

Perhaps the Derry men who agreed to go to Donegal did so for an escape as much as anything.

First, they were careful to take with them the necessary tools, as O’Donnell described: “In December 1920 we brought 22 rifles out of Derry. We dug them up in a briar in a city. They were in quite good condition with 200 rounds for each of them.”

One presumes permission was obtained from the Derry IRA command; certainly, of the accusations to come against O’Donnell, none involved theft. O’Donnell was characteristically modest when recalling the inauguration of the column, saying that “it shows how hard up they were for leaders when they had to send a man like me out in charge of a column.”[11]

Maybe. In the months to come, O’Donnell’s credentials would be a matter of controversy. All the same, a rifles was a prized weapon, and ammunition of any kind a valuable resource, so this contribution by Derry showed considerable investment in the new column, as well as faith in its commandant.

The Column Departs

Seamus McCann

For now, any doubt lay in the future, and the only question worth asking was how to get out of Derry. This was not a simple matter, as British soldiers from the Dorsetshire Regiment were guarding the roads leading out of the city. The IRA men were able to sneak out during the night, though three of them – McCann, James McKee and Tom Sullivan – got lost in the dark. Separated from the rest, the men, as McCann recalled:

…tramped near the main road until we came to near Letterkenny. It was now beginning to get clear in the morning so we went into an old coal shed near the Post Bridge and left our rifles down and rested on some straw for a short while.

McCann ventured out to Letterkenny and made contact with a friend and fellow rebel there, who arranged for a car to pick up the stray trio and drive them to the family in whose house the rest of the column had stopped. After spending the following night there, two cars were procured for the rest of the way, though they were delayed at Glendowan by its ruined bridge. The IRA in this instance had become a victim of its own success:

At this time many bridges on main roads were blown up by the IRA and trenches were also cut in the main roads to obstruct motor traffic by crown forces.

There was nothing else to do but disembark from the vehicles and march through the pouring rain, ignoring as best they could the growing blisters on their feet, until they came to the village of Derryhenney. There they stayed the night before finally reaching West Donegal, on the night of the new year, the 1st January 1921.[12]

Dungloe, Co. Donegal

While resting their legs in an old house in Dungloe, the men received word that a stranger – always a source of interest – had arrived by train and was now staying in a local hotel. It was a good enough cause for action, according to McCann:

Three members of the column then proceeded to Sweeney’s Hotel [no relation to Joe Sweeney, presumably] and brought this man to where we were billeted. The stranger turned out to be a British military officer. He was carrying a gun which we took from him.[13]

The man had attempted to draw this pistol when the three men – including Frank O’Donnell, Peadar’s brother – approached him during lunch, but he was quickly disarmed and hauled away for questioning. After claiming to be a harmless civil servant, he admitted his true identity as an enemy officer while insisting that he was only in the area to investigate claims made against the British garrison. Whatever the truth, he was released that night when a Unionist businessman intervened to the IRA authority on his behalf.[14]

Sweeney’s Hotel (today), Dungloe, Co. Donegal

Things were not so ruthless in Donegal for prisoners to be killed in cold blood, even if there was a war on. Indeed, Frank O’Donnell preferred disarming policemen of their guns than shooting them. His approach required more courage, he told the others.[15]

The Column Begins

After their arrival, the column had three days of rest at the townland of Crovegh, four miles from Dungloe, before news reached them, on the 4th January 1921, that a squad of Black-and-Tans were heading towards Dungloe. As it was market day, the column members, joined by the domestic IRA company under the command of Joe Sweeney, cleared the village streets and took up position. Two women kept the men going with hot tea as they waited, guns at the ready, day turning into the night, but the Tans never showed.

IRA members (in training session)

A second report, this time of Tans coming from a different direction, prompted the column to set up an ambush along the road from Dungloe to Crolly’s Bridge. It was raining heavily, but there the men remained for the whole day until, with the foe again nowhere to be seen, they withdrew to O’Donnell’s family home at Munroe. His mother gave them the consolation of a warm meal and a place by the turf-fire to dry off.[16]

Todd Andrews was also to meet Brigid O’Donnell and paid tribute to her as “a woman of very fine quality, shrewd and full of common sense, who was content with her life despite what must have been a hard struggle to rear her children.” It was easy, Andrews thought, to see where her son had obtained his intelligence and charm.[17]

Country homes, Co. Donegal

Later that month, on the 11th January 1921, the column was preparing for sleep in their assigned shack when its commander came in with a surprise. “Boys, put on your boots,” O’Donnell announced. “A troop train is on its way to Burtonport!”

It was just one of the many quirks of the war that, after the wasted efforts on seeking an ambush, opportunity had fallen into their laps. As McCann noted:

In the other attempted operations where we lay an ambush, we had taken considerable pains in planning the layout of the scene of the operation but, in the case of the train ambush at Meenbanad, we had no time to prepare plans.

Arriving in Dungloe, the column were met by Sweeney’s men – once again, this was to be a joint operation. They hurried together, stopping at a spot about 150 yards from Meenaband Railway Station. The usual method of train-attacks was to lift the rails beforehand but, lacking the time, they instead loaded large stones on to the tracks and then lined up on either side. The Donegal men had shotguns, while the Derry column members carried the more prestigious rifles and hand-grenades, a sign of the elevated status such units had in the IRA, as compensation for the hardships and risks undertaken.

IRA Flying Column

The Column Fights

The train rumbled into sight and range before too long and the ambushers opened fire, the ones with bombs endeavouring to lob them through carriage-windows. Soldiers on board returned shots, forcing the assailants back, and the train broke through the obstacles in its path.

The sole loss to the column, besides spent ammunition, was Willie Cullen, who became separated his comrades in the retreat and was picked by a British patrol. He was arrested but saved his rifle by hiding it in time, the weapon being gratefully recovered afterwards – rifles were a valuable commodity, after all.

Despite this lacklustre result, the column pulled off a second ambush of a train soon after. The men had moved from Crovagh, across the mountain to Loughkeel, where they stayed with a family. Without such hospitality, the war would have ground to a halt long ago. Hearing of the troop-train to West Donegal, O’Donnell brought his men to Crolly Railway Station, and arranged them on the hills overlooking it. A scout was sent out to the station to ascertain if there were civilians on board the incoming train.

Gweedore Railway Station, Co. Donegal

When the agreed signal for a negative was received, the operation could go ahead:

As soon as the train arrived within effective distance for rifle fire from our positions, we opened a rapid fire on the train. This fire was maintained until the train had passed through the hill from which our men were firing.

The column moved base again, this time up the mountains to reduce the chances of discovery. After two ambushes in quick succession, the pace slowed to a crawl again. Attempts to waylay British patrols on the road came to nothing when the targets failed to appear. Two months passed and the column made a move on Falcarragh RIC Barracks in March 1921.

The former RIC barracks in Falcarragh, Co. Donegal (now a visitors’ centre)

In preparation, a gun-cotton charge of explosives was created and attached to a wooden frame. Under O’Donnell’s direction, the column waited until dark and then surrounded the stronghold. Two men were sent ahead across the wall, into the yard, with the explosives passed over to them. The frame was placed against the gable and lit, the resulting detonation causing a lot of noise but little damage.

The Volunteers proceeded anyway with their assault as they opened fire on the still-intact building, while the defenders returned the shots and sent up Verey lights to call for reinforcements:

The exchange of fire lasted for about 30 minutes and then we withdrew from the attack, as rifle fire was an ineffective means of forcing the surrender of the barrack garrison.”

From there, the column moved to a number of different sites before ending up at their old digs in Crovegh. With three operations under their collective belt, the men could congratulate themselves on a respectable run and O’Donnell on a promotion to O/C of the Second Donegal Brigade, giving him authority over the north-west quarter of the county as well as Derry. Perhaps it was to assert himself over his latter responsibility, or because he was itching for a change, that O’Donnell left for Derry at the end of March 1921, taking McCann with him as his right-hand man.[18]

A Bloody Night

Getting to the city was delayed by the same problems as when they left: the damage done to the routes by the guerrilla campaign, from collapsed bridges and trenched roads, meant that O’Donnell and McCann had to go by foot until the final stretch, where they were able to obtain a pair of bicycles.

The walls of Derry City

O’Donnell wasted no time once in the city: the following night, on the Friday of the 1st April, he met the men of the Derry IRA, again in the Shamrock Hall. Guns and grenades were allocated to the assembled Volunteers, the strategy being to being to spring simultaneous assaults in different parts of the city. With orders to shoot any RIC personnel on sight, McCann set forth, accompanied by a second Derry native:

We had walked up to the top of Great James Street where I noticed the RIC man for whom I was looking coming walking meeting me, along with a civilian. I waited for him at Creggan Street where I shot him with my .45 revolver. He was Sergeant Higgins.[19]

The assassin was described by the Derry Journal as “a very respectably dressed young man, wearing a raincoat and cap” who fled the scene. Aid was called to the stricken Higgins as he lay in a pool of blood, his brain visible through the hole in his head. Though the policeman was carried to hospital, he died three hours later without regaining consciousness.

Creggan Street (today), Derry

At the same time as Higgins’ mortal wounding, bombs were hurled at the army post by the City Electrical Station, wounding three soldiers on duty, with two sufficiently injured to be removed for medical care, to be joined by Patrick Lafferty. The 34-year-old shipyard worker had been shot in the left knee in Asylum Road, though why he was targeted is unclear.

Almost immediately after these triple strikes, more gunshots and explosives were heard coming from Leckey Road, where the police barracks came under attack in an exchange of bullets between the garrison and assailants that lasted for three quarters of an hour, in contrast to the previously swift hit-and-run incidents. Constable Michael Kenny was critically injured by a bullet passing through the window on the barracks’ first landing, while a bomb fragment wounded Constable McLaughlin.

Two RIC policemen

Throughout the night, other shots were fired in different parts of the city. Two more casualties, both inadvertent, were reported: an army private, wounded in the wrist while reaching for his rifle, with another private, J. Wright, fatally shot from behind by a panicky colleague.

Recovering from their surprise, soldiers and policemen soon flooded the streets, holding up passers-by to search for incriminating arms. Determined not to repeat Friday’s debacle, the military laid out barbed wire coils across Shipquay and Castle Streets, while soldiers patrolled the streets, reinforced by a pair of armoured cars. Though gunfire and explosives were heard throughout that Saturday night, the carnage of the evening before was not repeated, save in Leckey Road again, which suffered two fires at different times, one in a painters’ shop and then the other in a marine store.

Property damage aside, the losses of Friday night were two dead and seven wounded, two of the latter tally being civilians. By Monday, the Derry Journal was able to report that “the city was peaceable last night.”[20]

Crowds Trying to Force Barricade
British soldiers and Irish civilians

After shooting Higgins, McCann had rejoined O’Donnell in the Christian Brothers School where the latter was hiding. Others arrived to report to O’Donnell on the success of the multi-pronged operation, and to warn about the increased British presence outside. Despite the added danger, O’Donnell and McCann were able to slip out of Derry, back to their column in Donegal.[21]

O’Donnell was to return to a considerable amount of hot water. He had struck a bloody riposte against the enemy, and no one would be more enraged than his own side.

Unclean Air

Gearóid O’Sullivan

Gearóid O’Sullivan, as Adjutant-General of the IRA GHQ in Dublin, was to have his hands full in dealing with the flow of accusations coming out of Donegal and Derry. “I have your report re suppression of Commandant O’Donnell,” he wrote to Frank Carney on the 24th May 1921. “I regret very much that I have been sorely disappointed in the turn which things took in that area since you took over command. However, all these matters will be investigated at a later date.”

Carney had been promoted to O/C of the First Northern Division, giving him overall control of the Donegal-Derry units, but this good fortune was followed by bad when he was arrested. “I am sorry for your ill luck – getting into the hands of the enemy,” O’Sullivan added.[22]

In light of this reversal, Carney’s post would be filled by Joe Sweeny, who was already O/C of the First Brigade in north-west Donegal. To Sweeney, O’Sullivan wrote:

I have received an extensive amount of correspondence on the position in the 1st Northern Division, resulting in disagreements between the late O/C [Carney], Commandant of Derry City and the Commandant of the 2nd Brigade [O’Donnell].

Sweeney was informed that he was to replace Carney, with O’Donnell remaining in charge of the Second Brigade, including authority over the Derry battalion. Meanwhile, GHQ would be sending up an officer to Derry to untangle the situation as best he could.[23]

O’Donnell had already dispatched a letter of his own on the 15th May to present his side of the story. The source of the friction between him and Carney was another dispute, this one in Derry, where the women of Cumann na mBan and Patrick Shiels, the Derry O/C, were at loggerheads. Hoping to “clean the air”, as he put it, O’Donnell approached both sides for a hearing.

Cumann na mBan members

Although initially bias towards Shiels, perhaps as one male IRA commander to another, his sympathy turned in favour of the women. Cumann na mBan had a safe-house in Derry for medical treatment, yet when one of O’Donnell’s men was wounded in the hand, none of the other Volunteers would take the victim there, so deep was the divide. Their own attempts at first aid were so inept as to be akin to torture. Surely cooperation between the men of the Derry IRA and the women of Cumann na mBan could only be in everyone’s best interest, and O’Donnell hoped he could bring about a fresh start.

To the contrary, Shiels complained to Carney, then at liberty, about what he saw as O’Donnell’s meddling. When O’Donnell wrote to Carney with a request for guidelines on how Cumann na mBan should be treated, he received no answer, only a curt summons to Derry. Ill with a chill – which he attributed to crossing a river at night for an ambush – O’Donnell delayed until he could drag himself out of bed to make the journey.

Donegal mountains

While en route to Derry:

I attempted it but ran into a party of military, was spotted by a peeler, and refused to halt and broke off through the fields with a party of military in pursuit. My companion was captured. I was shot through the right shoulder and left hand and I had my right arm broken but managed to escape.

Finding himself suspended from command on Carney’s orders, bereft of explanation, O’Donnell could only plead to Dublin for a fair hearing: “It certainly will mean much to the Volunteer organisation in the county if GHQ will investigate facts and decide which of us is in the wrong.”[24]

Doing an Act

Joe Sweeney

O’Donnell was to receive this investigation; unfortunately, it only made things worse for him. When Liam Archer arrived in Derry on behalf of the Dublin leadership, he arranged to meet Sweeney and O’Donnell at the village of Churchill, Co. Donegal. Sweeney was already present when Archer came at 5 pm, while O’Donnell did not appear until an hour later, his excuse being a detour he had had to make to avoid a RIC patrol. Not that Archer believed this, as there had been no such sign of enemy presence in the area, so one source told him.

As Archer had to be back in Derry by 8 pm, he did not have a lot of time to ask questions, much to his annoyance. O’Donnell pleaded ignorance about the present controversy, again pointing to his efforts at mediation between Cumann na mBan and the Derry Volunteers as its probable cause. Again, Archer was not buying it. “There is no evidence that this has anything to do with the recent trouble,” he wrote in his report to GHQ, on the 3rd June:

On the other hand the grounds for dissatisfaction existing among the other officers I met are very definite. It is felt that this man was appointed to his present position by HQ owing to a complete misapprehension. As I cannot know whether HQ is conversant with this man’s story, it will be necessary for me to recount it as recd., from Comdt Sweeney and the O.C. Derry.

While working in Derry for the ITGWU, O’Donnell had apparently tried to form his own Irish Citizen Army (ICA), to the point of poaching IRA members. This only went so far before O’Donnell decided to throw his lot in with the IRA instead.[25]

As the ITGWU and the IRA were not always on amiable terms, this was a serious charge. In his commentary on Archer’s findings, O’Sullivan recalled the past rivalry in Derry, and that “if O’Donnell was the man who was mixed up in this trouble I can understand how the difficulty has arisen.”[26]

Group photo of ITGWU officials, including James Connolly (far left, standing) and Jim Larkin (front row seated, second from right)

Interestingly, there is another account of O’Donnell attempting the same, except in a different Northern county, which ended in much the same way as in Derry:

A small section of the Citizen Army was in existence in Monaghan town in 1920 for some time. Peadar O’Donnell was in Monaghan in 1919 in connection with Labour trouble, and I think it was Peadar who organised the Citizen Army then. This section of the Citizen Army came over to the Volunteers in a body one night and were accepted by us.[27]

Fittingly for a man who would become known for his socialist writings and advocacy, O’Donnell had been a class warrior long before fighting for Ireland, which he attributed to the example of an uncle in the ‘Wobblies’ (Industrial Workers of the World) while overseas in the United States. Despite his later commitment to the example of James Connolly, O’Donnell was not impressed on both occasions of seeing the great man in Dublin, where O’Donnell was training to be a teacher.[28]

James Connolly

Each time, Connolly had been in the centre of trouble; the first, being jeered at with other ICA men on North George Street by some women, the second when speaking in Phoenix Park in favour of suffragettes when a group of women – again – pelted him with rotten fruit. Undeterred by this sort of challenge, O’Donnell would drop his teaching post – which he disliked anyway – and apply for work at Liberty Hall. His role as a full-time union organiser took him to counties like Derry and Monahan, giving credence to the stories about his ICA activism.[29]

“Early in 1919, I left my job as a trade union organiser,” O’Donnell later wrote. “I became fully committed to the Volunteers.”[30]

It was in Monaghan that O’Donnell proved this dedication in the attack on Ballytrain RIC Barracks in February 1920. He contributed a case of revolvers from Derry – which had perhaps been stored in McCann’s shop – as well as his own prowess, being part of the team that dug beneath a gable for a mine to be inserted, forcing the police garrison to surrender before detonation. After this baptism of fire, O’Donnell turned his attention back to Donegal.[31]

Wrecked interior of Ballytrain RIC Barracks, Co. Monaghan

Already he had had a career with a lot of twists and turns, as befitting his nature as the ‘rover type’. Little wonder, then, that by the time Michael O’Donoghue met him in mid-1922, “Peadar…was accounted ‘Red’ in Ulster” and not always taken entirely seriously:

His assertion that he always said his night prayers, or rather, endeavoured to direct his mind towards God and heaven each night, met with some incredulity. Peadar was a jocular dissembler and it was never easy to detect when he was ‘doing an act’.[32]

It was not all fun and games. According to some, O’Donnell’s promotion to O/C of the Second Battalion was owed to him ‘doing an act’, an allegation that Archer took the time to detail at length in his scathing report.

A Jocular Dissembler?

O’Donnell had suggested to Sweeney, sometime in late 1920 – so the story went – that he could obtain munitions in Dublin through his ICA links. Sweeney provided an address in the city to contact GHQ, which O’Donnell used to attend a high-level IRA meeting and pass himself off as the official delegate from Donegal. This was enough to get himself promoted to command of the Second Brigade, something not intended by Sweeney.

If true, and Archer seemed to believe it was, it was understandable that the rest of the Donegal-Derry officers would feel:

…that an injustice has been done, by that appointment to this position, of a man who is only some six months a member of the IRA; who was an organiser for an organisation regarded as being unfriendly to the IRA; who possesses little volunteer experience, and whose ability has not yet been proven.

Archer listed other complaints: dispatches intended for the First Brigade that passed through the Second’s area would arrive opened, something which O’Donnell professed himself unable to explain. Even if that was not O’Donnell’s fault, his recent work in Derry in April 1921 undoubtedly caused resentment as he had apparently not consulted Shiels beforehand.

In addition, Volunteers under O’Donnell’s authority had robbed a couple of banks in response to Carney’s instructions to raise funds by ‘collection or otherwise.’ The men who committed these thefts had placed a wide interpretation on the words ‘or otherwise’. O’Donnell defended the robberies by saying that he had understood the orders in the same way.

IRA men

Even O’Donnell’s wounding on active service was held against him in Archer’s narration:

The fact that the O/C Bde was shot, running away from an enemy patrol of six private soldiers, without any attempt at a fight on the part of him or his two companions, has seriously damaged his reputation as a commander.

As if calling witnesses for the prosecution, Archer quoted the opinions of others involved. The Derry officers regarded O’Donnell as “untrustworthy and incompetent, and matters have now reached a point where, if he remains in command, the O/C Derry will probably refuse to serve under him any longer and request transfer to another area.” Sweeney was only a little more lenient in his assessment that O’Donnell was “well-meaning but is impractical.”

In all this, O’Donnell had only himself to blame, according to Archer:

Owing to the short space of time I had with O/C No 2, and to the attitude of ignorance he adopted with regard to the cause of the trouble, I have heard practically nothing in his defence. He had held no Brigade council since he entered his duties, and it is probable that a lot of the existing trouble is due to a lack of contact between the O/C and his officers.

Sweeney had suggested that the Derry battalion be treated as a separate unit for the time being, though Archer was to advise against that in his communique. Instead, O’Donnell should be replaced by Shiels, who Archer considered “a much superior man” in terms of ability and personality. Hierarchy in general should be tightened, with the confusing tendency for one man to do the work of several posts to be stopped.

IRA members with rifles

As to whether these reforms would be implemented, Archer was cautious, showing more than a hint of the big city man looking down on bumpkins: “In making the above recommendations, I would draw to your notice that I have little experience of country officers and I may be expecting more than is the rule.”[33]

Question Marks

Ernie O’Malley

One detail Archer forgot to mention, or thought it unimportant, was that Sweeney and O’Donnell were second cousins. Judging by the former’s remarks about the latter, nepotism did not appear to be one vice practised by the Donegal IRA. The kinsmen were close enough to be interviewed together by Ernie O’Malley in 1949 but, despite such familiarity, a certain contempt laced their words about each other.[34]

That the two men chose opposing sides in the Civil War did not help. O’Donnell had even been a prisoner of his cousin during this turbulent period, detained in Finner Camp which came under Sweeney’s authority in Donegal. A captive O’Donnell had been terrified of Tom Glennon, a hard-edged warden in the camp, comparing Glennon’s brutish ways with Sweeney “whose nature, while it was thin in feeling was clean in its hardness,” a backhanded compliment if there was ever one.[35]

For Sweeney’s part, he blamed O’Donnell for the failure to take Glenties RIC Barracks on two separate occasions. The first, in April 1921, almost ended in disaster, as Sweeney recounted to O’Malley:

Peadar O’Donnell had got hold of an old cannon. He had arranged that a blacksmith…make cannon balls for this. The cannon was brought into position with a donkey and cart. It was to blow in the front door of the barracks, but when fired it blew itself to pieces and blew the walls backwards. Luckily no one was killed or injured.

The second attempt, in May, failed on account of O’Donnell’s warning his friends in Glenties village beforehand, with the leakage making its way to police ears.[36]

RIC Barracks (Boyle, Co. Roscommon)

And yet, according to McCann, O’Donnell was not in Donegal at the time of the April attack, having temporarily left for Dublin. Sweeney had been in charge and it was his idea to mount a Colt machine-gun on a tripod for added firepower. When Sweeney gave the order to attack, the machine-gun failed to work, and the remaining rifle-fire from the IRA was not enough to subdue the barracks.[37]

Two similar stories, with one major difference in regards to responsibility.

Given the contradictory versions in regards to O’Donnell’s conduct, it was unsurprising that, after reading Archer’s summary of his time in Donegal, the IRA Director of Organisation, Eamonn Price, would admit bewilderment on what to think of it all:

I do not find it very easy to make up my mind from the report as to what would be the best thing to do. The whole difficulty is that O’Donnell’s appointment appears to have been a mistake. That is true, whether the statements regarding his record are correct or not. He does not appear to possess the qualities necessary for dealing with a Brigade command.[38]


I am inclined to discount some of the things that are said against the O/C of the 2nd Brigade. The Officer from Headquarters [Archer] appears to have been prejudiced against him from the beginning owing to his unpunctuality and possibly owing to having heard the other side of the story.[39]

As for the most serious allegation, that O’Donnell had essentially conned his way into command, Price was inconclusive: “The statement…as to how O’Donnell got in touch in Dublin I am not in a position to appraise.”[40]

Price decided to wait for a fuller picture before rendering final judgement. For now, a compromise: O’Donnell was to continue as O/C of the Second Brigade, albeit over a diminished area, as the Derry battalion was to be a standalone unit as proposed. Both O’Donnell and Shiels were to report separately to Sweeney as Divisional Commander, which would at least keep them out of each other’s way.

“This is to be only a temporary arrangement pending further developments,” Price wrote in correspondence with his Chief of Staff, Richard Mulcahy, on the 21st June 1921.[41]

Red Peadar

Todd Andrews

Nonetheless, that was how the situation stood when, less than a month later, the Truce on the 11th July 1921 permitted a breathing space in the war. O’Donnell remained in charge and in Donegal, during which time he attended the officers’ training camp where he made the acquaintance of the Dublin envoy sent to tutor them. It was the start of a lifelong friendship between Todd Andrews and O’Donnell, despite the age gap of over eight years, when the latter “with his great kindness and comprehension took me in hand over any difficulties I encountered,” allaying his nerves and enabling him to finish the course as intended.

After which, the pair toured the countryside in a car, allowing Andrews to catch a glimpse of rural life, in the cultivated fields between stone walls and the homes of friends that O’Donnell dropped in on:

We were invited into the tiny kitchens for the ritual cup of tea with home-made bread. The people were obviously very poor but it was a different kind of poverty from what I was so familiar with in Dublin. However small and sparsely furnished the kitchens, which also served as living rooms, they were clean and tidy.

Compared to the slums of his home city and the hopelessness they bred, “what struck me most forcefully was the atmosphere of independent self-reliance,” though Andrews did not doubt that the means of these country people were also very scant.

Man and donkey carrying turf, Co. Donegal

It was an insight into a part of the country in whose name Andrews had been fighting, but which, in retrospection, he knew little about. O’Donnell endeavoured to fill in these mental gaps while proposing some solutions of his own, peppering his talk with phrases like ‘uprising of the masses’, ‘the gathering together of the workers’ and ‘the expropriation of the landlords’, the novelty of which left Andrews bewildered – and intrigued. Here was a way of looking at the national question he had never considered before.

What I heard from Peadar depicted in my mind at least an alternative future for Ireland which someone might want to create. While it lasted and while Peadar’s spell was on me, I was fascinated by these ideas.

While it lasted’ – this enthusiasm remained only until the two men parted company at Letterkenny Station, and Andrews took the train back south. Gone was the class warrior O’Donnell had tried to mould, and his pupil reverted to being, first and foremost, a soldier for Ireland. O’Donnell always made an impression, even if, however sublime the theory, leaving an impact was more complicated.[42]


[1] Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Cork: Mercier Press, 1979), pp. 196-8

[2] O’Donoghue, Michael (BMH / WS 1741, Part 2), p. 95

[3] Ibid, p. 108

[4] MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), p. 24

[5] McInerney, Michael. Peadar O’Donnell: Irish Social Rebel (Dublin: The O’Brien Press, 1974, pp. 31, 41

[6] Ibid, p. 31

[7] McCann, Seamus (BMH / WS 763), pp. 10-1

[8] Military Service Pensions Collection, MSP34REF60300, ‘O’Donnell, Peadar’, p. 16

[9] Ibid, p. 28

[10] McCann, pp. 6-8

[11] 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. 23-4

[12] McCann, pp. 11-2

[13] Ibid, pp. 12-3

[14] Breslin, Patrick (BMH / WS 1448), pp. 19-20

[15] O’Malley, p. 25

[16] McCann, pp. 13-4

[17] Andrews, p. 199

[18] McCann, pp. 14-8

[19] Ibid, pp. 18-9

[20] Derry Journal, 04/04/1921

[21] McCann, p. 19

[22] UCD Archives, Mulcahy Papers, P7/A/18, p. 324

[23] Ibid, p. 328

[24] Ibid, pp. 329-33

[25] Ibid, pp. 346-7

[26] Ibid, p. 344

[27] Donnelly, Thomas (BMH / WS 519), p. 3

[28] MacEoin, p. 24

[29] Ibid, p. 22

[30] Ibid, p 23

[31] MSP34REF60300, pp. 16, 33

[32] O’Donoghue, p. 95

[33] Mulcahy Papers, P7/A/18, pp. 348-51

[34] O’Malley, p. 22

[35] O’Donnell, Peadar. The Gates Flew Open (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013), p. 104

[36] O’Malley, p. 30

[37] McCann, pp. 21-2

[38] Mulcahy Papers, P7/A/18, p. 344

[39] Ibid, p. 345

[40] Ibid, p. 344

[41] Ibid, p. 322

[42] Andrews, pp. 198-200



Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Cork: Mercier Press, 1979)

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

McInerney, Michael. Peadar O’Donnell: Irish Social Rebel (Dublin: The O’Brien Press, 1974)

O’Donnell, Peadar. The Gates Flew Open (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013)

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)

Bureau of Military Statements

Breslin, Patrick, WS 1448

Donnelly, Thomas, WS 519

McCann, Seamus, WS 763

O’Donoghue, Michael, WS 1741


Derry Journal

 UCD Archives

Mulcahy Papers

Military Service Pensions Collection

O’Donnell, Peadar, MSP34REF60300

Book Review: The Irish Civil War: Law, Execution and Atrocity, by Seán Enright (2019)

9781785372537_fc-brightenedIs it better to be feared or loved, asked the wise Italian. Both are nice but, if one had to choose, fear should be prized over love, for men are fickle in their affections, while everyone thinks twice when the consequences are sufficiently dire. Machiavelli may have passed a harsh judgement on human nature, but the dilemma he presented was one the nascent Free State was forced to confront upon the shootings of Séan Hales and Pádraic Ó Máille on the 7th December 1922, resulting in the death of the former and the wounding of the latter.

Both were TDs in the Dáil, with Ó Máille being no less its Deputy Speaker, and yet their ambush had been committed in broad daylight on a public street as part of a “carefully laid plan to annihilate this government,” announced Eoin MacNeill to the Dáil. It was a strong statement but, then, the Executive Council of the government in question, to which MacNeill belonged, was in a defensive mood, having just ordered the deaths of four imprisoned men in response.

The Executive Council of the Provisional Government, October 1922, presided over by W.T. Cosgrave (seated at the head of the table)

Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows, Joe McKelvey and Dick Barrett had been woken in their cells, briskly informed of their impending sentence and then taken out into the yard of Mountjoy Prison where a firing-squad did the rest. All four had been part of an armed campaign against the Free State but, while war is hell, “from a legal perspective,” writes historian Séan Enright:

…these men were executed without trial for acts committed by others…The new state was barely two days old and the Constitution guaranteed life, liberty, freedom of conscience and due process or at least trial by military court.

Kevin O’Higgins

Such requirements the Executive Council had manifestly failed to uphold. Nonetheless, the reprisals had their desired result. Save for a couple of ineffectual pot-shots, there were no further assassination attempts on TDs of the Free State. “Is there no alternative?” Kevin O’Higgins had asked when the Council met to sign off on the executions. ‘No’ had been the answer.

Still, these four executions were the exception, not the rule, for the Free State was generally careful in ensuring that its death penalties fitted within the framework of the law. Which law, however, was a tricky question in itself.

Count Plunkett

Until the Irish Free State came officially into being on the 6th December 1922, the Provisional Government was obliged to rely on British legislation to fill the legal gap – except when that would be inconvenient, such as Count Plunkett bringing forward a claim of habeas corpus on behalf of his son, who was one of the anti-Treaty prisoners taken at the Four Courts in July 1922.

Judge Diarmuid Crowley deemed it satisfactory and issued a writ which threatened to set a precedence for every POW to be set free. Instead, Crowley found himself arrested and detained at Wellington Barracks, in a cell next to one where another prisoner was being subjected to, ahem, ‘enhanced interrogation’.

This was not the end of habeas corpus as a legal recourse: solicitors for Erskine Childers attempted it in a bid to avert his imminent execution, but Sir Charles O’Connor, as Master of the Rolls, simply brushed it aside on the grounds of the common good. “Suprema lex, salus populi must be the guiding principle when the civil law has failed,” Sir Charles ruled:

Force then becomes the only remedy, and to those whom the task is committed must be the sole judge of how it should be exercised…the salvation of the country depends upon it.

Erskine Childers

Childers had no one to blame but himself, Sir Charles continued, with his recourse to civil law being hypocritical given how such “jurisdiction is ousted by the state of war which he himself has helped to procure.” Sir Charles did not speak lightly; after all, the hearing was being held in the King’s Inns because the usual site of the Four Courts lay in ruins thanks to the war in question.

Ironically, Sir Charles had defeated an earlier regime by use of habeas corpus when, shortly after the Truce of 1921, he issued such a writ on behalf of an Irish Republican Army (IRA) prisoner due to be shot under British martial law. When this was refused, Sir Charles went further and issued another writ, this time for the arrest of the army generals accountable.

The military gave way and released the prisoner, a precedence that looked to unravel its counter-insurgency strategy should war resume. The Irish Provisional Government was clearly not going to risk the same thing happening on its watch, as Sir Charles shrewdly – if perhaps cynically – understood. He was an old legal face in a new system playing by new rules.

mulcahy046The Free State was thus cherry-picking which laws were opportune to apply while ignoring the rest. As always, cruel necessity was its defence. When presenting to the Dáil the case for establishing military courts with the power of life and death over POWs, Richard Mulcahy pointed to a couple of incidents where his soldiers had shot anti-Treaty captives out of hand.

Legalise, was his argument, for it is going to happen anyway in one form or another.

Much of this will be familiar to historians of the period, but Enright shines a torch on the legal aspects, making his readers see the topic in a new light: more than just another war but the struggle by one side to establish itself as the rule of law, by using the rule of law, even if it meant twisting the rules and discarding the law at will. How this will be addressed in the forthcoming centenary remains to be seen but, in any case, it was by these means that the Free State triumphed, albeit bloodily, not to say questionably as even the victors were aware.

Firing-squad during the Civil War (most likely staged)

The challenges of researching the conflict, as Enright observes, includes the paucity of reliable sources, due in no small part to the burning of sensitive documents just before Fianna Fáil took office in 1932. Succeeding in the Civil War did not prevent its winners from being voted out almost a decade later in favour of the losers, one of the many ironies of the times and which Machiavelli might have appreciated. Men, after all, are fickle in their affections.

Publisher’s Website: Irish Academic Press

See also: Book Review: After the Rising: Soldiers, Lawyers and Trials of the Irish Revolution, by Seán Enright (2016)

Out of the Republic: Rory O’Connor and the Start of the Civil War, 1922 (Part IV)

A continuation of: Out of the Ranks: Rory O’Connor and the Anglo-Irish Treaty, 1920-2 (Part III)

‘Malicious and Wanton’

T.M. Healy

The extent to which employers are accountable for the actions of their workers was put to the legal test in the Green Street Courthouse, Dublin, on the 18th July 1922. The claimant was the Freeman’s Journal, on whose behalf T.M. Healy, K.C., argued that, if there was ever a case in which Dublin Corporation should pay for damages, it was this one, considering how the man responsible for the “malicious and wanton destruction” of the newspaper’s offices four months ago was employed by that local government body.

“Who do you refer to?” asked the Court Recorder.

“I refer to Mr R. O’Connor,” replied Healy, “who is an engineer in the Corporation, who engineered this disaster to the Freeman’s Journal, and who is at present on leave at full salary.”

Healy then outlined the facts of the case: how, in the early hours of the 30th March, men disembarked from Crossley tenders outside the Freeman premises on Townsend Street, Dublin. Upon entering, they handed the startled staff a document that read:

Oglaigh na hEireann, General Headquarters, Dublin.

You are hereby notified that it has been deemed necessary to suspend publication of your journal in view of statements made therein, calculated to cause disaffection and indiscipline in the ranks of the Irish Republican Army.

By Order of the Army Executive.

With this touch of officialdom thus delivered, the intruders herded the personnel into a room and out of the way, before turning their attentions to the rest of the interior, using sledgehammers to smash fourteen linotype machines, three Hoe presses, the stereo plant and the Creed-Bille long distance telegraphic installation, the last presumably to stymie any calls to the fire brigade for what was about to happen next – the sprinkling of the paper stock with petrol, to which lit matches were then applied.

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

As if to drive the ideological point home, the portraits of Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith – two architects of the nascent Free State – on the wall were also destroyed. This was, at least, according to Healy, though the laughter in the courtroom suggests that this part of the story was not taken entirely at face value. After all, the Freeman had been the organ of the now-defunct Irish Parliamentary Party and was hardly likely to be overly reverential towards those who had overthrown it.

But the circumstances were otherwise sufficiently known, as was its eventual sequel, though Healy pulled no punches in describing how:

Subsequently Mr Rory O’Connor seized the Four Courts, with the result that now records, the most precious that any country could boast of, were all ruined at the hands of an official of the Dublin Corporation.

Rory O’Connor

Which was an unfair remark, replied T.M. Sullivan, K.C. His client had not been paying Mr O’Connor, the man to whom the destruction that night was attributed, as much as a penny since December 1920, the time of his arrest by British forces during the last war. But – and this was the sticking point – Dublin Corporation had not actually dismissed him, then or now, leaving it liable for the misdeeds – at least, according to Healy – of an employee who was still on its books.

“I cannot tell,” replied a flustered Sullivan when pressed about this oversight. “It is all very well to be wise after the event. No one knew how things were going to develop.”[1]

Allegiances Remade and Broken

Hindsight may be twenty-twenty, as Sullivan complained, but, even before the simmering tensions over the Anglo-Irish Treaty boiled over into open conflict, there were more than enough red flags that all was not well in Ireland – and Rory O’Connor, as often as not, was the one waving them.

Piaras Béaslaí

“His extreme attitude on this occasion came as something of a surprise to his associates,” remembered Piaras Béaslaí, who had been rescued twice from British captivity thanks to O’Connor. As a number of officers in the Irish Republican Army (IRA) went from hostility against the Treaty to outright rejection of the Dáil and the IRA GHQ, “Rory made himself their leader and spokesman, and proceeded to canvass and organise among the officers against the Treaty.”[2]

The fruits of these labours were on full display at the Mansion House in Dublin, on the 26th March 1922, when two hundred and eleven delegates, representing IRA brigades and battalions from across Ireland, gathered for their Convention. This was despite the banning of the event of the Provisional Government, making attendance an act of defiance in itself.

“The convention itself was uneventful,” recalled Florence O’Donoghue, an intelligence officer in the Cork IRA, probably because anyone with serious qualms would have stayed away. This allowed resolutions to be passed unanimously but, while their wordings were simple and unadorned, they complicated the situation considerably:

That the Army reaffirms its allegiance to the Irish Republic.

That it shall be maintained as the Army of the Republic under an Executive appointed by the Convention.

Nowhere was there room for the Treaty, nor for any Provisional Government, Free State, GHQ or anything else that required obedience or consideration. There was only the Republic – and the sixteen men elected there and then to form the Executive in question.

IRA delegates to the Convention on the 26th March 1922

Two days later, on the 28th March, the new Executive published a statement refuting the authority of Richard Mulcahy and Eoin O’Duffy, the Minister of Defence and Chief of Staff respectively, over the IRA – the parts of which had decided to join the Executive in resisting the Treaty, in any case. Which amounted to eighty percent of the original Army, at least according to Rory O’Connor, in an earlier press conference on the 22nd March.

This was quite a thing to say, as was O’Connor’s response to whether he was proposing a military dictatorship: “You can take it that way if you like.”

A Trial of Strength

Florence O’Donoghue

Was that a statement of intent? A thoughtless flippancy? A slip of the tongue? And was O’Connor speaking for himself or relaying official policy? Even years afterwards, such questions remained murky, with implications that some who had shared O’Connor’s cause thought best to put some distance between themselves. O’Donoghue could not even bring himself to spell out in his later account exactly what O’Connor had said, only that:

How far his statement represented the views of all the officers associated with him on the anti-Treaty side of the Army it is now difficult to say, but it is reasonably certain that they did not accurately represent Liam Lynch’s position.[3]

Todd Andrews

As O’Donoghue had been close to Lynch, who headed the Executive as its Chief of Staff, the idea of his friend as a Franco-in-waiting was a charge he was keen to defend against.

Todd Andrews, a Dublin IRA man who also attended the Convention, was similarly concerned in his own memoirs about how the remark might come across to his readers. To him, it had been “a bad political gaffe” from someone who “had no delegated authority.” All the same, Andrews wrote, in a passage that perhaps does his argument more harm than good:

In the spring of 1922 the idea of a military dictatorship in itself had not at all the frightening connotations it has now…Equally democracy had not been, as it since has been, elevated to the position of a goddess in the public mind. ‘The democratic process’ were words which would have fallen on uncomprehending ears in the Ireland of 1922.[4]

Contemporary newspapers, however, showed they were taking O’Connor’s answer – whether gaffe or promise – to heart. “Today some munitious section of the Republican Army are holding a pistol at the Provisional Government’s head,” wrote the Irish Times. “Thus a trial of strength has been forced upon the Provisional Government in its most perilous hour.”[5]

The Freeman’s Journal was more strident in its tone, comparing O’Connor to General Macready, the head of the British forces which were withdrawing from Ireland after failing to suppress it. “As a military dictator, Mr Rory O’Connor will be no more acceptable to the people than the departing General,” it promised. O’Connor had just become the public face of the crisis threatening to engulf the country: “It is a short drop from undemocratic incivism into a hell of militarism and turmoil.”

Pro-Treaty poster, portraying the Anti-Treatyites as cowards and opportunists

Faced with the challenge, the Freeman knew in whose camp it was: “The Irish democracy will stand by Dail Eireann, and will be as staunch in its support as in the days when An Dail confronted the British forces.”[6]

The Power of the Sledge

Little wonder, then, that O’Connor or his allies had scant love for the Freeman. But it was its publication on the 29th March 1922, three days after the Convention, that provoked the retribution against it. Newspapers were offered a scoop from GHQ on the inner workings of the Convention, which previously had been kept under wraps.

The Irish Times and the Irish Independent declined to print. The Freeman was braver or perhaps more audacious.

freemans20journal20banner-1Under loaded headlines such as DICTATORSHIP THE AIM and DELEGATES CALMLY DISCUSS SUPPRESSION OF GOVERNMENT, PRESS AND ELCTIONS, the article exposed how a resolution had included the establishment of a military dictatorship. The proposal, as put forward by two of the delegates, Tom Barry and Frank Barrett, had been debated, before being put aside until the subsequent convention for the following month. While not the immediate goal of the anti-Treaty IRA, autocracy was clearly not a topic that was off-limits.[7]

The night after the Freeman’s exposé came the attack and arson of its offices. The raiders had not bothered to hide their faces when doing the deed, and O’Connor similarly did not deny his culpability in his response to the press – what was left of it, anyway. If Oliver Wendell Holmes had ruled that liberty of speech does not cover shouting ‘fire!’ in a crowded theatre, then he and O’Connor were of the same sentiment.

“A free speech is admirable,” O’Connor wrote, “but ‘freedom of the press,’ according to the views of the Freeman…is the right to undermine the army and seduce it from its allegiance to the Republic.”[8]

de622164377d5fd7e276dfe50a772cfcThe Freeman had been knocked down…and got up again swinging. Barely missing a step in its daily edition, it printed anew on the 1st April, diminished in pages and with cruder, improvised text, but unafraid to call out its tormentor:

The sledge is not all-powerful.

On the night it demolished our machines we managed to produce one sheet.

Today we offer our readers seven.

The FREEMAN’S JOURNAL declines to bow to tyranny whether its aposties be British or Irish.

Ireland will stand by the FREEMAN.

The country has taken the measure of the sledges.

Call us mutineers if you like says Mr Rory O’Connor.

But why did Mr O’Connor and his fellow-mutineers order the wrecking of the FREEMAN’S JOURNAL?

Because, they allege, we publish statements prejudicial to the discipline of the Army?

What right or title have self-acknowledged mutineers to talk of discipline?[9]

IRA men

A Tremendous Responsibility

To Ernie O’Malley, such ostentatious finger-pointing was as much a matter of policy as petulance. O’Connor:

…had been made a target by the Staters at which to hurl abuse. It had served their purpose better to refer to us as ‘Rory O’Connor’s men’, then to admit that we were organised on the same lines as themselves, that we had a Headquarters Staff, and he as Director of Engineering filled the same post as he had done on the old Staff during the Tan scrap.

The two men were to work in close alignment together in the following months, though O’Malley found the other – “droll and laconic, with a strong reserve” – hard to know beyond a professional level. Given his introverted nature, O’Connor was an unusual choice as Director of Publicity, as well as Engineering, for the anti-Treaty IRA, but he took to the role, as he had with all his others, whole-heartedly.[10]

Such was O’Connor’s fame, or notoriety, that when a journalist from the Irish Times interviewed him in the Four Courts on the 14th April 1922, he was referred to in the subsequent article as “Chief of the Volunteer Executive.” Which was not quite true; if anyone could claim that title, it was Liam Lynch as Chief of Staff, but Lynch remained in the background, a relatively overlooked figure, even as O’Connor emerged as the mouthpiece of Republican policy – and increasingly its shaper.

The Four Courts, Dublin

O’Connor assured the journalist that there was no danger of a revolution or a coup d’état. Given how the anti-Treaty IRA had seized the Four Courts earlier that morning, one could be forgiven for scepticism but, according to O’Connor, this had been due to a need for more accommodation space and nothing more.

Be that as it may, the Irish Times felt the need to address what must surely have been on the minds of its readers: “One cannot believe that the new Army Council will take the tremendous responsibility of trying to kill the elections.”[11]

It is not clear if this was meant in the spirit of reassurance or incredulity. Perhaps the writers did not know themselves. The Executive itself was undecided. Earlier in the month, after the second IRA Convention on the 9th April, the question as to whether to cancel all and any general elections for the immediate future was aired amongst the Executive.

Tom Hales

The majority were in favour but, short of a unanimous vote, it was decided to abstain from going quite that far just yet. That the possibility came up at all was too much for three of its members – Florence O’Donoghue, Tom Hales and Seán O’Hegarty – who resigned in protest. These vacancies were swiftly filled, but the trio were now free to take action of their own.[12]

Closing Ranks

The three men gave their names to a list of seven others on a statement that was presented to the Dáil on the 1st May 1922, declaring that “a closing of the ranks all round is necessary” in order to halt the march towards civil war. Each of the signatories was a high-ranking IRA officer, with five being anti-Treaty – Dan Breen and H. Murphy were the other two – and the other half from the Free State side: Michael Collins, Richard Mulcahy, Eoin O’Duffy, Seán Boylan and Gearóid O’Sullivan.

In keeping with this display of solidary, the document urged for a peaceful resolution to the crisis on the basis of:

  • The acceptance that the majority of people in Ireland were willing to accept the Treaty.
  • A general election with an aim towards:
  • A government with the confidence of the whole country.

In addition, “Army unification on above basis.” Which was a terse line on so critical a matter, perhaps reflecting how none of the group knew how that worthy goal was to come about or in what form. The fact that, on the same evening that this blueprint for peace was delivered to the Dáil, anti-Treaty IRA soldiers seized the Kildare Street Club and the Ballast Office in Westmoreland Street was not a sign that harmony was right around the corner.

IRA men in Grafton Street, Dublin, 1922

Nonetheless, “the value of this manifesto cannot be over-estimated,” wrote the Cork Examiner:

…for it is the first visible sign that many of the officers and men who are on the side of the Army Executive are not prepared to enter civil war.

As much as a closing of the ranks, the outreach actions of the ten represented a breaching. While “at the moment it is difficult to say,” continued the newspaper:

…whether the manifesto has the approval of Mr Rory O’Connor and his Lieutenants, but it is stated on good authority that even assuming he decided to stand aloof, his supporters will represent quite a negligible quality.[13]

Responding the following day, O’Connor answered the question as to whether the initiative had his sanction. It did not, being “clearly a political dodge, intended by anti-Republicans to split the Republican ranks.” No deal could be reached if bought at the expense of honour and principle, and certainly not private ones between individuals. Only agreements built on the recognition of the Irish Republic were in any way acceptable, and so the Executive, elected for the purposes of guiding the Republican Army towards the right conduct:

…calls upon all true soldiers of the Republic to close their ranks, and not be led astray by specious and fallacious arguments, calculated to win soldiers from their allegiance to the Republic and make British subjects of the Irish people.[14]

Michael Collins

But O’Connor was preaching to a shrinking choir. When his closest partner, Liam Mellows, repeated to the Dáil his description of the manifesto as a ‘political dodge’, he was reprimanded by both O’Hegarty and Collins, two Corkonians on opposite sides of the Treaty divide, yet both willing to cooperate towards the common goal of peace.

From Kilkenny had come reports of bloodshed between Republicans and Free Staters, to which O’Hegarty pointed as a potential Ghost of Ireland to Come. “Let the country drift into civil war,” he warned in a riposte to his anti-Treaty colleagues, “and you will not get a Republic.”[15]

Who’s in Charge?

O’Connor had ridden the tide of armed opposition to the Treaty but now the waters pulled back, leaving him beached and isolated and more than a little ridiculous. A series of talks between political and military representatives from both sides kindled a hope for peace, including a set date for the general election that the Executive had thought to cancel, and even talk of the Four Courts being handed back to its judicial purpose.

As if desperate to show himself still relevant, O’Connor claimed in an interview, on the 28th May, that the new agreement between Collins and Éamon de Valera for an amiable ‘Pact’ Election had only come about because of the Four Courts seizure. As for the current lull, that was but an intermission until the final push for the Republic, a mission that had only been postponed, not fulfilled.

When asked if that was something best left to the electorate, via their elected representatives in the Dáil, O’Connor replied that the expression of popular will was not to be found through parliamentary channels. And then there was the North-East of Ireland, the six Ulster counties still in British hands, another question on the backburner. Guerrilla attacks had been launched there the previous week, with more to come, O’Connor promised.[16]

IRA men with rifles

This was too much for O’Hegarty, who decided it was time to cut the uppity demagogue down to size. The following day, he sent a communication of his own to the press, in a letter telling that:

It is high time that the pretence of “General Rory O’Connor” to be “head of the army” was burst up. Though Rory O’Connor has been prominently associated with the Four Courts Executive, he never was head of the army acting under that Executive, nor authorised to speak for it.

Therefore, the public should realise that the statements attributed to him in your issue of to-day are merely his own opinions, and are valueless as an index of the general army situation.[17]

Seán O’Hegarty

On his last point, this was not entirely true. O’Connor was, after all, a member of the IRA Executive and a leading one at that. But that body, established to lead the Republican forces against the Treaty, was finding it hard to lead itself.

Some fumed at the joint actions of O’Hegarty, O’Donoghue and Hales, seeing them as a breach in discipline, but Liam Lynch, despite his responsibility as Chief of Staff, did nothing to censure the trio. Judging by the enthusiasm in which Lynch approached the subsequent talks with the Pro-Treatyites, he may even have approved.[18]

Others on the Executive began to look at Lynch and those close to him, such as Liam Deasy, as potential weak links, too keen to make peace at the expense of the Republic. To Deasy, it was a painfully unfair suspicion, since “we felt that our policy was consistent and meaningful,” this being to hold the Republican lines steady in order to secure concessions.

Liam Deasy

Which did not impress the likes of O’Connor and Liam Mellows. Distrust trickled down the ranks, complained Deasy, so that “it appeared as if a number of independent armies were being formed on the anti-Treaty side,” making the brittle control by Lynch even more so.[19]

“The Rory O’Connor element was doing one thing and the Lynch party something different,” was how Joseph O’Connor, a Dublin IRA commander (and no relation to Rory), put it. The problem, in his view, was that the Executive had personalities too strong to accept direction while not forceful enough to overawe the rest into any sort of coherent direction.[20]

It was a judgement seconded by another colleague. “To my mind, Liam Lynch and Rory O’Connor were unsuitable for the decisions now thrust upon them,” Peadar O’Donnell wrote. And yet these were the men who held the power.[21]

‘Anxious Consideration’

Perhaps this divided command was why the Executive came across as schizophrenic during the IRA reunification talks between anti and pro-Treaty representations. At first the diplomacy went well enough for a proposed Army Council and GHQ, consisting of members from both factions.

IRA leaders from both sides during the May 1922 talks: (left to right) Seán Mac Eoin, Seán Moylan, Eoin O’Duffy, Liam Lynch, Gearóid O’Sullivan and Liam Mellows)

Lynch must have done the ‘hard sell’, for the new Council would have handed him a majority: five Anti-Treatyites with a pro-Treaty three. The GHQ would begin as more equal at three to three, but since Eoin O’Duffy, the Free State Chief-of-Staff-to-be was about to resign to take up the post of Police Commissioner, Lynch looked set to replace him, with Deasy as Deputy Chief of Staff, granting the anti-Treaty camp preponderance there as well.

Liam Lynch

“It was after a long and anxious consideration that Liam Lynch accepted this basis of settlement,” wrote O’Donoghue. And no wonder, for the Anti-Treatyites were practically being awarded the keys to the kingdom.[22]

Yet, for some, even this was too much of a compromise, which was built on the assumption of the Treaty, after all, and an Ireland remaining within the British sphere. Despite a promised place on the Army Council, O’Connor sent a letter to Richard Mulcahy, co-signed by Ernie O’Malley, on the 15th June. The negotiations were off, they told the Minister for Defence. No reason was provided. While the pair promised no attacks on Free State personnel, the same could not be said for the ancestral foe.

“We take whatever action may be necessary to maintain the Republic against British aggression,” was how they phrased it. O’Connor and O’Malley claimed to be writing on behalf of the ‘Forces at the Four Courts’; not, it may be noted, the Executive.[23]

The question of Army reunification was still a live one three days later, on the 18th July 1922, at the third IRA Convention of the year, once again held in the Mansion House. The ‘Pact Election’ had taken place two days before, resulting in a crushing loss of seats by anti-Treaty candidates.

The Mansion House, Dublin

“The events of the previous week had created an atmosphere in which counsels of moderation had no hope of even a patient hearing,” wrote O’Donoghue with gloomy hindsight. “The Army reunification proposals could not have been brought forward under any conditions better calculated to ensure their summary rejection.”[24]

War Demands

Considering the tensions within the Executive between ‘moderates’ like Lynch and Deasy, and ‘hardliners’ such as O’Connor and Mellows, it is questionable as to whether any sort of conditions would have made a difference. To shut down the reunification scheme before it could be aired, Tom Barry surprised the assembled delegates with a proposition of his own: that British soldiers in their remaining posts in Dublin and the six Ulster Counties be attacked after a notice of seventy-two hours to withdraw. Lynch was caught on the back foot, while O’Connor had clearly been expectant.

Tom Barry

“Rory put a short but very firm defence of the war proposals,” remembered one witness, Seán MacBride, though the rest of the event was lost to him in a haze of speeches. When the vote was finally taken, Barry’s motion fell short, allowing for the next item on the agenda: Lynch’s reunification plan. But it was not to be. O’Connor had previously warned of leaving if that came up; in this, he was true to his word and led a dramatic exit from the hall, accompanied by Mellows and the rest of their sympathisers.[25]

Curiously, in a footnote to the whole episode, Mulcahy told the Dáil, three months later in September 1922, that it had been the Free State who had turned down the final reunification offer because:

The man who would be placed in complete executive control of the Army would be the man who a short time ago recommended the idea of a dictatorship, and was out for the suppression of the Press and the stoppage of elections, and who would not allow the Treaty to be worked.

In spite of his very sterling character they could not allow as chief military head of the Army a man who had publicly taken up that attitude.

By that description, Mulcahy could only have meant O’Connor. Nowhere else is it suggested that O’Connor would have been granted that amount of authority and, in any case, it was the Anti-Treatyites who had pulled out. But these details would not have been widely known until later, making it easy for Mulcahy to paint the picture he wanted for the Dáil.

mulcahy046A clue as to why is his admission that the reunification scheme had not been an ideal one, certainly not something he would suggest to any other fledgling government, but which had seemed like the best of a bad choice at the time. The Civil War had broken out by then, pitting the Free State against men like Lynch and Deasy who were supposed to have been its partners in a new Ireland. Making the notoriously truculent O’Connor the red line the Free State would not cross allowed Mulcahy to walk away with honour from what in hindsight had been a very ill-conceived idea.[26]

Tweaking the Lion’s Tail

Having ruptured the Executive, humiliated his Chief of Staff and left the reunification proposals ruined beyond repair, O’Connor and his coterie returned to the Four Courts. Lynch and Deasy followed them the next morning, only to find themselves barred, along with anyone else who had voted against the war proposals. If O’Connor had been side-lined when the chances for peace looked good, now the wheel had turned and it was the ‘moderates’ who were locked out in the cold – literally.

As bad as feelings had been on the Executive, neither Lynch or Deasy had thought it would go that far. With nothing to be done, the pair trudged back and informed the remaining officers in the city about this split within the split. Lynch was appointed Chief of Staff – almost as a consolation prize – over what was left of the anti-Treaty IRA outside the Four Courts, where O’Connor, Mellows and other ‘hardliners’ stayed, fortified and aloof in the headquarters they now had to themselves.[27]

David Lloyd George

While Deasy was to mourn the missed opportunities, the ‘wrecking’ strategy chosen by O’Connor and his allies was not an unrealistic one. Attacking those British soldiers on Irish soil would indeed restart the war, and thus nullify the Treaty more effectively than any Dáil speech or political resolution. It was a danger that General Nevil Macready, commander of the British forces still in Dublin, was all too conscious of when, upon arriving in Downing Street on the 23rd June 1922, in response to a telegrammed summons, he was asked by the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, about whether the Four Courts could be captured immediately.

To Macready, this request smacked of Winston Churchill’s “feverish impetuosity” as Secretary of State, as well as being a sign of the “suppressed agitation” within the Cabinet. It was not that the option could not be done; indeed, plans to that effect had been under discussion for some time. Macready had even paid a visit to the site two months before, on the 15th April 1922, a day after its seizure, rubbing shoulders with the “loafers and unwashed youth” who had come to gawk at this latest spectacle.

Alfred Cope

Looking over into the courtyard, Macready had not been impressed at the sight of the “very dirty looking men” busy setting up barbed-wire entanglements, but he did recognise how they, encamped now in the heart of the city, could make life very difficult for the British presence. When Macready wrote to Michael Collins on what he proposed to do about the situation, particularly if the Anti-Treatyites were to use their new positions to take potshots at his troops, the General was met with a visit by Alfred Cope, assistant Under-Secretary for Ireland:

Cope came to tell me that Collins could not reply to my letter in writing, but had deputed him to explain the line of action which the Provisional Government wished pursued. The main point was the importance of avoiding a general conflict which would play into Rory O’Connor’s hands by combining his and Collins’s men against the common enemy, i.e. the British soldiers.

Sir Henry Wilson

It was a point which Macready kept in mind when, two months later, he was tasked by his civilian superiors with the proposed clearing out of the Four Courts. Sir Henry Wilson had been shot dead outside his London home the day before by two IRA men and, though no evidence linked the assassins to anyone else, let alone the Four Courts faction in particular, there was now a sense in Downing Street that Something Must Be Done.

An Irish Comic Opera

Though Macready mourned Wilson as a friend and fellow soldier, he kept his cool, repeating to Lloyd George the same arguments Cope had made:

It was an open secret that at this time Collins’s hold upon his men was precarious, and that the policy of de Valera and his henchman Rory O’Connor was if possible to irritate the British troops into activity, and then call upon those members of the IRA who stood by Collins to unite against the common enemy, a call which would have been answered by a majority who would have claimed that the British had broken the truce.

Sir Nevil Macready

O’Connor would have bristled at the suggestion that he was anyone’s ‘henchman’, let alone de Valera’s. If Collins’ hold was tenuous, then de Valera’s influence on the IRA Executive was non-existent. But, even if Macready exaggerated O’Connor’s importance – he made no mention in his memoirs of Lynch, Deasy or Mellows – his deduction about the anti-Treaty strategy was essentially correct. O’Connor may have specialised in sabotaging the plans of others, but that did not mean he had none of his own.

Having provided his professional opinion, Macready was sent back to his command in Dublin to await further orders, which followed soon after, instructing him to proceed with the assault on the Four Courts. To Macready, this would only have led straight into the debacle he was trying to avoid:

Whilst every soldier in Dublin would have been overjoyed at the opportunity of dealing with Rory O’Connor and his scallywags, the few senior officers to whom I unfolded the scheme were unanimous in their agreement that it could have but one result, the opening of hostilities throughout Ireland.

O’Connor, it seemed, was about to get his way after all. Macready promptly dispatched his most senior General Staff Officer over to London with a letter, in which Macready spelled out exactly why the order to attack was such a bad idea. He breathed a sigh of relief when official word came again the following day, on the 25th June, this time cancelling the operation.

Disaster had been averted – for some, at least. Events in Ireland were moving at a rapid pace, and within forty-eight hours of one doorway to war closing, another opened when J.J. ‘Ginger’ O’Connell, a general in the Free State forces, was captured by men from the Four Courts garrison.

“The hand of Michael Collins was now forced, and he was obliged, much against his will, to assert his authority,” as Macready put it. “It was, therefore, decided against that the Four Courts should be attacked by men of the IRA who remained staunch to him on the following day, 28th June.”

Pro-Treaty soldiers at the ready

To that end, Macready received directions, via Cope, to donate a pair of 18-pounder guns and their accompanying ammunition to the Free State. O’Connor and his ‘scallywags’ were about to receive the war they wanted, just not quite with the anticipated opponent, as “the situation rapidly reverted to the Irish comic opera style.”[28]

A Fanatic’s Spirituality

Clare Sheridan

O’Connor, meanwhile, was conducting another of his talks with the Fourth Estate, one more pleasant than most, considering how it was with Clare Sheridan, a journalist on assignment from the New York World. Globe-trotting, well-connected (Winston Churchill was a cousin) and easy on the eye, Sheridan had previously dropped in at the anti-Treaty publicity department on Suffolk Street, much to the interest of the staff, who found reasons to come by the An Pobhlacht premises while she was interviewing its editor, Patrick Little. He and O’Connor were old friends and so, when Little rang up the Four Courts, O’Connor invited him and his press caller to come by.[29]

O’Connor was a busy man and could not see Sheridan immediately, leaving her to wait in the courtyard on a chair thoughtfully provided by the sentries on duty, who were probably as bewitched at the sight of her as the Suffolk Street staff. The youthful years of many in the garrison struck Sheridan – some appearing to be no more than fifteen – as did the carefree way in which they joked and jostled with each other, rifles in hand and cartridge-belts slung over serge suits, a motley of the military and the casual.

IRA members at ease

In contrast was O’Connor, when Sheridan was finally allowed in, up a wide stone staircase and past offices to where he had his. If the others had been boyishly jolly, then their leader was:

Thin and ascetic, his white face sunken, revealing the bone formation. His eyes are deep set. He was clean shaven and dressed plainly, in dark clothes. His speech was that of a scholarly man and he seemed imbued with the spirituality of a fanatic.

Despite his slightly forbidding appearance, the presence of a revolver on the desk before him and the way he idly toyed with an assortment of bullets, O’Connor proved an amiable conversationalist. Irishmen would walk into English prisons with their heads proudly up, he explained to Sheridan, speaking slowly and deliberately in his cavern-deep voice, but never as subjects in a British colony. Only an Irish Republic could guarantee a friendly future between the two countries, something which the Treaty could never provide, robbing as it did everything Ireland had been striving for.

anti-treaty-poster-freedomAs for Michael Collins, who had signed his name to the Treaty and forced it on the rest of them, he was no more than an opportunist and a bully, but O’Connor added that he did not mean ‘bully’ as an insult. After all, bullying was one way to get things done. It was a revealing bit of projection, considering how the policy of the IRA Executive – or, at least, his faction within it – was to force a confrontation with the Free State and the British Government.

In regards to the endgame, O’Connor was sanguine about the possibilities. The telephone rang, and he briefly conversed with someone who Sheridan guessed was another journalist, but that Little, sitting in on the dialogue, thought to be Mulcahy, giving the final ultimatum for the Anti-Treatyites to withdraw from the Four Courts. O’Connor refused, impressing Sheridan with his steely will, even as the obstinacy horrified her.

“Surely you will not stay here? They will blow the walls and roof down on your head,” she told O’Connor as she prepared to take her leave. “You haven’t an earthly chance.”

“Then I’ll go down in the ruins or in the flames,” he replied, shrugging as if it were all the same to him.[30]

The assault on the Four Courts

Backseat Fighting

Within forty-eight hours, it was over.

A white flag hoisted from the Four Courts at 3:30 am, on the 30th June, signalled the bowing of the inevitable by those inside. With hands held up, the defeated garrison came out of the battered complex, its walls chipped and holed by the 18-pounder guns, and quietly allowed themselves to be separated into groups and loaded on to lorries bound either for Mountjoy Prison or a hospital, so reported the Irish Times:

Among the wounded was Mr Rory O’Connor, who was assisted from the burning building to an ambulance. He is believed to have been wounded in the stomach.[31]

Perhaps this handicap was why he demurred on O’Malley’s suggestion that they rush their guards, seize the rifles and continue the fight then and there. Doing so would be dishonourable, O’Connor said, but O’Malley wondered if he had simply given up:

The fight to him had been a symbol of resistance. He had built a dream in his mind and the dream was there; failure did not count and he evidently did not sense defeat. With me the fight was a symbol only if it had dignity and significance.[32]

O’Malley was able to slip away, while O’Connor stayed to face the consequences. He was mindful enough to warn the captain of the fire brigade about the seven tonnes of explosives still inside the Four Courts. It was at this point that the material in question detonated, wounding three firemen and sending a huge column of smoke and dust into the air, writhing and mushrooming as it rose, while stone fragments, mixed with burning paper, rained down into the surrounding neighbourhoods.[33]

The explosion of the Four Courts

However shocking this detonation, it appeared to be the end of the crisis, at least so some believed – or hoped. “With the fall of their principal stronghold,” wrote the Irish Times:

The Dublin Irregulars will, presumably, confine themselves to tactics of guerrilla warfare. If the Irregulars and those who sympathise with them realise the full extent of their defeat, the tide of Ireland’s misfortune may have turned.[34]

Ernie O’Malley

If O’Connor did indeed realise this extent, then he did not care. As the Irish Times predicted, the remaining anti-Treaty IRA units in Dublin and elsewhere continued the fight, this time eschewing large-scale confrontations for the tried-and-true, hit-and-run tactics from before. O’Connor’s only complaint was that he could not be part of it.

“It is hell’s own torment to be locked up here, while you are all at work,” he wrote on the 12th September 1922, in a letter to Ernie O’Malley that had been smuggled out of his new accommodation in Mountjoy Prison. “Personally, I have never been in jail so long, and I’m going to get out some way.”

No Compromises

Considering his past record as a Fenian Pimpernel, springing himself and others out of captivity, this was no empty boast. Already he was thinking ahead, with a list of suggestions for O’Malley, such as the burning down of Free State government departments or the seizure of public mail. Should police be assigned to guard postmen on their rounds, then even better, for they could be robbed for their guns. Munitions was an issue at the forefront of his mind, as befitting the former IRA Director of Engineering.

“I suppose you have Chemists working anyway I will send formula for incendiary bombs,” he wrote, while recommending the services of a Trinity student who had previously volunteered his technical skills to the Four Courts. Speaking of which, there was the chance of equipment still being inside their former stronghold, unscathed from the fire and overlooked by the Free State.

For retrieval, O’Connor suggested a manhole in Church Street, opposite Hammond Lane. “Go in, walk 9 ft in sewer away from river. There is a hole in the sewer, leading into our tunnel.”

The ruins of the Four Courts

Clearly, O’Connor was ill-suited for inactivity and could only endure the forced role of bystander. “These are a few ideas which may or may not be of use. I think we should try to make Govt. impossible by every means,” which had, after all, worked well enough in the last war. He did not anticipate much in the way of difficulty of winning this one.

W.T. Cograve

For the enemy president, O’Connor had only contempt: “[W.T.] Cosgrave can be easily scared to clear out.” Bold words for a man in captivity about another who was not, but Cosgrave, according to O’Connor, had previously taken his leave of Ireland for no less than seven weeks when the going got tough against the British, much to O’Connor’s disgust.

If there was anything to fear, it was that his colleagues would take the easy route out before victory – and the Republic – was achieved: “For God’s sake, beware of the compromising mind of the diplomat, which may possibly try to override you all.”

O’Connor had never been one for half-measures and was not about to change now, regardless of the ups and downs of fickle fortune. Any hesitancy that O’Malley had sensed was long dissipated.

“God guard you all. Regards to all comrades,” he signed off with.[35]

The Men Behind the Walls

O’Connor endeavoured to keep himself busy in Mountjoy with more than just letter-writing. If he was cocksure in his correspondence, considering the circumstances, then he had his reasons, for plans were underway for the inmates to dig their way out. The first was attempted in July by Anti-Treatyites who had escaped the fall of their positions in Dublin earlier in the month, showing that, regardless of the military debacle, morale remained strong.

“It was I gathered Rory O’Connor’s idea,” recalled one of their number, Mary Flannery Woods. O’Connor had passed on word about a household who might be willing to lend their residence for use in beginning the tunnel. When that was refused, an address in Glengarriff Parade was procured instead. This put Woods and the rest of the group sufficiently near the prison, and they began boring through the kitchen-floor when a group of Free State soldiers surrounded the house and took them all into custody.[36]

Peadar O’Donnell

That attempt had been scotched, but not the idea, and so the men inside Mountjoy decided to take it up themselves. “Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows, Joe McKelvey, Tom Barry and I, all members of the IRA executive, came together a good deal,” wrote Peadar O’Donnell in his memoirs. Necessity inspired innovation, such as when someone made keys to the padlocked trapdoors to the above space between ceiling and roof; with that barrier cracked, and after the surreptitious holing of a few walls, the prisoners were able to enjoy a measure of freedom within their confinement.

“Every shut door becomes a challenge in prison,” O’Donnell noted dryly. But that was not enough, and so “escape fever was still fitful…we were depending on a tunnel reaching us from the outside. When that was caught we decided to attempt one ourselves.”

It was O’Connor who suggested the basement of C Wing, since that area was rarely in use and so would risk few interruptions. Soon the men involved had broken through the floor of a cell, into the basement, where one of the granite slabs covering the ground was prised up and the digging commenced. Displaced dirt was carried away in a wooden box which, O’Donnell learnt, made less noise than an enamel basin.

Liam Mellows

O’Connor’s engineering background and past experience in jail-breaks made him the natural leader of the enterprise, but O’Donnell could not find it in himself to warm to him. Mellows was a different matter, and the two passed much of the time in conversation together; a talented musician, Mellows also entertained the others with his violin and singing voice. Being made of narrower stuff, O’Connor:

…was not kittenish like Mellows and so did not come into such varied relations with jail life…Rory’s mind had neither the sweep nor the resistance of Mellows’, but it was more persistently on edge.

This restlessness was displayed in his confrontational attitude towards wardens. There might have been a Darwinian calculation for this, since “he believed such clashes kept jail life healthy,” according to O’Donnell. “You could see clearly in the prison the qualities that had drawn him out into the front after the Treaty and the contempt for his opponents that was his weakness.”

The secret work beneath C Wing made such progress that a second tunnel over at A Wing was started, reaching within a few feet of the prison wall before its discovery by the authorities. This prompted a fresh burst of searches, during which the subterranean endeavours in C Wing were also exposed.

Front gate of Mountjoy Prison, 1922

Thwarted and depressed, the prisoners turned to other possibilities. The smuggling in of guns and explosives for an assault on the main gate was considered, before an appeal was made to the IRA command still at liberty for another tunnelling attempt. Word came back that this was already underway, again being dug from a house near Mountjoy. By the 7th December 1922, this fresh tunnel had reached the exercise yard, so O’Connor informed O’Donnell and Mellows, with only a little further to go. His promise of escape to O’Malley looked set to be kept.[37]

‘The Quicklime on their Boots’

Seán MacBride

O’Connor spent the rest of the evening in the company of Séan MacBride, with whom he shared a cell. The pair talked while O’Connor carved chessmen from a stray piece of wood, the topic being the story that two pro-Treaty TDs, Seán Hales and Pádraic Ó Máille, had been shot dead in Dublin earlier that day. Neither could confirm if that was true or not; in any case, they got down to a round of chess once O’Connor was done making the pieces, a game he won as he always did.

Retiring early to bed – ‘bed’ being a mattress and three blankets on the floor – they continued to gossip, the topic now being the tunnel in the works. It was coming not a moment too soon, for rumour among the prisoners had it that the Free State planned to deport some of their number to an island. Which island, O’Connor and MacBride wondered laughingly.

MacBride was awoken later that night by the door to the cell quietly opening, allowing someone to slip in and out. MacBride thought little of it and was drifting off when the uninvited guest returned to hold a match over O’Connor’s sleeping face. From where he lay, MacBride recognised Burke, a turnkey with a fearsome reputation. Burke left, but there was little chance of shut-eye for MacBride as he lay on his mattress, wondering what that had been about.

Paudeen O’Keefe

O’Connor, meanwhile, was continuing to enjoy his slumber, even when the sound of footsteps, accompanied by whispers, emanated from the other side of the door. Instead of Burke, it was the Deputy Governor of Mountjoy, Paudeen O’Keefe, who entered this time. O’Keefe fumbled at his gas-torch, cursing softly as it failed to light, so he instead struck a match.

“Mr O’Connor, please get up and dress,” O’Keefe said. He told the same to MacBride, the politeness as much a cause for surprise as anything, before leaving. Candles were brought in, allowing O’Connor and MacBride to dress by their light – unnecessarily so in the latter’s case, for when O’Keefe returned, he told MacBride that he could return to bed as he would not be needed.

Joe McKelvey

As if MacBride could sleep after that. With the usual restrictions seemingly on hold, he ventured out on the landing to see that three other notable residents of C Wing had been stirred from their holdings. A solemn-looking Mellows was tearing up papers, while Joe McKelvey wrapped his books in a blanket to put over his shoulder, the effect of which made him resemble Santa Clause to MacBride’s mind.

No one had any idea what was happening. If O’Connor had any concerns, he kept them to himself as he merrily offered MacBride a sovereign and a five shilling piece: the gold and silver used at the wedding of Kevin O’Higgins, a little over a year ago. O’Higgins was now Minister of Home Affairs for the Free State and thus an enemy but, before, O’Connor had stood as his best man on that day.

“Take these,” O’Connor said, “they have always brought me bad luck.”

MacBride refused, saying: “You may need them, even if it is another prison and not negotiations.”

“Alright,” O’Connor conceded, “but take these chessmen.”

Dick Barrett

Then he gave MacBride a firm handshake. MacBride also shook hands with Mellows and McKelvey, but missed the fourth man, Dick Barrett, who was already going down the steps as if he had no time to waste.

O’Connor, Mellows and McKelvey followed, leaving C Wing in an uncomfortable silence. All four of the departed were senior IRA members, and so the idea of them being called to negotiate, perhaps in ending the war, was not an impossibility, but MacBride could not help but worry. The Fee State had already carried out executions of captured Anti-Treatyites, though MacBride was incredulous at the idea of O’Connor and the other three being included.

That morning, as the inmates trooped along for a late Mass, there came the sounds of gunfire from the front of Mountjoy: a muffled volley, then another, followed by single shots. MacBride overheard someone say “they were shot” but he was too stunned for that to sink in until he saw the Free State soldiers, accompanied by workmen in overalls, pass by.

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

No words were said, but the way the soldiers avoided looking at the inmates, along with the mud on their boots and trousers, told MacBride enough: they had been out in the courtyard, and that could only mean one thing. A piece of poetry by Oscar Wilde flew into his mind:

The wardens strutted up and down,

And watched their herd of brutes,

Their uniforms were spic and span,

And they wore their Sunday suits,

But we knew the work they had been at,

By the quicklime on their boots.[38]

A chaplain in the Free State army, Father John Pigott, attended to the four prisoners’ spiritual needs before their deaths by firing-squad, done in retaliation for the slayings of Hales and Ó Máille. The first of the condemned Father Pigott saw upon his arrival at Mountjoy was O’Connor, finding him to be:

…pale; but perfectly calm and composed and when I suggested that we waste no time in any discussions, but get down to the actual preparation, he said: “that is exactly what I want, Father.”[39]

No one could ever have accused O’Connor of being anything less than serious, whether for war, the Republic or his own death.


[1] Irish Times, 19/07/1922

[2] Béaslaí, Piaras. Michael Collins and the Making of a New Ireland, Volume I1 (Blackrock, Co. Dublin: Edmund Burke Publisher, 2008), p. 240

[3] O’Donoghue, Florence. No Other Law: The Story of Liam Lynch and the Irish Republican Army, 1916-1923 (Dublin: Anvil Books, 1954), p. 219

[4] Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001), p. 233

[5] Irish Times, 24/03/1922

[6] Freeman’s Journal, 24/03/1922

[7] Ibid, 29/03/1922

[8] Irish Times, 05/04/1922

[9] Freeman’s Journal, 01/05/1922

[10] O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012), p. 252

[11] Irish Times, 15/04/1922

[12] O’Malley, The Singing Flame, pp. 86-7 ; O’Donoghue, p. 244

[13] Cork Examiner, 02/05/1922

[14] Ibid, 03/05/1922

[15] Ibid, 04/05/1922

[16] Ibid, 29/05/1922

[17] Ibid, 30/05/1922

[18] O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame, pp. 100-1

[19] Deasy, Liam, Brother Against Brother (Cork: Mercier Press, 1998), pp. 39-40

[20] O’Connor, Joseph (BMH / WS 544), pp. 4, 10

[21] MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), p. 25

[22] O’Donoghue, pp. 243-4

[23] 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. 24

[24] O’Donoghue, p. 244

[25] O’Malley, ‘No Surrender Here!’, pp. 26-7

[26] Irish Times, 13/09/1922

[27] Deasy, p. 42

[28] Macready, Nevil. Annals of an Active Live, Vol. 2 (London: Hutchinson and Co. [1924]), pp. 632-3, 651-5

[29] Little, Patrick (BMH / WS 1769), p. 55

[30] Fewer, Michael. The Battle of the Four Courts: The First Three Days of the Irish Civil War (London: Mouth of Zeus, 2018), pp. 107-9

[31] Irish Times, 01/07/1922

[32] O’Malley, The Singing Flame, p. 162

[33] Fallon, Las. Dublin Fire Brigade and the Irish Revolution (Dublin: South Dublin Libraries, 2012), p. 88

[34] Irish Times, 01/07/1922

[35] O’Malley, ‘No Surrender Here!’, p. 175

[36] Woods, Mary Flannery (BMH / WS 624), pp. 106-7

[37] O’Donnell, Peadar. The Gates Flew Open (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013), pp. 19, 23, 27-9, 59, 64

[38] MacEoin, pp. 118-9

[39] Pigott, John. ‘Executions Recalled (1922)’, Athenry Journal, Volume 8, Christmas 1997, pp. 8-9 (Available at, accessed 23/01/2020)



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

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

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

Fallon, Las. Dublin Fire Brigade and the Irish Revolution (Dublin: South Dublin Libraries, 2012)

Fewer, Michael. The Battle of the Four Courts: The First Three Days of the Irish Civil War (London: Mouth of Zeus, 2018)

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

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

O’Donnell, Peadar. The Gates Flew Open (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013)

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

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)


Cork Examiner

Freeman’s Journal

Irish Times

Bureau of Military History Statements

Little, Patrick, WS 1769

O’Connor, Joseph, WS 544

Woods, Mary Flannery, WS 624

Online Source

Pigott, John. ‘Executions Recalled (1922)’, Athenry Journal, Volume 8, Christmas 1997, pp. 8-9 (Available at, accessed 05/03/2019)

Out of the Ranks: Rory O’Connor and the Anglo-Irish Treaty, 1920-2 (Part III) 

A continuation of: Out of the Bastille: Rory O’Connor and the War of Independence, 1918-1921 (Part II)

Plans and Pitfalls

Joseph Lawless was a busy man in his workshop at 198 Parnell Street, Dublin, where he churned out bombs for use by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The process was a simple one: a steel pipe sawn off to four inches and then sealed at either end, save for a hole drilled in one in which to insert the fuse. But this was too crude a method for Lawless’ exacting standards and so he argued to colleagues that his allocated funds would be better spent renovating the old foundry in the basement. With that, a more sophisticated type of explosive could be produced.

Parnell Street, Dublin

His lobbying was successful enough for a visit to the workshop from Dick McKee and Peadar Clancy, the O/C and the Quartermaster of the Dublin IRA Brigade respectively. The two officers listened as Lawless expounded on his proposal. While interested, McKee remained noncommittal, telling Lawless that he would send over Rory O’Connor, the Director of Engineering in the IRA GHQ, for a second opinion on the idea’s feasibility.

The man in question called in at the workshop a day or so later. Lawless’ first impression was not a promising one:

He struck me as peculiarly solemn and unsmiling, one might say lugubrious, and did not appear to listen to what I said when I began to explain the details of what I considered my plan for a bomb factory.

Where was the furnace? O’Connor asked Lawless while the latter was in mid-sentence. He wanted to examine it for himself.

Lawless took his graceless guest down to the basement, cautioning him that the furnace, in an unlit corner at the back, was missing the grating for its draught-pit in front. Ignoring this advice, O’Connor pressed on in the dark and, before Lawless could stop him, stumbled into the open hole, much to Lawless’ quiet amusement.

Still, no harm done save to O’Connor’s dignity and, after a few days, Lawless received word that his proposal had been approved by his Brigade superiors. O’Connor had evidently submitted a favourable report on his findings, however gauche he might have been in person.[1]

Examples of the grenades manufactured in Parnell Street for the IRA

Different Impressions

O’Connor could have that effect on his fellow revolutionaries. Todd Andrews thought him “too forbidding a person to approach. He was saturnine in appearance, very dark-skinned, always in deep thought, brooding and worried. He did not look a healthy man.” But to Piaras Béaslaí, while he conceded that O’Connor’s “manner was not attractive to strangers…those who were intimate with him found him to be a very pleasant and sociable companion.”[2]

David Neligan

Another one close enough to uncover O’Connor’s inner charm was David Neligan. “He was good company, a great talker, very cheerful,” Neligan remembered. Though he shared O’Connor’s political convictions, his role in the Irish struggle was a very different one: as a senior officer in the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP), Neligan had access to confidential information in Dublin Castle, which he leaked to his IRA contacts. He was walking through St Stephen’s Green with a DMP co-worker when the latter indicated a short, middle-aged man, with a face thin to the point of haggard, sitting nearby on a park bench.

“See him, Dave?” said the policeman. “He is a prominent Sinn Feiner. If he is there tomorrow, we’ll have him pulled.”

Having recognised O’Connor, Neligan made sure to pass on a warning, much to O’Connor’s gratitude. Though O’Connor had dodged arrest, Neligan was to see him in peril again, this time in the yard of Dublin Castle, being interrogated by a British intelligence officer. Neligan tried arguing that the suspect was merely a harmless eccentric but to no avail.

“I’m told,” said the officer, “that he is a prominent Shinner.”[3]

Which was true enough, and O’Connor was forwarded to Arbour Hill to join the other POWs there, including Lawless, who had likewise been collared. As if that was not bad enough. Lawless learnt the day after his apprehension, in December 1920, about the discovery of his Parnell Street workshop and the bomb-factory he had worked so hard to set up.

British soldiers investigating captured IRA munitions

It was not the end of the war, of course, nor of Lawless’ part in it, and he handled the smuggling of letters in and out of Arbour Hill, thanks to bribed wardens. Through this, O’Connor was able to keep in contact with the rest of the revolutionary leadership, though there was something about O’Connor that Lawless found unsettling.

According to Lawless, it was an opinion shared by a number of the other inmates:

Rory was a solemn, unsmiling egotistical sort of person whom we looked upon as a little mad and did not take him too seriously.

Con O’Donovan

At least the authority of Con O’Donovan helped keep things steady. As the elected commandant of the prisoners, O’Donovan liaised with the Arbour Hill governor and ensured the maintenance of discipline among the inmates. Near the end of January 1921, O’Donovan was transferred to Ballykinlar Camp, an internment centre set up to manage the overflow of captives taken by the Crown forces as the war intensified.

O’Donovan’s absence created a vacancy for the role of prison commandant, which Lawless was voted in to fill. Not all were pleased by this choice, however, as Lawless recalled:

The other candidate for the appointment was Rory O’Connor, who mooted around the claim that as a member of the IRA General Staff he was the senior officer in the prison. However, as I have already mentioned, the general body of prisoners did not quite trust Rory’s mental balance.

To smooth things over, Lawless pointed out to O’Connor that it was best for him not to gain too much prominence and instead remain anonymous among the mass of detainees. Despite his capture, O’Connor’s identity and true importance was unknown to his captors, who registered him under the assumed name he had provided.[4]

Prison Pump Politics

Joseph Lawless in prison

O’Connor made no more complaints over who was what, though Lawless did not think he was entirely conciliated. In early March 1921, the inmates were paraded in the main hall, where the names of those due to be moved to the Curragh, Co. Kildare, were read out, around one hundred and fifty, which amounted to half their number.

Lawless and O’Connor were among those set to leave. While they waited, listening to the hum of the vehicles outside that were to be their transport, O’Connor sidled up to Lawless and asked in a whisper if he had any plans to escape along the way. To O’Connor’s displeasure, Lawless told him no, not for the moment, since they were sure to be heavily guarded, unless an opportunity happened to appear.

This wait-and-see attitude was not what O’Connor had been wanting to hear:

He then took up the heavy attitude with me and, speaking as a member of the General Staff, warned me that it was my duty as a prisoners’ commandant to organise an escape. Poor Rory was evidently still suffering from the snub to his dignity of my election as commandant against his candidature, and I regretted the necessity for a further snub when I replied that the matter rested safely in my hands.

Rory O’Connor

Lawless at least refrained from the ‘snub’ of saying that he was less concerned about the journey ahead – he did not think much was likely to happen on the road – and more about O’Connor, who Lawless was sure would make another attempt at the position of commandant once they were in the Curragh. Not that Lawless desired leadership and its responsibilities but he wanted O’Connor in control even less.

Once he separated himself from O’Connor, he went to Peadar McMahon, a friend of his, and persuaded him to put himself forward for the role once they reached the Curragh. McMahon reluctantly agreed to do so but only on condition that Lawless would help shoulder the burden.

“All this may sound a bit like parish pump politics,” Lawless admitted when composing his account for posterity. Eager to avoid factions, he hoped that McMahon would be a unanimous choice…anyone would do, in fact, as long as it was not O’Connor.[5]

In that, Lawless had his way. McMahon was elected to be in charge for the duration of their stay in the Curragh, with Lawless his second-in-command as agreed. O’Connor had been outmanoeuvred, and Lawless prepared to make do as best he could to life behind the barbed wire-fences and sentry-points of the Rath Camp. Their new confinement was a circular mound, with a diameter of a hundred feet, which lay on a ridge just west of the Curragh. Rebels of a past generation had surrendered there in 1798, only for Crown forces to break the terms and massacre them.

Whether or not their captors knew of the site’s historical significance, it was a bleakly fitting place to store the latest crop of subversives. A city boy, Lawless was discomforted by the wide plains that stretched to the distant horizon whenever he looked outside his confinement, as well as awed at the British military strength on display elsewhere in the Curragh.[6]

Prison huts in the Rath Camp

When peace presented itself in the form of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921, Lawless seized the chance. His acceptance of the controversial terms put him at odds with certain individuals, though this, if anything, only confirmed to him the correctness of his decision.

“Those of us who had any previous knowledge of men like Rory O’Connor and de Valera were not impressed by their pose of pure-souled patriotism,” Lawless wrote. “I had had a slight experience of Rory O’Connor in Arbour Hill and the Rath Camp and put him down as a crank.”[7]

Prisoners inside the Rath Camp, with Joseph Lawless on the left

Getting Out

Crank or not, and whatever else could be said about him, O’Connor was most certainly not one to sit back and do nothing. Deprived of one goal, he soon found another.

Among the first batch of prisoners to arrive at the Rath Camp was David E. Ryan of the Dublin Brigade. “The morning was bitterly cold and a drive of 30 miles was far from pleasant,” as he described the journey in a convoy of ten lorries, with two armoured cars at either end and a pair of military aeroplanes circling overhead. Clearly, the British authorities were taking no chances.

The passengers in Ryan’s transport passed the time by singing patriotic Irish songs, along with a parody of Rule Britannia, much to the amusement of the soldiers guarding them, if only because it infuriated their officer in charge. But ribaldry could only go so far in maintaining morale, and it was a tired and famished group who reached the Curragh, with little in the way of comfort to look forward to:

For the first week, on account of our changed addresses, we received none of the usual parcels from our friends outside, and to say that we were often hungry during that week would be putting it mildly.

Little wonder, then, that Ryan’s thoughts turned to the means of getting out and soon.

Prisons seated inside the Rath Camp

For assistance, he turned to O’Connor, who he recognised, despite the fake name the other man went by. Side-lined O’Connor may have been over the prison hierarchy, but his record and standing still inspired respect, at least in Ryan: “He had often planned escapes for others. Now he was to have the pleasure of planning his own.”

The esteem went both ways when Ryan said he would reveal his scheme only on condition of being one of its beneficiaries. “That’s the spirit,” O’Connor replied. “You can do more outside than here. There are too many locked up.”

Guard tower in the Rath Camp

And so Ryan explained how he had befriended Jerry Gaffney, a fellow IRA member who, while working as a carpenter on the premises – his true loyalty unbeknownst to his employers – had already helped to smuggle out some letters for Ryan. Though O’Connor was at first uncertain as to how far this stranger could be trusted, Ryan vouched for him, and so it was arranged for the three of them to meet the next day in one of the disused huts in the camp.

After reviewing their options, it was assessed that, in the knowledge that the wardens were tightening security, three men at most could make the attempt. Two would obviously be O’Connor and Ryan, as per their deal, but when the latter approached a prospective candidate for the third, the man – who Ryan refrained from naming in his account – declined on account of ill health. With time being of the essence, Ryan and O’Connor decided to proceed anyway with just the pair of them.

Caught Napping

The plan was for Gaffney to procure workmen’s tools and clothing, to be hidden in the same hut until O’Connor and Ryan could walk out, so disguised, amongst the actual workmen at the end of a shift at 5:30 pm. That was until, with two hours to go, O’Connor abruptly cancelled:

The tone of his remark did not invite questions and he went away hurriedly, but knowing Rory well I knew that he had some good reason for calling it off.

The reason, as O’Connor later explained to Ryan, was that if they absconded in the afternoon, the 6:30 roll-call would expose the two missing names. While such discovery was inevitable, O’Connor wanted to put as much distance between them and their jailers beforehand. And so it was agreed to go ahead the next day, at 12:30, which would give their absence almost the whole day of going unnoticed – that is, if all went as it should.

Prisoners inside the yard of the Rath Camp

Ryan began having his doubts when he and O’Connor approached the exit. They had donned the dungarees and equipment, and pulled their caps low over faces smeared with dust as a finishing touch, but still Ryan fretted. The tension grew almost unbearable for him:

As we approached the gate I could feel my heart beating quickly, my breathing became jerky and my senses began to weaken.

He kept himself together in time to present his pass to the soldier on duty who, to his silent horror, knew him already as an inmate. Nonetheless, after the longest of pauses, the guard waved him through, whether because the dirt and overalls were a sufficient disguise or, if he recognised Ryan, due to natural human sympathy.

Once out of earshot, O’Connor exulted: “Thank God, they have been caught napping again.”

The fugitives cut through the fields towards Kildare Railway Station, where they bought two tickets, paying a little extra for returns with the money Gaffney had provided. When the authorities asked around for any suspicious duos who might have passed, who would think of the pair who were apparently planning to come back?

After stopping at Lucan, they were walking towards the trams when a lorry-load of Auxiliaries drove down the street towards them. Had their absence been rumbled? O’Connor feared so.

Auxiliaries on a Crossley tender

“I’m afraid it’s all up but walk on,” he told Ryan. The Auxiliaries stopped them but only to ask for directions to Newbridge, which O’Connor politely provided.

That night, with Rory I had the pleasure of meeting and being congratulated by Michael Collins, Gearóid O’Sullivan and other members of the GHQ staff, all of whom were delighted to get a first-hand account of the first escape of prisoners from an internment camp in Ireland.[8]

The next day, in Dublin, O’Connor ran into Michael Knightly, a journalist who he had supplied with inside information about the past escapes he organised. It was a pleasant surprise for Knightly:

I had known he was a prisoner at the Curragh and I asked: “When did you get out?” Speaking in his usual slow manner, he said: “Ah, I escaped yesterday.”[9]

Patrick Moran, one of the IRA prisoners executed on the 14th March 1921

David Neligan was another friend who spotted him about town, wearing a beard and clerical garb on the quays. When O’Connor appeared at an IRA gathering on the 14th March 1921, it was to great acclaim, the story of his exploit already in circulation. The celebratory mood was tinged, however, with the knowledge that six of their comrades had been executed that morning in Mounjoy. The solemnity extended to the rest of the city, where the trams stopped for the day, workers took time off and those walking the streets did so in silence.[10]

Suspicious Minds

And so the war dragged on. Exactly how it would end was undetermined: not until complete victory was achieved? Or would some sort of compromise be necessary? “If we clatther them hard enough we might get Dominion Home Rule,” said Dick McKee when asked that question, an indication that he leaned towards the latter resolution.[11]

Cathal Brugha
Cathal Brugha

These opposing viewpoints were in the air, if not quite in the open, during a couple of sessions of the IRA Executive in Parnell Square. On these two occasions, Cathal Brugha, as Minister for Defence and with characteristic pugnaciousness, accused Michael Collins of communicating with Dublin Castle without authorisation. Collins denied any such impropriety, while insisting on his prerogative to accept any information that came his way, whatever its origin.

On a seemingly unrelated note, at another meeting, Collins announced his resignation as Adjutant-General, requesting instead the role of Director of Intelligence. Brugha offered no protest; if anything, he seemed pleased at this development. Perhaps he thought this would clip the wings of the uppity Corkman, for the new post was not, on the face of it, particularly important.

When they were done, O’Connor turned to the man sitting next to him and asked Richard Walsh, the representative of the Connaught IRA, for a quiet word. The two departed from Parnell Square towards Parliament Street, while Walsh mulled over what had just happened. After they reached the Royal Exchange Hotel and found themselves a drink and a quiet corner, O’Connor unburdened himself of his concerns:

Rory was very worried about what Collins’s move meant…When summing up the events of the meeting, Rory O’Connor and myself came to the conclusion that while intelligence, its organisation and efficient establishment, was very necessary, it was also very dangerous as it had a boomerang quality that could hit back in an ugly way.

If intelligence-mining thus needed to be treated with care, was Collins the one to do so? Going by Brugha’s previous remarks about links between him and Dublin Castle, both O’Connor and Walsh were thinking not, as:

The danger would always be there that Collins and his group might use the intelligence system to make contacts to start negotiations with the enemy and make certain commitments that would prove a very serious handicap when proper official negotiations would be taken in hand.

Michael Collins

Walsh did not provide a date for this discussion but it was presumably early in the war, before talks between the British Government and the Republican underground began in earnest. Unlike Brugha, who locked horns with Collins whenever he could, O’Connor had previously shown no indication that he held anything but trust towards him; indeed, the two had cooperated on a number of the famed prison-breaks.[12]

If Walsh’s story is accurate, while accounting for the benefit of hindsight, it seems that the factionism that would plague, and finally kill, the revolutionary movement was already incubating beneath the surface.

Dermot O’Hegarty

In a further hint of things to come, another man, Dermot O’Hegarty, walked into the hotel and saw O’Connor and Walsh together. O’Hegarty was a close ally of Collins and it is telling that, when he joined the conversation, an argument soon grew between him and O’Connor. So heated was the exchange that Walsh felt it necessary to call over some of their mutual friends before things got out of hand.[13]

That would come later.

A Surprise Extreme

Piaras Béaslaí

Still, even after the worse had happened, the past camaraderie could linger on. Piaras Béaslaí and O’Connor were to be mortal enemies, yet, when composing his memoirs, Béaslaí wrote of the other with respect: “He was a man of considerable ability in his particular brand of activity, and…took a leading part in the planning of the most successful achievements of the Volunteers.”

Among these deeds were the jail-breaks of 1919, of which Béaslaí was twice a beneficiary: from Mountjoy in March and then Strangeways, Manchester, in October. The bonds between brothers-in-arms, and perhaps gratitude on Béaslaí’s part, drew together the two men – and future foes – closely enough for Béaslaí to leave a detailed pen-portrait:

He was a man of education and culture who concealed a strong sense of humour under an air of gloomy solemnity. He was dark haired, of medium stature, slightly built, hollow-cheeked, and seemingly not very robust. He spoke in a deep cavernous voice.

However tight they may have been, Béaslaí was still taken aback by the direction O’Connor took when their cause came to a fork in the road. Previously, O’Connor had not seemed “very ‘extreme’ in his views,” but then, Béaslaí was not alone in misjudging him, for “the extreme line of action taken by him after the passing of the Treaty was a surprise to many who knew him well.”[14]

The Irish delegation in London which resulted in the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, December 1921

It is possible that not even O’Connor initially knew which way to turn. When Collins returned to Dublin in December 1921 with the rest of the Irish Plenipotentiaries, having put pen to the paper of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, one of the first things he did was to hold a forum of IRA luminaries, including O’Connor, Eoin O’Duffy and Gearóid O’Sullivan, in the Mansion House. Collins could sign whatever he wanted before him, but he was not naïve enough to think that the opinions of the men with guns could be overlooked.

The conference went sufficiently well for Collins to preside over the subsequent luncheon at the Gresham Hotel. Among those present was Father Patrick J. Doyle, being on amicable terms with many of the men at the table, including O’Connor, who had joked in the past about how the priest would end up on the scaffold for his seditious acquaintances. As the party ate, Father Doyle was able to observe the demeanour of his friend:

Although Rory had voted at the Volunteer meeting against acceptance of the Treaty, he was quite reconciled to abide by the majority decision of the Volunteers in favour of it.

Far from brooding on what had happened, O’Connor appeared to be looking forward to the future:

During the lunch, he took part in an animated discussion about the formation that the new Irish Army should adopt and urged very enthusiastically the adoption of the Swiss system of formation.

And yet, as Doyle observed, “a few months later Rory was out in armed opposition to the Provisional Government.” The whole thing remained a mystery to the priest, even after the passage of time:

I have never yet met any of the Volunteer officers who took up arms in that cause who could give a coherent account of the tragic split that ensued after the acceptance of the majority decision.[15]

From the start, however, there were warning signs. Liam Archer worked under O’Connor in the IRA Engineering Department, and they were in the latter’s office on Marlborough Street, Dublin, when word of the Treaty reached them. Archer was as shocked as anyone at the idea of an Oath of Allegiance to the British monarch and asked O’Connor, as they walked to Collins’ own base in the Gresham, what they were to do:

He answered without hesitation – Oh, we must work it for all its worth, then after a slight pause he added But if I could get enough to support me I would oppose it wholeheartedly.[16]

In that, O’Connor would be true to his word.

The Soldier’s Song

Ernie O’Malley

Even before the Treaty was ratified by the Dáil in January 1922, and while the delegates to that national body debated the merits of the Anglo-Irish agreement, O’Connor met with four other senior IRA officers – Ernie O’Malley, Liam Lynch, Séumas Robinson and Liam Mellows – for a parliament of their own on Heytesbury Street. The house at number 71 had been a reliable bolt-hole during the fight with the British and now it would serve as a venue for a conspiracy – this time against their own side.

“Rory’s eyes were sombre,” O’Malley noticed. “I noticed the grey streaks in his black hair.”

While all present were of like mind that the Treaty was unacceptable, binding as it did Ireland inside the British Empire, they were less certain on where the rest of the IRA stood. O’Connor wanted to waste no further time. “They mean to enforce to Treaty, but we must organise,” he said.

He was in favour of breaking away from GHQ as soon as the Dáil debates were over, seemingly not interested in whatever the result was. O’Malley approved of this bold course of action, as did Robinson, with Lynch keeping his own counsel – the odd man out, even then – and Mellows in less of a hurry, as he assured the others that the IRA would never tolerate the Treaty anyway. That the Dáil or the public might differ in opinion did not seem to occur to anyone, at least not to the extent it was worth considering.

Liam Mellows

Mellows’ wait-and-see attitude carried the room, perhaps because no one wanted to make a definite decision, and it was agreed between them to keep in touch while seeking whatever allies that they could. “Rory’s quiet humour broke the gravity,” wrote O’Malley in his memoirs, “soon we were chatting and laughing.”[17]

It was no great surprise, at least to O’Malley, when the Dáil voted to ratify the Treaty. Éamon de Valera resigned as its president in protest, though he appealed at a meeting of military men to put politics aside for the sake of unity and peace: a ship that had already sailed, to O’Malley’s mind, and to O’Connor’s as well.

The two met again when O’Malley dropped by the other’s house in Monkstown. O’Connor greeted him at the door, happy to see him, having sent word, which O’Malley had missed, for another, more exclusive, conclave that was to take place that evening in Dublin. While waiting, they killed time by playing records on the gramophone in the front room. The last tune was The Soldier’s Song, the anthem to the revolution, except O’Connor misplaced the needle of the gramophone, which drew out the notes and distorted the lyrics; appropriately so, thought O’Malley, a sign of the mess they were all in.[18]

irish_national_anthem_28191629Out in the Open

The pair took the tram to Grafton Street and then walked to Nelson’s Pillar, continuing on to the back of Marlborough Street where O’Connor conducted his work. More soon came, coming up the wooden steps to the main office: Liam Lynch, Michael McCormick, Oscar Traynor, Tom Maguire, Seán Russell and others.

The room was not well lit. We sat on chairs forming three sides of a square, which Rory’s desk completed. A prismatic compass, a map measurer and a celluloid protractor stood against the ledge of the desk. To one side of them were coloured mapping inks and small slender mapping pens. Maps hung on the wall – a large scale map of Dublin; a map of Ireland with the divisional areas inserted in red pencil.

O’Connor’s skin, O’Malley saw, looked darker than usual. The light from the windows touched his cheeks and cast the rest of his face in shadow.

Once he was made chairman, O’Connor got to the point: GHQ could not to be trusted. The IRA still stood but not for long, as O’Connor was sure it would be disbanded and replaced with tame pro-Treaty cuckoos. Already the Provisional Government was recruiting men for such a move, while those who might oppose it were confused and directionless.

Free Staters
Free State soldiers on parade

With time thus of the essence, it was agreed by the men in the room, as O’Connor jotted down the minutes, for an IRA Convention to be held, the first in a long while. If the Provisional Government was to refuse one, then an independent command was to be formed at once, both as an alternative and a challenge.

Such was the mood that when Richard Mulcahy, shortly after O’Connor’s military meeting, called one of his own in the Banba Hall, Parnell Square, O’Malley attended with two revolvers hidden beneath his coat. Pro-Treaty officers sat in one half of the semi-circle of chairs, Anti-Treatyites making up the other, as if to formally announce the break.

Banba Hall, 20 Parnell Square, Dublin

Choosing to overlook this unfortunate placement, Mulcahy, now the Minister of Defence, announced that their forces would continue to be the Republican Army. But O’Connor was not buying it. “A name will not make it so,” he said caustically as soon as Mulcahy had finished his piece.

The meeting escalated to Collins being called a traitor, provoking the Corkman to his feet in a rage. Mulcahy defused the tension with a few quiet words – an impressive feat, considering the passions simmering in the room. In a gesture of good faith, he proposed that the Anti-Treatyites appoint two of their number to attend GHQ meetings and ensure that nothing untoward was done.

Liam Lynch

O’Connor asked for some privacy in another room to discuss this and, when there, asked the others what they thought. Most wanted to break away then and there with no further time wasted but Lynch insisted they give Mulcahy’s idea a try. As Lynch was in charge of the Cork and Kerry brigades in the First Southern Division, the largest and best-armed of the IRA blocs outside Dublin, the rest had no choice but to comply.

At least Mulcahy was open to the idea of an overdue IRA Convention. The Army had begun as an independent body, with its own procedures and policies and, for some like O’Connor, it was time to revive it as such.[19]

Law of the Jungle

Lynch had inadvertently exposed two profound and disturbing truths. Firstly, while the Anti-Treatyites could or would no longer work with their pro-Treaty counterparts, they were scarcely more united among themselves.

The second was that, for all the lofty talk, strength was what really counted. This was quickly grasped by O’Malley, who put the lesson to the test when he returned from Dublin to where he held sway as O/C of the Second Southern Division, encompassing IRA units from Limerick, Tipperary and Kilkenny. Of the five brigades under his command, four were willing to follow his lead in resisting the Treaty, which meant, in more immediate terms, his former superiors in GHQ.

IRA members outside a hotel in Limerick, 1922

The first opportunity to make their discontent known was in Limerick in March 1922. British troops had withdrawn, as per the Treaty terms, leaving their barracks open for the taking, and O’Malley was determined that the Pro-Treatyites would not be the ones benefitting. A stand-off ensued as local IRA men from the opposing – and increasingly belligerent – factions hastened to seize and secure whatever positions they could in the city. Reinforcements came from Dublin and Clare for the Pro-Treatyites, while O’Malley was joined by Tipperary and Cork cohorts.[20]

Not even two months had passed since the Treaty was signed and the country was already on the brink of fratricide – still, better sooner than later, in O’Malley’s view.

img_2562This was the argument he put to O’Connor when O’Malley briefly returned to Dublin, but O’Connor, having been so adamant at the start, now pulled back in the eleventh hour. There was still a chance at a bloodless resolution, he told O’Malley, as he turned down the request for aid to be sent. O’Malley and his allies were on their own in Limerick, though O’Connor, rather lamely, expressed the hope that all would work out for the best.[21]

Things did – briefly.

Richard Mulcahy

Negotiations in Limerick led to a face-saving agreement for both sides to back down with honour intact, proof that the split was reversible and conflict not inevitable. That is, until later that month, on the 22nd March, when Mulcahy announced that any IRA convention, such as the one set to take place in four days’ time on the 26th – which he had been previously agreeable towards – was “contrary to the orders of the General Headquarters staff, and will be sectional in character.” Any officer in attendance could consider themselves stripped of rank.[22]

For those who had distrusted Mulcahy and the rest of the Provisional Government from the start, this was all the vindication they needed. Just after Mulcahy’s proscription, on that same evening, Irish reporters, as well as ones in Dublin on behalf of British and American newspapers, received an invitation to a press conference in Suffolk Street.

As the Republican Party had its offices there, the pressmen who accepted might have expected the presence of someone like Éamon de Valera – no longer the President of the Republic, but still the most recognised politician in the anti-Treaty ranks. Instead, in walked a relative stranger who took his place at the large table in the centre of the room before the assembled newshounds.

Rory O’Connor, delivering an address

Man: Gentlemen, I understand you want to know something about army matters.

Journalist: Who are you?

Man: I am Roderic O’Connor, Director of Engineering, General Headquarters.

Another journalist: Do you represent GHQ?

O’Connor: I do not represent GHQ. I represent 80 per cent of the IRA.

Not Peace But a Sword

In regards to the remaining 20 per cent, O’Connor said, when asked further, he hoped in time to win over 19 per cent. “Dáil Éireann,” he continued:

…has done an act which has no moral right to do. The Volunteers are not going into the British Empire, and stand for liberty.

This defiance on O’Connor’s part, and that of the 80 percent of the Army if he spoke true, had been some time in the making, as O’Connor went on to explain.

While the Treaty, the immoral act O’Connor had spoken of, was being debated at the start of the year, IRA officers from the South and the West of the country had come to him and Liam Mellows to say how badly they felt let down. To right this wrong, an IRA convention was set to be held four days hence, on the 26th March, and though the Provisional Government had banned it, the event would go ahead anyway.

Attendees at the IRA Convention, the Mansion House, Dublin, on the 26th March 1922

Which was only proper, considering how:

The Army feels that the Dáil has let down the Republic and has created a dilemma for the Army and the country. The Army feels it must right itself. It has sworn an oath of allegiance to the Republic, whilst giving its allegiance also to the Dáil.

Such a choice was no choice at all, in O’Connor’s strident view. He was, however, hazier on a number of questions put to him.

Journalist: Take it that the Irish people vote 80 per cent, or more, in favour of the policy adopted by the Dáil, will the attitude of the 80 per cent of the Army whom you claim to represent be the same towards them as you say it is now towards the Dáil?

O’Connor: I cannot answer for the Army on that. That will be a question for the new Executive which will be set up next week.

Éamon de Valera

Journalist: Is the army going to obey Mr de Valera or the people, through those they put in control?

O’Connor: President de Valera asked that the army obey the existing GHQ, but the army for which I speak cannot, because the Minister of Defence has broken his agreement.

As for how Mulcahy, the Minister in question, had done so, O’Connor explained that it was by asking IRA members to join an alternative army, one set up for the purpose of keeping Ireland inside the British Empire. Mulcahy might deny it, but O’Connor held that it was true all the same. As for the allegiance of the IRA, that answer was obvious:

The Republic still exists. There are times when revolution is justified. The army in many countries has overturned Governments from time to time. There is no Government in Ireland now to give the IRA a lead, hence we want to straighten out the impossible position which exists.

The Dáil was certainly not such a government, at least not how O’Connor saw it. Certainly, if the Dáil was in fact the Government, then the IRA was presently in revolt against it. O’Connor’s tone was matter-of-fact, as it was when questioned further on the obvious consequences of soldiers making their own decisions.

IRA men with rifles, in Grafton Street, Dublin, 1922

Journalist: Do we take it we are going to have a military dictatorship, then?

O’Connor: You can take it that way if you like.

Journalist: Then the convention won’t make for peace?

O’Connor: It will make for the liberty of the country, I believe. The Treaty section is going off the straight road and into the bogs to get freedom. We hold that is wrong.[23]

To be continued in: Out of the Republic: Rory O’Connor and the Start of the Civil War, 1922 (Part IV)


[1] Lawless, Joseph (BMH / WS 1043), pp. 267-8

[2] Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001), p. 238 ; Béaslaí, Piaras. Michael Collins and the Making of a New Ireland, Volume 1 (Blackrock, Co. Dublin: Edmund Burke Publisher, 2008), p. 131

[3] Neligan, David. The Spy in the Castle (London: Prendeville Publishing Limited, 1999), pp. 79, 127

[4] Lawless, pp. 389-91

[5] Ibid, pp. 400-1

[6] Ibid, pp. 402-3, 405

[7] Ibid, p. 432

[8] Ryan, Daniel E. (BMH / WS 1673, pp. 5-10

[9] Knighty, Michael (BMH / WS 834), p. 16

[10] Neligan, p. 127 ; 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. 131

[11] University College Dublin Archives, Michael Hayes Papers, P53/344

[12] Walsh, Richard (BMH / WS 400), pp. 71-3

[13] Ibid, p. 76

[14] Béaslaí, pp. 130-1

[15] Doyle, Patrick J (BMH / WS 807), pp. 21, 32-3

[16] Michael Hayes Papers, P53/344

[17] O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012), pp. 61-3

[18] Ibid, pp. 65-7

[19] Ibid, pp. 67-72

[20] Ibid, pp. 72-4, 76-7

[21] Ibid, pp. 80-1

[22] Irish Times, 23/03/1922

[23] Evening Herald, 22/03/1922



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

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

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

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)

Bureau of Military History Statements

Doyle, Patrick J., WS 807, p. 33

Knightly, Michael, WS 834

Lawless, Joseph, WS 1043

Ryan, Daniel E., WS 1673

Walsh, Richard, WS 400


Evening Herald

Irish Times

University College Dublin Archives

Michael Hayes Papers

Out of the Bastille: Rory O’Connor and the War of Independence, 1918-1921 (Part II)

A continuation of: Out of the Shadows: Rory O’Connor in the Easter Rising and After, 1916-9 (Part I)

An Informative Discussion

Ireland was at war and on dual fronts. The first was the official one, as part of which the country contributed men and munitions to the British campaigns in the fields of France and Flanders. But there was a second struggle, the one at home which grew in the shadows, waiting to emerge. By the start of 1918, these two theatres of war threatened to merge when the demand for extra resources on the Western Front made conscription for Ireland an attractive option for the British Government, if a very dangerous one, considering the strength of Irish feeling against such an imposition.

An anti-conscription demonstration, 1918

Valentine Jackson was working for the Rathdown Rural District Council, Co. Dublin, when an officer from the British Army – by the rank of Major, Jackson believed – stopped by, asking to see the man responsible for the city streets. Jackson led him to the desk of Rory O’Connor, the Engineer of Paving. After O’Connor assured his caller that anything said would be in confidence, the Major explained the reason for his visit, saying that:

…there would be extensive street fighting in Dublin if conscription were enforced and that they would mainly use tanks, some of them of a heavy type, in such fighting. He wanted O’Connor to give him a list of streets which would be unsafe for the heaviest tanks, on account of sewers and other undergrounds works.

Rory O’Connor

Playing the part of a dutiful civil servant perfectly, O’Connor asked for more information on the vehicles in question, such as their weights and load distribution, to better assess which streets would be riskiest for them. These details the Major did not know, though he promised to provide them later. The two men chatted for a while on the finer points of urban combat before the Major left, “very well pleased with the interview,” according to Jackson, who apparently had been hovering about to witness the exchange.

The Major had apparently never asked himself why a pen-pusher would know so much about street fighting, particularly where Dublin was concerned. During this same period of uncertainty, O’Connor called in on Jackson’s own office, located in the same building.

He wanted my opinion on a proposal that in the event of an attempt to enforce conscription the water supply should be cut off from all the city military establishments.

Not for nothing was Dublin Corporation viewed by the British authorities as a hotbed of sedition. While sympathetic to O’Connor’s idea, Jackson did not think it practical, explaining that the British Army would surely be competent enough to restart water pipes in the event of them being blocked or cut. Besides, fire hydrants could be used with hose-lines to provide water if necessary.

This was a setback to O’Connor, but he remained:

…anxious to consider the matter further so we spent the next few days driving around the city barracks during which he noted the size and exact position of the various branch pipes together with their valves and fittings.[1]

Ernie O’Malley

Such contingencies proved unnecessary, for the Government thought better of the idea and cancelled its plans for conscription in Ireland. The two sides, in the form of the British state and the Irish Republican Army (IRA), had narrowly avoided a bloody showdown – and bloody it would undoubtedly have been. While discussing the situation with Michael Collins, while the threat of conscription still hovered in the air, Ernie O’Malley was handed notes detailing plans for the demolition of bridges, railways and engines throughout the country, all of which were signed by O’Connor as Director of Engineering for the IRA GHQ.[2]

Later, O’Malley would meet O’Connor, as one senior IRA figure to another. Like many, he would find himself intrigued by the other man’s looks and enigmatic personality. “Rory O’Connor talked with a sense of humour; the grooves tightening his cheek muscles while his eyes smiled,” he later wrote. “He always had what I called an interior look.”[3]

Plans for Plans

To O’Connor, the end of conscription as a potential flashpoint was but a delay in the conflict he had been working towards, even before the Easter Rising of 1916 had transmogrified the Irish public mood. The anxious peace that had settled over the country could not last indefinitely and, when the storm at last broke out, O’Connor and his comrades would be armed and ready.

At least, in theory.

If the British authorities were often woefully blind to the insurgency brewing right beneath their noses – as in the case of the Major discussing strategy with a disingenuously helpful clerk – then the rebel underground only reached a state of readiness through slow trial and painful error. In early 1920, O’Connor came to Jackson with another request: could he find a quiet place out of town in which to test some explosives recently raided from a British Army depot?

In response:

I selected a site by the east side of the Upper Reservoir at Roundwood then under construction, but on which work was suspended. The site was Corporation property, well away from any habitation and contained a couple of derelict houses.

Jackson joined O’Connor in testing out the pilfered goods. As no one came to investigate the six or seven blasts, he had evidently chosen the spot well. The same could not be said for the explosives, being of poor quality as they were. “O’Connor was disappointed,” Jackson later wrote. “He attributed the result to deterioration of the material.”[4]

Still, one step at a time. Even if munitions were not easy to come by, then the IRA at least had an organisation structure to build on. Part of this was its Engineering Department, formed in the autumn of 1917 by O’Connor, and consisting of men with similarly technical minds. One of whom was Jack Plunkett, brother of the late 1916 Signatory, and a long-time friend of O’Connor. Together they pored over a large Ordinance Survey map of Ireland, plotting out the best methods of attack, with a particular emphasis on the railways lines that the British Army often used. These plans “Rory and I practically laid out alone,” according to Plunkett.

Jack Plunkett

Even many years later, the memories of the time the two men spent together in shared enterprise could move him. “I would like to say a good deal about Rory but it hurts too much.”[5]

The 5th Battalion

Another team member was Liam Archer. Like O’Connor and Plunkett, he had been ‘out’ in Easter Week, and continued on in the IRA as a signal officer for the Dublin Brigade. Two years after the Rising:

When conscription was threatened in 1918 I was transferred to the staff of Rory O’Connor who had, I think, shortly before been made Director of Engineering. It was decided to organise a Company of Engineers under direct control of GHQ with the special mission of carrying out extensive sabotage of communications in the event of conscription being imposed.

From this, the 5th Dublin Battalion, or the Engineering Corps, was formed. While initially a Dublin matter, a two week-long course was set up for budding engineers from other IRA units in the country, with O’Connor, Plunkett and Archer acting as lecturers. “In time, we developed training in the use of explosives and demolition of rails and bridges and the mining of roads,” Archer recalled.

The shelving of conscription did nothing to change the IRA agenda: to fight British rule with every tool at hand. As this struggle intensified in Dublin and elsewhere in Ireland, O’Connor issued a prohibition against members of the 5th Battalion partaking in raids, ambushes or other standard IRA missions, however keen they were to do so. Such men were specialists, O’Connor ruled, and so were not to risk themselves in operations that ‘foot soldiers’ could do.

Irish Volunteers/IRA

The commanders of the other four Dublin battalions did not disagree, as Archer described:

They considered, first, that the opportunities for such should be the preference of their units and, second, that it would be impossible for them that the 5th Battalion was carrying out, or had carried out, an operation in their areas, and that this fact could gravely endanger the success of their operations, and the safety of their personnel.

By keeping the 5th Battalion removed from the others, it was hoped that they would avoid getting their wires crossed. Even after O’Connor was promoted to another command and this prohibition of his officially lifted, the engineers of the 5th Battalion were only used when their particular skills were necessary.[6]

Life was becoming risky enough as it was.

Prison Plans

There was no formal declaration of war, no grand gesture, no Pearl Harbour or Fort Sumter or Gulf of Tonkin. Historians were to point to the Soloheadbeg Ambush in January 1919 as the trigger but that was merely the first in a series of incidents that slowly proliferated into a full-blown insurgency. Until then, the various IRA units limited their operations to one-offs, designed for a specific goal rather than the big picture.

IRA Flying Column

In March 1919, Michael Lynch, O/C of the Fingal Brigade, answered the summons to the Dublin IRA headquarters at Gardiner Street, where O’Connor inquired about the amount of ‘gun cotton’ available. When Lynch asked him what for:

Rory informed me that the idea underlying his request was the blowing down of the boundary wall of Mountjoy Prison, in order to effect the release of some of our men, whose presence was vital to us in our organisation scheme and who had been sentenced to long terms of imprisonment in Mountjoy.

While Lynch had access to some such ‘gun cotton’, he was horrified at how much O’Connor wanted. “My God, man,” he said, “if you use that, you kill every prisoner in Mountjoy!”

All the amount needed was five to ten pounds, insisted Lynch. As an avid reader of the American Scientific Supplement, Lynch considered himself an expert on the matter. So did O’Connor, who insisted on the original figure stated. When the two men could not agree, the explosives notion was dropped. If Lynch was correct in his fears, then the Mountjoy residents were luckier than they could have known.

Robert Barton

Others present at the meeting chipped in with their own ideas, the best being to waylay the van transporting the prisoner in mind – Robert Barton – to Dublin Castle for interrogation. As they had inside knowledge of this, the IRA men were able to plan for when and where: the van moving down Berkeley Road, to be blocked by a handcart with a forty-foot-long ladder fixed across, allowing those on standby to rush in.

When the day came, all worked as it should – save for one small snag.

“Barton was not in it,” Lynch recalled. “We indulged in a fair amount of bad language at our ill luck.”

Shortly afterwards, O’Connor met with Lynch again, showing him the letter from Barton that had been smuggled out. To O’Connor’s dismay, the prisoner was insisting that he escape on a certain date, which just happened to be a night of a full moon. Having already filed through the bars of his cell-door, Barton would make his way to the yard and then throw a handkerchief-wrapped brick over the outer wall to let the others know where he was.

From there, they were to help him over and out – easier said than done, as O’Connor griped.

Nonetheless, an opportunity was an opportunity.[7]


Peadar Clancy

On the 16th March 1919, the team of men from Dublin’s G Company gathered for their briefing by Peadar Clancy, their commanding officer, and O’Connor. The mission was drawn out on a blackboard as each participant was allocated his position on the Canal Bank, near the north-west corner of Mountjoy Prison. Some were to wait by the wall, hugging the shadows, while others paced the canal, batons in hand, in case any policemen came their way.

“Each man knew what was expected,” described Patrick J. Kelly, one of the group, “and the risk of a slip up on the part of anyone.”

At the chime of midnight, a rope-ladder was tossed up to the top of the wall. After all the talk of explosions and the drama of an open-air hijack, Barton’s liberation was to come by relatively simple means – that is, if all went as it should.

The first throw of the ladder failed to clear the twenty-foot height of the wall. The second succeeded and the man who had cast it waited with his hands on his end to steady the prisoner’s climb on the other side. However, as Kelly watched:

No strain came on the rope and we thought the plan on the inside had miscarried. We were wondering what to do next when a small stone was thrown over from the inside to let us know he was there and that something was amiss.

The other man shifted the rope-ladder into a better position, allowing Barton to make the climb to the top of the wall, from where he jumped down into the blanket outstretched for him by several of the others.


His weight was too much for the men holding it and he had a bad bump on the ground but escaped injury, and was soon on his way to the waiting car with Rory and Peadar.

O’Connor and Barton sat in the back, while Kelly got in besides the driver. With revolvers kept ready in the event of being pulled over by the police, the men drove through the darkened city to Donnybrook. O’Connor and Barton disembarked at Herbert Park and thanked the other two before walking out into the night.

The Irish revolution had scored a coup as “Bob Barton…was considered a very important man in the movement,” according to Kelly. Afterwards “it was very interesting to read the papers next day with their accounts of the escape and their theories as to the way it was managed.”[8]

One of the newspapers in question, the Evening Herald, was helped by how one of its staff, Michal Knightly, doubled as an IRA intelligence officer. O’Connor visited him in his office immediately after Barton’s flight, fully aware of its propaganda value. He was so breathless with excitement that Knightly had to wait while O’Connor rested in a chair before providing the scoop.[9]

Barton would later go on to put his name to the Anglo-Irish Treaty, more than two years later, in December 1921. Whether O’Connor would have been so keen to spring him had he known…but that is a different story.

Mountjoy Sensation

For the moment, the only story that mattered was the one Knightly had obligingly emblazoned in the papers of the Evening Herald:




The last line was a reference to Barton’s cheeky parting-shot to his gaolers, a left-behind note in the style of a disappointed hotel guest: since he was leaving due to the discomfort of his accommodation, could his baggage be kept safe until sent for?[10]

Showing an evident delight at official discomfort, Knightly reported how:

The prison authorities…are “out of their minds over the whole affair,” and “at their wits’ ends” to know how the prisoner escaped.”[11]

Thirteen days later, the Evening Herald would have a similar story to tell. Like every good sequel, this one was bigger and more dramatic than before:



If the secrets behind Barton’s flight had remained as such, then the prison-break on the 29th March 1919, conducted brazenly in broad daylight, was anything but a mystery:

It appears that some of their number suddenly turned on the wardens who were in charge of them, and held them down while their comrades were arranging a rope ladder over a thirty-foot wall…the first thing the outside public noticed was the extraordinary spectacle of men sliding down a rope from the top of the jail wall to the canal bank.[12]

Dick McKee

“The escape exceeded our most sanguine expectations,” recalled one of the escapees, Piaras Béaslaí, who credited O’Connor and Dick McKee, the O/C of the Dublin IRA Brigade, with the planning of the feat. But it had initially been touch and go, when a sudden snowstorm almost cancelled the daily allotment of recreation outside in the yard. Thankfully, the weather cleared in time for exercise-hour to go ahead at 3 pm.

A prisoner signalled from a window to the IRA watchman on Claude Road that the escapees-to-be were in place. When a whistle was sounded from the outside, the prisoners dashed for the designated part of the wall, while a rope-ladder appeared at the top and came down for them to climb. Once outside, the freed men ran along the canal bank to where a rescue party were waiting with bicycles to take them into town, where they were practically home safe, according to Béaslaí:

The moment they got out in the streets among the people they were made safe, for everybody befriended them. Such was the famous daylight escape from Mountjoy, which seemed the culmination of a series of bloodless triumphs for the Irish Volunteers.[13]

“How the ladder came to be fastened is a mystery,” added the Evening Herald. If the item in question was the hero of the hour, then it was also the sole casualty, being found discarded next to the canal. “It is now in the hands of the authorities.”[14]

Mountjoy Prison

O/C Escapes

Replacing the lost item became a priority, for there were other Irishmen languishing in captivity as political prisoners, among being Béaslaí again, who did not enjoy his liberty for long before being rearrested while cycling in Finglas village. The prison authorities learnt their lesson by transferring Béaslaí out of Ireland and to Strangeways, Manchester, to deter any further escapes. Béaslaí was not cowed, instead remaining in surreptitious contact with Michael Collins, the two engaging in a long-distance discourse on the best way to spring Béaslaí once more.[15]

austin_stackTo this end, Collins dispatched O’Connor to England. A coded letter to Austin Stack, another inmate in Strangeways, was signed from his “loving cousin Maud”, assuring him that “we are all busy preparing for the examination. Professor Rory has arrived. He is a very nice man.”[16]

Even if the past two rescues had been roaring successes – save for Barton’s spectacles, which had fallen off as he cleared the wall – those responsible were not going to rest on their laurels. As a process, prison-breaking would be inspected, improved and, as much as possible, perfected.

O’Connor relished the challenge. Dubbed the ‘O/C. Escapes’ by Jack Plunkett, he “frequently talked to me about it and he got not only pleasure but amusement out of it.”

A replacement ladder was procured, after first being tested for the lightness of its rope, balanced with weights at the end. In delegating Plunkett for such work:

Rory, while being extremely reticent, gave me all the information I needed to obtain the necessary material and as was the habit in those times, I always refrained from asking unnecessary questions.

These tight lips earned the respect of another consummate professional. “I notice your staff don’t ask any questions,” Dick McKee told O’Connor approvingly.


By the end of his investigation, Plunkett could provide a finished product that, while formidable, presented a practical challenge:

The Strangeways rope-ladder was very bulky, as it had wooden rings and two pairs of restraining ropes, one pair outside and one pair inside the wall, and it had to be carried through Manchester on a handcart with a piece of sacking thrown over it.[17]

The first date for the rescue, the 11th October 1919, was postponed when the ladder in question did not arrive in time. A message hidden in a pot of jam to Strangeways alerted the Irish captives that the next attempt was to be on the 25th.

As with Mountjoy, the rescue team selected a particular section of the wall, this one being next to a street with no houses and thus less civilians to get in the way. All the same, members of the Manchester IRA company, formed from Irish émigrés in the city who were willing to do their part for the cause, stood at either end to block it off, while two more paced the wall, disguised as window-cleaners.

“When everything was in readiness,” described Patrick O’Donoghue, the Manchester O/C, “Rory O’Connor blew a whistle which was the pre-arranged signal and this signal was answered from inside by one of the prisoners.”

The new, improved rope-ladder was thrown up but failed to fall down low enough on the other side for the inmates to reach. Two more attempts were made to no avail and, just when all looked lost, Peadar Clancy – who had also come over from Dublin – quickly placed an extension ladder against the wall and climbed to shift the rope one into place:

When this was done Austin Stack was the first man to come over the wall in safety. Béaslaí was next and he got stuck against the wall half way up because his other escaping comrades were trying to use the rope at the same time as he was endeavouring to make the ascent. It was realised that only one man could climb the rope at a time.[18]

Piaras Béaslaí

Six men altogether got over, including Stack and Béaslaí, though the latter did not find it as easy as the last occasion, cutting his hand to the bone on the rope as he slid down. A waiting taxi took him and the other five to a safe-house, where they stayed for a week before he and Stack were taken by train to Liverpool, and from there to Dublin.

A friendly crewman allowed the pair to bunk inside his ship’s forecastles. “The other sailors showed no curiosity; they were used to such smugglings,” Béaslaí noted. After they disembarked at Sir John Rogerson’s Quay in the morning, they were informed by the driver sent to meet them, Joe O’Reilly – one of Collins’ ‘Squad’ – about how a police detective had been shot and wounded the previous night in St Stephen’s Green.[19]

There was, after all, a war still one, one that was creeping further and further into the open.

Narrow Disaster

‘Bloodless triumphs’, Béaslaí had called these kind of daring exploits, but that was not a state that could last for long. One Sunday morning, in September 1920, the Engineering Department arranged for a demonstration of their work on the Kilmashogue Mountain. The night before and again on the morning, Plunkett received word that the British were aware of their planned activities. Though he passed the warning on to O’Connor, the session went ahead anyway.

Kilmashogue Mountain
Kilmashogue Mountain

On the mountainside, the men exploded several small charges. As well as O’Connor and Plunkett, Richard Mulcahy, the IRA Chief of Staff, was present, along with Archer and several others. More participants had been expected, including two companies’ worth of men from the 5th Battalion. When some time had passed and those absent were still nowhere to be seen, the rest decided to proceed anyway, detonating about eight or nine bombs.

“Between two of these explosions we heard quite a fusillade of shots and later on several more which we found difficult to account for,” Plunkett remembered.

Despite the prior warnings, the men failed to put two and two together, and did nothing more than send out one of their number downhill to investigate before continuing. The engineers got a little too involved in their work, and disaster was narrowly averted when, according to Plunkett:

…one of the charges which had a large stone on top of it, was fired, the stone went straight up in the air and came down almost on the spot where one man, who had stood too close, had thrown himself down with the fright.

So near to him was the stone when it fell that I was able to touch it and the man’s leg with one hand. The stone which weighed about 30 lbs. was almost completely buried in the earth. No one was hurt.

When the first runner did not come back, a second was dispatched after him – and quickly returned with urgent news.

Blood on the Mountain

The missing two companies had drawn up next to St Columba’s College, the agreed rendezvous point on the mountain, and the forty or so men were about to set off uphill to join the others when they were ambushed by a large number of Auxiliaries, the militarised branch of the RIC which the British Government had formed in response to an increasingly defiant Ireland.

Auxiliaries on the prowl

They had been hiding on the grounds of St Columba’s College the night before, taking care to detain passers-by who might warn their targets. The unsuspecting IRA men were caught entirely off-guard when armed foes emerged from behind the walls of the college, demanding for them to put their hands up.

“I should mention that this was the very first operation carried out in Ireland by the Auxiliaries,” wrote Plunkett.

Seán Doyle

The remaining IRA men uphill promptly fled, with O’Connor and Mulcahy going in one direction, and Plunkett and Archer taking another. The Auxiliaries had already departed, taking with them the Irishmen they had caught as prisoners – save one. Plunkett and Archer came across a body on the mountainside. Seán Doyle had reached for the grenade in his pocket, only to be shot down by the Auxiliaries.

“The man’s shirt was completely soaked in blood,” Plunkett described. He did not recognise the corpse and so turned to his companion. “I asked Liam Archer to have a look at him and was quite disgusted that he wouldn’t.”[20]

Archer made no mention of that particular detail in his own account. To him, the day “was a lesson never to discount local knowledge,” as the warnings that morning about an enemy presence had been inexplicably ignored. It was a rude reminder to O’Connor and his colleagues that their war had a steep and unforgiving learning curve.[21]

fb_img_1490720457042A month later, in October 1920, O’Connor, McKee, Mulcahy, Collins and Oscar Traynor met in Gardiner’s Place, Dublin, to discuss the plight of the latest prisoner in need of rescue. Time was of the essence, as Kevin Barry was due to hang for his part in an ambush on British troops, and O’Connor resurfaced his idea of blowing a hole through the wall of Mountjoy in order to allow IRA men to rush in.

Kevin Barry

Whether this would have led to the disaster Michael Lynch feared remains unknown. The plan proceeded far enough for men from the Dublin Brigade to get into position outside Mountjoy, in anticipation for the explosion, only for it to be cancelled for fear that the wardens would kill Barry rather than let him go.[22]

As if to signal the end of an era, Barry’s sentence went ahead and he was hanged on the 1st November 1920, the first such political execution since the Easter Rising. The days of thumbing the nose at hapless wardens seemed over, as the war for Irish independence entered a darker, less forgiving stage.

Eye for an Eye

Faced with this increased pressure, the IRA redoubled its efforts, outside Ireland as well as in. “Wholesale burnings were then taking place in Ireland,” as described by Michael O’Leary, “so that I am sure reprisals in England of a similar nature at this time would be considered very appropriate, as we believed ‘an eye for an eye’.”

As part of the Liverpool IRA Company, O’Leary was ideally placed for this sort of asymmetrical warfare. Paraffin oil, waste cotton-rags and other materials for lighting fires were gathered, the targets being the cotton warehouses and timber yards in the city. The men involved were summoned to Joseph’s Hall on Scotland Road, where they met O’Connor, whose duties once again involved sabotage, only this time on enemy soil and not just in Liverpool, but Manchester and London as well, so O’Connor informed them.

Scotland Road, Liverpool

Clearly, the IRA GHQ was taking these overseas operations to heart, and O’Conor, having operated in England before, was the obvious choice to direct this latest theatre of the war. Gratified at the willingness of the men before him, O’Connor said he was off to Manchester but would return to see them in time for their mission to commence.

This he did so on the 26th November 1920, the day before the due date, and asked if there were any questions. O’Leary had one:

I asked him what would be our position after the fires, or how we were to act. He replied, “Keep quiet for a fortnight and repeat similar operations.”

O’Leary did not think this feasible. After all, most of them were already known to the authorities for their subversive activities and would surely be arrested before the two weeks passed. Instead, O’Leary wanted the Company to start anew immediately after the first attack, on the following morning, and begin a fresh wave of fires, this time against the shops in the city centre, and then moving on to the outskirts until finally brought low.

IRA men

O’Connor turned down this suggestion, either because he did not wish to condone suicide and the waste of manpower or that he believed the men would still be at liberty after the fortnight for the second set of burnings as originally envisioned. O’Leary was not convinced but went ahead with the rest of the Company that night, on the 27th November.

He was gratified at how not a single man was absent when they assembled, before setting forth in teams of three to six towards their assigned targets. O’Leary was to be even more thrilled at their success and speed:

In less than 5 minutes a line of fire, 8 miles in length, from Seaforth to Gaston was started, resulting in the complete destruction of 14 cotton warehouses and 4 large timber yards.

The only failure was that of O’Leary and his group, being interrupted as they prepared the oil-soaked rags with which to burn down their allocated warehouse. O’Leary fired his revolver as two policemen wrestled with the man on watch, wounding one in the shoulder. Having gained the upper hand, he forced the pair against a wall and took aim, only for his gun to jam. The IRA men now fled into the night-time mist, with the shrill blasts of whistles behind them.[23]

Leaving a Legacy

O’Connor learnt about the success of the Liverpool mission while in Newcastle; at least, according to Liam McMahon, who had accompanied him from Dublin to help set up a Newcastle IRA company. The pair were watching a cinema newsreel when Liverpool came up, much to O’Connor’s approval. “Well, that is something,” he said to McMahon. “I hope Manchester will do as well.”[24]

O’Leary told a different version as, in his account, he reported straight to O’Connor, waiting in Joseph’s Hall, after escaping from the warehouse he had failed to destroy. O’Leary then took the morning train to Manchester. O’Connor could plan ahead all he wanted, but O’Leary knew Liverpool would be too dangerous for him now. As he had predicted, a wave of arrests followed, including his own, despite his efforts to put distance between himself and the scene of the crime.[25]

O’Leary could take comfort in how his troubles had not been in vain. “It is impossible to estimate the damage at the various fires, but a rough computation puts it at over a quarter of a million,” reported the news about Liverpool.

In addition, Daniel Ward, a 19-year-old labourer, had been killed that night after alerting some policemen to the four suspicious-looking men loitering in the doorway of a warehouse. In the resulting struggle, one of the men fired a revolver, hitting Ward with fatal results. This account matches O’Leary’s own in a number of details, but whether that is coincidental or if O’Leary omitted the blood on his hands when relaying his story years later is another of the period’s many unanswered questions.

Similar mass burnings had been intended to take place simultaneously in London and Manchester, but these proved to be damp squibs. On the same night as the Liverpool fires, police intercepted a band of men off White Cross Street, Aldersgate, London, outside a timber store. The cotton waste, scrap paper and paraffin they had on them would suggest identical intentions as in Liverpool, as would the gun they brandished at the policemen. Otherwise, London remained untroubled by the end of the 27th November.[26]

Manchester, likewise, had been underwhelming in performance, as few of the IRA there had been quite as keen as their Liverpudlian counterparts to undertake such a mission. “Rory O’Connor afterwards told me that he was very disappointed,” O’Leary recalled.[27]

Patrick O’Donoghue, as captain of the Manchester Company, would admit this inactivity on his men’s part, explaining that:

It was felt that our units were not sufficiently organised to carry out the destruction of warehouses on a large scale.[28]

seanrussellDespite this mixed success, O’Connor’s campaign of arson in Britain would live on in Republican memory. Sixteen years later, in the summer of 1938, two IRA veterans from the War of Independence, Seán Russell and Maurice Twomey, were sitting on the grounds of the Spa Hotel, New York, when the former reminisced about the damage O’Connor had helped inflict on the enemy homeland. Twomey was sceptical as to how useful this history lesson could be to them now but, to Russell, the late O’Connor had written the guidebook for his own bombing operation, to be undertaken in the following year.[29]

To be continued in: Out of the Ranks: Rory O’Connor and the Anglo-Irish Treaty, 1920-2 (Part III)


[1] Jackson, Valentine (BMH / WS 409), pp. 30-1

[2] O’Malley, Ernie. On Another Man’s Wound (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013), pp. 95-6

[3] Ibid, p. 170

[4] Jackson, pp. 31-2

[5] Plunkett, Jack (BMH / WS 865), pp. 15-6

[6] Archer, Liam (BMH / WS 819), pp. 13-5

[7] Lynch, Michael (BMH / WS 511), pp. 160-2

[8] Kelly, Patrick J. (BMH / WS 781), pp. 50-3

[9] Knightly, Michael (BMH / WS 834), p. 13

[10] Evening Herald, 17/03/1919

[11] Ibid, 18/03/1919

[12] Ibid, 29/03/1919

[13] Béaslaí, Piaras. Michael Collins and the Making of a New Ireland, Volume 1 (Blackrock, Co. Dublin: Edmund Burke Publisher, 2008), pp. 188, 190

[14] Evening Herald, 29/03/1919

[15] Béaslaí, p. 199

[16] Ibid, p. 233

[17] Plunkett, pp. 43-5

[18] O’Donoghue, Patrick (BMH / WS 847), pp. 9-10

[19] Béaslaí, pp. 239-40

[20] Plunkett, pp. 32-4

[21] Archer, p. 18

[22] Traynor, Oscar (BMH / WS 340), pp. 49-51

[23] O’Leary, Michael (BMH / WS 797), pp. 43-6

[24] McMahon, Liam (BMH / WS274), 22

[25] O’Leary, pp. 46-7

[26] Irish Times, 29/11/1920

[27] O’Leary, p. 47

[28] O’Donoghue, p. 13

[29] MacEoin, Uiseann. Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), p. 397



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

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

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


Evening Herald

Irish Times

Bureau of Military History Statements

Archer, Liam, WS 819

Jackson, Valentine, WS 409

Kelly, Patrick, J., WS 781

Knightly, Michael, WS 834

Lynch, Michael, WS 511

McMahon, Liam, WS 274

O’Donoghue, Patrick, WS 847

O’Leary, Michael, WS 797

Plunkett, Jack, WS 865

Traynor, Oscar, WS 340

Out of the Shadows: Rory O’Connor in the Easter Rising and After, 1916-9 (Part I)

A Close Shave

Something was up – Lieutenant Laurence Nugent knew that at least. After all, his superior officer, Captain T.J. Cullen, had received word, in the lead-up to the Easter Week of 1916, to ready their men in preparation for a freight of rifles that was said to be on its way to Ireland.

Nugent and Cullen were in something of an odd position. When the Irish Volunteers split almost two years previously, in September 1914, both had elected to go with the majority and form the National Volunteers. But, though training continued as before, the old spark was lost. Members began dropping out of the ranks, never to return.

A parade of the National Volunteers, with John Redmond (left, holding flag)

When Éamonn Ceannt addressed a Dublin parade of the National Volunteers in August 1915 on behalf of the rival Irish Volunteers, both Cullen and Nugent were receptive to a possible change to their stupefying pace. There was the chance of a shipment of guns and ammunition into the country, Ceannt confided, too large for his organisation to handle alone. Would the National Volunteers be interested in taking part in any action – and probably soon – for the freedom of Ireland?

Éamonn Ceannt

Every man present agreed and, from then on, the National Volunteers in Dublin could train with a goal in mind. But, by the end of the week before that of Easter 1916, news filtered down that the promised rifles were not coming after all. Orders for an uprising were cancelled, and that appeared to be that.

Nugent was on his way to work on Easter Tuesday when he chanced upon a group of women and children watching from the top of a street leading to St Stephen’s Green, where a man – so Nugent was told – lay dead inside the park railings. Nugent pressed forward to see for himself and was ordered back by the British soldiers who were occupying the Shelbourne Hotel, opposite the park. Bullets were whining through the air, and Nugent tried warning the onlookers about the danger, but they paid him no attention, seeming more curious than concerned about the battle unfolding in their city.

hp_16Nugent seems to have been equally blasé in his own way, for he continued on to his shop at 9 Lower Baggot Street. When Captain Cullen came in with another man who was – incongruously enough – carrying half a ham and some mutton, Nugent sent them upstairs, out of sight from his customers, for he recognised Cullen’s companion as Rory O’Connor, a leading figure in the Irish Volunteers.

“That was a close shave,” said Cullen, taking off O’Connor’s hat. As Nugent examined the hat, he found it had been holed through on either side. Looking at its owner, he saw a burnt break in O’Connor’s thick black hair, made by, say, a passing bullet.[1]

Roderic Ignatius Patrick O’Connor

Rory O’Connor

In the years to come, O’Connor was to leave a striking impression on many who had known him. “He was a smallish, very dark man, dark skin, blue jaws,” remembered Geraldine Dillon (née Plunkett), “he had to shave twice a day and had such a deep voice that it seemed to slow his speech, yet he had great charm.” This charisma worked itself on her brothers, George and Jack, both of whom followed him unquestioningly.[2]

Another Plunkett sibling on close terms with O’Connor was Joseph. For someone like O’Connor, looking to strike a blow for Irish freedom, this connection meant a lot, for Joseph Plunkett sat on the Military Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). The family property at Larkfield, Co. Dublin, became the base for the growing number of young Irishmen united in their desire to overthrow British rule in Ireland.

As part of this, O’Connor worked with George and Jack on their brother’s staff, along with Michael Collins – another rising star in the revolutionary underground – and Tommy Dillon, Geraldine’s future husband. O’Connor was put in charge of engineering, a role which suited his talents.[3]

He had worked on the engineering staff of the then Midland Great Western Railway in Ireland, before emigrating to Canada in 1910. There, he had been employed in the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway and afterwards the Canadian Northern Railway. During this time, he was responsible for the laying of some 1,500 miles of railroad, according to the estimations of his brother, Norbert.

Canadian Northern Railway under construction

In 1915, O’Connor returned to Ireland. His closeness to the Plunketts was such that Norbert believed he had come back “at the request of Joseph Plunkett.”[4]

Making Contacts

John Redmond

Having said that, there is not much to indicate that O’Connor even knew Joseph Plunkett at that stage. Also, his motive for returning seems to have been not for any brewing rebellion but instead to fight for King and Country in the Great War – an odd desire for a budding Fenian. Inspiration came from John Redmond’s call for Irishmen to enlist in order to secure favourable terms for Home Rule, though O’Connor did not intend to go quite as far as joining the British Army, preferring instead a different military that was on the same side. He told Dillon:

…that he was responding to Redmond’s call and that a Colonel…had promised to get him a comission [sic] in the Engineering Corp of the Canadian army. I told him to take his time and explained the situation to him. I brought him out to Larkfield and he soon gave up on the idea of joining the British forces.[5]

O’Connor and Dillon had known each before as school chums at Clongowes Wood. They met again when Dillon came to study in Dublin in 1905, and O’Connor, recognising a kindred spirit, introduced him to the Young Ireland Branch of the United Irish League, a grassroots movement for the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP).[6]

Both joined the committee, as did Patrick J. Little, a future government minister, who accredited O’Connor with being one of the driving forces in a “remarkably clever and interesting” body of young men, consisting mostly of students and professionals, who wanted a voice in how their country should be run.

Joe Devlin

Young Ireland proved a touch too radical for the IPP grandees, one of whom, Joe Devlin, tried to persuade them, sometime in 1905 or 1906, to take a less strident approach. He failed, but the divergent opinions on board the committee proved too fractious and the group broke up in 1915, while O’Connor was still working in Canada.

Shortly after his homecoming, and diverted from his original idea of enlisting, O’Connor went into business with Dillon, setting up together the Larkfield Chemical Company, the intent being to produce aspirins. From the outset, they ran into difficulties with the authorities, against which they hired their old Young Ireland colleague, Little, as a solicitor. As Little described:

We floated the company, in spite of a refusal to allow us to do so, under a regulation of D.O.R.A (Defence of the Realm Act). On the legal advice of my brother, Edward, I found that D.O.R.A. did not prevail over an Act of Parliament and proceeded to float our company.

Complications continued when machinery purchased from Glasgow arrived defective. The offending suppliers were taken to court and the suit settled for £2,000.[7]

Tommy Dillon (centre), with Rory O’Connor (right) and an unidentified third man (left)

In any case, O’Connor and Dillon, with the assistance of the Plunketts, on whose property in Larkfield they worked, had become more interested in fermenting rebellion than curing headaches, having learnt of the IRB plans for an armed uprising. At one war council, O’Connor said to those present: “Do you realise what this effort is going to cost in blood? But, if you decide on fighting, I am with you.”

At least, that is what he later told Nugent. It is unlikely, however, he would have been inducted into such a conspiracy if the others were not already certain of his commitment. Previous rebellions had been thwarted in no small part by their carelessness with information. This time, the Military Council would hide its secrets well – perhaps a little too much so.[8]

The Castle Document

Among O’Connor’s responsibilities was the printing of the ‘Castle Document’ with the assistance of George Plunkett. The Military Council, including its de facto leader Tom Clarke, had met previously at Larkfield, in the bedroom of the sickly Joseph, to discuss the document, purportedly smuggled out of Dublin Castle by a sympathetic clerk, which detailed the authorities’ plans to move against the Irish Volunteers as well as a number of other suspect bodies in Ireland.

Colm Ó Lochlainn

Its credibility would be a matter of controversy. Geraldine was sure it was genuine, but Colm Ó Lochlainn, its original printer before O’Connor and George took over, assumed it a forgery on account of it being in Joseph’s handwriting. Regardless of authenticity, printing the piece proved boring work. O’Connor and George sung together to get through the tedium, even resorting to God Save the King as well as the more expected fare such as The Croppy Boy and I Tread the Ground That Felons Tread. When halfway done, one of them knocked the ink over with an elbow and the work had to be started all over again.

More problems arose. When the finished product was sent out to the newspapers, none would accept it as real. Instead, O’Connor brought a copy to the New Ireland, a weekly newspaper with modest circulation, whose proprietor and editor was none other than Little. After acquiring it in February 1916, Little had assured O’Connor that he would publish anything if it served the cause of Ireland. He was as good as his word, though it was only when the ‘Castle Document’ was read out at the Dublin Corporation meeting on the 19th April 1916 that it finally achieved some proper publicity.

Samuels Collection Box 3
The Castle Document

The intent behind it had been two-fold, as Geraldine explained:  “Make the Castle hesitate to do the things they were accused of planning, and make the public realise what was planned whether there was a Rising or not.”[9]

Last Minute Plans

Eoin MacNeill

‘Whether or not’ would become a pressing issue when, after months of preparation, the Irish Volunteers were confronted by the one thing the conspirators had failed to account for: dissension in their own ranks. Suspicious of the activities of the IRB, to which he was not affiliated, Eoin MacNeill, as Chief of Staff, had abruptly countermanded the parade for Easter Sunday that was to provide cover for the Rising, effectively putting the insurrection on hold.

If the IRB had assumed MacNeill would be a compliant figurehead, then they gravely misjudged him. Faced with this unexpected setback, Geraldine assumed that the event would be postponed for a week, possibly longer, until the swirl of rumours obscuring everything had been cleared. She had her own investment in it – she and Dillon were due to be married on Easter Sunday in a double wedding with Joseph and his own fiancé, Grace Gifford.

Joseph Plunkett

Geraldine and Dillon visited Joseph on Saturday in the Metropole Hotel on Sackville (now O’Connell) Street, where he had checked in the day before, his luggage carried by Michael Collins as his aide-de-camp. Using his suite as a temporary base of operations, Joseph met with a succession of people until he could spare an hour for his sister and brother-in-law-to-be.

Joseph’s instructions to Dillon were to go to the Imperial Hotel on the same street and wait for news. In the event of activity, Dillon was to take over the chemical factory in Larkfield and set to work alongside O’Connor in making munitions. That is, if anything happened – Joseph was as unsure on that point as anyone since MacNeill’s intervention had thrown everything and everyone into disarray.[10]

Joseph had no time to get married, but Geraldine and Dillon still could. With the Rising due either Sunday or Monday, at least as far as Geraldine understood, she insisted the ceremony be on the earlier date – with the world about to be upturned, she knew she had to carpe diem. Besides, she had had enough of living with her harridan of a mother and grasped at any chance to escape the suffocating confines of her family life.

The wedding was held accordingly in Rathmines Church, attended by George and Jack, both in the green uniform of the Irish Volunteers, with O’Connor, in civilian clothes, acting as best man. His duties included the ejection, helped by the Plunkett brothers, of two police detectives who tried to intrude.

Afterwards, the newly-weds cycled to the Imperial Hotel as per instruction. O’Connor came with the news that MacNeill’s countermand had been published in the Sunday Independent, making it definite. As far as O’Connor could say, the Rising was definitely off for the rest of Sunday but Monday remained an open question. Still, the new Mr and Mrs Dillon should remain on the alert, at least from noon the next day.

Site of the former Imperial Hotel, Sackville Street, Dublin

If anything was to happen, O’Connor told them, it would be then.

Easter Monday

The couple were seated by their open second-storey window, looking out on to Sackville Street when the big question was finally answered by the column of uniformed Irish Volunteers marching towards the General Post Office (GPO), where they halted. As the Imperial Hotel stood directly opposite the GPO, the couple had a front-row view of the men wheeling left and continuing into the post office. Geraldine caught sight of Joseph, with Collins beside him, and a number of the other leaders, such as Patrick Pearse and Seán Mac Diarmada.

General Post Office, Dublin

There was a bang and Geraldine saw someone being carried away on a stretcher. When O’Connor came by their room shortly afterwards, he explained that one of the Irish Volunteers had slipped when entering the GPO, setting off the bomb in his hand.

Other than that, the long-gestating Rising was unfolding smoothly enough. With the GPO established as their headquarters, Volunteers began bringing in supplies and smashing windows with rifle-butts to make room for barricades. Geraldine asked O’Connor to tell Joseph to let her help, but when he returned to the Hotel at 6 pm, the answer he brought back was ‘no’. The GPO was too crowded, O’Connor explained.

Geraldine Plunkett

Instead, Joseph’s instructions were for her and Dillon to return to Larkfield with O’Connor and, if possible, manufacture some more explosives (Geraldine had already beheld the prowess of a Larkfield-made bomb when one was used to mangle an empty tramcar on Sackville Street for use in a barricade). To avoid British patrols on the way, it was agreed for O’Connor to take a different route to Geraldine and Dillon. He would try to reach his father’s residence in Monkstown, while the other two headed to Rathmines where the Plunketts owned another house, and the next day they would reconvene in Larkfield.

Night was falling and the street lights flickered on to guide the newly-weds as they cycled over O’Connell Bridge, encountering almost no one else along the way. The streets were devoid of people, whether civilians or military, and Geraldine could take satisfaction at least that the Rising, after all the effort and trouble to bring about, had taken everyone, the authorities especially, completely by surprise.

Tommy Dillon

At Larkfield, the trio reunited as planned on Tuesday morning. O’Connor had first checked in at the GPO, and assured Geraldine and Dillon that Joseph was well. As the assigned chemical expert on the Plunkett staff, Dillon began making production plans as per Joseph’s orders, but O’Connor stopped him, saying that the situation had moved past that.

The Rising, it seemed, was not going as smoothly as hoped.

When Dillon wondered if it would be any use going to the GPO, O’Connor again demurred, repeating Joseph’s line that the building was packed enough as it was. For want of anything else to do, O’Connor decided he would take messages in and out of the GPO and other parts of the city, a risky endeavour considering the fighting that was about to be waged. It was while doing this that O’Connor, after narrowly avoiding a bullet to the head, met Cullen, who took him to Nugent’s shop in Baggot Street.[11]

Something to Do

There, O’Connor did not mince words. “He told us the whole position and it was hopeless,” Nugent remembered.

As O’Connor explained, much of their ammunition had already been spent and the remainder would not last for more than a few days. Joseph Plunkett was confident that their ‘gallant allies in Europe’ would come to their rescue, having been to Germany beforehand and heard the promises of a military landing, but no one else in the GPO was putting much stock in this possibility.

Sir James Gallagher

O’Connor begged the two National Volunteers to do everything in their power to effect a ceasefire of some kind. The duo were as good as their word, as they gathered a small delegation of fellow officers to call on the Lord Mayor, Sir James Gallagher, on the Wednesday. With Cullen and Nugent were Major James Crean, the head of the National Volunteers, the Hon. Fitzroy Hemphill and Creed Meredith. None of these three were aware of Cullen and Nugent’s contacts with O’Connor or the Irish Volunteers.

Unfortunately, Gallagher proved less than helpful:

Our reception was anything but dignified. Both the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress gave us terrible abuse. Both expressed the hope that not a rebel would escape.

One by one we tried to reason with him that it was for the purpose of stopping the fight that we wished to intervene. He had been to the Castle and had consulted with the Army Authorities already.

After a long debate he said he would mention the matter. But he would not recommend any cessation of hostilities until the rebels were wiped out.

With this not-very-encouraging promise obtained from the Lord Mayor, for what it was worth, Nugent and Cullen left the other three to next try John T. Donovan, the MP for West Wicklow and, more importantly, the Secretary of the National Volunteers. Through him, the pair hoped to induce John Redmond to exert his influence in Westminster for a truce. They were no more successful here:

Donovan was also very hostile and said that a telegram had been sent to him by Mr Redmond ordering him to call out the National Volunteers to assist the British Military. The telegram had not been delivered and that was why he did not act. He could not act on a ‘phone message. We were sorry for this as we would have answered the call and used the arms and ammunition on our own way.

With little to show for their efforts, Cullen and Nugent returned to O’Connor, who had been mulling over options after talking with Pearse in the GPO. He asked the pair to contact the Dublin Fusiliers, one of the British regiments tasked with putting down the Rising, and offer £2 a man to defect, as per Pearse’s instructions.

Royal Dublin Fusiliers

Neither Cullen nor Nugent bothered asking O’Connor if he even had that sort of money – as the Fusiliers were based in Kilmainham, which was firmly in enemy hands, they had no chance of reaching them anyway. When Cullen offered the services of whatever National Volunteers he could muster, O’Connor declined.

“Send them home. We have no arms for them now,” he said, adding a trifle optimistically: “We will want them again.”[12]

The End and the Start

O’Connor spent the rest of that fateful week passing messages in and out of the GPO – when he could. He was able to pass through British cordons by showing a letter to his father, a solicitor to the Land Commission, from Augustine Birrell, the Chief Secretary for Ireland, but even this proof of official connections had its limits, such as on the Thursday, when he found himself under fire while en route to the GPO and was forced to turn back.

Irish rebels (of the ICA?) take aim on a rooftop

The nonstop rattle of machine-guns had by then permeated the city, intercut by the boom of artillery. On Saturday, news filtered out that the rebel leaders had surrendered, cutting short the fight for Irish freedom. Those Volunteers who had not managed to slip away were held overnight on the wet grass of the Rotunda Gardens under searchlights and the curses of their British captors.

Still at large, O’Connor made further use of his father, getting him to write a letter to Dublin Castle, begging for intervention for George and Jack. Even if there was little chance of Joseph being spared execution, there might be hope for his brothers. He was on his way to deliver the letter when a bullet from a sniper, still holding out in the Royal College of Surgeons, ricocheted off a metal box on the corner of Grafton Street. O’Connor had had a close call before, but this time he was not so lucky, being hit in the leg.

Left to right: George Plunkett, Rory O’Connor and Jack Plunkett

So stricken, O’Connor was admitted to Mercer’s Hospital under an assumed name. Nonetheless, some of the nurses guessed he was one of the rebels on account of the holy medal in his pocket, a gift from Fiona Plunkett, Joseph’s sister, with whom he had an off-and-on relationship. Concerned that the nurses – who made plain their views on the Rising by telling O’Connor that he ought to be shot – would give away the identity of his patient, the doctor had him moved to a nursing home in Leeson Street.

He stayed there for three weeks until his brother Norbett found him. Another visitor while he was recuperating was Cullen, to whom O’Connor had sent word through one of the friendlier nurses. There was much for them to talk about, after all.[13]

As Nugent put it:

For Rory O’Connor, Capt. T.J. Cullen, myself and the men who had already started organising again, the war was still on. Rory mentioned that it did not stop at any time, and while he and those who were prepared to work with him did so it would continue to carry on in various ways.[14]

“All changed, changed utterly,” wrote Y.B. Yeats on the Rising but, for O’Connor, it was merely business as usual.

Sackville (now O’Connell) Street in ruins after the Rising


O’Connor had never been particularly important before the Rising, instead serving as an aide to those who were, such as Joseph Plunkett. But now, as one of the few leaders of the Irish Volunteers alive and at liberty, he was ideally placed to help shape events. For, though the Rising had been a military disaster, its aftermath provided a crop of opportunities to be harvested.

249_1Patrick Little was one of his allies in this venture. If before Little had been dipping his toe in radical politics, now he threw himself in wholeheartedly, having had his offices in Eustace Street, where he did his work as a solicitor, trashed by British soldiers during Easter Week. When a rifle was found on the premises, the soldiers dragged out the son of the caretaker into the narrow lane at the back of the building, where they shot him.

H.H. Asquith

The boy had been with the Irish Volunteers but, confused by the contradictory orders over mobilisation, he had decided to stay at home with his family. When H. H. Asquith visited Dublin three weeks after the Rising, Little made sure to avoid contact as the Prime Minister passed by Eustace Street.[15]

As editor of New Ireland, Little had a platform to use, and in O’Connor he had a teacher in the new way of thinking. The two would lunch together in Bewley’s on Westmoreland Street, and Little attributed much of the content of his writings from that time to these conversations. Not only Little but the country as a whole was revaluating its stance on the National Question. When the pair travelled together to South Longford for the by-election in May 1917, even they were taken aback by the fervour of the crowds who responded at the sight of a tricolour with hearty cheers of “Up the Republic!”

The former site of Bewley’s on Westmoreland Street, Dublin

“This was a time when public opinion was very confused and in a very transient condition,” Little remembered. “Many Unionists were prepared to accept Home Rule, and moderate national opinion, which represented the majority of people – and included the former supporters of Redmond – were becoming strongly Republican.”[16]

Sinn Féin Rising

Among the beneficiaries of this shifting mood was Arthur Griffith. The ‘Sinn Féin Rebellion’, the British state had called the Rising but, in truth, Griffith and his talking-shop of a group had had naught to do with it. Which did not stop Sinn Féin from basking in the appropriated glow of Easter Week when the public mood turned in its favour. Nor was Griffith in any particular hurry to correct the misnaming. Nationalist Ireland had been dominated for years by the IPP but now, as trust in Redmond and his Home Rule agenda plummeted, Sinn Féin was poised to step in with a promise of its own.

0209“As Ireland became pro-insurrection she became Sinn Féin, without knowing what Sinn Féin was,” was how one contemporary described the phenomenon, “except that it stood generally for Irish independence in the old complete way, the way in which the Irish Party had not stood for it.”[17]

Opportunity presented itself in North Roscommon at the start of the new year, when the sitting Member of Parliament (MP) died in January 1917, and Count George Plunkett was the Sinn Féin selection for the resulting by-election. If the Rising had been a family affair for the Plunketts, then so was the subsequent political movement, as the Count was the father of Joseph Plunkett, and O’Connor, serving as the candidate’s unofficial aide, was his son-in-law in a way, given his romantic involvement with Fiona Plunkett.

When Nugent arrived in Roscommon, he found the contested consistency gripped in the chill of winter, and a threadbare campaign. The local Sinn Féin circles had not even been aware he was coming, so poor was the communication between them and Dublin. Nugent had been sent by O’Connor to help with the canvassing, but the only thing O’Connor had given him was advice, and that amounted to no more than ‘do what you think is right’.

Neither he nor Nugent had any experience in electioneering, or in public speaking in the case of the latter, but the handful of Sinn Féin activists who greeted him at Dromod Station, Co. Leitrim, just outside Roscommon, insisted he speak after Mass the next morning, the opening day of the campaign. Despite his doubts, as he stood in one foot of snow on the platform, Nugent did not feel he could refuse.

Nugent was set to speak at Rooskey, Co. Roscommon, after Thomas Smyth, the Irish Party MP for Leitrim South. The two foes were driven to the church by the local priest, Father Lavin, who was keen to stay on friendly terms with both sides. After being introduced by Lavin in the church, Smyth delivered his pience, only to be received in stony silence by the congregation. Nugent then rose without waiting for an invitation and mounted the steps to the chancel for his turn.

The Election of the Snows

Afterwards, Nugent would not be able to remember what he said, only that, according to others who were present, they were “very strong things”. When Smyth tried to interrupt, he was quickly shushed. Nugent could read the writing on the wall: “As far as the election in this district was concerned, the Count had won there that first Sunday morning of the campaign.”

vote-e1487072014711-300x254Things went even worse for Smyth later that day. He was so angry that he refused to let Nugent come with him and Father Lavan in the car to Slatta Chapel, where the two representatives were due to appear next.

“Smith [sic] could have saved himself the journey,” Nugent gloated, as the MP’s vehicle became stuck in the snow, forcing him and the priest to walk to Slatta Chapel, which Nugent had already reached by horse and trap. “My meeting was over before he arrived and it was most enthusiastic.”

Rubbing salt further into the wound, when Smyth finally had the chance to address the crowd, he was barred from doing so.[18]

Margaret Pearse

The times, they were a-changing, a point underlined when the votes from polling day were counted in the Roscommon Courthouse. Nugent drove back to Dublin, reaching his house in Dundrum to find it full of Sinn Féin supporters, including Margaret and Margaret Mary Pearse, the mother and sister respectively of the 1916 martyr. Though Margaret Pearse said she would be content with a win by as much as a single vote, even she found Nugent’s announcement of a landslide victory by Count Plunkett hard to take in.

When news of the result and its scale was published in the evening papers, the country understood that a great statement had been made – what that message was, however, would take some deciphering.[19]

Different Ideas

“When people say that this was not a Republican election, they say wrong,” Nugent would later write. “The principles of the men of Easter Week were shouted from every platform. From the crowds attending these meetings came the cries of ‘Up Dublin’.”[20]

Count Plunkett

That he felt the need to clarify the issue was a sign in itself. It was not even clear if Count Plunkett intended to take his newly-won seat at Westminster, as some wanted, or if he would abstain on Republican principles, as per his declaration. And so O’Connor, acting as Plunkett’s unofficial director of operations, dispatched Nugent back to Roscommon to gauge local opinion on the question.

He returned with the answer that the electorate was not only fully in agreement with its MP but would return him with an even greater majority in the event of another election. When the Count confirmed that he would indeed not be taking his seat, there was, according to Nugent, “consternation in the ranks of Sinn Féin.”[21]

It was clear that, despite their points of ideological overlap, there was at least as many differences between Sinn Féin and the burgeoning Republican movement, embodied in the Irish Volunteers, the IRB and behind-the-scenes operatives like O’Connor. “Rory O’Connor and the people working with him had different ideas from the Sinn Féin party,” was how Nugent put it.[22]

‘Politicians’, a term loaded with contempt in the mouths of Nugent and other Republicans, included their Sinn Féin partners as much as the Redmondite old guard:

The politicians were different from the Volunteers. They saw no hope of recovery on Republican lines. They were preparing to go back to their old political policy of action. Passive resistance was their programme.[23]

When Count Plunkett announced at a rally in Ballaghaderreen, Co. Roscommon, that the Irish Volunteers would be reformed and organised, this was exactly in line with O’Connor’s agenda, which most certainly did not include ‘passive resistance’. For there was a new battle to be waged, one not limited to Dublin and a few other scattered districts as Easter Week had been.

It would be nationwide.

It would be a Rising worthy of the name.

O’Connor’s statement on Easter Tuesday – “Send them home. We shall want them again” – now took on a different, more prophetic, meaning.

“But the politicians were troublesome,” Nugent noted with a sigh. “They did not countenance another fight.”[24]

Which Ticket?

However annoying politicians might be, politics was not something that could be ignored. O’Connor had by then appointed himself secretary to Count Plunkett who, having scored his major win in North Roscommon, did not seem inclined to do anything with it. O’Connor would have to enter the Plunkett family residence in 26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street early enough to find all the mail dealing with the new movement before the absent-minded Count could put the letters in his pocket and forget about them.[25]

26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street, Dublin

As Ireland reassessed where it stood on the National Question, Sinn Féin was undergoing some restructuring of its own. After the North Roscommon by-election, Griffith increased the Executive with a few extra faces but, otherwise, “no one seemed to know what to do,” recalled Michael Lennon, one of the new Executive members. “Sinn Féin had three or four hundred pounds in the bank but organisation there was none.”

Arthur Griffith

Lennon was uncomfortably aware that Count Plunkett and his Republican-minded followers were forming a party of their own, one with which “it was difficult to work in harmony. Many of these then Republicans treated Mr Griffith with unconcealed contempt and aversion.” Griffith may have had name recognition, being “probably the best-known man out of gaol,” but what his opponents lacked in numbers, they made up for in pushiness.

A meeting held in the Mansion House, dubbed the ‘Plunkett Convention’, on the 19th April 1917, was meant to unite the radicals of Ireland. Instead, it resulted in an undignified scramble between Giffith’s and Plunkett’s followers, one which Lennon cringed to remember:

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.

After the Convention had ended, Griffith withdrew to his offices at 6 Harcourt Street. He was sitting in the front drawing-room with Lennon and a few other confidantes when:

Suddenly the door was thrown open and a man of splendid physique entered, followed by a frail figure. It was Michael Collins, accompanied by Rory O’Connor. This was the first time I ever saw the former. His entrance was characteristic of his manner at that period.

Looking around, rather truculently, his eyes rested on Mr Griffith, and he asked in a loud voice: “I want to know what ticket is this Longford election being fought on.”

Michael Collins

Griffith appeared rather more interested in the cigarette he was smoking. The by-election in South Longford was the second such contest of the year, one in which Sinn Féin and Plunkett’s faction were eager to replicate the success of North Roscommon – on whose terms, however, had yet to be decided.

“If you don’t fight the election on the Republican ticket you will alienate all the young men,” Collins thundered to the room. By ‘young men’, he meant the Irish Volunteers. Even if not meant as a threat, it was hard not to take it as one.

‘A Great Silent Worker’

To Lennon, this was the first time he had heard the Republic being pushed as official policy, a sign of how divergent he and the others in Sinn Féin were from Collins, O’Connor and the other ‘young men’. The discussion – or argument, rather – warred on until, tiring of it, Collins and O’Connor withdrew to count the donations from the convention, the question put aside but most certainly not forgotten.[26]

It was noticeable that Collins had been doing the talking while O’Connor remained silent; ‘fragile’, perhaps, but no less of a presence – or influence. “Rory O’Connor was not a politician or a parade man,” so Nugent described him. “He was a great silent worker and, consequently, he was not as well known to the rank and file of the army as were most of the other leaders.”[27]

That the Plunkett Convention had happened at all was due to O’Connor. Dillon believed he had taken on the role of its secretary because no one else was doing it The invitation to the event, issued in the name of Count Plunkett, had been met with many a hostile reception, at least according to the Freeman’s Journal. Which was unsurprising, this being the organ of the IPP, but O’Connor would read almost every daily edition, specifically looking for the names of the one or two members in the various county or district councils who did not condemn the invitation, even when the rest voted to reject it.

freemans20journal20bannerTo each of these dissenters, O’Connor would dispatch a letter, saying:

I see by the paper that you are the only person in ____ who represents the true opinions of the people and therefore send you a card of invitation to the convention.

“In this way,” Dillon described, “a very large attendance at the [Plunkett] Convention from all over the country was secured and tickets left over were given to Dublin supporters, so that when the day came the Round Room was full.”

For his part, Dillon had drawn up the agenda, with a number of resolutions to be passed. He did this at O’Connor’s request since Count Plunkett, after signing his name to the invites, assumed that all he had to do was address the attendees and leave it at that. Without O’Connor intervening with a workable agenda, the event might still have been an embarrassing flop. Instead, the Plunkett Convention was the first large-scale meeting in a movement that would upheave the political status quo.[28]

And yet, despite all his work, O’Connor “never appeared on the scene. He was almost unknown,” according to Nugent, which was apparently the way he liked it. Even with the culmination of Sinn Fein’s political ascent, the Dáil Éireann, Geraldine Dillon knew of her friend’s involvement only as the one who escorted her and Fiona Plunkett to its inauguration, on the 21st January 1919, at the Mansion House.[29]

The first Dáil session, January 1919

On that same day, two policemen were shot dead at Soloheadbeg, Co. Tipperary, in the opening volley of what would become variously known as the War of Independence, the Anglo-Irish War or the Tan War; throughout which, O’Connor was to remain in the shadows, an obscure figure to the wider public despite the leading role he played.

When a reporter from the Derry Journal met O’Connor in April 1922, finding him to be a “serious, ascetic and somewhat cadaverous-looking man”, it was noted that, despite his involvement in the Republican movement since 1916, no one had heard of him until the recent Treaty split.[30]

To be continued in: Out of the Bastille: Rory O’Connor and the War of Independence, 1918-1921 (Part II)


[1] Nugent, Laurence (BMH / WS 907), pp. 15-8, 30-1

[2] Plunkett Dillon, Geraldine (edited by O Brolchain, Honor) In the Blood: A Memoir of the Plunkett family, the 1916 Rising, and the War of Independenc